Monday, November 16, 2015

Fallout 4 Review!

                Ah, Fallout 4.. Bethesda’s new game has been one of the most hyped titles of 2015 and has given birth to huge controversies at its launch. One only needs to take a look at the discrepancy between its very favorable reception from the mainstream gaming press and what players actually think about it on Steam or Metacritic to see that something feels very odd. It is even stranger since this is the first time this has happened with one of Bethesda’s titles, as the other ones received fairly good receptions on both ends of the spectrum. Naturally, I felt compelled to investigate the causes of this radical division and spent 30 hours with Fallout 4. With that being said, I am now ready to share my opinions and verdict on the game.
A new journey.

The Fallout series has been in the hands of three developers: Interplay, Bethesda and Obsidian. I am one of those weird people who much prefer the way Interplay handled things in the first two Fallout games and after playing them, I was terribly disappointed with how Bethesda continued the series with Fallout 3. The lack of an engaging story, shallow and one-dimensional characters, too few choices and consequences.. there were so many things that turned the game into a bad experience. Despite that, Obsidian managed to make a new game in the universe and New Vegas is one of my favorite RPGs out there, featuring a great story, multiple fully fleshed out factions and characters, choices that actually matter and the absence of black and white morality. Coming into Fallout 4, I hoped that Bethesda took notes from what things Obsidian did right and integrated them into their game. I also took two decisions regarding the game and this review. The first one was that I would start from a blank state, ignoring my experience with Fallout 3 and giving Fallout 4 a chance and an objective approach. The second one was that the review will not contain any comparisons between the old Fallout games (1 and 2) and this one, since they are way too different and are aimed at different audiences. Thus, any comparisons I will make will be restricted to Fallout 3, NV and 4.
                Let’s kick off with the review. The events of Fallout 4 take place in Boston – now known as the Commonwealth - in 2287, a decade after Fallout 3 and six years after New Vegas. You play as the Sole Survivor of Vault 111, who emerges 210 years after the day when the nuclear attack took place and the world was changed forever. The game’s intro sequence happens exactly on that day: you are given a peek at the pre-War life before you and your spouse and son take shelter in Vault 111 as the bombs fall. Frozen in the Vault cryopods for somewhere between 100 and 200 years, you wake up when a mysterious group enters the Vault, kills your spouse and takes off with your child. It is now up to you to escape the Vault, explore the Commonwealth and find those who have wronged you.
Leaving "home".
Out in the world.

Despite the fact that I knew that the narrative had never been strong in any recent Bethesda games I was still disappointed with Fallout 4’s story. I also felt annoyed at the laziness of the developers: once again, you are forced to look for a family member, just like in the previous game. The introductory sequence did not succeed to make me care about the husband – I played as a female – or the child, since it is very short and they almost get no screen time, or anything that may make you be interested in them besides the fact that they’re family. Fallout 4 lacks the things that The Witcher 3 got right: you’re also looking for your daughter in that game and it could be just as banal as here, but there are plenty of sequences which build her into a character you easily care about and want to find.
                Fortunately, in order to find your son you have to ally yourself with one of the four factions in the game, which prove to be more interesting than looking for him. We have the Brotherhood of Steel, who want to protect the Commonwealth (kind of strange, since they don’t usually get involved with people and only seek the preservation of technology) and destroy the Institute. The Institute is formed by scientists who possess the knowledge and technology required to create synthetics that are identical to humans, and are considered to be a major threat to humankind by the Brotherhood. The matter of these synths and whether they should be allowed to exist in this world eventually becomes a main part of the story. There’s also the Railway, a group that seeks to liberate the synths from the control of the Institute. The last faction is not a faction per se, as it is represented only by Preston Garvey, the last Minuteman. However, you can join him and fight to rebuild the Minutemen and liberate the Commonwealth from all that threaten the lives of its citizens, be it mutants, raiders or synths.

                I chose to join the Brotherhood of Steel, mainly since it has been the thing that I do in almost all the Fallout games and also because the other factions did not appeal to me that much. Their quests are hit and miss: one has you attack an objective with a vertibird and feels pretty epic, whereas other just ask you for materials to build.. something, which isn’t that interesting. There’s also a quest about one of your companions which was among the best in the game, countered by the penultimate mission which is almost entirely copied from Fallout 3. Unfortunately, three of the groups have almost the same questline and endings, and even though the faction system is a step up from Fallout 3, I still feel like there’s not too much replayability here. You can also do quests for all groups up to a certain point where you have to choose one and stick with it.

