What Fallout 4 Got Right, and Wrong
Posted on Saturday, January 23 2016 @ 19:39:27 PST
Fallout 4 is a mixed bag. If I were reviewing it I would give it a C, perhaps a C+, and move on. I never ran out of interest in either a Bethesda title or a Fallout game as quickly as I did Fallout 4 even when Fallout 3 went out of its way to antagonize my expectations and insult my intelligence repeatedly. The game played the wrong things safe, took the wrong risks which seemed to never pay off, and didn't learn the entire textbook worth of lessons waiting for them in New Vegas. It's ironic that they practically ignored New Vegas in their development of 4 because another developer building an open-world RPG, CDProjektRED, did pay attention, took notes, and the results influenced The Witcher 3 for the better to the point that it's a better RPG than anything Bethesda's ever made. Some things are a big step up compared to previous titles, particularly Skyrim and Fallout 3, others a massive step down, especially compared with any non-Bethesda Fallout which merits consideration.
What Fallout 4 Got Right
1 - It offered up significant improvement to one of the weakest parts of past games:
Looking over Fallout 3's mechanics the single thing the player does more than anything else is fight things. Fallout 3's fighting mechanics are Elder Scrolls stock standard but with guns added, which is to say they're barely functional with obvious band-aids slapped over them (VATS, perks which make fighting in VATS even more blatantly broken that it already is, a perk which makes fighting out of VATS nearly totally unnecessary) to cover the weaknesses. This is bad design partially corrected, not good design. If the combat system in 3 was a broken mess and New Vegas showed how it could potentially be fixed within the same basic frame, 4 applied a radical surgery to the whole system which built a better shooter at the expense of the earlier system's depth, which will be covered later. The result is a significantly improved shooter. It's not nearly as good as Shadow of Chernobyl, Wolfenstein, Metro, early Call of Duty or Half-Life, but the improvement is there and the effort shows in the right ways. Combat is more reactive, better paced, snappier and more kinesthetically satisfying than ever before.
2 - It offered marginal improvement to the single weakest part of Fallout 3:
It may seem a backhanded compliment to say it that way but Fallout 3's story is an unmitigated disaster of writing. It's so incompetently assembled that no two plot points join together without a hole between them. The writers repeatedly have to cheat to force the player into obviously jawboned setups in a grandiose display of contempt for the player's agency and intelligence and cannot even muster the effort or skill to produce something even coherent within that. Even when they afforded themselves every unfair luxury enjoyed only by bad writers they sunk below Fan-fiction.net. Fallout 4 isn't exactly Raymond Chandler, nor Chris Avellone for that matter, but it is serviceably good within its own confines, which is far more than can or should ever be said for Fallout 3. The plot isn't anything grand and the central conflict is a mishmash of idiotic motivations followed through with dumb actions but at least the motives and actions connect now. While most characters in the game are either one-note infodumps a few characters are well-written, well-designed and perfectly cast. Nick Valentine, voiced by the immensely talented Stephen Russell, and Kellogg, voiced by the also very talented Keythe Farley, give their roles a depth and humanity which is unique for the game.
3 - Its map design is a notable improvement over Fallout 3:
One thing Fallout 3 did incontestably well was assemble three dimensional virtual playgrounds on which its inane plot and vacuous violence would occur. Both horizontal and vertical layouts were done very well, open space and claustrophobic corridors were used very well, occasionally in direct juxtaposition with each other. Fallout 4 improves on this in a few key ways - particularly by making vertical space more important than ever and by emphasizing more complex and irregular layouts as backdrops for gunfights.
What Fallout 4 Got Wrong
1 - 'Improved' is only relative to Fallout 3:
Fallout 4's shooting mechanics may improve significantly on Fallout 3's but 3 had terrible design. VATS was ultimately less an attempt to hybridize turn-based with real-time engineering and more a gauze bandage over a papercut on a patient also suffering multiple untreated deep puncture stab wounds. It obliged the player to utilize manual input and then summarily ignored it and reduced it to dice rolls (a quick S.T.A.L.K.E.R. comparative note - Clear Sky did the same thing and it is rightly regarded as the weakest entry in the entire series, bar none) rendering the reticule largely meaningless. Fallout 4 fixes these problems by removing the dice rolls and offering a 'what you see is what you get, more or less' approach to aiming, collision and scope sway. This, combined with incorporating controls such as pop-out-of-cover aiming, sprint and manual sway control all make everything feel more tactile than any other Bethesda game to date but it isn't exactly going to dethrone genuinely good shooter design (the weakest parts of Wolfenstein: The New Order are better than the best parts of Fallout 4's shooting) it was serviceable. But that's all. And it also took a lot of butchery to get there...
2 - Numerous features are cut or lobotomized:
When word got out that the protagonist would be voiced, skills were out and none of the additions or restorations seen in New Vegas would be making a comeback the general reaction among longtime fans was highly negative. Every one of their concerns were completely justified and, if anything, were too willing to cut Bethesda slack for obviously bad ideas. The effect of the voiced protagonist was multifold. Neither Courtenay Taylor nor Brian Delaney were able to give their reads much nuance and between that and the game's spotty dialog writing the voice acting doesn't actually add much of anything. It doesn't help that the dialog system itself was stripped down to the bare minimum with nothing more than one-word summaries of whole lines rather than simply writing it all out for the player. One of the first popular mods for the game removed the 'wheel' interface and spelled out all those lines and in the process revealed the ugly truth about why it was done that way. The reason the dialog is given one-word summaries rather than full presentation is many lines are not merely recycled between conversations, which would be perfectly acceptable for boilerplate, but that numerous choices are in fact illusory. Every dialog appears to have four choices but in truth the player is often reduced to three but even that ignores the real vice of the system. All four choices have the same effect. The quest proceeds, the waypoint to grab the things or kill the things (the objective more than 95% of the time, even outside of radiant quests) is given, the player can either do the thing or forget it but it's impossible to meaningfully alter the flow of events in any way shape or form through dialog. This cutting proceeds everywhere. In Fallout 1, 2 and New Vegas the player could switch ammo types in firearms and energy weapons for different effect (trade damage for armor penetration with AP ammo, get better shot groupings with Match ammo, turn your PGM Hecate II in New Vegas into an 'everything thumper' with .50 Explosive, etc.) to allow for both tactical flexibility and to add believable detail and depth to the combat system.
