Why Fallout 4 is Terrible Part 4 - Mechanics and Epilogue
Posted on Sunday, December 11 2016 @ 08:29:33 PST
We've prattled enough about everything that's not the pure mechanics of the game. Now to get to the part where things get ambiguous and messy. I'll start with a basic description of and set of complaints about the game's basic loop, and move on to the particulars.
The loop in Fallout 4 is the classic RPG loop cut down to its barest essentials with almost no nuance, variety or complexity left. If you don't enjoy it, or just don't enjoy doing it much, Fallout 4 is going to be one of the most miserable play experiences you will ever have. Each system getting cut down means that each element relies that much more on the other, so every flaw counts for more. The combat in New Vegas is somewhat bad. It was a marginal improvement over Fallout 3's awful combat but it was still basically bad. This is mitigated by combat being a relatively small part of the game, with dialog and questing taking up a much greater share of the overall than in Fallout 3 or 4. 4 may have over 111,000 lines of dialog, but most of that is throwaway boilerplate, almost none of it is memorable, nearly all the well-written parts are concentrated into a very small, very short, sequence of the game and almost all of the good delivery comes from just two voice actors - Stephen Russell and Keythe Farley. Its shooting may be an improvement over 3 and (to a limited extent) New Vegas but that comes at the price of there being so damn much of it that a set of flaws become even more apparent. Most vices can be defined by either excess or deficiency. Fallout 4 is a rare case of vices arising from both excess and deficiency. It's an excess of content with a total deficiency of adequate context.
Shooting at things is the one area where Bethesda have unambiguously made improvements over past entries. Rumors abound that id had some input in various ways to improve the old mechanics and the influence of Project Nevada (and its direct predecessor for Fallout 3, Fallout 3: Wanderer's Edition, which was made by much or all of the same team) is blatantly obvious. How much input id's designers actually had and how much of their advice was heeded, how active their role was, is all debatable. Ideas taken straight from Wanderer's Edition and Project Nevada without the serial numbers so much as scuffed, never mind filed off, contribute a great deal to superior combat flow. The one area where generally good ideas and implementation prevailed is the area where it's debatable how much input or control Bethesda actually had. The melee system is still terrible, however. In fact, it's a step back from Skyrim and New Vegas, which both offered interesting complicating spins on melee and unarmed combat. The new system is completely unintuitive and power attacks and melee strikes with ranged weapons are bound to the same key as tossing a grenade, which is also the same key for holding one's breath to steady aim and before you ask, no, these various binds cannot be separated from each other without mods, nor can the 'hold breath' be used with anything other than a specified list of scopes. Given how many keys are sitting idle in a typical WASD setup by default, this is simply inexcusable.
While shooting at things is better than ever before, the overall combat experience is a bigger mess than any previous entry, Fallout 2's horrible faceroll-riddled endgame included. It comes down to a few things: The Fat Man, the Power Armor system, the weapon inventory and ammo systems, and encounter design. Each of these things on their own present problems, sometimes internally, other times with regards to the rest of the series. Together they reduce the combat system to a poor man's Far Cry, or a very underdesigned version of New Vegas. Seeing as the good Far Cry games and New Vegas are already a poor man's Call of Pripyat in the combat department, that's saying quite a bit and none of it good.
The Fat Man from Fallout 3 was always a bad idea. It completely flattened all balance curves into 'did I remember to bring the Mini-Nukes?'. It felt like something a very stupid fan fiction writer would come up with because it's like, so wicked awesome man. Compounding the issue in Fallout 4 is that it is now a ubiquitous item. Raider and Gunner camps occasionally have them. Now, the person who has it usually also has power armor on and is, for some reason, functionally invulnerable to their own attacks so they can use it at point-blank range. This was probably done to avoid having to develop self-preservation and risk assessment into the game's incredibly limited AI. It also makes melee builds even less viable than they already are. If it sounds like they started with a bad idea and kept slapping on band-aids to keep the bad idea rather than chuck the bad ideas that's because that's exactly what happened. The result is that there's only one reliably effective way to deal with these situations, and that's stealth, extreme range sniping with ready cover at hand to protect the player from the explosion and a willingness to hit the quickload key as needed. That option only exists if the player is already aware the enemy has the Fat Man, because if they aren't their first warning that it's in play will be a loud whistling noise followed by a death they could not possibly avoid. Leaving aside questions of genre (even if we could pin down the right one for Fallout 4) one standard rule of game design, from the time when Dragon Slayer first invented Action RPGs in 1984 to now, is that deliberately setting the player up to fail is a bad thing. Further, if these weapons are so ubiquitous, why would a thing like Diamond City even exist? Static fortification is a meaningless concept in a world with man-portable nuclear bomb launchers. This one thing tears the whole setting to pieces and ruins all possiblity of tactical gunplay.
The Power Armor system is a mess on several fronts. Instead of simply being the apex of frontal assault-oriented protection it's a completely seperate system with its own rules. In order to balance the extreme defensive capabilities of even low-level versions of the suit, such as the one given to the player five minutes after leaving the vault, all power armor needs fusion cores to run. This creates yet another hole in the lore, the only suits which had this problem until now were the first field-issued models, the T-45. The rest had internal power supplies which could run for centuries uninterrupted. It's a sop to balance in a game that otherwise doesn't seem to have an inkling what the word means. The fusion core system would create some tension because one of the weapons (the Gatling laser) uses fusion cores for ammo but automatic weapons are nearly all crap anyhow so it doesn't. Power armor parts can wear out or break down, requiring repairs at a station which would tend to indicate stripping out item durability for everything else was a decision made late in the game. The repair process is tied into the junk economy that undergirds the rest of the game so it is rather tedious and the player cannot simply purchase or build generic repair kits (why not?) without modding the game. Wearing power armor also carries with it having to use a slightly different HUD design for it. While I didn't particularly mind (the basic HUD is already ugly, the additional aesthetic touches to give Power Armor signficance are a welcome design concept) there are still a lot of complaints about its look and presentation, and the distorted cinerama-style curvature of it doesn't improve matters because Cinerama only looks good on a Cinerama screen.
Project lead Todd Howard boasted of hundreds of possible combinations of modifications but that statement is both true and misleading. There are hundreds of combinations but most of these combinations are just minor variations on a few concepts, and the differences are not all that significant. Some weapons only have one viable upgrade path, meanwhile the endgame HP and damage absorption bloat ensure that in the late game critical hits, bleed effects, and armor penetration are the only viable paths forward, in complete contrast to the rest of the game where these things are either unimportant or just a waste of time. More on how this creates a bizarre progression curve later on. Overall there are actually fewer weapons in 4 than there were in New Vegas at launch, and they feel less distinct.
The Pipe Weapons serve as the bottom tier of ranged weapons in the game. They use either .38, .45, .308, or .50 ammo in their magazines, which are all basically bottom tier for their respective categories. The problem they suffer from is that they look and feel wrong and this is only mitigated by the game flat-out handing higher tier equipment to the player right at the start. The pipe weapons themselves don't look like homemade firearms in real life. They look like what Bethesda was intentionally going for - weapons built by someone who only had a vague idea how firearms actually work. The problem with it is that firearms built in this fashion tend to not so much perform poorly or unreliably as they tend to explode in users' hands. This does tie into the game's larger problems as well. How has no new gunsmithing tradition arisen even in the absence of old factory tools? From nothing at all gunsmithing went from primitive hand cannons and stationary systems that could fire one inch iron balls that, if the users were lucky, didn't explode on use to arquebuses and the Dardanelles Gun. At the very least, given the existing body of knowledge, one would expect something on par with craftsmanship and engineering seen in firearms circa 1875 or thereabouts. Something equivalent to Christian Sharps' Falling Block rifles or a Jones Underlever in some hideous caliber like 2 Bore Express. Perhaps early repeaters as well, such as the rifles designed by Browning, Lee, Jorgensen, and the Mauser brothers. Beyond that there isn't much of an inventory to talk about. The weapons are generally oversized and ludicrous looking versions of older weapons. The Gauss Rifle, instead of a state of the art piece of equipment manufactured on computer controlled machines at Rheinmetall, looks like a hunk of junk that only gets uglier if the player bothers to upgrade it. The 10MM pistol looks too much like a movie prop to be believable. The 'Assault Rifle' is some kind of bastard child of a Lewis Gun and a designer not knowing the first damn thing about firearms. The hunting rifles all have their bolts left handed, while replacing the wooden furniture with the polymer increases the weight and I hope that doesn't require additional comment.
