Fallout 4 Review – Welcome to the Borderlands…No, Wait, What?

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When Bethesda took over the Fallout series and dragged its fans – kicking and screaming – into the first person, real-time, modern world, they did so with very little care as to what the games were about and why they were successful in the first place.

Introducing a version of the Brotherhood of Steel that were law-abiding do-gooders and Super Mutants whose mere existence retconned the previous games’ lore, Todd Howard’s first Fallout game became responsible for most of the hate you see directed at him today. Granted, they explained away the changes to the game’s lore, but it was done in awfully slapdash fashion and, like giving money to a homeless drunk, it was a kind gesture that only made things worse.

For many of those who were upset at the premise (and gameplay elements) of Fallout 3, Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas felt like a breath of fresh air. Memorable companions, a branching plot line, multiple endings, real faction play, and quite a few callbacks to the older Fallout games made it a fan favorite. Even an isometric camera loving grognard like me loved it and found myself thinking that yes, a 3D, FPS-focused, modern Fallout game could work.

This brings us to Fallout 4. A sequel that was either going to build on the successes of New Vegas or backpedal and become nothing more than a Fallout “3.5”. Fans fought back and forth on message boards for nearly a year, theorizing what path Bethesda would take. Would they give us faction play? Would we get a non-linear questline? Would we get multiple endings that both were diverse and interesting?


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Before I start the review proper, I would caution that anyone who preferred New Vegas’ depth and complexity will be very disappointed if they expect the same of Fallout 4. Going into the game requires abandonment of any hope for a “FONV2”, and instead, a fair amount of compromise.

The reason why this is the case is due to Bethesda wanting Fallout 4 to be a much more cinematic experience than before. To facilitate this change, however, they’ve had to throw quite a bit of Fallout’s celebrated depth away.

Want a long list of detailed and branching dialog options? Not when the game requires all lines to be spoken, resulting in a very small smattering of conversation choices that can be boiled down to “agreeable” and “arrogant”. Like Mass Effect, NPC interaction in Fallout is now contained within a sort of conversation “wheel” that severely limits both roleplaying and character development. It’s also especially cringe-worthy when the lack of dialog options results in repeated phrases that are completely out of place with the conversation they’re thrown into.

A good example of that would be the conversations you have with Preston Garvey, the minuteman who assigns you the time-consuming task of recruiting settlements to his makeshift militia. After recruiting a settlement and reporting back to him, you expect to hear your character say they’ve decided to support your cause…but what about the 3rd time? Or the 60th time? Every single time you do a quest for a recruited settlement, your character will speak as if it was the first time you’ve contacted them. A minor gripe, if it didn’t happen so often.

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The problem is that it does, in fact, happen very often. Such as when you finally complete enough quests in the Brotherhood of Steel faction to get power armor from them, but the knight giving you the equipment fails to realize that you were given a full set only 2 hours into the game and you are, as I was, probably wearing it while he talked to you.

That’s the price that a game has to pay for being cinematic, and double is this cost if the game is open world. Unlike something structured and heavily compressed like Mass Effect or The Witcher 2, going the cinematic route in a large open world title means you need to pad a lot of the title’s virtual real estate with recycled content. Doing so creates a sort of MMO-esque feel that many cited as one of the downsides to the recently released Dragon Age sequel. Sadly, it leaves its mark here on Fallout 4 as well.

Going the cinematic route has also killed the freedom of the user to roleplay, since much of the game is far too structured to allow anything such as diverging quest lines or player choice. A good example of this is when you, roughly 10 hours in, confront the man who attacked your family at the start of the story. Even though this hired gun explains that he is just as much of a pawn as you, even though he regrets what he did and wishes things had turned out differently, even though he has pity for the player – you are not given the chance to hear him out and let him live. Instead, your character breaks off the conversation and immediately starts a gunfight.

When I first confronted that NPC, I expected something along the lines of New Vegas’ meet-up with Benny. Like that scenario, I figured I would have several ways to approach it. Since you could kill Benny, sleep with him, or even trick him several different ways, I assumed Fallout 4 would borrow from Obsidian’s masterpiece and give me a way to non-violently resolve the quest.

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However Bethesda, once again, proved it’s the laziest RPG developer out there.

This theme of laziness pervades the game, with repetitive random quests pairing up alongside of respawning dungeons that make the game feel more like some sort of Diablo clone instead of a tried-and-true Fallout sequel. Throw in the randomly appearing “Legendary” enemies and the randomized item drops they give up and it’s hard to go from Fallout 3 or New Vegas to this title. It simply has so little in common with them.

