What’s the problem with Fallout 4 and all other sandbox games

I finished playing Fallout 4 – it was a huge effort – 65 hours of grinding through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. At the end of these, if I were to recommend it, I’d say Fallout 4 is not worth it – the experience can be nice, but the game is in Alpha stage, maybe an early Beta, and it could be a good game if Bethesda would ever want to finish it, but there’s no point and no reason to do this as they already cashed in on the game.

Sandbox games are generally like that. Their appeal is always some niche interest of certain fans, unfortunately I’m not one of them, since I like my games for the stories first, and mechanics last. I don’t play games for „mechanics”. I play games to enjoy myself, and I enjoy myself best when the anthropomorphic hero does something in a consistent story. But let’s take them all one by one.

It takes about 10 hours to understand the basic mechanics of the game. The first hour will be probably spent in the pre-apocalyptic setting, because one might think that this is the game. You choose your hero’s face, you can change everything about a face that you don’t really see throughout the game, but what the heck? You can choose the sex of the player, they just substitute the names (husband instead of wife, mother instead of father). You can sculpt the face of the playing character in tremendous detail, but, as I said, it makes no sense since you rarely see the character’s face. You’ll probably do this the first time, definitely not the second time when you’ll start the game, and you’ll start the game a second time (at least), because you’ll learn that the perk sheet can scroll.

I will try to not spoil too much of the game, since a small part of the enjoyment are some small twists in the story. But there are a few things that one needs to do in the game, and the first thing that one does is to rescue the Minutemen. There’s a possibility not to rescue the Minutemen, but it makes little to no sense not to join the Minutemen while playing the game. And anyway, you’ll need to be allied with a faction at one point of time because that’s the only way to reach the last 5 or so quests of the game, and the Minutemen are the only decent partner you can find (it only hates things that shoot at you anyway).

However, after you join the Minutemen, the game starts to go random on you. It has, probably, a pre-defined set of settlements to rescue with a predefined list of issues to solve for them, but the randomness of it is that, for example, a settlement near a ghoul infested area have issues with a raider gang on the other side of the map, you’ll see that on that side of the map there will be a settlement bothered by the otherwise local-roaming ghouls near the previous settlement. There’s no consistent story to tell, there’s no consistent approach to the extension of the Minutemen settlements, and there is, in the end, a false sense of urgency about the tasks that the Minutemen assign to you that you’ll soon learn to ignore them. While older games had to create intricate stories to make you explore vast territories, Fallout 4 tries to solve this by using a random number generator, and it shows.

So the exploration of the post-apocalyptic Boston makes no sense, and there’s no point in doing it. Worst of all, there’s no pleasure in doing it. Sure, there are a few moments when you catch a radioactive rain, or a clear-skies night, a scenic sunset or sunrise. There are moments where the game shows potential, but that’s all. Potential.

Like, for example, the radio. I see no reason in 2016 why one would not provide a real internet radio. The game is „Always on”, and I do understand why the playlists of Diamond City and Liberty Radio are so tight. But it makes no sense for the Classical Radio not to be a real, online radio. It’s not like streaming internet radio can adversely affect your game performance, and it’s not like it’s too much for a game company to maintain an Internet Radio station. But they don’t do it, so you’re left with 2 hours of content spinning in your background. It gets boring.

The crafting system sucks as well. You have to loot. You have to loot a lot because you cannot otherwise build the weapon modifications that you have to make. And there’s plenty of weapon modifications you have to make for yourself (which can be fun, but it isn’t in this particular game). You can also modify your armor – you can make a deep pocketed armor, an ultra-light built armor, but you cannot do both – you have to choose. Also, there’s no obvious way to tell if a type of armor or another is better for you.

There is also no clear progression on the perks you can receive when leveling up. While Bethesda made some nice introductory videos which randomly play when you start the game, it’s not enough, and even if the initial hour or two will allow you to customize your setup, you’ll probably end up assigning four stars out of 10 to every aspect of your SPECIAL characteristics. Also, there’s no way to explore a set of branches of your characteristics in a manner that would make sense. In Skyrim, for example, you could choose to focus on crafting and swords. It’s a system that works. You cannot, however, focus on something similar here. You’re forced to do crafting and looting, there are some perks that enhance an aspect or another, but you cannot focus on something. By the time you finish the main story you’ll have the perks sheet pretty scarcely filled. And that is bad.

That is bad because while it allows your character to grow the way you want it there is no sense in the growth. There’s no story attached to your growth. There’s no point in it, no point to it. You don’t have sense attached to your growth, and there are some things that you cannot become unless you reach a certain level – which doesn’t make sense, because I don’t want to make better guns after I finished the game.

Among the disappointments with the game is the lack of improvements on the settlements. Despite whatever Bethesda hints at during the early stages of the game, the establishment of settlements does not improve the settlements whatsoever, it just adds more people to them, and that’s that. You can let the settlements to die, you can rescue them, but doing either makes no sense. There’s no point in creating settlements and growing them – there’s no point in the system of building because it doesn’t matter. You see glimpses of future extensions of the game, but the point is that none makes sense.

The saddest aspect about it is that settlers work furiously around the house to look as if they improve them, but they don’t improve them at all. There are pieces of furniture, rugs, even bathroom appliances in the game, yet the settlers never try to make sense out of it, they don’t try to fix the broken walls. It’s fine, they don’t need to, this is not a Sims game, but for heaven’s sake, don’t hint that you do that. The settlement looks the same after 50 hours of playing, no matter what you do.

The nice addition to the game is the dog companion. I don’t understand why you’d choose another companion, but that’s probably just me. I hate the name and the fact that I cannot change it (Dogmeat sounds horrible), I hate the bugs and the fact that it’s hard to interact with it, and sometimes it breaks out of stealth and forces me to battle in a melee what I planned as a sniper-action, But the dog is fun, physics and mechanics bugs aside. And, yes, you can place armor on him, but you cannot improve said armor because fuck logic.

Speaking of sniper action – it’s the game where you make more damage to a creature if you shoot it in the torso rather than the head. No only that is true, but shooting a human in the head several times can sometimes do as little damage as shooting them once in their hand. Add to this the fact that the ammunition is quite varied and you can run out of it quite fast, and the fact that you get to carry at least 10 weapons with you at all times, and the fact that your enemies have infinite ammunition but they drop only 5-10 bullets worth of loot, and the fact that the ammunition is quite expensive for how little it does… You get the picture.

I spent 65 hours in Fallout, but they were not pleasant. They were grinding and boring, they were more like „eh, I should finish this”, and the game getting longer because even menial tasks take a metric fuck-ton of time (and you’ll spend a lot of time doing menial tasks, like looting for screws and adhesive). It’s bland, long and boring, it’s the epitome of the current-day sandbox game, and it shows clearly why you don’t want to play them.

It’s sad, because Fallout has a lot of neat ideas, and appeals to a niche that is definitely not satisfied by other game offerings. It is probably an improvement over the previous games. Probably. It can be fun, it promises to be fun but it never is. Fallout 4 will be iconic, but it’s an iconic disappointment. It’s a good and bad game at the same time, and, most importantly, bland and time consuming. Unfortunately, that’s I will remember it – as a waste of time. And time is one of the most precious commodities available to human beings.

PS: And please don’t get me started on the myriad of bugs you see – including the „they can shoot me but I shoot at them and my bullets are caught in invisible obstacles”.