Change is good... or is it?
Bethesda overhauled the series’ trademark SPECIAL attribute system and character leveling in Fallout 4, too. Fallout 3’s system was similar to D&D. When levelling up, you got a certain number of skill points to spend in abilities, and that was it. Periodically, you also got to select perks or increase a base SPECIAL attribute—your strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, or luck.
That’s all changed now, perhaps for the better. The new system feels simpler, but it still leaves a lot of room for choice. Levelling up gets you a skill point, which can be used to improve a base ability like Strength or Endurance, or it can be directly applied to a perk. Many perks have multiple levels, too, so you can go from a novice lockpicker or hacker to a walking national security risk.
While I think the SPECIAL system is pretty well implemented overall, there are some interactions with the rest of the gameplay that take away from the freedom it provides. For example, carrying junk for crafting is a constant pain in the back. You can invest in the Strength attribute or spend skill points in perks that let you pack more stuff, but that feels essential to getting ahead in the game, not like a choice.
Crafting forces the player to make the same kind of choices. If you want to make better items, you’ll have to spend precious skill points on the four separate crafting perks. That’s not even accounting for the extra perks you’ll need to make good use of settlements. Considering how fundamental the crafting system is to playing the game well, it doesn’t feel like you have much choice here, either.
Another annoyance bears mentioning. While the perks list does look extensive at first glance, it really seems to favor two strategies: direct combat or stealth. If you want your character to be a great scientist hacker, you’ll have a much harder time in Fallout 4’s wasteland. Not only is your set of skills far more limited, but only a few quests can be solved either by brains or guile. Sure, you can hack terminals to disable turrets and make Protectron robots fight for you, but that’s often simply not enough for many situations. Deus Ex: Human Revolution spoiled players by consistently offering two or three avenues for performing a mission, and it’s a little sad that Fallout 4 only pretends to do that.
Stealth is also quite overpowered in the new game, and I say that as a person who always plays the sneaky bastard thief when given the option. On the one hand, it’s great to have plenty of choices open for indirect combat, but it’s really easy to game the system—mainly due to the brain-dead enemy AI. Once you have silenced weapons and a couple sneaking perks, you can take out a whole settlement of Super Mutants with one arm behind your billowing cape. Enemies often don’t react as expected—it’s bad, yet amusing, to see gangbangers completely nonplussed by their friend’s corpse wearing grey matter for makeup. Shoot someone in a group from afar, and they start shooting in your general direction, but don’t always make much effort to actually try to find you. Even when they do, avoiding detection tends to be trivial anyway.
It’s not like your faithful companions are any smarter this time around, either. Despite preferring to play the lone wolf in RPGs, I gave a shot at having a companion around. That lasted about all of 10 minutes, because helpers end up becoming hindrances more often than not. They get in your way (especially when you need to get away), aggro enemies, eat up your shared ammo pool like it’s peanuts, and vanish when they should be right behind you. Oh, and they’re attracted to traps like hipsters to overpriced coffee desserts.
The VATS combat system also gets a few adjustments. In previous Fallouts, entering VATS would completely freeze time so you could carefully allocate your precious Action Points. In Fallout 4, though, time doesn’t stop—it only slows down 90% or so, forcing you to think on your feet. I normally wouldn’t have a problem with this, except that in particularly hairy situations, even that snail’s pace of passing time is enough to take you from “alive and kicking” to “kicking the bucket” because you didn’t point and click fast enough. I suppose it’s a matter of personal preference, but I find that if I have to be fast and precise with my clicking, I might as well just take down that Deathclaw in the traditional FPS fashion.
Bethesda also saw it fit to drop the broken karma system used in previous Fallout games. While karma was well-intentioned, it led to paradoxes where your character would be praised for blowing up a camp of raiders, yet shunned for looting it. In Fallout 4, you’re forced to live with the consequences of your decisions, but there’s not a pair of scales measuring good or bad for you.
Fallout 4’s health system is slightly tweaked, too. Radiation exposure decreases the player’s maximum health instead of adding skill penalties, and food or stimpaks take a few seconds to take effect. There’s still nothing stopping you from bringing up your Pip-boy and instantly consuming half a pallet of Salisbury Steak boxes, though. There are probably historic tales in Deathclaw culture about certain unkillable humans that carry tons of food in their backpacks.