Bethesda…Bethesda never changes. I truly believe they are the only company who could get away with the things they do and still receive so much love from the community. The games can crash or glitch and still have people clamoring “game of the year!” with so many more qualified candidates out there. This year’s most qualified, Witcher 3, comes from a smaller team that went out of their way to make a world feel truly alive. By comparison, Fallout 4 feels like a lot of lazy half assing in so many ways. The vast majority of the sound effects in this game have been used in every single other Bethesda game in recent memory. Even the music playlist for the radio station has been heard before in previous Fallout games. The recycled engine is given some new next gen spit and polish, but aside from the prettier outdoor environments and new more colorful locations, the character models are often but ugly and badly animated.
The problem here for me is that I’ve seen other companies raise the bar higher and higher for what to expect in terms of character design and animation with each release, but Bethesda…Bethesda never changes.
However, this is actually the first Bethesda game I’ve played all the way to the end, (Unless you count Fallout Shelter, which I don’t.) liking and loathing it in equal measure. There is nothing I can praise in the game that does not instantly lead to a big BUT, and for every time I was enjoying my game, there’s at least twice as many times where I was left groaning, “This is utter bullshit.” Or yelling it, or even growling it. And I want to note that it was rarely the challenge level of the game that was the reason for my anger. Sometimes it might be a glitch or a crash, but more often, it was just lazy writing or coding.
But let me start off at the beginning. Bethesda never changes. That’s why yet again, Fallout 4 starts with the same introductory sentence. However, this time the world is fleshed out in more detail before the character creation process begins, and I think it hurts the premise even more than the previous entries. In this version, the war did not take place in an alternate fifties era. Instead, the world went on with the same culture and technology until 2077. Try to think about that. If a person from 1950 were frozen and taken to our time, they would not recognize quite a lot of the progress we take for granted. But not only did technology freeze, but so did all culture and art. So for this period of supposed nuclear peacetime, no one ever did anything in any field. Ever. The game actually contradicts this idea many, many times, and yet…Bethesda never changes.
But it gets worse. Your character is tricked into a vault that cryogenically freezes him or her for 200 years. When they get out, the world still looks like the war just ended. Radiation levels are just as high as the day the bombs went off. Houses that should have been swallowed by trees and other vegetation lie open and waiting for exploration. Food products that should have been dust, even with preservatives, are still somehow edible. And STILL, they’re listening to Bob Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Danny Kaye. And don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of these songs. But I’ve heard them in past games. Would it kill Bethesda to at least find other artists from the same era for a new soundtrack? Maybe it would, because Bethesda…Bethesda never changes.
Your character’s creation this time is much more streamlined compared to previous Fallout games, something I did like. There’s no waiting through a ridiculously long bunch of childhood memories or talking to a surgeon who dug a bullet out of your head. You start in front of a bathroom mirror with your spouse, (conveniently allowing you to swap genders in the context of the scene. That’s a nice touch.) play with your face, race, body, and gender, and then it’s off to the living room to play out a very short cut scene before getting your stats sorted out. The deep freeze and plot take maybe five minutes to get through, and soon you’re off and running on your adventure. Kudos, Bethesda, that wins a few point in your favor. (And while I’m thinking on it, huzzah for letting people choose to have different body types. Dragon Age: Inquisition was lacking that, and I brought it up in my review as an oversight.)
Unfortunately, they also lose points pretty quickly for tossing you in at the deep end of the messiah complex swimming pool. Within half an hour of starting, you’re given a set of power armor, the biggest gun in the game, and sent to fight the biggest monster in the world. If you survive this, the people you save move in with you and appoint you their general. Just like that. They met you not ten minutes before, and boom, you’re promoted to general. Why? Because a junkie saw you “in a vision.” No, really.
Every faction introduction is equally nonsensical. These people supposedly have trust issues, but the moment you do even one simple task for them, you’re in like Flynn. The only way you can lose their trust is if you outright try to rob or murder them. That’s pretty dumb.
Up next in this quick toss in the ocean for your swimming lesson is the crafting system, which has no tutorials, and which doesn’t even work initially because you have nothing to craft with, and no idea about how to get resources. Also, what’s useful scrap for what item? YOU DON’T KNOW. Even if you buy the boxed edition, there’s no manual to explain this. I still don’t even know how to rotate objects, so I have to walk around and eyeball alignments. It’s a huge pain in the ass.
