Fallout 4 is a contradiction, a glorious disaster of high ambition and technical limitations.
The technical issues continue throughout the game. Most frustratingly, the crawling frame-rate will cause your death multiple times.
I feel like there’s a “but” with everything I say about Fallout 4. A caveat, a get-out clause. I don’t want to rag on it because I’m enjoying it so much, but I shouldn’t have to apologise for its performance.
It’s a great exercise in exploration, where seeking out and finding stuff is a real thrill. But at times it’s the ugliest blockbuster video game of this generation. It struggles technically to deliver a credible frame-rate, stuttering with only a handful of enemies on screen. And in a game that relies on characters and their emotions so heavily, the facial animation is basic at best. The camera wanders during conversations (it isn’t unusual to end up speaking to someone’s shoulder), and interaction is almost always stiff and unresponsive.
The technical issues continue throughout the game. Most frustratingly, the crawling frame-rate will cause your death multiple times. Explosives are crucial against overpowered enemies but, when the big bangs hit, it’s like your console might implode at any second (I’m playing on PS4, for the record). You will die and not be entirely sure what happened because you didn’t see it coming. You couldn’t have possibly seen it coming. Not good.
And yet I can’t stop playing it. The world of atomic Americana, its undercurrent of intolerance and bubbling violence, is one of its finest accomplishments. There are groups marginalised and spat upon, self-righteous warriors crusading against oppression and opportunists just trying to make a quick buck. It’s America, alright. The better storytelling comes from its characters and side missions rather the main quest-line. The discarded items, the missing NPCs and the incidental comments paint curious pictures. Wander among it all, sucking it all in, and you’ll find it difficult to leave.
Combat has a far greater punch than Fallout 3. Swinging a spiked bat to knock a synth’s head clean off is as satisfying as using VATs to gut-shot a Raider. Enemies explode in blood, with rag-dolling bodies straight out of 2009. As with any open-world game some quests drag on, but all can be livened up with a spot of the old ultra-violence. When all else fails, go pick on someone smaller than you for a cheap thrill.
New crafting options are interesting but of limited appeal. The first time you’re forced to build a settlement is tiresome. It’s only when you sit down and build towers, turrets and other defenses for your own satisfaction that you’ll appreciate the work that’s gone into these features. Modding weapons is fun for a while, provided you have the patience to search, junk and craft your own goods. You’ll already know if that’s an attraction to you before you begin the game.
Companions feel more worthwhile in Fallout 4. Nick Valentine and Piper are two early favourites, with personalities worth engaging with. Until they block a door or blunder into an area you’ve been stalking, causing you to die in a hail of gunfire. At that point they’re about as welcome as an escort mission.
You can call it hardcore if you like, or you can call it old-fashioned, but Fallout 4 isn’t accessible to newcomers. No one wants to be patronised, and part of the attraction is the opportunity to figure things out, but it can also feel stubborn for the sake of it. Crafting mechanics are hidden or unclear, with arbitrary rules that you figure out by trial and error. The first five hours in the game are a slog, and it’s easy to see why players would give up.
The world of atomic Americana, the undercurrent of intolerance and bubbling violence is one of its finest accomplishments.
I’ve said it’s ugly, but there’s no doubt Fallout 4 can be pretty in places. In a generation where we’re seeing incredible vistas, Diamond City at least looks good, if not spectacular. When the atomic storms roll in they bring with them an oppressive mood that swamps the game. From a distance Fallout 4 looks good, but it stumbles under scrutiny. Enemies get snagged on furniture and walk into walls. Dogmeat will zip six feet into the air before crashing down. Dead bodies twitch across the floor. Audio plays over dialogue over radio station over NPC chatter.
We’re used to so much better. It’s not unfair to compare the presentation, the performance, the technical achievements of Fallout 4 to The Witcher 3, Batman: Arkham Knight, Until Dawn, Halo 5, Bloodborne or other recent high-profile, accomplished titles. Regardless of whether you like those games or the genre fits, it’s difficult to disagree standards are beginning to be set for this generation. Fallout 4 doesn’t hit those high watermarks. We should expect games to be technically adept. That’s not an unreasonable demand, is it?
But here I am, still playing. Is it just me or are load-times getting longer? Is slow-down becoming more common as I progress? I’m not entirely sure but it’s making me paranoid. There’s so much to explore and uncover that I want to go back – it’s a rare game I play for fun outside of work – and I’m thinking about where I can go next, who to chat up, steal from, murder and pledge my allegiance to. Plus, that Nuka Cola tastes delicious.
Fallout 4 almost meets its atmospheric ambitions. It’s the many technical bumps that hold it back, to the point that they literally obstruct gameplay. Despite it being a personal favourite, one I consider to be a Game of the Year, it seems inferior to many of the best I’ve played in 2015. That’s a shocking realisation. That after years of work and millions of dollars it’s nowhere near the level of all-round polish we’re seeing from the rest of this generation. It looks cheap in comparison. Cheap isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not a cheap game to create, to sell, to buy and play.
If it feels like a budget game among the true blockbusters, it’s not budget in ambition or cost. Just budget in delivery.
Fallout 4 is out now.