Part of the problem with the game's limited inventory are the 'Legendary' weapons. These are items with slightly higher base stats and some kind of secondary effect. Some are more or less useless (standard leather left legpiece that gives a slight buff to resisting attacks from Mirelurks) while others are handy (Bonuses to critical hits) and others still flat-out break the game in laughable ways. The most obvious is the minigun with explosive damage. It isn't a set item but it can eventually drop off the 'Legendary' enemies (more on them below) and if the player has the relevant perks it will inflict staggering amounts of damage. As bad as this is, there are other much worse things in store, like Bleed. The Bleed effect puts a timed damage on the enemy. This happens per attack. There are no forms of resistance to Bleed in the game so it ignores all armor, and multiple applications of it can stack atop eachother. When a Shotgun has the bleed effect, the stacking bleeds are per pellet, so each pellet puts a 25 damage timer on, stackable atop all the other bleed inflicting pellets. As each shot fires eight pellets, all eight pellets hitting is 200 damage atop the base damage from the shotgun itself. Repeated shots will continue to add more of those same bleed stacks. This is as much of a gamebreaker as the 'flat Arcane damage' bug found in Bloodborne, but the difference is that From Software bothered to patch that one out. More on this subject below.
Fallout 4, like Fallout 3 before it, does away with the ammo switching options found in the old school. Instead, to gain armor piercing effects the player must change the weapon's receiver. Since firearms don't work this way in previous games or in real life, at all, and it makes no sense whatsoever, it deserves some kind of explanation or elaboration. None is given, it flies flat in the face of how weapons are depicted working in every previous entry (including 3) and it simplifies and restricts player choice in combat in a way no previous game did. Given how overweight the weapons are and the need for a bench to change parts, swapping between variants is not a viable combat tactic, which forces the player into very specific playstyles which all get their viability slotted via the leveling curve. The real puzzle is how this cascade of bad decisions happened. The two most obvious explanations are design inertia or a domino effect of one bad decision continuously damaging other systems. The way they've reworked the ammo table also retcons previous games to various degrees. It's nice that the Gauss Rifle uses 2MM EC again even if it doesn't even vaguely resemble its original design. Plasma rifles and Gatling Lasers using specialized power cells serves to simultaneously make the transition out of early laser weapons for energy weapon enthusiasts more difficult and throws yet another wrench in series continuity. But these obvious explanations fail if Emil Pagliarulo's words in a recent talk are to be believed. In the aforesaid talk, he explained that Bethesda no longer maintains design documents from the beginning of the project onward. This means that there is never a single, central, vision guiding things through. This, more than anything else, explains why Fallout 4 feels like an incoherent mess of a game whose individual parts are constantly at odds with each other. It also explains why they stooped to plagiarism.
Encounters are a mixed bag. Most fights with enemies with guns feel downright awful for a number of reasons. The lack of real AI, including self preservation behavior, makes them feel less like human enemies and more like moving targets that shoot back. Occasionally the game will throw a curveball in the form of enemies in power armor, or legendary enemies, or enemies wielding the Fat Man and those fights are basically excercises in enduring frustration. Fights with beasts are generally the best of the bunch, enemy attacks are telegraphed, player and enemy both have viable means to kill each other, and the animals are the best animations in the game. It's not as impressive as, say, From Software's last two games, or The Witcher 3, but it is overall pretty solid. Shallow, but solid. The one set of encounters I can never forgive are the incredibly awful super mutant encounters. Nothing about them feels good, and the one element thrown into the mix to give them variety, the suicide bomber with the mini nuke, is so stupid that I have to wonder who could have possibly thought it was a good idea. All of this falls apart at the point when the damage model gets broken by level scaling and armor piercing effects and stacking damage-over-time effects is the key to victory. Along the way the Legendary enemy system, with its attendant loot table, acts as a combination of skinner box, setting wrecker, balance killer, and for some - including the present author - fun killer. The act of fighting the legendary enemy involves a standard enemy with arbitrarily buffed stats, with the ability to regenerate if not killed fast enough, and in exchange for putting up with all the involved nonsense the player gets what is in effect a slot machine roll for a piece of loot with better base stats and a possible bonus of some kind. As with a real slot machine most of the drops will be garbage. In fact, they're worth less than generic loot because they cannot be broken down into scrap. The only way to get direct value out of junky Legendary loot is to sell it to a merchant. The player may luck into getting something completely broken like a minigun that fires explosive shots, in which case all priorities involving equipment tend to revolve around that particular item. The table for selecting which item is on a given enemy appears to be completely random with no selection filters, so legendary bloatflies can drop rocket launchers that fire double shots, while a kitted up Gunner will drop a legendary knife that they don't even use because they have a baton in their inventory. In addition to creating more busywork in a game that already has too much of it, the legendary system suffers from a much more serious vice - it isn't really fun. Encounters with legendary enemies are usually broken in various ways (which forces the player to cheese the encounter) and the reward is not meaningfully connected with what the player is doing at that moment. Once the wheels of the slot machine become visible, the only people left to appeal to with it are gambling addicts.
Combat is technically improved in various ways in Fallout 4, but it cannot, to anyone who doesn't like rolling dice for the sake of rolling dice, be called fun in any meaningful sense. I didn't have any other place to put this so it goes here. The Save/Load system is still rather screwy after a year of patching. If the player does a sneak run through an area, disabling landmines and traps, and then reloads, many environmental triggers, most notably traps and landmines, but possibly also locks and computers, will still be switched. This indicates that the tear-down/build-up of the cells is flawed somehow. Using what little modder lingo I know I'd guess the save/load system doesn't properly purge cell buffers before reconstructing them to shorten the artificially lengthened load times.
As bad as any particular thing may be up until this point, I can't honestly say any one thing was as horribly misguided, as ineptly designed, as badly implemented, as thoroughly far-reaching in its higher order effects than the conversation system and giving the protagonist a voice. Picking a place to start on just this one area is actually rather tough. On the conceptual level it may well be the keystone to everything wrong with this game. For our purposes, just to have somewhere to get started, we'll begin with a historical exposition. Every Elder Scrolls game and every Fallout game up until 4 had a silent protagonist. This was done for several reasons. First, it gave the player the freedom to roleplay up to and including self-insert. Second, it helped to keep budgets under control because recording dialog is expensive. Third, it gave the writers more freedom in both composing and revising their scripts. Text can be rewritten at any time in most RPGs to minimal cost. But dialog once recorded is either set in stone or requires additional session work and the costs begin to add up and get out of control. The only way to prevent that is to have voice actors in after the script is completely finished. Third, text-only dialogue can go on and on with no significant rise in budget. One of the longest scripts ever written for a game is still Planescape: Torment. Printed out the entire thing takes up about 9,000 pages and the word counts vary according to sources but the reliable figure is about 1.1 million words. Because very little of it was actually recorded and most of it presented as text, they were free to do so without worrying about how much it would cost to hire voice actors to read it.
However, the rise of recorded voices has become a major media trend and Bethesda decided to get in on that, disastrously high production costs and all. The problem is that such a choice is going to affect design. It's necessary to conserve the use of voice acting in order to keep costs under control. This means lines are going to get recycled between conversations. Some of the choices the player is presented with will be fake, and it will also greatly limit the possibility of the conversation system to flex. In fact, Fallout 4 has one of the most restrictive and limiting dialog systems ever built. The player gets four options, always just the four. Sometimes one of them is a dialog-ending threat which starts a fight, sometimes there's a charisma-based probability check that can net the player some quick experience points or lead to a different outcome but that's rare. It's four dialogue options that all lead to the next line of dialog from the character, who in turn says the same thing no matter what. All four options are Yes options, really. The joke on forums is 'you can answer Yes, Sarcastic (yes), Tell me more (yes), No (yes)'. It's not much of an exaggeration. Anyone with a low tolerance for fake choices or railroading should steer as far away from Fallout 4 as humanly possible. The summarized responses also serve to hide when one of the choices is fake, something that can only be seen if all the dialog is spelled out or the player replays a scene. As there are no differences in mechanics regarding the player's dialog choices and the game has very little replay value, this is unlikely. It's another example of the game hiding defects behind other defects.
