Fallout 4 (Bethesda, 2015)

Fallout 4 review

Fallout 4 was released one year ago - and even if this wasn't the case it seems appropriate to talk about a video game that depicts the apocalyptic breakdown of America in the weeks surrounding the election of Donald Trump. This game has eaten up more of my time than any other this generation and while it's far from perfect, it is, like any other Bethesda RPG,  difficult to put the controller down because there is always one more hideout to clear out, one more quest to complete, one more piece of armor to craft or one more secret to discover. So I thought I'd talk about the different reasons why I think Fallout 4 is S.P.E.C.I.A.L.

1. The Setting

fallout 4 review nuka colaThis separates Fallout from other run of the mill works of post apocalyptic fiction - its futuristic yet retro universe injects 1950s post war culture into the year 2077. In this alternative reality, the world is utilising atomic energy to create advanced technology like domestic robots and micro computers. Of course, this all goes wrong when different powers begin to fight over the soon strained resources. The juxtaposition between the modern and the nostalgic gives the games a really distinct and unique feel, so you can walk around listening to Billie Holiday while shooting bandits with a high powered lazer gun. White picket fences, the fear of the red menace and the conformity of society - where everyone's homes look identical is part of the series' criticism of the American Dream. Everyone has a television, fridge and robot butler during peacetime. It's an interesting parallel, that many Americans during the 1950s were scared of appearing anything other than normal for fear of prosecution over communist sympathizing. Even in a world ravaged by nuclear war there is still witch hunts over suspected individuals known as 'Synths' - robotic humanoids that look and act like normal beings but are being hunted down because of the fear that they are going to replace humans. This similarity may have been completely unintentional, but it's hard not to be reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Sigel, 1956), a film famously seen as an allegory for the Cold War era, where inhabitants of a small town are replaced by emotionless imposers. 

Remnants of the world before the bombs dropped still remain, and do a great job of telling a story without words - the consumerist society of the 50s and 60s Mad Men era is clear to see. Advertising posters and other merchandise for Nuka Cola, the game's fictional soft drink are littered all around - so much so that in the post apocalyptic world the new currency is now the caps from these bottles.

It takes a funny, deadpan approach to the issue of nuclear war too, with Protect and Survive style public service announcements acting as tutorials whilst the game is booting up - advising the commonwealth inhabitants how to survive in their new, post - apocalyptic world:

"Following total atomic annihilation the rebuilding of this great nation of us may fall to you"

2. Gameplay 

Unlike Skyrim, the combat is very satisfying. Skyrim largely consisted of button mashing with your sword (with your eyes closed if you were fighting those giant spiders, in my case) and involved little to no skill, especially in comparison to other, more recent fantasy RPGs such as The Witcher 3 which implemented a dodge and roll button. However, in this, each gun feels different, distinct and you'll have to master and get used to the recoil of every one. Furthermore, you'll have to make every bullet count - it's no good just spraying bullets everywhere, because ammunition is extremely limited if you don't upgrade the appropriate luck perk, which adds a real sense of desperation to the combat. The V.A.T.S targeting system, which allows players to target specific limbs of their enemies now only slows down time, when in previous games it would freeze it completely, again this adds to the tension since you're no longer invincible when picking your targets. 

fallout 4 vats targeting system
Added to all of this, human enemy AI is very impressive. They'll take cover effectively even in derelict buildings where the infrastructure is demolished, and for the most part will practice self preservation by healing themselves after taking a few hits. You'll learn during gameplay that the superhuman enemies that you face all have different weaknesses, and the appropriate weapon will have to be used to ensure maximum effectiveness. Given the setting, you'll have to battle the effects of fallout, and when you enter a contaminated area your total health will drop, so you'll have to keep your eye your character's well being more than usual.

To be honest, much of it is pretty much a carbon copy of Fallout 3, and this has always been a criticism against Bethesda games. They found a formula that worked and are somewhat reluctant to deviate from it. There also an odd disconnect between the main storyline (a search for your missing son) and the story you make yourself whilst free roaming around The Commonwealth, because of course you're free to ignore main missions and shun your duties as a parent looking for their newborn. But is this not the case with every sandbox? I think if a massive game such as this had players who weren't getting distracted, that would be an an even bigger worry. It's just a testament to how fun Fallout 4 is to play that this happens, and although some have criticised it for rarely deviating from a game where you just shoot everything you see, there is actually a quite large amount of diversity in it. You may also find yourself voluntarily switching up your playing style depending on the companion that you have following you at any given time. For example, whilst one companion with admire you for acting in a reckless and remorseless way, another will hate you for it - and this makes you change your approach to many dialogue and combat options that are presented to you.

