7 things that make Fallout 4 S.P.E.C.I.A.L

(This is a guest contribution by reader Cole Wyatt, to whom we are eternally grateful!  Find him on twitter @M_C_Wyatt)

With the release of any video game comes criticism, and this criticism is only magnified for popular, high-profile series releases.  No matter what you think about it, most can agree that Fallout 4 will receive more criticism (good and bad) than any other game of the year. There have already been complaints about pretty much every aspect of this game from the graphics and gameplay to the way the models’ lips move. There has been high praise for the graphical developments, but little praise of the unchanged gameplay. There are bugs; a lot of them harmless, but a few game-breakers.  Whatever criticism you have about this title in the wider context of video games, leave them at the door.

What follows is an exploration of some things that Fallout 4 does very well.  Specifically, improvements that have been made to the series for the better and will continue to advance it contrasted against the last Fallout game developed by Bethesda. I don’t wish to omit the contribution that Obsidian made to the series with New Vegas, but the similarities between the two games are pretty obvious to players, so I’ll be focusing mainly on Fallout 3. Finally, there are some minor spoilers, and though I did my best to not name names or places, some things can be probably be inferred depending on how far in the game you are. Sections ‘S’ through ‘A’ are spoiler-free of any plot details. Section L will spoil some events towards the end of the main quest line, but I attempted to be sensitive to spoilers throughout.

 

S is for Settlements

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After days wandering around in the radiation-soaked wastes, everyone needs a place to kick off their shoes, put up their feet and (most importantly) store their loot. In the capital wasteland of Fallout 3, this was an old shack that I had liberated from some raiders. It was perfect. I could fast travel to it, I could sleep there and it even had a toolbox to store my hundreds of pounds worth of junk. Later in the game, I found nicer homes and locations that offered more luxurious environments, but I stuck with my old shack because of its quaint charm.  Okay, who am I kidding? I wasn’t going to try to move all that crap across the wasteland. Besides, at the end of the day, there wasn’t even any point. Sure, those other locations might look a bit tidier, but functionally they were still just garbage dumps for all the rubbish I kept picking up.

In the 2015 version of the wasteland, I finally found a reason to move out of that little shack. Several of them, actually. Settlements allow you to store all of your junk and so much more. With the boost that the local leader perk provides, you can even have supply lines connecting all of your settlements. Need that fat man you left back at that one settlement? No need to fast travel. Just pop by the settlement you’re about to pass on the way to your next quest. All of your items will be there, courtesy of some chump that you forced to wander between your makeshift towns. Bump the local leader perk up again to build crafting stations and set up shops to trade with. It’s really nice not having to compromise. I can have a good-looking settlement complete with all my own decorations, store all of my junk and shop at a single locale at numerous settlements across the map.

Even if the player doesn’t want to invest in the local leader perks or set up any other settlements, just having a single place where you can store your things, craft items and trade makes the Fallout experience much smoother. If, somehow, the option to save yourself time and still remain organized doesn’t appeal to you, you can likely still appreciate a Fallout game where you can build the kind of grandiose and ridiculous things players are currently showing off on Youtube.

 

P is for Perks

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The decision by Bethesda to remove the ‘skills’ component of its character development system (putting perks at the forefront) is one of the most promising improvements to the series. The previous numbered installment in the series used a progression system, rather like a waterfall. The first level of character customization asked the player to invest a pool of points across 7 different base attributes known as the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system. These governed the character attributes of Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. Each point a player invested in their S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes corresponded to a set of skills, which ranged from zero proficiency to 100 in areas such as lockpicking, various weapon types, damage resistance and so on.

Those skills were then topped off by unique buffs the player could select called “perks”. Not only did some perks give substantial advantages to the player, like the ability to assassinate enemies in their sleep or create unique dialogue options, but they were also accompanied by the more entertaining and off-the-wall elements of gameplay.  Some of the wackier perks included the iconic bloody mess that (in addition to allowing the player to do more damage) would cause enemies to explode into a shower of intestinal confetti at random.

