The Fallout marathon comes to an end.
Purchased and Played through Steam
My play-through of Fallout 4 lasted 138 hours and was (ostensibly) great value. However, such a long play time isn’t necessarily indicative of 138 hours of enjoyable, engaging content.
FO4 isn’t bad. There would be something genuinely wrong with my brain had I played a game I disliked for 138 hours. Chestnuts.
However its biggest problem is that all the fun and engaging stuff is buried in a near equal amount of seemingly irrelevant systems, padding and busy work.
The game begins with you and your family escaping to an underground vault at the outbreak of nuclear war. Due to the duplicitous nature of the vault’s creators, you are unwittingly frozen for 200 years. You awake to a post apocalyptic wasteland and set out to resolve the circumstances of your family.
This ‘protagonist from the past’ setup is really just a proxy for the audience to ask questions. It has some plot relevance later on, but is strangely swept under the rug for something that is established as being fairly major.
The core gameplay is what you expect from a Bethesda game, You explore an atomically destroyed Boston filled with small and large towns, a ruined city, outlying rural and industrial areas and the odd secret location.
Exploration and narrative is driven by quests provided by the many NPC’s that inhabit the world.
Boston’s ‘Commonwealth’ hosts many friendly and hostile characters of different forms such as Humans, ghouls, robots and super mutants. Synths also make an appearance – artificial beings that are near indistinguishable from humans and are catalyst to many of the games events.
The usual radioactive monstrosities such as radscorpians, deathclaws, bloatflies, mirelurks etc…also make an appearance.
The V.A.T.S aiming system still exists as well as food and drugs to buff your stats. There are a range of familiar ballistic, energy and melee weapons to use on your foes with no new drastic introductions.
Armor and weapons are modular now and each individual part can be upgraded to counter increasingly difficult enemies. The repair system has (thankfully) been removed completely.
In some ways Fallout 4 is to Fallout 3 as Skyrim was to Oblivion. Upgrading armor and weapons is as interesting as it was in Skyrim and the cooking system is near identical. Where Skyrim had Alchemy, Fallout 4 has Chemistry.
Perks, Skills and the 7 Primary stats have all been merged into the one talent tree and are all considered perks, with one perk increase allowed per level. It is similar to Skyrim’s constellation system, but EVERY character advancement is there, to the point of being overwhelming, making the decision of which perk to improve stressful. I always felt like I had picked the ‘wrong’ option.
Most of the new features introduced are based around crafting. You can establish settlements throughout the map by completing quests. A growing settlement will require food, water, power and defenses to match an increasing population – all of which are crafted from items you loot throughout the world.
Increasing the number of settlements will provide more map locations for you to travel, rest, trade and generally reset. Settlements can generate resources and can be equipped with mortars to attack nearby enemies.
The horrifying character animations/interactions from previous games has had it’s technology bumped. NPC’s are far more expressive and gesticulate more relevantly to the conversation allowing them to seem all round more human. The camera switches between speaking parties, which (alongside the increased animation fidelity) keeps interactions visually interesting.
The conversation system has been updated. A Mass Effect -Like topic wheel with 4 options/subjects is displayed with no break to movement, allowing you to respond outside of conversation mode.
The dialogue system is implemented poorly. It’s not game ruining, but is frustrating when your character acts or speaks in an almost opposite manner to what the chat option implied.
Like all Bethesda games, spending so much time in the world allows you to figure out the most efficient way to exploit its systems. Such as stockpiling items that weigh nothing but have value (generally any unused ammo, healing items and 0 weighted junk).
The best weapons and armor are found or crafted – not bought, so all the money accrued can be used for a near limitless amount of ammo and stimpacks – removing considerable tension from combat.
Enemy AI can be figured out fairly easily and you become a god among chimps after upgrading weapons, gear and stealth to their peak. The usual Bethesda comedy is there too, such as exploding a man into a puddle of organs and hearing their NPC friends dismiss it as the wind.
It certainly fulfills a power fantasy and the action is still visceral and varied enough to rarely become boring, but combat just isn’t nearly as complex as the game implies. There are many buffs, items, special weapons and ammo(such as flaming bullets or guns that increase limb damage), but any weapon will kill any enemy after enough perk investment. There’s a lot of depth but it’s completely unnecessary.
These issues could be considered part of the Bethesda ‘charm’. Your time spent in the world is rewarded with increased familiarity which allows you to understand and break its systems to become virtually unstoppable.
Bugs are also another Bethesda caveat, but I’ll be damned if I’m ever going to be quiet about it. I encountered regular graphical glitches which I could never resolve. Regardless of which drivers I used, settings I changed or temperature of the GPU.
