Weird and bombastic, senseless and silly, Fallout 4 is a Michael Bay-style sendoff to the franchise I knew and loved. Despite its flaws, it's a good game in its own right, but it seems for every piece of it you like, there are two pieces holding it back.
When it was announced that Bethesda had acquired the Fallout licence, I had very mixed feelings. On one hand, I definitely wanted more games in the series, having played the first two instalments multiple times over the previous several years. On the other, Bethesda were only known for making technically feeble fantasy RPGs (and the occasional side title, with varying success). Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that they’d turned Fallout 3 into a first-person shooter that looked suspiciously like their previous Elder Scrolls game.
It would seem the franchise hadn’t been revived so much as repurposed as a wrapper for their existing games. With this second attempt at a Fallout game, Bethesda is clearly content with this model, only now they’ve dropped all pretense of maturity and decided to milk all the most marketable aspects of the canon.
I don’t know what they were thinking this time around. Fallout 4 is one of the weirdest games in recent memory, both in mechanics and story. One could be forgiven for thinking Bethesda went with the spaghetti approach, but after putting the game down today, my mind had gotten stuck on a different comparison.
Bethesda has become the Michael Bay of video games. The trajectory leading from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind to Fallout 4 is one of consistently replacing complexity and maturity with spectacle and popcorn thrills, putting broad market appeal first and throwing all semblance of nuance and subtlety out the window.
And, you know what — that’s totally fine. I watched the first Transformers movie and unironically enjoyed most of it. Armageddon is a classic, even if the plot makes about as much sense as a submarine made out of biscuits. My only real complaint about it all is that Bethesda has taken one of the best video game worlds ever created and turned it into a massive joke.
The opening, which I will fully admit is a good one (aside from the really creepy character creator), sets up a mature and emotional story — enhanced by Zur’s powerful rewrite of the title theme — which is then abandoned completely when you jump into a suit of power armour, rip a minigun off a crashed helicopter and mow down a group of raiders and a deathclaw, barely twenty minutes into the game.
It’s a farce, set in a grim, post-apocalyptic future, where you can build plasma guns from desk fans, where a housewife with a law degree can decapitate giant deathclaws with a rocket-powered sledgehammer, where you can jump from an airship and land on the ground without taking a scratch, where you can repair your high-tech power armour using a toothbrush and a TV dinner tray — where the world is just a playground that lets you do whatever you want.
Fallout 4 is the daydream of an eight-year-old after watching a movie they weren’t old enough to understand, their eyes swiftly covered by a parent’s hands whenever something even remotely frightening took place. Every aspect of a formerly dark setting has been processed into the least offensive format possible and spoon-fed to us with glee. Sure, the world ends, war never changes, your spouse dies, your infant son is kidnapped and you’re forced to survive in a harsh radioactive wasteland, but did you know you can shoot teddy bears from a portable junk cannon?
The disconnect between the game and its setting aside, there’s so much in this game that just doesn’t make any sense. Most noticeably, people do not respond to your deeds and equipment. I was walking around in a suit of power armour the whole game, with 10+ strength and said rocket-powered sledgehammer, bashing my way through anything from radroaches to deathclaws — and this on Survival difficulty, mind — but the NPCs I met seemed completely oblivious to all of it.
An officer in the Brotherhood of Steel looked me square in the face and told me he didn’t think I looked like a soldier. An old man with a sniper rifle was convinced he’d saved my arse from three mirelurks (oh, no!) and demanded my help as a result. The settlers who asked the Minutemen for help weren’t at all surprised when a metal-clad Hulk Hogan showed up instead of some loon with a musket and a stupid hat. And that’s not even mentioning the low-level raiders and thugs who decided I’d make a good target.
In an open-world RPG, you can usually get away with this because a sword is a sword and a suit of armour is a suit of armour. When you make a big deal out of your player maintaining a suit of power armour, however, you have to take that into account. A few quips during fights is nowhere near enough. The entire world should react and behave differently. As it stands, it just feels like playing with all the cheats on.
Then again, people — i.e. regular human beings — can punch through said power armour and block a sledgehammer using their fists. Enemies wielding the Fat Man nuke-launcher will fire it at point blank range, knowing that I will die but they will just take a stimpak and shrug it off. Why is the best healing item in the game a soft drink? Why would a deathclaw be carrying military-grade duct tape? Why are the personal safes in an old folks’ home full of drugs? Why can I walk away from people mid-conversation without them saying anything?
It’s not just that the game is unrealistic, it has such a tenuous relationship with reality that I’m not completely convinced the designers didn’t just throw their hands up in the air and simply toss in whatever idea they could think of, no matter how ridiculous, so long as it checked a few marketing boxes.
Bethesda has been following the same design patterns for many years now and Fallout 4 shows just how old they’ve become. Since Morrowind, all they’ve done is put a new coat of paint on the same model over and over, with minor incremental improvements and changes here and there, but it’s still the same game underneath, whether you’re wielding laser rifles or enchanted daggers.
When you slash an opponent, your blade runs straight through them with a dodgy sound effect and some 2007-looking blood spatter. Their body, if it reacts at all, does a generic stagger backwards. If you land a stun, the effect is full-body rigour mortis, briefly sending them to the ground. When something dies, it drops straight down as a ragdoll.
The new conversation system is a shallow and broken attempt at recreating BioWare’s conversation wheel. Regardless of the situation, you always have four options, one of which is sometimes the perpetually obtuse “Sarcastic” option, and none of them do a good job at explaining what your character will actually say. That’s in addition to the poor voice acting, near expressionless faces and potato-like lip syncing.
