james debate
james debate

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios
Published by Bethesda Softworks
Genre Action RPG
Platform PC, Xbone, PS4

fallout 4 videogame review 1.0 steam early access

Few events in the gaming calendar have the hype of a new Bethesda game, especially when that game is the long-awaited next installment in the celebrated Fallout franchise. It's been five years of secretive development and back-room wrangling over the ownership of the IP, but finally, we have Fallout 4 in our mittens.

Great credit needs to be given to the manner in which Bethesda have orchestrated this release, keeping perfect secrecy for many years, and then promptly releasing barely a few months after the initial announcement. Fallout 4 was the talk of this year's E3 festival, and now it releases in the height of fever pitch. Many developers could learn from this example.

Fallout's concept is perhaps one of the most unique ever developed; a darkly comedic satire on post-war American 1950s pop-culture/propaganda and its optimistic view of the "wonders of the atomic age". Fallout ironically imagines a world where all the atomic powered flying cars, robot butlers, and other promises came true, but so did the less tantalizing aspect of atomic power, nuclear war. The Fallout series sees players exploring a crumbling nuclear wasteland, full of camp sci-fi/retro aesthetic, thick Americana, and gallows humour.

Before we begin, The Ephemeric would like to take a moment to uncharacteristically pat itself on the back for calling this one at the start of the year, before this game had even been confirmed to exist. We were right, and Fallout 4 has landed. Does it live up to the hype?

Starting life in the 1990s as a top-down RPG, Bethesda reinvented the series as a first person RPG in the mould of their Elder Scrolls franchise and haven't looked back. The core gameplay components of the typical Bethesda RPG are combat, crafting, exploration, and conversation. In Fallout 4, each of these components have been hugely overhauled.

Old Bethesda games were clearly an RPG first, with little care seemingly paid towards honing the shooting and melee combat side of the game. Fallout as a series has the unique combination of real time and turn-based combat modes. The bulk of the gameplay takes place in real time, but when in combat players have the (useful, but completely optional) VATS ability to freeze gameplay and select specific targets to attack, which the game will then do autonomously until the moves have been exhausted.

In Fallout 4 the shooting has been massively improved. There is no single thing that stands out significantly different, it just looks and feels better overall. The weapons have real weight and recoil to them, enemies actually react to being hit, Fallout 4 would actually be a very competent shooting game. Melee has also been improved with a series of perks designed to add extra flourish and extravagance to what you can do with, for example, a baseball bat. In the meantime VATS has been tweaked such that it no longer fully pauses the game while you plan your attack, merely slowing it down, further shifting the combat gameplay into real time.

In previous Fallout games you had some small recipes you could use to craft items or food, and certain pre-made modifications you could add to a weapon, like adding a silencer or a better sniper scope. In Fallout 4 item crafting returns, and every single gun is entirely modular, made up of components like stock, barrel, magazine, scope, etc which can all be crafted in the same way. Every one of these can be mixed and matched to create truly personal and unique weapons, and the sheer quantity of options and combinations is quite staggering.

Armor modification has pretty much the exact same system, with the exception of power armor. Previously, power armor was essentially just an overpowered version of regular armor. You equipped it in the same way, and functionally it behaved the same, only better. Not so in Fallout 4. Power armor in this game behaves more like a vehicle. It is a persistent object in the game world that you enter and exit, and when you exit you park it at power armor stations. More cumbersome than before, but the trade off is that power armor is now even more overpowered than before. The gulf between regular and power armor has never felt so tactile in game, and when you don your suit this time, you truly feel invincible. And of course, power armor can be fully customised as well.

But the biggest addition to crafting is the new "settlement" system. The world is full of individual settlements dotted around the map; usually small groups of civilians, farms, hideouts, or empty plots of land. As you complete missions and explore, you unlock more of these settlement sites. Once unlocked, you can build on them, and we don't mean you can plop down a few pre-made huts or beds to sleep on, this is a full-on first person town building mode. From a series of floor, wall and roof tiles you can design buildings of nearly any size, pretty much in any way you can imagine. Want to build a few modest townhouses? A giant citadel fortress with crazy turrets, bridges and tunnels? A sprawling market? You can build pretty much anything you can imagine.

