Fallout 4 Is Best Enjoyed As A Survival Game

I confess to an ever-so-slightly heavy heart when I began writing a diary series about Fallout 4. I’d only just finished the review, which had involved over 50 hours of play, and on top of generally wanting a change felt that I’d exhausted the game’s possibilities. As I wrote in said review, my key gripe with the game is that almost every problem is now solved by banal violence, which closes the door on its potential as a source of anecdotes.

I was wrong to be wary about going back. My complaints about Fallout 4 stand, but I’m enjoying it much more playing second time around, entirely avoiding story, entirely avoiding safety and instead imposing my own set of rules.

So, thought experiment: Fallout 4 is not a roleplaying game. Fallout 4 is a survival game. That’s how I’m playing it, in my journey around the outermost edge of its world, making do only with what I stumble across, and treating every fight as potentially my last rather than something I can beat if I reload the game enough times. Every item I find is meaningful. Every enemy I encounter is my ultimate nemesis. There is no temptation to fast travel, because there is no goal other than to keep moving forwards without dying. There is no preoccupation with looking for quests or recruiting companions, because there is almost no-one out here and there is no option to go anywhere except onwards. There is just the road ahead of me.

It makes more sense. It makes Fallout 4’s theme mean more. As a game played in terms of its storylines and its oddly comfortable towns, the post-society setting barely holds together. Hell, go far enough into The Institute side of the storyline and it’s hard not suspect that there were people involved in this project who were tired of wastelands and wanted to make an entirely different type of science fiction. But out there on the road, Fallout is all about the end of the world again.

Finding old food in cans matters. A small box of bullets in a bath tub is exciting, because for all I know I might never meet a trader. Firing one of those bullets is harrowing, because I can’t know for sure that I can ever replace it.

And there’s almost no-one here, other than monsters and maniacs. When I do encounter someone who’ll talk to me, it’s startling, and I don’t even remotely trust them, let alone treat them as a chummy giver of gifts, because anyone out here must be absolutely stark raving mad.

There’s also the matter of difficulty. Since Morrowind onwards, Bethesda’s RPGs have suffered from the player becoming far too powerful at around the mid-game point, and partly that’s down to balancing, partly because players put so much damn time into these things that they can’t help but level up and find the best weapons, and partly it’s because saving and loading and fast travel and the easy ability to buy or make anything you need means anyone can overcome any obstacle. You can take away all challenge, and the game openly invites you to do so.

I took that temptation away. In combat, I’m often firing a single shot then running and hiding, and repeat. I’m avoiding enemies and even areas wholesale. What the diary might sometimes make look like miraculous victories in fact involved extremely long, tense battles, lots of time spent hiding somewhere while VATS recharges, methodically building up to critical shots and a whole lot of eating radioactive melons while crouched inside a bathroom.

I can’t undo an error; hell, I can’t even go shopping. I’m just making do with whatever comes along. A side effect of this is that, whereas in my first play-through I was carrying an ever-growing sack’s worth of grenades, mines and irradiated food around with me, now almost everything gets used. I do feel as though I’m playing the game in the way it’s supposed to be played, even though I don’t believe this was how it was intended to be played.

When Michael Radiatin’s journey ends, as one day it will, very suddenly, [It now has. -Ed] I very much doubt I’ll go back to Fallout 4. It’s a silly game, and there’s nothing to it but fighting. But I do feel I understand it much more now. And I do feel that its world makes more sense when you treat as nothing more than a place to survive within. Ditch your storylines, ditch your companions, ditch your settlements, ditch your overpowered weapons and armour, and play it that way. It’s worth it.

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47 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    a whole lot of eating radioactive melons while crouched inside a bathroom

    I miss being a student :(

    I take your point on board Alec, I’ve 100+ hours in, nowhere near any kind of end and altho I’ve really enjoyed it, almost all quests being murderfests is disappointing. I wasn’t planning on sticking around after mainquest.

