My favorite Fallout game has always been New Vegas, but a recent playthrough of 4 has shown me the bright side of the series’ new direction.
I started playing the Fallout games about a decade ago. My first experience with the series was playing Fallout 3 when I was 14. I got the game through Gamefly, and admittedly, I sent it back pretty quick – the feral ghouls got me spooked. But eventually, I revisited the game, realized ghouls were easy to tear apart with a 10mm SMG, and continued on.
Since then, Fallout has become one of my favorite franchises in games. I’ve played Fallout 3 and New Vegas for countless hours, on consoles, and then on my computer with mods. This series of games has shaped what RPGs mean to me, what they can be like, and how I look at games overall. So when I started hearing about Fallout 4 in 2015, I was obviously excited.
I mean, if you’re a fan of the series, how couldn’t you be excited? The game’s announcement trailer at E3 2015 was brilliant. It showed an immense graphical leap from 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas, which was already hindered by running on the same engine as 2008’s Fallout 3. “It’s All Over But The Crying” by The Inkspots guides players through a short tour of the world they would come to know as the Commonwealth. At the time, I thought it would be a better Fallout game, and that the improvements wouldn’t just be skin deep.
Fast forward to today, and that obviously wasn’t true. Fallout 4 and subsequently Fallout 76 are radical departures from the Fallout I knew growing up. And I’m speaking as someone that played mostly the 3D Fallout titles. I’ve only dipped my toes into Fallout 1 & 2, and I can only imagine how fans of the series since those days feel now. All the same, the latest Fallout titles take a great deal of what made 3 and New Vegas so much fun to play through multiple times and tosses those features out the window. Individual skills are a thing of the past, the perk system has been streamlined, and dialogue choices–at least in 4–were done away with.
I know what this sounds like so far; “I miss the old Fallout, what did Bethesda do to my favorite franchise???” But here’s the thing: I recently had a certain RPG craving. You know, that feeling of wanting to roleplay a certain kind of experience. For some reason, I wanted the feeling of building something in a dangerous world, a game that combined building with scavenging. I tried out Minecraft and Terraria again, but neither really did it for me. Then I decided to get back into Fallout 4. I downloaded a ton of mods and started the game up a month back. Just yesterday I wrapped up my playthrough of the game, including all the DLC, and now I feel oddly satisfied.
While Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 aren’t your typical Fallout games, they are still very much RPGs. I find that it’s possible to simplify all RPGs down to one of two categories: games where you play as a character or games where you are a character. Think of it as the difference between painting a clay pot and making the pot yourself. In one instance, you’re just filling the shoes of a character on a predetermined path; you more or less decide what they look like during the trip. On the other end, in a game like Fallout: New Vegas, your character has no history before you start playing as them. For all intents and purposes, they are a clean slate for you to project any values you want onto. In New Vegas, your character can be a law-abiding cowboy of honor, rolling around with a Ranger Sequoia, sipping sarsaparilla. Or they can be a psycho-addicted fiend, killing any passer-by for the few caps they’ll have.
Fallout 4 is very much a different story. Your character is a veteran of the Great War who wakes up in a new, nuclear world with the goal of finding their family. While these two characteristics may seem malleable, they set a foundation for what the game thinks your character should be like. Fallout 4 pushes a character concept in the same way that Red Dead Redemption 2 does. Yeah, sure you can play Arthur like a sadistic psychopath, but in the end, he still has his redemption arc. No matter how evil you may make him act, by the end of the story he comes out as a flawed but somewhat good person.
The same goes for Fallout 4. No matter what you do, by the end of the game, a cutscene will play with your character saying that the Commonwealth is their new home like they’re lawful-good, and you totally didn’t take the cannibal perk.
This all goes against the reasons why I loved last generation’s Fallout titles. However, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 exceed in giving a player that feeling of being in a dead world, and the progress that comes from building something out of it. Never mind dialogue choices, skill checks, yadda yadda. Those deep gameplay features are obviously great, but sometimes you just want something a little simpler, like a diet RPG.
That’s pretty much what Fallout 4 ended up being for me: an RPG where I could still roleplay somewhat, but not be too concerned with keeping my character consistent and building them properly. Instead, I focused on a different kind of building – settlements. The end result was creating something in the Fallout world that I was really proud of. And the entire time I wasn’t worried about karma or what factions thought of me. I was too busy looking out for board games with nuclear material or gold-plated watches and lighters.
This new direction that Fallout has taken, one that puts more importance on vesting a player’s interest in what they can create in the world, is a pretty radical shift. Previous titles in the franchise wouldn’t really let you see the fruits of your labor until the credits roll and Ron Perlman is telling you how the Great Khans have established an empire out of the Pacific Northwest due to your actions. That may be why–even though I’m a bigger fan of the past titles–the past two have appealed to me so much.
When I got into the series about a decade ago, it was because I had never played an RPG quite like it; something with a huge, sprawling world, intricately designed to tell rich stories just with its environments. I was interested in the series’ lore, its political messages, everything that made Fallout what it is. But when you play through the wastelands enough, they start to feel like just that: wastelands. Big, dead, empty stretches of space. Fallout 4 and 76 offer players the opportunity to change something about that.
Realizing how much I had impacted the world of Fallout 4 came when I was looking out from Sanctuary. At that point, Sanctuary was my home base, but I’d also started building projects in the other settlements. Looking out from a porch I’d built onto my house, I could see straight over to the Red Rocket Gas Station, and I noticed that I could actually see the buildings I’d put up from my home. I had changed part of the Commonwealth skyline.
Active change is the real difference between the latest Fallout games and last generation’s. It’s also why Fallout 4 and 76 appeal to a person like me, whose desktop wallpaper is of the iconic New Vegas. Waiting until the credits roll to see the changes I’ve made to the wasteland is like letting a person see their trophy in a cabinet but never letting them hold it. Instead, the latest titles give that power straight to the player, albeit 76 does it in a much more reserved manner due to its online nature. You can make a visible change to the world around you, and to me, that’s just the kick that the Fallout games have needed.