One has to wonder what exactly anyone was thinking while Fallout 4 was in development at Bethesda. The reason why is because this is a bizarre game simultaneously fixes many of the franchises longest flaws, while also ruining so many of the best things about it. With this game, the franchise suddenly flipped and became something different both for the better and for the worst…
Let’s start with the good stuff.
In every Fallout review I’ve written, I’ve criticized them for having gameplay is repetitive and uninteresting, and that it has an overreliance of VATS and optimal builds. In Fallout 4 none of this is the case. The revised perk levelling system is perhaps the best levelling system Bethesda has created so far, in that is encourages and rewards experimentation. While every level 1 character is the same, no level 20 character is the same as any other. Unlike Skyrim where perks eventually become disposable, every perk in Fallout 4 really feels like it matters because of how much they can change how you play the game and this is because, while some perks are just static stat bonuses to damage output/resistance, there are a wide variety of unique ones to play around with. For example, high strength characters can run down enemies in power armour, high perception characters can shoot through walls, high endurance characters can cannibalise corpses to restore health, high charisma characters can pacify enemies at gunpoint, high intelligence characters can modify weapons to be more powerful, high agility characters get bonuses to silenced weapons and against sleeping enemies, and finally high luck characters can generate critical hits at an accelerated rate.
Then there’s the exploration which, admittedly, is more of a mixed bag. On one hand, the new crafting mechanics encourage player to loot whatever they can from wherever they can. If you see a desk fan, the screws from that could be used to make a new night vision scope for your gun, or if you find a circuit board the electronics could be used to put electrical damage onto your melee weapon. Resultingly, when you decide to explore a dungeon, you really are plundering it for all of its worth, rather than rushing to the chest at the end that has gear in it. It encourages the player to interact with the environment more, and that is to be commended. However this is a double edged sword. Most dungeons that aren’t tied to quests are generally uninteresting and, nine times out of ten, a straight line of corridors from the beginning to the end. And because players are being encouraged to interact more with the environment, they notice this poor dungeon design more often than they would in previous Fallout games that had the same problem. This isn’t to say every dungeon in the game is boring, but I would go as far to say the boring ones certainly outweigh the unique ones.
Thankfully this problem doesn’t extend to the world outside of dungeons. In fact the best part about this game is probably the setting. The Commonwealth has a number of biomes from dead forests, swamps, urban ruins and radioactive sunken hellholes. When you consider that Fallout 1 and 2 took place in flat deserts, and that Fallout 3 and New Vegas, despite coming close, never truly succeeded at creating diverse environments, Fallout 4 really did set the bar for unique world spaces in the Fallout franchise. For the first time the wasteland simultaneously feels dead, while also feeling varied enough to remain a fresh place to explore.
Furthermore combat actually feels satisfying. The shooting is no longer floaty, and there is a lot more feedback whenever you hit someone with a weapon. This makes non VATS builds much more viable. Speaking of VATS, it now slows down time rather than pausing it entirely which is a much welcome change because it means that it can maintain its power, while also meaning it isn’t the most optimal way to play the game. Beyond this there are a couple of smaller changes that make the gameplay flow better, such as more quick slots when playing on a controller, which means you spend less time in the inventory screen swapping weapons and more time in the heat of battle. Overall, it’s just a better and more fluid experience than anything preceding it.
And yet despite fixing all these things that were extremely lacking in previous titles, many are of the belief that Fallout 4 is worse than anything to come before it… And it’s not hard to see why.
The writing in this game is atrocious, especially when it comes to dialogue options since there really isn’t any. Every conversation boils down to a “yes or no” question that you can sometimes say “maybe” to, which the game interprets as “yes”. You can confide in a man called Preston Garvey that he can help you save your kidnapped son from from underground robot builders if he lends you the help of the Minutemen faction, listen to him pour his heart out in support, only for him to tell you to bugger off and do some menial task for him. This happens a lot when talking to factions in this game and leaves the player with the feeling that they are the lackey of those factions, rather than a driving force of their story.
Aside from the Minutemen, there is also the Railroad faction. They think robots have rights and want to save robots from slavery. Fair enough. But when the HUMAN leader says that you should value robot lives above human lives, in a world where humans are routinely kidnapped and replaced by robots, they come crumbling down. They are easily the worst faction in the game and it baffles me to no end thinking about how people are able to finish the game with this faction. They have absolutely nothing to offer the Commonwealth beside pretentious speeches, probably written by interns, about why robots are people.
Then you’ve got the Brotherhood of Steel. They’re… Okay. They’re a nice blend of classic Fallout’s xenophobic Brotherhood, and Fallout 3’s highly militarised bunch. My only gripe with them is that the way you finish the game by siding with them is nothing short of Bethesda lifting the ending of Fallout 3, and dumping it in Fallout 4. It’s exactly the same, and what I would describe as the gaming equivalent of using stock footage: You repair Liberty Prime, you do absolutely nothing as Liberty Prime does all the heavy lifting for twenty minutes, and then you fight a couple of dudes in an interior cell, and then you win the game. It’s an uninspired and derivative ending to a faction quest that had, up until this point, been fairly engaging.
Finally is the Institute who are the baddies because they build sentient robots for the sole purpose of enslaving them, and then act surprised when they act on their sentience to try and escape. There is no definitive reason why they decided to make sentient robots… There are hints here and there, but it’s all so vague that the average player won’t pick up on any of the reasoning as to what their motive for doing this is. If they just wanted slave robots, why not just make robots that don’t have sentience? Who knows? Not me, and not the writers. The Institute are unique in that you become the leader of them, and thus they have the same problem as Yes Man in Fallout New Vegas; If you are the roleplaying type, you can simply side with the Institute, and then just roleplay as a character who makes them change their morals and focus after the end of the game. By putting players in charge of a faction that their characters could feasibly change, it negates the pros and cons of joining that faction.
