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The RPS Verdict: Fallout 4

Setting the post-world to rights

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Alec’s already run his own review of Fallout 4 [official site], based on 50 predominantly campaign-inclined hours in post-nuclear New England, but now Bethesda’s latest is out John and Adam have been taking a more leisurely look at it too. Have they found convincing life in the wasteland? Do they agree that writing and characterisation is much improved? Or that the relentless focus on combat keeps it just short of rad status? Is the Witcher 3 still 2015’s RPG king after this? And why do they think a game which is prompting rather a lot of griping about bugs and graphics and meatheadedness has scored so many 9s and 10s from other critics? Time to set the post-world to rights…

There are no plot spoilers below, bar a passing reference to what happens in the introductory 15 minutes.

Alec: Who else here has completed Fallout 4?

John: Not me.

Adam: Nope. I’ve barely completed a single quest.

Alec: Well as we all know the main campaign is the only thing that matters in Bethesda games, therefore none of your opinions can be considered in any way trustworthy. If it turns out you’ve just been – ugh – exploring, you’re all fired. How much have you seen, anyway?

Adam: It’s worth keeping in mind that it took me around 40 hours to leave White Orchard in The Witcher 3 because I really get carried away with that whole ‘enjoying the details’ thing. In Fallout 4, I’ve seen Concord and Sanctuary, which is to say the first two proper locations. And quite a bit of the wilderness around them. Along the way I did a boss fight against a Deathclaw, which bothered me because I didn’t feel like I’d earned power armour or a boss fight yet, and I’ve collected quite a lot of toasters. A retail park Curry’s worth of toasters.

John: I followed the main quest for a bit, because it seemed important to rescue my infant son. But the main quest appeared to be entirely people telling me to go somewhere and kill everyone and then come back again, and that didn’t really feel like finding my son at all. So now I’ve decided to go mad and kill absolutely everyone in the entire game.

Adam: I’ve only killed baddies. I think. There may yet be a twist that reveals the kind-hearted nature of leather-clad raiders everywhere. I’m wearing a sack on my head, which is quite the thing.

Alec: Tell me about your characters before we go any further. Who did you make and why?

Adam: I’ve written about my character creation technique for these big ol’ RPGs before – I tend to randomise everything. Fallout 4 doesn’t have that option built in so I used computerised dice rolls for most of the features and ignored sculpting. I ended up with a chap who vaguely reminds me of Larry David.

He is intelligent but weak. Perception high, endurance and strength low. I’ve taught him how to pick advanced locks and fire a rifle real good. I really love the character builder though – surely Bethesda’s best yet?

John: I tried to make me, but self portraiture has never been a strong skill, and it didn’t have my hair. I’ve come out looking even fatter than I think I do in real life.

I’ve become quite obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction of late – I don’t doubt for a moment directly related to having a one year old and so little downtime, and the strange appeal of there being absolutely no one else to bother me. (I don’t want my family to die quite as much as this sentence suggests.) So I thought I’d be me. But then it turns out the world is as populated as in any other game, so huh.

Adam: Is that why you’re killing everyone? You are the embodiment of the post-apocalypse apocalypse. Terrible state of affairs. I can’t help but be lovely in RPGs. Probably because I’m so lovely in real life. Never take payment for quests I’ve done if I can help it and rarely hurt anyone unless they’re repeatedly battering me around the face and neck with a tire iron.

John: See – that’s how I play every other RPG ever. And it’s how I’d be playing Fallout 4 right now if – and here’s the true tragedy of the games critic – it would give me something unique to write about. I figured this would be interesting, and it is, so far!

Alec: I’m always nice to everyone, which is mostly so I can feel a bit better about myself when I subsequently rob them blind. But also I always worry that I’m missing out on the best stuff if I keep starting fights and mow people down before they can chat or reveal their secrets. Question is whether new worthwhile stuff comes out of slaughter, I guess, and hopefully John will be able to reveal that soon.

What are your general impressions? How wildly and horribly incorrect was my review?

