The Fallout series, and Bethesda Game Studios in particular are renowned for their incredible, systemic open worlds. Bethesda games have always had an overwhelmingly large amount of content for players to chew through, but they've also had deep and interacting systems (both gameplay and narrative) to accompany this content and bring it to life. Bethesda Games come alive when their content and their systems work together to create something more than either of them separately, and unfortunately, Fallout 4 doesn't quite live up to the pedigree set by previous Bethesda, or even Fallout games. For Fallout 4, the problem is equally with systems and content, but I think more blame is on the systems and their inability to interact meaningfully with the content as well as each other. This means that players lose out on meaningful interactions with both, and I think it's why a lot of people felt disappointed by Fallout 4, even if they couldn't pinpoint why. I'm going to walk through some of my own notes I took while playing and see if I can find some answers, starting with the combat system.
In Fallout 3, weapons were cumbersome and inaccurate when firing from the hip or aiming down the sights. Whether the cumbersome nature of the weapons in Fallout 3 and New Vegas is intentional or not, Fallout 4's FPS mechanics are significantly more "friendly". Well, at least smoother and less cumbersome. Nine out of ten times, playing Fallout like a normal FPS is ideal, mainly because unlike in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, weapons do not have deteriorating conditions and can be used infinitely, assuming you have the ammo. Contrary to a lot of people's thoughts, I actually think weapon condition was a positive element in previous Fallout games, since it forced you to make interesting choices about how you not only spend caps when not in combat, but also about how you engage in combat itself. While some might dislike the constant need to keep weapons maintained, this mechanic is justified wholly in the context of the Fallout universe, where weapons are old, or even cobbled together with scrap. The cumbersome nature of the weapons makes sense when you think about the type of world Fallout takes place in. Fallout 4 ditches this in favor of more enjoyable, fast paced moment-to-moment FPS gameplay, but there's a pretty significant cost to the core gameplay.
There's a few ways in which this manifests so I'll cover them one by one. The above flow chart is my interpretation of Fallout 3 and Fallout 4's combat loop specifically as it relates to weapons; I'm not even including grenades/mines or V.A.T.S. in this, although we'll get to V.A.T.S. later. In combat, players will constantly need to cycle through the questions "do I have ammo for this weapon?", "is this weapon in a usable condition/do I want to use it and have it deteriorate?", and "Is this weapon an effective tactical choice in my current situation?" In may cases, this third question will be irrelevant, especially if players only have ammo for the equipped weapon. As you can see, this creates a series of meaningful choices for players in the heat of battle. Countless times in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I had to think about what weapon I should be using, knowing that a Deathclaw might be around the corner. Compare this to Fallout 4, where my choices were usually just "do I have ammo for this?" and occasionally "is this weapon my most effective option?". It makes combat feel dull, and worst of all, the lack of weapon conditions almost completely divorces the choices players make when shopping at a store from those they make in combat. Fallout 4 still requires players to make choices about what weapons to purchase, and which ammo and items to spend my caps on to use in combat, but these choices are only part of the equation in previous Fallout games, and they're among the simplest you're presented with throughout. Fallout 4 also misses an important opportunity to encourage players to make these choices in a different way through the weapon and armor crafting system. Not only is this system just as impenetrable as others in the game (looking at you, settlement building), but it rarely becomes a necessity. In fact throughout my entire playthrough, I only ever used the upgrade system once, and it was only to remove a scope I didn't like from a shotgun I had found. The lack of interesting and important choices both in and out of combat and the missed opportunity to really make upgrading a core element of the game. These aren't the only issues with combat, however. Like I mentioned before, V.A.T.S. also has a lot of problems.
