Friday, 6 April 2018

PC Game Review: Fallout 4

GAME: Fallout 4
DEVELOPER: Bethesda Game Studios
PUBLISHER: Bethesda Softworks

YEAR: 2015

Disclaimer: All of the screenshots are using mods.

It's kind of hard to imagine but it's already been 3 years since Bethesda's official sequel to Fallout 3 finally released, to somewhat mixed reviews, except my own. I guess I've needed this much time to truly make up an opinion on the game to be honest, and in my opinion, Fallout 4 does improve immensely on its predecessor in a lot of ways, but also still brings on a lot of the same problems that typically plague Bethesda titles. But before getting ahead of myself, let's discuss Fallout 3 for a bit since it's impossible to talk about Fallout 4 without mentioning Fallout 3 and a little about the franchise as a whole...

Fallout 3 was a game that was, most of the time, at odds with itself. It wanted to be a RPG but compared to the earlier Fallout titles was fairly simplified to the point a lot of perks didn't matter that much, traits were done away with entirely and SPECIAL points didn't really matter as much anymore, putting you in a position where having a single point in a SPECIAL attribute would inconvenience you, sure, but it wouldn't outright cripple you like in Fallout 1 and 2. While this did make it a more player-friendly experience, it also made it impossible to make characters with serious disadvantages.

It also wanted to be a FPS but the combat system employed a fair bit of randomness (in an attempt to add realism I would assume, or just as an RPG gimmick), resulting in the player being unable to hit something despite aiming dead center at it. A higher Luck skill would improve this somewhat, but even at medium Luck it would make it at times really frustrating to play the game. The game also lacked ironsights, sprinting, and the FPS mechanics were so barebones it didn't really feel all that satisfying.

*cue badass music*
Despite this, I would be a liar if I said I didn't like it. In fact, I love Fallout 3 and I've spent countless hours with it. But it has a lot of grievances, specifically in terms of plot. It has a very clear cut "bad guys" faction and "heroes" faction, without taking into account that in earlier games the Brotherhood of Steel was practically a secretive cult that rarely or never seeked contact with outsiders, making their entire presence in the Capitol Wasteland highly questionable. It was also a highly linear story, making any player choice regarding story events miniscule, forcing you to pretty much do things that could potentially be out of character for you. Calling it clumsily written is an understatement.

Thankfully, in my opinion this is where Fallout 4 improves the most, although in all honesty the story is almost verbatim the same as Fallout 3's, except the roles are switched. Where in Fallout 3 you're a child searching for your parent, in Fallout 4 you're a parent searching for your son. I mean... not exactly being original there, Bethesda... But at least it has a lot of improvements. For one, it doesn't try to set up too many relationships during the intro sequence which is thankfully a lot shorter than Fallout 3's. It sticks to the core, the family, setting up your relationship with your spouse and your son before throwing you into the nearby vault when a nuke nearby goes off. As it turns out, this vault is actually a cryogenic storage, and you're chosen to be frozen for an indefinite amount of time. During your time being frozen the vault is broken into by an unknown person who kills your spouse and takes your infant son. You wake up again later and this is your main quest. Finding the asshole who killed your spouse and finding your son. It's dead simple but it works wonderfully as a setup and doesn't go into too much detail, making it much less of a chore to get through for players like myself who create a lot of new characters.

*sniff* Did someone fart?
And it also foregoes the "good vs evil" mantra of Fallout 3 entirely. Instead of having a good and evil faction in the game, it has 4 main factions, and it's largely up to the player to judge whether they are good or evil, but all of them clearly has their own convictions and their actions can be good or evil depending on your viewpoint, because it is clear that all of the factions have good intentions. It's insanely refreshing to see this juxtaposed with Fallout 3's contrived scenario of Brotherhood of Steel vs Enclave. It's also less focused on strictly good or evil actions, and some of the side quests have morally grey areas where you might not be sure what is morally correct to do (though never to any extreme extent that I can remember). It poses questions like "can machines be considered human", "are the Brotherhood of Steel truly the saviours" and what you will do when you find out who your son is. So all in all it's probably the best story I've seen in any of the Bethesda released Fallout games (and yes, that includes New Vegas, sorry for all you New Vegas lovers out there). I actually did connect very well with the main character and was on a pretty emotional rollercoaster for most of the game and I loved it. It's really well done compared to the dud that was Fallout 3.

Companions have also been fleshed out a lot more compared to Fallout 3 and also made invincible so that they cannot be killed (which I am HUGELY grateful for...), only downed in which case you can stimpak them to get them back up. They're also given way more personality, given more proper backstories that are revealed to you as you talk to them over time, and also give you unique quests, in which you can assist them to gain their loyalty (a note taken from Mass Effect that I like). They're also a lot less 2-dimensional than the companions in Fallout 3 which were usually, well, pretty one-sided and would pretty much judge the character based on their current karma level. And sure, these companions will judge the player based on their actions too but it's less because of them being good or evil characters and more because of their own convictions. It's also possible to romance some of them, giving you a permanent perk, and this is NOT restricted by gender either.

