Blinking in the Bright Light
At the beginning of Fallout 4 , our hero staggers out of her vault two hundred years after she entered it, squinting against the light of the sun. They call her the “woman out of time” as she wanders the atomic wasteland that was once Boston, looking for her lost family and trying to decide what to make of this brave new world she’s encountering. In many ways, Fallout 4 itself feels like a game out of time, as though it went into isolation back in 2008 and has emerged from its underground bunker without the knowledge of the many advancements that have been introduced to the action-RPG and open world genres in the meantime.
Sure, there are attempts to catch up with modern gaming. Fallout 4 eschews the muddy brown filter that was draped over everything in Fallout 3 , resulting in a far more colorful Wasteland that actually accentuates the feeling of destruction by contrasting the ruination of nature with the bright plastic wonder of the pre-war years. There are now some nice weather effects and the game’s textures are fairly modern, but these improvements shine a bright light on some of Bethesda’s traditional graphical failures, especially its stiff animations. Though a few have been improved, many, like the stealth animation, look just as they did way back in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion . Most glaringly, characters and monsters feel like they aren’t connected to the environment, no matter how nicely rendered it is. They often don’t make movement sounds and seem to glide across the terrain like ghosts, especially non-human foes like feral ghouls.
The core systems of the game, exploration and combat, are also a mixed bag, thanks in large part to a problematic interface and controls. The monochromatic Pip-Boy interface is about as fun to navigate as the old Apple IIe games it resembles. The map is the worst offender, and it’s even harder to read than it was in Fallout 3 . It’s a bit better if you happen to have a large-screen tablet and open it up via the companion app, but even then, it doesn’t account for buildings with multiple levels, and there are scads of those in the game. In fact, most of the largest, most dangerous quests take place in multi-level places like buildings and subway systems. It’s a shame that it’s such a pain to find your way around, because there are some great set-pieces here, like a destroyed Boston Common (complete with overturned swan boats) and Diamond City, formerly Fenway Park.
Combat, and there’s a ton of it, feels archaic, especially compared to many competing open-world games and action-RPGs. The much-vaunted V.A.T.S. System is extremely limited in its usage and there are simply too many enemies in many areas. It’s not so much a challenge as it is a slog punctuated by the occasional unexpected death via a hidden machine gun turret. Fighting in real time, which is necessary when V.A.T.S. runs out of action points, simply doesn’t feel good. Many of the guns are awkwardly slow and creaky, and you’ll spend a lot of time flailing around and hoping the hit detection works whenever a bad guy gets in melee range. Enemies still collide awkwardly with your hit box, teleporting beside or behind you, a problem I’ve been having in Bethesda games since Morrowind , and one that simply isn’t excusable anymore.
There’s no good cover system, either. Your foes can hide behind objects and lean out to shoot you, but you can’t do the same to them, and their bullets have a habit of clipping through things you try to hide behind. It all feels just a bit unfair, although of course you’ll eventually gather enough implements of destruction to nuke the obnoxious buggers from orbit, a strategy I heartily endorse.
Once you get past the outdated interface and clear out the hordes of foes, exploring the wasteland does lead to a lot of fun conversations and interesting things to see, but it feels a bit off when you step back and look at the setting as a whole. The slow build-up found in previous Fallout games is gone here. You can suit up in power armor and wield a fusion rifle a mere ten minutes after leaving the Vault. In general it seems like the core thematic elements of Fallout have been tossed into a blender and splatted across the map instead of carefully orchestrated to get across a feeling of discovery and increasing dread. Spending some time in the pre-Great War world at the beginning of the game also takes away some of the magic of the setting’s retro-futuristic style, forcing you to wonder why the Fallout world was culturally stuck in the 1950s from the end of World War II all the way up to 2077. Why did we have no feminist movement, no rock music, rocket cars but no cell phones or color computer monitors? Sometimes less is more, and piling too much onto this setting causes its house of cards to crumble.
The best new addition to Fallout 4 is the crafting and building system, which allows you to mod your weapons and armor, as well as build up settlements that will then support you on your journey. You can build freely inside any pre-set building zone (mostly settlements removed from the city center), doing anything from creating your dream post-nuclear shanty-palace to a fort guarded by nasty traps and turrets. All the item collection you’ll want to do for these systems requires an awful lot of back-and-forth due to inventory weight limits, though at least all your workshop inventories are linked. As with all the menu interfaces in the game, the building and workshop interfaces could be better, but in general this is one of the best improvements over Fallout 3 , and one of the few systems in the game that is up to par with the competition.
Maybe I’m being too critical – fans who started out the series with Fallout 3 will find more of the things they loved about that game, with a slightly prettier wrapping and even more wacky things to discover. There’s plenty of fun to be had if you’re willing to ignore the thematic oddness and out-of-date design decisions. I, however, feel like we’ve given Bethesda a free pass on certain game elements for too long because it was once the only big company making these types of games. That’s no longer the case, however. Over the past few years I’ve enjoyed the strong cover system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution , the deliriously fun action combat of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning , the ever-improving open-world traversal systems in Assassin’s Creed , the delightfully responsive shooter controls in Destiny , and the narrative and world-building excellence found in The Witcher 3 . I’ve got higher expectations for presentation and gameplay these days, expectations that Fallout 4 falls short of in almost every respect.
The open-world/sandbox RPG genre that Bethesda helped create has moved on and done some amazing things. It’s even spread into and influenced other genres like action-adventure and MMORPG-shooter. My hype to see how Bethesda would interpret all these innovations and incorporate them into the Fallout setting turned to disappointment when I stumbled through a game that features the same poorly-implemented combat and all the same old Gamebryo engine annoyances and glitches we’ve been dealing with for years. Fallout 4 will provide some good old-fashioned fun for players who are looking for a prettier Fallout 3 (now with Minecraft !), but it could have and should have been much, much better than that.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.4 Graphics
Improved textures and effects, but largely the same old stiff animations and major clipping issues. 2.5 Control
Awkward movement, no cover system, glitchy combat, and a poor interface make interacting with the world of Fallout 4 a tedious affair compared to other games of its class. 3.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is great, but we’ve heard it before. Other than the main character, the voices are more accents than characters. 4.5 Play Value
As always, there’s a ton of Wasteland to conquer and interesting things to discover, provided you’re down with the outdated gameplay systems. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|