    Now tho, I might have a little re-roll run about just trying to stay alive. Doubt I’ll last anywhere near as long as the eponymous Michael tho! gl with the continuing adventure, I and others have been very much enjoying it :thumbsup:

    • jasta85 says:

      for my first playthrough I went the super intelligent charisma character so I could get all the dialogues out of the way.

      for my second playthrough I put pretty much all my points into luck, which has produced some hilarious results. granted I die a lot more but it’s always fun when people spontaneously explode, bullets bounce back and kill them or the mysterious stranger shows up randomly and 1 shots a mini-boss I’m fighting.

      • Solidstate89 says:

        Ricochets have been absolutely hilarious for me. It’s only happened like 3 times or so for me, but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.

        That, or having your enemies have caps explode out of them when they die.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    Starting with Fallout 3, continuing to New Vegas and into Skyrim, I have noticed increasing numbers of survival mods popping up over time. Perhaps, as you say, that’s the way they are supposed to be played if not the way they are intended to be played. I admit, I’m too much of a coward to fully commit to that playstyle, but I try and impose brief challenges here and there for a couple hours when I play these types of games.

    Also, the position of the “Supporter Funded Post” bear makes Michael Radiatin look naked, and I don’t know if you did that intentionally or not, but it is hilarious either way.

  3. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I’ve put 80 hours into a single character without much time spent on the main quest at all. I’ll get to it eventually but I am having far too good a time exploring all the locations and discovering the little stories scattered throughout the game.

    I really enjoy The Glowing Sea area of the map because even if you are not playing a survival style game it gives you an area where you have to play by different rules. It’s like a mini-survival game hidden inside the game itself.

  4. Premium User Badge

    kfix says:

    Thanks Alex.

    This is the first piece on this game that has really made me want to play it – I bought it three weeks ago but haven’t even started it up, too dispirited by the shooty direction the game has taken. Now I think I will.

    Thalex.

  5. baozi says:

    So you’re …roleplaying in order to make it a survival game? :D

  6. rommel102 says:

    I’m not sure I understand the premise here. You disliked the fact that the “real” game includes too much violence amidst its scattered plot and emergent storylines, so you think the game is better played by foregoing any of that for raw violence?

    Let’s examine that again; You had more fun playing just the violent part than you did playing violence + plot.

    I’m not sure how that computes.

    • drinniol says:

      It doesn’t. But it’s RPS, it doesn’t have to.

    • pepperfez says:

      The violence clashed with the proper plot, but it was perfectly appropriate to wandering the wilderness.

    • Hart says:

      Playing this game for role playing elements, good stories and characters leads to a poor experience. I don’t remember a single damn thing from the 50 hours I played. Playing it as a survival game is much less disappointing. What’s hard to get?

      • Blackcompany says:

        Agree completely. Twenty or so hours in and…I cannot remember a damned thing thats been said to me. Not by whatever his name was with the Minutemen. Not by Armor Danse Revolution and his band of merry battletanks. ITs all just some ‘you’re the type of person we REALLY need’ tripe like in every Bethesda game.

        But off the beaten path? With significantly reduced carry weight, weighted chems and food, with healing loot reduced by 75%…now that…that is glorious. That is Fallout, in my opinion. Or at least, that is fallout, the way I want to play it.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      It makes a lot more sense if you read the article.

  7. Uglycat says:

    I ignored the story straight out of the vault in FO3 and found my father in the 6th location I visited, which rather took the wind out of doing anything after that.

    • NephilimNexus says:

      Kind of interesting how FO3 was about a kid finding their missing dad and FO4 is about a dad finding their missing kid.

      • sairas says:

        “Kind of interesting how FO3 was about a kid finding their missing dad and FO4 is about a dad finding their missing kid.”

        but … FO4 is about a mum trying to not think about that she is scrounging for coffee cups in the nearest office building when she probably should be finding their missing kid.

  8. Siannah says:

    There’s a quest called Kid in a fridge, which involves (drumroll) a kid locked up in a fridge for 200 years, turning into a ghoul and wanting to get home once released.

    You can straight up tell him to shove it or accept leading him there. Agree and a guy called Bullet shows up who wants to buy the kid. You could:
    – refuse, but he later show’s up with more men at Billy’s home, not only wanting Billy but his parents as well. Talk (lie to) / kill him and the other guys appearing.
    – sell the kid, which ends the quest.
    – sell the kid, then kill Bullet after getting his cash, talk to Billy and still lead him home.