That need to conserve voice acting on both sides of the conversations also causes an additional problem. The four response system is bad enough but skill-based dialog seen in New Vegas is nowhere to be found in 4. Relevant knowledge (or lack of knowledge) never informs a conversation in any way. The reason this occurs is both to avoid recording dialogue the player is unlikely to hear if they don't build their character accordingly and because of how assets were prioritized. If the pre-war background of the protagonists was tacked on at a later date in order to pin down their origins and avoid having to find ways to build into the rest of the story, it makes sense that very little actual dialog in the game addresses it, builds on it or relates to it any way shape or form. The protagonist almost never comments on anything despite the stark contrasts between post-war and pre-war. All such dialog I can recall appeared in the E3 pressers. This tends to contribute to the 'everything seriously polished was just for that demo' mode of critique that's grown around the game. I'm not sure if it's true, but the lapses in consistancy of polish suggest there's more than a little weight to that proposition.
The User Interface was clearly designed with the smartphone gimmick in mind. It makes even worse use of screen real estate than Skyrim or the past Fallouts, which were all chastised for it. The placement and size of buttons all suggest a touch screen, it's very unfriendly with keyboard and mouse, though not as bad as Skyrim's was. The player can expect to do a lot of tedious scrolling, there is no easy way to sort through inventories, the perk chart recalls Skyrim's needlessly cumbersome presentation. The 'Misc' tab is easily the worst part of it. Items which may need to get checked occasionally but would otherwise just clutter up lists like keys and notes are dumped into the same 'Misc' tab as quest items and other non-recycleable materials. A common experience after just a few hours of play is picking up a note or tape or key, it flashing by too quickly (or amid combat so the player cannot check, sometimes the HUD just bugs out and doesn't display anything at all) so the player has to dig through the massive 'Misc' list, which can easily get hundreds of items long due to the game's combination of lack of feedback, bugs, and overabundance of handholding encouraging the player never put down items that end up in the Misc tab. It emphasizes form over function and its form is just as terrible as the function. Designing an aesthetically pleasing UI is not easy, but no one seems to complain about an ugly UI as long as it works well.
The Perk and leveling systems are almost as broken as The Elder Scrolls IV. They suffer from a signature Bethesda problem of HP bloat and armor bloat. Someone in Rockville thinks 'harder' means 'bullet sponges' and combined with the various broken parts of the equipment system that means that as time goes on armor-piercing attacks (or attacks that bypass it entirely, such as Bleed) take center stage. The upshot is that the best weapon at the highest levels is a fully automatic shotgun which inflicts bleed damage. Then it becomes the only viable thing in the player's arsenal. There's no internal justification for this level scaling. There's no explanation why it happens at all. It's not as bad as TESIV because it lacks the risk of empty levels (every perk is at least nominally useful in some way) but it does create essentially two progress curves. In the one, maximum damage per attack is a high priority, while in the other, maximum number of attacks takes the lead as the most important thing about winning fights in the late game becomes inflicting as many bleed stacks as possible. At what point the second curve becomes the one to follow is ambiguous but there's no denying when the player is there. If a magazine full of fully charged Gauss Rifle shots with a fully upgraded rifle cannot bring down a target, then it's time to switch. The loss of skills means that levels and stats determine available perks. The leaning on levels to serve as a gate means that players cannot specialize a character early on to gain any kind of advantage to use. Early on the only skills really worth investing in are the ones that allow the player to customize weapons and armor, provide bonus damage for chosen weapon types, and make it possible to crack more locks and hack more terminals. Everything else can wait or get prioritized into how it benefits those things.
More than 95% of all quests in Fallout can be broken down into one of two things, 'go to this raider-infested place and kill one of them' or 'go to this raider-infested place and take something' and either one usually ends with, 'come back to me to confirm the guy is dead/to give me the thing, and you'll get a reward'. So it's basically fetch or kill. The items fetched are almost always completely useless to the player so there's never an incentive to, say, lie to your employer and do what you want with the thing, while the kills never pose unique challenges in any way so they're not easily distinguishable from generic mobs to the point that I sometimes only knew I had finished the quest at all because the HUD told me to go back and tell them I had done my job. You can replace 'raiders' with 'synths' or 'gunners' or 'feral ghouls' but the basics never change. Due to the recycling of Skyrim's map design process, stealth is only sort of an option for the most part and doesn't work very well. The player can't negotiate, argue or reason with anyone. So the 'two' types of quests tend to devolve into one quest. Aggravating the sense of repitition is that the whole process for generating them seems virtualized and when it's supposed to be unique content they still lean on the basic formulae so much that it's hard to tell that this or that rote task was supposed to be a special moment of some kind. While CDProjekt RED and Obsidian use writing and design to go beyond the limits of what their engineering can handle, Bethesda's priority seems to be to find ways to make it possible to get engineering to replace design. Nowhere does this priority seem more misguided. Quest design is the area where designers and writers can really flex. They get to come up with unique ideas for content and interaction which require some backdrop and context to be possible because it's too complex to virtualize. This virtualized 'radiant' system strips all that away and rare are the handmade quests that stand apart from the procedurally generated ones enough to be noticeable, and at least one of those standouts is a previously mentioned act of plagiarism. We'll get back to that at the end.
Fallout 4 has no meaningful sense of reactive narrative. There's no 'choice and consequence' in the traditional sense. Everything recycles, refreshes, nothing matters. There's little to no feedback for any of the player's activities, with the exception of the radio DJ but that's probably still broken seeing as Bethesda have announced a fix for it in multiple patch notes but it remains broken. Outcomes do not vary, there are no branching paths. There are very few exclusive either-or choices to make and they're confined to the very end of the game or to completely isolated contexts with no broader effects on the game. Emil Pagliarulo recently gave a talk (link) in which he practically identified why this is the case without even meaning to do so. First, Bethesda no longer maintains design docs from start to finish with a project. This is absurd. It indicates barely competent project leadership at best. For something that's driven by a logical sequence of cause and effect, like a narrative, this is disastrous. He also implicitly admitted he know where the lead really is in his own stories, nor do they bother to develop it properly. If Fallout 4 was supposed to be about suspicion, then that's not really a driving force in the plot, at all. Instead it's Fallout 3 turned upside down, plot holes and all. Suspicion is a peripheral element at best, and window dressing tacked on to make it seem smarter than it really is. As alluded to previously, Fallout 4 is a black hole. The process that led to its creation put the series across a conceptual event horizon with Fallout 4 at its core. All things face it now. Whole plots, concepts and entire locations from previous games effectively have to be wiped out for this game to even exist.
The last topic I'll take up to wrap mechanics together is the settlement system. It's broken. It has numerous problems which thorough planning and design would have easily fixed. That considered with its nearly-optional role in the game indicates it was a side project which ballooned to consume a great portion of the game's development and design. From how it's introduced (a bunch of indolent squatters occupying the player's house and expecting handouts which the player is supposed to just go along with for no reason) to how it follows through, it's a complete, frustrating, baffling, game-wrecking waste. The entire 'junk economy' at the heart of the game's resource management is built around and toward this system. Several perks exist just to increase the availability of items for this economy, the weapon modification system is integrated into it along with power armor repair, building at least basic survivability elements and defenses is sufficient to give the player a steady flow of experience and perks, getting the most out of it militates a fairly specific early build or a lot of tedious grinding to shoot levels up to grab the needed stats and perks, which are otherwise useless. The interface for actually building things is a bit unstable and finicky, with a strange set of rules that don't make obvious sense. Given how much it infiltrates and twists various other systems back into itself, it's bizarre just how little documentation there is of how the settlement system actually works. For example, there are a set of characters seeded in the game who, if assigned to the right type of store, will have an expanded inventory compared to other merchants, which will provide access to unique items otherwise unobtainable. There is absolutely nothing in the game telling the player this. There's nothing to indicate that these characters, as such, exist at all. There's nothing indicating which store to use on which character. There's nothing indicating that kind of affinity at all. There's nothing equivalent to Dwarf Fortress' Dwarf Therapist add-on, and the game has sorely needed it since launch. To make matters worse, it's often broken with characters and their stalls disappearing outright, their inventory not getting the extra items, or any of half a hundred other bizarre problems that plague every leg of the system to this day. Do mods fix it? Somewhat, yes. But a number of problems would require changes involving deep hooks in the game's logic and this is something modders are generally reluctant to do even when they have the means because without doing it from the backend it's the sort of solution that's very hacky and can cause a mountain of technical problems of its own. And if we're going to start including mods in the conversation we might as well include the mods Bethesda ripped off, which all work better in games that are much more fun to play.
