Last night, while wandering in Fallout 4, I heard something strange in the distance. A man on a megaphone was enthusiastically commentating a race. I’d never heard something like it before, so I had to take a closer look. To my surprise, I didn’t find a horse race, I found a robot race. A robot race! People were cheering them on from the sidelines, possibly even laying down bets.
It was one of the coolest things I’ve found while playing Fallout 4...and then Fallout 4 ruined it. Mere moments after I arrived at the scene, a band of raiders descended on me and started shooting. See, the raiders were the audience—they’d apparently rigged up their robots to run a race. Because the audience was hostile toward me, the robots turned on me, too. I did the only thing I could in that situation: I killed them all. Afterward, when I looted every robot’s corpse, I found out that each one actually had a special racing name. The names were clever: “Piece ‘O Junk,” and “The Boston Blaster,” for instance. I chuckled, but mostly, I felt sad that the way Bethesda let me appreciate this neat thing in my playthrough was after a mess of combat and death.
More than a hundred hours into Fallout 4, I keep coming across things like the robot race. The game itself will spoil its neatest surprises with a consistency that makes me wonder where the heart of Fallout 4 even lies. Comparing Fallout 4 to the older games is difficult: you’ve got the classic CRPGs, which were an entirely different genre made for a different audience, and you’ve even got a modern spin-off—New Vegas—that was made by a studio other than Bethesda.
Fallout fanatics might say that the franchise lost its way a long time ago, when Fallout was turned into a shooter with more “mainstream” appeal. But if you ask an average fan, they’d probably say that Fallout games are supposed to be rich, choice-driven games where you have the freedom to role-play as you wish. That description could more or less apply to Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. But that’s not what you’ll find in Fallout 4. The newest Fallout is more of an action game than even its immediate predecessors, and as such, Bethesda has streamlined many of the elements that used to define Fallout as a role-playing series.
Gone are the extra attributes known as skills, which players could use in novel ways while exploring the wasteland. In Fallout 3, for example, if you had a high enough explosives skill, you could defuse a bomb in the middle of a city, thus saving everyone. Or, you could choose to detonate it. The entire questline was only available to you if you built your character in a certain way, and while that’s a design that locks some players out from experiencing a rad thing, it did give a sense that how you built your character actually mattered. For a role-playing game, that’s pretty important. The combination of skills folding into perks, along with the lack of level cap in Fallout 4, means that your character build no longer matters in the way that it used to. You start out OK at most things, and eventually, you’ll be a god at everything. Especially combat-oriented things.
Another big change is that conversations are no longer small passages written out in full, and are instead denoted by one or two words. This is an issue I already talked about at length in my review—many of the dialogue options are actually false choices that railroad you into the same conclusion. It’s way harder to play a unique character with a novel point of view. There are only two types of wanderers in Fallout 4: the hero who saves everyone and does the right thing, or the cartoon villain who only looks out for themselves. And whichever you choose, however you build your character, you will mostly be doing one thing in Fallout 4: killing stuff.
This used to be a series where you could talk your way out of most situations. It used to be a series where you could put 10 points into your intelligence stat, and only then could you talk shop with scientists. It used to be a series where you could do frivolous things in the world, like take up boxing or become a porn star, for no other reason other than because it was fun to do. Now it seems that if your interactions with the world won’t result in kills, loot, or XP, the game doesn’t feel it’s worth doing.
I understand that I covered some of this in my review, but after another 50 hours, I’m more struck by the changes than ever. I can’t tell you how many times I found an intriguing character in the wasteland, only to be disappointed by how brief and vague our conversations were. Fallout 4 gives us one of the most interesting worlds in gaming and then does very little to make us feel like we have a stake in that world. Even the new, complex settlement-crafting system undercuts things for me a lot of the time. Why care about Diamond City when you can build your own badass town, where everyone does what you want? Most people within Fallout 4 are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs anyway, all of which primarily exist to give you missions that have you go out explore, and kill more things.
And when the world itself is bursting with carefully-placed landmarks, it means that the player is constantly looking out into the horizon, wondering what lies ahead. It seems that Fallout 4 really wants you to go out and experience the Commonwealth rather than spend too much time thinking about your character, their build, their morality, or even the game’s story. There are too many places to see, and things to kill instead.
