There comes a point with every sandbox game where you realize you’re done playing. Preferably it happens after you finish all the story lines you’re interested in, but often that’s not the case. In these instances, you might keep playing for a bit longer because you want to see the story end, and you’re willing to put up with mechanics that have grown stale in order to get the narrative cookie. When I replayed Skyrim last year on a lark, I set for myself the goal of playing through the main quest line completely and revisiting the Thieves’ and Mages’ guild quests because I always love those quest lines in Elder Scrolls games. The last few hours were kind of tedious, but it was worth it to get resolution on the stuff with the dragons (I’ve determined that a good measure of how engaging a sandbox game is is how long you’re willing to put up with the inventory management; sandboxes involve loot, and it’s invariable that you will have more loot than you can reasonably use in any given save file; once you get tired of the loot, you’re probably tired of the rest of the game too, or getting pretty close).
With Fallout 4, there was no slow descent into inventory boredom. I was playing the game the other night, and right in the middle of a quest, I had an epiphany that I didn’t like the character I was doing the quest for, I didn’t really care for the faction she belonged to, and I didn’t like the fact that this was the umpteenth iteration of “go to the place, kill the people, get the thing, leave the place.” I was irritated by the stupid glitch that permanently wounds your companion if their health bottoms out from falling damage (it’s only happened to me twice, but each time I’ve not been happy with needing to reload and losing quest progress), and I resented the fact that the game had yet again foisted a pseudo-companion on me who kept getting in my way and disrupting my standard stealth-based approach, and I was not happy with the prospect of fighting through a gauntlet of Brotherhood of Steel enemies with high powered energy weapons in repeated ambush situations that were designed to not allow me to be stealthy.
Basically, the game told me in multiple ways within the same twenty minute period that it didn’t like the way I wanted to play, and I realized that I was fed up with it. Fallout 4 is a beautiful game with tons of lovely environments to wander through, but it never lets you forget that it’s a shooter. Everyone you meet is a potential threat, and most of the time it’s just easier to kill them from a distance and spare yourself the trouble. Even when you run across someone with a green name in the wasteland, your options for interaction are woefully limited (choose between being pleasant, angry, snarky, or curious and have the character react the same way no matter what!) so it’s never a significantly more interesting engagement than just having a firefight anyway.
Now, if you want a diversion from going to places and killing people, the game does offer settlement development as an activity that you can do, though in order to make any real headway, you’ll still need to explore the wasteland and kill people so you can gather the necessary junk to turn into furniture and upgrades for your settlements. When I first started up the game, I probably spent about five hours just fiddling with Sanctuary Hills, the starter settlement that the game uses to teach you about the basics of the management mechanic, and it was mildly satisfying, though when I finished the tutorial questline, there wasn’t any really big reward offered. I got a pat on the back by the NPCs for making their lives marginally less miserable and was shuffled over to the Minutemen quests, which I eventually learned involve a literally endless series of quests built around (you guessed it!) going to the place, killing the people, getting the thing, and leaving the place. Yeah, each successful quest rewarded me with a new settlement that I could play with, but after a while it just got to be too much, since you have to mule your own junk to new settlements to build stuff (I spent a lot of levels building up my charisma just so I could get the perk that lets you build supply lines between settlements so I wouldn’t have to do this; however many hours later, I still don’t know how this mechanic works because the game can’t be bothered to explain it). Essentially, while the early game goes out of its way to let you know there’s this cool new feature in the game, it’s never integrated in a way that feels meaningful to what the rest of the game is about. The one nominally nonviolent aspect of Fallout 4, as much as I wanted to like it, strikes me as a failure.
Ironically, my disillusionment with Fallout 4 comes right when it’s gathering its accolades from the gaming industry. At the DICE Awards Fallout 4 walked away with Game of the Year, Role-Playing / Massively Multiplayer Game of the Year (serious what the hell moment on that; why would anyone lump RPGs and MMOs in the same category?), and Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction. In a lot of ways, I feel like the game’s getting rewarded for being part of a series with a good pedigree rather than actually being a distinguished game in its own right, and while I don’t typically care about game industry awards (there are usually too many different outlets giving awards for any of them to be meaningful as markers of excellence), this particular instance highlights for me a growing feeling of disconnection from the tastes of mainstream developers. Going in, everything about Fallout 4 suggested I would love it. I’m a long time fan of Bethesda’s sandbox games, and the Fallout series has such a quirky satirical attitude. Instead, I just got tired of the pattern. I’ve written before a little bit about my fading interest in games built around a mechanic of violence (as much as I enjoyed BioShock Infinite, I think that game put the last nail in the coffin for my interest in conventional shooters), and it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that mainstream game development is really infatuated with the shooting mechanic. Fallout 4 lacks depth as a Western style RPG, but I think that because it features some well-refined shooting mechanics it’s getting more praise than it really deserves.