"Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist" sounds like a pretty legendary character, right? Well, he wasn't. In fact, he was a very lucky, over-achieving halfling rogue in a short-lived campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. I rolled for the character's initial stats, got fairly low constitution, and then rolled the minimum value for hit dice for the first few levels. The result was a sixth-level character with a pathetic sixteen max hit points! A single lucky shot from virtually any enemy could be an instant KO for that character, and getting engaged in melee would practically be a death sentence. While some power gamers may scoff at the idea, rage against their dice, and then remake their character with a standard array and average HP, I decided to run with it and role play the hell out of little Gregle.
Character sheet for "Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist"
With the low initial constitution, I focused my character around stealth abilities, disengagement and evasion tactics, and ranged attacks, and continued to improve those skills as I leveled. Knowing that he's a pathetic weakling, Gregle overcompensated by being a very flamboyant braggart and narcissist (I took inspiration from Stephen Colbert), and thought that he was more charming than he actually was. He routinely hid in the shadows, taking pot shots at vulnerable enemies and racking up kill steals from afar while his two warrior companions did most of the heavy-lifting. He would occasionally disarm a trap or unlock a door, and once used a clever trick to pacify (and subjugate) an entire band of pirates. He then took credit for much of the party's achievements.
Despite having only slightly above average charisma, he leaned on his halfling luck to succeed on some charisma checks and make himself a bit of a celebrity with the local townies for his exaggerated heroics. He reveled in the unprecedented access to their community that the locals provided, and he reveled in the adulant gifts that they showered upon him, happily hoarding it all in his bag of holding. The other party members never called him out on it in public, since they were just happy to have the cooperation of the locals.
While the other players and DM enjoyed Gregle's antics, their characters only barely tolerated his presence. During the actual adventuring, he was constantly getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out by his fellow adventurers. He once falsely awakened the party during his night watch after mistaking a wyvern for a dragon. In another instance, he was KO'd while using spider-boots to walk up a ceiling to pursue an enemy that had climbed a rope to escape the conflict, and he became stuck on the ceiling, forcing the party to figure out a way to get him down. They reluctantly obliged to help him, since Gregle was the possessor of the party's bag of holding, and was actually good at sneaking around to perform recon, unlocking doors, disarming traps, coming up with clever plans to avoid direct conflict, and other appropriately roguish things.
Gregle was one of the most fun characters that I've ever played, and he provided me with one of my most entertaining gaming experiences. This is the power of role playing to a character's strengths and weaknesses. It's a power that Bethesda shows no interest in utilizing for Fallout 4.
Out of the vault and into the wastes
I have to give credit to Bethesda for making one really interesting decision with Fallout 4: the game starts in a time period prior to the Great War that triggered the nuclear holocaust, and so it explores as yet unseen elements of the series' backstory. Or at least, it does for all of fifteen minutes. Much like Fallout 3, the pre-war gameplay and time that you spend in the vault is really just an extended tutorial and character-creation process. But unlike Fallout 3, it doesn't give enough time and depth to those settings to make the player legitimately care about them or the characters in them.
You don't spend enough time in your pre-war home or vault to develop any attachment to the place or people.
After creating your character and setting your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, you and your spouse immediately flee with your infant child to the neighborhood vault. Once inside, you're handed the trademark silly superhero pajama jumpsuit and then promptly cryogenically frozen. You awake to witness your spouse get murdered and child kidnapped by apparent raiders, but then get frozen again. Then you awake again to do the combat tutorial against radroaches before leaving the vault and starting the game proper.
You spend virtually no time in the pre-war time period; you don't bond at all with your spouse or child; you don't establish any connections with your home or neighbors. There is absolutely no emotional bond between the player and what is lost in the war. So when the game drops you in the wasteland with a dead spouse, a missing child, and a quest to track down the kidnapper/killer, it does so without creating any emotional connection or investment for the player. I could go to Concord and then to Diamond City and search for my son, or I could just wander off in any random direction fighting raiders and painstakingly building my own little settlement out in the middle of nowhere using salvaged car tires and scrapped raider armor. Fallout 4 doesn't waste any time taking a nose-dive into the open world limbo.
Fallout 3 simulated an entire childhood in the
vault, with friends, family, and even bullies.
Compare this against Fallout 3's prologue. It spent a considerably longer time developing your character and immersing you in the vault. Your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) plays with you as a baby to teach movement and camera controls, he teaches you how to shoot, and throws a surprise birthday party for you. You interact with a childhood friend, other vault dwellers, and even a bully in order to tutorialize persuasion and speech checks and learn how to solve conflicts without violence. You even go to school and take a test to determine your default skills. In the short amount of time in the vault, you've lived a montage of an entire life.
With only a little bit of buy-in from the player, Fallout 3's Vault 101 becomes a living, breathing place populated with people who you can relate to and care about. You, as a player, have an investment in it and the characters that inhabit it. So when shit happens and you have to leave the vault, it's a monumental moment, and the events of your life, and the decisions that you've made, will shape your character's development over the rest of the game.
Even Skyrim gave the player interesting role-play decisions in its tutorial by required your character to make an immediate decision to follow the imperials or the Stormcloaks (though the scenario makes that decision a pretty one-sided one). And your initial choices of weapons and battle tactics would level up those specific skills; thus, starting the character down a path towards specializing in those skills as the game progressed (though you were completely free to change all that if you want).
