Fallout 4’s greatest strength is also at times its greatest weakness, which can be summed up/forgiven/excused/berated (delete as appropriate to your preference on this) as “being a Bethesda game.” Even since the initial reviews came out and having talked with many people about this, it has become a bit of a Marmite subject in that you love this or hate this. But to make such an arguably condescending phrase for the game really shadows some of the problems the game has and, equally so, hides some of the best things that Bethesda Games studio has done with this entry to the Fallout franchise.
Fallout 4 moves the action of the post-apocalyptic America to Boston, giving us a world where lots of scorched woodland areas and small satellite villages surround the massive city. It is incredibly huge and I know I missed places in my run that I’d seen in videos online, so it is entirely possible for you to miss places, no matter how dedicated you are to exploring the landscape.
It is a rather beautiful landscape, even if it is borne of destruction. There’s something about the desolation of society’s constructions, mixed with reclamation by nature, which is wonderful but hard to pull off. There are times that the scope is too much for the game and concessions are made with lower resolution textures and occasional lag in the texture streaming. This becomes a lot more evident in the built up areas but there is a lot more going on that takes your attention away from the obvious issues.
The video you see above (don’t worry, no spoilers) is the wonderful Andy Kelly of PC Gamer fame (@ultrabrilliant) and his award winning Other Places series, showing you the first area of the game and how wonderfully it highlights the sense of desperation the game evokes. This is down to a multitude of things that the Bethesda Game engine does very well. The colour palette is wonderfully vibrant and dour, capturing both the positivity of the pre-war age and the decay of the post-war world. This is apparent all throughout the world in larger historical structures or even the smaller pop-up shack communities you encounter. The grass and the ground is arid, dying but not quite dead, along with the concrete blending in with its cracked and broken roads and fallen structures. Nothing ever feels like it’s the same but it’s all disorientating enough to make you think you might have been there before, really helping with the need for exploration. The lighting doesn’t do a lot compared to other RPG visual feasts but it doesn’t need to when the morning fog rolls in, or the dark electrical storm shades the sky and your immediate vision in hues of murky brownish green.
The problem with this and the design of the world and the buildings is that it doesn’t feel very human, or it feels too tied to the more angular, broken edge feel that the last generation of Fallout games had. At times the apocalypse seems to have abandoned all curvature and the more you play, the more you feel this is down to the game design and engine rather than artistic choice. The draw distance as well, with the graphical issues of texture pop in can sometimes take you out of the fantasy and into the frustration of loading. In the actual menu screen there’s one low-resolution stretched texture, and it’s obvious and sticks out like a sore thumb.
Once you move in to the world and explore, along with your now voiced character, you get to meet the typical people you’ve come to expect from the franchise, those being the deliciously maniacal, the weaselly, the addicted, the persevering, the cynical and the violent. These people of the Commonwealth live and die by your actions, and your assumption of responsibilities. Whether it is by building a settlement, defending one for the Minutemen or making yourself a made person in some of the bigger city communities. All of the people have interesting stories and need you to do interesting things for them that will put you in mortal danger, and at times it can feel like an over reliance on the fetch quest or clearing an area of nasty things. But it also feels, more importantly, like you aren’t really in control of your character, even when the decisions on loyalties, allegiances and betrayals come to distort your moral compass.
You might find abandoning your RPG play through of the game until you’ve done it at least once to be a good idea. For long periods of the game there is much more of a focus on the gunplay and action/adventure style than there is on interacting with the world in a unique way. One of the things that the old games were great for and has been much lauded and celebrated was the freedom in how you play and approach the world with your character, like Jake Tucker’s great piece on being a cannibal in New Vegas highlights. If anything, this game suffers from two things in the story and character interaction. Firstly, it’s entirely possibly that we’ve over eulogised the previous games and were expecting, with the voice and the better speech choice system, a new advancement to the freedom we want to have. Secondly, the story and the way the narrative is constructed really limits your choices as to what you can do, at least for the initial run.