The same goes for the NPCs you can recruit to aid you in your quest. While New Vegas had some truly memorable companions (ED-E, Boone, Veronica, Cassidy, and especially Lily), Fallout 4 is seriously lacking in that respect. Although I liked Piper’s voice actress and thought Nick Valentine was a cleverly thought out character, none of them ever truly grew on me.

Of course, it didn’t help that the men were all hitting on my male character and asking to be romanced, which, in my opinion, smacks of forced social justice pandering. Not to bring up this tired argument again, but making everyone bisexual just to tick the “friendly to all people” box on your design document is downright stupid. It goes to show you that story cohesiveness and realism aren’t Bethesda’s strong suits.

So there is no reputation system, no karma system, the dialog choices are anemic and player choice is nearly non-existent…but what about the core stats? Is the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system still the overflowing fountain of min-maxing possibilities that it has always been in this series?

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As you can imagine, Bethesda completely rewrote the rules on stats, and as they did in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the game is now more about skill trees than it is statistics. While there are still S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, all they truly govern is which tier of perks you can unlock. Sure, strength still determines carry weight and agility governs action point regeneration, but the affects they have on gameplay are secondary to the fact that they decide what skills you can invest in.

What this means is that each point you invest in a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat unlocks a new perk you can raise levels in. So for instance, if you want to invest in the sniper perk which gives bonuses to long range attacks, you need a perception of 8 to unlock it at that 8th slot. If you want Adamantium Skeleton, one of the previous games most useful perks, you need an Endurance of 7 to unlock it at the 7th slot. Essentially, S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats only serve to act as keys to unlock the perks you want rather than add to the uniqueness of your character.

Charisma suffers the most from this, since even at high levels it fails to become the game-changer it was in the previous games. Having made a character with 7 Charisma, I thought I could talk my way through most of the Fallout’s quests. While the game rarely gave me any chance to actually use my charisma in dialog, the few chances I did get were failures. More often than I wanted to, I had to reload a save a few dozen times just to make a skill check. While I’m not proud of save scumming, keep in mind my desperation for some sort of non-linearity was so great I was already chewing through my couch cushions in frustration at the fact that my charismatic nerd of a hero was unable to exercise his skills.

The problem with the skill checks, which are few, is that they aren’t dependent on your ability score but are instead merely a game of chance based on percentage. The old way it was handled in every previous Fallout – where certain ability scores unlocked different tiers of dialog options – is gone. Now you’re left with dice rolls in probably the only place where a dice roll doesn’t belong. Funny thing, that.

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Intelligence opening up dialog choices? Certain skills such as medical and outdoorsman allowing you to steer the conversation into new and advantageous territory? Not here. Everything has been sliced away to placate Bethesda’s desire to make the game more cinematic.

So Fallout 4 isn’t a roleplaying game, that much is certain. The question is though, what type of game is it and what does it do that makes it worth paying money for?

The thing with Bethesda is that ever since Julian Lefay left during the development of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, they have adopted this odd tactic of removing small sections of their game with every sequel. In an effort to make their games more appealing to wider audiences, they take the most popular portions of a title’s gameplay mechanics and make those parts of the game much larger in the sequel – throwing away the rest. Looking at Fallout 4, it’s easy to see where they did this. The things that people loved, such as the power armor, the gun modification, and the NPC relationships…all of these are available from the start.

This immediate gratification Bethesda supports is what has contributed to their games becoming more and more dumbed down. They take the sweetest, most beloved parts of the previous game and over-inflate those aspects in the sequel while removing most of what remains. It’s sort of like eating a pumpkin pie and having someone complain that the crust is too crunchy. In response, the baker creates a pumpkin pie without crust that is merely custard sitting in a tinfoil pan. In theory, you’d think that would be an improvement, but in reality it’s just a giant tub of pudding without anything to hold it up.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Fallout 4 is a vastly different game than any of its previous entries. Even the armor system has changed, with equipment coming piecemeal the same way it is in the Elder Scrolls games. While you do still get fully contained suits, the vast majority of the game’s armor is found in right arm/right leg, left arm/left leg variants. Sure, it does allow for a more natural “post-apocalyptic” look – with the mismatched mad max armor and all – but it felt jarring to see such a huge part of the Elder Scrolls series bleed into Fallout like this.

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Another huge change is the new settlement mechanic, which has you constructing towns for the wasteland’s citizens and setting up defenses to protect them from raiders and mutants. While the Minecaft-esque nature of city planning and building is extraordinarily addictive, the constant pleas from your settlers to help them clear out random dungeons or protect them from mobs of bandits is nearly as annoying as it was when this same mechanic was used in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky. After about 30 hours of trying to please a bunch of dirty-faced and highly demanding squatters, I gave up on the whole idea and went back to the main quest. Though it has its moments, it doesn’t give out any real rewards and has hardly any effect on the game world as a whole.

