Like mewling, hungry children waiting to be fed, this 2015’s collection of late-year blockbusters presses in around me, demanding attention. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Legacy of the Void, and Halo 5...and there, pressing his hungry little face against the glass, waiting to get in, is Star Wars: Battlefront.
Then there’s the voracious little bugger, Fallout 4, whom I may have already sent packing.
Many critics have been near-orgasmic in their praise for Bethesda’s new title, but even Fallout 4‘s most ardent suitors have had to backpedal when it comes to the game’s visuals and especially, character models and animations. Sure, they admit, the characters move like uncoordinated robots and the lip synching is just this side of Justin Bieber terrible, but the world! It’s so big! There’s so much to do!
It’s certainly true that Fallout 4 is an accomplishment, with potentially hundreds of hours of exploration, combat, and crafting. But despite some minor visual improvements over the last entry in the series, and some effective use of lighting, Fallout 4 is kind of…really ugly in many places and in many ways. Compared to just about any current gen, triple-A game, faces lack expression, textures are simplistic and repetitive, and character animations are stilted and unrealistic. They are bad enough to constantly take me out of the moment and remind me, not only that I am playing a game, but that there are many other more aesthetically and artistically accomplished games that I could be playing. Games that not only look much better, but have more satisfying combat, more carefully crafted stories, and characters about whom I actually care.
It is absolutely true that great gameplay can potentially–and often does–trump eye-candy, but we are at a point in the industry and hobby when there is no excuse for the sometimes lazy design that informs huge swaths of Fallout 4, especially when the same issues have been plaguing the series for some time. Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed, Black Ops III, and Tomb Raider all managed to be improved versions of previous entries, so why are so many critics giving Fallout 4 a pass? And, incidentally, all of those above games do a better and more consistent job of character and world building than does Bethesda’s post-nuclear franchise. Geralt, Evie and Jacob, Lara Croft: those are characters in whose stories we can become invested. But our anonymous dweller of Vault 111 is a cypher, not with a real story or character but a thin premise, set to roam in a bland post-apocalyptic world and be a bit player in dozens of rather mundane stories, or to not have a narrative at all, if the player avoids the main quest line.
There’s a certain stink of arrogance on the part of Todd Howard and company. We’re giving you this huge thing! What more do you want? There’s a Stockholm syndrome-like acceptance in the gaming press, where fans and critics say they like the busted animations, clipping, and broken gameplay. It’s endearing and quirky.
Dear Bethesda: maybe, less is more. What if you took away half the rambling open world, but gave us twice as much crafted, well-focused story and character, and spent a bigger chunk of the budget on fluid animations, better motion capture, combat that had weight and visceral impact (not just gouts of blood), and faces that could express a wide range of plausible human emotions? That would be a game I’d be far less willing to kick to the curb, unloved.
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