DAMNIT, DOGMEAT! Get out of the damn way!
Of course, how can I forget the most important part of the story, Dogmeat... Dogmeat has been way more fleshed out in Fallout 4, given its own unique dog model (modeled after a real life German Shepard, although a female one, nice bit of trivia for you) and playing a much bigger part in the story than he did in Fallout 3, leading some of the major plot points in the story and serving as the first companion you come across that can be hired. He's also unique in that he follows the player regardless of their actions and will always remain loyal to you. Though at times he can be a bit of a nuisance, sometimes getting a bit "up in your face" and such though this really counts for all of the companions in general...

So with the story bits out of the way, let's get into the gameplay. Where Fallout 3 felt at odds with itself, Fallout 4 feels more like it has less of an identity crisis and knows what it wants to be. It has much smoother combat and the VATS system has been changed to not stop time and only slow it down (which feels a lot more believable in my opinion), making it feel less like a remnant from when the games were turnbased and more like the character being imbued with faster reflexes. The FPS elements take more of a center stage, adding a sprint button, ironsights, leaning and generally feels a lot less clunky to play. The game also adds weapon mods into the mix, allowing you to craft and add weapon attachments and upgrades to your guns, sometimes allowing you to do as much as upgrading a pistol to a sniper rifle depending on the parts you choose to install. In all honesty, it feels like playing Fallout 3 with the mods that made it actually playable, and even going a step further from there.

You know... I may have to lay off the irradiated water when I start seeing flying ships with rocket engines...
This also ties into the RPG elements. Instead of trying to be a RPG and kind of failing at it, well... the bad news is it still fails completely at being a true RPG, but what I mean by "less of an identity crisis" is that the RPG elements now feel like that. RPG elements. They're not so much an essential part of the game anymore and now play more of a "choice" role in the game, allowing you to choose which kind of character you want to play in a lot more shallow sense. There's no deep choices, it's downright impossible to make a flawed character and thus the roleplaying aspect has been even further dumbed down from Fallout 3. But here's the thing, this is only a bad thing if you EXPECT a RPG out of Fallout 4. If you expect a FPS with RPG elements then that's what you'll get and you know what? I'm fine with that. I'd rather have a game that KNOWS what it wants to be than a game that tries to be two things and fails at both. Fallout 4 feels way more cohesive in terms of gameplay design as a result of this and while I can totally agree this might not be the direction the series should go in, it doesn't necessarily make Fallout 4 a bad game, but it makes it less of an RPG than Fallout 3 and especially Fallout 1 and 2 which I wouldn't even consider in the same genre anymore.

The most notable change from Fallout 3 is undoubtedly the removal of the karma system. In Fallout 3 the karma system was a carryover from Fallout 1 (in Fallout 2 there was less of a karma system and more of a general reputation system reflecting less bad vs good and more reactions from people to your actions), and made the game unnecessarily focused on extremes. You either had to play a saint or a mass murdering psycopath, creating an intense disconnect at times where there was no middle ground to choose. Fallout 4 drops this entire idea in favour of a system where you're either altruistic or self-serving, focusing less on being good or evil, and more on whether you think people are worth your time or not. I will admit I kind of prefer this as your player actions flow much better and you're never in situations where you could have nuked Megaton for instance and then given water to a beggar until you were the saviour of the wasteland. Fallout 4 also gives you a lot more choices regarding the main quest and your actions have lasting impact on the outcome of the game, though it never feels like you're doing something evil, but something you believe is good but that WILL have consequences.

A possible hobby in Fallout 4: Maintaining power armor.
Another huge aspect about the gameplay is undoubtedly the crafting and the building and managing of settlements. And pretty much the entire game plays into this aspect as well. Garbage that used to be, well, garbage, now has an actual use as you can now use it for crafting materials to craft everything from gun parts to armor and even entire buildings, giving you much more incentive to loot the places you raid for vaulable trash (something the companions annoyingly will constantly get on your ass about as they seem as oblivious as ever to the fact trash is actually useful in this universe). It can be a HUGE timesink to build and improve settlements constantly and create trade routes between them. It's almost its own little minigame within the game and gives you plenty to do when you're not out looting and raiding outposts. What I love about it though is that this is never really important in the game and it is up to you how much you want to get involved with it. It also feels like the game world is a lot more dense than Fallout 3's world and there's a lot to explore and see, and it doesn't feel like as much of a drab wasteland as a result, giving way more incentive to actually walk around than fast travel everywhere, and I kinda love that it makes exploration itself a lot more interesting.

