When key members of Fallout 4’s development team reveal even they haven’t seen everything the game has to offer after playing it for 400-plus hours, there’s reason to be excited and worried. Excited that we’ll be able to lose ourselves for months on end in a sprawling, post-apocalyptic wasteland that gives us ownership over our characters, relationships, and choices. Worried that the November 10 release date is right around the corner, and no one outside of Bethesda Game Studios has gotten their hands on the game, which is far larger and more ambitious than anything the developer has attempted before.
Bethesda is doing what it can to ensure Fallout 4’s launch isn’t as problematic as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s. As remarkable as Skyrim was in the end, it got off to a shaky start with players experiencing a wide range of bugs such as backward-flying dragons, and PlayStation 3 players putting the game down entirely until its crippling framerate issues were patched.
Fallout 4’s game director Todd Howard says Skyrim’s popularity and volume of player data within it created problems in troubleshooting bugs. “It probably took us a month or two before we really had a handle on it,” he says. “All of the updates we did on Skyrim, and all of the DLC – once we sorted [the bugs out] we had a different process for how we checked the content out. There will always be some problems. I think we’ve gotten way better there. For us, [the player’s] saved game is the number one thing. If the game crashes, that’s bad, but it is nowhere near as bad as someone’s saved game being hosed. That’s the scenario that we will do anything and everything to avoid. We made a lot of progress given how Skyrim went, but we did it during Skyrim. This just builds on that.”
More reassuring yet, Bethesda’s vice president of marketing and PR Pete Hines revealed that Fallout 4 was “essentially done” in an episode of Geoff Keighley’s Bonus Round that was recorded in late July. “When you talk about what else you are doing, all we’re doing is taking what exists and polishing it and fixing bugs,” he said. “They are finishing the game. That’s all they’re doing this summer.”
Bethesda has only given us two small tastes of what we will see in Fallout 4 – the unveiling at this year’s E3, and a deeper dive into the leveling systems at QuakeCon – but the game’s wealth of content already seems daunting.
In Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, we rummaged through the ruins of the world out of the necessity of survival, looking for ammo, healing items, money, and better armor. The tenant of survival remains, but the scope of looting expands dramatically in Fallout 4, giving us the freedom to scavenge for parts that can be used to create new weapons, armor, and even to build and furnish our own homes and settlements.
We don’t yet know how inventory management or being over-encumbered works in Fallout 4, but Howard did give us a look at the newly revamped S.P.E.C.I.A.L. character system. “We really wanted to bring this to the forefront of the game,” he says. “This is how you define your character. We have a whole bunch of perks, and those are tied to your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. Every time you level up, you get to pick a perk.”
Much like Skyrim’s system of looking to the stars to select character traits, Fallout 4’s perks are found on a stylish poster filled with animated Vault Boys that act out the perk that is highlighted. A perk like Strength helps the character carry more gear and deal more damage with melee weapons.
“You have this Vault Tech poster with all of your perks, and there is a separate perk for each S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and each value of that S.P.E.C.I.A.L. from 1 to 10,” Howard adds. “Each perk, except for a few exceptions, has multiple ranks. We have combined the previous skill system into this as well. If there are 70 base perks and you add all of the ranks, you’re getting around 275 of those. We’ve found that this gets us some really cool different play styles. It’s a very cool and fun leveling system in the game.”
In addition to determining the build of the character, players also have the option to engage in romantic relationships with companion characters. Howard says there are 12 companions in the game, but only humans can be romanced, regardless of the gender you are playing. “We track how [each companion] feels about you,” Howard says. “We spent a lot of time on this mechanic. They have a lot of personality. You can also play without a companion, and we have special perks if you want to play as kind of a lone wanderer.”
One of the new companions is a female reporter named Piper who resides in Diamond City, a thriving settlement built in the ruins of Fenway Park. In the brief gameplay clip we are shown of Piper, she seems intelligent and quick-witted, as she verbally spars with an irate citizen. She runs her own paper called Public Occurrences.
The last bit of new Fallout 4 information comes from a lengthy gameplay demo set in Lexington, a colorful and detailed city filled with hostile Ghouls and Raiders, both of which are more aggressive in their tactics than we’ve seen in previous Fallout experiences. The Ghouls move quickly, and appear to often attack in swarms, creating a suffocating combat experience. Thankfully, they don’t have much armor and are dropped quickly with carefully placed shots and Dogmeat, the canine companion, coming to the rescue to take down enemies with a jump that knocks them down and a throat bite that finishes them off.
The demo shows off the interior of a Super Duper Mart that has been heavily ransacked, but is still filled with objects and a wealth of detail. A robot roams its messy aisles, repeating the saying “protect and serve” as it slowly rolls by.
The market gives us our first look at lock picking (through the use of bobby pins), and terminal hacking, which forces the player to decipher a scrambled sequence of letters, numbers, and characters in what appears to be the same way as Fallout 3.
A variety of unique weapons are shown; one fires red lasers, another green acid. The most impressive weapon shown is a fan-favorite from yesteryear: the Fat Man, a heavy firearm that fires mini-nukes. In this instance, the weapon is used to wipe out bandits, with beautiful mushroom clouds and fire rising from their singed corpses. The Fat Man’s final test is against a Behemoth, a towering beast that wields a large pole with a red fire hydrant attached to it. The Behemoth sprints at the character, impressively withstands one Fat Man direct hit, but succumbs to the next, falling to the ground dramatically as the mushroom cloud rises high into the sky.
Through the run-and-gun chaos, we also saw that V.A.T.S. is no longer a system you can rely on for a quick break from the action. V.A.T.S. doesn’t freeze the game; it only slows it. This means that if an enemy is descending behind cover, specific hit zones may disappear as his body lowers behind the object.
The lengthy demo impressed, showing off a high level of detail in the interior and exterior environments, and gunplay that looks vastly improved from the previous games.
Bethesda has been oddly guarded with Fallout 4 leading up to launch. Is this something we should be concerned about? It sounds like the studio is going the extra mile to make a more polished and stable experience, but we’ll find out soon enough on November 10.