3 - Everything is kinda stupid:
(Spoilers for the plot of Fallout 4)
None of the old sense of depth and weight is to be found, not even in new features like the IKEA/kitchen table craftsman modular weapon system, and even good new ideas only ever arrive atop a pile of better old ones brutally cut out. Nor do the gains have sufficient worth to set aside what was lost to make room for them. Settlements can be built and stitched together via trade routes the player manages but with it goes any sense of the world's permanence or significance. Everything feels trite, empty and void. While never as rock-stupid as Fallout 3 it also never even tries for the thematic or conceptual ambitions of Obsidian and Interplay's Fallouts and within its restricted sense of scope it often fails and shows little respect for the setting. The player can 'go anywhere, do anything' but none of it matters or has any permanence. Choice without consequence is meaningless. Its central conflict feels like a cheap facsimile of New Vegas' third act minus both the intelligent interest in competing ideologies driving claims to nationhood and the quality of writing Obsidian used to make even unsympathetic and deliberately indefensible characters at least interesting enough to be worth actually understanding before disagreeing with them. 4 tries for moral ambiguity but produces four factions with completely ridiculous goals and idiotic approaches to realizing those goals. It's also blatantly obvious that, in the absence of the protagonist and the protagonist's spouse, their son has grown up to be a sociopath. Of the faction leaders only Preston Garvey of the Minutemen has nominally attainable goals (build up livable places in the Commonwealth, get them to band together) and doesn't act like a walking DSM V entry on the dark triad but his entire plan for getting there involves blindly handing over all responsibility, authority and initiative to someone he just met by a stroke of pure blind luck.
4 - Roleplay is completely impossible now:
As others have observed, it is impossible for the protagonist to actually be bad at anything. There are no dump stats because there is no dumping. The protagonist is always at least passable at everything. There is no real question of build specialization. Practically no significant content is locked as a result of specific choices because a character can do anything necessary from the start and because the game has almost no mutually exclusive choices at all. Alongside the milquetoast voice acting this actually restricts roleplay; the freedom to do as one pleases becomes a cage preventing the player from making real choices. The fixed backgrounds further restrict roleplay by giving finalized personalities and histories for both of the protagonists but they don't bother to invest in fleshing out those backgrounds in a meaningful way. It's a classic case of trying to have the cake and eat it at the same time. The lack of definition is meant to give freedom to act out the character but the acting out is not supported by writing, quest design, faction design, dialog design, narrative construction or leveling system. None of it supports it in any way. Further, the fixity of the background is given just enough primacy to prevent any sort of range but that fixity is never explored. Neither the husband's military background (the player could easily relate, or lie about, having known Arthur Maxson's ancestor Roger Maxson in order to manipulate him - such a conceit would work well with such a background) nor the wife's legal education (ability to speak Latin, for one, a possible bonus for helping resolve disputes without violence or having access to a means to settle things by talking them out) factor into their personal characterization in any way. None of the pre-war memories, experiences, expectations or even their basic understanding of reality from a pre-war perspective have any direct effect on any part of the game at all. The premise is utterly divorced from the execution and by any reasonable standard that's terrible writing.
5 - The game is utterly at odds with itself:
There's a story about a missing son but it gets derailed to play Millard Fuller for the bulk of the game. I distinctly remember something about the Institute kidnapping or killing important people and replacing them with Synth replicas but it disappears from any actual plot development just as soon as it's no longer needed. If it's ever possible to set up a dialog with Shaun to confront him about it and ask why the Hell he continues to have ordinary people murdered and replaced with killer robots for no reason I never found it - I was too busy saying 'yes' when I thought I said 'no' to the latest fetch quest. It's clear more thought went into post-nuclear Boston than the Capital Wasteland but it doesn't seem to have been skull sweat wisely expended for the setting collapses in on itself almost as neatly as the previous effort did. The leveled enemy and weapon tables were designed to make the game appear more varied but in practice Fallout 4 may be the most formula-driven game I've played in years. Actual quest design is almost disturbingly monolithic. Go to the place, fetch the Macguffin and bring it back. Go to the place, kill the bandits/gunners (bandits with better guns)/feral ghouls and come back. Rinse, repeat. Even if the player actively avoids every radiant quest in the game possible this is still precisely what they'll be doing. It doesn't help that the bandits/gunners are just as unexplained as before because the game needs things for the player to shoot at regularly and the explanation can wait until...another settlement needs our help, here I'll mark it on your map. They must outnumber the 'civilian' population in the region by at least six to one. Who is paying for these people to be here? What could the raiders possibly still be stealing 210 years after the bombs went off? Who hired the Gunners? Where did they come from? What are their goals? Why are they attacking everyone around them at random in a politically unstable area instead of, say, making friends with local strong groups to make their mission easier? Where are they getting all their new military grade equipment from, exactly? Why do I get the disturbing impression I just put more thought into this consideration in 30 seconds than Bethesda did in seven years of development? A last note on the faction system - if the player is supposed to be the top dog/number 2 guy in most of these groups why are they always relegated to bottom-tier gofer work? Where are all the other Minutemen/Knights/Railroad runners/etc. and what are they doing?
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