Power armor is also treated very differently in Fallout 4 compared to earlier games. Where in earlier games it was pretty much just a really powerful armor that required special training to use, in Fallout 4 you can (somewhat inexplicably) use any power armor without much special training and it's treated more like a vehicle that requires power cells to be used effectively. Of course, you can customize it with custom paint jobs, changing out parts, giving it special enhancements and upgrade the hell out of it so even if it does at times feel completely at odds with how power armor was established in the franchise, it's still interesting to see power armor be given more of a unique position in the game in its own way.

The dialogue system has been a bit of a controversial topic regarding the game as the amount of choices has been limited to 4 categories of answers, similar to games like Mass Effect. An inquisitive response at the top, a negative response at the right, a neutral response to the left and a positive one at the bottom. Mods have been released that make the dialogue system more like the old games though, if this is not to your liking. Having played a ton of Mass Effect and understanding that the game doesn't really wish to be a true RPG I didn't and still don't mind this system much personally and never got too worked up about it. I mean, yeah, it's not really giving you much flair to your options but considering your character is voiced in this game and considering its focus, I am completely fine with it. I also think overall the conversation system is HUGELY improved over earlier titles where conversations would freeze time and have you simply standing still with a person as you talked to each other, making conversations feel entirely static. In this game, people will still do things around you as you talk, conversations can be interrupted and you can walk around as you talk, and the camera feels a lot more active and dynamic too, making conversations feel much more "alive", especially with your character finally having a voice as well.

Of course it's worth mentioning that much like Fallout 3 and New Vegas the mod scene for Fallout 4 is as active as ever, despite Bethesda's continued attempts at stopping modders from adding free content to the game and completely refusing to work with the mod scene in any helpful way, even going as far as launching their own mod store and trying to monetize what is essentially free on PC. Bethesda's recent attitude towards the mod scene really has to be mentioned as pretty appalling and it disgusts me that they treat modders with such contempt when they are practically the people who keep breathing life into their games. Anyway, there's probably a lot more about the gameplay I could go into detail about but I think I've covered the broad strokes of it and what I wanted to comment on.

To be fair, I've woken up with my pillow like that too.
Graphically the game definitely is a massive improvement once again. It foregoes the somewhat drab and monotone hue of Fallout 3 and goes for a far more colourful palette (something that I instantly noticed when the game was revealed and had me sighing in relief). It also has a graphical style all of its own, going for less of a rusted decrepit look and more of a colourful look. It may stretch the suspension of disbelief a little that things would look this pristine after so much time has passed, but it does make the game look rather gorgeous. Of course, facial animations are improved but still fairly janky and a lot of characters still have this dead eyed stare about them, giving quite the uncanny valley effect a lot of the time. I mean, it doesn't really bother me enough to not play the game but it IS noticable and worth commenting on. The game also runs fairly well on my system on fairly high specs, but does stutter a fair bit, especially in areas with a lot of detail such as urban areas. I honestly can't wait to get a new PC so I can truly pump up the graphics to ultra settings without sacrificing all that much framerate, especially in these areas. Of course, there exists mods like ENB that adds a lot more graphical options to the game and can make it look even more gorgeous, as well as texture mods to enhance the game's textures further, so if you're not happy with how the vanilla game looks there are ways to customize it more to your liking. I will admit though that compared to Fallout 3 which I find impossible to play without several graphical mods, Fallout 4 looks a lot more presentable out of the box.

The music is mostly forgetable sadly, most of it falling into the same trap as most modern AAA game music and just sounding like background noise. And while the radio stations offer up some variations with some classic oldies, it does get fairly repetitive after a while. The voice acting is pretty good for the most part, with props going to the protagonist voice actors who do a pretty good job voicing the protagonist of the game. I did notice some voice actors from Mass Effect here though, like the voice actor for Garrus who pops up in several minor roles, and the voice actor for the companion Caite would go on to voice a character in Mass Effect Andromeda (which I am getting around to reviewing eventually...). Together with the dialogue system and companion loyalty missions and romance system I can't help but feel like Fallout 4 is more of a spiritual first person Mass Effect sequel than a Fallout 3 sequel, in all honesty. Not that I mind...

I guess the roach found some armor...
So all in all, what do I think of Fallout 4? I mean, yeah, it's hardly a RPG series anymore, and it still has a fairly linear story and not much room for actual roleplaying and playing a flat out bad guy is still impossible. And you STILL cannot become a pornstar or use sex to persuade people. But in all honesty, none of these things would actually FIT in Fallout 4 because it has a much stronger vision of what it wants to be than Fallout 3 which had much stronger ties to the older games (in all the wrong ways though). All in all I consider Fallout 4 an excellent game, but not an excellent RPG and not an excellent Fallout game. It is what it is, take it or leave it.

STORY: 8/10
SOUND: 6/10