Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review Day: Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is a highly entertaining game that provides a massive amount of addicting content held back by a frustrating user interface. It takes the emergent gameplay and open world engine of Skyrim (in which I invested over 300 hours and multiple playthroughs before it finally got tiresome) and pairs it with the responsive first-person shooter action and loot gathering of Borderlands 2 (over 100 hours), resulting in a satisfying exploration of what Boston might look like after nuclear war.

The appeal of "open world" games is that you can go anywhere and do anything without being constrained to an on-the-rails main storyline. And in fact, I've barely made any progress in the main story, opting instead to strike out in a random direction and take in the abundance of sidequests and self-contained mini-stories. There's never a lack of things to do, from questing, to exploring just for the heck of it, to building your own settlements in a lightweight SimCity-ish minigame.

Graphics are evocative, and the music is brooding and effective (though sometimes it sounds a little too much like Skyrim). The game captures suspense and creepiness quite well, especially when you're exploring an abandoned building and get overrun by (surprisingly nimble) ghouls. For players without great reflexes, the game's "VATS" system allows you to greatly slow down time during combat, almost to the point where it's turn-based. This system works to make combat a little more strategic, and I employ both real-time and VATS as I play.

There are a few minor issues. Load times are on the long side, but that's a given for any game in this age. One of the main voice actors (for the Preston Garvey character) is incredibly bad and phones in his (numerous) lines like he's a seventh grader in a class readthrough of a Shakespeare play. However, the biggest flaw in the game is the inconsistent and poorly-explained UI, which suffers from being a console port and having too many tacked on systems. Players seem to be in universal agreement that the UI is awful, and the context-sensitive overloading of certain keys will ensure that you spend a lot of time accidentally opening menus or cancelling actions.

There are also many features that just aren't properly explained, like the fact that you have a built-in flashlight that turns on by holding down the Tab key, or how to get the most out of the settlement building UI. The latter makes the system feel tacked on -- I enjoyed building settlements as a diversion but never felt like I could manage them properly. Late game, none of the settlements can take care of themselves without your intervention, so I ultimately scrapped them all and killed all the settlers so they would stop complaining about a lack of beds.

The exploration side of the game is definitely worth it if you can face the moderate learning curve of the interface (and many "Tips" articles on the web will fill in the gaps nicely). This is a game with tons of replayability (as a serial restarter, I've already theorycrafted, started, and abandoned three different characters). The game is at its best when you're traveling and randomly discover a hidden cave or a scripted event, so it's good to minimize your use of the "Fast Travel" option, which allows you to jump to previously visited sites immediately. I try to stick to self-made rules where I just fast travel to and from my own settlements, which helps immensely with immersion.

Final Grade: B in its current state, A- in a few months once mods and patches correct the worst flaws in the UI

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