    Alternative approaches, opportunities, choices / consequences, combined with several speech checks (most superficial for more background info or getting more cash / exp – but the last one for avoiding a fight)…

    Kid in a fridge is actually a prime example, how Bethesda should have taken on at least every second quest – sadly, that’s just not the case.
    If it would have been, not only could no one claim F4 being a bad RPG, they actually could have pulled off making it better than Obsidians NV….

    • Myrdinn says:

      My experience with the kid in the fridge:

      I just finished the MQ, walked past that fridge, freed the kid, he says something like “we’re going to my parents, right?” and I accidentally accepted (was not expecting branching stuff I guess :p) so I was stuck with him. Since I’m a stealthy character I decided I wanted to get rid of him, but he wouldn’t initiate dialogue anymore. So I tried bashing him on the head with a powersledge, but yeah kids are immortal. So after having tried grenades and nukes I give up and decide to just press on with the kid tailing me.

      This is when the ‘Bullet’ guy shows up and asks me if he can buy Billy. So I’m like “hell yeah” and sell him, after which Billy starts ranting about how “he’s gonna get me for this one!” Now I’ve seen enough movies to know that if you let the kid go, he’s gonna grow up to be a badass and kill you in the end so I give him one last whooping with the powersledge, just for internal RP-ing purposes. ‘Bullet’ now flips out and starts shooting me so I have to put him down with a stroke of my hammer.

      Billy looks at me and asks about his friggin parents again. I weep.

    • Wulphius says:

      My personal gaming experience culminates into the opinion that Obsidian should never be allowed to touch another Fallout title… Why?

      Between FO3 and NV, I actually enjoyed FO3 better. So far my experiences with Obsidian’s products have left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Essentially their direction was to have the gameplay define who the player’s character used to be instead of the player defining their past themselves.

      Don’t even get me started on how Obisidian absolutely hamstrung the Dungeon Siege IP… *sadface*

      I know FO was their originally their baby, but… there’s a reason they lost the IP to begin with, and why Bethesda GS’s treatment in the third installment launched FO to it’s comfortable position today.

  9. Stevostin says:

    There is a lot of fighting, to the point of “too much” indeed, but there certainly is not only that. I have a set of armor used for the talking bits (big charisma bonus) and it gets more used than my antirad hazmat suit. Also, there are decisions, meaningful ones (way more than in Skyrim or F3, we’re closer to FNV standards).

    • Stevostin says:

      Also the bit about difficulty seems to be wrong. I am 54 with endgame weapons and it’s getting tougher as I keep on leveling up. Play with just autosave and every fight matters, at least with a low HP / high dmg profile.

  10. MikoSquiz says:

    Sometimes there’s a game that I continually feel compelled to play, and consequently delete from my computer rather than resume playing.

    Fallout 4 was the point where Bethesda’s “always something more to do” ethos started feeling more like playing a clicker-incremental than an RPG to me. I shan’t miss it.

  11. byjimini says:

    I played Fallout 3 unarmed, and I’m doing the same with Fallout 4 too. During fights I have to lure people out rather than go in all guns blazing, using cover and line of sight to sneak up and attack or hide from their bullets.

    It makes the violence so much sweeter.

    How the hell I’ll defeat the Swan, I’ll never know.

    • JarinArenos says:

      The only way I ever defeated Swan was opening with an artillery strike. I think you’re outta luck, without going at like… level 60.

      • p1nkbr0 says:

        Got my quad-barrel rocket launcher and sunk about 10 or so rockets into his sorry butt. A huge pain in MY butt, however, that weapon was not even close to being worth those stupid rockets I used…

    • bakaohki says:

      I lured him far away from the pond and there was a point where he didn’t go back but didn’t come closer either. Cheapest pipe revolver and ten minutes. Felt kinda cheap though – like 99% of the fights in FO4.

  12. Zenicetus says:

    If I ever do another playthrough after finishing Fallout 4 at around 150 hours, I might try the pure survival approach.