Even the crafting system, which I’ll admit is considerably better than New Vegas’ own version, doesn’t come without a few negatives. The biggest of which is the fact that its overwhelming power quickly negates the need of the player to barter with merchants. After all, why buy a plain old pipe rifle when you can take one off of a low level bandit and quickly mod it into a sniper rifle that pops heads from half a mile away? Granted, the higher level mods require higher levels of the gun net and science perks, but even with the level scaling, it’s very easy to outclass the enemy with your own modded weaponry.

Another downside is that the hunger for modding means that you will become a voracious packrat that scours every nook and cranny of a building for duct tape and alarm clocks. True, hoarding is normal in a Bethesda game, but the amount you need to do to keep your modding habit going is insane. So much so that I chose my followers not on how well they performed in combat, but on how much random junk they could cram into their pockets.

There are other minor annoyances, like small-ish world causing points of interest to be clustered together and the god awful radio DJ, but at least you can fix the latter with an optional quest. The rest of it? Well, don’t come into Fallout 4 expecting Fallout 4. Instead, expect Borderlands 3.

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And here’s where the review takes an unexpected turn: if you play the game like Diablo or Borderlands, you’ll have considerably more fun than you would have otherwise. As much as it pains me to admit it, Fallout 4 is actually quite enjoyable if you just want a quick RPG-lite FPS hybrid that is heavy on the gunplay and generous about its ammo and equipment. Like oldschool action RPGs, Fallout 4 is more about hoarding rare loot and killing things than telling a story or allowing for player choice.

Amazingly, the gunplay is as tight as it ever was. With enemies now ducking and dodging (as well as running at a fairly fast clip), knowing how to move and shoot is much more important than it was in Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Even VATS has changed, with the game now merely slowing into a bullet-time effect rather than pausing when you enter it. Of course, any improvement to VATS is negated by the fact that its percentages are widly inaccurate and don’t seem to match up with actual hit chance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shot 4 times in a row at someone’s head and, even though I had more than 60% to hit, missed all 4. It became so bad that I stopped using VATS altogether. Especially when using my sniper rifles, since they seemed to miss 90% of the time in VATS but would insta-kill anything I lined the scope up with manually.

It’s this combat system, which is so fun and frantic, that literally saves Fallout 4. With the continuous torrent of gear, the large respawning mobs of enemies and the (this is the shocking part) tight FPS mechanics, Fallout 4 is fun…so long as you’re looking for a Borderlands-style loot haul that is nothing more than you turning monsters and bandits into gooey red paste with dozens of laughably over-powered weapons. If that’s what you want, then Fallout 4 is your game.

Collecting loot, crafting the perfect (and heavily imbalanced) set of weapons and armor, and making a gigantic 10 floor tall tower to sit in and lord over your main settlement is mindless and addictive fun. It’s not realistic fun, or even lore friendly fun, but it is fun.

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Sure, there is the typical Fallout aesthetic and the goofy music and that joy of seeing deathclaws rip the occasional NPC to death, but with much of the core roleplaying aspects torn out of the game, it isn’t the New Vegas (or even Fallout 3) inspired heir that many hoped it would be. Still, it is fun to engage in, if you don’t mind being an early adopter and paying full price for a loot hauling ARPG. If you’re fine with that, hit the trigger on the game and spend the next 60 hours killing mutants with missile launchers.

If, however, you’re a hardcore CRPGer looking for choice & consequence as well as a crunchy serving of statistical depth, you might want to look elsewhere. Fallout 4 is lacking quite a bit of the necessary bits that held its older siblings together. Like the pumpkin pie analogy I used earlier in this review, Fallout 4 is like a pie without any supporting crust underneath or around it; a formless pile of sweetened pie filling in a tin pan. If you just want something sugary to fill your figurative belly and don’t mind the guilt, knock yourself out. Otherwise? Find a pastry that has some real crust underneath.

Second Opinion

Brandon Orselli here, I’ve played the game on PlayStation 4 quite extensively. I essentially agree with all of the points Carl has made here – the game is insanely fun and addicting as just an action game, however, if you’re looking for a deep RPG … definitely consider other options. The game also runs quite well on PS4 – I rarely had issues (only one elevator/stuck glitch).

Fallout 4 was reviewed on Xbox One using a retail copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict 7.0

The Good

  • Contrary to popular belief, the visuals are great
  • Addictive, well crafted combat
  • Scratches that itch for ARPG/Loot-haul/randomization
  • Lots of content to shoot through

The Bad

  • Very little RPG mechanics left in the game
  • No choice & consequence
  • Can get repetitive fast
  • Rewards come too fast, too soon


Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.

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