Sunday 15 November 2020

Revisiting the Wasteland: Fallout 4 and the Post-Post Apocalypse

The Fallout video game series is set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, depicting survivors striving to survive in the ruins of the old world and trying to build new societies. Yet Fallout 4 opens with a scene of domestic tranquillity. A loving couple and their baby son live in a beautiful home with all mod-cons in Sanctuary Hills, a picturesque suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. They have the latest gadgets, some good food and even a robot manservant ready to attend their every whim. The only note of disquiet arises when a door-to-door salesman arrives, a representative of Vault-Tec who confirms that your family has a place reserved in nearby Vault 111, should the worst happen. Of course, this being a video game made by a company not known for their narrative subtlety, the worst happens about ninety seconds later as the newscaster alerts you to nuclear bombs dropping on New York and Pennsylvania, and it’s time for you to run up to the vault as mushroom clouds fill the sky. Once in the vault you discover another surprise: this vault isn’t a huge underground facility for multiple people to see out the war but a cryogenic storage facility. With very little warning, you’re put in a freezer and sent on a one-way trip into the future, in which your partner is killed and your son is kidnapped in front of you. 

Fallout 4 was released on 10 November 2015. It was actually the fifth game in the Fallout series, arriving five years after Fallout: New Vegas and seven after Bethesda revamped and rebooted the franchise with Fallout 3 (which I covered in a retrospective here). It was also Bethesda’s first game since their massive, all-conquering fantasy RPG Skyrim, one of the biggest and most meme-generating video games of all time. A lot was riding on Fallout 4 and, broadly speaking, it paid off. With more than 20 million sales, twice that of New Vegas or Fallout 3, it became the biggest-selling game in the Fallout series by far, introduced the series to millions of new fans and won generally positive reviews.

Five years later, the game’s long-term legacy is definitely a bit more mixed. Time has been less kind to it than Skyrim. Retrospectives on the game are few and far between, and most critical reviews these days cite it as a disappointment. Part of this is certainly down to choice: as recently as Skyrim’s release, there was a relative paucity of open-world roleplaying games, but in 2020 that is no longer the case. In the last decade, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series have effectively become open-world RPGs, Grand Theft Auto V has become the biggest-selling open world game in history and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has matched Skyrim’s sales and outdone it in terms of critical acclaim. The Witcher 3 was released six months ahead of Fallout 4 and was a point of comparison in many reviews. The Witcher 3’s much more advanced engine and graphics, superior quest design, deeply gripping narrative, side-quests which were frequently more compelling and surprising than most games’ main storylines and rich atmosphere all knocked Fallout 4 into a cocked hat, and couldn’t help but make Bethesda’s design paradigm and creaking engine feel a little tired in comparison. Railing on Fallout 4 has become ubiquitous ever since, and combined with the underwhelming performance of multiplayer spin-off Fallout 76, has made people wonder if Bethesda have lost their mojo, a question that remains resolutely unanswered because their proper follow-up, Starfield, hasn’t been released yet (and virtually nothing is known about it, save it is a far-future space opera and Bethesda’s first new IP in the better part of thirty years). 

But it’s also the case that Fallout 4 may have been knocked a bit too hard. In some respects, it’s the most interesting CRPG that Bethesda has ever created, offering the player unparalleled freedom and power to effect and change the game world. It never quite delivers on that promise, but it hints at a much bolder and more inventive way forwards for open-world games that absolutely no-one else has followed up on, at least so far.

Fallout 4 is a game of several parts. As with every Bethesda RPG since 1994’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena, it is an open-world game where you can go anywhere you want, explore almost every building you see, fight hostile monsters and raiders, join forces with friendly travellers and trade with passing merchants. That freedom and openness has been a hallmark of Bethesda’s design paradigm and Fallout 4 delivers on that with success, with the large map more densely packed with “points of interest” than any of their previous games. 

The second part is a central storyline, a hook that leads you through the main narrative with numerous twists and turns and, for the first time since 1997’s The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, numerous branching endpoints. At several key points you have to make choices about which characters and factions you are supporting, which can lead to radically varying endings. This hadn’t really been done before by Bethesda, and seems to have been very heavily influenced by Fallout: New Vegas, the 2010 game developed by Obsidian Entertainment using Bethesda’s engine. The storyline in Fallout 4 is generally considered to be “okay,” with a central hook (you have to find your kidnapped child) which is slightly in conflict with the traditional “chill out and do what you want in your own time” ethos of a Bethesda RPG. This wasn’t new, as Fallout 3 did the same thing with your supposedly urgent mission to find your missing father which you could put on hold to help defeat an army of giant fire ants or help out a guy who was turning into a tree, but the ludonarrative dissonance of Fallout 4 (the gap between the story and the actual player actions) was far more striking. 

