In late November, a cryogenic chamber deep beneath a post-apocalyptic Boston suburb cracked open to disgorge the Dude. As in Jeffrey Lebowski. Just don’t call him Mr. Lebowski. “El Duderino” is also acceptable if you’re not into that whole brevity thing. I have a tradition of using the protagonist from The Big Lebowski as my inaugural character for any new Bethesda-style sandbox game; I use the Dude’s moral compass to guide my roleplaying decisions, and generally the Dude wanders amiably, leaving peace and freedom and the smoldering corpses of assholes in his wake.
You might think I should have used light brown rather than gray hair. That’s just, like, your opinion, man. Though I mostly agree.
The Dude brought pure water to the Capital Wasteland. The Dude crushed Caesar’s Legion at the Battle of Hoover Dam. The Dude also served as Archmage of Skyrim, and even took down Mehrunes Dagon, though the character modeling of Oblivion was not really suited to the task of capturing the Dude’s proper hirsute glory, and he ended up looking like a scruffy, red-cheeked Billy Bob Thornton. The Dude… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough. Let’s talk about the game.
I. ATOM BOMB, BABY, LOADED WITH POWER…
You can judge that I have generally enjoyed Fallout 4 from the fact that the Dude is currently level 90-something, which represents well over one hundred hours of play. It was more or less inevitable that I was going to enjoy it, even if it failed to innovate in any department, simply because I go weak at the knees for everything this style of game has to offer. I no longer really have room for MMOs in my life, but vast single-player lotus-eating experiences promising hundreds of quests, hundreds of locations, hundreds of NPCs, hundreds of secrets and items and systems to learn… well, pass me some more of that delicious lotus, please.
Give me tunnels and wrecked buildings and hidden bunkers to prowl, let me painstakingly scour every shelf and bucket for useful junk, and I am yours indefinitely. I loved the interconnected metro system of Fallout 3, and I loved the multitude of dungeons in Skyrim. One of the triumphs of Skyrim was the lovingly handcrafted feel of those dungeons, and Fallout 4 builds solidly on this tradition. The landscape is littered with story hints, puzzles, clues, thoughtful tableaus, visual jokes, and easter eggs– here you see the site of someone’s accident, here someone’s tragicomic scheme gone wrong, here someone’s heroic or pathetic last stand.
This astoundingly detail-obsessive play area joins with the game’s brilliant mock-1950s production design to create what I think is its strongest feature, a vivid and all-encompassing sense of atmosphere. The back alleys of Boston are lonely and threatening, the wilderness is eerie and mist-haunted. At one point I exposed the Dude to a great deal of radiation simply so I could have him stand on the tip of the USS Constitution’s prow, high in the air, and watch the majesty of a crackling green wasteland storm rolling in across the city. The game certainly doesn’t fail to deliver a sense of wonder.
There are other things to love, to varying degrees. Fallout 4’s selection of companions is genuinely interesting, usually well-written, well voiced. The game’s new iteration of Dogmeat is possibly the finest useless dog simulator ever programmed. Dogmeat is endearingly animated and will carry a ton of junk for you, though the way he darts across the landscape, runs away from you when you need him most, stands exactly where you are trying to build things, alerts enemies, and blithely sets off traps can be wearying.
Nearly all the old familiar enemies have been given makeovers; ghouls are sneakier and more flexible. Molerats burrow and attack like fuzzy submarines. Even the lowly bloatfly has ceased to be a pinata containing trivial amounts of XP. Enemy use of cover in firefights is gratifying– gone are the days when “charge at the player in a straight line while blazing wildly” was the only attack strategy a raider gang would adopt. Certain changes are a bit much, however. The blindingly fast juke-and-sideslip animation ghouls occasionally use to throw off the player’s aim is straight out of that fucking Remo Williams movie. How did radiation-crazed feral corpses learn that? Seeing a 12-foot-tall Deathclaw use it is even sillier.
C’mon, guys, it was goofy enough when Joel Grey did it in Asian make-up. Who the hell taught Sinanju to Deathclaws?
II. HUNTING TREASURES AND SPRINGING TRAPS IN THE RUINS
I’ll meander through some additional praise and ruminations, then commence the airing of grievances. Those uninterested in dissection of the minutiae of Fallout 4’s gameplay might consider skipping straight to section III, which features bitching and yammering of more general interest.
