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The RPS Verdict: Fallout 4

Setting the post-world to rights

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:

Watch on YouTube

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.

Alec: The answer, I suppose, is not really. As Adam says, it’s a system of triggers, NPCs waiting for you to walk near before they’ll begin their routines. And most of their routines are shooting you. Once in a while I would stumble across what appeared to be fresh corpses, and I wondered if they were the consequences of some unseen battle, STALKER-style, but I have yet to see any of those battles other than associated with a quest. Actually, post-campaign, I did have a sudden message flash up while I was just wandering around and stumbled near an old garage: “defend the checkpoint”. One of my allied groups was engaged in a skirmish with one of my enemy groups. Curious, I loaded up my brand new campaign and went to the same area - no fight there. So I really don’t know if it was randomly-generated or a script which specifically triggers after the campaign.

John: I did stumble on a fight going on between two factions, when I went into a building. So, again, it could have just been triggered. But it was robo-dudes fighting giant mutants, and made my life a lot easier as I just plundered the resulting corpses. I was on an ammo hunt at the time, so most grateful.

Adam: I’m hoping for something that lives up to my favourite Skyrim moment. I was hunting for no particular reason at all and I saw a fox. Followed it around for a while and it noticed me and ran away. I watched it run straight into a lake and then emerge from the other side a couple of minutes later, having fled across the lake’s bottom. That, but with a molerat would make me believe in many possibilities.

The big question is this: where do you stand on VATS? I’m finding the conventional shooting as rubbish as ever, but I quite enjoy VATS. Like the critical hit triggers and loved that I was killing raiders and their slow-mo deaths always seemed to coincide with a good bit on Classic FM.

John: Huh - I’m finding the opposite. I’m not bothering with VATS as the FPS is annoying but less tiresome. I haven’t pumped any points into the related skills, so I just get to take two drippy shots in the time it would take me to kill all the enemies anyway.

Alec: I dislike the real-time combat more and more each time I try it. It’s like firing a water pistol at puppets running across sheet ice. No substance, no weight. VATS at least adds a simulacrum of heft and response, and a slight element of tension. And when you get better weapons it’s more satisfying and effective too. I wish the stealth was a bit more robust, to be honest. I’ve got some silenced weapons but it doesn’t quite work, and certainly never feels like an assassination, but it may be that I’ve got to pump all my points into the right stuff. The open firefights are often so tedious, though. The Legendary enemies and larger monsters/robots are more of a giggle, which is at least partially because they’re so much bigger that they’re both easier to target in real-time and have more of a convincing physicality to them.

Adam: I started playing on ‘hard’ and have bumped that down to ‘normal’ because, as I should have expected, the higher difficulty mostly seemed to make enemies spongier in their relation to bullets. Killing the first Deathclaw was a drag. I think I’ve also come to peace with the fact that I don’t care about the challenge if it’s going to get in the way of my jaunts around the Wasteland/Commonwealth. I’m not enjoying the combat very much so might as well make it as painless as possible.

Alec: How are you finding characters, writing and dialogue? This was the most pleasant surprise for me, given how woeful even Skyrim could be in that respect, to say nothing of Fallout 3 and Oblivion; I almost don’t know if I just went in with rock-bottom expectations or if they really have done very well.

Adam: It’s a terrible thing to say, especially after all my claims of being a decent sort earlier, but I wanted to throw things at Mama Murphy. I haven’t spent enough time chattering with people to really say much on that front yet, but I look forward to seeing more.

John: I’m surprised you say that, Alec, as I’ve yet to encounter a line of dialogue with a modicum of wit, or a character who has depth beyond their predominant mood.

Alec: It’s not rock-bottom, is what I mean - by the standards of these games they’re doing pretty well. And there are far more fun and interesting characters who turn up later/elsewhere, though inevitably the vast bulk are achingly earnest, as always. Mama Murphy, incidentally, is full of shit, and there is very much a reason to to throw things at her, which you may or may not discover. But yeah, I suspect they wanted to make us sympathetic in addition to wanting to give her a good shaking, which is more concerning.

Adam: If my initial reaction to the settlement building interface was to close it and run as far away as possible, is there a chance I’ll be won over when I learn how it works? I’m already sensing that I’m not supposed to grasp it all at once and that the early missions might guide me through the beginnings of a settlement?

