Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Fallout 4 (2015, PS4) - All Around the World, Same Song

I was surprised by Obsidian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas in 2010. While I've put time into each of the mainline Fallout titles, New Vegas was the first to keep me playing for dozens of hours and compel me to actually finish the core story. Fallout 1 and 2 were a lot of fun to mess around in, but I never really cared about their worlds, and while nothing about Fallout 3 felt seriously wrong to me, it didn't capture my attention in any real way. New Vegas was, somehow, different. Its writing and its characters were strong enough to keep me going the whole way through in spite of the fact that I was playing the bug-riddled PS3 port.

When Fallout 4 was announced and I learned it would be set in and around my home turf of Boston, I was pretty pumped. Development duties returning to Fallout 3/Elder Scrolls bosses Bethesda Game Studios, and I was confident they would have learned what made New Vegas tick and reproduce that magic. I'm let down to say that instead, Fallout 4 is just an average RPG/shooter with standard video game writing. There's nothing abominably bad here, but nothing that lights the same spark New Vegas did.

Click here for a Fallout 4 screen shot gallery

Making the hard choices.

The story begins in 2077, shortly before nuclear war wipes out the remnants of an America that worships the 1950's and jettisoned any culture that grew after that time. The year is mostly an excuse for robots and laser beams to exist, as the fears (nuclear and Communist) and fashion of the age is decidedly a romanticized post-World War II society. The licensed music ranges from the 1930's to the late 50's, and reuses a bunch of tracks from the previous games. Some of it's good, some's bland, but it's all roughly the same style and that gets kind of old after three games, even with years between them. Keeping Fallout in the faux-50's doesn't do much for me any more, but I know people would burn down some buildings if the world changed. "War never changes" is the series catchphrase, and war's not the only thing that's gotten stale.

Boston Public Library, where you can exchange overdue books for toothbrushes.

Our hero is saved from nuclear annihilation in a cryogenic chamber along with their spouse and infant child in the depths of Vault 111. You can play as either the husband or the wife, and I do like that you get to design the looks of both characters, even if the one you DON'T play as gets very little screen time. If you play as a man, you're a combat veteran; as a woman you're a lawyer. This doesn't matter, as it doesn't come up in dialogue at all and you're a super soldier either way. You get a rude awakening two hundred years later, when a group of mysterious villains break into the vault, kill your spouse, and steal your child. You pass out, wake up later, and now it's time for revenge, but not before you smile and laugh and goof off and solve the problems of every passing stranger in The Commonwealth.

Concord, where the deadliest monster is no longer the rotary.

This is the first Fallout to feature full voice acting for the player character. Courtenay Taylor and Brian T. Delaney voice your character and do a decent job, but the disconnect between the character's urgency and the open world structure of the game feels a little ludicrous this time. My immersion in the game's world broke almost immediately after my hero crawled out of Vault 111, saw her ruined home town, worried about her son, and then started quipping as soon as she met the next humans she saw.

This whole exchange was pretty funny, though.

I'm also just a little baffled that my hero's name, Tara, was not one that was available in the game's name database, so it's never said out loud. Other common names like Kyle and Annie aren't available either, but don't worry, Bethesda was sure to include "Boob" and "ASDF" and all the pop culture names you can think of, unless your favorite Star Trek character is named "Wesley." Then you're out of luck.

I'm rolling my eyes too, Tara.

As you explore the Commonwealth, you come across two factions early on: The Minutemen, a shattered organization of do-gooders with no dark side, and The Brotherhood of Steel, a Fallout mainstay that brings some airships to the party this time around (and crashes them almost every time you see one.) Both sides are fighting against hordes of Raiders, Feral Ghouls, and Super Mutants, but you soon learn about a secret society known as The Institute that serves as the real villain in this game. In Fallout's world, MIT (Called CIT here) is an Illuminati-style all seeing eye, rather than an engineering school full of nerds. They build artificial humans called Synths and abduct people from the Commonwealth for dark but largely unexplained experiments using their massively advanced technology.