Other perks gave the players completely unique abilities like the cannibal perk that allowed the player to devour corpses to regain health at the expense of their moral standing. My personal favorite was the mysterious stranger perk. When using the V.A.T.S combat system, this perk offered a small chance that an unknown (and mysterious-looking) NPC would appear at the player’s side and decimate any enemy targeted by the player before vanishing in a puff of…mystery.

In their newest wasteland incarnation, Bethesda streamlined the character progression system by removing the skills component and incorporating it into the perks system. Having a more robust perks system eliminates the confusion of how skills, perks, and S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes interact in favor of a progression that is more accessible and arguably more meaningful. Now the abilities available to the player directly correlate to the player’s level and the S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes they have invested in. This makes it easier to understand exactly how the player’s progression choices affect their ability to interact with the world and provides a sense of meaningful growth instead of simply ticking numbers up on a screen.

E is for Expediency

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I know that I’m hardly alone in saying that I didn’t really care for the Fallout 3 narrative. To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in who my father was, or why he left the vault. By the time I had a birthday party, took the G.O.A.T. exam and displayed my pugilistic prowess to the tunnel snakes, I could see why my dad left: life in the vault was boring. Once I made it above ground, things got a lot more exciting, but it took a while. All of the most interesting parts of the game didn’t come until much later. Even small victories like using laser weapons or big guns took much longer than I would have liked. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the first 5 or so hours of Fallout 3, but I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoy vegetables or yogurt. I eat them because I know they are good for me, but what I’m really after is the meat, potatoes, and ultimately the dessert. This led me to using a lot of small guns, and sneaking around praying that I didn’t get noticed before I could sneak up and attack anything that moved. After several hours, I had better weapons, the ammo to support them, increased my sneaking skill and was ready to start really digging into the Capital.

By contrast, the Commonwealth had its hooks in me from the start. I got just a glimpse of the pre-war world (and what I had lost).  Enough of a glimpse to be out for blood and answers. In the first hour of this new journey, I found a faithful companion, a powerful laser weapon, and a suit of power armor. These first two finds were middling milestones in the Capital, but power armor was quite literally one of the last additions to the player’s arsenal, and felt a lot like a tease. Finding the capital city was another task that took far too long in Fallout 3, but in Fallout 4 it is one of the first places you are directed to.

This isn’t to say that the pacing in Fallout 4 is completely unbridled. There are certainly moments where the player has to slow their progress to make larger future gains, but instead of chronologically frontloading those pacing elements, Bethesda has done something ingenious: they have layered them. Now, the  player’s progress isn’t exclusively controlled by the developer, but by the player.

More than once I felt like my level was too low to reach a certain area, but instead of turning back and doing some missions until I happened upon a better weapon or gave myself time to grind levels like I might have in 3, I used the world at my disposal. I crafted chems, improved my armor, got support from a companion and if all else failed, put on my power armor. These options allow the player to tackle almost any challenge in the game regardless of level, with a bit of forethought.

This change in pacing the interactions between the world and player, more than anything else, is going to be responsible for re-invigorating the Fallout series with new players. Keeping the action nearly constant from the developer’s standpoint and letting the player control how they handle their downtime or solve their own challenges will allow many people who have previously been intimidated by this series to pick it up and get stuck into the action. This kind of development choice is good for everyone, as it keeps new players engaged while giving old players more of what they love, which in turn keeps the sequels to this beloved series coming.

 

C is for Companionship

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I loved Dogmeat in Fallout 3 but he wasn’t exactly useful, was he? He’d bark to alert me to enemies, and he could carry a decent amount of stuff, which was nice when I got over-encumbered, but he wasn’t a friend. I didn’t really care how much he liked me. While it made me sort of sad to hear him in pain, I didn’t actively care if he was in danger. He was little more than a walking, barking storage bin.

The first time I saw Dogmeat in Fallout 4, he looked genuinely happy to see me. He moved like a real dog. He has happy barks and sad barks. He crouches, ready to pounce on unsuspecting enemies. I can equip him with armor and put a collar on him and he’ll even play with toys you put in his inventory. He’s not just adorable, he’s a true companion now.