And Fallout 4 has a perfect opportunity to take that father / son dynamic from Fallout 3, and invert it! The game could have opened with the birth of the baby. Since Bethesda had to record dialogue for multiple names for the player character, they could just as easily have done the same with the child's name. The doctor could hand you a paper with "This Year's Popular Baby Names", and you could chose one of those names that were explicitly recorded in dialogue. You could even be given the option to type your own name and replace the child's name with "my son" in dialogue. You could fill out the child's name and your own character's name on the birth certificate. Naming the baby would create a sense of ownership and connection to the child that might help encourage the player to pursue the main quest.
Fallout 4's vault serves only as a combat tutorial with no depth, emotional resonance, or meaningful decisions.
But it doesn't have to stop there. Bethesda could have set up the tutorial so that you see your son grow up a little before your eyes. The game could tutorialize movement and camera controls by letting you hold your son's hands and walking with him as he takes his first steps. Shooting and grenade throwing could be tutorialized by taking your son to the park to toss a baseball around or play cops and robbers, and you could chat with neighbors on your way to and from the park. You could maybe even do some small quests for them like help a neighbor move some furniture or tend to their garden in order to tutorialize some crafting mechanics. Your performance in these tutorials could even set your baseline S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes, which you could be free to change when the Vault-Tec salesman comes to your door to "verify information". You could have thrown a birthday party for your son and had to make role-play decisions about what kind of decorations and presents to buy, and these decisions could have affected the child's personality and your relationship with him later in the game. There was so much potential to ground the game's narrative in a more touching and personal foundation, and to create an emotional investment in the life you had before the war.
Fallout 4 completely misses this. There's no character building or development, and your motivation to rescue your kidnapped son is entirely shallow and unconvincing. I stepped out of the tutorial and into the sandbox, and the game had already lost me.
Not so S.P.E.C.I.A.L. after all
Sure, the original Fallout didn't do anything to create an emotional connection with the character's life in the vault, but it didn't need to impose an emotional motivation because it included an explicit mechanical motivation to complete the main quest (in the form of a strict time limit). Fallout was, instead, a game about what your character becomes in the wasteland - what the wasteland causes you to become. That point is hammered home by the conclusion of the game. But what you become in the wasteland (and how you become that person) is still bound by strict role playing conventions.
And it wasn't just the flimsy narrative set-up that turned me off. The character-creation process itself also set the game up for failure in my mind. For starters, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats that are a Fallout trademark have been changed fundamentally. In the original Fallout, these S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats each ranged from 1 to 10 and defaulted to 5. You had a few extra points to allocate, but if you wanted to really pump up one stat, you'd have to take points away from another. These stats would mostly be permanent, as they would set the baseline physical capabilities of your character. Your character could either be average and well-rounded, or you could excel in certain areas at the cost of being deficient in others.
S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats in original Fallout [LEFT] created pseudo-permanent limitations that enforced playing a role.
Fallout 4 [RIGHT] is just a grind to max out everything and become the Superman of the wastes.
In addition, you could only pick a couple perks, and they all came with a bonus and a drawback. Your character had true strengths and weaknesses that would inform your playstyle for the entire game. Each time you started a new game with a different character with a different set of stats and perks, the game would play differently. The character would have access to different resolutions to problems, and sometimes even entirely different quests.
Now, all your stats start at a baseline of 1 and you can distribute your starting points however you want. whenever you level up, you have the option to upgrade any of those S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. In fact, you don't even have skills anymore, as every activity seems to be a function of a relevant S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat alone. So eventually - without even needing to grind - every character will max all seven stats and be exceptional at everything. You won't have to work around a character's strengths and weaknesses or resign yourself to the fact that your character just isn't good enough to do certain things, you'll just have to delay a quest or challenge until your character's weakness inevitably becomes a strength.
The perks aren't a few special bonuses and drawbacks that inform your character's personality, backstory, or abilities. The game regularly awards you with new perks, and you get to pick a new one every level. The perks themselves are all attached to one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats in sometimes esoteric ways that prevents you from taking certain perks for a specific character concept.
For example, look at the "Night Person" trait / perk:
In the original Fallout [LEFT], any character could take it, and it provides conditional bonuses and penalties.
In Fallout 4 [RIGHT], it is locked in a half-assed skill tree and provides only bonuses.
In the end, I don't feel like I'm playing as a character. Heck, there's not even a karma system to track whether you're commiting good deeds or being an evil prick! The character is just a power-fantasy avatar of me, the player. For people who like sandbox games that allow you to customize your environment and express yourself, then this will be great! But it's impossible for me to ignore the fact that this is a fundamental betrayal of what Fallout has always been: "a post-nuclear role-playing game". It was a high-stakes, character and narrative-driven game about playing to a character's strengths and weaknesses in order to accomplish a specific goal in an excessively hostile, resource-deprived, morally-ambiguous world. When Bethesda released Fallout 3, die-hard fans threw fits that the game had been bastardized and dumbed down, and that it was just "Oblivion with guns". They insisted that it wasn't worthy of the "Fallout" name. Well Fallout 4 makes 3 look like a masterful adaptation by comparison.