Adam: I loved the opening until the dash to the vault became more farce than drama when everyone started bunching together and I couldn’t find any way of running or walking that let me keep pace with my wife. At that point, I was all “FALLOUT 4 IS A GAME IN NEED OF A NEW ENGINE”. Then I enjoyed reading the computer logs in the vault and thought “FALLOUT 4 HAS MY INTEREST”. And then I got outside and was in love, briefly.

So far, I’m worried that there’s too much focus on killing, which is something you mentioned in the review. It seems to be my main mode of interaction with the world. Killing and looting junk. I haven’t done much work on my first settlement yet because the interface annoyed me when I first encountered it, but I’m finding the conversation choices a bit limiting. I don’t feel much of a connection to my character – but the world is making up for that. It’s a fantastic place to explore. In short, currently it’s a 7/10.

John: I never got on with Fallout 3, could never get past Megaton City, so I can say without doubt I like this one better. But I too am really shocked by the emphasis on combat, and the combat being the most weakly designed aspect of the game. The world seems great, albeit staffed with cardboard cut-outs instead of characters, but the quests are just “kill everyone”, and general exploring descends into “kill everyone”.

I find the Bethesda Phenomenon as fascinating as ever, where I find myself putting up with the most basic shit that would have me abandoning so many other games – hideous interface, dreadful explanations of how to play, clumsy boring crafting, etc – because of the scale and depth of what’s behind it. It defies belief that a human being played this game before release, that there wasn’t a single person who said, “Do we really think we want to insist on PC players pressing ‘Enter’ to close 30% of dialogues?” “Should we maybe make it so it’s faster to use a stimpak/change weapon via the shortcut than to go into the Pip-Boy and do it manually?” “Might it make some sense to have a map that’s vaguely possible to look at which your eyes fizzing in your head?” And yet, I persist, because of what’s behind it, which is the acres of potential.

Adam: I agree on just about everything there. Jim (RIP) wrote a feature about Skryim’s cacky interface shortly after it came out and, at the time, I was happily persevering with it and didn’t notice how much I was looking past the issues until they were pointed out to me. With Fallout 4, I feel like there’s a layer between me and the game and I’m constantly trying to scrape through it. I’ve considered switching to a controller rather than mouse and keyboard, but I’m stubbornly sticking with the latter for now because I much prefer struggling through the menus with a proper pointer if at all possible.

Alec: This vaguely relates to the main – I’m going to do it I’m going to do it – fallout I’m getting from my review, which is the bit where I essentially went ‘meh’ about the glitches and stuff, dismissing them as coming with the territory. Obviously I can see why that’s not right, but the fact of the matter is they are hallmarks of these games and I expect them so much I really do smile when I see a cow on a roof or a man with a chair through his torso. And it’s mile-wide grin for stuff like this:

But maybe I should be dismayed rather than tickled pink. Between that and the UI stuff, how badly are Bethesda letting us down really though? Should the pitchforks be out, given everything that does still work?

John: I sort of agree. I’ve had the game bug out on me in stupid ways, it feels so clumsy, and yet nothing was going to stop me in the last hour reaching the big tall red modern-looking building I could see on the horizon. That urge to reach the horizon is so powerful, it allows so many shortfalls.

But it frustrates me very much that they likely know they can get away with it. I think they’re letting us down desperately badly. I think they should be doing so much better, and people should be up in arms. But then probably go back to playing some more despite it. Because, and here’s the thing: imagine Fallout 4 but NOT clogged up with stupid shit. Imagine that game.

Adam: For all of my falling out (BOOM) with The Witcher series over the years, The Witcher 3 is right up there among my favourite RPGs of all. And CD Projekt Red showed that the argument that “ambitious open world RPG = bugs and clumsiness” doesn’t have to be true. It’s not a perfect game, Geralt’s latest romp, but it fits together so much better.