                There are thirteen companions to help you on your adventures, from your own dog to several robots and a few members of the factions. This is where I think the game is clearly superior to Fallout 3: I’ve only used two of those companions (Nick Valentine and Paladin Damse) during my travels, but I liked them both, which is much more than what can be said about the insipid characters from the previous game (who could’ve have been dead inside for all I knew). The new companions each have their own personal quest, rarely intervene during conversations, like or dislike your actions and approach you in order to talk when they like you enough. They also talk to you about your decisions after you finish the main story, which is something I liked. You can give them orders like follow, stay, attack a target or move somewhere (I didn’t feel the need to use these commands), and they cannot die, which is.. convenient for the player, but breaks immersion. You can’t kill them either, since they’re considered to be “essential” characters.
Your immortal best buddy.
One of the few interesting characters.
And another one.

                Unsurprisingly, the writing is mediocre overall. If you expect something at the level of New Vegas, you will be disappointed. Besides the two companions that I’ve mentioned, I haven’t come across any other really interesting characters, as most of them lack depth and are one-dimensional. Note: I am mostly referring here to the characters found during the main and side quests, since I can't comment on the quality of the few other companions whom I didn't take with me on my travels. Consequently, I didn’t feel too interested in finding the son or taking sides in the conflict regarding the synths. The writing simply falls flat and provides little emotional investment from the player.
Not a great tale, though.

                In terms of actual roleplaying (since we have an RPG here, right..?), things aren’t that great. To start off, you can’t even create your own backstory or play a blank state character like in the TES games, since you must be the concerned parent and ex-soldier (male) or ex-lawyer (female) who will do everything to find his/her child. I also couldn’t empathize with my character, who woke up after 200 years and never seemed to care or comment on anything new he found in the post-apocalyptic world. There are only a few people (two or three) to whom you can mention that you're 200+ years old, but the game doesn't take advantage of it and barely scrapes the surface of what could have been done with the unique condition of your character. To make matters worse, the brand new dialogue system is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. The system uses a dialogue wheel and will only allow you four types of responses at any time: affirmation, negation, question and sarcasm. Moreover, the few words that describe your responses sometimes don’t even match what you actually say or the options all point towards the same type of response – you sometimes can’t even refuse quests -. Sure, your character is now fully voice acted and that is supposed to help immerse you, but I found that being unable to say what I think and being restricted to those four options stopped me from actually roleplaying. Even Fallout 3 had a much better dialogue system, not to mention New Vegas.
Affirmation, negation, sarcasm and question.

Since we’re talking about roleplaying, let’s take a look at the quests in the game and how you can affect their outcome. We have the main story quests, side quests and Radiant AI quests. I felt that way too many quests involved forced combat and going through multiple levels of enemies until you reach the end, although most of the side quests offer you a choice that decides the outcome and this almost always depends on your Charisma stat. No other SPECIAL stats are checked during conversations. Oh, I also found that the way Charisma works in this game is fairly absurd: each dialogue check for it has a difficulty (yellow, orange and red) and there is a roll involved that decides whether you pass or fail it. This means that you can repeatedly reload a save until you pass the check. I’ve even read about people who failed romances with their companions even though their Charisma was maxed out, which is ridiculous. Anyway, the original Fallout design stated that there should always be at least four ways of solving a quest: through combat, speech, skills or stealth. From my experience with this game, only combat and speech work, and speech not even all the time. I haven’t used stealth too much, but there are plenty of quests which explicitly require you to kill enemies and the two skills in the game - lock picking and hacking - can’t be used to complete quests in a different way, such as bypassing groups of enemies. Nevertheless, there are a few decisions to be made, especially during one or two of the main quests, most of the side quests and with regards to your companions. It doesn’t come close to what New Vegas had to offer, but is on par with Fallout 3.
                Concerning character creation and progression, we still have the SPECIAL stats and perks, but the skills have been integrated in the perks and no longer exist on their own. I personally enjoyed having both skills and perks in the previous games since they were a way of showing you how proficient you were with anything. Each SPECIAL stat now functions as a threshold for the 10 perks associated with it, which can be unlocked when you level up and have multiple ranks. You can also invest points directly into the SPECIAL stats as you level up, which is a questionable design decision since you can even max them all. Despite the fact that apparently your character is now somewhat of a master of all types of weapons - when you're not using VATS you shoot perfectly and only Perception affects accuracy in VATS -, there are perks which allow you to heal more, be better at lock picking or hacking, run longer, be more stealthier or deal more damage, improve your companions’ performance with your charisma or improve your crafting abilities. Besides that, they don’t really make much sense: there’s as a perception perk that increases the damage of rifles, multiple charisma perks that affect your combat capabilities and many others. The new perk system allows the creation of a few different play styles, as there are so many perks and ranks that you can’t unlock them all on the same character, unless you invest hundreds of hours into it. I personally went for a charismatic and intelligent gun master, since I finished the game at level 35 and managed to invest in plenty of perks and stats. All in all, the new system didn’t impress me in any way: I felt it was average and would have preferred the old one, as it made way more sense and allowed for deeper character customization.
The new perk system.

