Monday, 11 January 2016

Fallout 4

2287. The sole survivor of a cryogenic suspension experiment stumbles out of Vault 111 to find their home city of Boston a blasted ruin, devastated in a nuclear war that took place two centuries earlier. The Commonwealth, as the region is now called, is divided between warring factions of raiders and mutants, all living in fear of the Institute and its enigmatic human-like robots, the synths. The sole survivor has to make their way in the world, survive...and find their missing son.

Fallout 4 is the fifth main game (and ninth overall) in the Fallout franchise of post-apocalyptic roleplaying games. As with the previous two games in the series (Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas), the game is played from a first-person perspective. You create a character and set out to explore the wasteland. Although there is a main storyline to follow, you are free to ignore it and pursue side-quests, do jobs for various factions or simply explore and scavenge for loot and money. Fallout 4 also introduces the idea of settlement building, allowing you to construct entire new towns and outposts in the wilderness and establish shops, trading links and supply lines between them.

This type of gameplay, sometimes called "sandbox" or "open world", has become enormously popular. It gives the player the freedom to decide how to play the game and allows for huge amounts of content. It also personalises the experience: every player may encounter the same enemies and missions, but the order in which they encounter them and the degree to which they vary the story and their own activities will be unique to them. It's also something that Bethesda, who developed both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 as well as the Elder Scrolls series of fantasy RPGs (their latest of which was the phenomenally popular Skyrim), have struggled to do in a really satisfying manner, especially compared to the team at Black Isle. Black Isle created Fallout, Fallout 2 and, in their current guise as Obsidian, New Vegas.

Fallout 4 is the first Bethesda RPG since 2006's Oblivion to create real, jaw-dropping vistas.

For a very easy review, if you enjoyed Fallout 3, it's very likely you'll enjoy Fallout 4. The game is similar, but the graphics are vastly improved, the settlement-building adds a new dimension to the game, there are a lot more quests, there are more factions with more complex interrelationships and the writing is stronger. The characters in Fallout 4, companions, mission-givers, vendors and random passers-by, are vastly superior to those in the earlier game. Companion characters are also vastly more present. They offer opinions about what's going on, will sometimes join in conversations with important NPCs if they have pertinent information and will interact with you more. Some of them can even be romanced, and all of their have their own personal storyline and missions to fulfil once you've earned their trust. Combat is much more satisfying, with chunkier, more viscerally satisfying first-person shooting and an improved VATs system (which slows time down and allows you to target individual body parts) for more strategically-inclined players. There is a new system for modding armour and weapons, resulting in a truly vast array of weapons and armour to compare and contrast.

The art design is also much better, with Boston being a more vibrant location than the burned-out remains of Washington, DC in Fallout 3. The sky is a glorious blue, the water effects are hugely improved (up close, anyway, from a distance or in the air the water looks distinctly odd) and character animation, long Bethesda's sore spot, is much better. For the first time in a Bethesda RPG, all your dialogue is voiced (as both a male and female player). Whilst some may hate this due to how it limits the writing (the need to record dialogue months in advance prevents late changes), others may feel it's more immersive, especially as Bethesda programmed several thousand names into your robot butler so it's possible you may actually get called by your real name (which is a bit weird the first few times it happens).

Fallout 4 acknowledges hot-button contemporary issues like, er, craft beer in the game.

In terms of being a game in which there is absolutely tons to do, Fallout 4 ticks a lot of boxes. It will suck up enormous quantities of time regardless of if you focus on the main quest, the faction missions, random side-quests, combat or on settlement-building. An enormous amount of work went into the game and the attention to detail is sometimes breathtaking, such as the subtly anti-Communist posters dotting the ruins or the stories about ordinary people's lives which were suddenly ended on the day the Great War took place. Interrupted computer logs, skeletons of entire families slumped in front of televisions and hand-written notes subtly tell the story about a nation of individuals who tragically had their lives snatched away from them by politicians and generals in far-off cities.

Unfortunately, such subtlety does not extend to the primary game design or the writing of the quests. Bethesda's main achilles heel has always been the fact that, after crafting an amazing open world playground packed with stuff, they then completely fail to craft a reactive narrative that interfaces properly with it. The last time they did do this reasonably well was in Morrowind, released in 2002 (astonishingly, Fallout 4 actually uses the same engine - albeit upgraded - as Morrowind, and the occasionally stodgy movement and awkward area transitions are problems it inherits from it). Since then, their main stories have always been a bit on the tepid side and failed to acknowledge the open world design of the game.

The game occasionally manages moments of real, atmospheric and haunting beauty.

This was most notable in Fallout 3, where the final mission of the game required you to enter a radiation-soaked chamber and sacrifice yourself, even if you had a radiation-immune companion with you. Later on they fixed this problem in expansions, but it was a good example of Bethesda's attitude to open world game design, which offers apparently limitless possibilities but boils down to "Save the world as a good guy or save the world as a psychopath."

