Review: Fallout 4 Is Fantastic But Far From Flawless
War quotes? War quotes never change. Fallout 4 is finally out, but has the seven-year-long wait been worth it or has Bethesda nuked its famous franchise?
- Worth The Time?There isn't enough time in the world, really...
- Things LovedBreathtakingly gorgeous worlds, with interesting locations and lots to do along the way; Intriguing story that intertwines convincingly with various organisations encountered in the game; Shorter quests favour exploration and surprises over lengthy objectives; No more Karma means debatable morality in most quests; Crafting is extensive and a great time-suck if you're into it.
- Things HatedHorrendous AI that manages to both look ugly and play worse; Dialogue wheel could use some work; UI is still quite unpleasant; Crafting can be awkward and is never fully explained; The usual Bethesda host of bugs and glitches are omnipresent; Occasional slowdown and stuttering.
- RecommendationFallout 4 is every bit the Bethesda game you might expect. It's got a solid story, hundreds of hours worth of content to explore, and more bugs than you will find in a sewer on a hot summer evening. It's up to you how you feel about that.
- Name: Fallout 4
- Genre: Minecraft with guns
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
- Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
- Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
- Price: $60
- Reviewed On: Xbox One
Bethesda games are special.
Every time one releases we set aside our apprehensions over preorders, embargoes, and hype. We stop caring about graphics, performance, and how stable the game is. Glitches? Psht. It’s Fallout. It’s Skyrim. It’s Bethesda. We understand how they make games, and since they don’t come around often, we celebrate them in whatever state they release. To put it a different way: We accept the Bethesda games we think we deserve.
Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s latest offering, and comes a whole seven years after Fallout 3 (five years after the Obsidian-developed spinoff Fallout: New Vegas). Shifting the setting away from the Capital Wasteland, Fallout 4 is set in the Commonwealth, a post-apocalyptic version of Boston complete with historical locations, freedom trails, and Massachusetts accents. “Bahsh-tin.” Furthering that shift is the player character, not a lifelong vault dweller but rather a pre-war survivor. That’s right, thanks to cryogenic stasis you wake up 200 years later and get to witness the world you loved gone to shit. You lucky fish.
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And it’s pretty much at this point when the game begins, offering you just the slightest glimpse of your normal life before quickly and rather terrifyingly taking it away from you. But not before you get to create your character, fully voiced this time around, with the new character creation tool that swaps out sliders for visual modifiers. Tricky, a little clumsy, certainly not as fluid as previous games. This then perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the game, offering you glimpses at the epic storytelling, and the horrendously shoddy user interface.
A capital waste of time
Bethesda’s bread and butter is the lovingly crafted, expansive open world filled with things to do, locations to visit, and wonders to gawk at. Fallout 4 has all of these in abundance, and it is in the world of the Commonwealth that the game truly shines. Not just because it looks so damn impressively beautiful, either. It’s got life. It feels natural. Organic. You can take a stroll through the dystopia and feel as if it’s a living, breathing world. There are ruins to explore. Abandoned buildings filled with objects of value, either left behind by those long dead or brought in by newer occupants. Fallout 4’s Commonwealth excels at presenting a world with variety, substance, and uniqueness, with not a whole lot of repetitive hall-navigation, like with Fallout 3.
While the Commonwealth does seem smaller at first than the Capital Wasteland, it is far more densely packed, and will absolutely take your breath away with its staggering locations, with special mention going to the Glowing Sea. Praise must also go to how well Bethesda manage to give seemingly innocuous locations some rather sinister backstories. This is a brutal and unfriendly world with health-draining radiation everywhere, but it’s also a playground for you to get lost in, and it has never been as easy or as rewarding as it is here. For that, Fallout 4 must get the highest praise.
However it’s when you stop taking in the beautiful landscape and start looking at literally anything else that things start to get a little less pretty. Not least of which are character models. Now this is something Bethesda have struggled with in the past, with games like Oblivion boasting faces so ugly they could open a Patreon. This was mostly fixed in Fallout 3, and adequately continued in Skyrim, but once again we find ourselves cringing at the look of faces in Fallout 4.
To illustrate this point I found an image of a ghoul from Fallout 3, and compared it to a screenshot from Fallout 4. Which looks better to you? This pattern seems to remain consistent throughout Fallout 4, with buggy AI on clay-like NPCs, to complement their complete ineptitude at being anything other than glorified pack mules as companions, quest givers as story characters, and sources of trading as settlers or traders. This is, of course, when they’re not blocking your way through a door and forcing a game reload. AI: Dumb, idiotic, unbearable.