Oh, I bet you will.

The third part is a battery of side-quests. These are missions that have nothing to do with the main story but consist of self-contained narrative subplots, occasionally several, as well as faction side-quests, where one or more of the game’s factions asks you to help them out in some fashion. Side-quests give you something to do with consequences without tying you into advancing the main story towards an ending. For the most part Fallout 4’s side-quests – which include investigating a Chinese submarine in Boston Harbor to helping the robot crew of the ancient ironclad USS Constitution get the vessel, er, seaworthy again – are amusing and entertaining, and a source of much of the game’s muted humour.

Fallout 4’s quests are numerous, which is good for giving you something to do, but they do make for an at-times over-busy game. There are three times as many quests as Fallout 3, not to mention a much greater density of buildings, locations and points of interest on the map. This means that one of the strengths of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the sometimes uncanny loneliness and sparseness of the landscape, contributing to the eerie atmosphere, is missing, which is a shame. But, as often has been used as a criticism of the series, it's been two centuries since the nuclear war and maybe it's way past time to see more concrete signs of civilisation rebuilding.

The fourth part is companion characters. Previous Bethesda games have had companions who could join you on your mission but, from Oblivion through Fallout 3 and Skyrim, they’ve been mostly pointless. They had some initial dialogue when you first join forces with them, and there might be a single quest associated with them, but otherwise they tagged along and were only really useful for serving as an extra inventory space. New Vegas took them to the next level, giving them unique dialogue for various quests and giving them more to do, including possibly turning on you if you do something that conflicts with their ethos. Fallout 4 builds further on this, with many more unique companion characters who have not just quests associated with them but entire quest lines. Taking a leaf out of BioWare’s book, you can romance several of the companions and they are much more present in the storyline, sometimes interrupting conversations with important NPCs if they have a perspective or knowledge that adds to the story. Eventually this material runs out – the game even tells you when you’ve “maxed out” your relationship with a character as a subtle way of hinting that they are no longer necessary and you can start again with a new character without missing anything important – but it’s fun whilst it lasts. You can also assign your myriad companion characters to a town or settlement of your choosing, where they can help defend the place.

The fifth and final part is the game’s unique feature, something that was sold as something of a killer app and which some players ignored completely and others got heavily into using: settlement building. For the first time in a Fallout or Bethesda game, you could construct new settlements, assembling multi-storey buildings, defences, food-growing gardens, water pumps and even entire underground vaults. As you built up these bases, you could attract people to live there, providing them with somewhere to sleep, eat and work. Settlements generate resources such as food and water. You can then recruit caravans, linking your villages, towns and vaults together through supply lines and trade routes. You can align these settlements with various in-game factions, resulting in their soldiers helping defend them. This can change the make-up of the map as you proceed through the game, with hostile, raider-filled wilderness being tamed by constant patrols of your allies moving between heavily-armed and protected strongpoints. 

Your authority, it is not recognised here.

It is, and it’s hard to undersell this, a brilliant idea. The Fallout franchise has been called post-apocalyptic but that’s not quite accurate. Traditionally, Fallout has been a post-post-apocalyptic series. It’s not really about surviving the war – the war was 210 years ago – but rebuilding in the aftermath, constructing new societies which will hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past. Fallout 3 had lowballed this a bit – using the logic that Washington D.C. had suffered huge damage in the war and fallout levels had taken a lot longer to fall away than in other parts of the country, so it was still early in the stages of rebuilding – but it was at the heart of New Vegas’s storyline, with the ultimate thematic choice being between siding with the well-intentioned but backwards-looking New California Republic, the chaotic and totalitarian Caesar’s Legion or taking control of the Wasteland yourself and forging your own path free from the restrictions of the past.

Fallout 4’s worldbuilding doesn’t quite stack up: Boston took only one nuclear hit during the war, some way to the south-west of the city itself, and most of the buildings and even some of the infrastructure is still intact two centuries later, so why hasn’t anyone got around to rebuilding before this? We do hear about the Commonwealth Minutemen trying to rebuild the region before you but failing due to poor equipment and opposition from Raiders and the isolationist Institute, but it does feel a little convenient that no-one was able to succeed before your character comes along. One possible explanation is that you’re the first person in Boston in decades to have a fully functional suit of power armour, allowing you to wipe out entire enemy encampments single-handed, which would be more convincing if it wasn’t possible to ditch the power armour early on and do everything without it.

