Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.


Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.


Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.


Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.


Right, it’s eleven in the morning, a couple of days before I normally get up, but today I’ve made an exception, to bring you the cutting edge in gaming news. I hope you all appreciate the sacrifices I make for you lot.

Actually, I was watching the last episode of Game Of Thrones season 5, but because of that I had something to watch whilst it was loading. Killing two birds with one stone, or perhaps that should be shooting two of them down with one burst from a plasma rifle – yes, it’s Fallout 4 again! It debuted at E3 last night, and after watching the presentation I feel very strongly about it, but only about the fact that I would like to see some actual gameplay to feel strongly about.

I started to get suspicious when they cut away from the entrance to the vault and the detonation of the bomb, having only gone through character creation and a couple of dialogue trees in the video so far. Hold on, I thought, I was just getting into that. Why have you pulled away from the game literally as it was getting good?


Welcome back, Robo-jeeves. Can I swap you out for the dog that’s following me? You seem like a better conversationalist.

“We don’t want to spoil anything,” explained the presenter, and then went about spoiling the fact that everybody else in the vault died and you’ve been asleep for two centuries for some reason. Sounds engaging, I thought. Could I possibly get to see that? This is basically the stuff you’d put on the back of the DVD after all, and I’d quite like to see something that wasn’t completely scripted. If you’re going to warble on about player freedom, then you could show it to us.

Either my wishes fell on deaf ears or somebody behind the scenes had lost the video file they were looking for, because the next ten minutes were Bethesda talking about the collector’s edition of the game and some free-to-play app that I couldn’t have been less interested in. Fast-forward, fast-forward.

Ah, we’re back. Oh shit, it’s crafting.

Alright, some of it looked interesting. I like the manner in which you hammer bits of weaponry together, because that’s in keeping with the theme, but the house-building dynamic made me rear back like a viper. No, no, no. I know Bethesda aspire to create something for everybody, but this just looks dull. The most boring aspects of Skyrim and the last two Fallout games were always the house management mechanics, and adding turrets isn’t going to spice it up much when I could just wander out to find enemies myself.

I realise I sound like a downer here, but there is stuff I like, and most of my beef is with the manner in which it was presented. I like how Power Armour can be tweaked and seems like more of a vehicle than actual clothing, and when I saw the jetpack I began drooling uncontrollably, a bit like that dog that follows you around.

Speaking of which, I do have some demands about Muttley. Firstly, if it can’t look after itself than I will drop it at the first Deathclaw nest I see and be on my merry way. I’m not interested in playing post-apocalyptic Nintendogs, that animal is going to have to feed and heal himself. Secondly, I suspect that he’s going to glitch a lot, so please, please have that fixed before we get the game. I thought it was cool that you can send him to get stuff for you, but even in the presentation he had to stop suddenly and wrenchingly turn to face the right direction, not to mention that Bethesda games have history of glitchy behaviour.

What else is there? Well, the Pip-Boy now seems more intuitive than the average brain operation, which is nice, and looks less like a badly-made menu system and more like an actual tablet device, though I don’t know why they bothered putting in archaic minigames inside it. If I pay fifty quid for a cutting-edge title, and it immediately asks me if I want to play Donkey Kong, I’m going to politely decline, thank you.

There’s not a lot to be said about the combat, mostly because we didn’t see it much. There was one boring conflict with the most standard enemies and weapons you can get, and then there was just a highlight reel featuring a lot of flash and no substance. Why not show us a low-level fight and a high-level one, so that we can compare the two? By the time I could work out what I was seeing, it had already flicked to the next bit. I hope there weren’t any epileptics in that audience, they’d be in more trouble than the molerats.


Look out! That molerat’s wearing a high-visibility jacket!

Fallout 4 still looks good and whilst the graphics are still letting it down, the actual visual design continues to be superb, capturing the atmosphere and sense of history well. But I’m worried the game is spreading itself too thin, because we really didn’t see much, even though it was trying to show us everything. One fight, a sped-up crafting demonstration, and all the less interesting bits of the plot, and to top it off, the presentation still had to be padded with the dull-looking app and the Collector’s stuff. Look, Bethesda, why don’t you show me what this game is actually like before you try to convince me to buy the version that costs over a hundred bucks?

I’m inherently suspicious of gaming promotion and E3 in particular, but there’s almost nothing to be suspicious of here. If the game isn’t finished, then say so, but this was just weird. It spent so long bouncing between unconnected threads that we didn’t focus on any one thing long enough to understand it. I hope that wasn’t intentional, but like I said, E3 makes me very wary.

