Hear Me Out: Fallout 4

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Hear Me Out: Fallout 4

Hear Me Out is a Paste column dedicated to earnest reevaluations of those cast-off bits of pop-cultural ephemera that deserve a second look. Whether they’re films, TV series, albums, comedy specials, videogames or even cocktails, Hear Me Out is ready to go to bat for any underappreciated subject.

People love Fallout. The show, the games, the merch: the apocalypse is bigger than ever right now. Fans of the show are flocking to the original source material, sending the most recent installments of the game series back to the top of the charts, even though they’re several years old. And if you’ve spent any amount of time trying to find out what Fallout game you should play when you’re done watching the series, you’ve probably noticed that 2015’s Fallout 4—the most recent mainline entry in the series—isn’t particularly popular among game critics. Hear me out, though: Fallout 4 is actually pretty damn good. 

Almost nine years ago I gave Fallout 4 a 9 out of 10. If you want a more thorough explanation of why it’s a game worth playing, go read that review. It was written before the game was released, before most people had a chance to play it, before the game’s reputation plummeted. It’s been almost a decade and yet I still vividly remember so much about it. That rarely happens, considering how many games I have to play for work every year. 

It’s weird to write in defense of Fallout 4, because, like mine, the reviews back in 2015 were largely ecstatic. The critics who reviewed the game at the time tended to really like it. It also won its fair share of “game of the year” awards, including respectable ones, like BAFTA and D.I.C.E. It was a critical and commercial smash. Perception gradually turned against it, though; the people who most liked Fallout the series seemed to hate Fallout 4 more than anybody else—which is pretty common once a long-running videogame series has deviated far enough from the original’s goals to have become something new. Old-school Fallout fans don’t like Fallout 4, which is why it might be the ideal Fallout game for fans of the TV show.

If you’re hung up on the heavy RPG focus that Fallout was originally known for, Fallout 4 might disappoint you. Fallout 3 started the series’ transition into a first-person shooter with RPG elements, and that only deepens with Fallout 4. It was the most shooting-centric Fallout yet, and the notion that it’s more of a shooter than an RPG is one of the major complaints with the game. That’s probably the most common criticism of Fallout 4, and easily the most overblown; it’s still unmistakably a role-playing game, no matter how much it leans into first-person shooting.

What do you call a game heavily dependent on character stats that increase as you level up? One where you explore a large world, talk with non-playable characters, and go on a variety of quests (many optional) while also pursuing a main storyline? One where math and numbers blatantly underpin most actions you take, but all in service of the story you’re playing through? 

The people who say Fallout 4 isn’t an RPG are flatly wrong. What they mean to say is that Fallout 4 isn’t a good RPG, at least according to their expectations. And that’s just a matter of opinion, because, again, I’m here to argue that Fallout 4 is a good RPG. 

I will grant the critics one major concession: this story’s lead character is a total drip. The “Sole Survivor” is a non-entity—a cipher with no personality or characteristics outside of what the player breathes into them. The silent protagonist is more of a shooter thing, and it doesn’t translate well to an RPG. Fallout 4 is the proof.

Fortunately the supporting characters more than shoulder the load. The best thing about Fallout 4—and thus the main reason to play it—is its characters. This is the most compelling and well-rounded collection of companions the series has yet seen. Its most memorable companions—including the down-on-his-luck android gumshoe Nick Valentine, the risk-taking journalist Piper Wright, and the pragmatic ghoul leader John Hancock—are fully fleshed out, believable human beings (even when they aren’t human) that easily transcend the obvious stock types they’re riffing on. 

That strong character-building carries over to the game’s setting. Its version of bombed out Boston might be the best version of that city ever seen in a videogame, even if it’s thoroughly destroyed. It cleverly incorporates some of the city’s most iconic buildings, including several from its colonial days, and plays off both its history and its modern provincial reputation in that winking way Fallout is known for. As I wrote in my review, I am very much biased here—I lived in Boston for close to a decade and legitimately love that city, warts and all—but I’d like to think that even if I wasn’t I’d still be enchanted by its Fallout adaptation.

People also tend to hate the game’s focus on settlement building, and that’s entirely valid. It’s entirely a matter of choice there. I’m normally not a fan of time-intensive side gigs like that in games, but with Fallout 4 I found it to be a weirdly peaceful reprieve from the otherwise permanently tense world of the Wasteland. It’s one of the few times I’ve actually enjoyed something like this, and didn’t feel like it was extra busy work in an already too bloated game. But I won’t argue with anybody who disagrees and feels like it’s a waste of time. 

Again, it feels weird to “defend” a game that won so many awards, sold so many copies, and received such great reviews. There’s a trend with games where reviews tend to be extremely positive, which can then either set people up for legitimately disappointment, or lead to a bandwagon-style backlash among those who love to hate the critics. I don’t think that’s entirely the case with Fallout 4, but I also think there’s an element of that happening here, especially with younger critics or players who are more aware of the backlash than the initial response. I’m not here to discount or discredit anybody’s criticisms of this game, but I just want to say that if you haven’t played Fallout 4 yourself, and think it sounds up your alley, you should give it a shot despite its bad rep. Maybe you’ll like it as much as I do.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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