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17 November 2015

Why the mutant cow on the roof of my house proves Fallout 4 is a great game

There’s a depth of work and a complex evolution in this game that should not be overlooked.

By Phil Hartup

There’s a mutant cow on the roof of my house and I don’t know how to get it down. I don’t even know how to start getting it down. I built a ladder but it just doesn’t seem interested. Sometimes its feet vanish into the roof and it judders about like it’s in a mid-90s music video but most of the time it stands there and moos. For some reason though, it doesn’t bother me. Welcome to Fallout 4, the greatest game yet to feature roof cows.

Fallout 4 is a continuation not just of the Fallout series, but of a series of Bethesda open-world roleplaying games that goes back more than a decade. Fallout 4 could easily have been called Bethesda Open World RPG 5. Like an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty game Fallout 4 is a remake of the game that came before. Unlike other developers, however, Bethesda does this right.

The line of games leading to Fallout 4 started with Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. This might seem like an incredibly strange thing to say, given that there were two Fallout games before Morrowind even existed, but while the lore and the setting might be from Fallout, the modern Fallout games are no more sequels to the originals than FIFA is a sequel to Football Manager.

Morrowind was an open world adventure set in a dark volcanic land populated by weird monsters and creepy elves. It was unique, not just because of the scale of the game and the freedom that it offered the players, but because the setting was so incredibly alien, even by fantasy standards. It offered a world of blimp-like floating monsters, giant mushrooms and a mysterious crab who fenced stolen goods. While it was not the first Elder Scrolls game it was Morrowind that established them in their current format, a format that the Fallout series would also adopt.

As good as Morrowind was in its day and as tempting as it is to view it through a nostalgic lens, it was not a game without significant problems. The world building that went into the game is some of Bethesda’s best work and the ambition of the game is awe inspiring given the hardware it was built for, but on a mechanical level it was vital that the series evolved.

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At heart Morrowind was very much a number crunching roleplaying game first and an action game second. For instance you could run up to a monster and attack it, but if your character lacked the necessary skills your attack would probably miss regardless of where the blow seemed to fall. This reliance on more traditional RPG mechanics served to paper over the fact that the combat in the games was well below par for an action game. Later games have progressively lightened these systems, trading them piece by piece for a more action based approach.

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Some thirteen years and three games later Fallout 4 actually boasts remarkably good combat. Controls are sharp and movement is mostly on par with what you’d expect in an action game. Your character doesn’t start out slow and have to level up their athletics skill as they did in earlier games and weaponry does what it is supposed to do without needing you to have designed a character around being able to use it.

This success is timely because as the statistics and dice based roleplaying elements of the games were discarded over the years the series had settled into a sort of design Purgatory. Skyrim, for example, which Fallout 4 is more closely related to mechanically than Fallout 3, tried for an action oriented combat system but ended up creating something perfunctory and rather joyless. There are still shades of that failure in Fallout 4 of course, some enemies are bullet sponges and plenty of fights can be won by simply wolfing down food or using medical syringes at a faster rate than your enemy can inflict damage, but the progress is clear.

This streamlining has happened throughout the game as whole. Fallout 3 for example had skills, stats, perks, but Fallout 4 has done away with most of these. Everything is now rolled up together into a new system which uses perks to establish what your character is good at, but which still allows the player to point a gun and hit at target as well as they are able. Gone are the strength and skill limitations of Fallout 3 that required players to reach a given level before being able to use certain weapons properly. The character building systems in Fallout 4 go without a level cap, ensuring that for the first time in the series a single character can eventually do everything.

One slightly disturbing trend of this evolution is that Fallout 4 seems so proud of its shiny new combat that it wheels it out a lot. I wouldn’t say that this diminishes the game, but it does change the tone from its predecessors. In Fallout 3 you could complete the game without ever killing anything beyond a couple of roaches in a tutorial, but in Fallout 4 you’re often called upon to act as a one man army. Many of the classic Bethesda McGuffin retrieval subplots have been replaced with assignments to kill everything in a given location. If the next Bethesda game proceeds further down this avenue we might see something more like Golden Axe than Skyrim.

The main diversion from the fighting and snooping around the radioactive ruins of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is building farmsteads and outposts and looking after the settlers who move into them. This element of the game feels like a progression from the systems of home ownership and later home building that have been growing in the background of the series for years. The AI for townsfolk that in the old games saw them tending to their job during the day, going to the pub in the evening and then going home to sleep at night is now solid enough that it can adopt these behaviours in a town of the players own making, rooftop livestock notwithstanding.

It is clear that the extra time between Bethesda games helps immensely. Over the last thirteen years we’ve seen five games, an engine overhaul and a transformation from slightly stodgy niche RPGs to huge multiplatform hits. By contrast if we look at a series like Assassin’s Creed for example, boasting nine major games in eight years, we’re lucky if we get maybe one or two significant changes between them. Assassin’s Creed 4 added naval combat, Unity added multiplayer, Syndicate added a second protagonist, but each game was dogged by bugs, performance issues and an overriding sense that the developers would be too busy working on the next title to fix the one they’d just released. The same could be said about Call of Duty or FIFA. Taking a few years to put some substantial work into the nuts and bolts of these games can yield spectacular results but instead we get treated to overhyped Matryoshka dolls, popping open each year to show us more of the same with a different coat of paint.

It is easy to take a game like Fallout 4 for granted. It is not a game that will often shock those who are familiar with the series. It is not a game that will blow the socks off many people. Yet in spite of that overwhelming sense of the familiar it remains a great game, a victory for idea that practice makes perfect whether you’re juggling chainsaws or building a multimillion dollar RPG. I wanted Bethesda Open World RPG 5, I got it and I’ll probably be playing it until the next one comes out.