Crazy Conspiracy Theory Time
Just for fun, here's a conspiracy theory. What if Bethesda didn't want to work on Fallout 4? What if they weren't supposed to work on it at all? The truth is that while the studio had personnel working on concepts and low level work from 2008, the studio as a whole was only fully committed to Fallout 4 after Dragonborn shipped in 2013. The bulk of actual development took place over a period of about 18 months. This might explain the recycled Skyrim leveling system, the heavy reliance on procedural and virtualized content, the way everything feels half-assed and incomplete, and the sense that the design is nothing more than a grab-bag of 2013-contemporary design cliches. If they were not supposed to shoulder the actual burden of development at all and were intended to go on to do something like Elder Scrolls VI or something else entirely, who was meant to do it?
What if it was supposed to be Obsidian? Not Obsidian Entertainment, independent software developer, but Obsidian Entertainment, a subsidiary of Zenimax Media. If it was, then the allegations of Bethesda trying to honeytrap them make sense. They've done it to other studios. The trick is surprisingly simple. They set up certain terms and conditions for payment of milestones and then through subtle sabotage ensure that they never have to make those payments. This isn't done to save a buck. Such a strategy would be self-destructive even in the short term. No, the strategy is designed to make the studio partnered with them vulnerable enough to consider getting bought out at a low price. The dwindling breed of independent studios increasingly live project to project. If a project gets cancelled, or if enough of the payment is kept as a 'bonus' on terms the developer fails to meet, then they won't even turn a profit on the project. If this happens enough times or severely enough in a given case, the developer becomes vulnerable. They start hunting for work wherever they can find it and if that, too, dries up then they have to start looking for someone who might want to buy them up, contracts and all.
It's not possible to irrefutably prove this happened short of a Wikileaks dump of Zenimax strategy memos containing a line-by-line on exactly that. However there is strong circumstantial evidence it happened. The contract for Fallout: New Vegas' development stipulated a certain Metascore (85) for bonus payment. This was a significant sum of money, significant enough that Obsidian would be unable to even turn a profit on development without it. In turn, Bethesda also assumed nearly all the Quality Assurance phase duties, as well as handing out review copies to press outlets. Quality Assurance handles bug fixing, polish, performance optimization and so on. They were also in control of the release schedule so as release candidates got updated, it was up to someone at Bethesda to look at it in its current state and say, 'yes, this is ready to ship'. For reasons unknown, the game's original launch target of November was pulled up to October and the QA schedule was heavily redacted as a result. While reviews generally praised the writing, design improvements and the return to the series' roots, they bemoaned the seemingly complete lack of any kind of polishing or quality assurance. Bethesda also elected to send out PS3 review copies to several outlets instead of X-Box 360 or PC copies. The PS3 versions of games running on Bethesda's modified Gamebryo vary from 'less visually pleasant and less stable than other versions' to 'unmitigated disaster'. New Vegas, like Skyrim, is much closer to the latter. It's for this reason that few, if any, PS3 copies of Skyrim were sent out for review. Not all reviews which affect a metascore are written from these kinds of copies. Some are written from off-the-shelf copies, but Bethesda had their backs covered in the form of patches that broke more than they fixed, and made the game basically unplayable for several days. Later patches leading up to the release of the DLCs generally fixed bugs and improved performance, often to very significant degree, but that was to help along sales for those DLCs. The only missing item in the story is whether or not Zenimax employees played a role of some kind in getting projects Obsidian worked on after New Vegas cancelled, such as an RPG set to release as part of the X-Box One's launch line-up.
This would be a rather fantastical story, with no underlying pattern of behavior to support it if we didn't have the rather hideous cancellation of Prey 2 to look to for consideration. Rather than try to recapitulate the entire story myself, I'll provide a video by Hyperbithero below which does an excellent job. I recommend Hyperbithero's videos for anyone who likes well informed long-form commentary, especially if you're the sort who finds the likes of Noah Caldwell-Gervais tolerably pretentious on a good day.
Lost in Concept - Prey 2 and a Hostile Acquisition Gone Wrong
It's just a spitballing hypothesis/conspiracy theory at this point but it's a better explanation for what's happened than 'Bethesda decided to ignore their own QA department because reasons'. I can't prove it, nor is there any reasonable chance of industry insiders coming along and putting the word out either way. Back to Fallout 4.
Fallout 4 is a cheap knockoff of Minecraft and The Sims. It's a mediocre first person shooter. It's a weak-spirited pantomime of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., down to the Blowouts. What it can't ever seem to pull off for three consecutive seconds, is being some kind of an RPG, even a bad one. It contains blatantly obvious plagiarism and there isn't a single area where the game feels finished. This is not to say the game feels like it needed more development time. No, that sort of thing can be seen in games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and System Shock 2. Fallout 4 is an unfinished design for a game. No matter what the player is doing, no matter where they are, there is no avoiding the sense that something is blatantly missing. The biggest improvements over previous entries consist of ripping off mods. This is what creative bankruptcy looks like. They're out of ideas and have to steal from their own fans. Any uncommonly good elements in the game are either cut down versions of mods which work much better in older games or flat-out plagiarism, as with the Brain Dead quest in Far Harbor.
For the present author these signs point to a developer to avoid. They've sufficiently chilled all interest in any possible forthcoming projects that I honestly no longer care if they ever release another game and have so adroitly tarnished one of my favorite series that I don't care if it gets any new releases either. This game's sales were strong only when no one could play it and once people could, they dropped off a cliff. If you want an RPG there's plenty to choose from and there are three very good Fallout games for sale on Steam right now, none of them developed by Bethesda Game Studios.
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Why Fallout 4 Is Terrible Part 3: Setting and Characters
Posted on Saturday, December 3 2016 @ 10:38:38 PST
This is a somewhat unfinished draft. Some sections are too long and unfocused and overall it lacks a single driving pulse toward the broader thesis of the essay. It's unlikely I'll revisit this for a few reasons. First, Fallout 4 is an extremely unpleasant topic for me to think about. Bethesda took a perfectly fine (I'd dare say one of the most important) RPGs ever and turned into a stupid mediocre action game. Second, redoing it would likely require a complete rewrite from the ground up rather than a simple revision. Third, I'd much rather finish the remainder of the work and put it up instead of continuously revising existing material.
If this section's length is offputting I'll summarize its thesis with a few items:
Fallout 4 as a setting is internally incoherent
Its characters and groups and group dynamics lack motivation or direction
It contains a number of retcons
The game and story usually meet at the setting but here the opposite takes place.
Most important of all, Fallout 4 contains plagiarism.
The story may be worse than a bad episode of a bad soap opera with worse dialogue but if the actual moment-to-moment play is fun then it really doesn't matter; games are games first and Bethesda makes hiking sims with window dressing so as long as there are good trails, a good place to go, the hiking is good. If the hiking is good the game itself is good even if it's a terrible sequel to a franchise of much better games. Besides, Bethesda apologists love pretending that Bethesda excels at environmental storytelling (they do this by pointing to Fallout 3, a game with an environment so illogical it creates plot holes) so we'll focus our efforts there.