You know what I wanted to see? Half an hour of the best gameplay it has to offer, uninterrupted, unedited and live. Fallout 4 seems to be interesting, and it’ll probably be really good, but nothing makes me nervous like the feeling I’m being manipulated, and this presentation gave me that feeling quite badly. It didn’t help that after watching it and feeling kind of average about the whole thing, I was greeted online by an unnervingly rabid fanbase, who’d either been watching a different presentation to me or had all been smoking weed in preparation. It was like stumbling through the doors of some weird cult and suddenly wishing you could leave as fast as possible.

Anyway, what’s next? Battleborn? Yeah, let’s do this.


Oh dear, this isn’t Bethesda’s week, is it? Fallout 4, perhaps one of the most anticipated titles since Skyrim, is announced to the world at large with a big, flashy trailer. Except that whilst it was big, it wasn’t that flashy. The public, it seems, aren’t too enthused about the graphics.

And yes, I’ll admit it. Games these days can and do look better in terms of aesthetic realism. The dog that bounces around the trailer as a focal point is probably the most noticeable flaw. It moves well, mostly, and has the right kind of behavioural animation, but it looks kind of flat. The fur that doesn’t look like fur, the slightly angular body shape, the way its feet don’t quite seem to touch the ground with any impact, it all makes it look a bit like a robot – a really well-made robot, mind you – that had an Alsatian painted over the top of its chassis.

What else? Well, the humans have Lego hair, we see a couple of people with an identical running animation (one that looks a little floaty, like in the previous game), the ghouls in the supermarket somehow push against big metal trolleys with no resistance, and people’s faces seem to have that slightly glassy, mannequin look that’s almost a Bethesda trademark at this point. No, it’s not the best graphics I’ve seen in a major video game, not by a long shot.

And yet, I don’t really care. Because it looked gorgeous.


The outside world’s not in HD? Guess we’re staying underground, then.

This is probably what I was most excited about from the trailer, because the series really seems to have gotten some colour back into its cheeks. Everything, from the contrasting blue cot in the faded bedroom, to the bright, toybox spectrum of the pre-war streets, to the beautiful cinematic shot of the neo-noir city, it all shone with visual personality.

I really liked Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but I did tire of greys, greens and browns. I know that this world is meant to look scarred and sickly, but there’s a difference between faded colours and no colours at all. So Fallout 4 splattering itself with all the best members of the rainbow is a plus in my book.

Not to mention the visual design, something that stays with us long after we’ve forgotten about the graphics. The sweeping shot of the huge pirate ship, the mighty doom-Zeppelin floating in the thunderstorm, the prowling deathclaw in the radioactive mist, they all point to ideas that aren’t just realistic, they look good. Old concepts like the Protectrons have gotten some life into them visually, with the glint of a red LED eye shining within their circuitry, or the hanging suit of DIY power armour, a massive network of hydraulics and gears solemnly draped from its supports. Even the blue Vault-tec jumpsuits look more blue. The whole thing seems delighted to see you, and that’s pretty cool.

I know, the images could be better, could be clearer. They still might be – remember, this is a trailer, not a finished product – but yes, it would be nice if they were as svelte as other games, Perhaps it’s a little disappointing that a game with this kind of pedigree and expectation behind it couldn’t manage graphically what titles with smaller budgets can do, but I still can’t bring myself to be all hot and bothered over it. You could record an orchestra doing Beethoven on your phone, and yeah, it might be little grainier than intended. But it’s still Beethoven. It’s still excellent at its core.


Here I am, brain the size of a planet…

Perhaps I’m just bitter because an excellent game series has just been announced to have a fresh new game incoming, and all anybody can talk about is the aspect to games that engages me the least. Nobody’s talking about what might be contained in Vault 111, or whether we get to use vehicles for the first time, or if we might see a user interface that doesn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out. I can’t help but notice the ugly cube of a Pip-Boy lashed to the protagonist’s arm. If he has any sense at all, he’ll drop it for an iPhone the first chance he gets.


So Fallout 4 got announced today after a “mysterious” online countdown, and everybody on the internet either cried, fainted, or stained their underwear en masse.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve been super-hyped about games before, most people have. Not to mention that the Fallout Series has a proud lineage of some genuinely excellent games, as well as one of the most charismatic interpretations of a nuclear wasteland I’ve ever seen, a sentence I never thought I’d say. Bethesda are pretty good at delivering high quality games, and sandbox has always been their bread and butter, so yeah – this one’s probably worth getting a little excited over.

