November 29, 2015

Let's Talk About how Fallout 4 is a Joke of an RPG

As I settle into my 90th hour of Fallout 4, I have finally hit the elephant in the very, very large room that is the Commonwealth. I touched upon it briefly in my initial review, but I can no longer sit idly by and just give it a passing mention; The truth hurts, but it needs to be told for improvement to be made. The first step of fixing a problem is, after all, admitting it exists. So I'll say it loud and clear now: Fallout 4 is BARELY an RPG.

A series that has long been steeped in the RPG culture has been homogenized and reconstituted into a game whose genre is not really easy to define. Best I can say is that it's an open world action/adventure, with some faint, faint, FAINT, elements of roleplay. It sure as shit isn't an actual roleplaying game, I know that much. Rather than ramble on about why in my usual raving manner, I've chosen to crib an idea from Red Letter Media and lay things out, by the numbers, as I carefully explain how Fallout 4 is a complete failure of a roleplaying experience.

By Henry Lombardi. DISCLAIMER: Not only is this my opinion, but I stand by my previous statements in my review. I really do enjoy the game a lot, and I will continue to play it for quite awhile (Most likely). I simply point out that the game is just an excellent action/adventure sent in the Fallout universe. And I have no real problem with such a thing...So long as it does not become the norm for the series.

1. The Beginning's Missteps

The idea of there being a tutorial section that takes place before the War is an idea that initially really intrigued me. However, upon actually sitting down to play it, I found it rather problematic. See, in previous titles, Fallout had ways of introducing you as a singular character with no real attachments / knowledge before beginning the adventure. In the original game, you were established as a resident of a Vault, but you are not let into the Vault immediately, and must first complete a task in the wastes. Doing so allowed both the character and the player to learn and experience this world for the first time at the same time. This is what's called immersion. The ability to plant yourself into this world seamlessly. True 100 percent immersion is not possible, I accept that, but a big part of any RPG is to make it feel like you're actually there, fulfilling the role you have chosen; That's why it's called an RPG.

"It's not longer possible to use your vast Intelligence to come up with a new solution to a seemingly hopeless scientific problem."

Fallout 2 did the same, albeit with some slight interaction with your native village. It was necessary to do this, given a more intimate setting of a small tribal home, but also invited in some humor. The game lampshades the player's ignorance when you ask questions the character should definitely already know. Fallout 3 just rehashed the formula again, but this is where we saw problems. On top of the experiences in Vault 101 affecting Karma outside the Vault (Even though that makes no logical sense), the game made no attempt to establish pretty much anybody in the Vault aside from those it deemed important. I feel nothing when shit goes to hell in 101 because the only characters to care about were James and Amata, one of whom has safely left. And it needed to do that because your whole life up until that point is meant to be in the Vault.

Fallout: New Vegas sorta did it right, with that whole convenient amnesia by head trauma thing. It's a tired trope, to be sure, but it managed to avoid the usual bits of such a trope by having very few times in which the character's prior knowledge was greater than that of the player's (The times it did were mostly for humor, as was the case in FO2). Only in the DLC did they bring the trope center stage, in what I considered to be the most disappointing conclusion to a story that is The Lonesome Road.

Fallout 4, however, easily takes it the farthest in the wrong direction, giving us two characters to choose from that not only have established lives, but also an established relationship and an established place in society. Do you remember in older games how you could make your character a babbling simpleton by setting your Intelligence to 1? The fact that Nora has a law school degree and Nate was former U.S. military training (As well as being a keynote speaker at a veteran's meeting), makes that whole interaction impossible, so they didn't even bother making it possible.

Your characters have to be average joes because the plot demands they be. And they need to be in a perfect lovely marriage, with a little bundle of joy, and surely they must be doing well if they have a Mr. Handy! Right away, key elements of roleplaying are up in smoke; The ability to create your own backstory, and the ability to flesh out your own character. Sure, all of this is effectively erased once you start the proper game, but it's not erased from our minds, especially with the plot being as overbearing and emotionally tied as this one. Cognitive Dissonance is when the urgency of the piece is supplanted by what actually happens. Sure you could immediately set out to save your baby and avenge your husband/wife, but the whole point of an RPG like Fallout was that you could pick a direction, and just walk in it. And you can do that in Fallout 4, but the resulting dissonance is just too much to ignore.

2. Bethesda decided to copy Obsidian in the worst way possible

Easily the biggest foul-up is the change made to the Dialogue. The dialogue in Fallout has been a staple of the series. One with lots and lots of options and carefully worded responses and a huge variety of persuasion options that made it so even big dumb strong characters could get what they wanted without having to throw punches. All of this is effectively gone in Fallout 4, which for some reason has replaced that with a chat wheel cribbed right from Alpha Protocol.

"You can no longer bullshit your way through a tense standoff with high Luck, and you can even forget about having a highly eloquent response with high Speech."

It was New Vegas that we wanted you to copy from, not the Alpha Protocol! You always have only 4 dialogue choices. And one of those is almost always dominated by Yes, No, or Sarcasm. And in a manner similar to Alpha Protocol, you cannot determine what you are actually going to say until you say it. It's so annoying that within a week a mod was released to banish the chat wheel, but the damage is still there. The severe limitation of what you can now say is only compounded by the complete removal of all Persuasion Checks, but Charisma ones and even those are done very poorly. It's not longer possible to use your vast Intelligence to come up with a new solution to a seemingly hopeless scientific problem. You can no longer bullshit your way through a tense standoff with high Luck, and you can even forget about having a highly eloquent response with high Speech.