What do I mean by this? My example in Fallout 3 is that you are a young man just going out in the world looking for your Dad, a feat that you probably didn’t expect to actually complete, therefore you can do what you want. In New Vegas you were a nameless courier who is shot and has only the drive to find out who shot you and get revenge, therefore you can do what you want. In Fallout 4 there’s a central event that drives your character that is very human and informs that relation you have to your character. It’s incredibly hard to make your character do all the bad, evil, good, charitable things you might want them to do because the human instinct to resolve the game’s central plot stops you from really doing it. It’s hard to explain it without spoiling the story, but initially it isn’t the RPG you’re probably expecting.
When it comes to customisation though, I have three minor problems. There should be a higher camera when it comes to building the settlements so you get a better look at what you’re building. There should be a bit more of forgiveness for being over encumbered, especially as scavenging for junk now has a practical purpose, like allowing a fast travel to a local location or something. I also want to be able to wear armour whilst wearing any type of underclothes like a suit. That’s my only feedback for things I want, everything else is a great and welcome addition. Whilst the settlement construction options aren’t massive, they are excellent as a side distraction, compared to the side quests available before in previous games for escapism. There are some rather excellent ways to adjust your guns and armour, and all of these things require a smart and well educated use of the new levelling and perk system, which is simplified and much more succinct in its practical uses. But it’s because of these things that I am really excited for the mod function to become available for the console iterations of the game.
The games issues don’t stop with the textures, or the story, or the ancillary questing being very focused on a simple fetch or kill target. There are big frame rate issues on the console during battles thanks to the overload of AI and particles, and occasionally in areas where the build up of buildings and items can lag the game down from a mostly consistent 30fps to a lot lower. Obviously the PC users don’t have that problem but it is rather annoying and can hopefully be worked in with various patching and optimisation.
But the more time you spend with the game, its quirks, its characters and its environment, the more you forgive it its faults. In a way this is the closest you’ll get to experience Stockholm Syndrome with a game. You’ll lose hours of your life and you’ll see something in the game design and construction that will make you think that the game hasn’t come on as much you would have hoped or expected in the eight years since Fallout 3 or the five since New Vegas. But then you’ll carry on, going to the next area, wanting to find where the hell Dogmeat has got to now, and you just can’t leave it. You shouldn’t be enjoying it, everything about you is saying you should stop, but you can’t.
The biggest problem with the game is the expectation, that we didn’t know we had until the game was announced, hasn’t really been matched once we got it in our hands. But much like the other iterations, it’s the repeat play, it’s the exploration and it’s the ability to have a new experience every time you start a new game that will forgive the technical limitations, even if you don’t feel it the first few hours that you play. You can say that all of this is what Bethesda does and that “it’s a Bethesda game,” but in truth it is both Fallout’s greatest weakness and also its greatest strength.
Fallout 4 might not be the game you’ve been expecting or hoping for. There’s a definite problem in that the scope of the game isn’t realised in the technical ability of the console, at least without further patches or optimisation. As such, the controls, the feel and the general atmosphere of the game feels like the last games and by association, last generation. But in truth, we wanted more of the same but better to look at, better to control and with more things to do, and that’s exactly what we’ve got.
- Amazing, large world
- The new weapon modification and settlement building is a great addition
- So vast that you’ll need several play throughs to fully experience it
- Graphics and frame rate are disappointing
- The game feels more action/adventure than RPG at times
- The story can sometimes feel limiting to your role playing freedom
Why a 7.5?
The hangover from the previous games is most evident in that the graphical optimisation is pretty bad at times with texture pop-in lags and frame rate drops. Plus the experience you get from it isn’t really the same as you might have had previously, and might be a bit too action focused in places compared to previous games. But it is great and much more rewarding once you’ve got in to it and play it again the way you want to. There’s lots to learn and relearn but the story and the technical issues the console versions face can sour the experience.
This review is based on the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game.