“War,” intones your character solemnly.
“War never changes.” Fallout 4 begins with the go-to line of the series, before repeating it at the monologue’s close. There is a point when tradition can turn into cliché or, even worse, into parody. Fallout 4 is one of the biggest releases of the year but it is an unusually musty game, a new experience that feels over-familiar. Perhaps the line’s true after all.
The opening briefly suggests a more unusual spin. After being introduced to the excellent character creation tool, where I sculpted a post-apocalyptic hero named Corbyn, you’re guided through some tinned conversation with your husband or wife in the sunny suburbia of Boston, 2077. The vibe of these games has always been 1950s futurism and period Americana (here with the added flair of a British-accented butlerbot called Codsworth), but explored many decades or centuries after the bombs have fallen. So a pre-war scene showing nuclear armageddon through ordinary eyes, and evacuation to the ‘Vault,’ is definitely new.
But the execution is so small-scale it lacks credibility: as you and your family walk past a checkpoint, the neighbours just stand by cycling through voice clips. A nuke is about to hit this town in seconds, there’s a fallout shelter 50 metres away, and people are standing with their kids doing what a handful of guards tell them. The nuke hits as soon as you’re in. Upon returning to the surface 200 years later you see their idiotic skeletons, and it’s hard to care.
Fallout 4 isn’t all about the production values or directorial flair, of course, and a good thing too. After leaving Vault 111 the game begins to rev up, and the first vista is incredible: piles of colourful junk, a horizon stretching far away, and the undeniably piquant touch of knowing what this area looked like 200 years ago. There are nearby quests that set you up with main story missions and factions, or you can just toddle off any which way and see what’s up.
It’s a pity the default setting indicates points of interests on the map and set quest markers (which can turned off in the options) because the magic of this world is in discovery. Bethesda’s visual designers are brilliant at giving landmarks a distinctive silhouette on the horizon, and varying the topography then cramming secrets into hidden wrinkles. When there’s a bunch of glowing green symbols flagging everything up hundreds of metres before you see it, the surprise is lost.
Monsters of the bad lands
Wandering the Commonwealth, as the wasteland combining Boston and Massachusetts is now known, is a new experience in some ways: basic enemies have much better animations and smarter behaviours at least, but some are winningly reimagined. Radscorpions never bothered me in Fallout 3, but here the first encounter was an epic – after an ominous rumbling it crashed out of the ground, stinging me to half health and crippling a leg. I hobbled onto a nearby branch, injecting a stimpack as it went mad with the claws, then I jumped off the other side and bravely ran away. In Fallout 3 this would have been the end of it; here the Radscorpion pursued relentlessly, nipping my health down, so I had to stand and fight. Endless bullets, grenades, and stimpacks later, it fell.
What happened next is a good illustration of why Bethesda’s games are special. I pressed on, knowing a settlement was just up ahead. As I got closer, another Radscorpion popped up. I dodged and ran upwards, hoping to use the rocks for cover, when another crashed in. I kept running as yet more Radscorpions appeared, and finally I hit the top of the ridge, the settlement visible a short distance away. I pelted down, never looking back, and just made it in the front gate.
The nearest non-playable character (NPC) greeted me, we began chatting, then the camera stayed on my face but the NPC ran away. The other NPCs pulled out their weapons and started firing – not at me, but past me. Yes, I’d walked for hours to find this settlement and then led a death ball of Radscorpions to the front door. The NPCs fought bravely, but the earth ruptured as the vile arachnids isolated the defenders one-by-one and stung them to death. With my resolute back-up, two of about eight survived. The dead may have been quest-givers or traders, but we’ll never know. I respectfully looted their corpses, found the item I’d come for, and left without making eye contact with any survivors.
This kind of event may not play out perfectly in the detail (the survivors bore me no ill will) but the fact it’s happening at all is amazing – a split-second decision with big and unpredictable consequences. Fallout 4’s quests are structured with set encounters, of course, but even during these breadcrumb trails emergence can creep in thanks to the Legendary enemies. These super-tough foes spawn randomly in the world and are a one-shot deal – if you die they’ll disappear forever. The most important detail being, of course, that legendary enemies drop legendary armour and weapons.
These are great fights because they’re unexpected, and survival is much higher in your mind than usual. The first time I saw a Legendary Supermutant I fired a couple of shots but then the retaliation blew my character off the face of the Earth. Over time you come to treat these fights as events, something to splurge supplies on, and the rarity keeps them interesting. My finest moment is probably killing a legendary Mirelurk (a big crab) with about ten frag mines and a hundred laser blasts while hopping up and down on a railing it couldn’t quite master. I feel zero shame, the rifle on his corpse was a beauty.
While these moments are easy to get excited about, the bread-and-butter remains the huge number of main and side quests you can find across the Commonwealth. These do a superb job of highlighting the variety of environments and interiors Bethesda has constructed, but the formula throughout is almost entirely, “go from A to B and then kill lots of X”. There’s a sprinkling of conversation-based and discovery quests, as well as more unusual set-pieces, but most of the time you’ll be gearing up to shoot something. And this is where Fallout 4 starts to disappoint in a big way.
