Fallout 4, as you may have heard by now, holds true to the Bethesda formula quite a bit – even the familiar mix of fun and game-breaking bugs. Despite that focus on what is tried and true, and even with some very annoying bugs that are being patched out, Fallout 4 is a reminder that Bethesda knows its fans. Even more than that, they know why people keep playing their games for years on end, and, ultimately, they know how to make a game world that feels like your very own home.
This iteration of the Fallout franchise introduces a much more welcoming atmosphere than Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Both of those games emphasized the dreariness of the wasteland, but in ways I felt was rather flat and monotonous. I am speaking of world design and visuals of course, not story, which New Vegas excelled at. Rather, Fallout 4 differs from these predecessors by creating a world that feels a lot more alive. Part of the reason is that there are simply more encounters in the world, from traveling traders, to more raiders and super mutants, and plenty of settlements to discover and rebuild. The environment, too, feels a lot more impactful and diverse. Swamps and forests remind me of the ominous, yet exciting, sense of adventure I felt in the Stalker games – a sense of tension that was somehow playful and energizing, not oppressive or depressing. The fluidity of the environment goes beyond visual and audible diversity; you will come across lost treasures and hidden traps that remind you that this world is no longer a wasteland – centuries of new life and civilization have taken place since the nuclear holocaust.
Alongside this fresh mechanical and design direction of the world, a new visual style is utilized. Face and body models are easily Bethesda’s best here, and I am extremely excited to see their implementation in the Elder Scrolls series. To be honest though, the new art direction may be off-putting to some. The models feel quite realistic, and yet have an animated feel to them, as though ultra-realism wasn’t the intention. Facial features feel just slightly fantasized, as though inspired by comic book art. Nevertheless, this new style works for me. Characters feel much livelier, and the character creation tool feels more effective, due to the more “animated” design of the faces. However, I also believe that this art style is largely influenced by the color palette, which is an easily noticed change. Colors are much more vibrant and pastel-like than in any previous Bethesda games, and they especially contrast from the drab visuals of Skyrim and Fallout 3. The design of weapons, armor, and many structures and objects is similarly fantastical and bulky; it’s a style following a mix of 1950’s sci-fi and realism. Fallout 4 still achieves a since of realistic presentation, but not of the heavy, grim quality found in previous Bethesda games. Again, some may find this change difficult to enjoy, especially given the theme of this game, but Bethesda has made it quite enjoyable in my subjective opinion – the vibrancy of the visuals makes the game world feel a lot more organic and alive, without forgetting the theme of the setting.
The core game-play follows a very similar pattern to past games, with a few key renovations. The combat mechanics aren’t as deep as a dedicated shooter franchise, but they don’t need to be. The variety of approaches to combat and the customization of weapons and abilities allow the game to be much more fluid. You can pick up any weapon in the world and try it out for yourself; each one has its own style and feel, and it is easy to switch back forth if you desire. That lack of weight to the shooting mechanics is the result of a simple aim-and-fire design, which may be disconcerting to some. However, this flexes the game’s RPG/sandbox muscle by allowing the player to more easily focus on their personal game play preferences, with experimentation encouraged and actual efficacy being of little concern. The return of the V.A.T.S. system still offers the great alternative of a more turn-based style of combat that slows down time to a near pause, and allows you to pick out enemies to target, and which specific body part to aim at. This creates a slower, more strategic level of game-play, and can be complementary to the regular shooting mechanics, or a complete replacement if you craft a character that specializes in V.A.T.S. combat. The skill tree provides a vast array of character upgrades that make an impact on your game-play and allow you to further customize your character and experience of the world. Skills don’t merely cover combat, but interactions with NPCs and crafting as well.
One of the latest features, the weapon and armor customization options, add to the variety. Honestly, the armor customization felt simple and useful, but nothing special. Weapons, however, are quite fascinating, with customization options such as sights, grips, and so forth. What’s really enjoyable about this is that few of the options feel necessary; rather there is plenty of room for personal taste. Weapons can be re-crafted again and again; for example a semi-automatic laser rifle can be remade into a small, automatic sub-machine gun, or a long range sniper with a slow rate of fire, but high impact force. These options re-forge weapons with unique capabilities and visual styles, encouraging more exploration and experimentation. As mentioned, Bethesda games seem to always have simplistic, light-weight combat, and it is no different for Fallout 4. That, however, allows for these customization options to come to the fore, and empower the player with more options on how to engage in combat. As a result, the best part of Fallout 4 – its sandbox world – seeps into the combat mechanics. This has been true for previous Bethesda games, going back to Morrowind, but Fallout 4 does it best.
