To take things for granted is usually seen as a bad thing and yet if we are honest we all do it; in fact assumption is just part of the way our brains process and deal with a never-ending torrent of information. If we had to consider whether there would be oxygen outside our front door every morning or if the water in our taps was clean we'd never get past the end of the road.
Like many gamers, I watched as Fallout 4 was announced and I watched the 2015 E3 stage show from Bethesda. To say gamers had high expectations for the new apocalyptic survivor game would be the understatement of the decade: Bethesda knocked it out of the park at E3 not only with its game demo but with the announcement of the Pipboy edition, advanced character creation and so many other details that had fans on their feet cheering. Usually the bigger the game, the more our imaginations go wild, clutching our own personal shopping list and filling in the blanks with that perfect game mechanic or feature. A sad fact is that some developers over the years have used this hyperbole to their advantage. The way Ubisoft sold us a dream with their 'gameplay' demo of Watchdogs will always serve to remind me: you don't have it until you're playing it.
I have been thinking about gamer expectations for a few weeks now and what sparked this off was actually this game: more specifically, many gamers' reactions to leaked screen shots of Fallout 4. Its predecessor was released in October 2008 and seven years is a long time in the games industry with so many amazing games coming and going. As we move forward so does the graphical capability of the systems on which we play games and the systems we use to create them in the first place: new processing and rendering techniques, powerful game engines and new visual tricks all make these digital worlds seem more real. So combine all these factors together and expectations are high, impossibly high, and it's here I feel a good degree of sympathy for larger developers such as Bethesda because they will never fully sate this incredible amount of expectation set on them.
Something old and something new.
It is clear that while playing the first six or so hours of Fallout 4 most gamers that I have spoken to and reviews I've read have had the same feeling: 'this feels like Fallout 3'. I also think it's fair to say that while this could be a good thing most have seen this as a negative, at least initially. Killing Mole Rats, using VATS (Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System), rummaging around in dilapidated buildings and humming along to overly cheerful 60s background music: if I'm honest, for the first few hours I had similar feelings of familiarity and routine.. and then something happened. I'm not exactly sure when but I started to notice the new things this game has to offer and at the same time the old and familiar started to feel good: once again I was falling in love with Fallout. Maybe that's it, people forget: they know they loved Fallout 3 but forgot why and after a few months on the hype train the actual game seems like a bleak comparison. If you do persist however and throw yourself into the wasteland I'm certain most people (like me) will start to remember the actual reasons why this game is loved by so many and the false hopes of nostalgia and expectation fade away.
The sound and music are a delight throughout, with solid weapons effects and responsive environmental cues. Everything from the patter of rain on a freshly built corrugated roof to the satisfying sizzle of incinerating an enemy with an energy weapon. The music is what we have come to expect and again does a great job: the Fallout theme is still one of those pieces of music that elicits so many emotions from dread to sadness, melancholy and exhilaration. A big change regarding sound is that for the first time the main protagonist is fully voiced. This matters to some but doesn't make a jot of difference to others: it all depends how you play and approach the game. For me I found the voice acting to be of a high standard, with NPCs being hit and miss but usually fine. It's clear a lot of work went into this change and the fact there are over 1000 actual names recorded into the game makes you see this wasn't just an afterthought.
One problem I will mention is that of the UI - it's awful and while I'm used to its clunkiness from previous games it still takes way too long to get the most basic things done. In its defence there have been some great improvements such as being able to tag specific components you need and so the game will then highlight these on your travels. I also like how you can now easily turn your inventory to a specific list (weapons, aids, mods etc). However, if I could request anything to be improved for the next game, it would be UI. Saying that, we know at some point a mod will appear which will make the inventory far more mouse and keyboard friendly as someone did with Skyrim.
This time around we leave our vault and head into the ruins of Boston, a city that is rich in history and covered in unique places. So what are these little improvements and how much do they mix things up? The sanctuary of VATS has now been modified to more of a temporary shelter because it no longer stops time but slows it down to an ebb. In essence it still works the same but this tweak means you now need to be far more on the ball, but, in contrast, because targets move sometimes a better opportunity can present itself.
Your armour system is now multi-layered, allowing for far more customisation, as you can wear a suit and then start adding arm and leg coverings independently. As with previous games, there are a whole manner of outfits to don and thanks to modders being quick off the mark you can even try and shock your enemies with a full birthday suit. The gunplay and shooting mechanics now feel tighter and less cumbersome. Granted this won't win any awards but it does feel 'good enough' that when confronted with an enemy VATS isn't my only option. Apart from the obvious visual upgrade weapons are just a far more enjoyable part of the game and again Bethesda have really gone nuts on customisation. For the most part these upgrades are a steady improvement of a certain aspect, range or clip capacity for example, but the aesthetics work really well and it's clear the design team have had a blast.