Fallout 4 trenchcoat

Tex Murphy? What are you doing here?

No, what I want to talk about is the way it was announced and the events leading up to it. I realise that this is the second article this week about ad campaigns, but I felt rather startled by the relative clarity of Fallout 4’s announcement. It was all very smooth, very clear, it all just made sense, whilst keeping us in the dark just enough to make us curious. It wasn’t only me who thought this – a friend of mine, the biggest Fallout fan I know, agreed with this too. The whole thing just ran like watery clockwork.

That said, I guess they didn’t want to make people too suspicious or to act too coy about it all, because there’s some rather raw history there. There was a rather famous hoax a couple of years ago, when somebody made a false site themed with nuclear imagery, also utilising a countdown, but this one went for two weeks before the lie was revealed. Everybody got really excited about it then, too, and of course got very, very angry when they found out the truth. Meanwhile, I had my fist in my mouth and was trying desperately not to laugh.

I know, people got upset by it, but a buddy of mine got upset when he was hit in the head by a Frisbee, and I laughed at that too.

Fallout 4 explosion

H- Honey? Did… Did you happen to leave the gas on?

But I rather admire Bethesda’s methodology here. They start with the mysterious countdown, except everybody knows it’s not THAT mysterious, so no chance of people’s imagination running away with them. On top of which, it only went for 24 hours, so that should stop any of the more extreme conspiracy theories about it being Nuclear Skyrim or Half-Life 3 getting any traction in the short time period. Of course, the countdown, though brief, did last long enough to get everybody who was on the lookout for such an event aware of it. Gold star there.

The trailer? Well, it’s pretty good. It shows the pre-war aspect of the Fallout universe, something we’ve never seen in much detail. It shows epic pirate ships, an updated version of the old deathclaws, and what looks like the killer Zeppelin from the end of Alan Moore’s “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Enough to remind us of the stuff we love, mixed in with enough mystery to awake our curiosity, the most powerful urge we have. Now I WANT to know more, it’s the same as the XCOM 2 trailer we saw on Monday. There’s a lot of footage that looks like it’s from the game, though no gameplay itself, sadly. Except that at the same moment it was released Bethesda chirped that we get to see gameplay at E3 later on. Fair enough, now I know where to go for that info if I want it. Gold star again.

It may sound like all this is fairly normal or self-explanatory, but games are so often the subject of bizarre or damaging ad campaigns. Whether it’s Aliens: Colonial Marines lying to the public outright, or Ubisoft refusing to contextualize the cover of Far Cry 4 in order to stop it from looking racist (which it wasn’t in the end, but I wish we knew that), a lot of publishers will do weird things to advertise their games. It’s simply not true that all publicity is good publicity, at least not for games. So why do publishers indulge bizarre methods when it comes to getting the brand out there?

They get especially odd when it comes to leaked information. If a bit of gameplay info gets out onto the internet without clearance, the first thing everybody does is look to the developers, one eyebrow raised. Yes or no? True or false? And remember that if they say nothing, we’ll probably believe it anyway.

Fallout 4 Dog

Let’s not get too affectionate, Gromit. I may have to eat you before this adventure is over.

But they always go quiet, always go still. Like a crocodile lying at the bottom of a river, they’re waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Except that whilst they’re waiting, a lion has already killed the prey by the riverbank, and is starting to drag it off to eat. But still that crocodile just lies there, determined to come out when he’s ready, regardless of how badly he’s ballsed up his strategy or how much the world has altered in ways not to his advantage.

You see, I suspect that the publishers always have a Plan. A big, proper Plan. The kind with charts and folders and the like. You know the kind I mean, it would probably go something like this:

  • Month one: make suggestive noises in an interview, but don’t commit to anything.
  • Month two: surprise everybody at a convention with gameplay.
  • Month three: Lie through your teeth, because anything will fly with enough hot air beneath it.
  • Month four: Rent forklift truck to carry our pre-order money back to the office.

And whether out of pride, terror, stubborness, or just plain idiocy, they can never deviate from that Plan. Even when it’s in their best interests to give it up and just do something much more sensible, they never do. Too much investment, perhaps, or they just can’t work out how to react to events that fast. That’s why a rough plan, or one that is very simple, is much more beneficial. It’s less of a house of cards, less dependant on everything else. That’s why Fallout knows what it’s doing in this regard. Keep it simple, keep it memorable, keep it short. A+.

Now to remind myself of the series properly. Except for Little Lamplight, of course. That sequence can go suck on the business end of a MIRV.