The last living Village Person protects The Commonwealth.
After finding out about the Synths, players meet The Railroad, another faction that serves as a heavy-handed metaphor for the real world's Underground Railroad. Here, they fight to free the Synths, rather than to free human slaves. I'm all for blunt metaphor, but it's so surface-level and flimsy here that there isn't even a fun bit of subtext to it. Bethesda doesn't try to go anywhere deeper than this, and never takes any interesting looks at what it means to be an artificial life form. If you want a better recent story about oppression and artificial intelligence, Alex Garland's Ex Machina is a fantastic film and you'll get more out of two hours with Alicia Vikander's Ava than a dozen hours with The Railroad.

Don't get Terminated!
There are some good supporting characters here, but their number is fairly small. I liked the sometimes obnoxiously chipper reporter Piper, and I really liked the film noir detective Synth Nick Valentine. These two were my go-to companions throughout the game. There's also a dog, if you haven't gotten your fill yet of dog-buddy fun times with Metal Gear Solid V (though Dogmeat here is nowhere near as fun or versatile as DD is in MGSV.) You meet some other nice characters in some side quests, but for the most part, they're pretty typical characters. Many are entirely good, many are maniacally evil, and a very few are a little more gray. I wasn't a fan of sassy robot Codsworth and really disliked Generic Tough Girl Cait. Maybe she gets more interesting if you spend more time with her.

Piper, with a cute hat.
Nick, with a cool hat.

In general, there's less Role Playing going on here than I expected. For the entire first act of the game, your four dialogue prompts generally map to "yes/no/sarcasm/ask question." In the second half, you get more opportunities to control the tone and flow of conversation, but very rarely do you have any choice in how a mission is handled. Almost every mission involves entering an area and killing all of the enemies. You rarely get a chance to talk your way through, bribe your way through, or go with an unconventional or weird choice. It does happen sometimes, and it's nice when it does! But for the most part, you're looking at a much simpler series of choices than in New Vegas or in this year's other big RPG, The Witcher 3, which offered some genuinely great moments where players were unsure whether or not they were making the right choice.

Get used to this.
The worst element of Fallout 4's story is the way it handles The Institute; they don't have any strong reason to be villains at all. Safe in their underground heaven, they have access to all the food, water, medicine, and technology they could ever need. They have no reason to interact with the surface world; they don't need resources from the surface, and yet they interfere with Commonwealth politics for vague means of continuing to hold secret power and they abduct people and replace them with Synths for no reason but to give people a reason to fear them and players a reason to hate them. This can be read as a general "humans will inevitably cause their own downfall" sort of story, but in order to tell that kind of story there has to be some sort of stakes. If The Institute had never interacted with anyone outside at all, they would have all been totally fine.

If you're so smart, how'd you get stuck in a door?
The Institute focuses on the production of Synths, but we're never really told why. There's no reason for them to be mass producing artificial life rather than focusing on the cybernetics that they already developed to give Institute hitman Kellogg (the guy who stole your son to begin with) unnaturally long life. There's nothing about a drive to create new life, nothing about transferring human consciousness into Synth bodies, and no reason to refute their free will. One rogue Synth who sets up a floating libertarian paradise/hell is used as proof that rogue Synths are bad news, but why do we as the player not get to then cite Nick Valentine as an example of a rogue Synth doing nothing but good in the world? Why don't we get to question any of this? Why did Kellogg kill your spouse in the first place, if pure, radiation-free human life is so valuable to The Institute? Why did they let you wake up alone in a deadly hellhole if they were hoping you survived? Even if you side with them, The Institute never gives you satisfying answers. They're a vague mad scientist faction who does seemingly everything in the name of "experiments" with no rhyme or reason behind why they'd run these experiments in the first place. And in this game's weak role playing, you don't get to call them out. Even Piper, whose entire backstory involves trying to expose The Institute, has zero comment or problem with you joining them and only criticizes you once, lightly, right before the very end.

Riding the DNA elevator to the future

The Institute has reasons to have beef with the Brotherhood of Steel and with the Railroad by the end of the game, but there is zero reason for them to pick a fight with the Minutemen; the only reason they do is because that's the faction I sided with for my first run. The story kind of breaks when you side with a faction that no one has any reason to oppose, since the Minutemen don't do anything but farm and protect people from roaming monsters. Unlike the Brotherhood and the Railroad, they don't have a political ideology outside of "be excellent to each other," so it feels ridiculous that The Institute would target them for anything. There isn't even a good reason for a personal, petty grudge here. And after all's said and done, the ending is simple and about as detail free as you can get, and you don't even get little epilogues for anyone. I also question the logic of the final mission, where players get to blow up The Institute, if they choose not to support them. You're really telling me that the Brotherhood wouldn't be interested in preserving some of this technology? Or that the Minutemen would suddenly engage in nuclear war and ignore this new resource? Or that The Railroad, after fighting to save Synths, would blow up unknown hundreds of them instead of taking control of the building and setting them free?