Killing time (and raiders) in the wasteland
So Fallout 4 fails miserably as part of the Fallout series, and it fails miserably at providing a dramatic, sandbox narrative. But does it hold up as a game on its own, independent of my expectations of a game in this genre and series? Well, I'm not entirely convinced that it even does that...
All the open-ended exploration and passive, environmental story-telling that we all loved from Skyrim are still there, but once you have to actually start playing the game (as opposed to just exploring it), it starts to fall apart. The vast majority of the game consists of doing one of two things: shooting things (usually raiders), or collecting scrap for crafting. The actual questing, adventuring, and character interaction all seem to fall to the wayside. So this is one of the loosest and most free-form sandbox games that I've ever played. Some people will love that; others (like me) will just get bored with the game's inability to focus or provide any kind of structured sense of progression.
The awkward aim offset is back for the third person camera. This was something that bothered me in Fallout 3, but which wasn't as big of a problem in Skyrim due to the greater focus on close range melee combat. But Fallout 4 is a very heavily gun-based game, and it is constantly throwing things to shoot at you. The fact that the aiming reticle doesn't actually point to where your gun/cursor is aiming is hair-pullingly frustrating! I'm part of a subset of players that prefers to play my games in third person whenever possible. If I'm going to put the effort into creating and customizing a character (which this game focuses on a lot!), then I want that character to be visible! Third person cameras can also provide a wider field of vision and greater sense of situational and environmental awareness. The lack of any kind of cover or peeking mechanics does make the third person camera vital to stealth.
The aiming reticle is noticeably offset in third person, making shooting and looting needlessly imprecise.
This aim offset makes hitting targets very difficult in the third person, which gradually drained my ammo reserves, and forced me to use V.A.T.S. until I basically just gave up and started switching back to first person for gunfights - at which point the game became infinitely more playable. Environmental awareness was admittedly more important in Skyrim since the proliferation of melee combat meant players have to see what was happening in a 360 degree radius around the player's immediate vicinity. In Fallout 4, I don't care as much about being able to see around and behind my character, since enemies are usually 50 yards in front of me, in plain view, rather than crowding around me like a pub brawl.
But there are animals and ghouls that will still mob rush you. And when this happens, I'd like to be able to have a third-person view that lets me aim reliably. And this is one of the areas in which Fallout 4 gunplay starts to feel extremely dated. You can't equip a melee weapon at the same time as a gun (even a one-handed gun), so if you get rushed, you have to use the PIP Boy or quick inventory to switch to a knife or bat or whatever. Fortunately, you can craft a bayonet onto virtually any gun, and they're actually pretty effective. The gunplay is hampered by the stubborn insistence that this is supposed to still be an RPG, and the game's adherence to RPG combat conventions. Your accuracy is supposedly limited by your perception, there aren't any cover mechanics or "peek" controls (at least not on console), and perfectly-aimed head shots aren't instant kills (even against human opponents) if your weapon simply isn't powerful enough to reduce the target's HP to zero.
You're constantly moving, and the action is very fast and furious, resulting in a lot of the same "backwards advancing" that Oblivion was criticized for (and which Skyrim took great pains to reduce). This is another thing that doesn't mesh well with my perception of what Fallout should be. I think that a slower, more deliberate approach to combat would have been more appropriate, if combat ever becomes necessary - and in Fallout 4, combat is almost always necessary!
Some enemy mobs throw an absurd amount of grenades. It's like Call of Duty: World at War in here!
The action slows down when V.A.T.S. is triggered (which still feels as awkward to me as ever). But V.A.T.S. shouldn't be relied on since the action proceeds much faster than AP regeneration. V.A.T.S. also has a nasty habit of grossly underestimating the damage that I'll deal with a given attack, so I always feel obliged to sink all my points into repeatedly shooting the same enemy to ensure that it actually goes down. I do like that you can manually trigger a critical hit at given points, which gives you an "ace in the hole" in particularly tough encounters or boss fights, but that's about the only thing that I like about the whole system.
And then there's the grenades! God Damnit, I hate grenades in this game. Problems with grenades were a nagging issue from the start of the game, but my hatred really coalesced during the boss fight with Kellog. Enemies love throwing grenades, and they seem to be amazingly accurate with them. On the other hand, the player's ability to effectively use grenades seems nerfed to the ground unless you take some perks to make them worthwhile. The button to throw a grenade is overloaded to the same button that performs a melee gun bash, which lead to me occasionally dropping a grenade at my feet when I just wanted to bash an enemy that charged me, and other times when I wanted to throw a grenade, but ended up flailing my gun around like an idiot and get shot full of holes. You have to take a perk in order to use the trajectory arc, and you can't throw a grenade from inside V.A.T.S., which means it's very hard to judge where a grenade will land. In the early half of the game, I ended up blowing myself up every time I tried throwing a grenade or a molotov. Because of this, grenades didn't become an active part of my playstyle, so I didn't feel incentivized to take the perks to make them more useable.
Grenade are hampered by obfuscated controls and poor accuracy, and they can't be thrown from V.A.T.S.