I ended up walking away from my settlement to go kill stuff, and after having some major frustrations with the VATS system not aiming at characters even at point blank range, I took out a baton and started going all ninja on them. I carted back loads of junk to my base and set out again, each time selling a large chunk of the weapons and armor I got to vendors in exchange for bullets and stimpaks. By level 10, I’d built up enough stuff to finally sort out how to build defenses for my base and grow food and get clean water for them. But building a place for them to live was still a long way off. Up until level 20, I had all my peoples’ beds placed outside in the rain because I couldn’t figure out how to build anything. When I finally did build something, it looked like a shit sandwich. That’s not on my lousy design skills, either. All buildings look like Gilligan’s Island rejects with huge holes all over the place. Even the prefab buildings look hideous, and no matter how high your level or what perks points you invest, it will always look like shit. Which is another paradox of the game. You can make light boxes and flame throwers, build a perfect rifle, and kit out the perfect armor. But your housing constructions will always look like forts made by little kids with rusted scrap.
This isn’t even touching on how ridiculous some of the junk to scrap conversions are. It’s one thing to make a gun scope from a microscope or to get screws, gears, and springs while scrapping a pistol, but how in the fuck do pre-war dollar bills and packs of cigarettes convert to CLOTH? How is it that you can get enough gas to run a generator from a pair of fucking flip lighters? How does scrapping an empty can of gas provide oil for gun parts? The only answer is because Bethesda said so, and this crafting systems has some choices as nonsensical as Witcher 3’s alcohol recipes. (All involve an empty bottle and another alcohol)
Let’s move on…
Do you like loading screens? Because you will see a lot of them. This is another traditions of Bethesda’s, and for an open world game, quite a lot of it takes place after loading screens. Some interiors are even split up so that there’s ever more loading screens. And loading takes anywhere from forty-five seconds to a minute and a half. The loading screens may be a detailed 3D model to spin around and look at like in Skyrim, or it might just be a black screen with a loading symbol in the corner. But you will have to get used to seeing them everywhere. I’d say a quarter of my time was spent looking at loading screens. This becomes even worse if you fast travel to a mission location you’ve been to before for a new mission. You just get more and more loading screens. And for those who don’t like loading screens, there’s loading screens.
The writing constantly veers from tolerable into completely fucking stupid. I lost count of how many times in a mission I would stop and complain to my hubby about why what I was doing didn’t make a single goddamn lick of sense. Stuff just happens because it has to, and there’s rarely any logic behind the choices of monsters for any given area or why they’re on the attack. Hubby constantly talks about how these games are inspired by sci-fi movies of the fifties, but even those had more attempts at motivation for things happening. What’s frequently on display here is an Ed Wood level of logic, or lack thereof.
By level 20, I’d developed a system of playing that can only be called ninja-style. I would sneak up on people as close as I could manage before opening fire. This often allowed me to drop several enemies without using VATS, and that’s good because VATS can miss an easy shot from less that a foot away. At one point, I slinked out of a doorway so that my gun was practically tickling the hairs on the back of an enemy’s neck, went into VATS and set it to unload into his brain before doing likewise to his partner in the same cycle. Only, the bullets somehow got lodged in the doorframe behind the gun and to the left of my elbow. That’s how fucking lousy VATS is. It can make bullets travel backwards. While it can be improved with more points in perception, even at my highest levels I was still seeing things like missing someone’s head multiple times with a shotgun even though I had the barrel tucked under their chin.
Then there’s the side missions for the settlements. See, once you’ve got people to watch out for, they will call you to defend them, and this is another thing that makes no sense. Fast travel advances time to an approximation of what it would have taken to walk to the same place. This makes sense, but if a farm or town is under attack at the time that you initiate fast travel and you’re on the other side of the map, why do you always show up with time to spare before the attack? Were all the raiders going, “Aaaaaarrrrrr…oh, you called for back up that will arrive in eight hours? Yeah, sure, we’ll wait for them to show up.”
This is assuming you see the tiny ass prompt asking for help. You might be otherwise engaged in a battle or mission when that one fucking second pop-up happens, and you’ll only know you had a mission at all after you get another pop-up telling you you failed it. If you fail enough times, the town or farm stops supporting you. But fret not, because eventually, they’ll be raided again, and you can go save them and re-recruit them. They won’t remember you were there before because Bethesda only recorded the bare minimum of lines for each character.