Overall this game’s writing is the poorest in the franchise, and the game does very little to distract you from it. The vast majority of quests are fetch-quests, wherein you are sent to a place to get a thing and return it to the quest giver. Most of these take place during in main quest, which just makes working for factions and engaging in the story so much worse. That said, there are a handful of side quests that are more inspired: In one you recover a deathclaw egg and are presented with the choice to sell it or try and return it to the deathclaw nest. In another you meet some robots dressed as pirates and help them rebuild an 18th century ship that has rocket jets on it. And then there’s the quest about an immortal scientist, who’s father is an insane man with an alien artefact on his head who is basically a god. There are pearls here and there, but they are few and far between. More often than not, your objective will be “find this item for me” or “kill this person for me” and you’ll get a measly 100-300 caps for it.
So why does anything that I’ve written make this game bizarre? Well because Fallout fans have always, since the dawn of the franchise, been willing to sacrifice gameplay for a well written and presented narrative. Fallout 4 did the opposite by sacrificing a good narrative, replacing it with a very shallow and cliché “are robots people” storyline, in favour of engaging gameplay. So the question I’m asked with is, is it too much to ask for both? Can we not have a Fallout game that has both good gameplay and good writing?
The answer is that YES we can!
Far Harbour is a DLC that takes place on an island cloaked in radioactive fog, wherein the leader of a society that provides safety for sentient robots is balancing the ever growing tensions between a group and religious fanatics and the town of Far Harbour. The leader of the safe haven, Dima, is an unsuspecting and kind guy who asks you to recover his memories in order to formulate a plan that will bring peace between the factions. However, his memories include thoughts of him setting off a nuclear bomb that will kill all the religious folk, a base that will disable Far Harbour’s resistance to the radioactive fog, and the location of a person he murdered in order to replace them with a robot so he could spy on the town. It’s a short story, but a well written one that features some of the most well defined characters in the game. Even side characters and quests are improved because of how they interact with the main story: The only way you can achieve peace on the island is to actually help the people on it. If you skip through the main quest as fast as you can without talking to the other factions they will have no idea who you are, understandably, ignore what you have to say and do their own thing. As a result, when they do listen to you, it really feels like you’ve made a difference to them and that your choice to try and help better their lives has really paid off. Far Harbour is probably one of the best DLC’s Bethesda has ever made simply because it acknowledges the faults of the main game and goes out of it’s way to correct them to the best of it’s ability, as well as telling an engaging story in a unique landscape at the same time.
Unfortunately it isn’t the only DLC…
Nuka World is a DLC where you shoot things for four hours without giving any of it any thought or consideration, and then you win. It has a pretty fun opening where you run a deadly gauntlet, but repeat playthroughs make this section feel a little tedious. There’s some okay weapons. There’s some unique enemies to fight. There’s a couple of unique power armour variants. But all in all, it’s a shoot ’em up with the bare minimum number of RPG mechanics and stops being engaging the moment you realise it doesn’t have anything to offer beyond pressing the shoot button. To be fair, there are a decent amount of collectables in this DLC to be found. However, because the game rushes you through the shooting galleries so quickly, and has almost nothing to offer outside of them, you will probably miss a lot of them or simply not catch on that they’re there at all.
Automatron is, similarly, about shooting things until you win. Except this time there’s a speech check at the end so you can spare the villain’s life. The quest is boring. But it does add one of my favourite elements of crafting, which is the robot workbench. From here, you can build your own robot companions and customise them with a surprising amount of depth. My robot was called Cute-Bot, and he made really cute clicking sounds whenever he brutally murdered someone. I really liked him and grew attached. Despite it being much shorter, I’d say it’s better than Nuka World, although neither of these come even remotely close to being on the same level as Far Harbour.
The rest of the DLC’s add items to settlement building. Settlement building is a new mechanic in Fallout 4 that lets you build your own towns and communities, which you have to provide food, water, defence and shelter for. With the right character build, you can outfit them with crafting tables and shops. To my mind it is a fun addition to the game, although it does provide a way to unfairly grind experience towards your next level up by spamming items to build. However one cannot help but feel that Bethesda sacrificed a lot of the game to get this mechanic working, since there are only three regular settlements in the game: Diamond City, Good Neighbour and Covenant, one of which you wipe-out for a quest so that it can turn into a buildable settlement. The result is less NPC’s to interact with in unique pre-established locations, and thus less quests. Building your own settlements doesn’t fix this problem, since all settlers share the same five lines of dialogue and can’t be interacted with beyond assigning them jobs and trading gear with them.
Overall I would not recommend this game. Although I can’t deny I did enjoy it, there were many times playing it where I didn’t even feel like I was playing a Fallout game because no matter how much iconography was thrown at me, it didn’t stop the boredom from settling in once I’d finished my twelfth fetch quest; A boredom that only grew after completing my sixth linear dungeon, knowing my reward would be something I’ll never make use of again. And beyond that, knowing that I wasn’t engaged in why I was doing it, or interested in the people who told me to do it.
If I could recommend you to play Far Harbour without having to buy the main game I would, but sadly I can’t. So on the grounds that this game is kind of… boring, despite it’s many improvements on gameplay, I do not recommend you play this game.