Fallout 4 - The Apex of the Open World RPG

Whenever a massively hyped game like Fallout 4 comes out, the jaded gamer can forget that there are a ton of people who have never played a Fallout game. Further, there are many who have only played Fallout 3, which is the ‘modern’ Fallout game. Everything from The lore, what is ‘normal’, and the legacy of past game systems are taken for granted by series veterans.

So before I explain why this game represents the best that Open World RPGs can offer, I’ll respond to the most prevalent criticisms of Fallout 4:

There’s no real tutorial

This is true. The introductory sequence is mostly expository. There are some obvious tutorial cues like ‘activate objects by pressing E’, or ‘sneak by pressing Ctrl’, but once you leave the vault, you are left to figure out much of the systems of the game on your own. Even a Fallout fan like myself had no idea what ‘workshops’ were, or how to salvage materials from new areas. There is a ton of things to be discovered, which will not be spoonfed to you in cutscenes.

It basically boils down to: do you like tutorials or not?

For me, the lack of a tutorial is not a huge problem. But for someone who hasn’t played Skyrim, Fallout 3, or Fallout: New Vegas, I can see how this is borderline unacceptable. It’s overwhelming. Not only does the game not tell you ‘where to go’ and ‘what to do’, it’s hard to figure out how to do anything in the first place. The solution is the classic approach most of us take in modern Bethesda games, and that is: ignore the main quest for a long time, and explore (at least 20 hours in game). This solution will not be obvious to newcomers. As a result, all they can evaluate is the main story, which…

The story isn’t that great

I’m not going to say that Fallout 4 has the best story in video games. But it does compare to the plot in Fallout: New Vegas, which I found to be quite good. And it absolutely annihilates the story in Fallout 3. The reason why the stories work so well in these last two Fallout installments is that the narrative supports the gameplay. What I mean by this is in both New Vegas and Fallout 4, you are confronted with different factions all vying for control (or influence) of the Wasteland. Where Fallout 3 painted over all this narratively and basically forced you to join the Brotherhood of Steel who are suddenly ‘the Good Guys’, New Vegas and Fallout 4 let you decide who you will support. It could be a morally ambiguous faction (like the Brotherhood), or an outright evil faction (like the Legion in New Vegas).

In both Fallout 4 and Fallout: New Vegas, you follow all the factions’ various narratives. They all have lore, back stories, and react to their environment in different ways. The player can then engage with these factions as they wish. Are they gung ho about the faction? They can see it through and ‘win’ the game for that faction (warning: sometimes winning the game for a certain faction is hard to discern from losing the game). What if you realize the faction you’ve been looking into isn’t for you? Look into the others. Maybe there’s something on their surface that turned you off, but if you probe deeper, there’s a redeeming quality that makes you want to represent them. Your change of heart might anger the original faction and they start to hunt you, which raises the stakes and creates a whole other minigame.

The legitimate gripes when it comes to story boil down to the pointlessness of your dialogue choices, and the mismatch of the narrative’s urgency with your character’s development. It is true that many dialog choices simply have no impact with how characters react to you. This is an unfortunate consequence of having fully voiced main characters, and something I could have frankly done without. While it is nice to have your character actually speak out loud to people, I don’t think it’s worth the damage it did to having high Charisma (the whole point of which in past games was to get out of situations or talk smack), or the outrageous dialog that was possible in past Fallout games.

The mismatch in narrative urgency is real. You come out of the vault ready to rip heads off to find your son. Then you spend 20 hours dicking around and learning about how power armor works. The latter is undeniably fun, but unless you run straight through the main story, there’s an obvious disconnect, and it can be odd to get occasionally ‘re-invested’ in the plot. Part of why I think Fallout: New Vegas had such a good story is that the nature of the story lent itself well to messing around for hours trying to get your bearings. You had been shot, and have no idea who you are. You know some powerful people have the answers, but it’ll take you time to get a hold of them. In the meantime, you are exposed to the different factions, you’re learning what your capable of and who the ‘couriers’ are, and that all takes time. It was a slow burn of a story with lots of mystery, but no real sense of urgency that creates dissonance with the gameplay.

There’s too many bugs

I’m not sure people understand how hard it is to make open world games. For every zone, you have millions of objects and hundreds of NPCs to make, many with their own intelligence. There’s bound to be many bugs. And coming from past games, Fallout 4 has without a doubt given me the least serious bugs of any modern Bethesda RPG. I’ve had 2 crashes to the desktop, and those were caused by some outdated mods. I mean, Fallout 3 had me having to do deep .ini editing before I could even start the base game!

The biggest bug of them all, that is Games For Windows Live, is no longer present. So rejoice.

The graphics are bad

I don’t understand this critique. Fallout 4’s graphics are leaps and bounds ahead of the past games. Simply look at a screenshot of a Behemoth in Fallout 4 versus Fallout 3. The difference is huge. Granted, there is an uncanny effect that occurs when you first start playing: it seems like the graphics combined an updated Skyrim with modern Fallout. But after looking at the reflections, the water, the character models… everything in the game has been updated in a big way. There are performance issues of course, but this is a game that will receive so much extra visual upgrades, and so many optimization patches, mods, and DLC.

Power armor is a pain to use

Power armor in the past couple of Fallout games has been just another piece of armor. It usually had a training requirement to prevent a level 2 character from running around in it. All it was was a cool-looking piece of armor with better stats. The approach now is to make power armor a ‘mode’, to limit it through a fuel source, and to let it improve as the player improves. I think this solution is better for many reasons. Firstly, it is necessary in a game where the level cap has now exploded from 20ish to 50+ (and is probably theoretically infinite). Instead of just making up new power armor all the time and having to justify it through lore, they simply made armor upgradeable. This also solves the inevitable problem of non-power armor being introduced in DLC that is better than power armor, as has happened in past Fallout DLC.

It could be considered a pain to have to travel to where your power armor is stored before using it (and parking it once you’re done). But to me, it makes me feel like I’m really getting ready for a mission. And the obvious benefits make it a viable thing to build your character around. It also prevents the sort of ‘cheap’ gameplay by the AI that can happen sometimes: 4 enemies somehow end up almost point blank, and 2 grenades and a shotgun blast go off simultaneously. You might actually survive that situation in power armor, and it’s a huge rush when that happens. You can also walk around punching things to great effect (you cannot equip any ‘unarmed’ weapons in power armor, not even a Power Fist. I was deeply upset at this at first, but it seems like this would have been overpowered), which alone is worth the price of admission.

So, although many of the criticisms of Fallout 4 have a kernel of truth, none of them are so serious that they indicate the game is nothing short of the best of its genre.

Written on November 23, 2015