Wouldn't be Bethesda without followers constantly getting in your way
Next up in the list of long-standing Bethesda RPG problems is NPC followers. Their favorite thing in the world seems to be getting in your way. Followers routinely run right in front of you, blocking doorways, narrow passages, and stairs, and sometimes getting in the way of your attacks. In one instance, Dogmeat got me killed by stepping in between me and a landmine that I was trying to disarm. I moved close enough to the mine to hear the beeping, then went to press X to disarm it, only to have Dogmeat suddenly run up in front of me. Instead of disarming the mine, I initiated a conversation with Dogmeat and then was promptly blown up by the mine. In another instance, Piper decided to stand in the middle of a catwalk on the elevator to the mayor of Diamond City's office. I tried to squeeze past her, but she ended up knocking me off the catwalk, and I fell to my death.
It doesn't really feel like a Bethesda game unless NPCs are constantly blocking doorways and getting in your way.
But on the upside, there are three significant improvements to NPCs. First, they don't look nearly as ugly as they did in Skyrim (though they still fall firmly in the uncanny valley). Secondly, you can command an NPC to move from a greater range. So if an NPC runs out ahead of you or falls far behind, you can point at them and order them to move to a specific location. Finally, they seem to be considerably more passive while you are sneaking, so they're not constantly giving away your position. These improvements combine to make NPCs much less likely to run off and get themselves killed - an improvement that immediately felt completely moot once I realized that all the companions are unkillable.
The companion characters are also pretty likeable and do have a respectable amount of personality. Each follower will occasional chip in with their own insight or opinions during certain dialogue, and they will even grow to like or dislike you based on your actions in during gameplay. If they like you enough, they'll ask you to perform a "loyalty quest" for them, similar to what you would see from a party member in a Mass Effect game. All this serves to give these characters some personality and helps to make them truly likable in the game. In fact, this mechanic seems to have replaced Karma from a mechanical standpoint. Instead of playing as a "good guy" or a "bad guy" and having the world treat you differently as a result, these same "good" or "bad" actions will earn the favor or disapproval of whatever companion you currently have.
Unfortunately, the underlying affinity mechanic is dumb and easy to exploit. As far as I can tell, the character's preferences are hidden from the player until you do something to earn their approval or disdain and receive a notification, and a lot of these preferences are really random and esoteric. Despite the fact that they can occasional offer input in dialogue trees, they rarely (if ever) warn you against doing something that they would disapprove of. But it doesn't really matter whether they approve of your questing or big-picture activities because you can easily manipulate their affinity via trivial actions. You can earn Piper's approval by picking locks, Nick's approval by hacking terminals, Danse's approval by entering power armor, and so on. So you never really have to cater your playstyle or decisions to the tastes of your companion. Instead, you just have to go out of your way to make up any differences by finding whatever trivial mechanic earns their approval and repeating it ad nauseum.
There's also a new Dogmeat companion that plays a much more important role in the game, and he's named "Dogmeat" because ... that's what every dog is named in Fallout, I guess? He's found almost immediately after setting out into the wasteland (unless you decide to go off in some random direction), and plays a pivotal role in at least a few quests. In one instance, he is used to help you sniff out a villain that you pursue through the waste. This was one of the better quests, since it actually provided a bit of personality to the game and spent some time to build the relationship between the player character and his or her canine companion.
Dogmeat is undeniable cute and plays an important role in several quests, including helping you sniff out a villain.
In addition to being undeniably cute and providing important help in quests, Dogmeat also has unique functionality in normal play. He can search for enemies and loot, and you'll get a notification when he's found something. This feature is hurt by the fact that Dogmeat's position (or the position of the thing he's found) is not labeled on your map or radar. Considering the washed out gray and brown color palette of large parts of the game, this can make it very difficult for you to find Dogmeat if he runs off somewhere and starts barking.
Role play is further undercut by ambiguous dialogue options
Dialogue is a joke. You only get four vague options for how to respond to someone. Many of the options represent false choices, as most dialogue trees are binary (e.g. "yes" / "no", or "I'll do it" / "I won't do it") options. You never have any idea what your character is actually going to say, and so dialogue often unfolds in unexpected ways. The worst part is the exceedingly vague "sarcastic" option, which doesn't even specify whether your answer will be a sarcastic "positive" or a sarcastic "negative". Will you be "funny" sarcastic, or will you be "accusatory" sarcastic? Jocular? Passive aggressive? Or outright antagonistic?
To get around this, Bethesda made it so that specific face-buttons seem to map to the same specific outcomes. The circle button always seems to be an accusatory or hostile response that is most likely to provoke a violent response. Sometimes, this button isn't even dialogue, it's just a prompt to attack. The x button is typically reserved for a more passive response. The triangle button is always the "more info" inquiry that usually just triggers a text dump, followed by a repeat of the same four options you had before (with maybe a new "even more info" prompt allocated to the triangle button). The square button is a sort-of context-sensitive wild card. It's often reserved for the aforementioned "sarcastic" option, but also provides the option to flirt with possible romantic partners, to diplomatically resolve certain quests (on the off chance that such an option is available), or to ask for more money from quest-givers.
Face button assignments for dialogue seem to be categorized for specific outcomes,
so you chose based on expected outcome rather than on what you think your character would say.