In a time where video games are finally succeeding at their own unique style of narrative with actual cinematography, it’s so jarring to see a game by a AAA developer do such a poor job at it. Much of the story is spent looking for the abducted child of your player character. When they finally meet, the conversation is the same static talk like every other; two people standing motionless facing each other. My character didn’t even bother getting out of the power armour or removing the helmet.
Can you imagine how disappointing Geralt and Ciri’s reunion would’ve been in The Witcher 3 had it played out like that?
The formerly terrifying super mutants are still the big, dumb silly things from Fallout 3, squealing like cartoon villains and lacking even basic logical reasoning skills. The extent to which their mental capacity has been reduced stretches even the child-like minds of the canon, and their behaviour takes all the bite out of their large and otherwise fearsome appearance. With their stupid voices and ridiculous combat taunts, it’s hard to feel any sense of trepidation towards them, with the possible, if limited, exception of the behemoths.
I’ve always been impressed by how well Interplay understood the inherent ridiculousness of soldiers wearing giant metal armour suits fighting big green people. They knew the only way to make it work was to play it cold. Not straight. Cold. The first two games are horrible, and the first game has a bad ending that could scar a kid for life. (Go watch it on YouTube.)
That’s not to say I wish Bethesda’s Fallout games were as dark as, say, Game of Thrones. Maturity does not come exclusively from the grim depths. It is merely something that is taken seriously, something that matters. That means it requires both sides of the spectrum; everything can’t be light-hearted.
If I die to the behemoth, I’m not faced with an unpleasant little cutscene of him tearing off my armour and eating me. All I see is my character, seemingly unblemished, going ragdoll in slow-motion to a music cue. Reload. Rinse. Repeat.
Which means that the fight doesn’t matter. All it has to offer is the skill challenge of fighting a difficult opponent (although difficult is a bit generous; the AI is dumber than dirt) and the Skinner box promise of loot.
And the same goes for mostly the entire game, because the story, quests and characters are all Bethesda-level dull and unimaginative. What few good moments and bits of clever writing can be found are buried under a small mountain of monotony and canned dialogue. The game carries the vestigial remnants of the team who wrote Vivec’s bitter self-recriminations and the mystery of the Dwemer, now making content for teenagers and led by a marketing graduate.
Bethesda has used more or less the same engine for all of their games since Morrowind. They made the right call to start working on a new one for Skyrim but they should really take a few years off and just work on the engine some more. Compared to almost any recent AAA title, Fallout 4 looks to be at least five years old.
Personally, I don’t mind the shoddy graphical fidelity. I usually turn the settings down to maintain a higher frame rate anyway. The aspect of the aesthetics that does bother me is the cartoony style of so much of the equipment and creatures. Many things look like they’re made of plastic and the gun models are so ridiculously huge with so many particle effects that you can barely see what you’re shooting at.
And the shooting itself is almost as dull as it was in Fallout 3. Whilst there’ve been clear improvements to the shooting mechanics, it’s still the same stat-based system underneath, with the inherent strangeness of regular human beings having vastly different amounts of health — some of them drop from a single shot, others can take several .50 calibre sniper rounds to the face without flinching.
And then we have V.A.T.S. They really went full Michael Bay on this one. Constant slow-motion, including the droning audio effects, with cinematic camera angles and excessive gore. I got so sick of the juvenile spectacle that I stopped using it completely. Why is there no option to turn off all the unnecessary effects and remove all the dramatic pauses? It was cool for the first five minutes of Fallout 3, now it’s just gotten really old.
Even as a mechanic, its only use is panic fire. You’re low on health, a super mutant with a sledgehammer is charging towards you, so you open V.A.T.S. and queue up eleven headshots on the bastard. In any other circumstance, it’s much quicker and more effective to just do the aiming myself.
So, why, then, is this the most fun I’ve had with a Bethesda game since Morrowind? Because it is. Despite all the things that are terrible about this game, it’s a good game, and I had a great time with the roughly thirty hours I spent with it.
And it was due to the scavenging and upgrading system. (Not the sandbox city builder stuff; I found that to be uninteresting.) In particular, caring for and upgrading a suit of power armour was something I’ve been wanting to do for many years now. I can see it turned into an entire game on its own. Say, for example, you’re a Brotherhood of Steel initiate going off on missions.
With four different models (five including the Raider set), lots of actually meaningful upgrades and the need to find fusion cores to power the frame (not that they were difficult to find), it gave me plenty of reason to keep playing, even though the general gameplay was second-rate melee FPS stuff.
As a final note on the gameplay, I have to hand out two BS awards to this game. First, the unstoppable grab attack of the deathclaws. My eyes rolled like a ferris wheel every time they pulled that bollocks. Second, the poison damage type is absurdly unbalanced. The most dangerous enemies in the game are the flying insects because there’s no sodding antidote. The mirelurk queen takes all your health in one poison spit. Maybe they screwed up one of the numbers when making the Survival difficulty level.
I seem to be in the minority of people who didn’t like Fallout: New Vegas at all. I tried, I really did. On two separate occasions, I installed all the essential mods and forced myself to play at least a few hours of it. But alas, no dice.
Whatever Obsidian may have brought to the table, it was not enough to undo my deep distaste for the Bethesda model. Their engine and style have had me in a dismayed frown since Oblivion. It’s never evolved. I see other developers try new things and push boundaries, whereas Bethesda just keeps removing and iterating.
But, as luck would have it, the indie scene has me covered.
All the best,