Fallout 4: Theme vs. Mechanics (Part 2)

Fallout 4 LogoI talked last time about theme and how the various mechanics in the game need to support the same themes that are being driven by the visuals, story, and other parts of the game. Now I’ll discuss five specific mechanics in Fallout 4 and how I feel they do or do not get this job done.

Screencap of Fallout 4 crafting.Crafting and Scrounging (Well Done)

I absolutely loved Fallout 4’s item modding mechanics. Bethesda seems to have realized that the limited options and amount of grinding Skyrim required really turned the mechanic there into dead weight. Fallout 4’s version was vastly improved by the focus on components within a given item. The dizzying array of things you could DO with a weapon or piece of armor was delicious. The costs were often a bit outlandish given the limited carrying capacity but, as scarcity is a theme, that’s probably okay. In particular, the early-game weapons had a solidly MacGyver feel that, to me, just screamed ‘Fallout.’ Watching my gear slowly evolve with me was a delight. The tenacity, adaptability, and survival aspects are absolutely driven home by these mechanics. They could deliver a more visceral experience, but what is there already is more than acceptable.

I do feel like armor, in particular, suffered a bit from the constant improvement as one progressed down the mods. The misc. mods less so, but with all of the basic quality mods: once you unlocked the best, you never needed anything but a single step to the best. Armor, in general, needed more guns-or-butter decisions. With the guns, I had to make tradeoffs between rate of fire, damage potential, range, accuracy, etc. But for armor? The only downside was weight, and with Deep Pockets, it was minor pain at its worst.

There are some obvious gaps in the utility for scrounged materials, and many things become subject to explosive growth problems. For example: to start a new crop, all you need is the produce of that crop type. So once you’ve planted one of everything, you can have as many of everything as you please. Crops should need more than just seeds and dirt. Similarly, fertilizer is only useful in the making of explosives — it’s like they forgot what fertilizer’s original use was. There’s also the way a given material becomes less useful over time, because you’ve moved up the power curve. Some kind of release-valve for lower tier materials is important, as is having multiple avenues to utilize something. The more things I can do with a given material, the greater the opportunity costs of using it become – driving home scarcity.

The wild flora are especially bad at this, each one having, apparently, a single use in chem enhancement. I never did figure out what Silt Bean was for. My experience from New Vegas suggested these should be useful for food and medical supplies, but they never delivered on that expectation. The whole thing felt like a holdover from New Vegas whose place hadn’t been considered.

Aside from this, however, the scrap economy felt pretty well executed and drove the look/feel of the game very well, and also provided a motive for otherwise generic gameplay like vanilla dungeon exploration or roaming.

Screenshot of Fallout 4 showing Power Armor in the crafting station.Power Armor (Well Done)

It seems odd that we’re given a suit of power armor right off the bat. It seems odd that in a game about scarcity, we have in our hands, in the first hour, what used to be End Game(tm) content. Yet, despite all that, power armor in Fallout 4 is probably one of the best handlings of the stuff ever. Instead of heinously overpowered gear that signals it is time to finish the storyline, power armor delivers the scarcity and tenacity themes. The need for fuel, especially driven home if you take your time about the battle in Concord and walk home with the settlers to Sanctuary, clearly establishes that power armor is not something to take out willy-nilly. Yes, in it you are powerful, but it comes with downsides, and the fusion cores it scarfs down aren’t cheap. A long-range sortie in that stuff will set you back at least six hundred caps, and that’s just walking there and back. Everything in a Fallout game should have a price, in caps or pain.

The crafting station, and concomitant mix of crafting options for the stuff, turn the power armor into a much-needed element in a MacGyver-feeling adaptation story: The Sweet Ride. Power armor becomes the old muscle car, up on blocks in the garage, that you take some time to tinker with now and again. Because the Fallout universe is so violent, sooner or later that thing will save your life.

Loot Generation (Poor)

Newcomers Starter Chest Mod Screencap
Yes, I know. This is a mod. My point is, there’s absolutely no need.