The result is that you're not thinking about what your character would actually say, or even what you would want to say. Instead, you're just playing to a specific expected game outcome. As far as I can tell, there aren't even special dialogue options that show up if your character is particularly intelligent, perceptive, or strong, and even the "lady-killer" / "black widow" perk doesn't provide additional flirt dialogues. You can't outwit an opponent with your smarts or intimidate them with your sheer size or strength, since these are all charisma-based checks. It just emphasizes that it doesn't really matter what your character actually says, because these are just game scripts rather than real people. There's never more than one way to flirt, nor are you ever given more than one justification for demanding greater pay for a job, and you can't do things like demand payment up front (unless a specific quest allows it).
Role play is also hurt by the frequent false choices. Sometimes, asking for further information about a quest is taken as an implicit acceptance of the quest. Worse yet, even if I opt to refuse, many quest-givers will just shrug my refusal off and give me the quest anyway because "you don't have a choice in the matter". And this doesn't even take into account the way that characters awkwardly stand there, holding their guns, while they talk. There's no natural hand or arm gesticulation, characters don't pace back and forth during difficult discussions, the player character never seems to emote, and conversation always feels so lifeless and robotic.
As if not knowing what your character is going to say in any given situation weren't bad enough, dialogue is also plagued by frequent bugs. I can live with subtitles being slightly different than the spoken dialogue because I understand that script or directorial changes can happen during recording. But it goes way beyond that! Subtitles are often flat-out wrong or don't update as the character moves from one subtitle paragraph to the next. And there's frequent weird pauses in the dialogue exchanges in which both characters just stare at each other for a few seconds as if there's supposed to be a line of dialogue that just got skipped. These issues are present in the very first main story mission in the game and also crop up again in later main story missions. I never noticed the problem in side missions. You'd think that the critical mission path for the main story would be the most thoroughly planned and tested part of the game, and that the opening quests would be the most thoroughly play-tested so as to make sure that they are rock solid and going to leave good impressions on new players. This failure leads me to two conclusions:
- Bethesda just didn't care about the main quest,
- or Bethesda made last-minute changes to the scripts and didn't bother ironing out the bugs before launch.
Either way, sloppy, sloppy work.
The world also continues to move on as you're talking, which means that if you stop to talk to someone as a firefight or brawl breaks out, you might have gunshots and explosions going on around you as you casually chat. Other ambient events can also happen while you are engaged in dialogue, which can possibly be a distraction, and which may lead to you being unable to resolve the ambient event.
People will continue moving around, and possibly even start shooting, while you're engaged in conversation.
Crafting is where all the role play - and the game - is at
I used to spend a lot more time that I'd like to admit in Skyrim and Fallout 3 transferring loot from dungeon to town to sell. Skyrim allowed for the crafting of weapons and armor, and the house-building feature of the Hearthfire added a whole bunch more tedious crafting busy-work. Well Fallout 4 takes that approach and doubles-down on it.
Armor and weapon customization is something that I really hope gets carried over into the next Elder Scrolls game (whether that ends up being Skyrim 2 or something more ambitious). I like being able to personalize my equipment and have a favorite weapon or armor set that I can enhance so that I get to continue using it throughout the game, and I hate when games routinely give strictly superior weapons and armor that look substantially different and make it difficult (or impossible) to justify continuing to equip the obsolete equipment that has become part of my character's visual identity. That consistency of appearance and style helps establish personality for the character - which would be a much bigger deal if this game put more emphasis on building a character.
The weapon and armor customizations even have a lot of pro and con upgrades. Weapon upgrades might increase ammo capacity at the cost of making the gun heavier, or increase accuracy at the cost of lowering damage. So there's a lot of options for personalizing your weapons to your own preferred playstyle and to keep a variety of weapons each with a specific role. Armor crafting feels a bit more shallow, especially since certain outfits can't be customized, but I still like the layering and mixing-and-matching of armor that the game allows.
There's some handy new inventory-management options. Crafting components can be used directly out of storage without having to be moved to your personal inventory. Storage containers in a single settlement also all share the same inventory, so you don't have to walk from workbench to workbench to collect items (and overburden yourself) to do your crafting. There's also a single "Store all junk" button that is a huge time-saver! And with enough Charisma points, you can take perks that allow you to set up supply lines between your different settlements that allows them to share inventories.
Weapon and armor upgrades require cost-benefit analysis and provide variety for whatever playstyle(s) you prefer.
While I like being able to wear a base outfit and then equip extra armor and accessories on top of it, it is tedious and annoying to have to keep re-equipping half a dozen items anytime I want to, say, equip a business suit to improve my charisma while talking with townies. You can set favorites for armor and map them to a quick inventory, but there's no way to tag multiple items of clothing or armor as a single "outfit" so that you can equip the whole set at once. Further, all those accessories continue to take up space in your inventory. While suppressors and scopes are crafted onto a gun (becoming a single piece of equipment), leg and arm armor remains a separate piece and cannot be crafted onto the base layer in order to form single, unified outfit. I can craft a "comfort-grip suppressed scoped focused laser rifle", but I can't craft a "leather-armored insulated vault suit"? It's also unfortunate that certain outfits (such as the Drifter Outfit and others with long coats or capes) don't work with accessories at all. Why couldn't they just make a coat as an outer layer that goes over another outfit?
