Before you start reading, let me clear something up. I’m not good at video games. I used to be decent at them, but as I’ve gotten older, my overall capability of playing them regardless of what cognitive functions you reference have gotten worse. Whilst I acknowledge that my game playing ability may be part of the problem here, I still think that there is a serious issue with regards to how the game is designed. Now that you have this in mind, read on.
So, I’ve partaken in a bit of Fallout 4 recently. Despite how popular and good the franchise has always looked, I’ve never actually bothered to seriously sit down and enjoy one of them until now. And hey, what do you know, I really quite enjoyed it for the most part. Grappling with the controls on Xbox One is a bit awkward and all, but I figured it out and I was on my way happily gunning down weird post apocalyptic creatures and nasty hostile shootmen. Every so often though, I would hit a bit of a brick wall that needed side stepping around. See, as much as Fallout 4 is fairly welcoming to new players, it quickly became obvious to me that the game is clearly meant for fans of the series.
The thing with FO4 is that it just kind of drops you in, half expecting you to know what you need to be doing. Much as it guides you through the intro bits (and I will say Vault 111 makes for quite a nice passive tutorial despite everything), it still doesn’t fully explain certain things with full on prompts giving you information. The most it ever gives you on anything is the easily missed pop up notifications in the top left of the screen. Now I could easily be wrong on this, since my memory is awful and it doesn’t remember things too easily. I personally had no issues going through the opening of the game, but I did keep noticing awkward moments of “…Wait, so how do i do this again?” For example, I had no idea I had a torch function available until my friend told me that was the case. But I still didn’t know what button it was since it doesn’t say so in the options and the game never gave me a tip for it either; I only found out that it was activated through holding down the Pip Boy button by messing about with the controls for a bit. The game is full of moments like this, small little annoyances that are never fully explained – I still don’t know how to fully decipher the icons on my radar. I get that the weird door with a stick coming out it with a square on top signifies the general direction a quest line is in but not only does it not properly specify WHICH quest (bad because you can have multiple active quests), but also what kind of bizarre world are you living in that such an icon obviously means “Quest”? And why, pray tell, does a giant car icon appear on my radar despite the fact that I can’t interact with any of the cars that are near to me? It’s just….bizarre and confusing. (NB: I have since found out that the giant car icon means “bridge”. Again, what the hell kind of logic is that?)
Many people point reference to the building system new to FO4 when talking about the unexplained stuff in the game. And while, yeah, I agree it doesn’t explain itself too well, it’s still relatively intuitive enough to figure out easily, in my opinion. Though personally when I found out I could scrap pretty much anything within the general area of Sanctuary, I switched into Viscera Cleanup Detail mode and proceeded to clean the ever-loving shit out of the place. Anyway, aside from the fact that Mama Murphy refused to sit on the chair I made for her (instead proceeding to go to a nearby house and sitting on the one chair I forgot to scrap), the settlement gubbins was not much of a problem for me. Instead, the problems started when I decided to start heading toward Diamond City in order to continue the main quest line, with the plan on doing side quests that pop up along the way. And it’s at this point that it became glaringly obvious to me that this game is not a good starting point for new people to the series.
Fallout 4 is a bit of an oddity in the series in that it finally introduces a massive open world for you to explore as soon as you’re out of Vault 111. You’re never tied down to doing anything and can just go off having a jolly walk about the place with a big gun if that’s your preference. While I see this as a relatively positive thing, it creates an absolute hellscape in terms of accessibility for inexperienced players like myself. The fact that the game opens the entire world up to you near instantly is both a blessing and a curse. FO4’s world is gorgeous and begs to be constantly explored and the game explicitly requires you to bugger off in order to find Diamond City, but it never tells you about how difficult a certain area will be. Whilst the first couple of cities you hit up will be cleared with relative ease and perhaps a bit of trial and error, the moment you step outside of those first couple of cities you will get completely fucked unless you’ve got your stats up nicely. Case in point with my current save, outside of one area filled with raiders that I was having too much trouble with to deal, I thought I had cleared out a city of hostiles and loot. So I decided to trek onwards, taking a nice safe route along a partially broken highway above ground to avoid deadly random encounters (more on those later) and when I had finally found somewhere new, I jumped down into some nearby water for a safe landing (at which point I found out the water is irradiated.) From this point forward I found myself constantly dying to either sudden super enemies or enemies that straight up had better guns than I did.