                One of the game’s main problems is that the feeling of character progression is destroyed in the first two hours of the game when you find a suit of Power Armor and you gun down a Deathclaw. I know that Bethesda is a fan of the “let’s empower the player and make him feel awesome” type of game design, but even so I don’t see how giving the player the most powerful and iconic armor in the universe and making him kill the ultimate post-apocalyptic predator in the beginning of the game is a good design choice. Do I also have to mention that my female character was a lawyer before the War and had no experience with weapons, yet she destroyed that Deathclaw with no problems whatsoever? Nothing made sense about this. The game throws awesome stuff (gear, enemies) at you in the beginning and this didn’t encourage me to continue, as later on I felt like my character already faced the worst and wasn’t visibly progressing anymore. You also advance through the ranks of each faction in a rhythm that is way too fast to feel rewarding or realistic, just as you could become the leader of all guilds in Skyrim. Oh well.
Become awesome!

                Since the story and roleplaying aspects of the game aren’t that strong, let’s move on to the exploration of the open world, as this is the main attraction of all Bethesda games. This is one of the elements where Fallout 4 is pretty successful. The Commonwealth is a smaller game world but is denser and I felt compelled to explore it due to a few reasons. Its locations are somewhat varied, from the more peaceful north side of the map to the semi-destroyed towns and cities patrolled by raiders and mutants and to the Glowing Sea, a zone in the south which is completely irradiated and inhabited by deathclaws. The world atmosphere is most of the time decent: I’m not really a fan of how non-post-apocalyptic and calm the world looks from a weather point of view, but when the electrical storms kick in, it’s extremely immersive. There are also plenty of collectibles to be found under the form of bobbleheads that improve your stats and give you special traits, games for your Pip-Boy and all sorts of comic books that improve your abilities. One of my main gripes with Fallout 3, the absence of farms and places that could sustain life, has been fixed now and the world feels more coherent and believable. The people in the Commonwealth also react better to you, commenting on your choice of armor (especially Power Armor) and acknowledging some of your deeds in the quests you’ve completed. Sure, there are some exceptions to this as well, such as some quest givers that tell you to scram after you’ve done quests for them, but the world is generally improved when compared to the one from Fallout 3.
The Commonwealth can be a very atmospheric place at times.
Collectibles #1
Collectibles #2

                Moreover, I played on Hard and the game was pretty challenging as I made my way down south (you start in the north-west corner). The Commonwealth is inhabited by all the traditional enemies you could expect from a Fallout game: raiders, super mutants, ghouls, Deathclaws, radscorpions, mirelurks, etc. Their AI is pretty good this time around and they require different strategies. Ghouls are incredibly fast and are best countered with shotguns or VATS. Raiders and super mutants make good use of cover, sometimes flank you and are crazy good at throwing molotovs or grenades. Depending on the difficulty you play on, there is a varying chance that legendary enemies will spawn. This feels like such a MMO mechanic: their behavior is identical to that of the normal mobs, but they have a huge HP pool and defeating them rewards you with better items. Even so, they’re a pain in the ass to kill and made me want to lower the difficulty.

                In terms of combat mechanics, the game plays exactly the same as Fallout 3 and New Vegas. VATS is still around and now it only slows down time instead of completely stopping it. The real time shooting and all the guns feel much more natural. Speaking of guns and implicitly ammo, I found that a big part of what was challenging about the game was the fact that I always had to be careful with how much ammo I consumed. I would spend almost all of my caps on ammo for different guns and stimpacks to keep me running, and it was something that I actually liked since it made me feel like I was fighting to survive in the post-apocalyptic world. So in order to have an easier time, it is probably recommended to use VATS whenever possible to conserve ammo. I honestly thought that the game felt more like a FPS than a RPG so I didn’t follow my own advice and went all guns blazing.