There's also a couple of nagging annoyances in the new interface. While the "Store all junk" option is great, I wish that it were more generalized. You should be able to select any category of items (such as aid or miscellaneous) and store all of them with a single button-press. I also don't like that the "Take all" command requires that you first open up the "Transfer" menu, effectively requiring two button presses in order to achieve what used to be a single-button-press activity. But then again, I do find myself sorting through the Transfer menu when looting anyway, in order to filter out the useless junk that's just going to weight me down.
It takes a vault dweller to craft a village
In addition to crafting weapons and armor, you can also craft entire villages! This (combined with the gameplay set in pre-war America) is something that actually really intrigued me, and it was one of the core reasons why I decided to to buy the game second-hand from eBay (as opposed to waiting for more critical reviews and forum discussions). The idea of having to build and protect a community actually seemed like a creative twist of the traditional Fallout formula that involves the player character being forced to leave his or her community and set out in the wastes alone. That character settling down and building a community was always something that happened outside of the scope of the previous games, and so making it a focus of the new game took an element that was hinted at previously, and puts it front-and-center.
Heck, they even allow you to claim some vacant land and structures, and then renovate them to turn them into your own home or fortress! This is something that I specifically suggested that Skyrim should have let you do. This feature is limited to a few specific plots of land on the map, but it still feels slightly more organic and rogue-ish than having to buy a deed to land for all your homes in Skyrim.
Crafting a settlement is made needlessly difficult by a cumbersome interface and restrictive camera.
But, like the pre-war bit, it didn't take long for my interest to turn into disappointment. First and foremost, the interface for settlement crafting is clumsy and uncomfortable. You literally select a crafting item and then walk around the settlement with a glowing footprint of the item hovering in front of your face in order to find a place to put it. The game forces you into first-person for this, which confines your peripheral vision, takes away any ability to get a bird's-eye-view, and blocks out your view with the overlay of the item you're crafting. Positioning an item can be a pain in the butt because you often can't see exactly where it is or how it's lining up with nearby or adjacent items. Some items like walls and fences will lock together, which seems convenient but also opens up whole new issues. It gets even worse in confined spaces (such as indoor rooms), since you're still bound by collision detection with walls and other clutter.
Setting up supply lines is also a pain. There is no central interface for managing supply lines. In order to set one up or change one, you have to walk up to a specific settler while in Workshop Mode and tell them to start a supply line (or change their destination if they're already on one). This means that as your settlements grow, you acquire new settlements, and you need to shuffle around your supply lines, you have to hope that the provisioner that you want to reassign is at a particular settlement at a particular time, so that you can manually give him new orders. You can't even walk up to them if you find them in the wastes and tell them to change assignments; it has to be done from within Workshop Mode inside a settlement. At least PC players will probably be able to get mods to better manage settlements, and to turn character clipping off when in Workshop Mode; console players are stuck with Bethesda's dumb design choices.
And then there's the annoying little things. Like how time doesn't stop and NPCs will wander around while you're crafting, stand in the exact spot that you want to place something, and thus prevent you from placing it. Great, another way for NPCs to get in your way! Or other problems like issues with objects snapping (or failing to snap) to the edges of other objects (walls and fences). Or like not being able to see what a settler's current assignment is. Or the lack of a copy/paste function or the ability to make prefabs. Or like not being able to remove (or scrap?) dead bodies from inside, or around, the settlement. Or like not being able to create certain services such as an inn or hotel. Or like not being able to place doors on pre-existing buildings (such as the houses in Sanctuary). Or like not being able to assign ownership of certain things. For example, I wanted to claim my character's old house in Sanctuary as my personal home, but there's no way to do that, and I routinely found Preston sleeping in my bed. This isn't just a superficial aesthetic problem either. Since you can't assign a particular character or settler to have a specific shack or bed, they'll wander around aimlessly, sitting in random chairs and sleeping in random beds. And since characters aren't marked on the local map, it's hard to find specific residents when you need to, say, assign them to a specific task. They'll also supposedly use your power armor during attacks, then glitch and be unable to take it off.
Settlement crafting is loaded with nagging little annoyances ranging from functional to superficial.
I don't expect a home-building tool as user-friendly as what's available in a game like The Sims, but this system is not comfortable at all and felt borderline unuseable until I learned all its little foibles and found ways of dealing with them. Couldn't we have at least been given some kind of top-down view, or some interface that is not bound by collision detection or the physical location of the player character in the world? Regardless, this base-crafting system is light-years ahead of what Skyrim: Hearthfire offered, even though it still feels like a half-baked internal dev tool that Bethesda packaged and threw into the game.
All of this crafting and town-building stuff becomes unlocked almost immediately upon stepping out of the vault, and the game seems to encourage the player to start playing around with it all right away, even though your character supposedly has the whole "murdered spouse and missing baby" thing still weighing, unresolved, on his or her shoulders. This feature seems like it would have worked a whole lot better if you were tasked with finding your son first, and then building a community to settle in order to protect and raise him.
