Fallout 4 – It’s a familiar radioactive wonderland

I’ve played a lot of Fallout 4 in the last week or so, perhaps an abnormally high amount of it. I’m a big fan of the first two games by Black Isle. Fallout 3 grew on me, New Vegas felt better storied (despite the bugs which I was apparently lucky to have largely dodged), and now we’re here at Fallout 4.

As to whether it is really super good depends a lot on what your expectations on how much Fallout you want in the game. On one hand, I love sandbox RPGs where you can run wild and dive into “dungeons” for loot, kill monsters, and craft your character with an involved skill system. If leveling and skill points are the bolts and nails that you look forward into hammering out your avatar in any RPG, Fallout 4 provides a lot of outlets to satisfy those particular needs.

On the other hand, it’s scary in how safe it plays. On the most basic of its principles, it’s literally the same approach that Bethesda has used in its “new gen” era of RPGs starting from Oblivion and its expansions on through Skyrim and Fallout 3 with a number of mechanical tweaks made to refresh and polish the underlying tools.

I haven’t finished the main campaign yet (I left it behind once I was free to leave the starting area) but one thing I do know is that despite the Sherman’s March of devastation my lone wanderer has wrought on Boston and its environs, not a whole lot has really changed. And that’s a bit disappointing, especially if you look back on what was possible in the first two Fallouts. Even the destruction of Megaton in Fallout 3 was a small, but interesting, tip of the hat to that kind of effective permanency that you could inflict on the wastes. I still smile at remembering all of the times I reloaded to try out different approaches in Fallout 2’s New Reno with the mafia families running the show there, sometimes going in just to shoot things up, or trying out different options to see what I could get away with. But once you set your course, you had to live with the consequences.

The partners in the game add some nice color. They will also spill their guts to you before you know it. It’s just a bit unnerving when they choose to do that without a lot of prodding. It just kind of happened with three of the partners that I happened across as I did my thing and suddenly they were ready to change their lives after a few hours (not that their lives were ever at risk — they’re immortal like many key characters in the game).

Even your character, who admittedly is a blank slate, doesn’t seem to react overly much to how much the world has changed. She/he is just an impersonal power fist ramming through combat and bludgeoning their way through the story — at least that’s what mine feels like. It’s not so much role playing as it is doing what a protagonist does in Diablo or Grim Dawn, and part of that blame lies with the dialogue…or lack thereof. They have interesting personal stories, but it’s not a very deep system to get them to share that with you.

On a technical level, they did away with freezing the NPC and giving the player a locked dialogue box to hash through a variety of decisions (use medicine, INT, etc.. from New Vegas). Now it “floats” so it has this annoying tendency to sometimes “lose focus” if the NPC doesn’t stop in the right area. Aesthetically, I can see what they were trying to do — they want the dialogue system to be more personable and cinematic, breaking it out of the previous design trope. But in practice, it’s still a bit rough around the edges.

fallout4_diner

Visually, the game looks great on the PC (after a few tweaks). Signature locations, weapons, etc.. look great though some of the animations still look a bit stiff.

You almost always have four choices, one of which is “sarcastic” which was interesting to use from time to time. You can also save in the midst of a convo so if you miss a charisma roll, well, F9 is only a stroke away if you want to do that. I maxed out the INT on my character, but after tens of hours of play, I have yet to find someone to impress with it. So far, it’s just good for unlocking higher tier perks and giving me a bit more XP in every encounter. But it doesn’t seem as colorful as it could be in terms of choices that focus more on your character than on how many caps you have or whether you want to be sarcastic.

 

Perhaps the biggest change is the perk system which I do like. Many of the usual suspects are still there like Bloody Mess but each one now has different levels that you can increase by spending the point you earn by leveling. Early on, your choices will shape how your character will react to the wastes, but it’s also one of those systems where given enough time, you can be a walking grave digger and capzillionaire which is something of a trademark with Bethesda’s work — creating the tools and letting players be as powerful as they want to be. There are still benefits to focusing on specific disciplines with the first ten or twenty levels as opposed to spreading everything out but players are still given a lot of leeway. F4 just slows the powergaming aspect down as opposed to curbing it.

fallout4_vats

The VATS system is still relatively the same one used in the previous games, but now you have a “crit” gauge that builds with hits to deal a guaranteed strike of heavy damage.

Statistics can also be improved instead of picking a new perk on a per-level basis in order to reach those higher tier perks encouraging a lot of grinding to get there. On the plus side (or minus if you’re not a fan of this next feature), encounters scale up to your level with tougher monsters. The scaling isn’t too obnoxious — there are still areas populated with cannon fodder — but on certain jobs, you’ll definitely notice more powerful version of the usual suspects. Super Mutants suddenly find themselves promoted to Super Mutant Masters or Primuses, for example.

