Few games match the anticipation surrounding Fallout 4. Nor do many attempt its trajectory from announcement to release. Bethesda Game Studios’ (BGS) post-apocalyptic RPG was announced last month, before making its gameplay debut at Bethesda’s inaugural E3 showcase… along with a release date of November 10 this year.
In an industry that likes to drip feed information in lengthy campaigns, Bethesda are looking for searing momentum from one of its most precious properties. Reveal to release in less than six months.
Yet the game itself has been gestating for a long time. Fallout 3 was released in 2008 and while most of BGS moved onto fantasy adventure Skyrim, ideas for Fallout 4 were already beginning to take shape. Lead artist Istvan Pely never stopped drawing concepts for Fallout’s heady mix of 50s Americana and hi-tech sci-fi. The power armour suit that was featured in 4’s reveal trailer, for instance, was drawn in 2009.
Skyrim took wing in 2011 and for four years most of Bethesda’s team has been building the apocalypse, shifting from a fantasy realm to a scorched American Dream.
The game opens in Boston in an alternate 2075. The conflicting theme of optimism and fear of atomic annihilation that followed World War II has persisted into the 21st century. It is a fascinating aesthetic, based on visions of the future from the 50s. “In any decade you can ask: what were their designs going to be?” says game director, Todd Howard.
“What were the cars they wanted to make? If you look at the 40s and 50s and you go to the Carousel of Future at Tomorrowland and you see what they thought the future would be — that stuff is amazing. That’s a big inspiration. Like concept cars from the 50s… I thought we drew crazy stuff but the real stuff is crazier.”
The result of that influence is a world that is part bubbly 50s suburbia (sleek saloons and bright suits), part hi-tech convenience (robot servants) and part nuclear paranoia (vaults and shelters built for the incoming doom). Paranoia that is well-founded, of course, as nuclear war lays waste to the planet.
Following a glimpse of the world that was, your self-made character emerges as the sole survivor of Vault 111. Only, for reasons Bethesda are keeping to themselves, it is 200 years later. Boston is ash and rubble. Humankind lives in makeshift towns and repurposed public buildings. Raiders and mutants stalk the wasteland.
Having built such a compelling alternate reality, are Bethesda not tempted to spend more time there before tearing it down? “We do enough,” says Howard. “It needs to be a prologue. It’s important to us to let you experience that world, so that when you emerge from the vault you feel the sense of loss and think “I wish this was the way it was.” Having the beginning and having the sense that stuff is all gone? That you’ve lost everything? That is important.”
Fallout 4 is set ‘mostly after Fallout 3 and, while remaining tight-lipped on story details, Howard says that the goings on in Boston and the mysterious Commonwealth Institute were hinted at in the previous game. Boston itself has ‘the right mix of American history, Americana and hi-tech’ that make for the ideal Fallout location.
Attention to detail in its setting help set the stage for a narrative Howard hopes is going to surpass the studio’s previous work. One of the biggest changes for Fallout 4 is that your character is fully voiced for the first time in any BGS game. You can create your own character, either male or female, and Howard says that there are times that your gender will ‘be important’.
This means reams of dialogue for voice actors Brian T Delaney and Courtenay Taylor. “We were lucky to find two great voice actors,” says Howard. “And it’s interesting because she may read things or act things differently than he does. So scenes play out differently depending on whether you are playing the game as male or female.”
Given this era of big budget blockbusters, motion capture and lavish cutscenes, it’s unusual that a voiced player-character can cause such a stir. The concern with Fallout is that your conversation with the wasteland’s denizens will be limited. “We had the same worry as everyone else,” admits Howard.
“A lot of games have voiced characters, but what they don’t want to give up is all the dialogue options. So for us a lot of it was logistical. The voice actors have been recording for 2 years, they’ve each done over 13,000 lines of dialogue. So to be able to do that makes the difference; you still have choice.”
Decision-making and conversation has always been a key part of both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Where the games diverge is in their action, Skyrim was swords and sorcery, whereas Fallout is rickety guns and a time-stopping ability called the ‘Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System’, better known as VATS.
By his own admission, Howard has said that the gunplay in Fallout 3 was not as good as it could have been. One of the main criticisms of that game’s action was that its blend of first-person shooting and behind the scenes stat-crunching that characterises RPGs leant too heavily on the latter. You would line up what looked to be a clean headshot, only for the game to decide you had missed because your abilities were not high enough.
Fallout 4 doesn’t shy away from statistics and dice-rolling —it remains an RPG first and foremost, says Howard— but one of Bethesda’s goals was to “make it feel great as an action game.” If you’re good at aiming, says Howard, you can compensate somewhat for lower stats. But not entirely, as Fallout’s myriad systems are layered on top of the improved action.
VATS has been tweaked. In Fallout 3, when you entered VATS the game would pause as you lined up shots to specific body parts, with the percentage chance of a clean hit displayed on each limb. In 4, VATS allows the action to continue at a very slow pace. “We found some ways to make it a bit, not a ton, but a bit more dynamic,” says Howard.
“It’s very, very slow and you’ll see the percentages change because the person is moving behind or coming out of a wall. So queuing up the shot at the right time matters. And while the playback is happening, the criticals are not random, you assign which shot is the critical one and you load up that bar. So it’s a little bit more under your control, not a lot, but just enough to make it feel better.”
One of the most significant additions revealed so far for Fallout 4 is the option to build and defend settlements inspired in part, says Howard, by the team playing a lot of Minecraft. You can collect materials in the world, using them to cobble together sheet-metal shacks, upgrading weapons and building turrets.
The crafting is not integral to the game’s campaign, but Howard insists there is ‘a lot to it’. “It’s optional but it is big.,” he says. “There are missions for it you can decide not to do, but there is a whole system for it and a story reason for it.”
Much of Fallout 4’s additions are possible because of the jump in technological prowess of consoles and modern day PCs in the years since Fallout 3. The architecture of the ‘next-gen’ consoles —Xbox One and PS4— also make for more orderly development. “The consoles are very PC-like,” says Howard.
“Traditionally that’s where we’ve developed. So the time we spend developing the game is much more efficient because we don’t have to do it three ways. We don’t have to do one for the PC, one for the 360 and one for the PS3. The majority of our work works on all three. There’s still time spent on each, but not as much.”
This, according to Howard, means there is more time that can be spent on ideas. Like transferring user-developed ‘mods’ to console for the first time. “We’ve wanted to do that for a while,” says Howard. “We architecture our system so that mods work. They work on Skyrim if you can get them on a console, Oblivion aswell. And Fallout 3. But there’s no way of getting them there. There’s still a lot of work to do. It’s going to come out on PC first, then they’ll move to Xbox One, then to PS4. There is a lot of work involved getting them onto each system.”
‘A lot of work’ is a phrase that seem to apply to a large part of Fallout 4’s development. While we might not have to wait long to explore the Boston wasteland, the game remains a mammoth undertaking. Its gameplay systems, narrative and aesthetic are each integral parts of a whole. Experience suggests Howard and BGS can make the pieces of their post-apocalyptic construction fit, but we’ll find out for sure when that tantalisingly close release rolls around.