Gunplay is very satisfying, more akin to New Vegas than to Fallout 3. There are occasional issues with certain weapons blotting out the screen when you attempt to aim down their barrels. Weapon customization, like the junking and crafting system in general, feels like a decent but incomplete start to something that could end well (DLC, don’t let us down)– too many weapons currently have too many glaring holes in their customization options. I’d love to see a Gunrunner’s Arsenal-style DLC or patch liven this situation up, and add more weird super-science/scavenged tech options to boot.
Melee combat is less well-served; the limited attack animations provide for nothing like the visceral and fluid hack-and-slash simulation than Skyrim did, and nearly every enemy in the game is far too quick with a punch or butt-stroke that will halt your attack animation and start you over from scratch. Melee stealth characters are the least happy of all; despite the profound damage multipliers they can stack up, the game appears to have no provision for silent stealth removals. Even a master of infiltration kitted out in specialist stealth gear can alert an entire building full of enemies by sticking a knife into a sleeping guard’s throat. That seems contrary to the spirit of the perk investment required to build such a character.
I’m not entirely pleased with Fallout 4’s iteration of the perks system; apart from the fact that some of the granularity and flexibility of the old skills system feels missing, I find the new system hamstrung by curious omissions. There are no shotgun-specific perks, far too few energy weapon perks (the one specifically governing radiation damage is a poor bargain, considering how many enemies treat ionizing radiation as air freshener), and some of the more specialized perks hardly seem worth the opportunity cost. Damage resistance perks, in particular, seem to scale poorly considering how high those ratings now run in the game, and the lack of general mobility perks (run a little faster, jump a little higher, etc.) was a weakness of Skyrim I’d hoped might be corrected.
I also greatly preferred the traditional critical hit implementation of previous Fallout games, in which critical hits were baked into the combat system and would occur at random (influenced by player stats and perks). Fallout 4 turns them into a sort of meter-filling minigame, and not a very diverting one at that. I find the system totally uninteresting and could count the number of times I’ve used it on one hand.
Bugs and inconsistencies do intrude on the play experience, as seems the inevitable case with Bethesda games. For example:
• V.A.T.S. is less buggy than in, say, New Vegas, but that’s hardly a high bar for a game to fling itself over. I haven’t been put off much by the slow-time effect; what have been frustrating are the occasional lengthy pauses once I’ve selected an action (letting bad guys get in a few more shots, occasionally to mortal effect) and the lag time following an attack execution, during which I’m stuck watching the enemy recoil, die, etc. and cannot take cover or run. This is vexing when a pack of ghouls or a super mutant suicider is sprinting toward me. And there are occasional flat-out bugs, most frequently one where my character will mime the use of a Stimpak rather than make an attack with the indicated weapon. That’s always good for a laugh.
• At one point, I had a random encounter with two identical versions of an NPC, each holding a gun on the other and arguing about which was the real human and which was a synthetic replacement. I used the Dude’s conversational prowess to trick the synth into revealing itself, at which point it became hostile to me and was gunned down by its real human counterpart. All well and good, until a few days later, when the two twins respawned in a different location and were both immediately hostile to me. Three days after that, they appeared again, chasing me across the trading outpost at Bunker Hill, and they were flagged such that when I returned fire the entire area became hostile to me. This is the sort of seemingly minor goof that can rapidly spiral out of control in a game with so many variables.
• More glaringly, I discovered that the ultimate Railroad quest line becomes critically bugged if one has killed any of the named Brotherhood of Steel NPCs; at the point the player discovers that the BoS is about to break into the Railroad’s HQ and attempts to warn them, the “warning” dialogue with Desdemona never becomes available, and the only way to resolve the situation short of console commands is to re-enter the Institute, initiate hostilities to blow your cover, and pick up with the Minutemen version of the endgame. That’s sloppy as hell… when the Dude had decided the BoS were a threat to liberty rather than an asset, it seemed a natural thing to stroll over to their airport base and shoot it up a bit for fun. In so doing, I killed named NPCs that would lock me out of the Railroad endgame hours later. This isn’t akin to expecting the storyline to hang together if I strolled onto the Prydwen and took out the commanding general of the BoS; these were NPCs on the ground who could have easily become caught up in random firefights as I operated nearby. You hate to see a structural failure this big at this level of play.
