A lot of the Fallout 4 conversation is about how it compares to The Witcher 3. What an odd comparison. The Witcher 3 is high fantasy with a predetermined protagonist in a very specific story that focuses on character development and good writing. Fallout 4 is pretty much the opposite of all that.
The more appropriate comparison is to Xenoblade Chronicles X. They have a lot in common, including a blank slot where you plug in your own hero. They both have an open world, mechs, sidekicks, character customization, an unruly world for you to settle, carefully calculated landscapes, quest list gameplay, stranger-in-a-strange-land storylines that you can pursue at your leisure, crafting, stylized combat.
After the jump, which one is for you?
The premise: Manifest destiny
In Xenoblade Chronicles X, you’re stranded on an alien world and must conquer it. In Fallout 4, you wake up in a ruined world and have to solve a mystery, but you can also conquer the ruined world with settlements. In both games, you’re not here willingly. Whether you’ve crash landed or your cryotank has crashed, your arrival is marked by something gone wrong. Now figure it out. That’s nothing new in vidoegames, which are often precipitated by shipwrecks and/or amnesia. But the point of these starting points is that you don’t know the world. You have to learn it. And as you do, the storyline reveals itself, letting you follow it at your leisure. The story progression in both games is very contrived, particularly in Xenoblade Chronicles X, which always lays out the specific path you must take before each story beat. First you do this mission, then you reach this level, then you explore this percent of this section of the world. All done? Okay, cool, now the story is ready for you to push it forward a notch, at which point you’ll have a new set of requirements.
Fallout 4 is a bit more organic, at least until you settle into the endgame groove toward one of its formulaic A, B, or C finales. But that’s one advantage it has over Xenoblade Chronicles X, where the plot is all but on rails; the Fallout 4 narrative has some endgame wiggle room. Fallout 4 also affords you the option to ignore the plot to sidequest to your heart’s desire, or to ignore the sidequests and power directly through the plot. It’s your call. Xenoblade Chronicles X is like a helicopter parent or a polite tour guide. It insists you sample the wider world as you go. Not too much storyline, it chides, lest you glut yourself!
The quests in both games are disappointingly rote, although the story missions in each game manage a degree of spectacle. The most common pattern for Fallout 4 quests is going somewhere. Oh yeah, fight through mandatory bad guys to get there. At which point you might have to fight through more mandatory bad guys to get out. A to B, demands Fallout 4. Xenoblade Chronicles X, on the other hand, takes its cue from massively multiplayer online games. Collect 10 bear asses. Now collect 4 wolf ears. Now collect 3 Daisies of Significance. Oh, you already had those in your inventory? Quest complete!
NPC sidekicks: Do you like me? Yes: _ No: _ Check one.
Both games are heavy on the concept of follower NPCs, each with unique quests and each with affinity thresholds as part of the game progression. How much does Nick Valentine like you? Only that much? Well, that’s not enough. Keep trying. How much does Lao like you? Only that much? Well, you’re going to need two more hearts before you unlock his skill, which you might not use anyway. Keep trying.
This is a more integral part of Xenoblade Chronicles X because it’s a party-based JRPG. The combat just reinforces the sidekick concept because it’s call-and-response; one of your sidekicks requests a particular skill and you use that skill for a bonus. You all heal each other in the process. You can even set up the skills for each character to feed into the whole call-and-response structure. It’s nearly liturgical.
The sidekicks in Fallout 4 offer plenty of color commentary as you play, but it doesn’t have any gameplay effect. They’re just chatting. Which is cute, but little more than atmosphere. These sidekicks are optional. Choose your favorite, because you can only take one or none at all. In fact, one of the perks for your character encourages you to take none at all.
Most of the sidekick characters in Xenoblade Chronicles are fixtures of the storyline, hardcoded into missions, as fated to their roles as their classes, always reminding you when they’re present with their combat call-outs, called “soul voices”. They are mandatory. In fact, the main characters in Xenoblade Chronicles X are them, not you. You can even play as one of the sidekicks if you want. And while you might have favorites, don’t get too attached; Elma and Lin are going to take up half of the slots for the foreseeable future while everyone else falls behind the leveling curve. You can think of leveling up anyone else as a side quest.
Fallout 4’s sidekicks are often a comedy of errors, faffing about in your line of fire, wandering through laser tripwires, and talking over important story dialogue. But they’re much more colorful in their commentary and their characterization. Fallout 4 has a robot noir detective, a hot Irish brawler chick, a giant irradiated orc, and the obligatory dog. Xenoblade Chronicles has the usual JRPG stereotypes. Would you believe your mechanic is a teenage girl with a little furry blob for a sidekick? Oh, Japan. You’re nothing if not familiar.