V.A.T.S. was a near constant requirement for combat effectiveness in Fallout 3. This was primarily because of the aforementioned cumbersome nature of combat. Most shooters typically use either hitscan or projectile simulation for their shooting, but the key to both is predictability and consistency. In Call of Duty, I know that pulling the trigger while it's over the enemy will result in a hit, and in Battlefield, I know that I was to aim slightly in front of my target to compensate for both their movement, and the time it will take my bullet to reach them and in some cases, the bullet drop. The key to both of these is that their mechanics are consistent, and therefore predictable, or at least understandable. Fallout by comparison is done through a series of calculations involving, among other things, Perks and Skills. You can read up on the way Fallout calculates weapon spread yourself, but the point is: Fallout is not a traditional first person shooter. It has much less to do with skill and much more to do with mitigating factors that contribute to your inaccuracy, from making choices while leveling that either improve your ability to hit targets when not in V.A.T.S., or increasing your action points to allow you to use V.A.T.S. more frequently. In Fallout 3, this meant V.A.T.S. was a necessity. You weren't going to take down a Mirelurk unless you used it, particularly with the right weapon. It made sense in the world of fallout as well - why wouldn't people use V.A.T.S. to help them be more effective with their cobbled together guns? In Fallout 4, V.A.T.S. becomes minimized in its importance since combat in Fallout 4 walks and talks like a traditional FPS game. It feels increasingly archaic as you progress through the game, as you get weapons with better accuracy and power. It's not enough to simply have the choice of using V.A.T.S. or not, because it really isn't a choice most of the time. Why would I waste Action Points on V.A.T.S. when I use them for sprinting, and I can just as easily shoot like in a traditional FPS? It's a no-brainer. This shift towards a system where V.A.T.S. is less of an important aspect of combat and more of a cool slow-mo kill theater does a disservice to the inherent choices players got to make at all levels of combat, from leveling Skills and Perks to help in battle, to deciding when and where to use the very useful V.A.T.S. system. Part of making V.A.T.S. useful was the Skills and Perks associated with it, and Fallout 4 also falls short here as well, creating more problems than it solves.
In Fallout 3, Perks, Skills, and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. were all separate elements of the leveling system. Players chose their base S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, which then informed their Skills. Skills and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. then allowed you to choose certain Perks, making the leveling system something of a web. Fallout 4 essentially combines all three of these systems into one system, where Skills are gone in a literal sense, instead being somewhat integrated into several perks as passive traits, and while S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes still dictate what Perks you can choose and can be increased, they are in the same chart as Perks, forcing players to choose between increasing a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute, and acquiring a Perk. Fallout 4 has 70 base Perks, and including all the levels available of these Perks, 275 options, compared to the 86 options available in Fallout 3. On paper this sounds great - it's a super understandable bullet point for the back of the box. 275 choices! So much choice! A real RPG! The problem with those 275 options though, is that their combination with the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes, as well as the integration of Perks and Skills makes the discrete choices per level a lot less numerous.
Okay, so technically, Fallout 4 has Fallout 3 beat on the size of its all you can eat shrimp platter if we talk about the overall number of options available in each game, but if we break down the choices players have per level, it becomes pretty clear this isn't necessarily a good thing. In Fallout 4, the number of choices available to players per level is 1, whereas in Fallout 3, the number is a minimum of 15. This is because players increase their Skills and Perks independently, and Skill points are given at a rate of 10 per level, plus a number equal to the player's intelligence (which has a base value of 5). This means that over the course of the game, I will make a minimum of 300 choices about my character (not including specializations), and that's just in 20 levels. Compare this to the 20 choices I will make in the same amount of time in Fallout 4, and the pitfalls of having an "infinite" leveling system become pretty clear: if your system can't be balanced against a finite number of levels, it's very difficult to ensure that players receive consistent and meaningful choices to make about their player. It's a nasty trade off having to make the first 20 levels of your game significantly less interesting in the name of making the experience "infinite". Worse yet, the sparseness of these choices in Fallout 4 means the feedback loop of system <-> player is active a lot less frequently, and generally harms the connection players have with your world - something that's paramount in RPGs. I can't tell you the amount of times I wanted a Perk I did not have the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. for, so I put a point into the attribute I needed, only to get to the next level and have completely forgotten about which perk I had been eyeing, which left my choices feeling fleeting and arbitrary.
Lest you think I'm simply throwing a bunch of numbers around, there's also an issue with the combination of the Perks and Skills systems (and to a lesser degree, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system). As I mentioned before, Bethesda's games thrive with an emphasis on systemic interactions, but the trick with systemic interactions is to avoiding complication. Complicated systems appear complex to the player, whereas complex systems appear simple. A great example of this is the much lauded Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system, which has a huge range of possible visual, narrative, and interactive states, and yet is very easy for players to understand, interact with, and manipulate. This system works because players can visualize and interpret the cause and effect their decisions in a real, measurable way.