    I dunno… one thing that kept me playing the game was that I enjoyed the new game mechanic of crafting weapons and armor. That leads to wanting more mats, which leads to setting up a few settlements (for adhesives), and doing enough quests to rack up the XP needed for higher tier crafting. All of which leads to more involvement in the game than just survival.

    Games like this rely on the psychology of constant upgrades; the idea that you could be using a weapon, armor, or skills that are just a tiny bit better than what you’re holding now. It takes an effort of will to resist it.

  13. grimloki says:

    Fallout 4 failed to meet expectations.

    But I think it’s for lack of trying.

    I feel the way about Fallout 4 that I did about Stalker. It’s not a game where the story is important. It’s a game where the world is important. The main focus is discovery and exploration, and the stories give your character a big problem. Like all heavy handed stories start these days. No intro beyond the bare minimum. Look. A crisis.

    So.. Yeah. It’s there. But its the kind of reflexive half assed plotline I see commonly, but its not the point.

    Two plumber brothers saving a princess was a terrible story idea. As was saving a princess from an angry barrel rolling gorilla. Did you know ‘breakout’ had a plot? You play a prisoner. Escaping from jail. The story is the bare minimum. Entirely there to answer the question ‘why am I there’ before getting to the business of being there.

    Fallout is about being there.

    I feel like Fallout 4, more than any other Fallout before, is a simulation of wasteland living.

    And it’s as realistic as any alternative historical 50’s post apocalyptic fiction ever was.

    So… How do you ‘correctly’ play Fallout 4?

    90% of the assets aren’t involved in the story line.. At all.

    They built an incredible world, and came up with a bad excuse for you to be in it.

    And yet… the world is what’s appealing.

    Play in whatever way brings you joy as you explore and its a good game… A great game.

    Play like you’re supposed to.. To have fun.

    And if you get the plotling experience you’re supposed to… Rah Rah you singlehandedly saved everything.. Good.

    If it’s your first time saving everything, its a hoot. If it’s your 100th time saving everything, its a chore.

    But luckily… Like Skyrim before… The story can be ignored indefinitely. Forever. With out taking much away from the world.

    And that’s the beauty of this title. There’s enough stuff in play and enough complexity for stories to emerge, on their own.

    Which are… By and large… All better than the craptastic plot they slapped on top.

    • p1nkbr0 says:

      Honestly, I had so much fun building and exploring, I somehow logged 120+hours before even visiting valentine’s office for the first time. All I needed to do was talk to the lady for a free 200 or so xp.

  14. Cronstintein says:

    I agree with the general opinion that the game suffers from too many enemies and not enough social interaction. If you look at Fallout 1 & 2 the number of places filled with auto-aggressive enemies is much less. Usually an interesting place has people surviving in some bizarre way.
    In FO4, every building basically houses raiders or mutants. It’s too bad because the environment design is top notch.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The ratio of places where you’re be immediately attacked is certainly high in this game, probably higher than Fallout 3 and New Vegas. But it’s not “every” building. It just seems that way because the world map is so full of stuff, and so much of it shoots back.

      There are many places you can find interaction and not be attacked. Like Diamond City, Goodneighbor, Covenant, Bunker Hill, Crater of the Atom, and the Atom Cats garage. At least a third of the potential areas for settlements have people living there that won’t shoot first, because you’re supposed to do a quest to get that settlement area unlocked.

  15. Sin Vega says:

    Maaaaaaaaan you are DARING me to shamelessly plug the time I learned this in Fallout 3. But I shal RESIST.

    The good news is it’s a Bethesda game, and will almost certainly get a pile of decent survival mods in a year or so. How far the modders can hammer the creaking engine and any discrepancies with the world as built varies, but with a little patience you can usually make the wasteland a much more interesting and resourcefulness-challenging place.

  16. fish99 says:

    I’ve actually just finished F4, and by the end I was pretty sick of the game. I think with 180hrs played I did too many radiant quests, but that’s partly the games fault because there’s so many on offer, and sometimes story quests are locked behind them, or they’re forced on you.

