Searching for Fulfilment in the Wasteland: Fallout 4 Review

This review was originally published on January 22nd, 2016.

When Fallout 4 first came out, dozens of memes appeared about how engrossed players got in the game. Girlfriends were neglected, jobs were called in sick to, productivity hit all-time lows. When I began playing the game over Christmas, I totally understood the feeling. There was so much to do and find. The inherent challenge of navigating around hostile raiders and irradiated animals to discover resources and gain allies was engrossing. The game allowed for enough freedom that my strategy became simply thinking about how I would handle the situation in reality. Instead of playing a game, I was living a life. I was role playing as myself, I suppose.

The unique experience amazed me. It felt truly next gen! But unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last long. The deeper I got into Fallout 4, the more things began to fall apart. The system that appeared so life-like at first, began looking extremely videogame-ey. The story went from powerful simplicity to muddled complication. It’s not that the game was unplayable, it was just run of the mill — something utterly un-transcendent. And that was disappointing, because transcendence seemed almost inevitable in the first hour.

It’s hard to talk about Fallout 4 without making a laundry list of complaints, and that’s mainly because the game is a laundry list of features. Unlike games where there’s just one mechanic, Fallout 4 combines big chunks of many different elements. RPG levels and checks, FPS action, and Sim City-esque settlement building all combine to create a cohesive whole. One minute you’ll be talking to someone, the next you’ll be fighting alongside them, then perhaps improving a settlement with them. Being able to prioritize tasks and utilize different skills creates the appearance of a system that reflects reality, but that illusion fades quickly.

Gradually, it becomes apparent that although there are dozens of gameplay elements, most elements only heavily influence activities outside the main quest. Usually, only one gameplay element significantly moves the story forward and (unsurprisingly) that element is killing people. Building settlements or probing characters for information only bookends clearing locations of enemies and pumping resilient bosses full of bullets. The game is less “each scenario has many potential solutions” and more “each scenario has only one solution, but there are many potential scenarios.”

The narrative rises and falls in much the same way. There’s a lot to the Fallout universe, but here’s the CliffsNotes version of the main story in Fallout 4: You play the sole survivor of Vault 111. Although the vault was advertised as an underground sanctuary, its true purpose was to test cryogenic freezing on unsuspecting humans. Midway through your cryo-hibernation, you wake (still trapped in your pod) and see your son kidnapped and your spouse killed at the hand of a mysterious man. After an undetermined amount of time, you finally escape your freezing pod and set out into the wasteland to find your son.

Again, what at first seems perfect crumbles with each step down the road. The story provides the simple motivation any game requires to function well. Any situation you encounter begins with “how will this help me find my son?” That primary objective propels you through the first half of the game, but once it’s complete, you’re only halfway through the game’s full arc. From that point, you’re given big narrative-branching decisions that encompass the entire wasteland, but there’s not enough motivation to make those decisions worthwhile. The story’s themes suddenly shift. Things circle back to the game’s opening cinematic, but the additional story — and the way the gameplay system handles it — only muddles the experience instead of deepening it.

All of this may make it sound like Fallout 4 is an unsatisfying experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Simply exploring the wasteland (as you do in the first few minutes of the game before the story takes off) is more rewarding than any of the quests. The commonwealth’s carnage tells beautifully subtle tales about the nuclear detonation and the years afterward. The map’s pockets of hostile encampments and animal hives offer their own logically placed challenges. The environment begs to be explored and mastered in a way that would transform the player from a feeble vault dweller into a grizzled, Mad Max-type wasteland expert.

With that in mind, the best way to enjoy Fallout 4 is to make your own objectives. Maybe you want to complete the game without killing anyone. Maybe you want to find and scrap materials to build a dope living area. Maybe you just want to take a naked run through the glowing sea. Achieving those goals are often more rewarding than finishing the main story.

Perhaps the reason the story and gameplay fall apart like they do is because the game is trying to offer two experiences at once. It’s trying to be simultaneously loose enough to let you do your own thing, yet still tight enough to have a mass-appeal “this is what you do” main story. Though I don’t count myself amongst them, I agree with a lot the hardcore RPG fans out there: it’s a pity the game warps a prebuilt narrative around the world instead of focusing on creative narrative building. But, at the same time, take those complaints you hear on the internet with a grain of salt. It would be an even bigger pity to pass on Fallout 4’s sprawling post-apocalyptic adventure completely.

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Chris On Videogames

Chris On Videogames

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Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.