3. Crafting 

All those items lying around in Fallout 3 that you could pick up but do nothing with other than sellThey helped to immerse you in the world sure, because it meant that everything was interactive - but they achieved little more than this. Now literally everything you pick up, from duct tape to an old broken camera can be utilised and scrapped into materials for settlements, armour or guns.

fallout 4 review settlements
After liberating a location such as a farm, you'll have to grow and maintain it, overseeing new settlers who are looking for a safe place to sleep and grow crops. This soon becomes a time consuming and addictive mini game in itself, building important facilities such as water purifiers, generators, beds and makeshift buildings is integral to getting your community to both grow and stay happy. Soon you'll have several different pieces of land on your map, and setting them up to trade supplies with each other will ensure that you'll have enough materials to grow and grow. Because you have to scavenge materials for these essential items through exploration, it doesn't feel like some unnecessary add on that is divorced from the rest of the game, but instead an integral part of it. 

This scavenging also feeds into the weapon upgrading - pretty standard stuff. You can make rifles automatic, more powerful, stealthy and also increase the ammo capacity.  And hey - if you can't be bothered with all of this and would rather use all the junk you've collected as a weapon, then Fallout 4 still has you covered:

4. Exploration 

Soaking in the wold that Bethesda have created feeds you curiosity - it's impossible to simply get on with a given quest without straying off the beaten path to investigate an abandoned subway station or an old shack. Jim Sterling once said, in his review of Skyrim that playing a new Bethesda game is like preparing to die, because once that disk goes in the user may have well departed from this mortal world - these games steal so much time from you it could rightfully be considered "criminal". Likewise, Fallout 4 it quite literally impossible to complete, and completing every main, faction and side quest will take weeks... and this is if you choose to follow a linear path without getting distracted, which we all know is impossible. Yes, it's quite possible to have a tremendous amount of fun just through random encounters in the wasteland.

fallout 4 review gameplay
Occasionally you'll stumble across radio towers throughout the environment, and once you've activated it the player can receive various different transmissions. Some of these will be pre-recorded distress signals sent by stricken 'survivors' who are trapped in their basements or shelters and are desperate to make contact. What makes these encounters memorable is the human aspect, it may be a husband hoping in vain that the rest of his family may come across the signal, or a woman who got trapped in the safe of a jewelry store on the day that the bombs dropped - all of them are terrified and hoping to make contact with another friendly face. You're left to find these locations on your own, there is no map marker or compass - instead the player is left to find the location by the landmark clues given on the radio, or by determining the distance by paying attention to the strength of the signal. These moments were a nice surprise, and its much more satisfying to find encounters like this by chance rather than following a quest marker. Although you'll get a trunk full of loot at the end of it, the real treat is actually the road you take to find these bunkers, and the way they contribute to the world building with their well-told, self contain stories. 

Like Skyrim these games are full of lore that is waiting to be discovered, environmental storytelling is great because it leaves the audience to fill in the gaps, so you can wander in  to the remains of a family home and imagine what happened to the inhabitants before the war. Besides this there are computer terminal entries and holotapes, and you'll be left to collect the breadcrumbs and piece together information if you want to find out the story behind it. All of this exploration is held together by an excellent ambient music score that's a real treat to listen to - my favourite track is here:

5. DLC

Bethesda aren't saints when it comes to DLC - we all remember the Oblivion horse armor fiasco. They're still slightly guilty of it this time around too - settlement building is giving them an excuse to give away somewhat  lazy downloadable content in the form of simple town building items that seems greedy given the generosity of other developers like CD Project Red - who have been putting out armor, hairstyles, missions and new game modes entirely for their customers, free of charge.

Nonetheless, Bethesda have been doing the odd free bit of DLC with items such as furniture, but since release I've been enjoying the two biggest expansion packs - Far Harbor and Nuka World. Both of these give players new, large areas to explore along with plenty of new missions that are dictated by the player. Far Harbour, for instance sees the player character investigating the case of a missing girl on an gloomy, foggy island where several factions are battling against each other - the aforementioned synths, the local townspeople and a group of deranged cultists known as the Children of Atom. Each one of these factions has their own starkly contrasting beliefs, with more and more intrigue revealed as you begin to gain the trust of each one, when you'll ultimately have to decide whether to reach a peaceful and diplomatic solution or a destructive one. This expansion was a chance for Bethesda to make the charisma perk more effective than it was in the main game - enabling you to make important decisions by talking with other NPC's rather than simply setting guns ablaze - and although like i've mentioned the combat is great fun, this still a welcome change.

Nuka World is by far the most colorful DLC, and since it's set in a theme part it's certainly the most creative in terms of its environment. Those players that are sick of being the good guy all the time now have the chance to take their anger out on those innocent settlers. You can choose to take up allegiance with one of the three gangs that have taken hold over Nuka World - an amusement park based on the popular drink, or you can simply kill everyone and free the locals that have been taken captive. If you choose the former, the commonwealth will become your playground as you become the leader of your chosen gang, pushing out settlers from their land and taking it over as your own.  But the real star of the show is the theme park itself - split up into sections including a Galactic Zone, Kiddie Kingdom, Safari Adventure, a Nuka Cola bottling plant and a wild west shanty town. It may not be a particularly groundbreaking setting, Left 4 Dead had a theme park map yet it didn't have as many distinct areas. Story-wise it doesn't have as much going on for it as Far Harbour - it's simply about clearing out areas of enemies and choosing your allegiance to a particular raider gang, but despite this I still had great fun with it.