Dialogue: Say what?
Both games have very limited dialogue as options for the main character. This is most keenly felt in Fallout 4, where you’re no mere cypher; you are a parent searching for his/her missing child. The sense of urgency — although the game is happy to wait if you want to take your time with it — is palpable, even universal. The introduction sets you up as a young adult in a picturebook Eisenhower era, put on ice and then waking up after the world is over. Your child is missing. Find him. It’s that simple. Xenoblade Chronicles doesn’t really know what to do with you, so it has the other characters do all the talking while your avatar looks on dumbly, sometimes nodding or silently choosing an option from a menu. The options never matter. You will get to the same place every time. That’s also pretty much how the Fallout 4 story progresses, but unlike previous Fallouts, you don’t get to be evil. The worst case scenario in Fallout 4 is that you’re sarcastic. Neither of these games is interested in letting you role-play any meaningful distance from the predetermined storyline, but this is most conspicuous in Fallout 4 for how it’s different from the moral and narrative flexibility of the previous Fallouts.
Mechs: More than meets the eye
Both games give you a mech, and they get exponentially awesome when you and your sidekick(s) are all stomping around the countryside in one of these metal behemoths. Fallout 4’s mechs are so Western they’re not even called mechs. They’re called power armor. Xenoblade Chronicle X’s mechs are totally mechs, but they’re called skells. You won’t get a skell until a few dozen hours into the game, whereas Fallout 4 drops power armor into your lap in the very first mission. Skells come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and they can each turn into a different vehicle with distinct handling. They can even fly. I suppose they’re technically Transformers, but don’t tell Hasbro. Power armor and skells are exhaustively customizable. In Fallout 4, some of the customization is ridiculous, even poorly thought out. Am I going to really make a stealth power suit or power armor painted to charm people in conversations or extra protection from radiation in a game littered with Rad-X and Radaway? Why are those options even in there? Bethesda’s answer is a shrug.
The mechs in both games need fuel. Power armor in Fallout 4 runs on fusion cores. It’s just a formality to swap out a depleted fusion core, and you’ll have plenty. I finished the storyline, suited up in power armor for long periods of time, with about twenty of the things still in my inventory and plenty more available out in the world if I wanted them. The fuel in Xenoblade Chronicles X — called fuel, fittingly enough — seems like a formality at first. But then you’ll start trying new builds, equipping your skells with advanced weapons, and actually having to manage fuel consumption. Sometimes you might have to let them sit and recharge, since the fuel is more like the power on a laptop than a gas tank. Sometimes you’ll even set up the map with recharging points.
The point of these fuel concepts is that both games want to limit how much time you spend in your mech. After all, the gameplay is more perilous when you’re squishy. What kind of game is going to let you just mech your way to the end? But only Xenoblade Chronicles X manages to do this as a meaningful part of the economy. How often have I wished I could reload a saved game when I used up my skell’s last insurance policy and now it’s a huge financial liability if I take it into the precise difficult combats where I need it most?
Death penalty: Where is thy sting?
Which brings me to how each game advances as a videogame. Fallout 4 is the usual unimaginative save and reload dance. This is the worst possible way to model death in a videogame. I have to replay chunks of the game as a death penalty. But only if I don’t save constantly. So I save constantly. In other words, an extrinsic factor — my time — is a consistent and nagging part of the gameplay. If I don’t save constantly, if I’m not always prepared by liberally dropping restart points like a hose spewing breadcrumbs, Fallout 4 will punish me by wasting more of my time. Like so many other things in Fallout 4, this is an example of Bethesda’s approach to game design: a shrug.
Xenoblade Chronicles X errs on the side of death being meaningless. You keep everything you amassed up to the point of death: experience points, resources, loot, collectibles, quest progress, unfogged landscape, and so on. The only death penalty is the geographical setback to the closest spawn point. There are no repairs, no lost money, no death debuffs. If you lose a boss battle a few times, it even offers to shave hit points off the boss for your next attempt.
But then skells arrive. Once you’re managing a garage of various skells, you’re also managing a tense resource-based risk/reward situation. Skells are rewardingly powerful, but they’re also huge resource sinks. Skells each have three lives, called insurance policies. After you spend those, replacing a skell is expensive. So do you risk using a skell?
The risk/reward even applies to a micro level: when your skell is reduced to zero hit points, you have to hit a timed sweet spot to keep it intact. Otherwise, you’ll have to burn an insurance policy or pay the not inconsiderable financial penalty for a replacement. Hitting the timed sweet spot isn’t as frustrating as it might sound. You’ve been practicing that sweet spot for the last fifty hours because it’s a central feature of combat. It has mattered for a long time. And now it matters as part of the game’s resource model.