But that's not all. You can furnish these buildings with an array of furniture types, all of which are functional rather than merely decorative. You can plant crops for food and develop infrastructure for power and water. Once built and furnished, settlers will move into your settlements. You can equip them with weapons, clothes, assign them to jobs, even establish trade routes with your other settlements. Certain special settlers can even be recruited from your exploration out in the game world.

It's remarkable how much depth they've put into this feature, and how well integrated it is to the core game. A good 20 hours in, and The Ephemeric had barely even dented the main part of the game such was the substance of this settlement building subgame. Hours later, and we have ourselves a whole network of burgeoning towns, some of which are dedicated farms, some are huge military fortresses, and some are just friendly towns complete with shops. It's like a whole separate strategy game has been attached to the core Fallout experience, and it's amazing.

Exploration has mostly stayed true to the Bethesda style, which is just as well seeing as it has been one of the franchise's main attractions. The world is big and packed with things to do; minigames, quests, collectibles, interesting characters, Easter eggs, and simply miscellaneous unmarked detail intended to add life and flesh out the world they have created. Fallout 4's commonwealth is at least an equal to any other world they have created, and as with previous entries in the series, hours of entertainment can be had simply by wandering around.

The major addition, which brilliantly ties together exploration with the new settlement and crafting gameplay, is that everything, from the buildings to the furniture to the weapon and armor modifications, can be built by you from scratch. To do this all you need to do is collect building materials. In older Fallout games, the world was littered with junk: bits of metal, old appliances, scrap rubber and circuitry, and it was all completely useless. Fallout 4's masterstroke is using all these random bits of junk as building materials, making them not only useful, but essential. For the first time, you actually have a reason to scavenge the wasteland for scrap, and that makes the setting feel more real and convincing then it ever has before.

The general RPG elements of Fallout have been largely overhauled as well. Gone is the old skill point system, opting instead for one made almost entirely out of discrete "perks". So instead of assigning points to medicine or speech, you instead choose perks which grant you additional abilities in those fields. Despite this, skill-books reappear. Only now instead of bestowing a boost to skill points, they offer perks, or permanent ability boosts. A pleasantly creative twist also sees magazines unlocking new content, for example games to play on your pip-boy, new furniture for your settlements, new hairstyles, paintjobs for your armor, etc.

Then we come to the overhaul of the conversation system, and things turn decidedly more sour. For the first time, Bethesda have opted for a more cinematic, Mass Effect-style, system. This means that conversations no longer take place in first person perspective, but through cinematic cutscenes, and it also means that for the first time your character is actually voiced, rather than simply text. The Epehemeric was mostly fine with these changes..

Slightly more troubling is how the player chooses dialogue options. Previously the player would have the full text of their response in front of them, and choose as they wish. Now the player sees a one or two word paraphrasing, Mass Effect-style, and needs to guess which one most closely resembles what they actually want to say.

Worse still is the complete detachment between dialogue and the character decisions you have made previously. In Fallout New Vegas you would have special dialogue options that you could only use if you had made certain decisions previously, or if you had attained the appropriate level of skill in a particular subject. As an example, if you have a high medicine skill, you would get special medical dialogue to demonstrate that fact in game, which might even help you complete your quest.

In other words, the world around you would actually react and reflect your own personal decisions, whether that means befriending an old prospector with your knowledge of explosives, using your high barter skill to get a better deal, or using your "intimidate" perk to simply scare off the enemy. Very little of this is in Fallout 4 outside of a few specific scripted moments, and it really is a disappointment because the lack of dialogue nuance means your decisions, and the specific experiences of your character become largely meaningless and outside the main quest have little effect in the game.

The loss here is one of player agency. Usually when you play a videogame, you have to choose one of a few pre-determined paths, and those potential decisions do not always mirror what the player is actually feeling. One of the greatest design elements of Fallout 3 and New Vegas was the freedom and autonomy offered to the player to behave and react to situations in a way that felt natural and true.  Previously the main character was essentially a vehicle for the player's own volition, now there is that extra level of detachment between what the player wants and the character does. The player now no longer feels as though they actually are the character, but merely that they are watching the character like a movie. It's an immersion breaker and a real step back for the series.

It's not all a disaster though. Companions in the game have been hugely improved from old entries to the series. For the first time, Fallout has actual romance options, and a full friendship system between player and companion, complete with its own perks and bonuses, not to mention a few unique quests. These companions typically have a far greater sense of personality than what we have seen previously, and go a long way towards bringing the player back into the game world after being pushed away by the other points above.