Each companion has their own strengths and weaknesses. They all have their own widely-varying agendas and they serve as your moral compass (or lack thereof) throughout the wasteland. When I get a notification that my companion likes what I’ve done, I know our motives are in sync. Similarly, when I’ve disappointed or angered them I either try to make up for it next time or write them off as a goody two-shoes. I listen to their stories and try to help them fulfill their aspirations.  I care about them.

Companion utility has also taken a few large strides forward. They can still store items for you, but now they can also pick locks, hack terminals or be directed to attack specific enemies. If you invest in certain perks, they can become pretty devastating. Dogmeat can hold enemies down to increase your chance of hitting them in V.A.T.S, or damaging their limbs. At higher levels his bite causes opponents to bleed. Other companions can also take benefit from perks, giving them a damage boost, and if you become friendly enough with them, you can gain perks exclusive to gaining their favor.

The personality of the new companions combined with their interesting stories and aspirations serves to bring them to life, but their utility in the game world is what gives them lasting power. Special perks that allow you to highlight their combat skills combined with their ability to bestow unique perks on the player makes it clear that Bethesda has put a lot of love into this series staple and raised the ante over its predecessors.

 

I is for Intimidation

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 There isn’t anything quite like the fear one experiences in their second encounter with a Deathclaw in Fallout 4. The first time, you should be snugly sitting in power armor (though if you weren’t, then God help you). The first time I found a Deathclaw out of my armor (or perhaps I should say he found me), I was coming around the corner of a building. He scooped me up with one hand and roared in my face, before slamming me down the ground with his full force. After that I composed myself long enough to do the wisest thing, and flee in terror. Mr. Deathclaw used his hulking strength to pelt me with a stone from several yards away. When I respawned, I promptly went back the way I had come.

These monstrosities aren’t new to the Fallout universe, or even to Bethesda’s incarnation of it, but they are much more terrifying this time around. In fact, everything is. Ghouls are quicker and much feistier. They will run at you screaming with full force, and if you don’t take out their legs they will tackle you down while you stare at their gaping maw through the slow motion of V.A.T.S. Bloodbugs clamp onto your face, draw the blood from your veins, and use it against you as a weapon. Spitting it back at you causes your vision to blur making protecting yourself that much harder. Super mutant suiciders gallop towards you with mini-nukes strapped to their wrists, ready to obliterate themselves in nuclear hell just to see that you’re wiped from the Earth.  Fallout 4 is in many ways much nastier than its predecessors, and the series is better for it.

A combination of better enemy models and audio are partly to thank for this, as many deadly enemies now look even more formidable than their Fallout 3 counterparts and are even more terrifying. New enemy detection means that until I started being very careful, enemies would often hit me before I would even see them. It’s not just the revamped enemies that make the Commonwealth more formidable than the Capital. Hell, It’s even in the water.

Radiation has always been a staple of the series and this time though it’s arguably less detrimental to expose yourself to radiation, it’s much more worrisome. Beforehand, the only indication that you had radiation poisoning was in your Pipboy status screen. Now that radiation eats up your maximum HP, it’s symbolized as a glaring portion of red that starts at the right-most corner of your HP bar. Every time I look down and see that part of the bar is red, I know I’m a little (or a lot) less prepared for whatever situation I’m about to face. This is a stark contrast to the out-of-sight out-of-mind effect of rads in the previous entry.

This constant worrying that Fallout 4 has me doing isn’t just over radiation; it’s over survival, which is really what the game is about. How Bethesda achieves this threat is a bit cunning, a little bit of smoke and mirrors. Enemies look and feel more threatening, and radiation feels more daunting. The spiked heads and strung-up bodies that make up the mainstay of raider decorations strike even more fear into the heart than they did before. Molerats burrow up from the ground and surround you.  Bloatflies fire maggots into your face.  All of this makes you feel, moment-to-moment, that you really are surviving, and that’s the point.