Combat: Whoa, differences.
Combat in Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s brilliant VATS system, which you have to play if you want to use your critical hits. If you don’t use VATS, you’re leaving damage on the table. Otherwise you can just plug away at combat as if you were playing a shooter. The challenge will mainly be a matter of how much ammo you have, which in turn will be a factor of your choice of difficulty level. It’s a little turn-based and a lot real time. It’s a little tactical and a lot action. It’s a little John Woo and a lot John Carmack. It’s one of the best things Bethesda has created as they marginalize actual game design in favor of visual splash. One of the biggest shortcomings in Skyrim, a stunning world and a sadly underdeveloped game, is that it doesn’t use VATS. Or whatever the fantasy equivalent would be. FATS?
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles X is an upgraded version of the combat from Xenoblade Chronicles, itself an upgraded version of what you might call MMO combat. You’re using skills in real time, watching cool-down timers, finessing buffs and debuffs. But unlike an MMO, you’re managing a party, with positioning and complementary skills playing their part. Xenoblade Chronicles X makes the whole thing even more interactive with the concept of soul voices, the call-and-response combat system between you and your party members. It reminds me of the combat in Lord of the Rings Online, where a group of players could invoke dramatic interruptions of Tolkien lore by carefully coordinating their actions. World of Warcraft wishes it had combat that good.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is especially good at keeping the combat active and interactive. It looks busy, and it is. But it’s also very detailed and very manageable. There are important choices as a battle unfolds. It’s no accident that the resource you build up for important skills, reviving killed characters, or the deliriously over-the-top overdrive mode is called “tension”. Character builds matter. Combinatorial character builds matter especially. You can’t win a battle by just cranking down the difficulty level whenever you feel like it. Because there is no difficulty level in Xenoblade Chronicles X. There is only the game developer Monolith Soft designed. Here again, Bethesda has simply shrugged.
Furthermore, each battle in Xenoblade Chronicles X is a self-contained challenge. You aren’t limited by stim packs, ammo, armor damage, or any of the usual tricks games use to force some down time as you go back to town (the ways skells work is a minor exception to this).
Visuals: Getting an eyeful
Graphics. Whatever. They’re both gorgeous games. However, their aesthetics are as opposite as could be. Fallout 4 is a ruined wilderness with patches of cityscape, mostly drab and crumbling and bleak, with occasional cosmetic weather (the new radiation storms are the only exception). Xenoblade Chronicles X is a colorful alien world, mostly wondrous and goofy and cheerfully otherworldly, with weather having a dramatic effect on gameplay. It’s only on the Wii U, but the more you play, the more it reveals the power of the Wii U. By the time your skell can fly, you’ll get to really see what the Wii U can do for open worlds.
You experience these worlds from very different perspectives. You don’t need me to explain the difference between Fallout 4’s first-person perspective and Xenoblade Chronicles X’s third-person perspective. It’s the difference between being somewhere and playing with action figures. Xenoblade’s action figure sensibility is all the more pronounced when you pull the camera back for a better view of the action, as well as the scenery. A lof the walking around in Mira — that’s where Xenoblade Chronicles X takes place — is best done with the camera zoomed way back so you can really appreciate the landscape. Zooming way out is pretty much mandatory once you have a big fat skell taking up your third-person screen real estate. But in Fallout 4, you’ll always appreciate the landscape because you never have to stare at your avatar front and center. Except for those times you accidentally pull back into third-person view. Oops. No one wants to play a Bethesda game in third person. No one wants to have to stare at those character models doing those animations.
Your avatar: You’re wearing that?
Both games give you customized avatars. Fallout 4 lets you design a person within the usual limitations of a Bethesda engine. This time your person is the least ugly he or she has ever been in a Bethesda game. Xenoblade Chronicles X lets you do whatever you want with your anime doll, and because it’s third-person, it’s going to let you play dress up as much as you want. Equip one set of gear for function, and another set of gear for form. My heavily armored character has been running around in jeans and a tank top for the entire game. Mainly because all the armor is just so very anime. Oh, Japan.
Meanwhile, my hardened erstwhile hausfrau in Fallout 4 wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Fury Road, and not because that’s how I want her to look. If I want to look presentable, say to sell vendor trash or initiate a dialog, I have to muck around in my inventory to put on charisma boosting clothes. “Hold on a sec,” I pretend my character says as she walks backward to drop out of a conversation and raise her Pip Boy. “Let me slip into something more attractive.” Tab, tab, tab, scroll, scroll, scroll, equip laundered green dress, scroll, scroll, equip fedora. “Okay, now what were you saying?” Here again Bethesda demonstrates they’re not really interested in game design.
