Initial Thoughts on Fallout 4

I say with no exaggeration that Fallout 3 changed my life. It brought me back to videogaming in a serious way (I’d been playing the FIFA series, GTA, and little else) and demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, the importance role-playing games had in my life. Late nights spent playing Fallout 3 blended with my reading of James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and John Gardner’s Art of Fiction (and a lot more) for my Ph.D. preliminary exams launched my research agenda, which is still going strong and growing after all these years. My first published academic work discussed how one might use a digital role-playing game in a fiction writing class and the example used, of course, was Fallout 3. I’ve written about it many times since.

So the release of Fallout 4 is something I, and millions of others, have been eagerly awaiting. My work and home life means that my playing time is limited to what I spend at night on the exercise bike, usually between the hours of 9:30 and midnight. Last night I stayed up until 2:30 AM playing Fallout 4, for a total of five hours. Even though I have been kidding for weeks about disappearing from the planet, this was a legitimate “oops.” I had planned to go to bed no later than 1:30. As players of the Fallout series and Elder Scrolls will recognize, I fell into the trap of exploring “just one more location.” Concepts of real-world time disintegrate.

Here are some thoughts on these first five hours of play.

1. The most surprising thing was that the game took 30 minutes to install on my PS4—from disc.
I didn’t necessarily mind as I had resisted watching all the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. videos that were available for pre-release, but I’ve never had a game self-install—and take so long—on a console. I assume this translates to more seamless gameplay, so it’s worth it.

2. The black comedy is blacker because the violence is harrowing.
No game series I know of moves between ironic humor and graphic violence like the Fallout series. The opening sequence demonstrates this expertly. Without giving away anything, the campy 1950’s tutorial features your robot butler Codsworth (complete with arch British accent) and a pushy Vault-Tec salesman. The humor drains out of scene as the news of confirmed nuclear strikes reaches your community, and you sprint to the safety of the fallout shelter.

I imagine it’s common for gamers to move through this and the next few scenes without much reflection. However, if you invest yourself in the “reading” of this world, it’s grim stuff. You brush past a whole line of people waiting to get into the shelter, and you barely make it—this means they didn’t. The other survivors are speechless and grief-stricken, stunned, staggering around as Vault 111 bureaucrats direct them, and you, where to go. You are given no opportunity to question or explore—you can only do as you are told.

The set piece that establishes the main quest is perhaps a little too familiar, but this is what we’ve come to expect from Bethesda’s open world games. The lack of a compelling central story is partially what invites you to explore and pick up all those wonderful side quests. Even after you emerge from Vault 111 into the Wasteland, the game veers from satire to violence in ways that continually make me think about both.

3. It’s harder than I expected.
I played through Fallout: New Vegas twice, once at launch and then again years later, and wound it up liking it a lot more the second time around. While I wouldn’t call my initial playthrough disappointing, it did feel like an enormous DLC tacked on to Fallout 3. The controls were completely familiar, VATS was identical, and I was quickly gunning down Powder Gangers without much thought. Playing and hard core mode where I needed to better ration food and water changed things a little, and I appreciated the added weapon crafting (more on that below), but it felt very familiar and a little too easy. Fallout: New Vegas never made me that scared to go exploring. This stood in stark contrast to Fallout 3, where I repeatedly got my virtual ass kicked in the opening acts of the game, which made me respect the danger of the Wasteland right out of the gate.

Well, it’s back to slinking around and jumping at shadows with Fallout 4. When I followed the path of introductory quests, I did fine; when I went off the beaten path, I died. Part of the issue is that good weapons and stimpacks seem to be in short supply in relation to how quickly I go through them when I meet a challenge. The new VATS system, which slows but does not stop time, feeds into my sense of anxiety. This is a good thing. We love it when a horror movie gives us a good thrill. I am doing plenty of shouting and swearing anytime I blunder into a situation I’m not yet powerful enough to handle, mad at myself for my carelessness and not the game for being unfair. That kind of visceral reaction keeps you engaged and emerged. This is why we play for hours on end and not realize the passage of time.

4. With all the crafting to be done, I’m glad I got the Prima Guide.
I’m not much of a crafter. Even in Skyrim, I never went in big for the enchantments or weapons forging. It always seems too fiddly for me. I’m going to have to change my tune in Fallout 4. As other reviews have remarked, there’s a ton of stuff lying around that you can pick up (though not everything, as some like to claim) and ostensibly all of it can be used to craft stuff. This includes modifying dwellings as well as weapons, armor, cooking, and doing chemistry. All told, it’s overwhelming.

I admit, I buy the Prima Game Guides for the maps and having them as the equivalent of coffee table books, for browsing through pretty pictures. This time I feel like this is going to be a much needed resource as I figure out how to do useful things with the many crafting stations to be found.

5. The designers give you some hallmark stuff right up front—which means there’s probably other stuff coming.
When I first played Fallout 3, I made it a point to find Dogmeat, an available canine companion, as soon as possible. I also remember the moment where, after hours of gameplay, you finally get to don the power armor on the game’s cover. These were big moments.

In contrast, Fallout 4 practically gives you this stuff at startup. You’ll have both the dog and the armor just by completing the first quest or two. This, I suspect, is a calculated move. The sense of palpable satisfaction when you team up with Dogmeat and first step into your power armor in Fallout 3 could not be replicated in Fallout 4, and the designers undercut this expectation by letting you have it right up front. As a player, this says to me that this world has new stuff to offer.

Some people have gently complained that much of the world, with raiders and deathclaws and all the rest, feels too familiar. This doesn’t bother me, at least not yet. With such enormous worlds, it makes more sense for there to be continuity among the disparate parts. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a few hundred miles south of post-apocalyptic Boston, as opposed to the almost three thousand to New Vegas. It makes sense from a narrative perspective that it would feel very similar to Fallout 3. From a gameplay perspective, I genuinely do not care. The side quests are always unique, and that’s where the best storytelling resides anyway.

I don’t plan on blogging regularly on the game (he says now) but I did want to commemorate my thoughts about my initial session before they begin to get muddied through extended play. Comments welcome, here or on Facebook.

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