My main save got corrupted, but thankfully the autosave feature prevented the loss of any considerable progress.
Companions couldn’t walk through doors when directed and would frequently loiter in the passageway through which I desperately needed to travel.
There were also the usual corpse acrobatics, such as bodies being stretched, clipping through scenery or inexplicably sling shotted into the atmosphere when killed.
Though none of these were enough to completely destroy the enjoyment, they were very much a regular irritation that gave the impression of an undercooked game.
The more Serious Problems
The pacing of the initial questing/exploration is horribly implemented and so misdirected that I nearly stopped playing entirely.
You encounter the Minutemen faction soon after emerging from the vault, this in turn introduces the settlement system. These quests/settlements seemed important in relation to the world so I decided to focus on them before progressing further into the main story.
However, (and with little indication) the Minutemen quests soon turned into ‘Radiant’ quests – repeatable missions that give experience but offer no plot progress. Oblivious, I continued to open up more settlements in an attempt to reach a conclusion that had already happened, wasting a considerable amount of time (10s of hours). Eventually I checked the Fallout wiki site to see where it was going and discovered that I had already finished the Minutemen’s final faction quest – and that all quests completed afterwards had virtually no plot or ingame relevance.
My advice now would be to get to Diamond city as soon as you can, it’s where all the interesting quests, characters and companions hang out.
‘Crafting’ is a term that I’m starting to despise, grating my spine with each pronunciation, as it almost always means busy work.
The mix of crafting and settlements are my primary criticism of FO4 as I can only describe them as operating on a system of anxiety.
The sheer amount of junk required to craft and build things is overwhelming and confusing. Junk is everywhere. In almost every container, room, shelf and enemy inventory. Each item in the world can be broken down for components. Almost everything is usable; ashtrays, trolleys, typewriters, bottles, cigarettes, toys, guns, armor, trees, cars etc… All that screen clutter trash of the previous games is now a potential component for crafting.
The components required to make an item can only be seen from a settlement, so I found myself hoarding as much as I could, filling my entire inventory in the hope of bringing home something I could use.
As mentioned it operates almost entirely on a system of anxiety for me. Inhabitants of a settlement need to be made ‘Happy’. So to make the little frowny face on the interface disappear you need to make beds, plant food, establish water pumps and set up defenses equal to the number of inhabitants.
When resources become insufficient another frowny messages appears on your pip boy telling you there is a problem.
Settlements will occasionally be attacked, prompting a quest to be added to your logs and another message to appear on screen, commanding you to return and defend.
(This also begs the question as to why I’m required to set up defenses in the first place if I still have to return and fight anyway.)
This is particularly irritating when progressing through a quest, or exploring the depths of an interesting location. A palpable nagging feeling emerges upon seeing the call to defend, urging you to drop everything and protect the settlement – under the threat of having to repair the damage and waste time searching for more garbage.
Crafting is unnecessary to the plot (even for the Minutemen faction – no explanation is given as to why you personally must build and rebuild). One of the main story’s quests requires resource gathering and crafting within a settlement, but it’s insultingly brief – included as a token to justify the crafting gimmick.
It’s also unnecessary to game play since you can fast travel to any other location regardless of distance, removing the need to have settlements nearby for unloading or restocking.
One could argue that the settlements aspect can be ignored – but that isn’t how the brain works. If a message is flashing that something is wrong then your subconscious will stress. This anxiety requires conscious effort to ignore because humans haven’t survived by ignoring problems.
The act of crafting isn’t inherently unpleasant, but that is not the point – it’s the last thing I want to participate in when playing a fallout game. I participated only to put out the mental fire that it itself starts. The only conclusion I’ve come to as to why this mechanic exists is to bloat the game time.
This bloat infects the Power armor system too. In previous games power armor was just two items that were simply equipped – now power armor is a vehicle that operates on a limited resource (which also needs to be scavenged). The armor is broken into 6 pieces, each with 3 different upgrades types. Each upgrade having multiple tiers – all requiring more junk to improve.
Power armor used to be a special find in previous games, a reward that upped the gear of combat after hitting a certain part of the story. For FO4, the developers took this staple of the series, introduced it almost immediately and layered their crafting system on top of it. And again it has no real benefit – combat eventually becomes a joke after enough upgrades so power armor isn’t even necessary for anything other than increasing your carrying capacity to store more junk.
Stuff I enjoyed
Again, 138 hours – so I need to quality that number after the above frustrations. Ultimately I enjoyed much of the regular fallout elements, most of which have improved.
