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Wot I Think: Fallout 4

The beautiful end of the world

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Fallout 4 [official site] is an open-world roleplaying game from Bethesda Game Studios, creators of Skyrim, and is set in the Boston area of America, 200 years after nuclear war all but wiped out a technologically-advanced civilization. Your character emerges into this blasted world after centuries in cryosleep, then must choose their own objectives and allegiances while battling mutants, monsters, machines and militia. It’s out tomorrow.I spent last week with it, and here’s what I made of it. This piece does not contain any plot spoilers.

52 hours. A level 29 character. 27/50 achievements. Two different endings seen. Feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Size, of course, is something we can all but take for granted from the follow-up to Skyrim and Fallout 3 – the lingering question is whether a new layer of quality could be applied to all that wasteland quantity.

Well, good news. Either technology finally caught up to Bethesda’s aspirations, or they took so many arrows to the knee from the resoundingly popular but much-lampooned Skyrim that they finally did something about the presentation issues we’ve been whining about. The refreshingly characterful Fallout 4 fixes problems which have dogged their games for years – although it then throws in brand new ones to compensate, and it maintains the traditional smattering of bizarro bugs and underwhelming combat.

Perhaps Fallout 4’s greatest failing is one which will please hundreds of thousands of people – the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. ‘Oblivion with guns’ comments about Fallout 3 notwithstanding, this is the Bethesda game which is most like its preceding Bethesda game. When I sit back and think about what I’ve been doing, I realise that, underneath the newly crisp and colourful skin, it’s exactly what I was doing in Skyrim, Fallout 3 and Oblivion before it.

From spending far too long crafting minor weapon upgrades to painstakingly dressing up an AI companion who keeps getting stuck on scenery, from clumsily decorating my homestead to pickpocketing everyone in sight, and most of all from constantly interrupting my current goals with a new questline to endlessly fighting men and monsters. Structurally, no matter how much it might contain and how flashy it looks, Fallout 4 almost always boils down to Go Here / Kill Lots Of Things / Upgrade / Do It Again.

This is business as usual despite numerous tweaks here, fleshings-out there and this twin series’ most impressive presentation to date. Its surprises really come only from art, and almost never from possible actions you can take. On paper, Fallout 4 isn’t doing a whole lot new, and there’s definitely an argument to be made that the Fallouts are simply the tock to The Elder Scrolls’ tick (to use the terminology applied to iPhone S releases). Despite their many flaws, Oblivion and Skyrim were still experimenting with the possibilities created in Morrowind, but like Fallout 3 before it Fallout 4 only really pushes the ideas forward in terms of themes and guns.

This would be damning, were it not for the fact that Fallout 4 does much of what it does so, so much better than Fallout 3 particularly, but also than Skyrim.

Tradition dictates that I should spend a few paragraphs moaning about how turgid the voice-acting is, how pudding-like the character faces are, how lacklustre the storytelling. And… I’m not going to. I don’t have to. Those things, those ancient Bethesda bugbears, have improved immeasurably. Not completely, but speaking as someone who repeatedly tried to kill Brother Joffrey in Oblivion so I didn’t have to hear his wretched voice again, tried to mute all Fallout 3’s voices to spare myself from lifeless shopkeepers’ dull ‘a traveller, eh?’ utterances and made arrow/knee Skyrim references only as a demonstration of contempt, I simply haven’t seen red in that way during Fallout 4.

We’re not looking at best-in-class character modelling by a long shot, and unfortunately most of the peripheral NPCs still move like clockwork-powered automatons, but the leap is dramatic enough that I’m happy to wave away the remaining shortcomings as a consequence of how much the game has to show at any one time.

Even the many, many minor bugs – people raining from the sky, farm animals mysteriously stranded on rooftops, NPCs with chairs sticking through their midriffs, enemies I could pickpocket a supposedly rare and precious resource from infinitely, disappearing companions, allies who’d futilely attempt to sprint through solid surfaces, and so many entities getting caught on scenery so frequently that you’d swear the nuclear bombs had mutated the entire world into Velcro – didn’t bother me. I guess partially I’m now so familiar with those sorts of glitches in Bethesda games that I’m almost fond of them, but partially they’re simply far less depressing when the overall presentation is so powerfully improved.

The most striking improvement is to plot-central characters and companions. These benefit from extra-detailed and more carefully-animated faces; this paired with bolder character design, more characterful and convincing writing and what seems to be a whole new broom when it comes to voice direction (far more of a problem than the actors themselves were) makes Fallout 4’s cast and dialogue revelatory by its developer’s recent standards.

Though the optional NPC companions might not quite be up to BioWare standards (and there’s certainly a whole lot less you can do with/to them), they are at least within touching distance now. There are people I wanted to have with me because I enjoyed their company, not just because they ticked the requisite combat boxes.

Even quest-givers and other major NPCs have presence now. Rarely did I feel some hired voice was reading a script aloud for the first time, or that I was listening to the first respondent to a casting call for ‘Evil Gangster Boss Guy’. (The exception being generic bandit-type cannon fodder enemies, but this relates to wider problem with these I’ll come back to later).

A fat injection of colour into the wasteland makes an enormous difference too. In its defence, Fallout 3 came at a time when post-apocalyptic settings in mainstream pop culture were still relatively rare, and irradiated deserts still seemed exciting compared to traditional RPGs’ forests and caves, but even so, it was bleached of far more life than it needed to be to sell the fantasy. Here, it’s as though a brown fog has been lifted.

