Fallout 4 was a deeply
polarising game in the Fallout franchise
and a situation where I admittedly fall into the disappointed camp. That’s not
to say the game was out and out terrible, far from it, as it actually improved
regarding many elements of its transition to First Person back in ’08. Among
these elements were an expanded companion system (which appeared to largely
take inspiration from the excellent Willow
– A Better Companion Experience mod by llamaRCA for New Vegas) that allows basic character and partnership development
as well as more detailed questlines related to development, a somewhat flawed
settlement system (again, seemingly largely inspired by the Real Time Settler mod for Fallout 3 and New Vegas) that attempts to give players an actual role in how the
ecosystem works, far improved combat that felt fluid, a new “pick and mix” perk
system, and a new weather system. Despite this however the game felt
substantially lacking in its RPG core elements, with factions largely reduced
to a single choice made early on compared to the complexity of the earlier
games and New Vegas, player choice
largely removed from the story, and non-violent playstyles practically gone.
Altogether it felt like the game had been designed by committee, an attempt to
be as widely appealing as possible with just enough to pull in anyone.
Want relationships with other characters a la Bioware? done.
Want fluid first person shooting similar to that of CoD or Battlefield? You got it.
Want the ability to farm and make stuff like Minecraft or SimCity? Well you can do that too.
If there was any part of the game that functioned as a microcosm of this new philosophy in action it was an early to mid-game sidequest, Human Error.
The quest itself is fairly memorable, you stumble across a small walled town, the titular Covenant, in the middle of the way between the starting area and Boston itself and as soon as you try to enter you have to answer a quiz (composed of questions from the Vault 101 G.O.A.T test in Fallout 3). Pass this test and you’re greeted by a town that seems off somewhat, with everyone far too nice for the post-apocalypse and clearly hiding something regarding a missing trade caravan another newcomer is looking for. Pretty soon you find out the town is bait to capture test subjects for a group of anti-Synth (think terminator or replicants) “scientists” trying to perfect a way to root them out and deny the shadowy Institute their means of infiltration.
The game tries to present this as a major moral quandary, do you save the innocent daughter taken hostage even if she’s most likely a Synth replacement and kill the group and the town (whose inhabitants are survivors of Institute raids) or do you kill the nosy stranger and doom the girl and many others who stumble across Covenant to torture in the name of “solving the Synth problem”. The problem of course is that there is no real “moral quandary” as the player has no agency outside of which NPC(s) they kill.
Up to that final choice the game provides multiple charisma choices that suggest a peaceful reconciliation is possible but in the end these are simply little more than potential XP gains for those who’ve put points into those perks, a problem seen in other quests where violent confrontations are scripted. The game also initially tries to present a sacrifice in terms of reward for siding with the potential Synth and not the torturous collective by suggesting you have to side with them to unlock Covenant as a settlement except that’s not the case either, easily having it as a settlement once you wipe out the now hostile current residents after finishing the quest. Any “choice” you think you make isn’t actually a choice because nothing matters and that’s the biggest problem of Fallout 4 in a nutshell, it’s so oversimplified by its quest to please everyone that nothing in the game really matters anymore.
Two years on from release this is really the only takeaway I have having played it at release and now modded on PC. The ending is largely locked-in early on and only really has two choices in the end side with the Institute or side against it (with siding against it only being varied in having to eliminate all other factions too unless you’re really careful and play your cards right as the Minutemen), your companion choices don’t have any long-term effects and choosing to have a relationship with any doesn’t block you from having them with all of them, and weapon choices feel largely redundant as well (which probably explains why there’re so few of them this time round). Everything’s skin-deep in terms of complexity and even the best bits are weighed down by this. You rush through companions seeing them as little more than content, hoping you don’t miss anything, you don’t really think about how you effect factions given they have independent questlines that never converge until the ending when you find you’re forced to likely kill at least 2 of them, exploring unmarked locations no longer rewards you with interesting small stories or interesting items but a generic trunk full of randomised ammo and loot, and you don’t spend hours crafting character playstyles as you can easily switch from one build to another at a moment’s notice.
It’s a damn shame because at the end of the day it’s still not a bad game, with truly standout moments such as Kellog’s memory exploration, the arrival of the Brotherhood of Steel, exploring the Institute for the first time, or surviving in the harshness of the Glowing Sea. It’s just a shame they’re tiny moments in a largely, and arguably fatally, flawed game that is thankfully incredibly easy to mod.
If I somehow had sway at Bethesda and was able to advise them on one thing it’d be to add complexity even if it risked lowering the playerbase as it’d likely retain players for longer than currently.
That or just let Obsidian make the thing given how great New Vegas was.