By Scott Southard. This is LOAD FILE, where all of our survivalist fantasies finally pay off. This week, Scott digs into his stockpile of canned goods and purified water in order to survive ‘Fallout 4’, developed and published by Bethesda for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4.
In 2015, it’s tough to use the word “epic” in any serious sense. After the wanton destruction of the term by fail videos and meme generators, the word has become an easily dismissed hyperbole. But Bethesda’s last decade of games have embodied the term more than anything else on the video game shelf with their mouth-gaping quantities of depth and interactive surroundings. That pattern continues in the newest iteration of the post-apocalyptic-wastlandtopia: Fallout 4 allows for a monstrous amount of exploration along with an unparallelled amount of player agency (re: the freedom to fiddle around in perpetuity). But the monkey’s paw that is this spacial sense of openness (both in sheer size and active capability) doubles as a blessing and a curse. The world of Fallout 4 is big and it is scary.
WELCOME TO THE WASTELAND
The enormous amount of space and interactivity allows Fallout 4 to play with narrative in the manner of an ensemble novel. Rather than being forced to tell a direct and singularly focused story, the game’s scope of characters — with individualized dialogue and backstories — gives players insight into dozens of outlooks on the rebuilding of a post-nuclear fallout America. While the main quest purports itself to be the protagonist’s search for a lost son, the real meat of the narrative lies in fleshing out post-nuke New England. It’s a mashup of Blade Runner‘s synthetic humans, the mutant-zombie epi-human conundrum, and the ideologies that built America, before and after global nuclear war. The way they all weave into each other creates a wave of meaningful narrative that washes over the player rather than a walk-through series of story beats or a straightforward, heavy-handed fable.
The unique aspects of Fallout 4’s storytelling mechanics are heavily dependant on the functionality of the gameplay. Like its predecessors, this game promotes the idea of choosing a cardinal direction and walking that way for a few hours, but while the complete lack of linearity encourages exploration, it also shimmies the player into successions of spiraling sidequest tunnels. The allure to stray from the main story is impossible to ignore, and can lead to some of the more fascinating and revealing features of the story.
An example: while roaming the wasteland, looking for new loot and grinding for experience, I was notified that a radio frequency had appeared. Without giving too much away, listening to the radio alerted me to a distress call halfway across the map, which I promptly headed toward in lieu of any main quest initiative. On the way there, I ran into a farm being terrorized by raiders, saved their day and set up a workshop/base/farm — more on that later — before continuing on my secondary journey. It’s wildcard surprises like these presenting themselves in undeniable ways that keep every moment of progression exciting and intriguing.
TRASH INTO TREASURE
While the majority of the gameplay remains similar to previous titles, a few facets have been altered. Workshops appear throughout the greater Boston area, and once you’ve become friendly with the locals, they allow you to build bases with crafting tables and merchants. With enough effort, a small settlement can become a perfectly viable town with its own population and simple economic structures. Playing into that, the crafting system has been improved upon by categorizing the elements needed to build things and imbuing every single item in the game with at least one of those elements. Basically, “Junk” has worth now. Rather than picking everything up and purge-selling it for bottlecaps once you’ve become over encumbered, items in the “Junk” category can be broken down into building materials for weapons, armor, and workshop pieces. Depending on what kind of player you are, the items you hunt for will differ greatly.
While it’s easy to praise Fallout 4 for its breadth, the enormity of the world comes with some damning caveats. With so many working parts, it’s only inevitable that the seams become visible. Visually, the game is the same as previous iterations. It looks just fine, but as the end of year lists start to come in, no one is giving Fallout a graphics award. Aside from the humdrum visuals, there are loads of pop-in bugs and twitchy polygonal glitches. Tack that on top of an absolutely broken inventory management system (I know we all love the Pip Boy, because it’s cute and quaint, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck). And this is all without mentioning the constant factor of huge framerate drops and inexplicable hitching looms. The graphical issues seem to be a bit better on PC than the consoles, but it doesn’t solve everything. Fallout’s epic sense of open-ended possibility comes at a cost, and I can’t definitively say that the good outweighs the bad.
JUST ONE MORE… JUST ONE MORE…
If you’re a regular reader of this site, you don’t need me to tell you whether or not you’ll want to enter this colonial wasteland. The most distilled way to review this game is to say that If you liked Fallout 3, New Vegas, or Skyrim, you’ll like Fallout 4. If you’re not among the initiated, this isn’t the Bethesda game that’ll change your mind. If you’re not already a lifer, there is an undeniable pull to this game. Even when you know the extent of the entire realm of possibilities, Fallout 4 maintains a sense of fun in the thrill of the hunt. The mechanics of exploration make it one of the few games that is comparable to the unfettered magnetism of Civilization’s “one more turn” phenomenon. Fallout 4 embodies epic. In a (literally) classical Odyssean sense, it is an epic. As a sandbox of cityscape and vast natural geometry, it is epic. Whether we’re merely crafting a base, exploring the irradiated landscape, or blasting super mutants, Fallout 4 is the siren song that keeps us all stuck to the screen, blithely scouring a scorched wasteland.