One of the problems with reading really well-crafted reviews of games before you play them is that sometimes the reviewer’s sensibilities can color your perception of the game before you even play it. I don’t quite think that’s what happened to me when I first saw George Weidman’s Super Bunnyhop’s review of Fallout 4, and then started playing the game a few days later, but my current view of the game is pretty similar to his. Or rather I should say that I mostly agree with about 9/10ths of his review and am in 100% agreement with one part in particular. I couldn’t help but repeatedly reflect on that one part throughout my 50+ hour playthrough of F4 and now it’s completely stuck in my mind as the best possible description of the game as a whole.
Weidman points out that regardless of how enjoyable F4’s core mechanics are, the basic Bethesda game framework has outstayed its welcome. Between Oblivion, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim, and numerous expansion packs for those games, I’ve put thousands of hours into the Bethesda toy boxes, and at this point I am hitting what Weidman aptly describes as “diminishing returns.” Even though Fallout 3 came out almost eight years ago and Skyrim came out three years ago, F4 barely changes anything in the Bethesda format. After my first ten or so hours into Commonwealth, I didn’t even feel like I had started a new game, I honestly felt like I was just going back to a hyper modded version of F3. While I did start to notice some of the more nuanced additions to F4 later on, the fact remains that F4 is no revolution in the Bethesda model or for open world games in general. Actually, I would even go as far as to say that it doesn’t even qualify as an evolution.
As Weidman also points out, 2015 is a year where we finally saw some legitimate advances in open world game designs. Up until this point, the gaming industry has had difficulty managing to innovate away from the once novel but now overdone Bethesda and Ubisoft models. Even the de facto originator of 3D open world level design, Rockstar, couldn’t manage to inject any interesting content into their beautifully designed environment in Grand Theft Auto V. But in 2015, the gaming industry produced Dragon Age: Inquisition, Witcher 3, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, all of which created some interesting twists on the open world formula with successful results.
And then at the tail-end of the year, arguably the greatest AAA open world juggernaut releases its long anticipated sequel to one of the most celebrated open world games of all time… and they’ve brought almost nothing new to the table. The core gameplay is still based around exploring a large, low textured map with points of interests that mostly consist of dungeons and occasional settlements. Much of the player’s time will still consist of inventory management as he optimizes his weapons and armor. There is still a large main quest, a bunch of faction quest lines, and an assortment of hit-or-miss side quests to snack on. And of course, there is a stunning lack of polish for a modern game, not just in the form of Bethesda’s infamous glitches, but also in the general way that F4’s NPCs, quests, economy, and physics system operates.
Again, I want to reiterate that most of this content is still fun, it’s just outdated, especially now that so many other games do these gameplay elements so much better. While F4’s map size is competitively sized (F4’s map [43 mi2] seems to be a quarter larger than GTAV [31 mi2], a little bit larger than Skyrim [39 mi2], one fifth smaller than Witcher 3 [52 mi2]), its detail, graphical fidelity, and arguably art style are lacking compared to other recent open world games. The dungeon raiding, loot collecting, and gear optimizing is nearly unchanged from F3, so it’s just as shallow as ever, which coincides perfectly with the game’s even more simplified RPG mechanics which almost entirely cut out legitimate character customization. The vast majority of quests are still variations on “go there and kill a bunch of people,” and even if the main quest is an improvement over the usual Bethesda fare, it still pales in comparison compared to the narrative complexity of Witcher 3 or the scale of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
So what new things does F4 bring to the table?
Well, the combat is better. It’s still not very good, but with snappier guns and better AI, it’s functional, which is somehow a significant improvement over Fallout 3. There’s also a massive crafting and customization system with weapons and armor, thought honestly I went the entire game without touching it because the random upgraded guns I found questing were perfectly fine. I do like the new power armor system, where it acts like a car that runs on a battery resource, instead of just being really tough armor. The game’s presentation is overall more polished with a dialogue wheel, voiced protagonist, and better voice acting across the board. The graphics received a bit of an upgrade too. And of course there’s the settlement system where you can establish safe havens throughout the Commonwealth and even perform simple maintenance tasks like providing food, water, and defense against the harsh Fallout world.
All of the new additions are fine. They basically work. They improve the game. But cumulatively they constitute a laughably insufficient step forward for such an expensive, high profile game which spent god knows how long in development.
It’s amazing to me just how… unambitious Bethesda was with F4. Where did all of their time, money, and effort go? The world looks very similar aside from a handful of locations, so it wasn’t art design. On a graphical level F4 is as rough around the edges as F3, so they didn’t break the bank on the technicals. The scope of storytelling is probably on par with F3 and its quality is only marginally improved, so they probably didn’t hire a legion of elite writers. Everything is competent but lackluster. Proficient by last generation but insufficient by current standards. The game is comfortable, if not cozy, for Fallout and Elder Scrolls fans, but only because it brings so little innovation to the table.
I just don’t understand Bethesda’s goal with F4. What was there vision for the game? It’s hard for me to avoid a cynical interpretation of their final product and infer laziness on the developer’s part. Whatever Bethesda’s faults may be, I still generally regard them as a good developer with big ideas. But with F4 it looks like they chose the easiest design path at every available opportunity because they knew this game would be a mega hit regardless of the game’s final quality. By this point, the world of Fallout is iconic in the video game landscape. As far as video game symbolism goes, a Brotherhood of Steel soldier standing in a ruined city is probably at the level just below Mario and Sonic in the grand video game historical legacy. Bethesda obviously knew this, so either to keep development costs low, or to avoid risking critical backlash from failed experimental ideas, or both, they may have purposefully designed F4 with the most conservative outlook possible.
Or not. Of course this is just speculation and I really hope I’m wrong. I suppose Bethesda just could have legitimately failed to execute whatever grander plans it was attempting with F4. I mean, Bethesda games are absurdly massive, and I’m sure with every release they end up throwing out a lot of ideas to keep the whole game together.