Thanks, every video game hero of the 2000's.

While I have a lot of criticisms of this game's writing and plot, I don't think it's terrible, just decidedly and thoroughly average. It's mostly fun to follow the story from start to finish, even when it gets stupid and when the emotional twists feel unearned, but there's nothing to really celebrate here. I did however have lots of fun just wandering around aimlessly, taking in the sights and finding new buildings and towns around Boston. It really doesn't feel at all like the Boston area, outside of some well-replicated landmarks, but The Commonwealth is still a pretty cool place to walk around. Areas are understandably compressed, but it was a little sad when I went into Park Street Station and it just had the same generic blue walls as every other underground subway area in the game. The Last of Us was a better Video Game Boston, though it's obviously easier to do there since that game was so much smaller in scale.

The Green Monster
My favorite area of the game was The Glowing Sea, which really makes no effort to replicate any part of the actual Commonwealth. It's a green, dreary nightmare haze where radiation will kill you quickly if you're not properly suited up. Located in the southwestern part of the game's map (somewhere around the Framingham area in real life maybe, though the world's proportions are very distorted so it's hard to say,) The Glowing Sea is simultaneously the grossest and prettiest area of the game. Storms pass through, the ground smokes from acidic pools, and an utter sense of hopelessness reigns over the entire region. It's the most moody the game gets, and this was one area I felt was genuinely excellent all around.

The old familiar "Martian Mountains" district of Massachusetts.

Fallout 4 can be played as either a terrible third-person shooter or as a serviceable first-person shooter. I generally prefer third-person, and stuck with it throughout all of New Vegas, but the game play here is faster, louder, and more obviously designed for first-person, even if you rely on VATS, a semi-turn based system that pauses the game to allow you to precisely target enemies in exchange for ability points. VATS carried me through New Vegas, but here, the game was much easier and smoother to play with VATS largely ignored.

Playing Laser Tag with a Raider
As always, players can build their character and put points into Strength, Charisma, Luck, etc. You can level up and unlock perks which make combat easier, give you more dialogue choices (rarely), let you pick locks/hack computers using the exact same mini games as the last two installments, and more. I built my character around Charisma and Intelligence at first, and neither really mattered until late in the game; I still had to fight my way through nearly every quest.

No perks enable you to talk to skeletons.
The one truly new addition to the Fallout series is a town building mini game. The interface is clunky and some things should have been explained more directly (like how to assign people to work as provisioners between settlements and whether you're actually ever making money off of the stores you build) but I had a lot of fun making big, ugly buildings for my friends to live in. There's no sense of weight or physics to the world, so feel free to build a tower into the heavens supported by one free-standing wall where you can safely snipe Raiders as they glide through your town in their attacks on your towns.

Looks just about right.
When you're not fighting hordes or building towns, you can unwind with cheap knock-off versions of Donkey Kong, Missile Command, and Pitfall that manage to control way worse than the original games ever did. I love the idea, but they're pretty bad takes on classic games.

It's not even as good as Crazy Kong.
Fallout 4 isn't a terrible game, but it's nowhere near the Game of the Year material some sites are hyping it up to be. Its most direct competitor this year is Witcher 3, which does everything Fallout does better, even if it lacks the town building element and dollar-store Donkey Kongs. It's not as good as New Vegas, and is functionally 2008's Fallout 3 with a fresh coat of paint. If you absolutely loved Fallout 3, there's plenty to like here, but I was hoping that seven years later we might see a little more improvement than this. In the meantime, while I don't expect the game to change in any major way, hopefully Bethesda will at least deal with some bugs.

Maybe next time water won't look like this...
...and my head won't disappear...
...and characters won't swim when on dry land...

...and zombies won't get stuck floating in mid air.
You said it, Zombie Trump.

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