The problem with combat
Fallout 3 translated what had been an isometric, turn-based strategy RPG series into a first-person, realtime open-world game. Of all the things it got right, shooting wasn’t one – a crack that was papered-over by the VATs targeting system. Fallout 4 makes countless improvements to the feel of shooting: everything from gun sway to recoil is vastly improved, with beautiful reloading animations and cacophonous SFX making Fallout 3’s pea-shooters seem like a bad memory.
Numbers still underpin everything in Fallout 4’s combat, however, and so your targets don’t physically react until their thresholds are broken. This is a strange combination: the guns have great feedback, but the enemies offer very little. Things are even worse with the melee combat, which has new animations and feedback too, but feels as disconnected and simplistic as it ever has done in Bethesda’s first-person games.
Unfortunately, the solution to Fallout 4’s combat is also its biggest problem. The VATs ability lets you slow time and choose shots on visible enemies, each of which has a percent chance of hitting. Depending on the weapon, VATs will fire multiple precise shots over seconds of ‘normal’ time – and show each from ‘cinematic’ angles. The inverted commas are necessary, because for VATs the angles have always been (and continue to be) hard to get right. That said, there is no denying the slow-mo glory of the tracking shots that follow bullet from barrel to head, and finish with a gooey explosion of cranial chunks.
VATs is so central to combat, however, that it comes to feel like a crutch. Using the skill depends on AP (action points) which slowly recharge, and in later fights especially the tactic is often to pop out, VATs an enemy, then hide until your AP has recharged. There’s nothing else to do against certain tougher foes, all of which are clearly designed with VATs in mind. Your character has so little in the way of movement options that it grimly amused me to see a later perk that buffs your defensive capabilities while standing still. The combat system is not designed as a whole, so much as a bunch of compromises hanging together because they just about get the job done. And the culprit is that big failsafe button at the centre.
For most shooters, such a mess would be a death knell. For Fallout 4 it will barely matter because, despite all the combat, this isn’t really a game about combat. The trappings may be post-apocalyptic death squads and radioactive mutants, but this is a world built for hoarders and kleptomaniacs. The Commonwealth is an open-air museum of trinkets, each hand-placed and ready to be collected or sold or re-used in whatever manner you please. The weight limit on carrying items soon reveals itself to be the game’s true antagonist, the only thing that stands between you and a few more cooking pans or toy trains. This stuff is not incidental. In Fallout 3, I had a house dedicated to Nuka-cola bottles and human skulls, which I found more interesting than anything in the ‘main’ game.
That settles it
Fallout 4 ups the ante with Settlements, a new feature that lets you build towns on dozens of possible sites across New Boston. Settlements are constructed in first-person via a slightly fiddly menu/placement system, and the guidance given is terrible, but I eventually managed to set up basic amenities and shelter for six, as well as a few defences. I like the idea of a whole town dedicated to skulls and Nuka-cola, so it’s easy to sink a lot of time into planting crops, laying out new infrastructure, and planning for trading posts.
This last is a niggle because Fallout 4’s greatly-changed levelling system is so unforgiving. Constructed as ever around the acronym SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, etcetera), the player is given 28 points to distribute among these attributes at the start, and one point thereafter on each level-up. The real bore with this system is that, before you have any experience at all with the game, it expects you to know what you want to do.
Find a legendary sniper after twenty hours and want to focus on that weapon? If you didn’t put enough points in Perception in your first half hour of the game, you got a looong road ahead. There are plenty of fun abilities and no level cap but, given the slow pace of levelling, it feels a little too miserly.
The big bug hunt
Bethesda is a studio with a reputation for delivering buggy games, and with Fallout 4 it delivers once again. In the PS4 version we tested, minor issues include NPC allies getting stuck in walls, conversations ending but leaving you stuck in conversation mode, enormous load times when leaving interiors, and inescapable-deathtrap autosaves that ruin several hours of progress. Occasional manual saves are a must.
The major problem is frame rate drops during especially intense combat, in certain areas of the map, or while using certain guns. Using a sniper rifle in the area around Diamond City saw the framerate reduce to treacle, while in other instances it’s just an unpleasant dragging that over time irritates and causes eyestrain.
Much of Fallout 4 improves directly on 3, which is great, but this may be why it feels there’s not much truly new here, and not even much in the way of refinement. It will swallow many people for hundreds of hours, especially on PC, but it will have others wincing at the same old problems yet again. From one angle, it’s a masterpiece, from another it’s a mess, and to play is to constantly encounter both.
Fallout 4, then, is a paradox, delivering in many of the areas that matter most but undermined throughout by poor combat, technical problems, and what feels like a lack of focus. So here we go again. It’s not war, but Bethesda that never changes.
Bethesda; PC/PS4 (version tested)/Xbox One; £45; Pegi rating: 18+
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 10th November 2015 07.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010