• The recurring “help a settlement” quests for the Minutemen are also problematic as hell. For starters, it’s annoying to be given no chance to turn these quests down. They’re assigned automatically after speaking to Preston Garvey (sometimes even for merely approaching him!), which you have to do if you want any XP for the previous quest(s) he gave you. The “kidnapped settler” quests often have a timer attached AND they physically remove a worker from the settlement in question, so even if you’d rather be off exploring or furthering another quest line, you’ve got a limited window in which to play babysitter for these hapless idiots. Of course you can leave them hanging, but if you’ve got any investment at all in doing well for your settlements or with the Minutemen, that option is a no-go.
The logic and scripting of the recurring quests is sadly slipshod. Consider Sanctuary Hills, the home base of the Sole Survivor, the home base of Preston Garvey and the reborn Minutemen, the very first settlement in the network of safe havens protected by the Minutemen. Yet when the settlers there have issues, they repeat the same dumb script used all over the Commonwealth– “Are you from the Minutemen? We didn’t know you’d actually come! We didn’t know you’d really help us!” Seriously, pretend electronic person… you live in Minutemen Central! Next door to the commanding general of the Minutemen! He handcrafted the bed you sleep on! And you somehow didn’t think the Minutemen were real? There’s no Bed Fairy, motherfucker… the Dude went into radioactive ruins and battled raider gangs to make you that nice comfy mattress!
• Speaking of making mattresses, the new settlement building system is ambitious, diverting, and severely undercooked. Following on my complaints with the Minutemen quests, it’s worth noting that the building system doesn’t seem to interact with them at all. You can ring a settlement with twenty heavy machine-gun turrets, enough firepower to turn a platoon of super mutants into aerosolized quiche, and its inhabitants will still be kidnapped or have their food stolen by low-level raider gangs. What the hell’s the point of protecting your farmers behind expensive walls of automated death if the wasteland equivalent of playground bullies can still shake them down for their lunch money?
In fact, the building system interacts very poorly with the “attack on a settlement” events in general. I deliberately tested this using an attack on the Abernathy Farm– after fast-traveling there, I stood back and watched as one of my aforementioned walls of automated death mulched the offending raiders in about three seconds without my assistance. I then reloaded the game and ignored the attack until it was too late, which resulted in several dead settlers and a field of burned crops. This sort of inconsistency is frustrating, to say the least.
Frustration is a constant theme of the building system. The structural pieces tend to fit awkwardly into the existing landscapes, which cannot be leveled to allow flat and even floor placements. Some existing features or buildings can be removed completely to make way for your vision; the same features at other settlements cannot be touched. Arranging and fitting settlement pieces is a cumbersome process and only a few elements snap together seamlessly. Most damningly, the system bugs out at frequent intervals, randomly causing water supplies, beds, or settler populations to vanish entirely. These things are restored when you take the time to personally visit the settlement in question, but this becomes another intrusive little chore eating into your time with the game.
What’s the appeal of arranging the fine details of electronic dollhouses if the game won’t even properly take care of them when you’re away?
III. PLEASE JUST LET ME MAKE MY DAMN SANDWICH IN PEACE
In this last section, I’ll try to explain where I feel that the roleplaying and user interaction elements of Fallout 4 have gone a bit off the rails, in one relatively trivial fashion and two more serious aspects.
When the player initiates a conversation with most NPCs, they first respond with a canned flavor line. This is universally true of vendor NPCs; after hearing the pointless chat line, the player must initiate conversation again (within a narrow timeframe) in order to call up the functions menu. To give you a visual example, here’s that menu for Trashcan Carla, a vendor who wanders the northwest portion of the map:
“Do I look like a woman with a burning urge to buy 30 Bloodbug probosces?”
Certainly, one can press a key to speed through the superfluous dialogue options, but this is occasionally risky (especially with previously unmet NPCs, as you could accidentally agree to a dialogue option without reading it first) and at any rate secondary to the point– why is this speed bump there at all?
My contention is that I, the player, know perfectly well what a vendor NPC does. I’m activating them to buy or sell items. Yet the design of Fallout 4 places a pointless hiatus (“Back again?” says Carla, “Time to trade?”) between me and that vending. Even after that, it offers conversational options completely orthagonal to the reason the vendor NPC exists. Look at the four possibilities on Carla’s menu above:
BARTER: Yes! I want to buy and sell things!
NO: I changed my mind. Please go away.
DIAMOND CITY: Ask Carla about a specific plot point she can speak of.
UNSURE: Tell Carla… that you don’t know why you clicked on her.
Wait, what? What is that fourth option doing there? Why is it taking up conversational space? Why did a voice actor record lines for it? This is weird enough to qualify as a piece of avant-garde theater; Vendor NPC as written by Samuel Beckett. Click the vendor NPC to tell them you’re not sure if you want to use them as a vendor NPC!
