Fallout 4 was one of my most hyped games of the year. People criticise it, but I’ve been a fan of the ‘Bethesda’ game for years; Morrowind is potentially my favourite game of all time. Fallout 4 really is a great game, with a huge amount to recommend it, but 2015 was not a year where it’s easy to dominate the open world genre. Fallout 4 has been outflanked on two open world fronts; the storytelling, world design and general mission variety has been outdone by The Witcher 3 and in terms of pure mechanics it doesn’t have anything on Metal Gear Solid V. In such as amazing year for the genre, Fallout 4 ends up feeling underwhelming.
In a break of series convention, Fallout 4 begins before the nuclear holocaust which led to the post-apocalyptic wasteland we all know and love. Our protagonist lives a happy suburban life, but is rushed into Vault 111 with their spouse and baby moments before the bombs drop. As with all the other Vaults, Vault 111 is unique and here the subjects are kept in cryogenic stasis. The protagonist slumbers away for over two hundred years before raiders arrive in the vault, kill their spouse and kidnap their baby. The main character is released into the post-apocalyptic Boston known as the Commonwealth to find their child. Along the way, they are embroiled in a conflict which will shake up the entire power structure of the Commonwealth. On one side are the Institute, a mysterious organisation which has become the boogieman of the Commonwealth, scientists which have created ‘synths’, artificially intelligent robots with unknown aims. On the other are the Brotherhood of Steel, still with their familiar motivation to horde technology setting them on a warpath against the Institute. In the middle are the rag tag band of do gooders known as the Minutemen and the Railroad, who seek to liberate synths who no longer wish to work as slaves for the Institute.
The core narrative of Fallout 4 is probably my favourite in the 3D series. A lot of people have criticised the fact that the protagonist is now fully voiced, with their own motivations separate from the player, unlike the relatively blank slates seen in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I do understand why this bothers people, but I must say that I actually prefer this approach. There is a genuine moral ambiguity between the four factions which define the story. The Minutemen are a bit dull, but the Railroad, Institute and Brotherhood all have some serious good points, but also some real downsides; all are blinded by dogmatism. Choosing who to work with ultimately is wrenching, but powerful. That said, I hated the ending, full on loathed it, which sees the player thrown into an unconvincing conflict which feels barely justified and utterly unnecessary for the sake of ending with a bang. Plot and nuance is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle; in my opinion Fallout 4’s ending makes Mass Effect 3 look pretty damn good. The best stories are found in individual side missions, although there aren’t as many intricate tales as there were in previous games.
At its mechanical core, Fallout 4 is essentially unchanged from the previous 3D games. You’ll still be wandering through a desolated wasteland, shooting raiders and collecting loot. The combat VATS system returns, but is tweaked slightly to encourage a more active shooting experience. They claimed to have taken inspiration from Destiny, which is laughable as the shooting really doesn’t stand up. Part of me wonders if (and this will be sacrilegious) Bethesda need to choose a world to live in. Do they want to be a turn based RPG or an open world FPS with RPG elements? The compromise doesn’t quite work as well in 2015 as it did in 2008. There are two major changes in Fallout 4. One I cared about and one I didn’t. The companion system is expanded, replacing the morality system as characters pass judgement on what you do. Earning a character’s affection will gain you a new perk to boost a particular skill, but the real reward is further conversations discovering more about these characters. I really liked most of the companions and swapped them around a lot depending on what I was doing. My favourite was Nick Valentine, a synth based on the personality of a hard boiled noir cop with surprising character depth. The other major addition is a massive expansion of the crafting system, which now sees you able to mod any weapon or piece of armour to your heart’s content, finally making your junk useful as you salvage it for parts. It’s not too important though, as the weapons dropped by enemies, particularly those with the mark ‘Legendary’ tend to be good enough to get you through the game. You can also build and maintain settlements, but I never was able to muster much motivation to delve into this side of the game. For a start, the interface is horrible, but second of all I couldn’t find a compelling reason to care. Some people love this feature, but I’m glad that Bethesda didn’t make this an integral part of the experience.
My biggest issue with Fallout 4 comes from a direction that I actually haven’t heard criticised as much as I expected. The Radiant Quest system was introduced in Skyrim and saw randomly generated quests joining those more crafted ones. In Skyrim these were clearly marked under ‘miscellaneous quests’, meaning that you could focus on the core ones if you chose and ignore them. They were there if you wanted them and sometimes I did, but they didn’t detract from the experience. No problem. This is not the case in Fallout 4. By the time I wrapped up my time with Fallout 4, I was drowning in dull radiant quests. There are some awesome, clever, exciting side missions with great characters and interesting situations, but they are vastly outnumbered by dull ‘go here/kill this’ missions. It feels like padding; I vastly preferred the approach of Fallout 3 and New Vegas of fewer quests overall but those that were there being intricate and complex. It feels petty to complain about lack of content in a game this size, but the actual quality of what we have to do feels cheapened and stripped back. This is confirming my iffiness about procedural generation; you just can’t beat a strong developer’s vision being put into place. A mission generated by an algorithm is never going to be as good. When the missions in Fallout 4 are good they are very good, among the best in the series, but it can be hard to pick the wheat from the chaff.
That said, wandering around the Commonwealth and discovering new places and people is still a thrill and Bethesda’s best asset. The Commonwealth is stranger and more varied than the Capital Wasteland, with a genuine variety in locations which makes it satisfying to explore. All told though, no one could call Fallout 4 beautiful, particularly after playing The Witcher 3. The other Fallout games were ugly and Fallout 4 does look better; it’s far more colourful for example which I very much liked, but it can be a bit underwhelming. The character models are a big weakness, with stiff animations and facial expressions, still. It’s engine updating time at Bethesda methinks. The voice acting is very strong, thankfully strong enough to rescue the fact that the characters move and react like awkward robots. I played a female protagonist and her voice actor was excellent, inhabiting a variety of roles and showing genuine range. I can’t imagine how much work must go into voicing the protagonist of an open world game, but she pulls it off.
I want to make something clear; Fallout 4 is a really good game and I don’t regret any of the time I’ve spent with it. It does a lot of things right, but the series is beginning to feel like a series of compromises, in a way that The Witcher 3 does not. I would love to see Obsidian get another go at the Fallout series as they did with New Vegas and I’m certainly not done with this series, but this is the most underwhelmed I can recall feeling about a Bethesda game and that’s a shame.