“Gee, Zoe, aren’t you being harsh?” you ask. No, I am fucking not. Let me give you a specific example. In Diamond City you can find a beggar who just wants a bottle of Nuka Cola to stave off certain death. So you give it to him, and he says, “Thank you! It’s like I can finally think straight again!” Later you can ask him, “Hey, do you want to come work for me?” and you can recruit him to move to your settlement. Thereafter, every single fucking time you initiate any dialogue with him, you will ask him to come work for you again, even though he’s already working for you, and he will again thank you for giving him that one fucking Nuka Cola. If he was an isolated event, I might let it slide. But every character reaches a point where they have the same script read on every interaction. Yes, Piper, we’re best friends. No, you’re not nuts for saying it. You do seem nuts for saying it every single day for the next two years of in game time. Yes, Jun, we know you’re very upset at the death of your son. You never say anything else, ever. We get it. Yes, Marcy, you love to complain and you hate everyone. I’ve only heard these same statements 400 times. At this point, I’d be grateful for an arrow to the knee comment. Or, failing that, an arrow to the dialogue writers’ knees.
And then there’s what I call “Skyrim all over again,” in which things I didn’t do or say are made part of the story. An early quest for the Brotherhood of Steel involves following a distress call, and when I got there and saw the place was swarmed with ghouls, I climbed up on a truck to snipe at a few of them. Meanwhile, the head honcho in his power armor wipes the walls with these poor souls. I don’t even see why he needed to call for help. He’s just that OP. But when the killing spree ended and I jumped down, he asked what I was doing there, and there was no obvious answer like “I followed your distress call. Duh?” The only useful answer is “I’m just trying to survive out here.” This gets the head honcho to comment, “Given the way you dove into those feral ghouls, I’m not sure I can believe that.” I sat blinking at the screen before sputtering, “Christ, it’s Skyrim all over again! I didn’t do that, but now it’s canon?”
(For context, I never touched the first dragon in Skyrim, but once I was prodded to absorb its soul, everyone was forever fawning, “You slayed the dragon!” And I did no such fucking thing, okay?)
Later, after I’d “helped” this guy recover some radio equipment, (he killed almost everything. I didn’t even need to be there.) he goes, “You mentioned earlier wanting to join our organization.” I never did. It never came up at all. And this sort of shit happens all the time. I’m told to tell a story to some schoolkids about my time in the wasteland, and the only story I can tell is something I never did. I frequently had characters say we talked about a topic, but that was the first time I’d heard about it so I felt lost, to say the least. The writing assumes one has taken a very specific path in the game, and that’s a terrible idea in an open world where there is no one true path to the end. But this is always the case for Bethesda games. They’re as shitty at writing as they are at coding.
Obviously, I found a lot to hate in this game, so what pulled me through all of this bullshit? What kept me playing the entire time? Mostly it was the companion side stories. I swear, there’s a great deal more care put into fleshing out the supporting cast than to the actual plot of the game. Pick a character, and their introduction is kind of dumb. But after a few missions, they open up to you and talk about their history, and that shit is FASCINATING. Nick’s a man out of time much like your own character. Piper’s a good reporter in a world that doesn’t care about the truth anymore. MacReady’s a former mercenary who got tired of fighting for the wrong side. Deacon is a habitual liar who is trying to make up for his misspent youth. Strong is a super mutant who’s on a mission to understand how “the milk of human kindness” makes them stronger than his brothers. And Curie…no, I’m not even gonna do a minor spoiler for her. Suffice it to say, I traveled with her the longest simply because I liked her so much. I liked all of my companions, but she’s special. I could honestly fall in love with a character like Curie.
Those side stories make a lot of the game’s aches and pains bearable, but not always. There’s the repetition of grinding side missions, something you have to do to take advantage of the perks system. The perks nickel and dime out bennies so that you have to keep building on them to get anything useful. For instance, at Gun Nut level 2, I could make a suppressor for pistols, but not for rifles. To get that, I had to rank up to Gun Nut level 4, which itself required being level 39. So instead of going through the story missions in a blaze, I had to take jobs for my allied factions, all of which were repeats that kept sending me to the same locations over and over. This huge open world has hundred of locations to explore, but you’ll often end up going to the same location ten or twenty times, and each time the enemy layouts are nearly identical. The first time, that ambush around a corner is a shock. The second time, it’s nothing. And you just keep doing it over, and over, and over, and over.
