G&G Reviews: Fallout 4

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC

The team of developers at Bethesda Game Studios is known across the globe for their huge, open world role-playing games, most notably their work on the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises.  In November 2015 they released their newest title, Fallout 4.  As one of the most heavily marketed and highly anticipated games of the year, expectations among the gaming community for this game were sky high; now that it is out, does the latest Fallout live up to the hype?

The game begins in the year 2077, and the world is on the brink of war.  You, your spouse, and your infant son Shaun are all enjoying a normal day in your home in the suburbs of Boston when the worst happens: the war begins, and you and your family are rushed into an underground bomb shelter called Vault 111 just as an atomic bomb devastates the city.  The Vault-Tec employees running the shelter have some ulterior motives, however; you and the other vault dwellers are rushed into cryochambers and frozen indefinitely.  When you are finally unthawed, it has been over 200 years, your son has been kidnapped, and you are left to fend for yourself in the wasteland known that has become known as the Commonwealth, a harsh environment teeming with mutants, raiders and small groups of people scraping to get by.

During your journey you meet a wide cast of characters and numerous factions, many of which are working at cross-purposes.  While you’ll have the option to temporarily join all the factions in the game, eventually you’ll have to take sides in this bloody conflict, and your choice impacts who will hold power over the Commonwealth at the end of the story.  Altogether I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the game’s storytelling; I didn’t expect a whole lot in that department when I started (Bethesda’s games are much better known for their stellar open world game design than they are for their writing), and a few weird character animations and awkward AI pathing made it difficult to take the dramatic plot very seriously (it’s not uncommon for characters to try to walk over furniture, or for a character to walk right in front of you as you are in the midst of a conversation with someone else), but the quirky characters keep the story interesting and provide incentive to complete quests.

For parents considering this game for their children, take note that this is definitely a violent game; blood and gore is commonly seen as you fight enemies (and in a way is encouraged by the game design itself, as some enemies are easier to kill by dismembering them).  Fallout 4 doesn’t use violence to intentionally shock or gross out the player, but it doesn’t hide its graphic nature, either.  Strong language is also peppered throughout the game’s dialogue.  From a narrative perspective, you are given the freedom to engage in morally dubious or outright unethical actions (stealing, killing innocent civilians, etc.), just like in most open world games; unlike some of these kinds of games, though, immoral actions like those listed above are optional, and Fallout 4 rewards players more for making friends with other characters and following basic norms of decency and good conduct.

One of Fallout’s signature mechanics is its character upgrades, known as Perks.  As you earn experience points (through finding new locations, killing enemies, and completing quests) and level up, you get to choose new Perks, which customize your character in numerous ways (ranging from combat, to crafting, to increasing persuasiveness in dialogue, and more).  You won’t be able to upgrade everything, however, which forces you to prioritize which skills are most important, and encourages repeat playthroughs as you experiment with different character builds.  It’s a good system overall; you level up often enough to be able to select plenty of different perks, but still limits you enough to make you think carefully about what you want to upgrade.  If I have one criticism about it, it’s that some abilities which seem like they should be automatically available to all players require specific Perks to be accessed.  For example, you can only attempt to pick high level locks or hack high level terminals if you have upgraded the appropriate Perk (as opposed to how Bethesda handled this skill in their previous game, Skyrim, where anyone can attempt to pick any lock, and upgrading the relevant skill just makes the lockpicking minigame easier); considering how frequently you encounter high level locks and terminals (and how many valuable items can only be accessed by unlocking them), spending upgrade points to improve these skills feels like a necessity that consumes precious upgrade points, rather than just another option among many.

Once you make your way out of Vault 111 you are released into the open world, free to explore the Commonwealth as you see fit.  The game does a great job rewarding exploration; every time you find a new location on the map, you receive a few experience points, and more importantly you are then able to fast travel to that point, thus allowing you to cover ground quickly and encouraging you to explore more.  Of course, exploration wouldn’t be much fun if there weren’t interesting places to find; fortunately, the world of Fallout 4 is filled with fascinating locales.  You’ll find everything from abandoned military checkpoints, to dilapidated highways, to small communities living in ramshackle metal huts.  It’s admittedly a rather bleak setting which seemed a bit off-putting to me at first, but over time it really grew on me, and it helped accentuate the moments when I stumbled upon some of the more well-kept environments hidden throughout the game world.

As you wander through the Commonwealth and complete tasks you’ll frequently find yourself engaged in battle with some of the many denizens of the wasteland.  There are a number of different enemy types in the game (including humans, mutants, and robots) and an even greater variety of weapons with which you can defend yourself (baseball bats, ballistic weapons, lasers, guns that emit deadly radiation, and more).  This variety allows for a lot of flexibility for the player to fight the way they want to.  The game’s extensive crafting system further increases flexibility in combat; by scavenging junk from around the Commonwealth and breaking it down to its raw materials, you can improve your weapons and armor in a lot of different ways (such as adding bayonets or scopes to your guns and extra pockets to your outfit).

What makes Fallout’s combat unique is the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.), which puts everything into slow motion and allows you to target specific enemy body parts with your gun, and gives you a percentage chance of whether or not your bullet will hit.  It’s an interesting system that can give you an edge in battle (taking out a limb will impair certain enemies and instantly kill others), but more often than not I found myself not bothering with it.  If not upgraded via perks, it’s effectiveness is limited; some enemies have such low percentages that it is more effective to shoot them in real time (or whack them up close), and since using V.A.T.S. depletes action points (which take time to regenerate), you’ll have to do some fighting in real time anyway.  In short, V.A.T.S isn’t ideal in every situation, and you get as much out of it as you are willing to put in.

Another criticism I have of the combat is that it lacks some polish compared to other shooters on the market.  Some of the attack animations feel stiff (particularly melee attacks), and more importantly, while the game allows you to play in first- or third-person at any time, shooting while in third-person is poor; Fallout 4’s combat was clearly designed to be played in first-person. The game lacks the kind of cover system that you find in big-name third-person shooters like Gears of War or Uncharted, and the crosshairs aren’t as accurate as they should be from this perspective; at times I found that even though the crosshairs indicated that I was aiming around a wall at an enemy, I was actually shooting into the wall, which I discovered when I switched to first-person.  Eventually I found myself sticking with a first-person perspective, which was frustrating because I prefer to see my full character onscreen.  Ultimately, the decision to let players play the game from either perspective is a tradeoff; on the one hand, it’s fun to be able to view your entire character model (especially when you outfit them in cool clothes or armor) and switch between perspectives at a moment’s notice as you explore the world, but it also makes it difficult to refine combat.

All things considered, Bethesda has once again done a fine job in crafting an engaging open world RPG.  The extensive character and weapon customization allows players to tailor the experience to their personal preferences, and exploring the vast, mysterious wasteland is both exciting and rewarding.  While a lack of polish in a few key areas holds Fallout 4 back a bit, it isn’t enough to bring down what is otherwise a very enjoyable game.