But on the other hand, the basic questing structure hasn’t changed a whole lot from “find this object, and kill a lot of things near it” bag that the Elder Scroll series has done outside of a small handful of specific quests that do rely on dialogue choices.

fallout4_home

You can set up defenses or even build shop stalls — but you’ll need to decide on whether spending perk points on the skills you need to do so or focus more on your character build. And as far as I can tell, settlers don’t actually “die” which might rub some of the more hardcore survivalist players the wrong way. They just go down for a few moments and then get back up like your partners do.

Bethesda’s Radiant quest generator returns with NPC assigned “jobs” that you can do that populate certain areas with new encounters and a particular task hearkening once more to what the Elder Scrolls Arena and Daggerfall had used with randomized dungeons to keep the hack ‘n slash crowd busy.

A new build and resource system allows you to do things such as craft mods for your weapons, armor, and even grow crops and build turrets to protect settlements that you find and free along the way. This isn’t hardcore survival, either — you can make heavy laser turrets with enough ‘ingredients’ from scrapping things like microscopes and typewriters — but it is fun for those that like to tinker. Or you can opt to just completely ignore it.

Right now, since I haven’t yet seen everything, the choice still seems to be binary — kill everything, or find something (after killing everything). It’s unfortunately limited to this despite the huge opportunity teased throughout the sandbox for much more, but on the ground level in terms of its quest content, Fallout 4 hearkens back to Bethesda’s earliest hack ‘n slash days. Only with atomic weapons.

Just a few thoughts on what I hoped to see — hired help for a caravan, actual trading (ferrying supplies from one place to the next), reconstruction efforts making an impact on the local economy, low level enemies running in fear of you based on your reputation (i.e. Shadow of Mordor), and better PC controls…particularly the last since some of the new features make poor use of the platform without a few tweaks.

For example, refining items for use in the crafting system (to improve your settlements by building things from beds to gun emplacements) requires a lot of raw resources that you can get by breaking down junk like office fans or even boxes of 200 year old cigarettes. But if you’re hoping for a “break all junk down” command, think again.

On the technical side of things, despite how pretty Fallout 4 can look, it still has a number of legacy issues. You might find yourself unable to go through certain holes in walls or beneath objects regardless of whether your eyes are telling you that they have enough clearance to be the local Arc de Triomphe. It’s a problem that’s plagued Bethesda’s engine tech for years and it hasn’t improved.

fallout4_counter

One day, Bethesda’s tech will allow everyone to mantle over this counter for 200 year old cakes instead of being blocked by an invisible collision box.

Lockpicking is still the same after two iterations (Fallout 3 and New Vegas) and the inventory system, though even with categories, still relies on the same linear list system that makes it a chore to use with a mouse and keyboard. After experiencing other systems ranging from Witcher 3’s inventory system to that in Shadowrun Returns or Grim Dawn, I kind of expected a more PC-centric approach here.At least there will be mods, but I shouldn’t have to expect fans to fix things shouldn’t even be a problem.

The next issue I have is a bit nitpicky but taking place 220 years after the bombs fell, it’s really stretching out certain elements to the point where it feels as if they just have to let some things finally go. I get that America, in this universe, became a hyper-civilization based on atomic energy and the promises of a super future. But after 220 years, it’s really pushing the disbelief bungie to the breaking point.

I’m walking into a ruined supermarket and there is still food in there along with bottles of Nuka Quantum cola. Or Fancy Lads Snack Cakes and Mentats. After two centuries, you’d think that animals, raiders, your next door neighbor who became a ghoul, or whatever, would have cleaned every possible place out. And just how does brahmin meat get stored in a lunch pail inside a location that no one has been in for 200 years? Or a crude pipe rifle hidden in a safe deep inside a bunker that was supposedly sealed for centuries? Then again, F4 doesn’t take itself too seriously when it has an alien blaster and even more bizarre encounters later in the game. Finding the occasionally sealed bunker or irradiated mega-ruin still tickles my inner explorer.

Can’t deny that Fallout 4 is still a ton of fun, but I’m enjoying it more for the reasons that aren’t quite so much Fallout as they are a game closer to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (the combat mechanics were improved to be a lot more FPS-like but it’s not anywhere as hostile environmentally). Now S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a great game…but I was wishing for a bit more Fallout, too.

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2 responses to “Fallout 4 – It’s a familiar radioactive wonderland

  1. stalkers games are leagues ahead of this new fallout game, they are better at everything, you are insulting a great franchise comparing it with an inferior one

    • Not at all! I only made the connection because comparatively, they do share a number similar concepts — scrounging for supplies, FPS mechanics, a wasteland obliterated by nuclear disaster. My point was that F4’s improved shooting mechanics feels as if it’s inching towards a game like STALKER but that’s as far as that goes.

      Thinking more on it, another comparison could probably be that it’s only a few degrees away from being Borderlands with VATS though Borderlands doesn’t have the post-apocalyptic, nuclear theme going on to the degree that the Fallout series and STALKER have in common.

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