So what kind of a place is the Commonwealth? It's been 210 years since the bombs fell, government collapsed and so on. All the trees are still dead and the wildlife is very dangerous of course. The feeling one gets is that there's not much of an actual economy anywhere. It's not like there's a trade of imported goods, valuable prospected scrap and loot from dangerous pre-war structures, local manufactures, and food. There's no sense that two whole centuries have passed. In two centuries language drifts, norms change, nations can be made and broken and made again. The empires of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, two of history's finest conquerers, came and went in less time. Religions can get founded and enter into the establishment of orthodoxy in that time. In Fallout 4 there's no sense anything like this has ever happened. People still speak with familiar Boston accents and language hasn't drifted, cultural reference points haven't changed, no new culture has been produced, fashions haven't changed, mores don't seem to have changed for the most part. There doesn't seem to be any kind of religion, old or new, in the commonwealth despite how much religious belief and expression takes on a central role in society when strong secular authority doesn't exist. People still huddle in old ruins or refurbish buildings and almost nothing new has been built from Sanctuary Hills to the Sewage Treatment Plants. Some of these buildings are damaged in such a way as to suggest that they have no right to be anything more than a pile of rubble. The Museum of History, where the stream-of-contrivance that ended the prologue took place, had a VTOL aircraft-sized hole in it exposing the load-bearing members of the structure to over two centuries of North Atlantic coastal weather. This would be rather recondite and picayune had Bethesda not bothered to somewhat realistically model the effects of two centuries of neglect on the general Boston harbor area. In real life, as in Fallout, it's mostly built on fill. If there's no one to maintain that fill, then the land sinks back into the ocean with time. Had Bethesda consistently shown natural sources of erosion seemingly arrested in their progress then there would be no problem and it would be an interesting connection to other parts of the series which show that technology of that kind does indeed exist in the Fallout universe. There are a few farms here and there and a large encampment inside Fenway park but there's no sense that any particular place is chosen for any specific reason. It's as if these kinds of questions never once came up. So the place doesn't make sense. This extends to the game's factions. The raiders, gunners, the Minutemen, the Brotherhood of Steel, Diamond City, the Super Mutants, the Institute and last and definitely least, the Railroad.
We'll start with the raiders. They outnumber productive members of society by a factor of ten to one at the very least. There's nothing supporting them. Raiders, by definition, don't produce things. They steal things. Someone else has to produce it. If everything in the setting acts as though the bombs went off two decades ago instead of two centuries, and arable land is a precious resource to be fought over just as viciously as the things it produces, then it makes no sense for there to be an endless supply of thugs to steal food that doesn't exist from farmers who aren't farming anything. The basic lynchpin of all economic activity is survival, and there's no way for the raiders to even survive on their raiding, let alone thrive to the degree that only one in ten need work on anything, let alone the even smaller fraction than that which actually produce food, while the vast majority of people living in the region play a very lethal version of cops and robbers.
The Gunners are, if anything, even more absurd than the raiders. They're mercenaries with no contract that the player can discover, paid for by no one of whom the player can become aware, they come from nowhere, their equipment comes from nowhere, their training comes from nowhere, their goals are nonexistent, and the word 'mercenaries' is supposed to cover all this up somehow. In other words they're The Talon Company Part 2. Let's contrast this with a similarly chaotic faction in Fallout: New Vegas, the Powder Gangers. The Powder Gangers are convicts from NCR sentenced to hard labor, working on building roadways for California to get into the Mojave more easily. Part of this work involved blasting rock to create paths and they had to be able to protect themselves against the especially vicious predators found in the Mojave. Due to personnel limitations (and in keeping with the theme of the NCR being a society with good intentions but neither rationality nor will to see them through) large numbers of these convicts had unsupervised access to blasting powder, dynamite and firearms. The result was inevitable. A charismatic leader emerged in the group who got them to cooperate with each other instead of fight, they laid careful plans, kept violence and misbehavior down in order to mislead higher ups that they were not as dangerous as they were, and when enough of those guards had been transferred to frontline duty along the Colorado, they took their opportunity and overthrew the prison authority, killing them all. It ties into the main story (the NCR's goal of holding Hoover Dam) makes logical sense, gives the faction a motive (dispossessed convicts with no future, lots of free time, no real recreation to cut loose, the desert heat beating down on them, access to explosives, and no particular direction in life but to get some ill-defined revenge on the system that put them there) and also helps develop the character of the NCR as well-meaning but dangerously incompetent. This is a theme which comes up repeatedly throughout the game, reinforced in different ways. Further, as their rebellion wasn't done for some specific goal (integrate into Mojave society, join the Legion, leave the region entirely) they quickly broke down into little more than a pack of heavily armed bandits stranded in the middle of a very hostile desert. So all of their behavior makes sense. Apparently Bethesda wanted there to be a 'mystery' surrounding some elements like the Gunners. This is a blatant cop-out. The same defense was used for Little Lamplight in Fallout 3 and in both cases 'mystery' is code for 'didn't think this one through'. If a well-armed, well-trained, coordinated group of mercenaries are rampaging through the area, ransacking pre-war structures for valuables and generally making complete asses of themselves at every turn, what's the point? Mercenaries need orders. Who is funding them? Mercs need more than just the promise of good loot. They're not Huskarls under Yaroslav I, they would expect to be paid regularly in a currency acceptable to them, 'no silver, no Swiss.' What are their goals? They pulled a backstab on the local strong group at the time, the Minutemen, but we never find out why. In order for the mystery to work, there has to be a solution somewhere to that mystery. There is none. The Gunners are a cardboard cut-out of a faction but they didn't need to be.
Across the table, but definitely at that same table, are the Minutemen. As a faction they appear to be on their last legs when you first encounter them, then a bunch of them start materializing out of nowhere if you start doing the innumerable fetch quests that Garvey hands out to you. They're supposed to be some kind of local volunteer militia that got horribly backstabbed at Quincy by one of their members going over to the Gunners (it's never explained properly, I guess the player isn't supposed to care) but the entire region isn't really settled all that much until the player shows up and plays a demented combination of Johnny Appleseed and Jimmy Carter to fix up the place so it's vague at best where these ranks actually come from. Their weapon of choice is a ludicrous hand-cranked laser rifle (misleadingly called a musket) and they all adorn themselves in antiquated eighteenth century period wear (where they get it isn't even so much as hinted at) for no specific reason other than 'the original minutemen existed in the 18th century so they'll cosplay as 18th century colonists because that's what Fallout is now.' One rather wistfully (whistfully?) looks back at how the old school transformed American iconography, giving it new meaning in the hands that carried it, and how this affected things. There's nothing like that in Fallout 4. We're told they declined because they 'forgot their values' or some such but it feels more like a handwave. The story of how a region-wide volunteer militia representing everyone in the area declined from being a de facto army to half a ghost story is actually interesting but it gets compressed to something that could fit on a post card in large print. One of their major goals is to retake "The Castle" (Fort Independence, a trace italienne on Sullivan's Isle) and use it as a central hub of communications. Actually all it does is provide a radio station with which they can nag you about things without having to wait for you to show up, making the unpleasant quest-log-clogging feed unavoidable, to make siding with them even more annoying. The player is made into the 'General' but there's no giving orders, setting out plans or modifying tactical or strategic doctrines. The ingredients are all there, so it would be surprising that nothing is done with them if the game didn't have such a strong Adam Sandler minimum effort vibe about it. While not as egregiously nonsensical as the bandits stealing from people who aren't there to produce pilferables or the mercenaries with neither contracts nor orders to follow nor goals to achieve, the Minute Men are still clearly a case of underthinking.