As an idea, the settlement building is superb. For the first time in an open-world game, you can add to the landscape and tailor it to your design. You can found and build towns and bases, you can recruit allies and use them to defend people, and you can effectively start building up a new society. But, because Bethesda had cold feet about how popular the mechanic would be (especially the need to find and carry out vast quantities of junk to be recycled into buildings and decorations) and were considering removing it from the game altogether just months before release, they never fully committed to it. Settlement building is optional and, because of that, the game is reluctant to integrate it into the core narrative. Raiders and Super Mutants continue to hurl themselves recklessly against outposts even if you have surrounded them with thick concrete walls with a battery of laser cannons and missile launchers covering every feasible line of approach. No-one really mentions your rebuilding efforts save in the most generic way possible. In some cases, the presence of heavily-armed settlements unexpected by the AI can disrupt the logic flow in quests and break them.

In addition, you end up with beautifully elaborate, cool settlements which you can…not do much with. You can take screenshots and post them on social media to impress people, or stream videos showing how cool they are, but you can’t share them with other people for gameplay purposes. The interaction of the settlement building with a multiplayer element would have been cool, but the multiplayer-only successor game, Fallout 76, doesn’t allow you to build settlements or outposts on anything like the scale of Fallout 4. In addition, by the time you finally accumulate the skills, perks and resources needed to really build elaborate bases, you’ve probably finished the main narrative and side-quests and there isn’t much left to do in the game world. With a slightly smaller map than Skyrim’s and fewer locations to visit, there’s simply nothing to keep you hanging around as in the older game, even with this new feature.

Fallout 4 can’t help but feel disappointing in some respects. The game attempts to give you a personal stake in the story, but this ends up feeling contrived and unrealistic: why am I pretending to be a mock-1930s comic book character when my baby son is being held prisoner by forces unknown? The writing is better than any previous Bethesda game, but still often feels stiff and unconvincing, especially compared to Obsidian’s work on New Vegas. It has a busier, denser map with way more things to do, which is fun but takes away from the post-apocalyptic bleakness that was arguably the best thing Fallout 3 accomplished. Graphically it’s a huge improvement over its predecessors, but definitely is looking older and more dated than any of its contemporaries. It has far more interesting companion characters with more motivations and backstories (although none of them can hold a candle to noir throwback synth detective Nick Valentine), but they very quickly peter out and encourage you to switch to a new companion instead.

But the game does good things as well. Combat is vastly improved from Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Power armour feels chunky, empowering and genuinely impressive for the first time. Inon Zur’s soundtrack is easily the best musical score ever created for a Fallout game. The four-way faction interaction is complex (perhaps a bit too complex at times, but a huge improvement on Fallout 3’s near-lack of faction interaction at all), leading to more interesting divided loyalties and a murkier morality than Fallout 3’s much more obvious story of black and white hats.

For the game’s most interesting feature, the settlement building mechanic is excellent, well-implemented and a lot of fun. But Bethesda’s refusal to fully commit to even having it in the game until way too late for the rest of the game to reflect it means it feels undersold, more of an optional add-on than an integral part of the game. It leaves a huge amount of possibilities on the table. The idea of changing the game map and world to suit your character and chosen faction is a fantastic one, with huge potential for changing the whole approach to open-world gaming, something Bethesda have needed to do for some time. But as a feature it’s left underdeveloped and feeling cosmetic. Hopefully in Starfield, The Elder Scrolls VI and the inevitable Fallout 5, Bethesda find a way of developing the concept further and fulfilling more of that promise.

As it stands Fallout 4 feels a little hard done-by. In many respects it’s a more fun and enjoyable game than Skyrim, and certainly a game that gives even more freedom and power to the player. It’s true that it doesn’t really live up to its potential, but for a few dozen hours it can be fun to wander through the Boston Commonwealth, set the world to rights and build your own vision of the post-post apocalypse. Maybe Fallout 4 would feel stronger if it didn’t have the greater narrative complexity and weirder atmosphere of the Mojave Wasteland looming over its shoulder, but that’s a tale for another time.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the thing that saved this game for me was that Bethesda still more or less allowed community mods that fix some of the poor design decisions or add replay value. That and the console access where you can manually correct or bypass the typical Bethesda Bugs that make it into the game.

The mod that changes the options in the dialog wheel to reflect what your character will actually say is one example of a mod that is pretty critical to me. There are many others. Every so often, when I do a playthrough of this game, I first spend a few hours downloading and installing mods.

I didn't ever buy Fallot 76 due to the "online" aspect making mods and console use impossible. If I have learned anything from buying Bethesda games for decades, it is that you will not see a bug-free experience at release (or really ever), if it's left to the studio to fix.

I plan to buy Fallout 5 when it comes out, UNLESS they finally find a way to allow only paid mods and shut down console access.