Fallout 4 is a Fallout about restoring civilization. It is not just a Fallout about a wayward family member, a water purifier, a GECK, a dam, or your favorite faction. Sure, those things might be in here (Fallout 4 directly repeats some of Fallout 3’s plot points). But this Fallout is unique among Fallouts for how it’s about restoring civilization to the wasteland. About worldbuilding. World rebuilding, to be more precise.
You might think you’ve restored civilizations in previous Fallouts. And, yes, depending on choices you made at the end of the game, maybe you did. But it wasn’t gameplay. Restoring civilization was a coda. A postscript. An oh-by-the-way, like those “where are they now?” title cards at the end of movies based on true stories. The new civilization was a slideshow and a block of text immediately preceding the credits.
But Fallout 4 is a game where you’re going to rebuild society as you play. In fact, you don’t have a choice. You’re going to be a hero who make the ruined world a better place, like it or not. This isn’t the kind of choice-and-consequence Fallout that will let you play the villain. You won’t blow up Megaton. Your choices will be a) pet the puppy or b) cuddle the puppy. The worst you can do is pet the puppy sarcastically. Besides, everyone plays a good guy on their first playthrough, right? You’ll find a couple of evil choices at the end. If you want to groove on the rubble, as per reformed hippie Jerry Rubin’s description of what would happen in an aftermath, you’re not going to do it directly. It will be a coda, a postscript, an oh-by-the-way. Up until then, when it really matters, you will work for a better world. Fallout 4 is a game about gameplay about rebuilding.
After the jump, the four things that keep Fallout 4 from being the game it’s trying to be.
And unfortunately, it doesn’t work. It works just fine as another installment in the Fallout series, this time with breathtaking technical prowess. What an incredible videogame approximation of a bombed out Boston area. Furthermore, it works just fine as an RPG with gratifying combat, tons of loot, sensible character building, and spirited companions who deliver tons of context specific commentary. It works just fine as a Y-shaped story that rides along a rail and then branches out into three separate paths at the end. You might even think it works just fine with its awkward Bioware romance options, which give you a 15% experience point bonus for having sexy time. You’re on your own with that assessment. Ick. Whatever. But as an exercise in world rebuilding worldbuilding, Fallout 4 is a sloppy laissez-faire design that could take a lesson from other games.
The rebuilding takes the form of a settlement system. You do a mission for a group of survivors. This mission is invariably hoofing it way the hell across the map to kill some bad guys who’ve apparently been hoofing it way the hell across the map to harass the survivors. You’d think the bad guys would harass one of the closer settlements, but like so many things in a Bethesda game, the goal is to get you out and about. Out of gratitude, the survivors let you use their patch of land to Minecraft. Build walls, roofs, beds, chairs, end tables, armoires, ottomans. Provide food, water, and elaborate power networks. Assign settlers to various duties. Build up defenses, including unnecessarily complex traps that the enemy will obligingly walk into during the randomly spawned defense missions.
Like real Minecraft, Fallout 4 Minecraft is a poorly documented, unmanageable, and unsightly mess. Your settlements consist of wooden and metal shacks, criss-crossed with a tangle of power lines between chugging gas generators and scattered pylons, nourished by patchwork gardens and hydrated by desultory water pumps, littered with unswept piles of immovable rubble and dirt. This is the new world after hundreds of years. No one can be bothered with landscaping, painting, sealing the gaps between crooked planks and sheets of corrugated metal, or even just sweeping up a little. The gameplay might be Minecraft, but the aesthetic is all Third World favela. You could play a Call of Duty game up in here. Even the white picket fences, the very symbol of re-gentrified civilization, are all askew.