No words can express my gratitude for the ability to view and loot the contents of a container without having to open a transfer window.
Your character has a military history, so from the beginning the shooting mechanics are solid and satisfying – as opposed to previous Fallouts where your character starts pathetically inept at pointing a gun. You can consistently hit your targets and real time combat is much more satisfying, with advancement occurring through weapon upgrades and perks. V.A.T.S is still useful for critical hits and aiming at close range, fast moving enemies.
Graphics are more detailed and colourful than FO3. It’s not on par with the more system demanding games that have been released lately (MGS5, Witcher 3 etc…) but it’s shiny and considerably more pleasant to look at than it’s predecessors.
Some of your companions and their side stories are genuinely interesting and are effectively empathetic, encouraging you to help them with their personal quests and keep them around during your travels. The Journalist Piper, Synth Valentine and Ghoul Hancock are as memorable as some of even Bioware’s characters.
Though the rest of the companions are fairly bland I need to give a shout out to the near offensively stereotypical Irish companion Cait. A ruffian who LITERALLY DECLARES HOW MUCH SHE LIKES FIGHTING AND DRINKING.
I say ‘near’ offensive because she’s just so stupidly stereotypical that I assume the writers momentarily suffered from an aneurysm, as opposed to having to a moment of racism.
I loved Travis, the host of Diamond city radio station, whose main trait is that he is an absolute rubbish DJ with no confidence or sense of radio awareness, making some of his lines hilarious.
The upgraded graphics and higher detail makes towns feel like towns as opposed to boxy collections of houses that littered the previous games; places in which people lived comfortable lives, but now transformed into low tech shanties for survivors to temporarily occupy.
Whereas the capital wasteland of Fallout 3 just seemed like today’s Washington destroyed, Boston city looks as if was a genuine colourful and industrial place of the future, with stores, towering skyscrapers, collapsed highways and railways, a lot of which are explorable.
I derived hours of enjoyment from exploring the world map. Often I would ignore my quest log, point my compass at the next unexplored icon and head out to see what I find – This Bethesda element is still intact – where curiosity drives gameplay.
The Glowing Sea was my favorite wandering spot. A radioactive soaked section of the map inhabited by the most resilient and vicious creatures. Exploring this hostile desert felt genuinely dangerous. An effectively barren, near primordial and alien place littered with the ruins of the old world. It could have almost been a different planet.
There was even some difficult decision making towards the end where you need to commit to one of the factions at the risk of hostility from the others. I had spent considerable time with each faction up until this point and it was difficult to dismiss any of them (though one criticism I have is that all factions seem at some level reasonable but were not willing to compromise or co-operate).
You’re eventually forced into a position where an unpleasant choice must be made. A bit of logic stretching is required, but these pivotal plot decisions certainly felt dramatic and intense.
I was sad when I finally closed the game as the time I spend with the characters and companions made me really warm up to them.
Fallout 4 has seriously reduced my tolerance for bethesda’s games. If this is the direction they continue to take with their games then I’m out. They really need to scale their mechanics back and make gameplay more concise in whatever game they next release.
To re-iterate, FO4 isn’t a poorly made game and has plenty of quality moments, but it took twice as long as it needed to provide the Fallout experience. All the stuff I want is there but it’s diluted and buried under new systems designed to inflate the game time.
If you are happy to spend hours on building and crafting, then fine – I understand the attraction to these types of games and am not above enjoying them myself, but that is not the game I want to play when sitting down to play Fallout.
Regardless of how ‘optional’ these mechanics are I resent that they exist at all – they bother me into participation as opposed to offering any encouragement or tangible gameplay benefit.
138 hours of gameplay sounds impressive but ‘gameplay’ is not a term that can be said without qualification. Game play can be fun, it can be engaging or compelling. It can also be tedious, driven by the wrong type of compulsion, or it can be outright frustrating. Fallout 4 is a mix of all these elements and the enjoyment of one may no longer be worth suffering the other.
A few weeks back I posted about giving a game 3 hours before deciding to continue or dropping it. At the time of writing that post I had already invested about 90 hours into Fallout 4 and had just got into the swing of things.
I think the reason I pushed through this at all is because the core is still Fallout and that the new mechanics dilute the experience as opposed to replacing it.
Ultimately length isn’t the problem, it’s what happens within that time. Fallout 3 and New Vegas had it perfect, each took less than half the time, but every minute was far more enjoyable.
I recommend Fallout 4 but with massive caveats, comparable to an ‘alright’ 23 song album that would have been a brilliant 10 song one.