Even with high Charisma, your responses in Persuasion Checks ARE ALWAYS THE SAME. All Charisma does is determine its success or failure. And that, of course, does nothing for replayability or immersion. Even several dialogue outcomes are exactly the same, even with diametrically opposed responses to the same question! Sure, you can back away from conversations, or pull a gun on them with the Intimidation perk, but that's the maximum depth that conversations go. Skyrim, which has its own host of errors, had this feature as well, and yet even it had the good sense of making NPC's stop walking to address you, whereas in Fallout 4 you're lucky to get someone walking to talk, let alone keep talking, lest they walk out of the conversation entirely and force you to listen to the same chain of dialogue yet again. How do you do that?

3. No Karma, No Reputation -- No Nothing!

I personally did not weep for the removal of Karma. It simply did not give enough to the experience to warrant its existence; Effectively all of what Karma was supposed to do is easily replaced by Reputation... But that's also been removed. Even though Fallout 4 has properly joinable Factions, as opposed to Fallout 3, the outcomes of each Faction allegiance are ultimately too similar, in a manner eerily familiar to the woefully-lacking Civil War quests in Skyrim. Sure, picking one Faction will lock you out of the other, but when the results are so similar and no substantial change results and nobody really treats you differently for your choice aside from some optional friends, it's just a huge letdown.

"Fallout 2, in particular, gave any playstyle something to latch onto, something to build the character with. You could be a slaver, a sheriff, a made man, a porn star, a boxer, a martial artist, and all of that could be done without so much as touching the plot of the game."

We need meaning to what we do, Bethesda. If there's no true impact from the choices we make, why should we care? You made the same mistake with Megaton. Sure, the initial shock of being able to personally obliterate an entire town full of innocent men, women, and children was great, but when it registers so little with the people of the wasteland (Dad is mildly disappointed, oh no.), it just doesn't have the same consequences that it should. It feels as though you've learned nothing from Fallout 3. But we know that's not true because you did get a lot of things right where Fallout 3 got it wrong; The companions are much improved, combat is glorious, and the environment is varied and colorful and interesting. It would have been so easy to push Fallout 4 to greatness, but it just fell short.

4. Truth and Zero Consequences

It's becoming increasingly evident that Bethesda cares more about delivering a consistent emotional story, but they seem to also feel like they can have their cake and eat it too. Deliver unto us this gigantic world with a plethora of things to do, give us a neat system to build our characters, and slap the RPG sticker on there. But that's just not possible. As I mentioned earlier, the plot demanded your character be a certain way, with a certain emotional connection and certain emotional need. The term "Roleplaying Game" is a bit of a misnomer; It would seem to imply that it's simply a game where you play a role, like an actor on the stage. But in truth the roleplaying game is simply the idea of creating your own role, a sort of "alter-ego" simulator, in which you can be someone you are most definitely not, or someone you definitely are or someone who falls in between those two spectrums, without so much as skipping a beat. I really need to stress how well previous installments got this idea. Fallout 2, in particular, gave any playstyle something to latch onto, something to build the character with. You could be a slaver, a sheriff, a made man, a porn star, a boxer, a martial artist, and all of that could be done without so much as touching the plot of the game. And it had consequence.

Consequence. Now that's an important thing to consider. Being one of those things listed above affected how people around you would react. Good, honest folk would deliberately avoid you if you were a slaver, whereas those who knew you as a made man for the mafia (of your choosing) knew you were nobody to fuck with. And selecting one group to join in would affect your chances, or even the possibility, of joining another group. You could forget about being a sheriff for the burgeoning NCR if you already chose the life of human trafficking. And conversely, being a heavyweight boxing champion helped your chances of becoming a porn celebrity. It's not like you could just back pedal, either. If you did something demonstrably evil to a group of people, they didn't just magically forget after an arbitrary wait time. I should also stress that you could kill ANYONE. You could literally render the game incompletable by killing plot-critical characters, and the consequence is, well, you can't complete the game!

And again, I must stress, all of this was one hundred percent optional. Compare now to Fallout 4. You can join nearly every faction, do any number of shitty despicable things, and at the end of the day the only people to even look at you different are the 12 specific characters you can haul around with you. None of whom you can even kill, mind you. In fact, the overwhelming majority of characters in Fallout 4 are completely unkillable. I remember quite a few people complained that you could not kill the Jarls in Skyrim or children in Fallout 3. But in Fallout 4? Forget about killing anyone who does anything remotely important, because it's just not happening. The people you can murder only exist outside of the plotline (Even characters exclusive to side quests may be kill-proof), and last time I checked, that is NOT total freedom. You only get to do certain things when the game tells you that you can. And that is inexcusable in any game toting itself as an RPG. Absolutely inexcusable.

I hope I've successfully driven the point home nice and clear. I also want to emphasize that I do not hate Fallout 4. In fact, this is less about the game and more about what the series has become. Bethesda took Fallout from being a storied legendary series of games to a household name. And of course with Fallout 4's amazingly successful launch and sales, it's clear there will be more Fallout in the future. The point of this article is not to try and bring down anything, but to expose an issue. Bethesda needs to return to its roots; For too long now, it has condensed epic roleplaying experiences in favor of action and epic plotlines, over true freedom and an evolving world. And it's not like RPGs can't have those, but Bethesda is clearly leaning more towards the former, and we need to make it nice and super clear that we won't let this slide in the future. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting this exists. I can only hope this helped you do that if you hadn't already.

You can follow Henry Lombardi on Facebook and / or Google+. If you liked this, check his Let's Talk About Fallout website section.

Fallout 1, 2 Tactics, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4