What went wrong here, exactly? Did I take the wrong path? Was I meant to craft myself some new weapons to compensate for the lack of decent loot drops? (in which case why didn’t the game ever tell me this?) A lot of this game automatically assumes you’re already experienced with playing Fallout games, to the point that a lot of stuff is just never explained to you properly. And even though it is an open world, that doesn’t stop the game from having event markers around certain areas that bring up a notification saying “Hey, this area might be a bit too tough for you right now, maybe turn back”. Of course, there is the factor of me being bad at video games also at hand here, but the fact that I appear to have wandered into an area meant for higher level characters with some comparatively weak guns and armour with no indication that I shouldn’t be there at the moment is rather vexing.
This would be far less of a problem mind you, if it weren’t for the fact that the even more beloved Fallout: New Vegas has these indicators in place from the start. For the beginning of the game it places you in a tutorial area and straight up gives you a full yes/no prompt when you attempt to leave the area before finishing up the quests there. And even later on in the game, clearly signposts that certain areas are guaranteed deadly unless you’re pretty high level. When I’m playing the game normally like anyone else would and end up wandering into a far more powerful area and feel like my guns are completely useless due to the enemies being far stronger than I am, that’s not great. When talking about these issues on Mastodon, someone mentioned diving into a wiki beforehand; but personally I feel that if I have to do that just to not die in the game? That’s bad design. The fact that it clearly wasn’t designed with the phrase “Every game is someone’s first game” in mind is irritating to me.
Oh, and on the random encounters bit? That’s even more horse shit piled on top of this major issue. I mean, put it this way, I’d just got done with some of the settlement quests and decided to head out to DC as mentioned before. Because I was still carrying a bunch of crap in my inventory, I decided to trade some stuff with Trashcan Carla, who I ran in to just outside the first city. After much deliberating, I finished up business with her and was immediately greeted with a Mr Handy robot, who asked me if I was a spy from the war that happened whilst the player character was in stasis. I told it that it happened 200 years ago, and it immediately started attacking me. A red skull was next to its name. Obviously, it obliterated me instantly. So I reload and try again, having to re-trade shit with Carla because I didn’t get a chance to quicksave. And then suddenly a ridiculously strong ghoul, again with a red skull next to its name, started running up to me. I managed to escape it but then ended up dying to something else entirely which I can’t remember. I was more lucky in round three, in which the random encounter was just a bunch of raiders. But the fact that I got accosted by red skull enemies not once but TWICE right at the start of the game for no reason other than bad RNG is just atrocious. Not to mention the enemies that are hiding and also inexplicably have a fucking mini nuke launcher, thus causing completely unexplained deaths.
I want to like Fallout 4 a lot. I really do. I enjoyed my initial two hours with the game so much, but the fact that I’m currently stuck in a position where I have no idea where to go because my guns aren’t good enough for anywhere outside of the first couple of cities has kind of left me in a bit of a disparate state that makes me reluctant to jump back in. I’d start a new save if it weren’t for the fact that the opening to the game is so damn tedious. A few friends have pointed out to me that Fallout 3 is more directly linear and because of that, I’m going to go dunk myself into that instead. I really adore everything about Fallout 4, the setting, the lore, the sound design, the enemies…I just wish that the gameplay wasn’t so awkward and against newcomers. Also, if you’re confused as to why I’d go for FO3 instead of the (apparently) superior FO:NV, it’s because I’d like to enjoy the linear experience + the gorgeous setting of Fallout in order to properly get a feel for everything before moving into the nice comfy half’n’half style of New Vegas. Trust me, I’ll get to it in due time, but for now, I’d like a game which tells me what I’m supposed to be doing.
Related ideas for articles which may or may not be upcoming: On the Difficulty of Puzzle games // On the topic of “hand holding” in video games // Thoughts on Fallout 3 after playing it for a while.