It’s maddeningly obtuse. An otherwise helpful help option from the pause menu thoroughly documents many of Fallout 4’s systems. Settlements aren’t among them. Like Minecraft, it seems to want you to play by alt-tabbing over to a wiki every five minutes. I must have played nearly half the game before realizing I could scrap rusted cars, ruined houses, and even trees for resources. All those brooms, toy cars, and ball peen hammers I lugged around to wring every last wood shaving out of the wasteland, when all along I could have simply scrapped a couple of trees? I still don’t know how shops work. Even the interface is klunky. When does a triple A project play like an early access indie sandbox? When it’s Fallout 4’s settlement system.
The worst thing about the settlement system might not be apparent for a while: it is almost entirely optional. For a game that forces you to be the good guy who rebuilds civilization, it sure doesn’t put much gameplay emphasis on all this gameplay. You can ignore it. Go ahead. Fallout 4 won’t mind for a while. But then you get to the missions gated by resource stockpiling. Don’t you wish you’d been developing your settlements now? Other than this necessary bit of late-game pack ratting, the settlement system earns you nothing. What should have been the cornerstone of a survival drama is merely busywork, ten times more finicky and frustrating than having to eat, drink, and sleep in Fallout: New Vegas’ hardcore mode. It’s an entire swath of the game that goes nowhere and takes a lot of effort to get there.
Perhaps that’s the point. Open-ended futzing for when you’ve done everything else. In lieu of good or evil choices, Fallout 4 is ultimately about choosing your favorite of three factions. But the faction that governs the settlements isn’t an option. They exist outside the main plot. They’re still there once you’ve finished the storyline. I guess the idea is to give you a civilization sandbox based on endless busywork, random defense missions, and building hovels one wall at a time. Like Minecraft.
State of Decay managed to do so much more with a system of rebuilding and survival in the context of a post-apocalyptic open world. It made sense. It drove the gameplay. It was based on attracting more people and keeping them alive. It was part of a gameplay loop with the zombie killing, thematic, addicting, and intuitive. In State of Decay, you needed to build to take territory, to facilitate travel, to earn resources. Its settlement system was a fantastic survival drama, in perfect harmony with its setting and gameplay. Fallout 4 should have taken notes.
If the settlement system is the first problem with Fallout 4’s rebuilding theme, the geography is the second problem. Bethesda has no interest in addressing the difficult problem of meaningful geography, which is ironic considering how good they are at creating geography. Their worlds are carefully calculated so that there’s something interesting over every hill, so that landmarks are noticed, so that vistas happen, so that traversal is a delight. And then Bethesda subverts it all with fast travel. Once you’ve gotten somewhere, there’s no reason to ever travel there again, to ever delight in the going, to ever care about distance. Instead, you just teleport through a loading screen. Everything is as close as everything else. Convenience is the prime directive.
One of the coolest places in Fallout 4 is a radioactive expanse called the Glowing Sea. You’ll cross it as a mandatory part of the story. Suit up or load up on radiation meds. You’ll have to be very particular about who you bring along given the radioactivity. Carefully navigate the worst of Fallout 4’s mutated wildlife. You only do this once. You don’t even have to walk back out. Every other time you need to get cross the Glowing Sea — Fallout 4 forces you through a fair bit of pointless quest-related back-and-forth — you’ll just fast travel with no regard for the intervening terrain. It doesn’t matter how far it is across the Glowing Sea or even that it’s radioactive. Wear shorts and flip flops. Bring your dog. Save the ammo you would have spent on those deathclaws and radscorpions.
Space and therefore time don’t matter in Fallout 4. So the act of rebuilding civilization, reclaiming and developing all those settlements, feels even more like a mere formality with no payoff. Is my settlement all the way across the map under attack because I didn’t have the resources to build adequate defenses? I can get there in the blink of a loading screen. Do I need to repair my power armor? No problem. Just teleport back to the workbench where I keep all my supplies. To sell my vendor trash, should I go all the way back to the main city where the vendor has more money than this guy out here in the sticks who can’t afford it? Of course! Is there any reason to develop a settlement closer to the middle of the map? Nope. None whatsoever. Any settlement is as conveniently located as any other settlement. Geography does not exist in a Bethesda game. So how then are they going to incentivize rebuilding civilization one settlement at a time? How are they going to make it worth my while to manage multiple settlements? They aren’t.
