Fallout 4: Great ideas, by themselves, do not great games make.

(1,018 words.)

Fallout 4 Logo

I enjoyed parts of Fallout 4. I live in the Boston area, so playing on my home turf was a uniquely relatable experience. I enjoyed the witty, sassy, snarky one-liners from my companions. The shootout in Concord is probably some of the best storytelling, pacing and quest design in a Bethesda title. I loved the little touches, Fenway Park’s wall being kept green out of respect, the use of the old-school MTA logo, and so on. There’s a lot of great stuff in Fallout 4.

Unfortunately, the whole package is decidedly lacklustre. There’s a real danger that the runaway success of Fallout 4 will convince Bethesda that they did a good thing here, but Fallout 4 sold on the quality reputation of the past two titles and their DLC. Fallout 4 is a huge let-down, and I’m hoping they take a serious look at what went wrong with this game.

 

Fallout 3 was my introduction to the Fallout Universe. I’d had Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics recommended to me on a number of occasions, but the combination of living hand-to-mouth, and a long list of other games that demanded my attention (Diablo 2, EVE Online, ES: Morrowind and ES: Oblivion chief among them) kept me from playing them. Fallout 3 was an eye-opening, glorious experience of a game. It had its faults, its places where I would get upset at choices Bethesda Game Studios had made. I’d sometimes rant to friends about the karma system and how arbitrary and incomprehensible the morality of Fallout 3 seemed to be. I’d rant at them about my explosive rage in response to Fawkes’ reasoning for not saving my character’s life at the very end. All in all, though, Fallout 3 was a great game with a mostly solid story and a spectacularly rich world full of interesting Stuff To Do(tm).

Fallout: New Vegas was an even better main story – at least the parts of it I played – and incrementally improved gameplay on the Fallout 3 experience. I experienced what was possibly a serious bug when I first played, which cut my playthrough short, but what I saw was a game that recognized what was great about Fallout 3, and what needed some TLC. It didn’t blow us away with a million new features, but it delivered a solidly enjoyable follow-on that was full of great stuff. Both of these games sold very, very well – and they deserved every penny of that.

Fallout 4 should’ve been a continuation of this trend: incremental improvement of the things that worked, corrective focus on the choices that flopped, maybe a new engine for hardware fetishists. There is some of that in Fallout 4: a new V.A.T.S. and handling of power armor, for example. Most of the development focus, however, seems to be not on incremental improvements to existing systems that largely work, but instead on a bold-strokes wiping away of old systems in favor of new ones: a so-so new leveling system, lacklustre procedurally generated quests at the expense of really good scripted ones, profoundly rich weapon and armor modding but no more ammo crafting for no apparent reason. These go-for-broke changes seem to have been made even if, and in many cases it seems especially if, those old systems worked just fine. For things like power armor, this serves the game well, but in other places, especially where those systems worked well (side questing) it’s done great harm. In other places, new systems and mechanics are dropped in without apparent regard for how they fit together – oftentimes smacking of a desperate grasping for ways to stay relevant or open to new audiences.

Image of town building interface.
We’re looking at YOU, town building.

To be clear, I’m critical of how Bethesda implemented the new ideas, not for trying out new stuff in a Fallout title. For one thing, they seem to have almost uniformly added things that I heard about and said to myself, “That’s SO COOL!” Town building is not, inherently, a bad idea. In fact, done well, it could’ve added a lot to gameplay, especially the post-main-quest gameplay that they clearly were worried would eventually run out (otherwise why use mediocre, procedurally generated quests to ensure infinite questing?). The problem with most of the new stuff is that Bethesda seems to have not thought very carefully about how it would be utilized and what this content would do for the player’s experience of the game. Instead, they seem to have simply said to themselves, “Minecraft is popular, what can we take from Minecraft and add to Fallout?” “Mass Effect was popular, what can we take from Mass Effect and add to Fallout?” “There’s a lot of talk about gender and LGBT stuff, what can we add to Fallout that will appeal there?”

In each of these cases, the things they added were haphazard, unpolished, and decidedly unfinished – and not because of the copious numbers of bugs that we expect from Bethesda games on launch. Rather, the problems seem to be about design decisions, or simply not thinking the clever plan all the way through. I get it, Bethesda’s a comparatively small studio trying to do the same amount of work that studios ten times their size find challenging. It’s heroic stuff, but at the end of the day, you really shouldn’t ship something unless it’s ready enough. Too much of Fallout 4 isn’t close to ready; too much of this game feels like an undergraduate’s first draft.

Fallout 4 put up three quarters of a billion, with a B, in sales in the first 24 hours it was on the market. Those sales are not reflective of the quality of the game. Those sales are reflective of the promises Bethesda made on behalf of Fallout 4. It only partially delivers on those promises, and I expect Fallout 5, or at least the DLC for Fallout 4 to be received MUCH more timidly. I, for one, will be more hesitant to give Bethesda my money.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be delving more and more into the specific things I think Bethesda did well with Fallout 4, as well as the things I think they really flopped on. I’ll link to this post as those posts exist.