Monday, January 11, 2016

Fallout 4 First Impressions

No one's thought to clear up this broken glass in 200 years?
That's a health hazard waiting to happen.
The thing that irked me the most about Fallout 4 in the leadup to its release was that Bethesda didn't even have to try. You already had people losing their minds over it for months before it came out, an issue I examined in my exasperated article on the subject. Now, of course, it seems like people are more than prepared to question the game, and that's something, but I still want to give my thoughts. I had no real intention of playing Fallout 4; in my opinion Bethesda's version of Fallout isn't really Fallout at all because they didn't invent it and don't really seem to understand the point of it, and I was prepared for it to pass me by, but I was given Fallout 4 as a Christmas gift and so I felt I might as well give it a go. Thus I too entered the amazing world of mediocrity which is the Commonwealth Wasteland. What follows are my thoughts on the game so far, after playing for about ten and a half hours, apparently.
Well there's your problem.

In my opinion, the idea that your character was alive before the "Great War" which caused the nuclear annihilation of civilisation is an interesting one which has merit as a storytelling device; there's always mileage in the idea of a person "out of time" to explore the ways in which our historical moments shape us. This, however, comes with a number of issues as it manifests in Fallout 4 and which I will now relate.

The premise of Fallout 4's setup is that your Vault, Vault 111, which you were led to believe was designed to allow you to survive the nuclear war, was in fact a cryogenic experimentation facility. At some point, you conveniently wake up to see your spouse in the opposite booth being killed and your infant child kidnapped. There are two key issues with this:
The rare "Fallout cosplayer" gear.
1. It makes the gameplay seem ridiculous. As a big open-world RPG, Fallout 4 derives a lot of its notional entertainment value from being a "sandbox" in which you're free to muck around and have fun: you can explore, fight enemies, do side quests for various parties and generally squeeze the setting of all of its narratives and experiences. Yet you're playing as a character whose baby has been kidnapped. It just doesn't work as a motivation in this kind of game. A parent would surely be off following the clues without immediate time to spare for the issues of others, the recovery of their abducted child being their main goal. In Fallout and Fallout 2 the stuffing around factor could be justified in terms of gathering the resources you need to achieve your main goal - finding the Water Chip, stopping the Master, finding the GECK and beating the Enclave. In Fallout 4 it's much more difficult to swallow.

"Who's a getting-in-my-way-when-I'm-trying-to-sneak boy, then?"
2. It's trite. "Rescue your kidnapped child" is a pretty overused premise in fiction. Arguably all the Fallout games have been guilty of this, but that doesn't excuse it here. New Vegas is probably the most original of all of them, and that at least starts off as a pretty basic revenge plot. There's a third element which emerges from this as well:

Bonus Third Issue: It's basically just a reversal of the character motivation of Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was "find your father"; Fallout 4 is "find your son." That was the best they could come up with? I believe there are twists and turns later but they really could have done something better. Moving on...

I believe there may have been criticism of Fallout 4's graphics prior to release but I couldn't really be bothered researching it. It any event, I think the game looks okay. It looks a hell of a lot better than Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, that's for sure. Those character models in the Gamebryo Engine were horrible. I've been running the game on Low because my computer is comparatively old now - I got it in late 2012 - and even on low I think it looks fine. There are some texture pop ins and things naturally but I can live with it.

Cryogenic freezing may give you a shiny face.
Others have focused on this as well but I just can't get past the idea of Boston being the way it is two hundred and ten years after a global thermonuclear war. It's not just that it would have been bombed flat; you can make the excuse that, being on the East Coast, most of the Chinese aircraft and warheads would have been shot down before they reached it, a bit like in a game of DEFCON. That's a good idea actually - a crashed Chinese bomber. Where are things like that? But it doesn't change the fact that over two hundred years the city would have collapsed without maintenance.