Character builds: Ding ding ding
Actually, that’s not entirely fair given how far the actual character building has come in Fallout 4. Leveling up used to mean considering a long list of silly names. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Now it means consulting an elegant array of cute animations arranged by attribute. It can’t quite compare to Xenoblade Chronicle X’s exhaustive arts, skill, and class options you’ll piece together and sometimes entirely rework. Bethesda asks you to commit to permanent choices; Xenoblade Chronicles X lets you build and build and build and rebuild at will. Do you want to be a minigunner with a shield? Have at it. Did you prefer your telepathically controlled guns and light saber? Swap back into that character build. Do you feel like working your way up to a mind-control expert with a giant ray gun? Level up in that direction for a while. There are no mutually exclusive choices and plenty of flexibility. Leveling up is rewarding in both games, but in distinct ways.
Crafting: It’s a mod mod mod mod world
The other part of character development is crafting. In both games, you’re scooping up doo-dads, piecing them together to make stuff. Both games make the scooping as painless as ever, whether it’s Fallout 4’s look-to-scavenge system or Xenoblade’s landscape festooned with tiny blue collectible dots. Both games have an intricate system of modifying your weapons. In Fallout 4, you craft new sights and stocks and ammo magazines for your guns, and new attachments for your armor. It’s tentatively milsim. In Xenoblade Chronicles X, you spend your resources upgrading the bonus abilities for your weapons and armor, and crafting new bonuses that you can freely plug into and take out of your equipment. It’s all about the drops and improving the merchants. It’s very JRPG, very Diablo.
The crafting looks great in Fallout 4, especially with the home-made weapons, which are almost as post-apocalyptic chic as the weapons in the Metro games. I’ve already commented on the awkward and unsightly mish-mash of armor. The crafting in Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t have any sort of visual context. Instead, it’s all gameplay. Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. Which stats do you want to increase? What kinds of damage do you want to do? What kinds of damage do you want to defend against? How do you want to manage the flow of combat? Crafting matters more in Xenoblade Chronicles.
Resource models: Why don’t I own this?
The resource model also matters more in Xenoblade Chronicles X, especially once the skells arrive. You set up mining and research nodes on the controller screen’s map of hexes (Xenoblade Chronicles X is only available for the Wii U and it takes full advantage of the platform’s idiosyncrasies). This is a minor strategy game in itself, in which you maximize the income of money and minerals, but only to the limit of your storage capacity. You set up adjacency bonuses and boosters based on which parts of which maps you’ve captured. You earn new mining equipment as you play. Just as the crafting materials are diverse and finicky, these mining nodes want to be optimized and tweaked.
Fallout 4 has a detailed settlement system that feeds into its scavenging resource model. The settlement gameplay, which consists of housing, feeding, and defending settlers, is clearly inspired by Minecraft, Terraria, and various perpetually early access survival games. And it’s just as rough hewn, with a horrible interface based on busywork, undocumented mechanics, and embedded mandatory confusion. But it’s even more gratifying than setting up mining nodes in Xenoblade Chronicles X. It brings to life the concept of scavenging from the wasteland to survive and eventually thrive. Unfortunately, it has zero gameplay impact. I look forward to modders bringing to it more passion than Bethesda’s characteristic shrug.
Online support: Benefits with friends
Only Xenoblade Chronicles X has any sort of online component. It’s not full-blown multiplayer, and you can ignore it if you like. But unlike Fallout 4, it will give you a sense of connection with other players as you chip away at collective dynamic missions and use each other’s characters. It even provides a new approach to earning resources; you can spend the points you earn from online features to buy crafting materials you might be missing. It’s not necessarily less grinding, but it’s a different type of grinding.
Time commitments: You could have watched 50 movies
Both games are huge time sinks. You can easily spend over a hundred hours in each game. If you’re here for the storyline, Xenoblade Chronicles X is going to be the longer game. If you want to just explore and play at your leisure, both games are as long as you want them to be. Both games will turn you more or less loose in vast imaginatively realized worlds, but Xenoblade Chronicles X feels like the 100+ hours it takes. Fallout 4 puts a stronger emphasis on immersion, atmosphere, and sheer experience, melting away the hours with the power of merely being there. And with mod support for the PC version, Fallout 4 is arguably playable from now until forever.
So, which one is for you? It ultimately comes down to this simple question: do you prefer gameplay or worldbuilding? Xenoblade Chronicles is the better game. Fallout 4 is the better open world.