These kinds of changes are deeply-felt by the Fallout community. At the moment, most of the top-voted reviews on Steam for Fallout 4 are negative—which is surprising when you consider that Fallout 4 has also consistently been one of the top-selling games on Steam since it came out. Some samples:
The opening line of that first review encapsulates much of the game’s reception among longtime fans of the series: “Fallout 4 is a good game, it just isn’t a good Fallout game.”
Mind, the reviews above are some of the shorter ones available on Fallout 4’s front page on Steam. Many of the top-rated reviews are entire essays breaking down the player’s many grievances with Fallout 4, and you can read those here.
Over on Metacritic, user scores are similarly negative.
It’s hard to miss the disparity between publication review scores and user review scores. While Kotaku isn’t listed on Metacritic, you might also recall that, overall, I was positive about Fallout 4. I gave it a “YES,” as in, “yes, you should play it.” Of course I think you should play it. Fallout 4 can be a blast, and it’s easy to lose many hours in the adventure, trying to get better gear or building a more awesome settlement.
The thing worth noting, though, is that I didn’t review Fallout 4 based on whether or not it continued the tradition of the series, or how it held up as a Fallout game. I reviewed it based on what it actually is, and based on how well I felt Bethesda achieved their goals with the game. While Fallout fans may be understandably confused about where Fallout 4’s heart is, Fallout 4 itself doesn’t seem to have any sort of identity crisis.
All of the changes Bethesda has made to their formula seem to have been done to deliver something specific: an open-world game with a focus on adventure, discovery, and combat. Everything has been changed or fine-tuned to facilitate that, and given the dozens of hours I’ve poured into the game doing those things, I’d say Fallout 4 is pretty successful at what it sets out to do. I’ve had a lot of fun playing Fallout 4, and I’ve detailed many of these experiences here on Kotaku. It’s just not the same type of fun I had playing other Fallout games.
I mean, this game is one of the most impressive, ambitious simulated worlds I’ve ever seen. There are so many moving pieces inside Fallout 4, and it’s a joy to see how they all interact. Maybe a Brotherhood of Steel Vertiberd will crash in the middle of your battle against Gunners. Maybe you’ll find a Deathclaw battling a giant Mirelurk. Maybe you’ll build a giant penis settlement. Maybe you’ll suddenly find yourself trapped inside an unsettling horror deathtrap, complete with jump scares. Maybe you’ll explore the secrets hidden within the desolate Glowing Sea. Or maybe you just want to build the best trading caravan in the Commonwealth. You can do so many things in Fallout that were never possible before, and many of these things are memorable in their own unique ways.
That said, holding the game to a standard set by prior games is understandable: Games are deliberately iterative more so than other media, and the older games give us a framework through which we can understand the latest version. On top of that, the older games are the reason many of us fell in love with Fallout in the first place.
Fallout itself has not remained static over the years; its spirit has been constantly evolving and changing. Even Fallout 2 was a big tonal change from Fallout 1. And there’s a big difference between what Fallout 2 wanted to be as an RPG, and what the more action-oriented Fallout 3 actually is. There’s also a big difference between what Fallout 3 accomplished and the more old-school RPG experience that Fallout: New Vegas provided. Fallout 4 continues that metamorphic trend, and actually accomplishes its apparent goals very well. Many are calling it a “dumbing down” of the franchise, but while in a sense that’s true and I empathize with the sentiment, it also requires judging Fallout 4 by a rubric that no longer applies.
Of course, just because I’ve accepted what Fallout has become doesn’t mean I can’t mourn what’s been lost along the way. It doesn’t mean I can’t picture a version of that robot race where I talked with the people running it, placed a few bets, or maybe even customized a robot racer of my own.
In the city of Goodneighbor, there’s a seedy place called the Memory Den. Head inside and you’ll find rows of pods, each one housing someone lodged deep in their own memories, oblivious to the world around them. With the Memory Den, Fallout 4 summarizes the conflict felt by many longtime fans: it’s easy to lose yourself in the dream of how things used to be, while ignoring the way things actually are. Whenever I visit Memory Den, I don’t like lingering for too long. It’s not real, I know, but I don’t like the thought of getting trapped there, of never going out and having cool new adventures. Even as I may not linger, however, I do understand why others may not want to leave.