Fallout 3 was similar in this regard, though much less elegant and much more numbers based, in that it arranged S.P.E.C.I.A.L., Skills, and Perks into a hierarchy of filters. You can see in the above left diagram how this works: S.P.E.C.I.A.L. dictates Skills, which together with S.P.E.C.I.A.L. dictate Perks, which have direct observable cause and effect. This hierarchy, though not necessarily visualized, is a way for players to interpret their choices, and creates an interesting feedback loop to the player regarding their short, medium, and long term objectives when leveling their characters. In Fallout 4, the integration of these elements into a single system conflates the short and medium term goals of levelling. Long term goals are still somewhat observable through the way S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes still unlock tiers of Perks but the need to choose between these attributes (i.e. your long term goals) and Perks (i.e. your short/medium term goals), while in theory creates an interesting and meaningful choice, it's actually a mutually exclusive choice every level. By forcing players to make mutually exclusive choices about their goals through the leveling system, Fallout 4 ends up complicating the choices players have to make, as opposed to making them more complex. You can see how the combination of the Perks and Skills and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. systems affect the clarity of each in the above right diagram, as players are less able to interpret their choices. Players shouldn't have to choose between their goals: the meaningful choice is not in what goals are being accomplished, but in what way they are all accomplished. Speaking of accomplishing goals, one of the primary ways in which players make choices in the Fallout series is through making narrative choices...
Especially from a narrative perspective, Fallout 4 starts very strong, with a view of pre-war Boston, and a great narrative climax to the prologue that has you frozen away in a vault just as the bombs drop. Right from the get-go, I was intrigued by the overarching goal of finding my son. The narrative uses its time well, smartly integrating character-building, tutorializing, and narrative into a brisk, but enjoyable beginning. Unlike the beginning of the game, however, all the tension, choice, and motivations I felt in that first 30 minutes completely dissipates in the vastness of Fallout 4's open world. I should be very clear about this: It's not because Fallout 4 has an open world that the main narrative (and pretty much all the other quests I did) fails; Fallout has succeeded in telling interesting stories in an open world before. To me, the issues with story come from two major categories: the game's ability to reflect the choices you make in the world and narrative, and the ability you as a player have to understand the choices you make.
Fallout 4, Unlike Fallout 3 and New Vegas, has a fully voiced protagonist, which on the surface might seem like a great choice, but in practice it kind of falls apart. The new "simplified" dialogue system creates a bit of an issue in understanding options in conversation, since Fallout 4 adopts a Mass Effect style approach to dialogue selection, where instead of the full lines of dialogue are represented to players as roughly three to five word options. The thing about Mass Effect, however, is that despite the choice players have in who their Commander Shepard is, they're still always going to be Commander Shepherd. The writers have some degree of control over defining the main character in Mass Effect, whereas in Fallout, control of defining who the main character is rests entirely on players. This doesn't just apply to dialogue either, but also to gameplay choice. Mass Effect gameplay is a sort of hub and spoke style open world, with linear missions taking place between visits to open hubs, but even then, these hubs are typically enclosed loops to guide players around. Fallout 4 is pure open world, and while its dungeons could be considered linear, these dungeons are much less seperate from the rest of the open world than in Mass Effect.
Buying lottery tickets would be a lot less appealing if your chance of winning the jackpot was "orange".
The adoption of Mass Effect's style dialogue selection doesn't work because fundamentally, Fallout and Mass Effect are completely different RPGs - Fallout is systemic and open, and Mass Effect is incredibly narrative driven, with an emphasis on more linear action. Because Fallout is much more systemic, it means players need to be more aware of exactly what their choices are and how they'll affect the world they're playing in, and Fallout 4 fails at this by giving a small amount of information before a choice is made, and only giving all the information (spoken dialogue) after the choice is made. This is even more of an issue when it comes to using persuasion, where the chance of persuasion is represented by the dialogue option being tinted a specific color: red means you'll likely fail, orange means you have an okay chance at succeeding, and yellow means there's a good chance. But really, that's just gobbledegook to players when making pretty significant choices like that. People buy lottery tickets because, despite the futility, they have a clear and understandable way of knowing what their chances of succeeding will be. Buying lottery tickets would be a lot less appealing if your chance of winning the jackpot was "orange". This obfuscation of choice is just one half of the question though, and while it harms the user's ability to communicate with the game, the game also does a bad job of communicating with the player.