And I’m not making a direct comparison – I’m not interested in a pissing match between the two – but I keep seeing the argument that the shoddiness apparent in parts of Fallout 4 is the cost of its ambitions. I don’t think that’s the case. For me, it’s a little like Dwarf Fortress of all things – I love the game and will recommend it to anyone interested in simulated fantasy worlds and settlement management, but the interface is a horror to behold and learn, and I make no excuses for that. Does it bother me more in the case of Fallout 4 because it’s an enormous release from a huge studio with a large budget? Yes. Rightly or wrongly, it does. I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of these legacy problems haven’t been addressed at all.

Alec: The Witcher 3 doesn’t do awe, though. Hell, it doesn’t even do characters that well – the Bloody Baron aside there’s basically three different characters who repeated endlessly. But the awe specifically, I’m prepared to pay the price of total slickness in order to get that. The Witcher 3 I dash through looking for things to fight, but Fallout I just like to wander. I want there to be fewer rough edges, of course, and I agree that there is probably some degree of hand-waving going on at an executive level, but it seems so distantly secondary to having the place. It’s the fact that Fallout keeps trying to make me fight everything which bothers me far more, because it goes out of its way to build a roleplaying infrastructure then makes every option play out the same way.

Adam: That’s interesting because I’m having the experience you describe with The Witcher 3 with Fallout 4 at the moment. I rarely dash at all – never put any points into agility – but I’m finding myself pinging around fighting and rarely taking time to stop and smell the radioactive roses. I feel like I should be doing something all the time, rather than just exploring for its own sake. I’m hoping I’ll settle into the rhythms of it soon, rather than treating it like a world of collectible junk. I’m hopeful!

Alec: It should be mentioned that I’m now on my second campaign, and it’s quite different to the first, which had a definite sense of the pressure you describe. I know how the plot stuff plays out and where fights might happen, so I don’t have those itches to scratch. I’m taking the long way around and playing at a far more relaxed pace.

John: But what you say is true. I got into my big red building, and it’s just a mad gunfight between me and a faction I’ve never heard of that seems to want to kill me for reasons not given.

Alec: Oddly, at a certain stage in the first campaign I had exactly the opposite problem, and it was even weirder. I’d progressed quite far through three different factions’ quest, but not taken any of the missions which would set me against one or the other of them. So there’d be these colossal, roaming fights across the Commonwealth, lasers and explosions everywhere, but no-one took a shot at me – even when I was actively on a mission for one of the factions involved in the fight. I just wandered through the debris and looted everyone’s corpse. Delightfully strange, great to have the freedom to see them rather than spend the experience hiding or shooting, but sadly it was broken too.

I had this one single-shot quest companion who couldn’t take me to the next stage of the mission because he kept infinitely getting attacked, but was immortal. At one point he just stood in the sea for ten minutes getting lasered endlessly, unable to shoot back but unable to die either. I had to fast-travel away and come back, only to find him magically stood on the dock again. Then the enemy arrived again and it all kicked off anew. I had this elaborate system of to-the-microsecond saves, hoping to find the brief window between attacks so we could progress to the objective.

Adam: Those fights sound great. I’m always delighted when there’s a sense of an ecosystem in the world – I think it was your review that referred back to STALKER’s AI battles, which are one of my favourite things in all of games. At the moment – and it’s very early days – Fallout 4 feels like one of those worlds that only moves if I’m standing there prodding it. I saw some bloatflies lazily buzzing from house to house on the way back from Condor and enjoyed just watching them, off in the distance. Proof, more than all of the characters I’d seen and spoken to, that there was life in the Wasteland. More of that would be very pleasing!

John: Yeah – I just had a nice moment where I was being chased through city streets by ghouls – my least favourite enemy and the most tiresome to kill – and then a pack of dogs rushed them from an alley, and I was able to take pot shots at both sides from a distance. That sort of thing is splendid.

Alec: It’s something a lot of people asked me actually – is there life out there, outside of the cities?

On page two: gripes intensify, and theories are offered for why such a glitchy game is scoring rave reviews elsewhere.

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Who am I?

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about videogames.

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