State of Decay comes to mind here as well. Geography, including which resources are where, is a vital part of the game. That forest, that ruined church, that stretch of road, that fence around that farmland, that escarpment matter. Travel matters. Traversal is interesting, risky, heavy with possible stories. Fast travel has no place in the world of State of Decay, a game about having to get to places more than once, where it matters who and what is where and how far. And even if Bethesda wouldn’t dare introduce something that might be construed as inconvenience, they could have made fast travel a part of gameplay. Which they eventually do, to ridiculous effect. At one point, you are given teleportation technology. Pfft, you scoff, I’ve had that all along!
The challenge level is Fallout 4’s third major failing. A developer needs to tune how hard his game is. He needs to make choices as sure as a movie director needs to pick his actors, a painter needs to choose his colors, or an architect needs to decide a skyscraper’s height. Games can give the players a choice among difficulties, but they still need to be tuned and ideally incentivized. If I’m going to have to reload a battle ten times, I should get something out of it that the guy who plowed through on very easy didn’t get.
Bethesda doesn’t do this in Fallout 4. There is no incentive to play the harder difficulty levels. You get everything on very easy that someone else got on very hard. That’s not entirely true. The drop rate for legendary items is higher on harder difficulty levels. Yes, legendary items. Someone at Bethesda has been playing Borderlands, Diablo, and World of Warcraft. It’s a shame they didn’t take to heart those games’ difficulty tuning. Instead, Bethesda just determines how frail you are and how hearty everyone else is, independent of everything else. Change it freely on the fly. Because why not?
A survival difficulty option is oddly named for having no specific survival gameplay, other than being one step harder than the hardest level. You’re one notch more glass and the bad guys are one notch more bullet sponge. But go on, give it a shot. I played on survival right out of the gate. I figured after years of Bethesda tinkering around with various solutions to difficulty levels, from the autoscaling in Oblivion to the experience point bonus in Fallout 3, they wouldn’t just punt the issue in Fallout 4. I was wrong. On survival difficulty — such a misleading name — now Fallout 4 is about punishingly difficult ammo management where I can’t use my favorite gun anymore because it ran out of bullets since it takes ten times as many bullets to kill something. So here’s me, plinking away at a deathclaw with nothing but my back-up weapon, running backward and firing a bolt-action rifle for which I still have 83 rounds. Up next: the 10mm pistol.
I gave up on survival mode after about fifteen hours, at precisely the moment my friend told me there are no achievements for playing on particular difficulty levels. Besides, I’d already gotten a legendary drop that invalidated every other weapon I would find for the rest of the game. It was the very first legendary I found. I occasionally tried other weapons, especially when I boosted them with specific perk choices or crafting improvements. But it didn’t matter. That legendary drop was consistently the go-to solution for any combat problem. Long range, short range, close quarters, realtime, VATS. Raiders, mutants, robots, turrets, deathclaws, champions, legendaries. Everything falls down in short order. In case you’re wondering, the weapon was a submachine gun that fires explosive bullets. Did it occur to Bethesda that adding additional explosive damage to every round would be exponentially more powerful on a gun with a high firing rate? Did they just not care?
But even on normal, so long as I studiously avoided relying on my submachine gun, the combat was engaging enough and always a joy, whether played as a straight up shooter or with the more methodical VATS system. This quasi-turn-based mode is as exciting and gory as ever. Even more so, since time slows to a crawl instead of stopping, and since critical hits are now interactive. These are nothing like traditional critical hits with a hands-off X% chance rolled under the hood. They’re more like supermoves that you store up and fire off manually in an action game.
VATS is still limited by issues that should have been solved by now. You can’t change weapons. You can’t throw grenades. You can’t pop pills. But as long as I’m happy with my currently equipped weapon, these carefully calculated slo-mo close-ups of gratuitously splashy decapitations, dismemberments, and ragdoll deaths never get old. This is the reason I can’t go back to Skyrim’s clumsy real-time flailing. Bethesda’s games are at their best when they slow down to appreciate the ultraviolence.
