Fallout 4 at its core is a Bethesda game and as such the game contains certain qualities that both hinder the experience and make it more enjoyable. Your enjoyment of Fallout 4 is largely dependent on how you feel about Bethesda’s open world RPGs because the game is just Skyrim in a post-nuclear apocalypse skin with the addition of settlement management and dating sim mechanics for your companions.
Those new mechanics are great examples of what I’ve grown used to expecting out of Bethesda lately. They’re things that add something more interesting to the base gameplay but are very flawed in their execution. The introduction of settlements, for instance, gives the player a personal stake in the development of the world and does quite a good job. Although somewhat arbitrary and lacking in personality, you do feel beholden to these places and want them to be pillars of order and prosperity in amongst the chaos of the rest of the wasteland. I like the fact that they appear with their progress on the map screen as a constant reminder that these places belong to you and you are directly responsible for their development. Problems start cropping up though when you actually want to start building things.
For starters, it’s a real pain in the ass building up new settlements. Sanctuary is fine because it has plenty of scrap to begin with and it will be your first port of call when needing to offload scrap. However, new settlements don’t have that leg up when building, so unless you’ve gone ahead and spent the requisite 6 points in charisma to get the local leader perk that can tie settlements’ workshops together you’re just wasting time. I actually don’t know why they aren’t linked up by default; considering how accessible the rest of the game is, pushing “realism” here seems unnecessary.
When it comes to actually building though, the mechanics are serviceable. Entering the building interface, you select the component you want to place via a series of submenus — which is a bit cumbersome to navigate since you have to use the arrow keys — it appears in front of you and you walk around to the spot you want to place it with left-click. From this perspective it can be hard to gauge how components are lining up and how things will look in the 3-D space. I would have liked an option to enter a mode that gives a bird’s eye view but simply placing stuff down anywhere just to increase the settlement’s resources is fine.
The settlement building and the modification mechanic were added to give junk items a use, which is great, but it incentivises players to cart around as much of that junk as possible exacerbating the issue of encumbrance which already plagues western RPGs. So you have a system that has a cool idea behind it — use junk you find in the world to craft cool stuff — but punishes the player for carrying too much by slowing the pace of the game down to a crawl. The only way to deal with it is to spend inordinate amounts of time in the inventory menu deciding what to throw away or exploiting a bug in the companion AI. Both are cumbersome and take time away from the more rewarding parts of the game.
Thankfully the interface has a sorting function that was sorely lacking in Skyrim. It doesn’t do away with the encumbrance issue entirely but it does save you a lot of time when deciding what to get rid of. The rest of the interface still has a lot of problems though. The Miscellaneous menu is a pain in the ass but for the most part ignorable until the game requires you input a specific holotape that only has relevance within that specific facility. Why these didn’t act just like finding a password or key I have no idea.
It’s also baffling that Bethesda would go to the effort of mapping the E key for use in place of the Enter key; the 1,2,3 and 4 keys as replacements for the arrow keys in dialogue and then not tell the player in any way that they don’t actually have to move their hand from one side of the keyboard to another in order to interact with things. The dialogue itself is also handled poorly in the interface; since the game condenses what your character’s responses are there are multiple occasions where it isn’t quite clear what the intent of your words will be. I mean this would be more of a problem but it seems the majority of dialogue trees end up in the same place regardless of what you say, so your actual choices for the most part are superficial, which is really disappointing.
Companions are back to give the player a hand in combat and to act like pack mules but this time with the addition of dating sim elements, which is nice but also weirdly implemented. It is great that companions have a smidge more personality and better backstories that in order to know about you actively have to grow a relationship. The system works very simply: do and say things the character likes and they will like you more; do the opposite and they will dislike you. Maxing out a character’s relationship gives a persistent perk and, depending on the character, a quest too. The issue with this mechanic is that I don’t think Bethesda knows how real relationships work.
The best example I have for this is Cait; she was the first character I maxed out in the relationship department. The only reason this even happened was because she liked the fact that I picked locks. She didn’t like the fact that I was actively going around helping out settlements or other people or whatever, but since I was an ace with the bobby pins and there was much more lockpicking potential than there was dialogue where I could screw this up, our relationship was always on the uptick. It’s strange because there are other metrics in the game that could have been used on top of this system but weren’t. Like time spent with them, whether you shoot them, whether you actually stimpack them when they’re down and whether you just use them as a pack mule or not. That last example seems like a joke but whenever I went into a trade dialogue with Cait she would very dismissively say “Oh sure, make me carry more of your junk!”, which should have made her very pissed off when I did indeed force her to carry all of my junk.