It also doesn’t help that the mission givers will say the same thing regardless of location. So you keep hearing the same story in maybe four different voices. Uh-HUH, raiders came and demanded food and threatened you. Yeah, you didn’t know what else to do, I got it.
AND, the location assignments don’t make any sense. You’ll be told the raiders or ghouls you need to eliminate are nearby, but pull up your Pip-Boy and you’ll see your target may be on the other side of the map. Apparently nearby can mean “five days walk through hostile terrain.”
AAAAAND, setting up defenses with the crafting system never changes the pathetic helplessness of the settlers. I got missions from my home base with the same scripts about how the settlers were just so helpless. This is the base where I had all nine of my companions living, all of them armed with high-level weapons. I had custom made high-power weapons passed out to the settlers as well, AND the entire town was surrounded by automated turrets, with stripes of said guns running down the main street and around the garden in pairs. (One machine gun and one laser turret because I am nothing if not thorough in planning my kill boxes.) But the game doesn’t care about the defense rating for each settlement. It randomly pulls a settlement out of the hat, pulls a random enemy from another, and annoys you with more and more busy work. It’s not even worth it most of the time because the supposed army of enemies might end up being two ghouls, one of whom is trapped in a wall and can’t move. So that’s no XP, no challenge, crap gear, and a buttload of long ass loading screens.
It was actually a relief after level 25 to just take my biggest guns and go wandering off the roads to look for trouble. By then I had so much ammo and health that nothing short of deathclaws and behemeths could threaten me, and when I did find them I was gleefully happy because it meant I had a chance of getting decent gear. I’d run across named or legendary mercenaries that had some really primo stuff, and whatever scrap crap they were wearing along with that could either be sold for caps or broken down into mods for my current gear. I reached a point where I went into the field with the same five guns because I didn’t need anything else. Minigun? Fat Man? Missile launcher? Eh, cute, these’ll fetch a few caps at the markets, but they only scrap down to steel and screws, and I only have a couple hundred of those stored already.
It was in those outside travels that I found yet another reason to keep going: the exceptionally long draw distances. I’d finish climbing a tower full of super mutants, and after sorting out what to keep and what to toss over the side, I’d look out at a perfect sunrise, with mists rolling down the mountains and rising from the various bodies of water, and I’d just stop and stare. Sometimes, the slog up to the top of something was made just so I could see that view. I’d climb the mountain at the very edge of the map and turn around, amazed that I could see all the way into the heart of the city with perfect clarity.
The same is true in several interior locations. I wandered into The Third Rail on a mission, and I was floored by the singer doing her thing with originals songs. I actually came back a few times just to listen to her sing, and when she stopped to take a break, I asked her for another song just to keep her going. I bought fucking drinks to support the bar. That’s how immersive that one location felt.
There was another mission where I went into a mansion, and it was the only place in the city that looked like someone cared enough to clean it up and make it livable. It was such an amazing exception to the junk and debris piles that even after I’d been given my next dire emergency to handle, I wandered around ogling the interior. It was certainly better than many of the houses in the wilds where there are kitchens and living rooms, but bathrooms and bedrooms might be optional. How can a game put so much detail into one location and then half ass so many others? It’s mind boggling.
I’d do story missions where nothing glitched and VATS decided not to fuck me over and miss every single close range shot, and then I was genuinely having fun. Like laughing out loud and bragging to my hubby of my wild exploits and amazing loot discoveries. But for every time I’d start to think “Hey, this isn’t so bad,” something would drag me right back out of the experience.
There’s glitchy controls that mean my character might strafe in only one direction regardless of where I had the stick pointed, and this could only be fixed by cycling from first to third person and back again. I’d just arrive to an actual story mission to have another side mission request from my useless settlers. I’d have the game crash, or glitch in such a way that I had to restart. Several times, I had texture pop-in so bad that it wrecked pivotal moments in the game. A huge explosion that was supposed to wow me instead underwhelmed because the textures didn’t load in time and I was left staring at giant brightly colored boxes the whole time.