                I mentioned that legendary enemies drop a few of the better items in the game, but that is not the only way to get your hands on better loot. Weapons can now be fully customized with different mods, such as sights, barrels, muzzles, stocks and many others. The same goes for armors, since they are now split in different categories based on body parts: helmet, torso, arms and feet. There is a pretty great deal of customization available for Power Armors, from colors to neat upgrades such as jet packs (this one is awesome), extra shields, auto stimpacks or the ability to see enemies in red. All in all, I consider the addition of customization for your gear to be a great one.
Weapon customization.
Armor customization.

                Speaking of Power Armors (PAs), the way they work has been changed completely. All the suits that you find require Fusion Cores to function. Depending on whether you walk or sprint around in your PA, the Core will drain slower or faster. These Cores can be found all over the Commonwealth (especially in generators), although they are somewhat rare and expensive to buy from merchants. I was very annoyed with this change for several reasons. First, you will most likely exit your PA in a random place on the map (which will be marked on your Pip-Boy map), so when you want to use it again in a different place, you have to fast travel close to where you left it (loading screen), then fast travel close to where you want to use it (another loading screen), and then most likely leave it there when you’re done or take it to a power armor station (another loading screen). The entire process is time consuming and I found myself not wanting to use a PA at all, even though they’re probably the coolest thing about the Fallout universe. Second, it doesn’t make sense and feels like such a gamey mechanic: your companions who wear PAs or the members of the Brotherhood don’t even have to bother about depleting Cores, and the generators where you find them have been running over the past 200 years, but your Core only lasts for one hour at best. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting some coherence in this new design, yet I also don’t get why this change was necessary since it felt so much more rewarding to find your PA later on in the other Fallout games. Despite all that, the actual PA gameplay is realized very well, in the sense that it feels great to walk and shoot while you’re in them: I liked the special HUD (especially the way water drops fall on your visor when it’s raining) and they feel extremely heavy, bulky and impressive. Thankfully, there’s already a mod out there that eliminates the draining of the Fusion Cores, so if the stats for the PA would be nerfed as well, all would be back to normal.
Power Armors are the best!
Hate them.

                Besides the new way in which PAs work, there’s also a new addition: settlements building. Using materials scavenged from the Wasteland you can now build your own settlements, giving them sustainability through generators and farms and reinforcing them with defensive structures. NPCs will also flock to your newly constructed areas and establish communities. Bethesda once stated that you can invest up to 400 hours in Fallout 4, and I guess that this is what they were mostly referring to. I personally did not bother too much with this feature: after building my first settlement (which was actually only a house with a farm surrounded by barricades and guarded by turrets), I gave up because I didn’t see how it is related to the game or what the point of it all was. Apparently you can build multiple settlements and tie them together to bring in more revenue, but I always had just enough caps to keep on going. The places you build are also supposed to come under attack from raiders or mutants and you’ll have to defend them, yet that never happened to me. If I have to compare it with other games I can say I had a much better experience with base building in ARK: Survival Evolved, since over there things actually made sense and you had to defend against other players. In Fallout 4, it just feels like.. Sims? Nonetheless, despite the fact that I’ve found it all pointless, I’m sure many players will have fun with building their own places in the Commonwealth, as there were so many similar mods in the previous games and now this has become an actual feature.
Build it up.. or not.

                Onto the way the game looks and performs. The Commonwealth is a much more colorful and lively place to look at than the Capital Wasteland, which can be both a good and a bad thing: it is a welcome change if you were tired of the dark palette of colors from the previous games, but also feels less post-apocalyptic (with some exceptions: electrical storms and the Glowing Sea). On a closer inspection though, things get worse: most of the textures are low resolution and ugly to look at and the animations are still off-putting, robbing characters of any notion of liveliness. The view distance isn’t great either, with the same type of artificial fog present in The Witcher 3 being used to reduce the amount of details in the distance. The particle effects are also lacking, from fog and dust to fire and explosions, which slightly affects immersion due to the first person perspective of the game. All of this isn’t really surprising, as the game runs on a modified version of the Creation Engine, first used in Skyrim. I played the game on a system with a 4690k, 970 (neither were overclocked) and 8GBs of RAM and the performance was very disappointing. The system was capable of holding up 60 fps in the northern areas of the map, but once I got to the first towns and cities, the frames dropped drastically down to even 20 fps, which was almost unplayable for me. This is apparently caused by some issues with the shadow distance, although I’ve noticed no improvement while playing around with its quality. There’s also the matter of god rays from NVIDIA, where there is absolutely no difference between the low and ultra presets, despite affecting performance pretty hard. All in all, Fallout 4 doesn’t really look like a game worthy of 2015 – but hey, mods will fix it, right?! -. Compared to The Witcher 3, which is one of the best looking open world games of the year, it looks and performs worse, which is something to wonder at since Bethesda most likely had a way bigger development budget than CDPR.
This is disturbingly ugly.
2015 textures.