An object that is synonymous with Fallout is the old Pipboy and in Fallout 4 it has never looked so good - from the very first moment you remove the bony arm of the previous owner and wipe away the dust it just feels familiar and awesome. As you play audio logs you can now actually see them being loaded into the top and there are even games to find and play scattered around the wasteland. I have to mention the second screen app here and for the most part it works really well, not only is it a full representation of what your in game Pipboy shows but you can do almost everything with it such as fast travel or use stim packs. The Pipboy edition comes with a plastic Pipboy which can house your smartphone allowing for an authentic arm-mounted experience but from friends who own it one has had pieces falling off and all say it's almost impossible to play the game with it on. So my advice is get yourself a cheap open front exercise band and strap that to your arm instead. The main point though is that this app works and, even when moving, the map on your arm updates on the fly. As Todd Howard said himself: 'second screen experiences can usually be cheap gimmicks but as they go this is the best fucking one I've seen.'
In actual fact I've found Fallout 4 to be a very pretty game with plenty of wow moments, these moments have also been bordered with some average texture work and poor animation quality. The truth is it's very difficult to give a decisive yay or nay when it comes to the graphics in Fallout 4 because it's a mixed bag of highs and lows. The most obvious change for me was the colour palette; gone is the grey and washed-out browns of previous games - now colour saturates the landscape from the cobalt blue sky to the vivid reds of the rocket station where you find your trusty dog companion. Indeed, everywhere you look the washed-out brown palette is now gone and a far more playful colour spectrum entices you into the wasteland. I love this difference because it serves to emphasis the stark desolation by putting it in contrast with the world that once thrived on bright colourful billboards and posters. For me, the atmospheric and weather effects are the biggest jump forward by a mile and add a ton of atmosphere. Strolling through deserted poster towns as the late afternoon suns draws long shadows across your path is just sublime, as are the the ominous radiation storms that sound and look incredible.
Give me a reason.
There are two types of people on this world: normal people and hoarding kleptomaniacs that quite simply need to gather 'all the things'! This affliction has seen me finish many games with vast swathes of ordnance long after the last fight has concluded. Hilariously I finished Fallout 3 still clutching the alien blaster found in the DLC with not a single shot fired! So, yes, I was pretty bad at grabbing things in previous games but now Bethesda have only gone and given me an actual reason to hoover up every single item in the game! Every item of junk has been given components and is made of base materials: spanner (steel), desk fan (screws, plastic, gear), cup (ceramics), coffee pot, typewriter.. another desk fan as we're getting low on screws - this system is by far one of the best crafting implementations I've seen into an already busy game world and I think what lies at the centre of this is relevance. What do I mean by this? I can build things, things that improve my world, things that increase my chances of surviving, damn I can build whole towns if I so wish.
There are thirty places in the wasteland of Fallout 4 where you can set up a settlement and start building structures - the first happens to be your old neighbourhood, which I found to be a nice touch. These plots of land are awesome and easily one of my favourite additions to the game. I've never been a big fan of fluff and pointless mechanisms designed to pad games out and so I'm so glad to report this isn't that. There are some legitimate reasons why building a top notch settlement (or 30) is a good thing to do. However, even if it was all just for the sake of building, the actual process is so much fun it becomes a worthwhile activity as the satisfaction of building is in itself its own reward. Building blocks just slot together, items are simple to place and the whole thing surprised me with its ease of use. After building myself an office in my old house I decided to treat myself to a juke box: a few hours later I attached a generator and wired it to the side of said house and instantly heard the Juke box fire up. This to me was the moment.. the part of the game where I realised we had something special here. Another two hours passed, just tinkering, fixing my power armour, planting some new vegetable patches and upgrading a few weapons. As the sun set on the horizon I sat back in my PC chair and actually felt good after a hard day's work. These moments come often in Fallout 4 and they should be relished because they are some of the best.
Innovation on demand.
As I have reviewed this game and even now as I type I am still at odds with myself and can't seem to settle on a satisfactory answer to the question: does a game sequel have to innovate or is it acceptable to give your fans more of the same (with a few new bells and whistles)? As I have mentioned, there are very few major changes to the formula with maybe the exception of the base building and crafting systems. You emerge from a vault into nuclear wasteland and set off in any direction you so please, you make friends, ally with factions, fulfil quest objectives and scavenge to your heart's content. Surely, if the success of the series is based on this excellent formula, why would any developer in their right mind deviate from it? I think where I am currently at is that I think this game is beautiful (with all its bumps), complex and vast. However I would like them to move on to a new engine for the next game and with this they could really innovative.