The problem with Fallout 4 as a scarcity game is what happens when you’ve got dungeons and you put treasure in those dungeons as if you’re making a fantasy game. By mid-game I was pushing triple-digit stimpacks, which meant my caps were limited to what merchants had to give me. I was just awash in chems and ammo (1200 fusion cells at the end of the main quest line, despite copious and aggressive use of a laser rifle). For the first time in a Fallout game I didn’t need to switch what gun I was using because it was running shy on ammo. Given the crafting mechanics and the high population of very violent people in the Commonwealth, not to mention no less than three organized militaries, there is zero reason for there to be ammo falling out of every locker, crate, and strongbox in the Commonwealth. Ammo should be a precious commodity for the player. The only ammo I had trouble keeping stocked was 5mm, and that’s because the minigun made short work of whatever stocks I had.

This would be fine in an Elder Scrolls game; a steady progression up the wealth ladder is a major theme in fantasy gaming. But Fallout needs to tone this down, in a big way. Fallout 4 feels way too Monty Haul.

Dialogue (Terrible)

Screencap of dialogueBethesda really phoned it in for dialogue options this time around. The bright point is the ‘Sarcastic’ option, which is usually entertaining and occasionally outright hilarious. Snark is a Boston cultural value that Bethesda did proud. That said, it’s really hard to be witty, cunning, or resourceful at all when you have basically zero indication of how a given dialogue option will steer the conversation, and when every single conversation boils down to a simple yes or no which you will eventually be forced into providing unless you walk away and accept the quest line freezing in place.

Previous titles gave you a diverse array of options based on character build or inventory, and those choices were meaningful and gave you actual gameplay instead of just fluff text for whatever you were going to shoot next. I’m so disappointed in how Fallout 4 handles Dialogue that I’ll revisit it twice more: once when I talk about the narrative and writing of Fallout 4, and once more when I talk about a theme I’ve only hinted at so far: Player Choice.

This was, in Bethesda’s own words, the price for having a voiced main character. The profoundly open-ended dialogue options of prior titles, I presume, would be very expensive to have voiced, either in cash (which I find a laughable concern given the billion dollar success story Fallout 4 will become) or in memory (which is also laughable given the cloud-based distribution scheme and nature of modern consoles). They claimed that having a voiced main character would improve emotional investment, but that only works if the main character’s characterization is well written – which in my playthrough it frequently wasn’t. The actress did the best she could with what she was given. I’ll revisit this concept in depth later. Spoiler alert: I think their decision has the opposite effect: making us care less about the character we’re playing. Further, that this occurs because the character is no longer our own.

Laser Musket FiringCombat (Excellent, Mostly)

Fallout in Bethesda’s hands is, in many ways, a shooter. Most of the problems you encounter, you are expected to be able to solve with a gun. In Fallout 4, basically all problems are solved with guns, problematically so, but more on that in another post. Combat in Fallout 4 feels very different from Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Don’t get me wrong, I think combat in the prior titles was very solid, but the subtle changes to V.A.T.S. and the heal-over-time of stimpacks and food take combat from the ‘puzzle to be solved with violence’ feel of prior games and make it feel much more like a desperate commitment. The availability of grenades on an alternate key is also a very nice touch that helps advance the sense of urgency when it’s Violence O’Clock. The pace of combat in Fallout 4 is decidedly quicker, more lethal, and not something you should enter into lightly. New enemy abilities and a small collection of new enemies alongside old favorites means that getting into a fight is a gamble – except when you’ve used stealth and maneuver to devastating effect ahead of the first shot – and the stakes feel high. This is as it should be. Fighting in the Fallout universe should be a desperate, bloody-knuckled, grit-in-the-eye affair with exceptions to the gravity made by the often goofy collection of weapons Fallout encourages.

The exception here is anti-vehicle combat. Vertibirds are just bullet sponges, and their flight characteristics and the way they crash is a bit choppy. This should be at the bottom of a to-fix list, but there’s just so many of the damned things that it’s frequently thrust into my face just how poorly the game handles a ‘bird being shot down. If you’re going to give us shoulder-launched nukes, you need to be better ready for us to splash some ‘birds.

There are mechanics that players of the game will immediately notice are missing. Some of those were important enough (or novel enough) that they deserve their own post. Those will follow soon. If I missed a mechanic or feature you want me to tackle, toss me an email at will@literatecomment.com, and if there’s enough interest to justify a new post, I’ll take another look for y’all.