    The gameplay wasn’t great either, there’s issues with hit registry, with object interaction, movement issues, poor companion AI, and a mountain of glitches. I especially didn’t enjoy the way enemies strafe at sprinting speed while shooting you, it makes them not fun to fight.

    I also didn’t find the factions or story interesting, and there was a wealth of poor story logic. Every time you do anything for one faction the others instantly know about it for no reason.

    It’s a shame to say this might be the least I’ve enjoyed a Bethesda RPG. TBH I’m glad it’s over.

  17. Carra says:

    “Since Morrowind onwards, Bethesda’s RPGs have suffered from the player becoming far too powerful at around the mid-game point.”

    At level 15 I spent 20 minutes trying to kill a mirelurk queen. At level 31 with power armor and some of the best weapons it took me 20 seconds.

    It’s still fun to explore and do things but the game is no longer challenging.

  18. GrapeJam says:

    It’s still shitty as a survival game(especially when you compare to game like STALKER). Just play it for what it is, an open world shooter with some RPG mechanics.

  19. Dead is Dead says:

    I started with this kind of playstyle, which is also called “Dead is Dead”, several years ago.
    This was what saved me from stop playing games; I felt exhausted and there was no thrill or excitement anymore. Games felt shallow since they are so dumbed down now compared to games from 90’s and 2000’s

    When I gave myself ONE life & NO reloads, suddenly every little step felt like an achievement. Failing myself to the end/top of a game by endlessly exploiting reloads, is just not an option.

    Good article!I think more people should try this out. Especially those who are in the same boat as I was; those who’s feeling burnt out and fed up with the games.

    I simply love playing the Dead is Dead playstyle, especially in ‘Open World’ games like Skyrim, Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 4.

    Next for me, is to conquer Fallout 3, Dishonored, The Withcer series etc etc with ONE life & NO reloads! :)

    • theroguex says:

      I don’t get this “ONE life NO reloads” stuff. Did you actually grow up in the 80s and 90s? Did you play games back then? Because they weren’t like that. They were harder and didn’t give you as many handholds, sure, but they weren’t all rogue-likes in style. Hell, this obsession with rogue-likes (especially the “retro” styled ones) sorta came out of nowhere in the last decade.

      Games have definitely been dumbed down, but not to the extent you seem to think.

      • Fnord73 says:

        Agreed! Ive been enjoying some of the new retro/titles, but they seem to have forgotten one single issue> To allow people to set a limited amount of “continues”. The whole bullet/hell genre evolved in order to lure us kids into paying for their “continues” in the arcades.

      • Dead is Dead says:

        I was hooked upon games in like 78 or so. Just a little kid at 1st or 2nd grade.
        Games got better, but at a point I felt the games became more to give an illusion to the player that they had been ‘good’; For example Football Manager is a great example here (Old Championship Manager). It was no challenge to me to win Premier League with any game, even if I I sat my background as a Sunday Football player. It was too easy.
        Then I started to play the smallest team in the lowest division in England, aiming for the top; winning the Premier League. It was then I noticed the game was more “realistic” in the bottom than it was taking over a team like Manchester United if you were a “nobody”.
        It should have been easier to be in charge of a crap team in lowest division as a “nobody” than taking over one of the biggest football clubs in the world as “nobody”.
        That set the snowball rolling.
        Many years with Anarchy Online (still today the hardest MMO created) before I ended up with World of Warcraft where it was just to right click an item to equip it; where it could take days to equip just ONE item in Anarchy Online.

        Yeah. Games are that dumbed down these days.
        So EVERY game I try out for the first time, I do the “Dead is Dead” playstyle.
        First Fallout 4 career ended when I got headshotted with a grenade.

        Here are the last 25 seconds of that playthrough.
        Enjoy :)

        link to twitch.tv

      • Cederic says:

        No, most of them were three lives, no reloads. Shit, you spent 20 minutes loading the game in the first place, no chance of saving and reloading.

  20. SomeDuder says:

    Yah sure I’ll spend the game in a gimmicky self-imposed fashion in order to be able to enjoy it. And by “it”, I mean a full-priced $59 game in TYoOL2015.

    Or I’ll just play any other game that doesn’t need any playground-level rules that costs a kidney.7