What is possibly the most noticeable shift in the formula is dialogue interaction and story exposition. Previously, Bethesda games kept the protagonist silent, with few dialogue options, and pretty stiff conversations with the player and NPC frozen, face to face. Fallout 4 mirrors the design of Bioware dialogue systems by adding more animation to the conversations, and giving the protagonist a voice, allowing the player to hear the delivery of their dialogue options. They have even added a cinematic camera that shifts between the player and NPC as the conversation builds, to provide a more filmic experience. In practice however, this camera felt a little immersion breaking, and was at times rather glitchy. I opted to turn off the camera via the options setting. To my surprise, this made the dialogue and player voicing much more interesting, capturing a glimmer of the first person story experience in the Half-Life games. Remaining in first-person allowed me to view NPCs head-on as conversations unfolded, as in other Bethesda games, but it also highlighted the new animation and movements of the NPCs, creating a much more entertaining and immersive experience. The addition of the player voice emphasized this feeling in first-person conversations.
The questing is driven by stories that are interesting enough and characters that are actually quite fun. The main quest, as always, can be ignored with plenty of individual side-quests and factions to enjoy. The formula here is similar to Skyrim’s approach; side-quests range from simple combat objectives to complex side-stories and factions each focus on their own styles of missions. The Brotherhood of Steel, for example, emphasizes finding lost technological treasures, missing teams, and clearing monsters. That being said, with the Brotherhood of Steel as an example, there seemed to be more personality and story to faction quests than in Skyrim. The Minutemen, the first faction you come across, is more unique, as it focuses on capturing settlements and rebuilding them. This highlights the new feature of settlement construction. This is a more complex iteration of housing in Skyrim, allowing you to create functional towns that produce goods and fill up with NPCs. In order to get the most out of these settlements, you have to make sure that they are well stocked with food, clean water, and defenses. The actual mechanics are quite complex, tracking things such as whether you have enough people to have certain services, or how happy the population is. Quite a lot of time can be spent on this feature alone, and there are side-quests that guide you through the mechanics. You can, of course, ignore this aspect totally, or only dabble in it via the Minutemen quests as you capture more and more settlements. At times this feature felt overwhelming, but never forced or tedious. Once you get an understanding of how these systems work, it can be a very fun way to expand the possibilities of the game, giving you new goals, rewards, and challenges.
Finally, we must discuss the one place where the game truly falls flat: technical polish. The game engine seems to be yet another iteration of the same one used for the last ten years in Bethesda games. This means that there are plenty of glitches. There is no way to ignore it; some are funny, and others are game breaking. Save, and save often, and be prepared for it to happen. It is regrettable that Bethesda games so often fall victim to this, and I sincerely hope that Bethesda will move away from the engine soon. I do, however, understand its continued use. Few, if any games, allow you to manipulate and interact with the world in the way Bethesda games do, while still creating a large, detailed sandbox. The game has to account for every single NPC and object because nearly everything can be picked up, dropped, thrown around; and nearly every NPC can be talked to, fought, and killed. Each time you make a change to the game world, the engine has to memorize those changes. Inevitably, this results in some crazy bugs. Fallout 4 adds even more complexity by introducing the settlement building capabilities which allow you to build structures in real time, and some destructible environments such as exploding cars. Honestly, these glitches will push some people away, but it is not enough reason for me to avoid this game, because the game allows you so much interactivity thanks to that same engine. The real detriment to me is the age of the engine, as it shows in the graphics. The game does not look impressive, to be honest. Here and there you will come across muddy textures or flat models. The lighting systems and depth of field, however, are very impressive, and help to alleviate the faults quite a bit. Most important is the aforementioned visual style and color palette, which helps the game look much more entertaining and beautiful than it really is from a technical aspect.
Fallout 4 is what you would expect from Bethesda (for better and worse) and a little more than that. It captures what makes the Elder Scrolls and recent Fallout games great: interactivity, sandbox world and game-play design, and total immersive freedom. There are rough patches in the form of poor technical polish and simplistic shooting mechanics, but none of those are enough to deter me from having fun with what makes this game great. The addition of animated conversations, weapon customization, and settlement building adds to the strongest parts of the game’s foundation. I strongly urge people to try the game, and I believe fans of previous Bethesda games are in for a very nice treat.
Rating: 4 out of 5