 

A is for Ad-lib

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Problem-solving has long been a hallmark of the Fallout franchise. With many people across the wasteland wanting help, but seemingly unsure of how to help themselves, the player is constantly tasked with solving problems. From simply shutting off valves to eliminating hordes of opposition, it’s never quite clear what tool you need for the job. This leaves the player brainstorming about how best to go about their missions. Do you kill someone and take what you need from them? Do you negotiate in an attempt to avoid bloodshed? At some point in almost every questline in both Fallout 3 and 4, you will have to choose between silver-tongue diplomacy or double-barreled violence.

In Fallout 3, the answer to such problem solving was often dictated by the player’s previous actions. If the player had invested their skill points in physical attributes like strength or endurance, it most likely didn’t leave them a lot of room to invest in charisma. Offsetting these weaknesses with items was always a possibility, but not always accessible or useful. Because the player had to depend on the items they found in the world, they were always at the mercy of a combination of happenstance and their previous choices with no real way to overcome an insurmountable hump.

Fallout 4, unlike its predecessor, allows the player to screw up, or to put it nicely ‘ad-lib’. If your character has near zero endurance and you have no choice but to incite a close-quarters firefight, no problem! Just pump some buffjet into your veins and unload on enemies with a silenced shotgun before they know what happening. If you are a lumbering oaf that can’t get their wits about them long enough to repair anything, just pop some berry mentats into your mouth and start fixing up that reactor. Even unlikable players can use chems and alcohol to pass speech checks and reduce the price of items at shops.

Playing it by ear and mixing up your strategy doesn’t end with consumables. You can also craft a weapon for every situation. If you need to clear a large area, start tinkering about with that Fatman launcher. If you need to go in quiet, you can slap a silencer onto almost any weapon.

Feeling like you’ve made mistakes and learned from them is part of every good video game. What Bethesda does better this time around is to teach the player to fail, but allow alternatives when they do. Providing the player with items to help them in every situation, no matter how daunting, is an exercise in great game design that encourages players to view every situation with an eager and fresh approach.

 

L is for Legacy

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Since I first stood on an overlook and flipped a switch in Fallout 3, I got a taste of the legacy this series entrusts its players with. Watching the city that was Megaton turn to dust before my eyes gave me a thirst for change. For more events like Megaton, more choices that I could make that would change the real main character of the entire Fallout series: The wasteland itself. The previous entry allowed me choices aplenty, but ultimately they were mostly insignificant. The small moral and ethical skirmishers vying for my support across the wasteland soon bored me. I began to help everyone on my first playthrough, and then kill everything on my second trip through the capital. It wasn’t that I couldn’t change anything. Sure, I could guide the story, and I could change how people throughout the wastes talked about me and my adventures, but ultimately the scale of the changes I had control over were so small.

Fallout 4 quenches my thirst for change on a grand scale. Not only are the citizens of the wasteland inundated with my latest exploits on the ever popular Diamond City Radio, but I can travel from one end of the world to the other and people know me. They may not know my name, but they know my exploits. It’s not just the increased amount of tall tales the wasteland spins about me, but the Commonwealth itself. Boston Airport is gone, because I set charges on a Brotherhood of steel airship and turned it into flaming debris. I helped a gang of pirate robots repair their ship, only to fly it into a building that can now be seen from miles around.

Destruction isn’t the only feather in my cap. I also reclaimed land and set up settlements to help the world start anew. Now when people walk across the wasteland they might see a settlement, where before there was nothing.  The might see the power grid I set up, or the pub I put down, or the pool table with only a few of the balls missing.

Speaking of people, I’ve helped a few hundred. Okay, so they aren’t actually people, more like machines, but they definitely want their freedom. Not only did I help them get it, but now that I have, an entirely new population has started inhabiting the wasteland because of the choices I made.

These are just a few examples of ways in which Bethesda has actualized a goal of world building they set for themselves when they took up the Fallout mantle. From the (relatively) small seed of allowing the player to destroy an entire in-game location, to the fruit of reshaping, destroying, and rebuilding an entire world as the lone wanderer sees fit is one of the most, if not the most important step forward Bethesda has taken with this series.

 

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