Sunday, January 31, 2016

PC review: Fallout 4

After their release of the fifth major Elder Scrolls title, Bethesda has returned to the post-apocalyptic setting of the Fallout series, with Fallout 4 being set in the Commonwealth, formerly the area surrounding Boston. Fenway Park has been reorganized into the central hub known as Diamond City, and the cityscape is a hodgepodge of old New England brick buildings with towering paneled steel skyscrapers. Following the example set forth by Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4 effectively allows players to roam freely once the hour-long run of tutorial quests has been cleared.

Prior to the core game taking place, players bear witness to life before the bombs dropped in the small suburb of Sanctuary. Character creation grants a great degree of customization options, including the gender of the protagonist, and for the first time in the series, the main character speaks to allies and enemies alike. After being visited by a Vault-Tec representative and reserving their space in Vault 111, the happy family life is interrupted as news breaks on the television of the first bombs dropping. Grabbing their infant son Shaun, the protagonist and his/her spouse run for Vault 111, and are sealed inside just as a mushroom cloud paints the horizon.

Inside Vault 111, the couple and their baby are ushered into cryostasis pods, where they are frozen in time to outlast the nuclear radiation above ground. However, the protagonist’s sleep is interrupted early after a small band of scientists and a raider crack the seal on their spouse’s pod, and kill them in a struggle to steal their baby. The protagonist is forced to watch helplessly as their child is taken away, and they are left as the only surviving adult in Vault 111, drifting back off to cryostasis-induced sleep for a bit until their pod is finally cracked open, and they are freed to venture forth into the wastes of the Commonwealth in search of their son and the individuals responsible for his kidnapping.

Fallout 4 suffers from a similar problem as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in that the main story doesn’t offer a particularly compelling narrative, and that side quests relating to the game’s various major factions are consistently more interesting, more widely varied in their offerings, and generally more challenging. Simply playing the main story missions will not last particularly long, and the ultimate goal of finding one’s lost son pales even in the company of bringing clean water to the people of the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3. It is far easier to sink hours into establishing the band of regional do-gooders known as the Minutemen, helping human-like Synths who wish to escape their Institute overlords via a new-age Underground Railroad, and uncovering the twisted goals of Vault-Tec in the other regional Vaults.

While the option to roam largely wherever one’s heart desires early on is very much appreciated, the game world, though large, is still much smaller than other open-world contemporaries like Grand Theft Auto V or Xenoblade Chronicles X. Still, the Commonwealth is littered with many locations to discover, and exploration feels rewarding. Leveling up in Fallout 4 proceeds faster than in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, and Fallout 4 technically lacks a level cap. This is partially due to the much broader offerings of the perk system – classics like Bloody Mess, Lady Killer, and Mysterious Stranger make their returns, but a whole slew of new ones round out the list, and all serve comparably useful ends. The V.A.T.S. system, which slows time for players to hone their attacks to specific body parts on enemies, remains effectively unchanged from the last outing.

A core part of the Fallout series’ identity stems from its 1950’s retro-future aesthetic, while the games are also largely recognized for their dark humor. Bethesda has selected many catchy tunes for Diamond City Radio to broadcast, though a good handful of these songs are reused from Fallout 3. The humor in Fallout 4, meanwhile, is split quite evenly between dry, situational humor and the less effective instances of characters taking a none-too-subtle push of exclaiming just how much violence and death can be entertaining in this decayed world. It’s an unfortunate step backwards, as both Fallout 3 and New Vegas excelled at the much more engaging approach of ‘showing over telling’.

Fallout 4 also utilizes a small selection of dialogue options when interacting with quest-specific characters or companions. Generally, two of these options end up resulting in the same responses, while one is a negative response or decline of engaging in conversation, and the fourth and final option is almost always a sarcastic statement. The sarcastic options rarely add anything valuable to the conversation, while the three other options are often vague descriptors for the full sentences that your protagonist will ultimately dish out. Dialogue options that are colored in yellow, orange, or red are persuasive and threatening approaches, and their respective color is dependent on how far you have leveled up their associated perks. Nine times out of ten, though, it feels like the dialogue options serve more to boost your affinity ratings with companion characters than they do to progress whatever quest you are currently undertaking.