The fourth major failing in Fallout 4 is the interface. Again. The interface is better, but how could it not be (Skyrim all but killed certain character builds with its terrible interface)? It’s still not up to contemporary standards. All that scrolling through all those lists and all that tabbing among all those Pip Boy displays. It does some important quality-of-life things like not penalizing you for carrying ammo. Ammo is weightless. I’m carrying around 17 cannonballs in case I find the cannonball gun. They weigh zero pounds. Whee! The perks screen is no longer a long list of cute names. Now it’s a set of intuitive pictures smartly organized by attributes.
But the improvements just make the sticking points all the stickier. Does no one at Bethesda play games that have solved interface issues? For instance, if Bethesda is going to undermine their gameplay by letting me teleport around the wasteland willy-nilly, why not let me teleport my resources? Why force me to jump through hoops requiring specific character builds if I want my resources available among all my settlements? Why punish all low charisma characters by forcing them to haul junk back and forth across loading screens (it takes charisma to assign your settlers to supply line duty)? And again, why not make the short leap to let me teleport my resources from anywhere when I get loaded down? If Bethesda can’t make an actual meaningful survival game like State of Decay, why pester me with this unnecessary futzing around? The result is a lot of time spent figuring out how best to drop three pounds of weight because that’s how much I’m over my limit now that I’ve found this piece of leg armor. I’ve probably spent as much time poring over inventory weight as I have in VATS. Seriously.
These are the sorts of problems Fallout 4 can’t be bothered to solve. Perhaps the thinking is that the modders will do it, so pah! Why bother? To Bethesda’s credit, it looks like they poured a lot of love, time, and technology into the game engine. Gamebryo has finally grown up into the Creation engine, as seen in Skyrim. Having just come from a New Vegas playthrough, I couldn’t help but marvel at how Bethesda was able to finally craft a ruined cityscape without chopping it up into tiny slivers separated by loading screens. What a difference five years make.
And what a spectacular open world. In Fallout: New Vegas, a terrorist bomb blows up a monorail, which was really just a loading screen to take you to someplace else. You never used it because you were fast traveling everywhere anyway. You’re indoors when it gets blown up. You hear a muffled explosion. Someone says something like ‘hey, whoa, terrorists blew up the monorail’. You go outside and sure enough, the monorail has a wrecked train where the unwrecked train used to be. Fallout 4 will brook none of that nonsense. It has the engine to let you actually ride the monorails. And if any monorails are going to blow up, it has the engine to show you the actual explosion in awesome detail. It is at last ready to Michael Bay the fuck out of its set pieces, to deliver the ‘holy shit!’ moments in all their ‘holy shit!’ glory. It will even let them just happen on their own. In previous Fallouts, you might come across a raider and a supermutant plinking away at each other with their guns. In Fallout 4, you’ll get a group of raiders fighting a group of supermutants. One of them might have a mininuke. A vertibird might even be involved. And it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s just Bethesda proudly showing you what they can do. Join in if you want. Or don’t. Rest assured, this will all be about you eventually. You’ll be in the thick of it before Fallout 4 is over.
Some movies are Oscar bait. Fallout 4 is shameless Game Of The Year bait, a state-of-the-art iteration in a beloved franchise. All this spectacle, all this epic sprawl, all this padding masquerading as gameplay, all this openness. The critical perspective on videogames is still young and impressionable enough that this is all it takes. Even if Fallout 4 can’t live up to the promise of being a game about restoring civilization, it works just fine as another Fallout. Bethesda has laid solid and at times spectacular groundwork for an awesome game. I look forward to another developer building on it.
Bethesda Game Studios, the award-winning creators of Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, welcome you to the world of Fallout 4 -- their most ambitious game ever, and the next generation of open-world gaming. Never mind that it's got its fair share of pointless filler and design fumbles.