Alec: There’s no further guidance beyond what Sturges initially gives you at Sanctuary, really, but you should work most of it out through experimentation. It really serves two purposes, as far as I can work out. One is that, as you start sticking in the higher-grade stuff like trading stations and setting up supply lines, a basic economy forms, as well as linking together all your storage, which feeds into more efficiently upgrading your kit (as well as having more homebases around the place). The other is the vogueish, please-make-lots-of-YouTube-videos aspect, where people are building flashing space invaders signs from the programmable lights and that sort of thing. As someone who is too lazy and uninspired for such things, I don’t get that much out of it, though I do feel compelled to keep upgrading. That filthy old Skinner box at work, I guess. It’s just about better to have it than not have it, but it certainly doesn’t feel like something Fallout 4 needs.

Adam: For all of my reservations, and I have many, I know I’m going to keep playing. I’ll probably keep playing for forty hours and risk becoming one of those people who has played a game for ages and ages, and claims it wasn’t worth the time. I wonder if the excitement might fall away once I’ve explored the world though.

John: Make sure to leave a furious Steam review. I think it’s fair to say that my feelings of Fallout 4 can be summed up by my power suit having run out of power halfway up the big red modern-looking building, and I’ve had to abandon it on the balcony. Welp.

Alec: Just as a finishing thought experiment: though broadly positive, mine was one of the more qualified reviews of Fallout 4. We’ve seen an awful lot of breathless 9s and 10s. Why do you think that is - what is it about this game which makes some people go absolutely doolally about it?

John: I shall be the voice of unreason. It’s because a lot of people aren’t very good at this job, and are scared of big games, and big publishers. The pressure of expectation to give this a 9 or 10 is enormous.

Adam: That may well be true. I think people are often won over by scale as well - if so much seems possible, it can feel almost miserly not to celebrate that. It leads to funny disputes when a small, perfectly formed game like Downwell receives the same score as a big ol’ beast of a thing like Fallout 4. For some people, whether they’re critics or not, the size of the thing (and that goes for the hype and the marketing and the expectation as well as the world) is a thing of value in and of itself. And I think there’s a tendency that I’ve probably fallen into myself on occasion, of seeing the game you want to see, or have been primed to see, rather than the game that is actually there. Happens with films as well - the breathless praise for Spectre was a recent example. Some reviews made it out to be a flawless masterpiece and even if it’s a decent Bond film, it’s hardly going to live up to that.

Alec: Thing is I know people - and people we all know and aren't entirely insulting towards - who I definitely wouldn't say were bad at their jobs, but who absolutely loved Fallout 3 (which is probably Bethesda’s worst RPG), and were genuinely massively excited about this, and I don’t doubt will be delighted by it. There is something going on that, for whatever, we are not experiencing. It may be related to why we don’t generally play much COD, or even Borderlands. But hell, even I enjoy F4 much more than you two do. It’s pressing buttons somewhere, despite its many wobbles. I just really like being out there.

John: No - it’s that they’re not very good at their jobs, failing to do the basics of the task and observe when a game is released as a buggy mess with a terrible interface and scant instruction. You can enjoy it despite this - I certainly am - but it’s just incompetence to say “TEN OUT OF TEN!!!”

Adam: My sister, who is not a critic but plays a million games a year - is looking forward to this more than any other game released since Fallout 3, I reckon. I’ve been telling her about my experiences and she is dismayed by every criticism. I think she loves it because of the setting, because it appeals to her thematically in a way that The Elder Scrolls don’t, and because whatever No Mutants Allowed might think, she’s been playing Fallout since the nineties and still enjoys these trips back into its world, however changed it might be.

The game, as it stands, has all the tools needed to experience its world and I think it’s easy to underestimate just how much someone who is a fan will do to fill in the blanks. Obviously, I’d never trust her opinion on anything ever because, as I’ve mentioned before, she also loves Doom 3.

John: Absolutely, and if anything, that only makes me more cross with Bethesda because they know that. They’re well aware how a large enough base of people will do the work for them. But even then, it’s a critic’s job to not let themselves do that. It’s not your sister’s. Hers is to seek the help she needs to have her Doom 3 fondness removed.

Adam: God, I’ve tried. I was talking to her yesterday and she was worried that she might not enjoy Fallout 4 because I’d been banging on about the combat focus. I ended up telling her it was “good enough”. And I think that’s the thing that makes me slightly sad - it probably is “good enough” but I don’t feel particularly excited about going back to it this evening. It’s there, and I’m glad to spend some time with it, but I won’t be telling people who aren’t already converts to seek it out for the thrill of it all.

Alec: Fallout 4 with MGSV’s combat and stealth, that’s what I want. And non-combat dialogue options, of course. Also Doom 3 was quite literally OK. AND ON THAT BOMBSHELL?

Adam: Fallout 2 is still my favourite. I don’t even know if that’s controversial anymore.

John: I like Hexcells.

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