Fallout 4: good game, bad RPG

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I’m loving Fallout 4. Wandering the wasteland, poking around in abandoned buildings, listening to chirpy ‘50s pop, fighting mutants. It’s a great game to lose yourself in on a cold winter’s evening. But as a role-playing experience I’m finding it disappointingly weak—to the point where I wouldn’t even call it an RPG. An open-world action game with role-playing elements would be a more accurate description.

The same could be applied to other Bethesda games, which are often described as being as broad as an ocean and as deep as a puddle. But Fallout 4 feels like their most restrictive game yet in terms of customisation, choice, and dialogue. The protagonist doesn’t feel like my character. The things I say don’t seem to matter. My high charisma is used to squeeze a few extra caps out of quest-givers and little else.

The term ‘RPG’ is pretty loose. We could argue for days about what is and what isn’t. But for me, an important part of any good RPG is being able to create and shape a character that’s unique to you. My Fallout 4 vault dweller, however, is vaguely the same as everyone else’s—he just wears a different hat. I mean, it’s a really nice hat. An ushanka I found in a bin. But it’s not enough. There’s no feeling of ownership.

The restrictions of the new dialogue wheel and the addition of a voiced protagonist have stripped away any chance to give your character a distinct personality. They’re either a good guy, or a sarcastic good guy. The single voice on offer is so obviously tailored to fit a generic-looking white guy—like the one they used in the E3 demo—that it sounds weird coming out of anyone else. These limitations feel out of place in a game that offers so much freedom elsewhere. I feel more attached to the rickety old shack I built in Sanctuary than the boring, unfunny dude I’m playing as.

And these frustrating restrictions extend beyond your appearance. Previous Fallout games let you set traits, perks, skills, and tag skills on top of your base SPECIAL stats: Fallout 4 has perks, SPECIAL, and nothing else. This new system might be more streamlined and elegant—and I like some things about it—but it’s yet another example of Bethesda reducing the ways in which you can fine-tune your character.

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I’m sure they had their reasons. Fallout is a mega-selling mainstream series now, and they obviously want to make it more accessible. Not everyone wants a super deep RPG. But the consequence of that is making that puddle even shallower. Fallout 4 has all the hallmarks of an RPG—quests, experience points, towns, trading, companions—but it’s all pretty superficial. It’s like a tribute act to an RPG: fine at first glance, but look a little closer and you realise that ‘Elvis’ is actually a guy in a cheap wig.

The quests are just as bad. After 30 hours of play, I can’t think of a single one that offered me the option to avoid, charm, or otherwise think my way out of combat. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky and all the rich, branching, interesting quests are still out there waiting to be discovered, but I doubt it. While Phil was reviewing it for us, every time I turned around to look at his monitor he was firing a gun.

You occasionally get the option to hack a turret, but that’s about as rich as its systems get. Some of the level design feels more like an FPS than an RPG: a series of rooms linked with corridors, filled with enemies waiting patiently for you to kill them. There’s the odd terminal which fills in the backstory of your surroundings, and some environmental storytelling, but it’s not enough to mask the fact that many of these places are just, when you really boil it down, elaborate shooting galleries.

It's more like an FPS than an RPG: a series of rooms linked with corridors, filled with enemies waiting patiently for you to kill them.

For a resource-starved post-apocalyptic wasteland, guns and ammo are everywhere. You can’t walk five feet without lasers or bullets whizzing past your head. Within a few minutes of being unfrozen in the intro sequence you find a pistol and a stash of bullets. Bethesda obviously love designing guns, but perhaps they should have dedicated that energy to making characters that don’t look like sentient shop mannequins or writing dialogue that isn’t so stilted and lifeless.

Even after all that, I still can’t wait to get home and play Fallout 4 tonight. The sense of discovery—of picking a direction, wandering, and wondering what beautiful scenery, bizarre creature, or weird little story you’ll run into—is as fun as it’s been since I first played Morrowind. But it’s disheartening to see Fallout’s RPG foundations slowly ebb away. I’m sure Bethesda could make a really rich, complex game like the originals if they wanted, but they don’t have to. Fallout 4 sold 1.2 million copies in 24 hours. Why break the formula? But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.