Video Games are at their best when they show something, describe something, and reflect something all at once. I should mention that here, describe is used to mean showing something in a non-literal sense. This can manifest in a lot of different ways - and they don't have to be artistic or narrative. These three things can be fulfilled with things other than narrative. For example, Super Meat Boy shows a reverence for nostalgia, it describes a lighthearted but macabre perspective on the world, and it reflects the user's skill and dexterity. In Fallout 4's case, it's very good at showing a beautifully realized post-apocalyptic retro-nuclear Boston, but it's only marginally successful at depicting this world as alive, and it's even worse at reflecting the effect of user choice within this world. Let's address that first problem (even though the two are intrinsically linked in this case): that Fallout 4 has issues describing the world it shows as one that is alive and feels realistic. This comes down to the lack of interesting information given about the world in which Fallout 4 is set. A great example of this in Fallout 3 is the side quest "Oasis", that involves a tree cult, an uncharacteristically green and life-filled location, and equal parts dialogue and combat offering lots of choice on how players want to approach the situation. The closest I got to this feeling of truly learning about the people, places, and culture in Fallout 4 was "The Last Voyage of the U.S.S. Constitution", which saw me helping a bunch of robots aboard Old Ironsides try and get back to the ocean. It's wonderfully bizarre and hilarious at the same time, but the best part of this quest was that I saw Old Ironsides crashed in a small town as I felt overheard on a completely different quest, and returned to find out what was there. "The Last Voyage of the U.S.S. Constitution" was a perfect example of how information about the game world itself is a reward, even if the quest itself doesn't offer a particularly broad range of options on how to progress. There's just not nearly enough of this type of interaction in Fallout 4 when compared to its predecessors, and it's especially frustrating considering the great moment I did have when the path of one quest led me to another. Tightening this structure of overlapping paths would have almost certainly have helped the world feel more interconnected, as opposed to over-designed. Sadly, most quests in Fallout 4 boil down to something that feels arbitrary, much like the levelling system. But Fallout 4 isn't just bad at making the world feel alive: it's bad at showing you how you've changed it in any meaningful way.
The lack of reflection of player actions in Fallout 4 is maybe most easily summarized by an anecdote from my time in Fallout New Vegas. While playing New Vegas, I had sided with the NCR originally, but had also persuaded Caesar's Legion to let me run some errands for them. At a certain point while wandering out in the wasteland by myself, some NCR militiamen came up and warned me to cut ties with Caesar's Legion in the next few days, or else I'd face consequences. Little did they know, I was planning on meeting Caesar himself in order to kill him. Ultimately, I killed Caesar, but not before having to contend with militiamen every so often while I accomplished my objective. This perfectly exemplifies the strength of New Vegas especially in that it clearly shows me the results of my choices. Did I have to maintain allegiance to Caesar in order to kill him? Of course not, but I made a choice to play the game as a skilled infiltrator as opposed to some other way, and the game reflected and reinforced those choices in the changing state of the world. Fallout's enormous open world and emphasis on player agency work their best when the ripples of the choices you make are often seen for long periods of time afterwards, so players are constantly reminded in small ways of the impact they've had (like when the militiamen first approached me). Fallout 3 also has similar moments, like when Moira becomes a Ghoul if players choose to nuke Megaton, but only if you've started her quest. Fallout 4 tries to do this but fails because it misses the point of these major world-changing actions: It's not enough to have a new landmark, the world has to socially, culturally, and physically acknowledge it. Old Ironsides ending up perched on top of a different building is cool, and so is the Prydwen crashing into Boston Airport, but nobody talks about it afterwards. If you Nuke Megaton, people will hunt you down for vengeance. You made a significant choice to kill hundreds and everybody seems to know about it. Go figure. Megaton is also now a giant crater, but the people in the world also reflect your choice and change the way you play the game. There is perhaps no better example of how Fallout 4 fails on delivering this interesting social climate for players than in the main quest, where players can complete quests for 3 main factions: The Railroad, The Institute, and The Brotherhood of Steel. You can very easily complete most missions with each faction without the others knowing of your involvement. It's not until a very arbitrary point late in the main quest where the game literally tells you that you must now decide which faction to ultimately support. This could be excusable maybe if an NPC expressed this to the player, but it's done with a UI popup. This left all my prior decisions feeling hollow, and had me asking myself if anything I did really even mattered.
Fallout games - scratch that - Bethesda Games are at their best when they encourage and allow players and systems to interact freely and dynamically, and the limitation on both the choices and the impact of those choices in Fallout 4 significantly limits the back-and-forth between and therefore effectiveness of both elements in that equation. It's a damn shame, since Fallout 4 is stunning, and despite some other questionable elements (I'm looking at you, super confusing settlement building interface), Fallout 4 could have been so incredibly good. The dungeons are well designed, the soundtrack is amazing, the setting is perfect for that retro-futurist americana the series is known for, and there's hint of the amazing opportunities for deep system-content-player crossroads, but they're just few and far between. Hopefully Bethesda's next game, even if it's not a successor to Fallout 4 or Skyrim, will double down on systemic interaction and blow us out of the radiated water.
Thanks for reading!