                With graphics and performance out of the way, let’s take a look at how the game sounds. The soundtrack is another of the game’s stronger aspects. There were a few songs that stuck with me and overall it is pretty good, although not very memorable or capable of making the audience shiver. Weirdly enough, it has a Scottish vibe (bagpipes?) which sounded nice but felt out of place. I also thought that the voice acting was pretty hit and miss: it’s really good for some characters (Kellogg and Nick Valentine), decent for the player (both male and female) and sometimes cringe worthy (Piper and some general from the Minutemen). The good thing is that I didn’t notice too many cases in which the voice acting is the same for different characters, which is surprising for a Bethesda game. Besides soundtrack and voice acting, everything else is good: gun sounds, explosions, the ambience of the environments in the Commonwealth, etc. So Fallout 4 fares well in the audio department.

                Now, it wouldn’t be a Bethesda game without a terrible release, and Fallout 4 makes no exception to the rule. Besides the poor performance that I’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of bugs that I’ve come across. For example, it was generally more surprising to notice when my companion was next to me than when I would find out that he got lost somewhere on the way. Companions usually get stuck in different places and somehow teleport next to you after a while. Your weapons automatically reload when you switch between them (casual feature confirmed or bug?). Sometimes my framerate would drop to half of its initial value when I would zoom in with a weapon. The subtitles from a dialogue sometimes lag behind what is actually being said at that moment and you can even be kicked out of a dialogue by random NPCs that are walking and pushing you away from the NPC you were speaking to. The game also crashed at least 10 times during the 30 hours I spent with it and there are so many loading screens that I lost my interest to explore buildings, knowing that I would spend at least one minute getting in and out. To make matters worse, the game’s interface is very clunky and hard to work with. You still have to browse through an alphabetically sorted list in your inventory to get to the item you’re looking for and moving through the Pip-Boy menus is a pain. The same goes for the settlement building interface, for which I didn’t even know that I had to press E to browse the submenus because it wasn’t indicated anywhere! Finally, the game is somewhat of a mess from all these points of view and I don’t know if even Bethesda (who have got a pass for all their previous titles) can get away with such a release.
How is this even possible?
We can't both fit in this elevator..

                With all of this being said, it’s time for my verdict on Fallout 4. I remember how when I was younger, my parents would keep going on about how games aren’t a productive way to spend time on, and I would say that some games can be art and you can actually learn something from them – I’m looking at you, old school CRPGs -, just like you can from books. Well, Fallout 4 isn’t one of those games. I had some fun with it, but that’s about it. There’s just not enough depth involved in its story and roleplaying aspects to make it a compelling RPG. At its best, you can forcefully create your own story and character in your mind and just explore the Commonwealth, maybe building settlements and constructing some sort of empire. I started playing with the hope that Bethesda learned some things from Obsidian’s successes with New Vegas, but quickly found out that was not the case. From the middle of the game onwards I decided to play it more as a FPS than a RPG and I had more fun that way. So if you’re expecting a strong RPG from Fallout 4, I think you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re just looking for some pretty mindless fun shooting things up and exploring an interesting world, then this is just the game for you.
It's fun if you make everything explode!

+ The open world is interesting to explore and atmospheric at times, feels a bit more reactive to you
+ Shooting mechanics have been improved
+ The companions are much better than the ones from Fallout 3
+ There are multiple factions to join
+ The enemy AI is pretty good
+ Weapon and armor customization
+ Power Armor gameplay is great
+ Building settlements (for some..)
+ Good soundtrack, generally ok voice acting

- The story isn’t too interesting and parts of it feel recycled from Fallout 3
- Abysmal new dialogue system
- Not much roleplaying going on
- Some faction questlines are way too similar
- Bethesda’s design school of making everything awesome ruins the character progression
- Legendary enemies
- The change to how Power Armor works
- Building settlements feels disconnected from the rest of the game
- Graphics aren’t on par with 2015 standards and the performance is terrible
- Character animations are still very poor
- Very unstable and buggy release
- Hard to navigate through the clunky interface
- Loading screens are too many and take too long