Particularly problematic for Bethesda is that Obsidian showed with New Vegas that, even with the same clunky engine, they could deliver a game rooted in more mature themes which reacted ridiculously well to almost any decision the player could make, down to killing the main bad guy halfway through the plot just because they got a good enough weapon to get through the enemy camp, or rejecting all the options offered by all the factions and conquering the wasteland themselves. Fallout 4, on the other hand, offers only mildly differing finales despite there being four major factions you can align with, in varying degrees of opposition to one another. In fact, there's a rather nasty bug in the endgame which can prevent you from taking one particular faction to victory which is enraging if you've been working with that faction for dozens of hours.

You don't even want to know.

This also interacts with the game's second major problem. The Fallout franchise has always been one about choice, about offering the player the option to solve problems through violence, wits, stealth or diplomacy, and facing the full consequences of how such decisions are made. Fallout 3 rolled this back but didn't dispense with it. The fate of the town of Megaton, for example, was well-handled and there were a few quests that could be completed without violence. New Vegas took this to the extreme of allowing you to kill every single person in the game (including vitally important quest-givers) or by allowing you to use your skills and charisma to virtually avoid combat altogether, apart from some forms of wildlife.

Fallout 4 has absolutely zero truck with this. Once in a blue moon you may be able to convince an enemy to flee or surrender with a dialogue choice, but it's insanely rare you are even given the option. Otherwise almost every single quest in the game involves slaughtering everything in sight with high-powered weaponry. This leads to repetition: you get given a quest to go somewhere and kill everyone there. Then the next quest tells you to go somewhere else and kill everyone there. And so on and on. When combined with the "streamlined" character levelling system (which now only gives you a single perk point per level, with virtually all of the perks being combat-related), the result is a game that is effectively a first-person shooter with looting, crafting and occasional dialogue choices. It's fun, for a while, but it's not really Fallout.

For a game set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland, Fallout 4 is strangely reluctant to condemn radiation as a bad thing. It makes some people immortal and is very easily cured or avoided.

Then there's the third problem, which is a perennial issue with RPGs but Fallout 4 somehow takes it to new extremes. The game's levelling system (which, unlike previous games in the series, is uncapped) is slanted almost preposterously in favour of the player. By the time you hit Level 20, you're capable of taking on anything in the game with no issue. By the time you are Level 40 you're an effectively bullet-proof, radiation-proof demigod, able to walk through storms of bullets almost without harm and capable of one-shotting virtually everything in the game. The game is extremely generous with stimpacks (which replenish health), bobby pins (which act as lockpicks), currency and ammo, especially when you choose feats which make them even easier to find. A well-designed game will usually build to a climax where it presents its greatest challenge to the player in the finale, where they have to use all the skills and tools they have amassed to overcome the enemy. In Fallout 4 the final story missions are an absolute cakewalk with zero threat to the player's life.

This leads to an awkward game that, from moment to moment, is often great fun to play. Fallout 4 has a sense of humour to it largely missing from Fallout 3, although not to the riotous extent of the Old World Blues expansion for New Vegas. The game certainly has more personality and flair to it than any previous Bethesda RPG since Morrowind. The combat is great, the settlement-building and equipment modding gives creative players lots to do. The factions are all well-thought-out, and it's a tremendous relief to see the Brotherhood of Steel back to being techno-hoarding fascists rather than the inexplicable white knights they were in the previous game. The new additions to the game, such as the Institute, Minutemen and Railroad, "feel" like Fallout factions. Some of the locations are brilliantly-designed and hauntingly atmospheric. Some of the setpieces, whether designed by the story or encountered randomly, are epic. Some of the questlines, such as ascending a Super Mutant-infested skyscraper in a homage to Die Hard or helping out a crew of robotic pirates trying to convert a 17th Century galleon into a skyship, are original, amusing and memorable.

Fallout 4's companion characters are far better-written, characterised and are much deeper individuals than in any previous Bethesda game. But sometimes they're handy with a minigun as well.

But the feeling remains that Fallout 4 has fallen far short of its potential. The decision to roll back the real roleplaying elements in favour of violence and combat is disappointing, taking away some of the much-vaunted freedom and flexibility of the game. Dialogue is often clunky and filled with infodumps. The game's "big twist" can be guessed within minutes of the start. And, after what can be a tough opening couple of hours, it becomes far, far too easy. Even as recently as Skyrim these problems could perhaps be overlooked due to a lack of real, credible alternatives. But now if you want an open-world game focused on combat, there are the likes of Far Cry 3 (and 4) and Just Cause 3 to consider. If you want an open-world RPG with much, much more emphasis on roleplaying, The Witcher 3 has Fallout 4 pretty handily beaten. More awkwardly, Fallout 4 falls short of the standards set by its immediate predecessor. It looks a heck of a lot uglier and is much less approachable due to a badly-designed opening area, but Fallout: New Vegas has a much more challenging, interesting and original storyline and narrative, offers far more reactivity and adapts to player choices in a more meaningful way than Fallout 4 does.

Fallout 4 (****) is definitely a good game. It's fun, it drains away the hours and it proves that Bethesda's game design paradigm, despite its age, is still effective. But it's definitely moving further away from the Fallout notions of freedom and consequence that made the franchise one of the most popular and critically-praised video game series of all time. For a lot of people, this won't matter one jot. For others, it will be a shame to see what could have been the greatest CRPG ever made merely settle for being "pretty good". The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 (UK, USA) and X-Box One (UK, USA).

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