Why Fallout 4’s Power Armor no longer feels S.P.E.C.I.A.L.

By Richard Stanton, Thursday, 19 November 2015 13:23 GMT

Giving players what they want isn’t always the best thing, says Rich Stanton.

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“Power Armor has changed from being an endgame item, or at least something you had to work for, into a power-up. The only limitation on its use is Fusion Cores, but these are so plentiful there’s no real sense of rationing.”

Since release Fallout 4 has been incredibly well-advertised, and one of the most eye-catching spots is on Fox’s NFL broadcasts: the channel’s mascot morphs into a Power Armor dude, complete with yappy Dogmeat. Get a load of that marketing dollar. The Brotherhood of Steel’s iconic look has always been the face of Fallout but, with this latest entry, that role carries more responsibility than ever.

Power Armor is everywhere in Fallout 4, and as a long-time series fan I found this unusual. In the original Fallout the Brotherhood were an unknown quantity until you were well into the game, because the questline’s seriously difficult, and though there’s a set of Power Armor you can buy it’s incredibly expensive. Fallout’s box had Power Armor on it too, but even when you get into the Brotherhood questline there are more hoops to jump through until, eventually, you have it for the final run-in.

My memories of the original Fallout may be hazy, but I do remember playing and dying for an awfully long time before I ever really got a sniff of the Power Armor. How amazing it was the first time I entered the Brotherhood’s HQ and saw the sprites standing around. This may be nostalgia talking but the Power Armor felt like a real prize: something to be lusted after and, only after a long road, finally acquired. And then it was great armor, easily the best in the game (until you found an advanced prototype near the end) so it all felt worthwhile.

To me that was a satisfying arc and, more to the point, it makes complete sense in Fallout’s world. This is a universe where we’re expected to believe that resources are so scarce humanity is reduced to trading in bottle caps. Undamaged pre-war equipment is a treasure, because there are no manufacturers left. So in such a dog-eat-dog universe it stands to reason that the most valuable resource of all is a pristine set of armor made from the finest materials. It just makes sense, in this world, as something to aspire to.

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There’s no need to go into anal details, but after the first Fallout the series gave Power Armor a little more of a role while keeping it special – and always just out of reach for at least the first half of the game. In Fallout 2 the plot revolved around the appearance of the Enclave, a group especially noticeable because their Power Armor exceeded the Brotherhood of Steel. Fast-forward to Fallout 3 and you can find bits of Power Armor around, but can’t make any use of it until you’re near the end of the main questline and can train in how to use it. Same deal with New Vegas.

In each game Power Armor is used slightly differently, but remains special – one of the biggies, something that you might see relatively early but won’t be able to hold until later. In Fallout 4, after the introduction is over and you leave Vault 111, the first quest you do involves climbing into an abandoned suit of Power Armor, ripping a minigun off a roof, and crashing down to the street to take out a Deathclaw.

As you may have guessed I’m not an enormous fan. It struck me as bizarre, in fact, to introduce the post-apocalypse in such an OTT set-piece – not only sticking you in the iconic armor, but then setting up a low-level Deathclaw to get mowed down. A Deathclaw in previous Fallout games is simply a terrifying thing to see (and to be fair, later in Fallout 4 they are too). But here the first one goes down relatively easily, and you get to keep the Power Armor to boot.

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Congratulations on your first set of what will soon be many, and a whole branch of Fallout 4’s crafting system with different ‘base’ Power Armor sets, various modifications, and paint jobs. After this opening, one of the very first NPCs I encounter in the wasteland is a guy called Duke wearing Power Armor. He uses words like ‘daddio’ and tells me to visit the Atom Cats – when I get around to this they’re a bunch of cowlicked hipsters with souped-up Power Armor. Before that point I had seen the Brotherhood of Steel many, many times patrolling the map. I’d even fought Raiders wearing Power Armor. Raiders, opportunist thieves, sauntering about in nuclear-powered armor suits.

In Fallout 4 Power Armor is everywhere, for both you and your opponents. It has changed from being an endgame item, or at least something you had to work for, into a kind of power-up. The only limitation on its use is Fusion Cores, but these are so plentiful there’s no real sense of rationing.

“Cheapening the Power Armour runs through Fallout 4, from that first OTT set-piece to the noisiest ‘desolate’ wasteland I’ve ever experienced. In this it reflects a wider AAA trend, the ever-present drive to offer a ‘bigger’ experience than the competition.”

This abundance changes the whole atmosphere. The first time I saw a Brotherhood unit fly in on a Vertibird and jump into a mass of Raiders it was incredible. Now I’m sick of my wanderings being constantly interrupted by the familiar whine of the engines, the sound of some nearby conflict kicking off, and the pew-pews of AAA focus-grouping.

Fallout has always been dystopian sci-fi, but this moves it much more towards the sci-fi end and not in a good way. A post-apocalypse where anyone can acquire a huge suit of armor pretty easily is a post-apocalypse with many more red laser beams and hulking brutes stomping around. I’m not saying it’s necessarily worse, though to my taste it is, but there’s a different vibe.

I once wrote about how The Last of Us had a world where everything was, apparently, scarce – but the game undermined this throughout by being packed with weapons and items and the almost-obligatory crafting system. There’s something unsatisfying at a deep level about games that tell you one thing – this is the post-apocalypse, we’re all scrabbling for dear life and it’s every man for himself – and then act in a completely different way.

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This is a world where people wear dirty clothes, hoard junk, and food’s apparently so hard to come by that cannibalism’s a big thing. You’re supposed to take people seriously when they talk about the dangers of Raiders, but it’s just impossible to reconcile that with the reality that anyone who wants one is clomping around in a super soldier outfit. It’s no exaggeration to say they regularly fall from the sky.

The idea of giving Power Armor more of a role in Fallout 4 was not necessarily a bad one. Some might argue that giving players what the box promises is a good principle. For me the switch from rarity to over-abundance is far too much, and the effect is not localised or minor.

Cheapening the Power Armor runs through Fallout 4, from that first OTT set-piece to the noisiest ‘desolate’ wasteland I’ve ever experienced. In this it reflects a wider AAA trend, the ever-present drive to offer a ‘bigger’ experience than the competition. Bethesda’s strategy for this iconic element was a simple matter of addition: Power Armor used to be rare, now it’s everywhere. For me, it only brings to mind a proven saying: too much of a good thing will make you sick.

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