The Brotherhood of Steel being on the East Coast (not to mention Washington DC not being a giant crater) is enough of a problem on its own. It's something that merits discussion in a general overview of Fallout and the problems with Bethesda's approach to it but it's outside our scope. The Brotherhood is here, they're badly written, get used to it. Their motive in coming to the Commonwealth is to harvest technological resources. Gone is the completely out-of-character philanthropic mission of the Brotherhood in 3, they seem to have returned to some semblance of their roots. Their morally bankrupt, self-serving, technology hoarding roots. Furthermore, in the ten years following Fallout 3, they don't seem to have meaningfully stabilized their hold in the Capital. This makes the gesture of taking the Commonwealth seem rather Quixotic in character. This seems intentional, the idea of the Brotherhood as having retreated to a simplified version of their old beliefs in the naive hope that it will somehow dispell the bad fortune they've endured is actually a sadly common human failing. Beyond that their goal is to survive by keeping knowledge out of others' hands and only doling it out to those they consider reliable. This helps explain the '2 decades after the bombs dropped' effect throughout the game world. If the world looked more like 200 years had passed, like the Mojave does, the Brotherhood of Steel would find itself in a worse position than besieged. They would be irrelevant. Power armor and lasers are no longer guaranteed victory makers on battlefields and scavenging and research and independent discovery see the New California Republic achieving a similar level of technological development through sheer attrition and, what's more, having a superficially viable solution to the basic problem of political order in the region. The Brotherhood can't even offer that to anyone. Their organization cannot solve such problmes and isn't meant to. Their irrationality extends toward their basic attitude. From the rank-and-file up there's a severe hostility toward Ghouls, Super Mutants, robots, synths, anyone who has fancier technology than they do and so on. Now, they arrive in force at a certain point in the main plot via airship. An airship that moves very slowly, is a very big target, and doesn't appear to have any real defenses of its own other than sending troops out. In a setting in which guided missiles, .50 caliber machine guns and rifles, portable nuclear bomb launchers, man-portable gauss rifles, Anti-Aircraft guns, SAMs, and even directionable EMP weapons exist. Much like the Minute Men's desire to retake the Castle, this makes no sense. This is frankly idiotic. Airships disappeared from war right around the time easy methods for knocking them out of the sky became viable. Those same methods have existed for over two centuries and yet they do it anyway because Bethesda decided that it was high time to canonize just one of the many stupid things about Fallout: Tactics, a game nobody cares about. As bigoted, shallow, unsympathetic, and generally unlikable as the Brotherhood is in Fallout 4, they're also stupid enough to deserve to lose. They also conveniently forget their own beliefs and rules if the writer needs a plot twist or hook and that sort of thing wouldn't let them go where they want with it.
Camped out in Fenway Park is a 'city' of sorts. It's the major trade hub of the region and it's mostly the location of choice due both to Bethesda's irrational obsession with pre-war iconography and to the park's high walls. Here, again, we see an obsession with classical fortification ideas that makes little sense. Bethesda's Fallout is a world in which the average raider gang carries enough explosives to blow a hole in the park big enough to march a small army through it shoulder-to-shoulder. A large, static, location with large numbers of people and great stores of material wealth isn't a city. It's not even a fort. It's a target. While the economy of the city makes little sense (other than some farms to produce enough food for the inhabitants) in that there's no indication of who they would be trading with or what for Diamond City is still a mile ahead of Rivet City and Megaton in that the location makes some kind of sense. That it is some kind of trade hub is well established, but we have no idea who it's a trade hub between. It's parked smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boston, in between armies of mutants, raiders, and mercenaries and there's no easy way in or out of the part of the city that houses it. Any approach by caravans has to fight through those hazards. The merchants all seem to avoid the city, preferring to trade with small settlements and basing themselves in Bunker Hill. The city itself is a bunch of one-off gimmick characters and NPCs with no conversation trees. Most of the area is unoccupied and doesn't show signs that it ever was occupied. Instead of some kind of housing complex, even a scaffold hive of wood and steel sitting in the park and on the bleachers, there's nothing. As insulting, patronizing, wasteful, and most of all, lazy as it is, we're only talking about the layout. When we get down to it the society of Diamond City is even worse. There's a newspaper in town and while it might suffice to point out that there is absolutely no explanation how or why this newspaper even exists or continues to operate it bears mentioning that it implies something even more troublesome. In a society without public or private education systems and people who generally don't need to be able to read to go about their daily lives, the only thing in history proven to keep literacy high or even statistically significant is culture. But Fallout 4's commonwealth has no culture, to value literacy or not. So it's a newspaper printed with resources no one seems to pay for, written by someone who doesn't have to earn a living, sold or given away to a readership which has no reason to exist. It's governed by a mayor who apparently unilaterally forced out all the ghouls. Putting aside how this ties into the idiotic non-reveal that he's a synth, it leaves a major question hanging. What about those ghouls who are old enough to have valuable knowledge of pre-war technology, some of which Diamond City depends upon? Remember, we're talking about a setting full of illiterate people with no culture so the only ones around who could fix the flood lights around the city (or any other such complex equipment) would be those who still had that knowledge from before the war. So people just blindly acquiesced in the few people able to do such work being forcibly removed, never to return? Why was the mayor given such unilateral power, how did he get it, could anyone challenge him, did no one speak up on behalf of the displaced residents? Why do I get the suspicion this is the umpteenth time some random critic has put more thought into the setup of this game than the developers themselves?
The super mutants are back. I'd like to say that this ties nicely in with the Brotherhood showing up somehow. Maybe they failed to contain them in the Capital and now they're charging North to round them up or just to find a place where they're not already completely out of control. Maybe enough got away prior to the destruction of Vault 87 that they're still a viable threat despite not being able to reproduce. But, no. Nothing like that. This is just one more way Fallout 4 feels like an island with respect to the rest of the series. A black hole turning all points toward its collapsing singularity. And it includes retcons. Until Fallout 3 FEV, which is what turns people into Super Mutants, was a top secret pre-war experiment conducted at Mariposa. It was first described in detail in Fallout 1. The only source of the mutants was from the original Mariposa experiments. Even the original Enclave in Fallout 2 didn't just have the stuff lying around to use for whatever purpose they saw fit. They had to steal the contaminated, flawed, remains of it from Mariposa. Then Fallout 3 happened and suddenly Vault-Tec was in on these experiments, because throwing away large parts of the setting you bought for the artistic credibility you can't muster for yourself is always a sensible move. Then Fallout 4 made it worse. As of Fallout 4 it seems everyone and their grandma had unrestricted access to FEV and Mariposa and West Tek's research. This now includes The Institute, who needed decades and an uncounted body of kidnapped test subjects to learn what West-Tek learned before abandoning the project more than 200 years before the game starts. Their fooling around with the stuff makes no sense in view that West Tek themselves viewed it as a dead letter for precisely the reasons The Institute would end up abandoning the project. Speaking of the Institute...
The biggest question hanging over The Institute is, 'why?'. They're the Think Tank from Old World Blues minus the intelligence of writing or wit to not play them completely straight. Why did someone think that was a good idea? Their motive, such as it is, is completely ludicrous, their supposed attributes are never actually demonstrated. Their capabilities are questionable at best. They seem to have little idea what they're doing or why. Why do they kidnap people, dip them, turn them into mutants and send them off willy-nilly into the Commonwealth? This is never explained. Why do they replace these people with Synths, some of whom don't actually know they're Synths? Why have they spent colossal amounts of effort on learning things that they should already know? Why do they take an active hand in manipulating regional politics instead of staying out of it to avoid drawing the very attention they claim to want to avoid? If they're the most scientifically advanced body in the world, why have they been completely overtaken by other groups acting entirely several of one another, including a pack of senile lunatics in Arizona, the descendants of the crew of a Chinese submarine, a bunch of hippies from LA, and a pack of bureaucrats from California? Why did they spend a great deal of effort to build or discover things which they should have already known? I've tried to write a description of the plot hook used to give the player some possible reason to sympathize with this pack of idiotic psychos, but even describing it sounds like an indictment of the game's writers.
The Railroad is, without a doubt, the most ludicrous of the groups in the game. Their entire existence hinges on everyone being a bunch of morons, themselves included. This accidentally justifies the player's role in the story. Everyone in the setting is either too stupid to tie their own shoelaces or they read the script. One never gets the sense of ordinary (let alone extraordinary) human intelligence at work anywhere in the environment. One railroad operative is the manager of the three caravans in the region. Those same three caravans are staffed by Institute informants. There's never so much as a hint that either is aware of the other's affiliations. Neither the writing nor dialogue systems allow for that kind of open-ended generalized inquiry (we'll cover that later) nor does the game's mechanics bear this out in a substantial way. They've got a hidden base with a clearly marked path from the Boston Common to its exact location, the lock on the door is a password and the password is 'Railroad'. No, I'm not making that up. Even if someone didn't randomly guess it, the markings on the path also tell the player the password. Every interaction the player has with their network of informants suggests that it's completely rotten with double agents and few, if any, of their locations are ever safe, getting knocked over by raiders or hit by members of the Institute. No one seems to like them or agrees with their goals, their agents are dangerously incompetent at best, their enemies treat with either contempt or indifference, and their preoccupation with freeing robots through dubious methods is both ethically questionable and impractical. Their organization, as such, only does or accomplishes anything because the player wills it, much like the Minutemen. Unlike the Minutemen, there isn't the flimsy justification. They're just plain stupid, and the player has to play along with their stupidity if they want to help them.