Sadly Fallout 4 still makes the errant assumption that not a single tree would have survived or sprouted even one leaf after two centuries after the bombs fell, so a foundational brown’n’grey remains – but then again it is the series’ signature look.

Fortunately this game does reason that radiation would not, in fact, have removed both all existing paint and the materials with which to create new paint from existence, and so almost every single scene flashes with smatterings of vibrancy. There’s a slight cheat going on in that, even though the game is set at least 200 years after the bombs fell, its New England is designed to look as if the apocalypse was relatively recent. This means more colour, and more dark detail too – skeletal bodies found, BioShock-style, near logs and props which tell the story of their final hours, and near-intact shops and buildings which feel abandoned, Marie Celeste-style, rather than dilapidated and looted into ruin.

Similarly, a peculiar number of terminals and defence systems have retained power even after all these years and all that destruction. But while there might be logical fallacies underpinning this (though that’s an absurd claim to make anyway, given Fallout is inherently maximalist, anything-goes sci-fi rather than true grit realism), I’m entirely happy with it – it’s more life, colour and personality to the world, saving it from the hollowness of Fallout 3’s brown, dead sprawl.

The same new vibrancy is true of outfits; although armour remains faded and ramshackle, there’s a huge amount of non-combat apparel on show, from sparkly sequin dresses to Thin White Duke suits. These can make NPCs more distinctive, or inject a little bit of Saint’s Row dress-up merriment into your own character. (Clearly, a dress or suit has no defensive capabilities so you’ll don armour for quests and fights, but they do tend to have Charisma or Perception bonuses, thus are highly useful when shopping or stealing in towns).

Looking through my hundreds of screenshots, the vast majority are simply me posing my hero in a new outfit. It’s here that Fallout 4 is at its most playful, and most successful at offering self-expression rather than mere utility. It’s almost as though Bethesda are trying to get a march on modders – or perhaps openly inviting them to make silly stuff. Fallout suits that far more than The Elder Scrolls ever could, after all.

Which brings me to a complaint of sorts, and that relates to tone. I can’t go into plot details, but it gets very dark very quickly, and then seems to create a pulsing sense of urgency. Your character, a survivor from just before the bombs dropped, is leaving Vault 111 in order to rescue someone very important to them, and very vulnerable. There’s a sense that every moment matters – until it doesn’t. Fallout 4’s very nature is to be a teeming mass of distractions, and pinballing from the gruesome to the absurd, and from micro-managed shopping to doing other people’s routine dirty work. It simply can’t maintain that urgency, that sense of crisis and tar-black seriousness.

It’s analogous to how Batman’s mission to save Gotham from this psychopath or the other in the Arkham games is constantly undermined by rooting around for Riddler trophies, but at least Batman didn’t stop to try on a new hat or find seven broken toasters so he could weld new bits onto his armour.

Of course, historically the main questline in Bethesda games is but a sideshow to your fundamental freeform existence in the world. The big stories are good for dramatic back-of-the-box blurb and self-important trailers, but really they’re just a structure to guide players across the world and provide guidance for players who freak out it there isn’t a quest arrow as soon as the tutorial ends. While you can of course go entirely off-piste almost immediately and for as long as you like, here the main plot both feels more time-sensitive (though it isn’t in reality) and a little more intrinsic to the world. Where these games usually offer discreet sub-campaigns for the factions you can optionally join, here all those feed into the main story, as do several side-quests, and there are even large, spectacular, oft-revisited areas that you’ll only get to see if you head deep into the central quests. All this is great in terms of providing a new coherency, but it does feel a little like Fallout 4 is trying to have its cake and eat it – be an open world game and a Big Story game.

I actually think it broadly gets away with this, bar some discomfort in the first hour or two that I wasn’t getting on with The Very Important Thing and that my character barely ever mentioned it despite being in tears not long ago. (And, in fairness, Fallout 1 did something similar, though there the comparisons pretty much end). The plot is pure pulp and drizzled with perhaps inadvertent silliness, but it’s BIG, has this driving sense of escalation to it, and builds to its conclusions carefully rather than abruptly, with plenty of opportunity to make your mind up about who you’re going to support – or even double-cross.

It’s not a case of having a do-or-don’t finale dropped on you in the final mile, but rather of making ongoing choices with their own setpiece quests throughout. Put it this way: you’re not to be quickloading a save from two minutes before the end, Deus Ex-style, so you can try out every conclusion for size. To see the endings I haven’t yet brought about, I’ll need to go several hours backwards.

A conclusion, then, feels earned, and you get to see some immense stuff both within quests and across the world as a whole in the process. There are several facepalm moments as the denouements approach, and we’re going to see some exasperated articles and videos about them, but for my money it’s nothing like as clanging as Fallout 3’s resolution. Best of all, several key storylines resume after the ‘ending’ sequence plays. To what extent I don’t yet know as it became time to write, but I’ll be doing some follow-up pieces. Right now I feel there is still tons to mine from the game; if nothing else, despite hitting level 28 after 50 hours, I can see skill unlocks which require me to be almost level 50, and most of the in-game map remains unexplored. If I want it to, this is going to keep me busy for at least the rest of the year.

On page two: combat, disappointments, crafting and a conclusion.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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