The main quest even comes to a natural hiatus point after examining Kellog's memories, in which you're basically tasked with collecting resources and building up a suit of power armor in order to achieve the next objective. It's similar to the point in The Witcher 3 in which you learn where Ciri is, and then the game opens up an epic, "tie up all lose ends and recruit allies" quest in preparation for going after Ciri. Except Fallout 4's equivalent is a bit more subtle and occurs much earlier in the main campaign. This would have been a perfectly natural point in which to slow down the narrative and open up more of the side questing and settlement-building. Your character knows where your son is; your character knows that he's probably not in immediate danger; and your character acknowledges that it's time to explore the wastes to gather the resources necessary to retrieve your son.
My (unedited) "story-first" playthrough, in which I tried really hard to role play as a concerned father.
If you aggressively pursue the story up to at least this point (as I did in my "story-first playthrough"), then the game works a whole lot better! Heck, you could even justify making a role-play decision at this point to not go after your son because he possibly has his own life, doesn't even remember you, and you showing up would just get in the way. And then there's an even better hiatus point after completing a couple more main quests. But Bethesda doesn't care about crafting a narrative, or about immersing the player in the role of the character, or about experimenting with heavy themes regarding what it means to be a parent, so they just throw the sandbox doors wide open and announce: "Screw finding your son, you've got power armor to build and big guns to collect!"
Look at it this way: combat and action are so much more important than roleplay to Bethesda that they put more personality and specialization into customizing hand-crafted guns than can be put into developing the player character!
That being said, the crafting does actually add a lot to the game. The settlement crafting finally gives function to all the useless junk that cluttered the wastes in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Granted, this also means that your inventory is going to very quickly become weighed down with relatively trivial trinkets, and finding a silver cutlery set and a soft pillow can now be just as valid a reward for clearing a bandit camp as finding an armor-piercing, semi-automatic sniper rifle. I also really do like and appreciate that the Power Armor is an actual object in the game world (the location of which is always marked on your map, even though the location of your current companion is not) rather than just a piece of clothing sitting in your inventory. It gives it a greater sense of ownership and substance and makes it feel more personal. In fact, your map will even display the location of your power armor suit(s) at all times - something that it doesn't do for companion characters. So if you leave your armor sitting around in the middle of nowhere, you'll always know where to find it; it you tell your companion to stay put and then forget where you left him/her, then you're screwed. Another example of Bethesda's priorities...
I'm not opposed to all this weapon, armor, and base customization - and most of it feels genuinely meaningful, rather than just cosmetic; I'm just disappointed that it had to come at the cost of shallow characterization for all of the people in the game, and that it does disservice to the narrative. Fallout 4's settlement building and crafting is more varied, expressive, and a bit easier to decorate than Skyrim's home-crafting, but it doesn't seem to have the same emotional levity. Skyrim's custom houses still feel more tied to the life and experiences of the character. In the end, I still feel like I'm more willing to put up with Skyrim's crafting deficiencies because that game pulls me in more than Fallout 4, and the it only gets better with the little personal touches. My girlfriend still jokes about how I "neglect my Skyrim wife and kids", and how they're going to be soooo jealous of all the time I spend with my real girlfriend. She hasn't once joked about my Fallout son or dog missing me.
The player is free (and highly encouraged) to put more time and effort into lovingly,
and painstakingly, hand-crafting your own gun, than into finding your missing infant son.
Actually a decent campaign - if you bother to play it
Where the game does redeem itself a little bit (in my mind) is in the larger narrative that the main quest tells - if you bother to do the main quest. Looking for your son throws the player into the middle of a conflict regarding the rights of sentient robots, and the game makes allegorical comparisons to racism, slavery, and other prejudices. It's like a long, drawn-out version of the Star Trek: TNG episode "The Measure of a Man", but with less court drama, and more shooting things with laser guns.
The game's setting and other elements of design reinforce this meta plot. References to the American War for Independence and allusions to minutemen remind the player of the concepts of liberty and justice that the nation was supposedly founded on. Perhaps a better setting might have been Philadelphia (and nearby Civil War sites such as Gettysburg), which would have more closely paralleled the in-game situation, and further reinforced references to the "Underground Railroad".
The game even gives the player slightly more investment into this conflict by requiring you to make friends with synth characters early in the campaign, as well as introducing us to numerous characters that have been harmed by synths. Even your own settlements are vulnerable to synth infiltration and attack, giving the player some personal stakes in the resolution of the situation. I was reminded of the Dawnguard expansion for Skyrim, which I praised for provoking the player into resolving its main quest by sending vampires out to attack villages. The same sort of thing happens here with the synths, except the synths are much better camouflaged and concealed within their communities, which creates a growing sense of suspicion and paranoia.
The main story puts the player in the role of deciding whether Synthetic humans have rights.
All this doesn't start to happen unless you make a certain amount of progress in certain quests, so even though you're motivated to resolve the situation once it begins, you aren't pressured to initiate those quests. Of course, if you didn't bother with settlement-crafting, then this becomes mostly moot. There also aren't any ways of proactively identifying synths before they turn against you. You can't build relationships with your unnamed settlers, and so it's impossible to pick up on behavioral quirks that might give away their status - which would have been a very impressive feat if Bethesda had pulled it off! The synths themselves also are complete slaves to their programming. Their compassion for fellow settlers or loyalty to the community can't permit them to overcome the command to attack. Any moral message behind the plotline is, thus, somewhat undercut by the fact that such synths turn into remorseless, inhuman killing machines.
