What I Played in 2015: Fallout 4

According to Steam I have played 150 hours of Fallout 4. I feel as though this is a lie. I must have left it on for a few days or something. I will admit to 100 hours, sure, but I don’t know where those extra 50 came from.

Regardless of the algorithmic lies of Steam, 100 hours makes Fallout 4 my most played game in 2015. And yet, I can’t think of much to say about it. It’s a Bethesda game. It’s the essentially the same game you’ve been playing for 9 years.

I thought that one of my favorite franchises, set in my home state, coupled with the inherent fun of exploration present in all Bethesda games would make this an instant win for me, but my mind is mostly blank on this one. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t torturing myself for 100 hours while slogging around the Commonwealth, only to see how deep I could dig my pit of self-misery. It’s just that I’ve played this game; we’ve all played this game 4 times now.

From Oblivion to now, Bethesda has been satisfied with a certain template and a certain gear they like to work in. This is a principle I generally like in creativity, the idea of a single creative entity getting better and better at a very specific and esoteric type of artwork. I like the idea of a painter doing the same painting a thousand times with minor variations to achieve perfection. It’s a romantic idea I think. But when you’re a massive AAA studio making games that are meant to be played for hundreds of hours, that romanticism starts to look more and more like creative bankruptcy as the years roll on. While I do applaud the singular vision and almost monastic way in which Bethesda develops its games, I think it’s time for them to shake up the formula a bit. Much like their protagonists, it’s time for them to step out of the vault and look around at what’s happening in the real world. And maybe it’s time for them to look into building a new engine too.

I personally have very little problem with the glitches and “jank” that comes with any Bethesda title. I think it’s a slightly unfortunate side effect of having an endlessly interactive and granular world. Bethesda likes to build their worlds almost like simulations, instead of reactive play spaces, and I’m fine with that. In fact I like it. It makes the worlds feel lose and settled, like you’re stumbling on an actually lived-in world. This is their greatest strength; making engaging exploration seem plausible and rewarding. If I have to have a little jank on the side of my exploration, I can deal with it.

What I can’t deal with is poor performance optimization. I didn’t mention it in the Witcher 3 or Metal Gear Solid 5 write-ups, but those games ran amazingly well on my PC. I was delightfully surprised by this because they came from two backgrounds that would normally raise suspicion. Metal Gear comes from a publisher that has always been very console centric, and has little experience porting massive AAA games to PC. And Witcher, although made by a heavily PC centric developer, was the first huge open world game CD Projeckt RED had made. And it was made on a brand new engine nonetheless. So here comes Fallout 4 from a storied PC developer, made on an engine that has been tested and modified through the release of Skyrim, being worked on by the same 100 or so people that have been working in this template for years now, and it runs like shit.

Embarrassing frame rate drops abound in Fallout 4, usually in places that you’d least expect. Slow loading textures, and surprisingly low-rez textures are all over the place. There is also a noticeable lack of FOV settings, and for some reason there are odd mouse acceleration rules that are not mutually exclusive to the horizontal and vertical axis’s. To be clear, I don’t have a bleeding-edge top-of-line PC, but I was able to run Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 on high settings, and I got an almost constant 60FPS out of both of them. Fallout 4? Not so much.

While the game’s technical limitations are glaring at points, there is still fantastic art direction. From the dense and frightening rubble of downtown Boston, to the quiet rural wastes, the art and design is on point. One of the benefits of Bethesda making their games in a vacuum is their insane attention to detail. Everything seems handmade and hand placed. I can’t think of a single area in the game that lacks the attentive touch of a developer. While exploring any given house or building, I could imagine a level designer hunched over his computer, placing the scattered objects meticulously and with purpose. This is perhaps the game’s greatest strength.

Bethesda are masters of environmental storytelling. I can’t think of another developer that makes me care or wonder so much about the placement of inanimate skeletons and teddy bears. I can’t think of a game that makes me so engaged in petty office politics that took place 200 years ago on an email client, before the world was wiped out. As much as I dislike Bethesda’s writing for overarching plots and consequences, they are fantastic at whipping up engrossing bits of lore and history. This all plays back into the engagement of exploration in their worlds. I didn’t really care about 50% of the main quests I was on. The story and writing for them was usually pretty bland and predictable. But when I venture into a random cottage by the ocean and find a small and quiet story about a guy that hates his wife and kids and wants to get away and write his novel, only to be killed in the initial nuclear blast as soon as he starts writing, I am glued. The fact that there are so many of these micro-stories scattered everywhere in this giant world is an amazing achievement. I wish that Bethesda would break form and make a Gone Home style game. Something small and quiet that focuses entirely on environmental storytelling. I feel that is where they are strongest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the things that Fallout 4 improved on within its monastic development bubble. The companion system is greatly improved over past titles. Almost all of them are fleshed out to a point where I actually gave a shit about them, something I never cared about in other Bethesda titles. Almost all of them have interesting backstories and elaborate quests tied to how much they like you. If you perform actions that they like, they start to trust you more and will eventually open up about their pasts. This is well trodden RPG territory at this point — i.e. Bioware games — but it’s still a very nice addition that has been sorely missing in Bethesda titles. It also works as a replacement to the karma system which has been removed. No longer are your actions judged by some unseen moral authority, and then counted up in an arbitrary and binary meter. Instead the people (or robots) you’re traveling with will have an ongoing opinion of you depending on your actions. Each companion has a different flavor of morality to suit how you want to play the game. Some like stealing and lock picking, while others are impressed by your skills at the workbench.

I liked this new system quite a lot. It’s a simple abstraction of the karma system that was already in place, but one that humanized the arbitrary moral rulings of the game. Before, I would feel annoyed that I was being judged for stealing, even though the world setting was dire and post-apocalyptic. I always felt that black and white morality was disjointed from the Fallout universe, where truly horrible shit happens all the time. But in Fallout 4, I actually found myself playing differently depending on how my companion viewed my actions. I really liked one companion in the game (Valentine), and when he would disapprove of an action I took I would feel ashamed. I was considering his reactions before I made decisions. I was guiding my moral choices as though I had an actual friend adventuring with me. It made me care about the weight of my actions much more.

The other big improvement is the combat and gunplay. The guns actually feel like FPS guns. They kick and respond with satisfying reaction. The sound design for the guns is great. Aiming is fun, shooting things is fun, it’s all fun. This is all backed up by one of the most robust crafting systems I’ve ever seen in an open world game.

Although I’m not the biggest fan of the Minecraft-esque town building mechanic, I can admit that adding value to every piece of junk in the world is a stroke of genius. It fits perfectly with the post-apocalyptic setting and gives a literal weight and value to the ruined world around you. If this was the only time during Bethesda’s hermit-like development that they popped up and looked at the modern gaming landscape, I’m happy that they looked at survival-crafting games before they burrowed back into their den.

And I think that’s it. I think that’s all my thoughts of Fallout 4, even though I feel I should have more after (an alleged) 150 hours of playtime. It’s a big and mostly beautiful game that has some very ugly spots, just like all Bethesda games. It has some pretty shoddy writing in regards to the main story but shines through with some truly engaging character development and environmental storytelling, just like all Bethesda games. And while it stumbles over technical problems that seem easily fixable, it improves on some gameplay elements. Just like all Bethesda games.

Please Bethesda, take a step outside the vault.