Then there’s the shitty AI, both for my companions and for enemies. They might get stuck on a crack and freeze. Enemies might run into a crate or wall and just keep running forever. My companions might suddenly drop their ranged weapon and run across a raging battle to punch an enemy who’s armed with a minigun. No, worse, when we’re in sneak mode, instead of staying behind me, they would move into an open doorway or around a corner to let every single enemy in the area know where to shoot. And once the enemy knows where you are, they can throw a grenade exactly where you are. Are you on a roof two hundred yards away? They can still hit you. Did you just shoot them in their throwing arm with a sniper rifle? Doesn’t matter, they’ll still hit you. Was there a wall between you and them? Doesn’t fucking matter, THEY’LL STILL HIT YOU.
What else? Ah, the radio stations. There are initially two, only one of which has a DJ, and the other is classical music. The DJ for Diamond City is hard to like. This is not to say he doesn’t sometimes have his moments, but they’re few and far between, and he’s mostly grating. He’s no Three Dog, someone I’ve had to listen to for 500 hours because hubby rarely stops listening to him while playing Fallout 3. For that matter, He’s no President Eads. The music loops for each station are VERY short, so you’ll want to turn them off soon, only to turn them back on because the background music is even more repetitive. When you finally unlock the radio station for the Minutemen, it’s all fiddles and “Go save more settlers!” updates. This might seem like a good thing because hey, at last now you can know where to go exactly when you’re needed. But the updates are randomly generated, and so you can be in a mission you were JUST sent to before another is sent out. And you’re the only person who can respond. You might recruit an army of Minutemen to reside at their big castle base, but the rest of those useless motherfuckers will sit at home unless you summon them. You are the messiah, the chosen one, and everyone else is too fucking stupid to even breathe without your say so. How these people survived at all is a miracle on par with Jesus walking on water.
I should now mention that my hubby got the game for PC, and if he were a reviewer, he would tell you, “I have no complaints about the game.” That’s a bold-faced lie. I sit in the same room where he plays, and he has a fuckton of expletive-filled complaints. The biggest of these is that when entering VATS and crafting, his entire screen fills with green static. It’s just barely possible to find the enemy and interface prompts, but I’ve lost count of how often he’s yelled about losing track of the mouse cursor. Then there’s his problem of having the bodies of enemies he just killed vanish before he can loot them. Just fight a legendary and want to take his stuff? Poof! Too bad, he’s gone. I’ve never seen this happen on the console version, but I have seen it happen on his game several times now.
We’ve both seen a number of crashes that stopped the game outright, but as we’re both obsessive about saving frequently, this was only ever able to earn half hearted growls of “fuck” from either of us. And we’ve both run into missions that glitch out and can’t be completed. We can confirm online that this is common for specific missions, but there isn’t a workaround and likely won’t be a patch to address it for a very long time.
Hubby’s also had a lot of issues with the key mapping and the lack of ability to remap them. He’s got a fancy 8 button mouse and can’t assign anything to it. He doesn’t like the keyboard assignments and can’t do anything about it. He’s ended up banging his mouse and keyboard on the table in frustration when his controls go as wonky as mine do. So yeah, he’ll tell you he’s got no complaints. But he’s very much a Bethesda fanboy and will put a very thick layer of lacquer and varnish over the turd they’d dropped and call it a polished product.
Well I won’t, and that’s because I’m a critic. I love to gush when I find a game that earns it, but first and foremost, my job is to criticize when shit goes wrong, a job that separates me from the reviewers who spend 40 hours in a game and offer out a gushing review, only to come out a month later with a laundry list of complaints that should have been in their review in the first place.
I’ve put around 200 hours into this game. I’ve been through most of the optional side quests, and I’ve recruited most of the companions. I’m not in love with the game, but I don’t hate it either. In fact, now that I’ve completed the story, I plan to play a bit longer just to nab a few trophies and see what comes after the big final boom. This has even given me thoughts about playing Skyrim and Fallout 3 over again and forcing myself past the things I hated just to see if there’s something worth playing for. (Also, I’m flat broke thanks to recent book purchases and this would give me a way to play something without spending more cash during the holidays.)
In the end, I’ve decided to give Fallout 4 a 3-star rating. It’s not so bad as to deserve a 2, but it does a LOT wrong and can’t earn a 4 from me. I hate it and like it in almost equal measure, but I apparently don’t hate it so much I’d stop playing it completely. That’s probably damning with faint praise, but if you want glowing or gushing, there are other sites for that. I’m the critic. I criticize.
And in conclusion, Bethesda…Bethesda never changes. But so long as people keep buying their glitchy, buggy games at launch, they’ll never need to change. Because why make more effort to improve when your half assed efforts will still net you a billion dollars during the holiday season?