Regardless of the quality concepts behind the main questline, it still comes unraveled with only a tiny bit of examination. It's hard to discuss these issues without going into major spoiler territory, though.
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After getting into the Institute, and finding Shaun, I had to sit through Father's recruitment pitch. I could ask a handful of questions, but not any of the really meaningful questions to assuage my concerns with the Institute's seemingly nefarious intentions. I couldn't ask why the Institute was abducting people - something that I couldn't even challenge Father to attempt to deny - nor could I ask what happens to the people who are supposedly abducted. I couldn't ask any more details about Father's long-term plans regarding the Synths out in the wastes - not even to put him in a position in which he has to lie or bluff me that his intentions are benevolent. So when I'm asked to join the Institute, I have no way of gauging the morality or ethics of that decision because the game doesn't even let me try to confront Father about those concerns.
You're expected to decide whether to join (and lead) the Institute without even having
the opportunity to confront Father about the evil actions of his organization.
On top of that, his logic doesn't seem sound. He put me in a position to fight Kellogg - a fight in which I died several times. He says it was a way of allowing me to "have revenge". He doesn't even bother justifying why they required me to kill a Courser. They could have contacted me directly, or just sent a Courser to escort me back to the Institute. But instead, he chose this elaborate and risky plan in which I could have died at any step. He even claims to be showing " trust" in my by not confiscating my weapons first, and claiming to meet me unarmed. But if you kill him, he has an institute-issued laser pistol (and ammunition) in his inventory! This entire scenario is banking on the player to feel compelled to join Father out of familial love for a child, but since we already established that the game makes no effort to build such a bond between the player and child, this choice is entirely lacking in emotional resonance.
Further, I was able to learn a lot about the identity of some high-profile Synth replacements, but couldn't do anything about it or question Father (or anyone in the Institute) about their purpose. The most significant find was verification that Mayor McDonough of Diamond City is, in fact, a Synth. Piper had speculated as much, but I didn't notice any way to tell her that I had verified her suspicion, nor could I warn the Diamond City authorities or challenge McDonough himself. And even when Father gave me the mission to attack the Railroad directly, I'm given the optional objective to warn the Railroad to start a counter-quest (an option for which I'm grateful), but I can't threaten Father that I'm going to inform the Railroad in order to try to broker some kind of peace or change in Institute policy.
All we have to go on is Father's empty promises, some of which are outright false.
He claims to have met you unarmed, as a gesture of trust; yet he plainly has a weapon in his inventory.
And even if I chose to accept leadership of the Institute, I have no power to change its policy. I can't shut down the gen-3 Synth production, or stop the process of replacing Commonwealth residents with Synth duplicates. I can't tell the Railroad that I'm taking over the Institute and promise them that the Institute will stop creating and mistreating Synths. I can't promise the Minutemen or Piper or Nick Valentine that I'll stop the Institute from kidnapping people. I understand that a computerized RPG can't account for all possibilities of player action like a pen & paper tabletop game can, but the options available just seem so constrained, and the player is asked to make uninformed, and unintuitive decisions.
And the issues with the main plot don't end there. The other branches are also littered with problems. For example, the Railroad's questline (and the whole Synth-rights issue, in general) is completely undercut by the fact that the Railroad changes the liberated Synths' faces and erases their memories! That's basically killing them. For an organization that supposedly considers Synth life genuine and sacred, the Railroad still treats them as if their lives leading up to being liberated have no value, making rescuing them almost entirely moot. I guess that game gets around this by making a point of informing the player that the Synths chose to have their memories wiped, but it still kind of castrates the moral conundrum that the whole game is based around.
Too much of a shooter to be an RPG; too much of an RPG to be a shooter
I just don't really care for shooters. I play Fallout for the engaging role play and setting, not to spend hours just wandering around shooting Mad Max extras. The point-and-fire nature of gun-based combat also just isn't as engaging to me as the more technical sword-and-shield combat of Skyrim or Dark Souls. The shallow quests and limited role play of Fallout 4 don't pull me in, and the mindless item-collecting that supports the elaborate crafting and customization doesn't win me over either. After writing this review, I doubt that I'll go back to playing Fallout 4, especially since I have games like The Witcher 3 and even Fallout: New Vegas still sitting unfinished on my shelf.
While Fallout 4 remains technically functional and has some really great ideas going into its feature set, setting, and certain elements of design, I cannot really recommend it to anyone. I can't recommend it to RPG fans (even those who loved Skyrim and Fallout 3) because it doesn't facilitate character role play and leans far too heavily towards combat as the resolution to virtually every quest or problem. But I also can't recommend it to shooter fans, because the fundamental shooting mechanics are stunted by the attempts to maintain vestigial RPG features.
Sure, all the superficial Fallout fan service is here. There's a dog named Dogmeat, raiders, super mutants, deathclaws, power armor, bottle caps as currency, vaults, PIP boys, Corvega cars, and so on. But this doesn't feel like Fallout. And the game itself - regardless of its namesake - isn't really all that great.
Within an hour or two of starting the game, you've already acquired Dogmeat as a follower, claimed
Power Armor and a laser rifle, and fought a Deathclaw, in case you didn't realize this is a Fallout game yet.