18 November, 2015

Review – Fallout 4

Stock up on Rad-Away and invest in a suit of T-51 Power Armour because it’s time to venture out onto the wasteland and it’s packed full of more rabid denizens than ever before. Yes, it’s Fallout 4 one of the games I least wanted to play this year, bearing that in mind my thoughts on its quality may well surprise you.

Review – Fallout 4 banner

Fallout 4

Aside from the mandatory heterosexual relationship that Fallout 4 angles you into, the game gets off to a rip-roaring start. Your character, be them male or female, is a survivor from the time before the atom bombs fell. The game opens with a husband and wife standing in their bathroom, both needing to use the mirror, that mirror is your means of designing your character, by either pulling and tugging their facial features or cycling through pre-sets. You can alter both people, but you play as only one. Your couple has a child called Shaun, whose appearance changes to resemble his two parents, as well as a Mister Handy robot that takes care of your chores and can say your name if you choose one of the thousand or so programmed in. Naturally, Kyle is not one of them, but Assface totally is... Regardless, one thing leads to another and you find yourself witnessing apocalypse, but your family is lucky enough to have been accepted into the Vault-Tec Vault 111, where upon entering you are cryogenically frozen. When you next awaken everything about the world and your situation change; you are very much on a mission.

Fallout 4 interior cait shoot out

The opening two hours or so was a rush to be sure, perhaps too much so. I followed the main quest through that time as I’m usually one to do, unlike Fallout 3 you encounter Power Armour, companions, and Fallout 4’s new settlement system almost immediately, and none of it is well explained. Nor does your character seem particularly bothered by the state of the world, despite visiting their ruined home. Sure there’s a line or two between your character and your slightly unhinged Mister Handy robot who somehow managed to survive the nuclear apocalypse, but nothing substantial. Although as I said, you are on a very pressing mission, so perhaps your character can be forgiven for not taking the time to really ground themselves.

Bethesda’s writing has long been the clincher that turned me away from their titles, so much of it feels generic, laughably so in some cases, but not in Fallout 4. Sure, a lot of the side quests are every bit as bland as its predecessors, but there have been discernible improvements; for one the main narrative is excellent, with the potential to shock with its twists and wrench your heart with its choices.  Also not to be understated is the character writing; the dialog has been improved universally I would say – though I have by no means seen all the game has to offer – with characters now saying things that actual humans might. The companion characters have undergone a significant transformation, they now have their own storylines and quests, governed by an affection meter surfaced only as likes and dislikes. The two companion stories that I saw through to completion were amongst the most poignant tales told in my time with Fallout 4.

Fallout 4 conversation dialog options

New to the series and indeed the role-playing games developed by Bethesda is the player voice, both the male and female characters are fully voiced, a controversial design decision to be sure but it makes all the difference for me. I’m playing as a lady and absolutely love her voice, she really captures the emotional tone of her lines. In fact, all the voice acting across the board has been improved – again, of the characters I’ve encountered – one of many areas that Bethesda games have failed at in the past. Equally controversial and perhaps less agreeable is the new dialog choice system. Fallout 4 offers only four conversation options at a time, using face buttons on a controller or the arrow keys on a keyboard, and you are given only a word or two to go off. For example, all sarcastic remarks merely appear as ‘Sarcastic’, so you’re left guessing at the meaning of many of the conversation options, even more than a Bioware game might with its conversation wheel.

The core gameplay is almost identical; VATs targeting, third and first person shooting and melee combat, though now the shooting is mostly okay – it is bearable if not fun. Despite the act of aiming down the sights and pulling the trigger being adequate, unlike Fallout 3, the combat encounters themselves are still largely a mess. Enemies of all types seem prone to rush you at speed, often even when they are armed with ranged weapons, so just like in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim you may find yourself using the enemies lack of intelligence and general inability to navigate close quarters to your advantage. Combat had a habit of degenerating into a slightly jerky mosh, but it is certainly better than in previous Bethesda titles, enemies with guns now seem aware of the concept of cover at least. Of course, there remains plenty of potential for spontaneous and occasionally epic battles to erupt around you; watching a Brotherhood of Steel Vertibird drop Power Armoured Knights into a Super Mutant den is always a joy.

The VATs targeting system has changed a little; time now moves slowly as opposed to halting completely and AP (action points) are also spent by sprinting and launching melee attacks. AP is now more of a stamina gauge rather than a pool of headshot energy, which is what it was in Fallout 3 for myself at least. Critical strikes are now tied to a meter, allowing you can choose when to unleash them, but functionally my interactions with VATS were largely unchanged.

Fallout 4 VATS brotherhood of steel power armor forged

Greater alterations have been made to the use of Power Armour however. No longer is it merely another type of armour you can equip like you might leather braces, no it’s more like a mech, like a tank with legs, or more accurately a nuclear tank with legs and a headlamp. The headlamp is important, vitally so, you can change its colour and everything! But let’s leave customisation aside for just a moment, striding in Power Armour feels like you’re at the helm of an armoured vehicle and it proved a crucial contributor to my survival during the numerous large fire fights I found myself involved in. Wearing Power Armour changes your on-screen interface to reflect your character’s view from inside the sealed helmet, the suit also allows you to carry a lot more trash. Most importantly, it offers protection, not just against the bullets and other projectiles that will inevitably be shot your way, but against the harsh world around you; the suit will withstand all fall damage and looks cool doing so, it’ll protect you from the worst of radiation, and allow you to fully explore beneath water. Aside from the cost of repairing the armour when it becomes damaged, the one factor limiting your use is its dependency on Fusion Cores. To function, every suit requires a nuclear core to be slammed into its back, this core drains over time and buying fresh cores is costly. Cores can be found seemingly at random in the environment or in other suits of armour, though both are rare, the most reliable source are the power generators of buildings, usually found in basements.

