This week, Morgan remains lucid long enough to review Fallout 4, for reasons best known to himself.
I’ve abandoned and returned to Fallout 4 exactly four times in my life. Personifying it as the femme fatale that seduces me with promises of free-roaming, post-apocalyptic adventure, only to strike me down with the harsh truth of fetch quests and crap controls which, in comparison, make me feel slightly more in control of myself..
Finally, I moved from the console version and downloaded it on PC, deciding that this was it. One more play like the last three, and I’d be gone for good. But as I watched the download progress bar on Steam jump back and forth like a directionless grasshopper on a pogo stick, it struck me that I couldn’t remember exactly what it was about the game that had so often rubbed me up the wrong way.
About five hours of playtime later, I remembered. It’s not that Fallout 4 is bad on a conceptual level; it just manages to do nothing new or exciting with its premise, leaving behind a hollow, if fundamentally playable, shell that is completely unrewarding. I suppose that’s quite an achievement; the apocalypse is the plot device that just keeps on giving.
The story is that welcome-to-the-future story. There is only one, you know, the one that any writer who’s seen Futurama, Jason X or anything similar released in the last twenty-five years carries around like a security blanket. You play one half of a suburban couple in ownership of a cursed, living clay figure that they’ve managed to convince themselves is a baby, who must now escape to a fallout shelter when a nuclear strike is brought upon the US. Under the pretence of safety, you are cryogenically frozen and are forced to watch your spouse get killed by strangers and your baby-animatronic be dragged off to God knows where. After finally unfreezing and emerging blinking in the sunlight of the warm, nuclear holocaust-struck afternoon, you are set on an epic quest to get your child back and become involved in twenty different sub-plots that go exactly nowhere.
Yes, despite this supposedly being a life-or-death situation involving the safety of your child, the player character always seems to have time for side quests that in no way personally affect them. Is this down to the developers trying to pad the running time and make the game feel bigger than it is? Or an undiagnosed case of severe ADHD? I’d go as far as to say that the entire main plot falls to the wayside about an hour in, when we become embroiled in the usual clumsy racism allegory, discussing the existence of synthetic humans and whether they deserve to be treated as real people.
The worst part is that if we ignore all the useless chaff and just try to blast through the game as fast as possible, the main plot essentially wraps up within three hours. The big bogeyman of the game is an underground network that kidnaps citizens of the wasteland and replaces them with robotic copies to infiltrate towns and local governments. And in a moment of naïveté, I assumed this meant that our baby must be one of those copies, and this organisation has in fact existed long before the events of the game. It would be a perfect explanation as to how the face of your baby moves like a sentient Roomba now wearing the skin of its previous owner. But no, once again I was giving the developers too much credit.
In a big climactic reveal, we discover that your child has aged in the sixty years we’ve been frozen and is now the leader of the shadowy underground science group. This all being delivered to us with the raw, searing emotion of two stoned housemates discussing the dishwasher malfunctioning. So, what now?
After this point the game seems to be asking that same question as there’s essentially nowhere else for us to go. Presumably, as a parent, we want our child to be happy, and he seems perfectly content where he is. If anything, changing his circumstances would just make things worse. He asks us if we want a job, we say no, we’d rather continue to subsist on century-old canned beans and suck on leaky radiators for hydration, thank you very much. The game talks up a big deal about having to choose between him and his evil science pals or the friends we’ve made in the wasteland above, but I couldn’t care less either way. By this point, you’ve only really met about five people who aren’t complete dicks; so long as they’re fine, let the kidnappings continue, I say. When a giant ogre with a rocket launcher has glitched through a wall and pulverised you five times over, you don’t feel like taking a bullet for them any time soon.
But maybe the developers wanted to waylay the story in favour of a rich, customisable role-playing experience. Perhaps they decided that even if the plot was written by Emily Brontë, no consumer would be able to relate to it: after all, the people who buy these games rarely lay eyes on a romantic partner, let alone stick around long enough to procreate. So how is the gameplay?
It’s shit. D’oh, well.
Wander around an expanse of bombed-out cities and forests just like a real, intrepid explorer, then once they’ve been marked on your map, unlock the ability to teleport directly to them and break the immersion completely. Granted, I don’t want the fifty-seven thousand glorified fetch quests to be dragged out by day-long commutes, but if enough time has passed whilst we were frozen for electricity and generators to start making an appearance again, surely we could do with a makeshift rail system or at least some kind of hideously-mutated, seven-legged horse.
The issue with reviewing the gameplay of an open-ended role-playing game, is that the experience is so subjective and dependent on the actions of the player, that one man’s day-trip to hell could be another’s spa day in heaven. There’s only one binary choice all players are guaranteed to face in the entire game, and that’s the initial character customisation at the start. Judging that would be a silly and childish thing to do. So let’s do it.
Naturally, gender is the first choice you’d be making, as token as it is, because it seems we can’t have fun with a game anymore unless we’ve been given the choice to pick between genitalia.
The choices become broader once the story starts proper and perk charts are brought into the mix. Role-playing games often push the concept of character builds and upgrading the base character to suit your style, which I suppose did work to an extent: I’m the kind of guy who scours every corpse for weapons and empty tic-tac boxes; crafting recipes in this game are so random that unless you want to experience all the rib-snorting fun of memorising each one, loading up your knapsack with everything that isn’t nailed down is the best way of going about things. Thus, strength upgrades were always necessary for shouldering all the garbage I wanted to carry. But this came with its own set of problems: I ended up with so much spare ammunition, healing items and lockpicks that there were barely any challenges after a certain point. Unless I wanted to spend three to five business days battling some huge mutant lizard king for the sake of his spare underwear, I could gaily romp through the nuclear wastes without a care in the world; all the enemy landmines and grenades just explosive piss in the wind.
On the note of underpants, cosmetics and wearable items are a joke. It’s got that Injustice 2 thing going on where each scarf, armour plate and jockstrap carries a certain number of points based on defence, radiation protection, etcetera, so there’s no such thing as free choice if you want to really go for it in your next mutant crab mud-wrestle.
And finally, there’s base management. That’s the hot new addition to the gameplay formula, is it, Fallout? Spending one’s hard-earned resources building bases for your plebeian AI chums to sit around on their arses and do nothing?
“Just ignore the base management, then, if it’s not your thing. You can make your own fun without it!”
Yeah, that’s what we all thought at one point, but this is how they sucker you in! There’s always an element of grinding in this game; be it giving AI farmer Joe Dogface an extra bedroom in his ramshackle tin hut, or throwing yourself into a venomous mutant scorpion nest for a discarded egg sandwich that makes you invulnerable to radiation for ten seconds (and I’m only slightly exaggerating there). I was at one point scavenging through desk drawers in an abandoned office block, wondering which items I’d need in order to craft fences around my barn with three walls missing, before realising they’d got me. I’d been dragged by the legs into protecting some computer-programmed husks with three lines of dialogue each, all thanks to the promise of making myself feel better about my own lack of town planning abilities in the real world.
Fallout 4, is, in summary, a beautiful-looking game that’s about as substantial as the air in a whoopee cushion. A miserable fetch quest and grind-a-thon simulator set against the surprisingly appropriate background of a miserable, desolate nuclear apocalypse. Just get the PC version and download mods if you want to enjoy yourself; clearly the multitude of downloadable fan-made content for it proves that there’s enough people out there holding the same opinion as me who just don’t want to admit it.
Maybe my fault for having expectations from Bethesda. It’s fine. Fallout 4 is functional. It does the job. It’s the “I’m not mad, just disappointed” of video games.