Fallout 4 is a practically bottomless pit of retcons. Anytime something from a previous game comes up it's either totally or heavily reconsidered. This turns the entire series into a black hole with Fallout 4 at the core of it. Everything else gets destroyed as all questions of canon point to Fallout 4. Discussing all the known retcons at length would dwarf the rest of this already overlong essay so I'll just point to a few items which go straight to Fallout: Tactics level of incompatibility:
-The Advanced Power Armor from Fallout 2, 3 and New Vegas gets renamed to X-01, and is no longer a postwar development at Poseidon off the coast of California. Its presence in various places in the game implies it existed before the war. This means that the entire history of how that armor came to be, and who created it, are effectively crossed out and no longer exist. In effect, Fallout 2 never happened.
-Jet, which was invented by an amoral teenage pharmacist named Myron in New Reno in 2241, is now a pre-war drug that existed throughout the US and had the same street name for over two hundred years. In effect, everything relating to Jet and how it was created no longer exists.
-Power Armor no longer has an internal power supply, instead requiring continuous support in the form of disposable batteries. This is apparently how it always worked. This means Fallout 1, 2, 3, and New Vegas never happened or the environment of Fallout 4 is stocked entirely with these mysterious inferior suits and for some reason the Brotherhood of Steel decided to switch to them despite the obvious, crippling, limitation it imposes on use of them. It's clearly a lazy attempt at balance (in a game that has no sense of balance at all) that creates a massive plot hole with relation to the rest of the series.
-Vertibirds now existed before the war, for some reason, instead of being a game changing postwar innovation that gave the Enclave in Fallout 2 a massive edge over all other factions. So that job the protagonist of Fallout 2 was hired to do by the Brotherhood of Steel to bring back Vertibird plans in exchange for directions to a GECK, the thing which drives most of the story? It either never happened now or it makes no sense.
It may seem that ire at cavalier mishandling of recondite details is unjustified but I offer a contrary position. We're talking about a sequel. Specifically we're talking about the fifth main entry in a series that has been running, off and on, for nearly twenty years now. Bethesda didn't buy the rights to Fallout because they liked the word Fallout. They were buying its cachet, its artistic credibility, and its historical importance. The first Fallout was the spearhead of the revival of RPGs. Without it, many classics in the genre would never have been made and most of the genre's history outside of dungeon crawlers, which reproduced the letter of RPGs while entirely losing their spirit, would not exist. The best of Bioware's output was directly influenced by it and the financial successes of Fallout, Fallout 2 and Bioware's Baldur's Gate games likely helped ensure that Bethesda's own Morrowind didn't get the axe when Bethesda's finances were in dire straits. Bethesda's contributions to the series stand to have worth only insofar as they meaningfully build on top of what came before. Retcons are more than not doing that. They're doing the opposite. They cross out what came before as unworthy or insufficient, replaced with whatever whimsy should suit them now. They're doing it to a series which helped make their careers possible and it reeks of severe ingratitude. Fallout deserves better, as do the brilliant minds responsible for creating it.
It is admittedly a little odd to tackle characterization after other aspects of writing, such as their mishandling of various lore obscura. There's a good reason for it, though. I didn't have a smart plan for tackling them earlier. In no particular order, here are some characters who make no damn sense or are just horribly written.
The protagonist's background is always just fixed enough to greatly mitigate roleplay to the point that it's all but impossible, while not ever being used in such a way as to give the character any real depth. This isn't like playing Adam Jensen, JC Denton, Geralt of Rivia or The Nameless One. Those developers (Eidos Montreal, Ion Storm Austin, CD Projekt RED and Black Isle, respectively) turned what could have been this very kind of weakness into a strength. One of the key limitations of building RPGs is the resource issue. Choices need consequences and feedback and even a few choices with possible branches can quickly grow exponentially to the point that there's no way to keep up on the development side. Developing the character more, giving them some personality, allows for a pruning of the branches by the natural limitations of what a certain person wouldn't do, while still giving the player meaningful choice within that to say what the character might have done.
It never really matters whether the player chooses man or woman. The only live element to consider is whether one likes Brian Delaney or Courtenay Taylor better. For my money Taylor handles the emotional scenes better, but Delaney does a better job of sounding casual and natural when he's given enough room. In addition to the strange, stunted, dull delivery both actors deliver for most of their lines there's little actual depth to the characterization. Once the prologue ends there's simply no substantial references to the pre-war background they spent so much effort putting front and center for the beginning. The problem for the spouse, and not the protagonist, is that this lack of fleshing out extends also to basic character traits. Trying to actually describe these characters is almost impossible. Neither one seems to have any real hobbies, quirks of personality, nor do they play off each other well to give a sense of chemistry and connection. Beyond 'what do these two people see in each other?' is another question, 'who are these two people?' and the game never really tries to answer either question, nor is the player given the tools to choose or create a real answer. It's not hard, even in the restrictive format they gave themselves, to produce that kind of nuance but they chose not to.
After getting raised by the dumbest pack of supergeniuses imaginable, the son turns into a complete sociopath. It's not exactly unexpected, but it's such a blatantly obvious textbook case that it lacks any nuance, and said sociopathy also makes all of his behavior questionable or illogical. If it's pointed out how hypocritical and contradictory it is to bemoan the Institute's reputation resulting from kidnapping, murder, inflitration, sabotage, and the use of proxies like Kellogg he'll try to deflect personal responsibility but, despite being his father/mother, the player is never able to drive the point home. Even unfreezing the parent makes very little sense in the larger pattern of his goals, what with this protagonist being a complete wild card, the son being a sociopath, and already having an army of killer robots at his disposal to do as he pleases. It's as if the game is patting the player on the head for noticing and then saying, 'now stop noticing and go shoot some more mutants'.
Kellogg isn't badly written so much as wasted. A few minor edits to the prologue, a rework of the meeting with him, and he could have easily been in the running for most interesting companion and character in the game. As written and used he's a throwaway character who is given a great deal of interesting character development after he is incapable of actually driving the plot forward. Instead he's a pile of wasted potential and irrelevance, like much of the rest of the game.
As for the DLC...there's documented plagiarism in Far Harbor. That's unforgivable. This studio had over a hundred million dollars, a studio sized team, and seven years in which to make a game. They chose to rip off a group of fans working in their spare time instead. Three of the DLCs are just added lists of workshop items, one of which contains a method for making ammunition that makes negative sense and so all three are really a colossal waste of the DLC launch window and the studio's time to have them doing something modders would have done, an additional one is another workshop list with a (very dumb) quest attached. Finally, Nuka World is iconographical leg humping with lore holes abound and a combination of a premise so idiotic, execution so intelligence-insultingly bland, and a tone so insipid and patronizing that I couldn't finish it. If I wanted to play a game that tries to make me feel like an ******* for playing it I'd play Spec Ops: The Line and snicker at all the parts where it's pretty obvious they cribbed their understanding of the works of Joseph Conrad from skimming Wikipedia and never read an actual word the man wrote. Seeing all the parts where it's clear Bethesda skimmed Nukapedia articles (and didn't understand them, or understand why the community generally prefers The Vault over Nukapedia) instead of staffing the writing and design department with people actually knowledgeable about Fallout doesn't make me laugh because it's not funny.
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Regarding Skyrim's Disappointing Remaster
Posted on Sunday, November 6 2016 @ 19:18:20 PST
Skyrim Special Edition is a re-release, free to owners of the complete edition on Steam, a full retail release for PS4 and XBOne. The PS4 release appears to be the best version of the bunch, especially when compared to the disastrous PS3 release. The XBOne and PC releases are...not so hot. Overall, the remaster job is a minimum-effort project that barely qualifies as such. Skyrim was already looking old before it hit store shelves in 2011. It requires no less than five separate, very large, mods to make it look like a 2011 release. The 2016 release would still get a face lift if those same exact mods got applied to it right now.
