Return to the Commonwealth

No matter how detailed we are in our criticism of a text, at the end of the day it either connects with us, or it doesn’t. Sometimes something might connect with you despite your criticism. Sometimes you may critique two separate texts in identically positive ways, and yet you may only connect with one of them.

When Fallout 4 came out in late 2014 I played it a lot.

A lot of people played it a lot.

And in general the world thought it was pretty good. Some might even say excellent. IGN, which is admittedly generous towards the big budget blockbuster games, slapped it with a 9.5.

It has a metascore of 87.

Yet, I’ve heard so many complaints about the game, seen so many post-mortems on What Went Wrong with Fallout 4, that I was absolutely shocked to see such unanimous praise…then I saw the user score on Metacritic, which is 66. Now that is not indicative of a bad game but considering the strength of the franchise previously (this was a pre-76 world) no one can consider this a good score. Exactly what resonated with reviewers and what didn’t with the general audience, I don’t know.

All I know is I completely understand where that 66 is coming from.

There is certainly no way I would have suggested the game should receive a 9.5.

On release it was in typical Bethesda shape: buggy, rough around the edges, but it wasn’t performance which let me down, it was design. Fallout 4 felt dumbed down. We should have seen it coming as Skyrim was not a particularly deep role-playing game, but Fallout 4 further emphasised the action in action-rpg rather than the rpg. The dialogue system was limited, probably by the introduction of full protagonist voice acting, and the importance of decision making outside of the main storyline felt restricted. The only real differences between different builds of characters was their focus in combat. Non-violent solutions to dilemmas were rare, so there was little opportunity for characters built to be intimidating, charming, intelligent, or deceiving, to actually act as such, whereas in previous Fallout entries this was, to many, the main draw of the game.

Then there was the half-baked settlement system, which although was sufficient to provide some diversion, had little impact on the game world. It didn’t really matter whether you engaged with it or not, and there was little reward other than self-satisfaction at constructing something interesting from the limited, and sometimes broken, tools that the player was provided with.  

Despite this I put so many hours into it. Whole days disappeared into this game. And when I recently got the urge to return to the Commonwealth, what I thought might be a quick refresher, a quick burst of open-world exploration action, has turned into something more committed.

I’m replaying Fallout 4, and I’m absolutely loving it. I know, the world knows, what is wrong with the game. But years later, with the bugs ironed out, and mods plugged in, the game has me in a tight grasp.

What exactly has gripped me is difficult to put into words. It is the small things, intricate details woven into the fabric of a world which has been painstakingly constructed, and despite all its design flaws, these details make Fallout 4 stand out, even amongst its predecessors which are generally considered to be superior.

So, over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be provide a log of sorts, detailing my return to the Commonwealth in order to make note of why this game actually really worked for me, as in a typical review format I would most certainly get bogged down in the criticisms I have, whereas what I really want to do is retrospectively celebrate something which I clearly absolutely love.

So for now let’s just take a look at our boy here, Brando.

Circa 1999…

Brando is an arsehole. He is smart, sure, and he knows it. He looks down on people, and yeah yeah okay his wife is dead, but he has kind of immediately started using that as an excuse for his foibles.

Now although he understands it is probably important that he go out and find his infant son, he can’t help but feel like this post-apocalypse is there for the taking. Sure, life in a world not ruined by nuclear fires was nice, but ever since he came back from the war, he couldn’t help but feel like he was missing out on something by being there for his family…

Like I said, arsehole. But he’s ambitious. In times of crisis people look to the strong to lead them. It can put some bad people in powerful places. Brando would like to be in a powerful place. He doesn’t much care for Preston Garvey’s Minutemen and their charity, but they do present an opportunity to put a lot people in debt to him. The idea of a lot of people looking up to him as a leader, a guardian…he likes that idea. So, he doesn’t brush Garvey away completely. But first things first, he needs to get his feet under the table.

Also he probably does need to start looking for his son.

Despite his arrogance he knows that charisma is lacking…or I do, at least. I do like having something to build to, so I started his charisma stat on 3 although I know I’ll need a minimum of 6 to start forging the network of settlements Brando needs to create his empire. Maybe along the way, with the building of his perception, as well as his charisma, we might see Brando change, perhaps he might evolve along some sort of arc, perhaps by the end he won’t be such an arse.

I’m making my own fun, I guess, but that’s the magic of these games. I am using mods, so I could just bump all of his S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats up to max in a couple of clicks, but I just don’t think that is as entertaining. There has to be some kind of challenge.

So off to Diamond City, best boy Dogmeat in tow.

Predictably it’s not a path lined by roses or posies or…other flowers. In fact it’s lined with bodies. Ghouls. Super-Mutants. Bad dogs. Bad bears. Bad people. Dogmeat and Brando turn them all into chum with very little prejudice.

But there are quieter moment too, which serve as a reminder that amongst all the chaos, and radioactive monstrosities, there is still some kind of sad beauty in the world.

Shame the toilets are so consistently gross.

In Diamond City Brando makes some allies and pushes on in his quest to find his son. But first he gets a haircut and some new duds. His priorities are…right on. His son’ll be alright for a while longer, I’ve played this before, and Diamond City is chock full of the kind of delusional weirdos you’d hope to find in any post-apocalyptic settlement, so it’s only natural to want to spend some time antagonising them.

It’s the perfect place to come back to after spending some hours out in the radiated wilds, or in the ruins of the city, when you’re dripping with excess ammo which you can exchange for caps which you can in turn use to invest in new hats.

And, new hat strapped to his dome, he’s off again into the wastes.

I’ve still got plenty more time to spend in the Commonwealth, so next time we’ll see how Brando handles his growing party of willing (foolish?) companions, and how he interacts with many factions of the Commonwealth…

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