I'll find my baby just after I've shot another few bugs.
Boston in Fallout 4 looks like the bombs dropped a few years ago at most, and yet two centuries are meant to have passed. People like to say "well the games are unrealistic so of course this is excusable" but the thing is, in Fallout and Fallout 2, this didn't happen: places like the Necropolis were so named because they were built in the skeletal structure left behind by the wasted skyscrapers and edifices of the old world. Everything else had been blasted away or had succumbed to the ravages of time. In Fallout there is also the excuse that it only took place a mere eighty years after the Great War, and took place in a rather dry environment. Locations like Shady Sands were entirely new constructions.

Fallout 4, like Fallout 3 before it, still has scavenger-like societies of people living in towns made of junk and scrap, not rebuilding and starting again but clinging to the remnants of an old world that they never lived in. Even New Vegas continued the idea established in Fallout 2 that a new society was emerging, by representing the New California Republic of Fallout 2 as a comparatively "civilised" state which, while probably not at pre-war levels of development, was still an industrialised society of its own construction. For whatever reason, despite having the excuse of perhaps not being hit as hard, Bethesda's East Coast has not recovered to nearly the same extent. It's really a question of the timing. There's no real reason that Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 need to be set after Fallout 2 given how removed they are from its location, but I believe Bethesda wanted it to be plausible that the Brotherhood of Steel would have made it East. This leads into:

The whole composition of the game world (and this is true of Fallout 3 as well) is one which Bethesda has built out of a handful of now-meaningless signifiers of "Fallout" with a threefold purpose: firstly, to appeal to fans of the original Fallout games; secondly, to make their post-apocalyptic games seem quirky and unique (albeit using other people's ideas); and thirdly, now, to reference themselves and the concepts of Fallout which exist in the internet's popular consciousness dating back to the success of Fallout 3. In this they are mostly referencing ideas which they themselves never even invented, simply bought.

Thus there are things like: bottle cap currency, which Fallout 2 showed being abandoned once more established societies were developed; Super Mutants and various other mutated and gigantic irradiated creatures, even though they were specifically a creation of the Master in Fallout using the Forced Evolutionary Virus that was specifically found in the West-Tek Research Facility and Mariposa Military Base in California; and the abandoned ruins of the old world, even though the bombs fell two hundred years earlier.

My local supermarket looked like this on Christmas Eve.
In Fallout, all these things made sense: bottle caps were used as currency because they were convenient and sufficiently rare, the Super Mutant threat was part of the main plot involving the Master and his efforts to bring "Unity" to the Wasteland, and the old world was being replaced, like in A Canticle for Liebowitz, by a new one. Bethesda, however, sees Fallout as simply a game with ruins, a 1950s aesthetic, power armour, Super Mutants, ghouls, giant insects and pests, and bottle cap currency without any particular rhyme or reason to it. It just "is" because to them Fallout is just "stuff" that exists in some kind of vacuum, to be thrown together at will. Fallout doesn't really work outside of its original West Coast USA setting and it really shows in these games. I've seen it argued that really Bethesda just wants to make kooky 1950s style science fiction sandbox games and this is the most marketable way of doing it, and Fallout 4 brings that into relief. It's a bit dispiriting to see what was originally a rather striking concept, even if taking elements from the original Wasteland game, repurposed to have its most recognisable elements exploited in such a cynical way.

Seriously, why are there so many Feral Ghouls as enemies? Couldn't they think of anything else to use as an enemy? It feels like they just went around the map clicking intermittently going "Ghouls here... ghouls here... fill this space with ghouls... here's another empty patch, better fill it with ghouls..."

Trying to contact the parallel universe where Van Buren was released.
Why on earth did they make it so that Power Armour needs fuel, something that has never come up in any other Fallout game? I could understand if they wanted to introduce it early and thus you got a shonky suit in the initial Power Armour sequence that used batteries regularly, but why make it a universal element applicable to all suits of Power Armour in the game?

This particularly irks me for a rather personal reason. I like to play Bethesda RPGs without fast travel, because I think it makes the game more immersive. Yet if you just walk at a normal pace in Power Armour in Fallout 4, your batteries drain. Yet apparently if you do use Fast Travel, they don't. If you take the battery out, you clunk around at a slow speed like you're encumbered, which is pointless. What on earth motivated this immersion-destroying decision? Furthermore, aren't they powered by fusion cores? It's in the name. Fusion. Wouldn't you expect their power supply to last for a practically indefinite amount of time? They also can't be recharged, which is absurd. If the fusion core simply functioned as a kind of key it would make sense, but making all suits fuelled takes it too far.