So what would I improve? Well I would certainly add more 'options' to combat as opposed to the basic run and gun method we have now, maybe with a more fleshed-out stealth system. The UI would also get a massive overhaul and in addition PC would get a mouse and keyboard-friendly inventory system. I also think I would add something that I've heard most Skyrim and Fallout fans I know mention at least once: the ability to explore the game with another player. Now before I get hauled onto a pyre and burned, I am not talking about multiplayer on a huge scale or team death match arenas, that isn't what Fallout is about and plenty of other games fill that void. No I'm just talking about allowing one friend to step into your world and adventure with you. This would require some work on the game's established systems and it's here I draw breath for pause.. because after everything I've just said I'm still not sure these changes would work. The game is already amazing and if the next Fallout adventure was more of the same I'd be disappointed for the lack of progress but I also acknowledge it would almost certainly be another amazing adventure.
Is it PC?
I love games of all types (and their respective systems) and while this is true I also want to see game development pushed to its very limits in terms of graphics and the overall experience they offer. For all the negative publicity, Star Citizen has received lately there is no denying Chris Roberts is trying to lift game development far past normal conventions and for this he has my utmost respect. Games are the playground of the human race and we are only just getting started - innovation and new ideas will carry us forward to a place only limited by our imaginations. So I hold the somewhat controversial opinion that, while consoles do have a role to play in the games industry, one downside to their existence is that they artificially hold game progression back - because right now they set the tone of game development and it's here publishers aim to make that all important revenue.
Open world games are the thing this year:Metal Gear Solid 5, The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 and even Lara Croft's new adventure feels more open and free. The problem is that if I'm being blunt, consoles with their limited resources and closed architecture are not very good at handling large open game worlds and Skyrim is a good example of this. The developers fought tooth and nail to get Skyrim running on last generation consoles and even then both PS3 and XB360 ran into huge memory problems. I often ask myself, how good would Skyrim have been if developed solely for PC and with the same lust for pushing the boundaries of game development that Chris Roberts has shown?
Ok, maybe one for a full article, but for now I'll just say Fallout 4 runs ok (but needs more optimising) on PC and looks stunning; what is more exciting is that mods were appearing on Nexus before the actual game was released and over the next twelve months we are going to be treated to a torrent of mods that enhance the base game of Fallout 4 way beyond its original design. So if you are reading this and do not yet own a gaming PC please believe me when I say - if you want a far better experience while playing Fallout 4 (and most other games) there really is only one place you can do that.
Another fairly hefty advantage of playing on PC is load times in that they are significantly faster, especially if you are playing on an SSD. It might sound like a minor thing but if every time you fast travel or enter an enclosed building you need to wait for 30-40 seconds it certainly adds up and can really break the immersion the game does a very good job of building up. On my system load times are between 3-5 seconds which is barely enough to have a slurp of coffee.
So the question: is Fallout 4 a good game? Well my answer to that question is a resounding yes but it also comes with a caveat. Not everyone will love it and I know that's an obvious thing to spell out but there are some big reasons why it just will not work for some players. Bethesda have claimed the game engine is new but while playing I have to say it does feel like the old code is running under the hood somewhere - and for some players who expected a bigger jump forward this will piss them off and has pissed them off. In terms of game structure Bethesda have also played it fairly safe, yes they have refined many of the already excellent aspects of the series as well as adding some awesome new elements but there is no denying this game comes from the same mould as Fallout 3 - again the lack of progression may really jar with some fans hoping for more. You will hit bugs, some insignificant and maybe the odd game breaker: 'it's a Bethesda game' fanboys chime in sync but then not everyone is or should feel they have to accept this just because the developer is well known for them. So these are modifiers and if they apply to you then you may come away from the game feeling cold and disappointed.
Most games come and go, even the big ones like The Witcher 3 or Metal Gear Solid 5 have their time in the sun and then fall away to make space for the next new game on the block. The most exciting thing with Fallout 4 is that this isn't where the journey ends.. not even close. For a start there are numerous play-throughs that I personally have already planned - trying different character set-ups and quest decisions. Then there is the plain and simple fact that the map still has hundreds if not thousands of secrets it has yet to give up. Then we have the official DLC which Bethesda are now busy working on - the mind boggles at what new adventures and features they can cram into this already gigantic game. However the most exciting aspect of Fallout 4 is what the modding community will do with it now it's live. Skyrim, whilst an amazing game in its own right has been modded and customised beyond recognition. From new spells, ultra realistic graphics, complex survival mods if that's your bag and a whole plethora of fun ways to make the game better. Make no mistake, this is where gaming on PC really shines bright and offers a free and continuous stream of content console owners can only dream off.
It's been one hell of a year for open world games and while I'm rating the Witcher 3 better than Fallout 4 there really isn't much in it. I think it's obvious I'm a big fan of these games and so while you could accuse me of being panglossian there is no denying Bethesda have given us an incredible body of work and one which the developers should be proud of. If you love to explore the horizon, uncover forgotten secrets or stories and generally get lost many epic adventures you would have to go a very long way to find a game that accomplishes as much as Fallout 4.
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