Some of their problems are shared between all three versions but comparisons across console generations tend to make the PS4 version look better because, again, the PS3 release was an unmitigated disaster. One area where the PS4 version gets the long end of the stick is in audio. Specifically, the bizarre overcompressed and clipped audio on the XBOne and PC versions is not found on the PS4. The result on those two platforms is a somewhat lifeless soundscape compared to the original, which could reliably fill up the channels to the extent that there was always a good ambient backdrop especially pleasant with good headphones. The selection of sound effects tailored to environments gave a sense of tactility to them - one can tell by those sounds alone what type of environment the player is in at any given time. Those sounds are still there but the lack of detail and range results in a functional, if less convincing, effect. It's best to liken it to props in a stage play. The new audio is a bit like going from full-scale three dimensional ones to simple cardboard cutouts. The intended evocation is there but it's not convincing, it requires the player simultaneously notice the sounds, but not pay careful attention to them or take them at face value.
The visual department is where the game stumbles, seemingly endlessly. The lighting improvements, though undeniably technologically superior to the original release, are still somewhat divisive. On the one hand it handles soft shadows, global illumination and other effects very well, on the other hand most of what it does well or at least adequately was done far better by mods years ago. There's also the aesthetic criticism surrounding the obvious attempt to ape The Witcher 3's lighting effects. It doesn't look anywhere near as good as The Witcher 3 (and not just in lighting, there isn't a single thing in either version of Skyrim, mods or no, that looks even remotely as good as its Witcher 3 equivalent) and on the side manages to ravage the color palette intended for the game. There are areas in Skyrim that are deliberately designed to look almost monochromatic. It's a deliberate effect to mimic how extreme cloud cover can seemingly desaturate color. This is utterly destroyed when the game is bathing those same areas in pastel light, making them look like they were loaded with test assets instead of being the thoroughly designed and prepared environments they are. The real kicker in this is both what they didn't improve, and what they 'improved'. There was no work done to improve animations, meshes, UV mapping, or most weather effects. Seeing as those are the things that people generally notice look off first, it's a shame they didn't bother. The one area where something obvious was done was texture work, and it was handled in almost the worst way imaginable.
The textures in Skyrim Special Edition are based on the X-Box 360 textures. They used what appears to be either nearest neighbor or bilinear upsampling to upscale them. This is a problem for a few reasons. First, it looks like crap. It's obvious that it was done due to the presence of noise in the textures. Second, it wasn't necessary. HD texture packs were released for PC which replace most of these new textures with something that isn't a horrible mess. Third, and this is the part where the complaining gets a bit nitpicky, it doesn't look uniformly bad. Some textures, such as dirt, cobblestone faces or the like, actually look better with the noise applied because it looks like the kind of roughness natural to those surfaces. The lack of uniformity is also felt with textures that look like they received no treatment at all. Fourth, this was a completely slapdash way to go about it. A smarter way of doing the textures would be to go back to Bethesda Game Studios' original archives, get the master textures (which are too large to use normally) and compress them down to the desired resolution targets with Lanczos or Sinc filtering. The result would look far better, have the exact same performance cost for end users, and would effectively future proof the base game for some time. I have no idea why this was not done. It's not as though Bethesda is strapped for cash - the original release of Skyrim made them something around a billion dollars.
Going a bit further, under the hood as it were, we see a mixture of serious improvement, mixed bags and wasted opportunities. The most obvious improvement, especially for those who love extended mod setups that pushed the original release to the upper limit of the memory cap (originally 2GB, 4GB with a Large Address Aware mod, then 4GB for everyone, then 3.2GB with no LAA mod option because they broke it) is that the 64-bit executable that came with the Fallout 4 version of Creation Engine paid off very well. No one's running out of memory anymore. But, while we're on the subject of mods, they haven't apparently done anything for archive names. A bit of an explanation: There can only be so many strings of characters in the total .bsa filenames before the game starts to thrash, the only solution for this is to either remove the archives entirely, alongside any other mods or software that requires them, or unpack the assets and use them as loose files, though this comes with problems of its own, including the issue of loading a large number of loose files into memory at once, and the issue that some mods are only meant to work with their assets stored in an archive. The .bsa will contain things like textures, meshes, navmeshes and so on, so a mod-heavy setup is going to build quite a list of them. On the other hand, it's hard to complain too much because they stuck with the original .bsa format instead of using the awful .ba2, with the mass of attendant headaches.
The biggest wastes of opportunity are in bug fixes and structure. Bethesda had a chance to greatly simplify Skyrim's file structure by collapsing the contents of the DLC packs into the base .bsa and .esm files keeping the counts for both to a minimum. No one else can do this because they don't have access to the proprietary materials and tools needed to do it. It isn't just for end users, it also gives them options they otherwise don't have due to the limitations of the file structure. In this setup the DLC can 'talk' to each other directly in ways that are currently impossible, such as loading crossbows with Stahlrim bolts. So there's a lot of advantages to doing it. They didn't do it at all. The files are in the same shape as they were when they last patched the game in 2013. Running them through xEdit's cleaning filter returns identical fix counts, complete with the same exact number of unfixable elements. Every single bug left in the game as of the last patch of the original version is still here, untouched.
I wasn't going in expecting an aggressive overhaul of the game's actual systems, given what Bethesda generally does in that direction I shudder to think. No, Skyrim is still Skyrim but this doesn't feel like a definitive edition of the game in any sense. It's a problem, for me, because I can't really recommend it as is. Mods can already improve it but if someone is looking to use mods then the original release has a library about thirty times larger, with much more expansive and ambitious content, and communities like STEP have ironed out all the wiggle room for getting the most out of it already. In the future, when a script extender comes out and mods which need it get ported, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. Until then, I can't. If you need to spend any money at all to play it I suggest you wait for now.
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The Last Guardian Goes Gold
Posted on Sunday, October 23 2016 @ 18:45:52 PST
Shuhei Yoshida sent out a tweet confirming that The Last Guardian has gone gold. In other news a species of birds that oink, weigh about seven hundred pounds, have four legs with cloven hooves, snouts and curly tails have been discovered in and... read more...
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Why Fallout 4 is Terrible Part 2: Writing
Posted on Monday, September 26 2016 @ 14:17:20 PST
Fallout 4's writing, its use of it as a context for play and for informing design, is incredibly difficult to analyze quickly. A thorough breakdown of every failing in its writing, from retcons to plot holes to broken cha... read more...
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It's (Semi) Official: Bioware is Dead
Posted on Tuesday, September 13 2016 @ 17:25:28 PST
Today, at EA's website, an announcement by Andrew Wilson, CEO of EA, declared that Bioware, Maxis, and their mobile division will be merged into a single entity called 'EA Worldwide'. This announcement, just six months in advance of... read more...
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Why Fallout 4 Is Terrible Part 1: Technology
Posted on Tuesday, September 6 2016 @ 11:24:11 PST
"Lasciate Ogne Speranza Voi ch'intrate" --Dante Alighieri
This is not really a review of Fallout 4 so much as it is a post-mortem of the game's launch, support cycle, DLC cycle and current state n... read more...
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Rumor: Trademark Filed for Fallout New Orleans
Posted on Monday, August 15 2016 @ 12:27:25 PST
The ever-diligent Fallout subreddit picked up a short article from Australian game blog Press Start, titled rather simply 'Fallout New Orleans Trademarked'. In it, the post links to a seemingly above board trademark filing with the info... read more...
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Metroid 2 Fan Remake AM2R Releases on Metroid Anniversary (Update)
Posted on Saturday, August 6 2016 @ 18:42:10 PST
Today, August 6, 2016, sees the first version release of 'Another Metroid 2 Remake' version 1. It's a free remake of the Gameboy classic on PC which incorporates some features from later 2D Metroids for smoother control.
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Metroid Is Officially 30 Today
Posted on Saturday, August 6 2016 @ 11:31:52 PST
On August 6, 1986, the first Metroid released for the Famicom. 30 years have passed, and it's been a bumpy ride, but it's definitely a series with many solid entries. The good ones, including Retro's wonderful Prime trilogy, a... read more...
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