In a similar vein, Fallout 4’s quests and indoor environments are more linear in design than those in Fallout 3, New Vegas, or even The Elder Scrolls titles. While they may not be as expansive overall, these locations are much easier to navigate, reducing the likelihood that you will find yourself lost in some deep and winding labyrinth. The wait times as these areas load is longer than one would expect from a game of this generation, and Fallout 4’s bugs and glitches are plentiful. While I never encountered any hiccups that were game-breaking, I did find three or four glitches each time that I fired the game up – whether it was a stray bullet that ricocheted off a car and caused it to fly forward like a Frisbee, NPCs pushing one another around during dialogue sequences, full sentences being skipped for no discernible reason, or Deathclaws clipping through buildings only to launch sky-high and immediately die upon their return to the ground, Fallout 4 lacks a considerable amount of polish in this department.

Conversely, character models look quite good on the whole. Standouts include companion characters like Piper (whose animations are highly expressive), Nick Valentine (with a network of mechanical pieces visible through his cracked facial structure), and the Mr. Handy models (whose eyes are constantly zooming and retracting, while bobbing up and down, independent of one another). In fact, the companion characters are one of the game’s strongest points. While human-friendly Super Mutant Strong and canine pal Dogmeat operate almost exactly the same as their equivalents in previous games, Piper is a reporter determined uncover a Synth conspiracy in Diamond City, Nick Valentine is a slick trenchcoat-wearing private eye with considerable knowledge of the Commonwealth, Deacon is a ‘far-out’ beatnik master of disguise assisting The Railroad in their aims of freeing runaway Synths from the enigmatic Institute, and Curie is a pre-war Miss Nanny robot who fills the role of questioning ‘where do the lines between man and machine blur’ with her insistence on research and finding a way to be inspired beyond her programming. On the whole, Fallout 4’s characters are a nicely varied bunch, with a few being among the best the series has seen to date. Upon reaching maximum affinity levels with each companion, players earn an additional perk specific to that companion’s behavior, while some companions can even be romanced.

Helping NPCs on various quests can unlock new settlements for you to establish and build structures, defenses, workbenches, food, water, and energy. It’s a welcome addition that not only increases the play time value of Fallout 4, but also finally makes use of the various junk items you discover in your journeys. Cans, toy rocket ships, fallen trees, turret switchboards, old cameras, and many other assorted items can be taken to workbenches and broken down into base resources, which can then be recycled for constructing settlement necessities. While this settlement management system is neither the most fleshed-out, nor the most actively rewarding version of such an addition to an open-world game, it does bring something fresh and coherent into the mix.

Additional workbenches can be used to concoct health items, and customize weapons and armor. Pieces of Power Armor can also be repaired here. The iconic Brotherhood of Steel Power Armor functions differently than in previous games, effectively acting as a limited exoskeleton or vehicle, able to take its own damage before you yourself are physically wounded. Power Armor also runs on energy cores than can be gathered from generators scattered across the Commonwealth. The more of these cores in your possession, the longer you can make use of the Power Armor. Pieces of the many versions of the Power Armor can be swapped out and paired with one another, and there are many Power Armor frames in the Commonwealth to scavenge these pieces from. The Power Armor is especially useful for taking on stronger foes like Deathclaws, which appear more frequently in Fallout 4 than in previous games, and can also make short work of Super Mutants or Ghouls, two enemy types which travel in generally larger numbers than before. It is not uncommon for eight or more Ghouls to attempt to overwhelm players, while Super Mutant ranks often include one suicide runner who will attempt to rush players with a Mini Nuke in hand.

As is tradition for the series, Fallout 4 requires you to keep an even eye on your health bar and your radiation level. The higher your radiation level, the greater portion of your health bar it takes up, temporarily reducing the maximum level you are able to heal to until you are either able to find RadAway or pay a doctor NPC with the Commonwealth’s bottlecap currency. By and large, Fallout 4 feels surprisingly less the part of an RPG than its predecessors. It isn’t uncommon to find high level, specialized weaponry during one of your many quests, even during the game’s earliest hours. This sort of negates the need to hold onto common weapons for customization. The wide selection of perks is truly a high point of Fallout 4’s ‘play-as-you-want’ design, but the game feels more like an open-world adventure/survival title with a mild amount of RPG elements thrown in than a proper RPG.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

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