Sunday, November 15, 2015

Impressions of Fallout 4

Despite some obvious flaws, Fallout 3 remains my favorite video game of all time. Never before or since have I spent nearly so much time in one world, drawn to exploring every nook and cranny of post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. Never before did every random side-quest, minor skirmish, and unopened door feel so integral to the story I was involved with.



So to say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating Fallout 4 is to put my mood the past sixth months in the mildest possible terms.

Having played about 12 hours (which seems like the barest scratch of the surface of this game), I can say that Fallout 4 has met my expectations. It has not exceeded them quite yet, but I am certainly playing the game that I thought I would be playing.

To start off, the basic set-up of Fallout 4 is similar to most (though not all) of the previous post-apocalyptic sci fi epics. You start out exploring the wastelands after escaping from a Vaultec survival shelter. The twist here is that your protagonist is someone flash frozen from the era prior to the bombs falling.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

After some very quick exposition you discover yourself attempting to escape a crumbling cryogenic chamber after watching your spouse murdered and son kidnapped at some point in your long frigid slumber. As far as initial set-ups go, I think this falls somewhere in between hunting for your missing dad in FO3 and looking for the jag-off who shot you in New Vegas in terms of compelling character motivation.

From there you find yourself in the shattered, violent remains of the Greater Boston area. As in previous games, one of the pleasures of this game comes from tracking down real-world sites and seeing what’s happened to them in the After. For most part, nothing good. Lexington for example is complete hell-hole. Don’t bother visiting Malden Center either. You help out a guy named Sully. Fenway Park is the center of Commonwealth civilization. There’s a place called Wicked Shipping Company filled with blood-thirsty ghouls. The roads are crumbling and filled with potholes. So, with one or two exceptions, not all the different from now.

The biggest innovation here is the crafting system. Those who have played previous Fallout games might remember that it was possible to craft new weapons out of recycled trash or make bullets out of random scraps of metal. Also, if you’re reading this review there’s a good chance you’ve played Skyrim and the Hearthfire DLC. In Skyrim you could track down all sorts of resources and build a manor somewhere out in the wilderness. Occasionally you’d have to defend it from bandits. That basic idea is framework behind Fallout 4’s crafting system, but Bethesda has used the intervening years to craft something very similar in feel and effect to Minecraft’s sandbox system. It’s certainly nowhere near as versatile as Minecraft (think one of Lego’s specialty kits compared to a bucket of random blocks) but I’ve already been seeing some impressive examples of creativity in IMGUR galleries.

One major theme of the game appears to be the reestablishment of civilization and so I’ve found myself spending about half of my time in-game tracking down the resources necessary to craft my settlements and defenses. Then I have to attract more settlers. Also, it’s important to have these communities trade resources with each other. Plus you can recruit more settlers from around the Commonwealth. Oh, and you get attacked by random raiders, androids, and mutated creatures.

In a word, this is very time-consuming and Bethesda clearly wants players to invest early and often in the crafting system so a lot of the other features of Fallout games - bizarre encounters and dire discoveries were in short supply during most of my first forays into the game. I’m optimistic that this will change however. I’ve made it farther into the heart of what used to be Boston and uncovered more of that black humor that is a Bethesda trademark. Also more actual NPCs to talk to.

The dialogue system has been changed and I think mostly for the better. Instead of an unvoiced menu of dialogue responses, players now click on one of four buttons with the barest sketch of what your protagonist will say. The options might be ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘sarcastic,’ and ‘wait, what did you say?’ That aspect feels sort of like Mass Effect’s dialogue options except there isn’t any obvious guidance on what significance your dialogue choices have. They appear significant but it’s tough to say. I can say I’m much more intent on listening to the conversations than before, if for no other reason than I want to know what I said.

As far as criticism go, I have two minor ones. First off, while the game engine has been upgraded, it feels very similar to Skyrim. So, while I was struck with how beautiful the wasteland looked in the first few minutes of play, I’ve encountered more and more dodgy animations and recycled textures as the game has gone on. Anyone who plays Bethesda has got to be ready for that sort of thing but it does represent a small distraction. The other issue is more ephemeral. While I’ve certainly enjoyed the crafting system and finding Woburn (sort of) was a welcome discovery, I haven’t actually been delighted by anything yet. I’ve been surprised, horrified, engaged, and amused, but I haven’t had a moment in the first game where I’ve just sat back astounded.

It’s early, though, and the wasteland is a big place filled with possibilities.
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