The companion NPCs also manage to contradict not only their own mechanic but also some of the world building. The Glowing Sea, for example, is meant to be this zone that is so full of radiation that you as a player have to prepare in order to survive it. Just having your companion chilling beside you in their civilian gear breaks the significance of the area in a small way but is easily fixed by not letting them go there. The much more egregious example of this happened in my play through where I was buddied up with Paladin Danse; a very no nonsense, by the books, fiercely loyal Brotherhood soldier. Since I was playing every side of the conflict there was a scenario where he was with me when doing a mission for The Institute, who are an opposing faction. There was a massive firefight and a random Brotherhood soldier who was there started shooting at The Institute soldier, who was my contact for the mission. Doing this made the Brotherhood soldier hostile and so Paladin Danse blew him away. All that loyalty to the faction that made his character what it was: gone. In an instant. This isn’t something that should happen because it seriously breaks the immersion of a game that is built upon warring factions and choosing a side and all that.
The only other real gripe I have with Fallout 4 comes down more to personal preference. A lot of the mechanics have been dumbed down to the point where the game really isn’t an RPG anymore. The perk system has been reworked and you can no longer create a character that trades off certain things to be really good at other things. Better perks require you to also reach a certain level to attain which means the game is more or less forcing you to get perks other than the ones you want while you wait to level up. There’s no way of making a character right off the bat that’s just super good at lockpicking and not much else because the game forces you to be level 16 to even be able to try picking master level locks.
Combat is similarly simplified; V.A.T.S has become more of a tool for use pre-engagement and during medium/close range combat rather than an all encompassing abstraction of your character’s effectiveness in combat. This makes combat way more accessible but at the cost of role playing. Further, regardless of points spent you can disarm any trap and fire any weapon just fine. Broken limbs are a joke even on the Survival difficulty because healing items are still plentiful and limb damage is now tied directly to your hitpoints. This means that simply using a Stimpak or eating a sandwich will fully heal your character’s broken leg. Power Armour used be much more significant too; shots from a 10mm pistol or bites from a molerat wouldn’t have been able to penetrate it in previous games but since you can get it so early in Fallout 4 it feels and is mechanically cheaper.
I can’t really categorise this increased accessibility as a design flaw as it makes the game much easier for most people to just jump into and have a good time since there’s less to worry about more time is spent experiencing the other stuff the game has to offer. For instance, having access to every weapon also means you can try them all out which is satisfying. In one playthrough anyone can experience the joy of firing off a Fatman at a group of ghouls or watching a legendary enemy fall prey to a bottlecap mine. Personally though, it’s just really disappointing as a lover of complex RPGs where the character you make changes how the game is played, what you have access to and how NPCs feel about you.
Thankfully, Fallout 4 does have mechanics that are really good without any trade off. There are great incidental things that happen throughout the game that I feel do influence the player: just listening to two other NPCs talk led to a quest line; coming across another pair of NPCs fighting each other in the wilderness made my opinion on The Institute; seeing that the Brotherhood were the only ones actively taking the fight to raider and super mutant camps definitely swayed my thoughts on them.
I know that earlier in the review I said that your choices don’t really matter in dialogue. When it comes to doing stuff in the world, though, that seems to not hold up. Going into certain areas and dispatching all the enemies there will mark that area on your map as “CLEARED” which directly conveys that what transpired there persists in the world. Helping settlements out gives you control of them and you can do with them what you will: build them up, trade them to the Brotherhood of Steel or just let them fester; it’s up to you. The main story line too — although somewhat lacking in depth — did have me make some hard decisions on who to side with.
Finally we come to the positive hallmark of Bethesda games. In general the world itself, the container that holds all of the quests and objects and NPCs and the player, is done well. They seem very good at getting certain aspects of the minutiae right, like having rain droplets form on the screen of your Pip Boy when it’s raining or reading through a company’s email chain to find a D&D game being played. Fallout 4 is filled with these moments that make you feel like you’re in a real place. Waltzing into a city and hearing shots or a mini-nuke go off in the distance make the world less barren. Finding a suit of T-60 power armour inside of a locked campervan shows you a bit of what the place was like the instant before the bombs hit.
There’s a very consistent tick of discovery and reward for exploration in Fallout 4. Scattered throughout The Commonwealth will be distress signals that you may stumble across and choose to investigate by triangulating the location using your position and the quality of the radio signal. These are great incidental things that break up the monotony of standard quests and are rewarding to discover because the impetus and agency are all on the player. Similarly there is always a moment of elation whenever finding old magazines or comics with the added reward of permanent boosts to your character. Oh, and unlocking new modifications and seeing what they can do is neat too.
It’s those little things, the constant feeling of discovery and reward for exploration, that makes Fallout 4 a good game. If you’re a massive fan of the series’ roots there’s probably not enough in Fallout 4 that will keep you engaged on a mechanical level as it shares very little with its 2-D ancestry. However the game is incredibly accessible and the new mechanics add more to do in the world even if their implementation is flawed. Fallout 4 is in the reins of Bethesda and follows that mold for better and for worse.