A more serious issue is the substantial reduction in information the player is given in Fallout 4 concerning precisely what their character is about to say. Previous games would give you a list of complete dialogue options before you selected one; if you hovered over “Stick a radioactive corn cob up your ass, you two-timin’ sonofabitch” and clicked it, then that’s exactly what your character said to the NPC in question. Fallout 4 not only maps dialogue options to the diamond shape of a console button pad (so there are never more than four available), it abbreviates them, and what you see on screen may have surprisingly little to do with what comes out of your character’s mouth.
Here’s a fine example from very early in the game:
Leave vault. World strange. Talk small. Context gone. Why for? Where go?
What the hell does “no food” mean? I have no food? I want no food? I need no food? There’s no food around here? And how about “get food?” Does it mean that I want to get food, that I should get food, that the player and the NPC should go get food together, or that the NPC should go get some food and bring it to the player? Even with context from the rest of the conversation, puzzling this stuff out can be a chore.
Here’s another well-known example, from a conversation involving Diamond City journalist Piper, in which the player may elect to “support news” or “hate newspapers:”
Freedom of the press is cool and all but if your paper doesn’t carry Bloom County you’re just fucking dead to me, Piper.
Now, what actually comes out of the voice actor’s mouth if you choose “hate newspapers” is “Newspapers just like to stir up trouble.” That doesn’t strike me as a particularly hateful line. More like a suspicious one, moderately antagonistic at best. As I see it, if I as a player am in conversation with an NPC who has described herself as a reporter, admitted to owning a paper, acted like a muckraking journalist in front of me, and wears a fucking newsboy cap with a little paper chit sticking out of it that says ‘PRESS,’ if I select the conversational option “hate newspapers” it’s because I want to be an unmitigated cast-iron jackass to her, not give her a minor nudge. If I could have seen the complete dialogue options in advance I’d know what I was letting myself in for– the abbreviations force me to guess, and the criteria by which I should guess are arbitrary.
These textual abbreviations might be perfectly acceptable if the game would consistently offer a matrix of intentions– “be placating,” “be friendly,” “be threatening,” and so forth. But it does this only intermittently. If you’re endeavoring to roleplay in a certain manner, or improve your standing with a specific NPC, getting a surprise setback from one’s dialogue choices is not amusing. I know there are already mods in existence to provide the full onscreen text of dialogue choices, but this isn’t a mere aesthetic tweak or preference. This is a fundamental gameplay system which should be more or less down to a science by now.
Last, and perhaps most questionably of all, Fallout 4 also features “idle” dialogue for NPCs when you leave them hanging in the middle of a conversation, and here’s where I assert that someone has really failed to grasp the paradigm of player/screen interaction. As I see it, when I leave an NPC in the midst of a conversation for five minutes, it doesn’t actually imply that five minutes has passed in the reality of the game with my character standing there, mouth agape, saying nothing. What it means is that I, in the REAL world, am making a sandwich or using the bathroom, or something similar, and in the game environment zero time has elapsed. To have an NPC repeating a snotty or threatening line like “I wish you’d pay attention, this is important,” over and over while I’m doing my goddamn chores doesn’t add flavor or aid immersion. Indeed, it damages immersion by intruding on the player space at a time when the player is clearly not willing or able to respond to the game.
Think about this– it’s a single-player game that actually yells at you when you walk away from it at certain times. If I wanted that sort of fucking pressure, I’d just go back to MMOs! The whole point of a single-player game is that it should work for ME and not intrude on my ACTUAL SPACE. A game that keeps poking me to remind me it exists is not something I ever wanted or needed. I’m sure this seemed like a perfectly innocuous flavor feature when it went into the game, but innocuous is the last thing I’d call it.
Serious qualms and criticisms aside, Fallout 4 is a vast and infinitely tangled yarn-ball of radioactive adventure and furious kersplodery that delivers precisely the sandbox I was hoping for. I’ve still got my fingers crossed for smarter, sharper execution as Bethesda moves on (Elder Scrolls VI, come to daddy and consume his life), but I can forgive a great deal of stumbling in exchange for mostly not screwing up the core elements of something I find frankly hypnotic. It could have been shockingly great, but “pretty damn good” is nothing to be too sad about.
The Dude abides. I sure hope he makes it to the championships. Guess we’ll have to see what happens in the DLC.