Fallout 4: Because Nerd Rage

Different does not mean “dumbed down”.

This review for Fallout 4 on the PC is not written from the perspectives of either fanboyism or rage. I’ve been playing Fallout games since the very first, and consider myself both a fan and a critic. None of the games are perfect, but all of them have great strengths amid their sometimes overly abundant weaknesses.

Bugs are one of the biggest weaknesses, and I hear that Fallout 4 definitely has its share. Given Bethesda’s general history of game development, this comes as a surprise to no one, I’m sure. While I can’t speak to this personally, as I haven’t experienced any significant problems in 45 hours of play, what I have experienced is a woefully inadequate and underdeveloped PC UI. This is the worst I’ve ever seen for a Bethesda game, and makes what we got with Skyrim out of the box look like a masterpiece. Because I’m an ESDF player rather than WASD, I literally can’t use a mouse and keyboard to play when it comes to the build mode, as the build mode controls conflict with my movement controls, and there’s no way to rebind the former.

The game doesn’t get a pass on those faults. Make no mistake: they shouldn’t be there. A developer of Bethesda’s caliber has the resources to build a functional UI that contributes to the experience on a given platform, and it’s a shame to see them take such a cop-out approach.

But that doesn’t mean you should count Fallout 4 out on the PC. Many of the people being very vocal about their discontent are upset for a few different reasons. Sometimes it’s because (legitimately) the game won’t run for them or has bugs or performance issues that are frustrating. Sometimes it’s because the game has the audacity to be something other than New Vegas. And in many cases, the user reviews being left on Steam are trying to crucify the game or throw Bethesda under the bus by saying that the game proper is worthless garbage. After playing the game for over 40 hours, I suspect this is mostly a case of anger doing the reviewing for them.

I’m not dismissing people’s problems. If you don’t like the changes from the last game to this one, then Fallout 4 isn’t for you, and that’s a bummer. But that doesn’t make it a bad game. “Different” doesn’t mean “bad” in the same way that “streamlined” doesn’t mean “simplistic”.

Fallout 4 is a deep, varied, and interesting game with a ton of content. I can’t speak to the entirety of the experience, since I haven’t yet completed the main story, but I’ve engaged with enough different content in various parts of the world during my travels that I feel qualified to speak about the game’s overall quality from a mechanical perspective.

The experience as a whole is not dissimilar to Fallout 3. To some degree there is a feeling of “more of the same”, but injected with new life through a better engine, more realistic characters, and a more colorful wasteland. Whether that will appeal to you certainly will depend on who you are, but the game maintains a tone that’s reasonably consistent with those that came before it.

Some changes seem like oversimplifications at first. The new dialogue system doesn’t let you select exactly what line of dialogue you want to say, and adopts a Mass Effect-style system where you choose (basically) from yes, no, tell me more, or “Hi, my name is Angry McJerkface”. While this seems like a dumbing down, in reality you will get almost exactly what you got from past games in most instances. If you want to read every last line of dialogue, keep selecting the option that prompts the character to explain further. If you’re on board with something they’re asking you to do, you can usually answer yes in either standard nice guy or sarcastic jerk flavors, or give a middling “maybe” in quests that allow you to put them off. The only reduction here is that “no” is generally just “no”. Too, it is true that the main character has a voice, and this will be offputting for some, especially those who want to feel as personally close to their character as possible. But while some may feel distanced, others may instead feel closer, and all the expected options are there, including playing as a female lead.

“But now I can’t use my strength to intimidate people! Manipulating characters is all tied to charisma!” some say. And that’s true. But it mostly means that if you want to manipulate people, you need charisma (which can often be used in negative contexts as well, consistent with a brutish personality), so they’re simply requiring you to make a more balanced point investment instead of just being awesome at combat AND being able to strong-arm everyone. Just because you’re strong doesn’t inherently mean you’re threatening, after all.

Most of the game’s changes are like that. Where they simplify, they do so in the interest of balance or of removing things that just weren’t that fun, and they often provide some sort of counter-benefit to make up for it. Weapons and armor no longer degrade, but instead of feeling “unrealistic”, it means the game is now more focused on motivation rather than punishment. Instead of the very boring act of having to maintain everything you use, you’re presented with an upgrade system that lets you push your weapons even further, and it encourages you to scavenge for the things you’ll need to do that, which has the survivalist feel many are looking for. Instead of keeping you treading water just to stay where you are, effort brings rewards. It’s an escalator, not a treadmill.

This is also the case with the game’s settlement/building system. While the interface for this is extremely clunky, the tools provided are sufficiently deep to allow for a ton of fun, and you get the added benefit of having it tied to character: science nerds can build certain things, strong characters others, and charismatic leaders will motivate the largest growth. It’s a deep and interesting system that provides you with tangible benefits, and also gives your character a new chance to demonstrate what they’re good at in the world itself.

Despite the doomsaying of some, character is important to Fallout 4. Feral ghouls are no longer cartoon caricatures of the monsters they’re supposed to be, but are fast, brutal, and mindless in a frightening way. Super Mutants are even more the cartoon characters they’re supposed to be. Raiders, settlers, citizens, and wastelanders of all types feel more real than they did in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, but there’s still the same trademarked sense of humor that Fallout has always had. The world is grim, but also hopeful, and sometimes sweet, and sometimes sad. The presentation of its inhabitants has matured, but the world remains the same character it always was.

I could talk for hours about the changes made and what their impacts are, but my ultimate point here is that “change” is not a dirty word. We already played Fallout 3. We already played New Vegas. And you know what? Those are fantastic games. If we want more of those games, we should play them again and try out different character types, find the things we haven’t found yet. And if we’ve already explored them so sufficiently that there’s nothing left, it’s time to move on to a new experience in a world we love that will provide us with something different.

So to sum up, Bethesda is doing what Bethesda does. This is a rough PC launch in terms of everyone being able to play, and the PC interface is probably the worst that it’s ever been, but this is not a “dumb console game” (which is a stupid statement in itself, even though I’m firmly on Team PC Master Race; I also own a PS4 because you know what, turns out games in general are pretty awesome). This is a deliberate game that set out to achieve something specific, and quibbles about exactly how good the story is or exactly how next-gen or not next-gen the graphics are don’t get to the heart of the matter, which is a simple, profound statement.

Fallout 4 lives up to its name, and provides a content-rich, choice-heavy, engaging world from start to finish.

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