There are also some other clever little touches, like dialogue changes depending on whether your character is drunk or on drugs, interjections whenever you skip dialogue, and though the quality of writing itself is generally inconsistent, there are still some very well written lines here and there.

One final criticism needs to be made about the quests in the game. The main story quests are fine, and the faction system, though not as well thought out as in New Vegas, is still pretty compelling. The side quests, however, are a disappointment. For starters there are surprisingly few, barely a third of the number in Skyrim. Most of these are pretty tedious and lacking in creativity as well; simple fetch quests or, even worse, "go here and kill a bunch of people" quests. What made old Fallout games great was the variety in quest gameplay, less dependent on violence and action, more on good story telling and clever design.

For comparison have a look at the endgame of New Vegas, which gave you the (optional) potential to form alliances, make deals, and generally outsmart and influence everyone to put yourself in a more advantageous position without even firing a shot. One of the most satisfying endings involved double crossing both main factions as a result of careful groundwork being laid throughout the story. Or the confrontation with your initial antagonist Benny, which gave you several options for how to get your revenge, from plain violence to manipulation and film-noir intrigue. This sort of clever interplay between factions peaks its head out once or twice in Fallout 4, but not enough, and never convincingly.

You could, of course, still go the soldier route and just go guns blazing on everyone, but New Vegas at least gave you the option of using more nuance. This more intricate and clever form of story telling is at the heart of the Fallout series and one of the main ties to the hardboiled mid 20th Century cold war aesthetic. So it is legitimately disappointing to see Bethesda ostensibly trying to turn Fallout into retro Call of Duty.

Then there are the bugs. As with every Bethesda RPG, Fallout 4 is plagued by bugs. These includes simple performance issues; for example a lot of players have reported severe lag in dense areas due to the way the game draws shadows. Others have had serious glitches associated with the rendering of "god rays". Both of these can be largely fixed by simple ini file edits, which begs the question why the game appears to have been so poorly optimised. Hopefully this will be mostly sorted in future patches.

Then there are the more extravagant bugs. Most of the ones that we have seen are related to the new settlement system which, ambitious and substantial though it is, is rough enough around the edges that one suspects it was a late addition to the game, with poor interface design and glitches. For example there is a common bug which causes settlement happiness to plunge which somehow appears to be related to placing TVs in your settlement. Even more irritating is the propensity for miscellaneous decorative objects to inexplicably sink through furniture and floors when you reload your settlement, which currently can only be avoided by placing these objects in a very round-about, burdensome fashion.

And of course the miscellaneous bugs: AI glitching out, people's appendages turning invisible, poor NPC pathfinding, invisible Pip-Boy, and random freezes and crashes (though to the game's credit these are much less frequent than with New Vegas).

We have raised a lot of negatives in this review, so its a testament to Fallout that despite the obvious flaws we have described, Fallout 4 is still one of the finest games we've played in a while, into which we will easily sink 100 hours. For all the unwise design decisions that have been made, the end product is still undeniably one that has been crafted with love and skill.

Gameplay has been drastically improved in almost every way. There are a myriad of new and fleshed out features like settlement management, building and far deeper crafting, and a lot of creative new details to existing mechanics which really bring the game to life. What holds Fallout 4 back from true greatness are the poor decisions that have gone into the RPG elements of the game; speech options, quest variety, skills etc.

It's also worth mentioning that most of the criticisms we have raised will probably be fixed by modders, if not official updates. One of the greatest enduring elements of Bethesda RPGs is how incredibly easy it is to mod, and to plug that mod straight into an existing game. Be it gameplay tweaks, interface overhauls, or even new quests and characters, the mod scene for Fallout will ensure that the lifespan of this game is essentially infinite. New content still comes out routinely for Fallout 3 and New Vegas, and it will be the same with Fallout 4.

Your money here gets you a staggeringly huge open world RPG, one which will be expanded indefinitely. You will easily sink 100 hours into the base game, and many more besides through the expansions and mods. Value for money indeed.

Bethesda are masters of the genre, and they come tantalizingly close to making the perfect game. If the series takes a few steps back in certain areas, it takes a huge leap forwards in others. For all its flaws, Fallout 4 is an easy game to recommend, and an unmissable event in gaming.

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