But of course, as you’ll no doubt hear a million times from fans, “It’s a Bethesda game,” and they’re mostly right. Graphics especially don’t matter, right? Except, you know, when the game looks staggeringly beautiful. Then they matter. If only Fallout 4 was consistent in this respect…
A common wealth
Fallout 4’s story primarily revolves around your character’s search for their family, or at least that’s what you’ll be doing when you aren’t just casually exploring the Commonwealth. In true Bethesda fashion, it’s never as simple as “get them and gtfo” — as we learned from Fallout 3, this initial scene-setting leads to a much larger, far more impactful story. The core theme for Fallout 4 being that of transhumanism, specifically, what it means to be human in a world where the term is increasingly muddy. This time around, to add to the ghouls, bots, and super mutants of previous games, Fallout 4 introduces synths to the party.
Synths are artificially-created humanoid robots that, over time and subsequent upgrades, have become indistinguishable from the real thing. This has led to a sense of paranoia, and a deep-seated animosity amongst surviving human settlements, with fears that real humans are being abducted and replaced by fakes, agents of synth creators the Institute, the Commonwealth’s boogeyman. Other organisations have stepped up on various sides, to combat the Institute. Some want to preserve the purity of humanity, whilst others want to help synths that reject the Insitute. Others simply want to keep the Commonwealth safe from any threats.
Essentially the safety of the Commonwealth is the common goal of all the organisations you’ll meet, but they differ in radical and at times outright conflicting methods. This then forces some tough choices on you as the player, as you progress the story. Unlike in Skyrim, organisations do not exist entirely apart from each other, and the choices you make will align with some but alienate others. It all comes down to what kind of character you choose to be.
Interestingly, although you’ll still get the “you don’t belong here” for being a total outsider, Fallout 4 doesn’t give you the climb-the-ranks type of story that Skyrim would present you. You’ll have to impress a few people before they even think of you as one of theirs, and although quests do open up, your primary interaction with each organisation aligns with the main story in a manner that serves the overarching narrative. Something many argued was missing from Skyrim entirely.
Also changed up in Fallout 4 is quest structure. Gone are Fallout 3’s quests that although few, could have counted as standalone game experiences in their own rights. Fallout 4’s quests are simpler, more streamlined, favouring quick and easy tasks that could take a while to achieve. Go here. Do a thing. Speak to a person. Cool, here’s some experience points. Go level up! The immediate effect is that it allows for more quests, but also favours exploration and defying conventions and expectations. The adventure is in getting there, and the surprise is in finding something you didn’t expect at all. Bethesda has once again excelled at presenting twists that have you sitting back and scratching your head in bemusement.
Gone is the morality-based karma system from previous Fallout games, instead your player is free to be as much or as little of a dick as possible. This opens the game up to what could be considered “grey” morality very much like in Skyrim. This makes for a much better way of doing things because this story is going to challenge your concept of what’s unequivocally “good” and “bad” and being tied down to generic concepts of such would be a pain.
A bit of a falling out…
Not that pain is absent from the experience. Fallout 4 now boasts a fully-fledged dialogue wheel. Now while the player having a voice does add to the experience, it’s also a bit of a disconnect for personal engagement, due in no small part to the shoddiness of dialogue options and subtitles. Dialogue options are vague, confusing and repetitive at times, and don’t adequately differentiate between information and progression leading to copious frustration, only worsening when the subtitles inevitably freeze up.
It only gets worse from there. Fallout 4’s user interface is in serious need of overhaul (story purposes be damned). A far more detailed explanation of what’s wrong with it can be found on Kotaku
of all places. The Pip-Boy is a woefully designed tool that fails on every functional level, in the most basic ways. For example, you cannot persistently see your health, action points, inventory weight, and experience points across all menus. There is no “read” indicator to tell you which quest items you’ve already checked out. The local map… I still haven’t figured out how it could possibly be useful. And above all else, the world map spits in the face of the marvel and splendour that was Skyrim’s world map. Remember that? That is how you do a world map.
The Pip-Boy does have some saving graces, especially with the new quick-access bar that allows you to assign weapons and aid for easy on-the-fly access. A welcome addition, along with the new Perks chart, which lays out all Perks below the relevant S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats that you assign your character. These dictate the kind of player you’re going for (stealthy, tank, etc), and are mostly self-explanatory. Perks are available based on how many levels you have in your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats as well as your character level (you get one point per level-up), and some can be upgraded multiple times. In Fallout 4 there is no level cap, and you can also upgrade your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats if you so desire. Extra Perks come in the form of comic books you find in the wild. What’s cool is that Perks are immediately accessible if you have the relevant S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat, meaning you don’t have to get the level 1 Strength Perk if you want the level 5 Strength Perk. None of this is ever explained to you by the game.