Bethesda banners: still hanging after 200 years exposed to the elements.
In my Skyrim review, I argued that I would prefer the game to have a voiced protagonist, because in my opinion an RPG should have both NPCs and the player character voiced, or neither voiced. For this reason, I'm largely on board with the voiced player character. That being said, there are obviously points in the game in which the voice actor (I'm playing as the female player character) clearly has not received enough direction when recording responses, such that words are not always stressed in realistic ways in a number of lines. More work needs to be done on this in future.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, Fallout 4 is very much not like the RPGs of old in which you could choose to talk, sneak or fight your way through the story, or do a mixture of the two. Violence is very much on the menu here and the speech system is lacking in complexity, with the occasional Speech check being largely the extent of it. This may be a result of the misguided adoption of a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel mechanic for choosing the gist of your character's responses, but I couldn't say for sure because I modded this out immediately with the "Full Dialogue Interface" mod before beginning the game. This may result in an "inauthentic" Fallout 4  experience but because Bethesda's Fallout is by its nature inauthentic I couldn't care less.

Must have been one hell of a law degree.
My other issue on this front is that the game shoehorns you so hard into being a certain person with a certain background: you're either a male veteran or a female lawyer with a spouse and a baby. For me, this takes things too far. In almost any other RPG you can be whomever you wish. Giving too much background limits your ability to role-play. The stupid thing is, they then never make anything of it. As I said, I'm playing as the female version of the protagonist with the legal background. At one point while I was doing an early mission for the Brotherhood of Steel, Paladin Danse (I think) quoted their Latin motto, and the Brotherhood member who doesn't like me scoffed that I wouldn't know what it meant. This is a logical scenario in which my player character's background should have come to the fore, because while it's not certain, as a former lawyer there'd be a good chance that she would understand that much Latin. These are just minor examples of Bethesda failing to make the most of what they've got.

All these issues with character and setting coalesce into a single fundamental problem: there simply isn't enough of a disconnection between the world the player character leaves in the opening and the one they enter after waking up in the Vault; the world outside is the world they lived in, just blown up. It isn't an unrecognisable space, completely rebuilt and reorganised with geography as the only identifiably consistent feature. Furthermore, the character's own reaction to their situation simply isn't strong enough. The whole game would make more sense if it was set about twenty years after the war rather than two hundred. In terms of both setting and character Bethesda fumbles the opportunity they've given themselves to craft something unique which carries on in the tradition of the original Fallout games. I can appreciate them doing what they did in Fallout 3 (even if it was unimaginative) because they were trying to revive the franchise, but Fallout 4 is just more of the same apart from superficial additions like the settlement-building gimmick and it simply doesn't work.

Boston: hit by one of those "soft" nukes.
Like Skyrim, Fallout 4 seems to be a diverting game but in many respects an unsatisfying one, one that like Skyrim is begging for modders to deal with its many shortcomings and for other developers to learn from its mistakes. Fortunately the indie and crowd-funded scene has seen the return to some degree of the classic computer RPG, with recent examples such as Pillars of Eternity, The Age of Decadence and Underrail showing that what companies like Bethesda can try to shove aside others can revive. Unfortunately, companies like Bethesda just don't need to go that extra mile anymore; there are simple things which could make the game feel more real like, for example, at night Travis Miles the Diamond City Radio DJ could go to bed and continuous music could play all night or a night DJ could take over. But Bethesda doesn't need to do that anymore because internet hype culture takes care of anything for them. Fallout 4 could have been literally anything and people would have bought it, and thus in many respects the fault is with the consumers as well as the composers. That's not to say that Bethesda couldn't work to make a greater value product simply out of professionalism and principle, but it doesn't change the fact that they'd as good as made back their money the instant the first trailer hit Youtube. Irresponsible consumers feed indolent companies, and it's a chicken-and-egg dilemma which only can be resolved if both parties make an effort - and how likely is that?

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