Fallout 4 brotherhood of steel power armor glowing sea

As I alluded to earlier, Power Armour, and many other items in Fallout 4 can be customised to an impressive degree and that’s one of the game’s most compelling features. Between the settlement system that we’ll discuss shortly and the gear crafting, loot has taken on a whole new meaning. No longer do you solely scour the environment for items sure to net you a pocket full of bottle caps (Fallout’s currency), now even the lowliest, grimiest coffee mug has value because almost all items can be broken down into raw materials. Furniture can be deconstructed into wood, steel, and cloth, electronics into copper and fuses; each item yields its own materials that you use to modify weapons and armour, or build up your settlements. Of course, you don’t have to do any of that if you don’t wish to. Because of the new material sink, item durability has been removed from the game, which I feel is an excellent design decision, sadly though encumbrance remains present.

Fallout 4 does a terrible job of explaining how or why you should interact with the crafting system, there is a kind of manual in the pause menu, but it's pages of straight text, meaning it’s just easier to ignore the systems entirely. I did exactly that for about ten hours or so before finally sitting down and trawling the through the text, and I’m certainly glad I did. Weapons can be crafted, or rather modded to the point of changing their class entirely, for example; a laser pistol can be extended, fitted with more powerful innards and become a laser rifle. Armour and Power Armour are modified in the same fashion, though the changes tend to be more stats related rather than functional. However, Power Armour can be repainted and equipped with mods like jet packs for players who want to watch their Fusion Cores be sapped dry in seconds.

Fallout 4 settlement sanctury hills

Settlements at their most basic provide you with unlimited storage and the workbenches necessary to craft gear and supplies, but when nurtured they can grow into thriving townships or impenetrable strongholds – or indeed both. Creating such beacons of civilisation and attracting settlers to them is a long process, partly because of the time taken to locate the necessary materials; though handily specific materials can be marked, meaning items containing them are highlighted in the environment. But more problematic are the building tools. Because you’re laying prefabricated sections of walls or buildings rather than individual bricks, the game will snap some corners together and often that’s useful, but not all walls or fences are compatible. Furthermore, connecting two wall sections in anything but a straight line is impossible; the snap function won’t allow it, the only way to get around this as far as I can tell is to snap your section of wall to a second temporary wall at the angle you want then remove that second wall – and let me tell you, that gets old immediately. Equally frustrating is the management of settlers; they must be assigned tasks such as sentry duty at a guard post or harvesting crops, a cool concept to be sure, yet doing so is largely a guessing game. Objects that have an assigned settler will denote such with a white figure when you hover over them, but there is no indication of which settler, because they’re not named and highlighting the settler tells you nothing, so it is terribly easy to end up with a handful of settlers doing nothing while you accidently pull people from one task onto another.

There are easily a handful of other equally frustrating issues I could rail on about when it comes to the settlement system, but the fact remains that it is the main reason I’ve kept playing for another eight or so hours after finishing the main story. Developing and managing settlements just feels so fitting in the post apocalypse, it gives me a reason to explore, scavenge, and survive in a way that Bethesda’s role-playing games, and many other open world games simply haven’t before.

One issue I cannot leave aside that the settlement system exposed is a bug that prevents the establishment of supply lines when using a controller on the PC. Supply lines unlock after acquiring the Local Leader perk and allow the contents of one settlement’s workbench to be shared with another’s. The bug prevents the supply lines menu from appearing when I have a controller plugged in, and trust me you’ll want to use a controller because the keyboard and mouse controls are heinous. Their inadequacy doesn’t take hours of play to become apparent either; if someone made it through the character creation screen without wanting to head-butt their keyboard then they have my utmost respect, and don’t even get me started on breaking down items… Even when using a controller navigating the interface is a chore; the Pip-Boy wrist unit remains an imperfect solution to inventory management and it is made worse by the expanded nature of armour. Armour is now spilt into individual pieces like left arm and right leg, and all are unceremoniously dumped into the same inventory screen, there is no way to filter by equipment slots.

Fallout 4 cow glitched inside house

Fallout 4 riddled with bugs great and small, from vaguely humorous stints of levitating non-playable characters, or cows glitching through walls and roofs, to the more significant; game-halting broken interactions, frequent camera issues during conversations, and the floor disappearing entirely. It’s a veritable bug fest, like seriously, but it never crashed on me once. As I mentioned earlier, I played on the PC with an AMD processor and graphics card, once I finally got the game running following some two hours of downloading beta drivers and disabling background programmes like Fraps (capture software), I had no issues. My PC is a couple of years old, making it somewhat dated by today’s standards, but it had no problems running the game ratcheted up to its highest graphical settings with an acceptable performance. Only when I ascended to rooftops or took to the air via Vertibird did I notice a consistent loss of frames. That does not mean however I was completely satisfied with how the game looked; at best it covers its poor textures and harsh geometry under a veil of sun rays and lens flare, yet both are frequently exposed. There were many times I felt I was  looking at an Xbox 360 title, but also times of impressive beauty, though far more of the former.

Fallout 4 power armour bench wasteland

Review Fallout 4 good Fallout 4 doesn’t avoid all of the many frustrating flaws of its predecessors, but enough issues have been lifted to the point of being merely troublesome quirks that the game's better elements were able to ensnare me. Improved writing and a charismatic voice gifted my character an identity I could enjoy without having to work to establish myself. The intriguing main narrative and compelling settlement system gave her goals I could understand and believe in. The wasteland of Boston is a vast canvas painted with terrifying foes, tales of struggle, and opportunities in equal measure, all just waiting to be discovered. Perhaps one day when I’ve stopped arranging chairs and wiring turrets in my settlements I’ll head back out there.

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