On the subject of things never explained to you by the game, let’s talk about another massive feature first introduced in Skyrim and now carried over and expanded upon in Fallout 4. Let’s talk about Crafting.
Crafting serves as a vital element of rebuilding the Commonwealth, in Fallout 4. You can set up settlements, create living quarters for shelter, crops for food, purifiers for water, generators for power, turrets for defence, and loads more. Crafting is instant, but you need to have collected the required items first. Unfortunately a lot of this is self-taught, thanks to the game never quite explaining any of it. This gives the feel of being tacked on, as if Bethesda came up with a cheap way to extend the game by tens if not hundreds of hours, for those Minecraft-minded among us. That said, the crafting does factor into the story, at times requiring the building of specific quest objects in order to progress. Pro-tip: Set Supply Lines between your settlements for shared resources. You’re welcome.
Meanwhile, the crafting of new weapons seems to have been removed in favour of crafting mods for existing weapons and armour using the relevant stations. There are a few categories of each, but the game frustratingly never tells you what strengths or weaknesses each type offers. It also never makes it easy for you to collect the junk you need in order to upgrade your weapons or armour. You can tag specific required items so they show up while adventuring, but you still have to find the items, and you’re slave to your carry weight. You can give items to companions to hold, but they’re also limited by weight. Still, it feels kinda cool to be able to craft your own upgrades for your weapons, especially when they’re the rare stuff, dropped by Legendary enemies.
Further to this is the (very early) introduction of Power Armour, which this time around forms an entirely separate super-suit that you can enter and exit as you please. Think Iron Man, but without the unlimited energy resource (and no British voice in your head). Power Armour is a bit of a bittersweet one, because it certainly makes you a lot stronger and allows better resistance to radiation, but it also negates the benefits of regular armour, and requires the use of fusion cores. These tend to last around half an hour, and once expired you can still use the Power Armour but some functionality is lost. The problem I have with this is that it puts a time limit on your exploration, and adds a sense of urgency, negating your desire to adequately take in your surroundings.
Turned Down Four What?
This section contains all the minor niggles I had while playing Fallout 4.
While FPS controls are tighter this time around, it’s still rather clumsy playing Fallout 4 in combat sections. Thankfully those are not always commonplace, and you always have the option of sneaking. V.A.T.S. makes its return in a chaotic way, slowing down time rather than entirely freezing it, adding to some incredible tension during gunfights, but it’s still a pain to use for the UI reasons mentioned above (read: It’s clumsier than a bow-legged drunk in stilettos). If you’re on PC, you’ll want to use your mouse and keyboard here, because the controller is a total chore.
In other areas, the usual Bethesda staples can be found. Intermittent slowdowns, occasional freezes especially when saving, and a host of bugs including clipping into walls, disappearing and reappearing objects, and jitter turned up to a thousand. Crafting can be quite laughable at times, when you build something and it appears to be floating off the ground, something that can be exploited ad infinitum until you literally have floating fortresses.
There is no way to adequately track your companions, which leads to occasions when they have seemingly disappeared off the face of the map, only to reappear later in an area you’ve already searched ad nauseam. Other times, I cannot seem to get them out of my way no matter how hard I try. Sometimes reloading my game works, other times not.
Finally, there seems to be no word yet on console-based mods. Whether these will appear later as DLC, or are imminent reveals, we’re yet to see what Bethesda is planning with the console-based Fallout 4 mod situation. This bears mention if you’re planning on a console-based purchase, naturally. On PC, the mods community has already improved such things as the visuals, the dialogue options, and more.
In all, it’s easy to see that Fallout 4 is a game stuck in the past. To an extent it can be excused by the game’s setting requiring for certain “backwards” principles, but the design of the Pip-Boy, even by sixties standards, is criminally unintuitive and needs to be addressed immediately. Furthermore, unless you’ve been playing this game non-stop it can be perilously easy to get lost in the myriad of quests and items you will come across over time, making the game a little less friendly to the more casual folk among us. This is a problem that could quite easily have been solved with simple markers, and if these already exist in the game and in my copious play time I somehow missed them, even more to be said against the game for being so unfriendly.
But now that we’ve come to this point, we have to once again remind ourselves that this is a Bethesda game. We come into this experience knowing full well that we will encounter glitches, we will have some shoddy mechanics, we will be frustrated, but ultimately we will be absorbed into a world of true escapism and wonder, where we will lose ourselves in someone else’s story, and have unique experiences that give us our own stories to tell to our friends. This is a Bethesda game. This is Fallout.
Can you really blame anyone for enjoying this game as much as they do? Of course not. Still, there’s a job to be done here.