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Fallout 4 VR makes a terrible first impression.
Boot it up and it’s immediately clear it wasn’t built for VR first and foremost. The main menu does that thing where it’s just the original 2D menu projected in empty space. The “War never changes…” intro does the same. Then when you get into the actual game, you see a rudimentary version of the character creation sequence where you’re standing in front of a mirror—and if you step backwards, you can just walk straight through the wall.
This “Oh, someone didn’t even think of this or at least didn’t come up with a way to solve it” rough-around-the-edges aspect does not bode well. It continued, too. As I dove further into the game, I kept finding other aspects that annoyed me, that demonstrated Fallout 4 was never built with VR in mind—awkward controls, a terrible teleport system, objects that don’t react the way you’d expect in VR.
And yet the first night I played Fallout 4 VR ($60 on Steam, or bundled free with the HTC Vive VR headset) for three hours straight and only stopped because it was 4 A.M. The sheer scope of it is incredible. So you could say I’m torn.
It’s the end of the world
First and foremost, I’ll say this: Fallout 4 isn’t a great game. You’re free to disagree of course, but I was pretty tepid on it in 2015 and the ensuing two years have only left me feeling colder. I find the dialogue wheel needlessly reductive, the dialogue it contains often cheesy, and Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic Boston empty and sterile. Not in a good way.
Thus I came into the end of the year expecting Fallout 4 VR to be my least favorite of Bethesda’s trio of big-name VR titles, with Skyrim VR marginally more interesting (swinging swords!) and Doom VFR the most intriguing—after all, it was the only one built specifically for virtual reality. And…well, you can see how that went. In short: Not great.
Doom VFR’s failure made me even less interested in Fallout 4 VR and the opening hours in the Commonwealth did nothing to dissuade me of that feeling. Seriously, the beginning is rough. Not only can you break the game in a bunch of different ways, but Bethesda’s lack of tutorializing almost begs you to break it. I had to literally open a menu to figure out how to teleport around because a tutorial prompt never popped, or if it did I missed it entirely.
[Hold on, because I’m about to complain for like…six paragraphs. I’ll come back to what I like though. Just bear with me.]
That same lack of polish crops up in all manner of ways. If you’re not holding something in one of your hands, for instance, you don’t see an empty hand like you’d expect. No, instead it’s replaced with the generic Vive wand prop. Since you can’t hold any weapons and don’t have a Pip-Boy for the opening sequence that means there’s a good 20-30 minutes where your hands are just disembodied Vive wands.
And it doesn’t goes away after that opening sequence. Anytime you get into a conversation, your right hand is again replaced with a Vive wand so it can show you the conversation wheel on the touchpad. Immersion? Pfah. Who needs immersion in virtua—oh wait, that’s literally the entire reason the platform exists. It’s probably the most confounding decision Bethesda could’ve made, and like Doom VFR, just one of those moments where you shake your head and think “This problem’s already been solved by a dozen different VR studios, and you chose the least practical solution.”
I have a bunch of other oddities to mention, and I’m just going to shoot them at you rapid-fire because otherwise we’ll be here all week.
If you hold a melee weapon in your hand and then move your hand at all, your character grunts or yells like you swung it in combat. It’s silly.
Navigating the Pip-Boy is an absolute nightmare, requiring you to at certain times press in the touchpad, at others to swipe on the touchpad, and then to click the trigger for any confirmations.
Another bit of “…Why?” is that the Pip-Boy inflates to twice its normal size when you look at it, presumably to aid in reading it, but it’s distracting and (again) immersion-breaking. Noticing a pattern here?
Only certain objects can be picked up and interacted with as physics objects. Others can’t. It’s almost impossible to know which is which. A good example: Early in the game you’re supposed to spin a mobile to entertain your infant son. I reached out like a normal VR game and batted the mobile and…nothing. Turns out you’re just supposed to hit the touchpad, at which point the mobile starts spinning on its own. Archaic.
Scoped weapons don’t work. The scope is just a black void. You also hold every weapon in one hand, even the Fat Man.
I know, it’s a lot of complaints. Don’t worry, there’s more.
Changing weapons on the fly is awkward.
Teleportation is stupid. The game tries to replicate the “Stamina” function of direct movement, so you can only teleport to your maximum distance once or twice before your character starts breathing heavily (as if you sprinted there) and the game then limits your teleportation to a few feet until you “recover.” It doesn’t feel good at all.
The graphics options are almost nonexistent, mainly consisting of a handful of LOD sliders with no Low/Medium/High/Very High documentation.
Preston Garvey still sucks.
Speaking of Preston, you can’t interact with anything while a conversation’s happening—no rummaging through cabinets while he prattles on and on and on.
There are just so many problems, and a part of me is dreading the fact that Fallout 4 VR will be something that convinces people to try VR. It’s just not a good VR experience in the ways I’d usually qualify that statement. Job Simulator is a great VR introduction. It’s intuitive. You pick up the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you put it on, you grab the controllers, you see they’re your hands, you start interacting with objects, and everything reacts the way you expect. All the best VR experiences—Tilt Brush and Google Earth VR, Lone Echo, Call of the Starseed, Arizona Sunshine—share this same intuitiveness.
Fallout 4 VR is not intuitive. It’s actively unintuitive, requiring you to unlearn things you know about real life in order to interface with it. In that sense, it is not a good fit for virtual reality in the traditional sense. And that’s to be expected—I’ve long opined that traditional games converted to VR are less interesting than even the least polished experiment built to play to VR’s specific strengths.
Regular pint-sized atom bomb
What Fallout 4 VR does though is bring with it an enormous world packed with stuff to do. When I reviewed the game in 2015, that didn’t really interest me—I have plenty of games like that on PC already, most of which (Hi, Witcher 3) provide a richer experience.
In VR? Not so much. I can count on two hands the number of games that cross the 10-hour mark, and ones that pack in 100-plus hours of exploration? Yeah that’s…actually I’m pretty sure it’s just Fallout 4 VR.
The sheer scope of the Commonwealth, and the fact that it’s all here for players to explore unhindered, is part of Fallout 4 VR’s appeal. It’s the full original game, untouched. You can pick up quests, explore the Institute, go wander around Fenway, whatever you’d like.
And some of the choices Fallout 4 made for desktops translate perfectly to VR, or at least the semi-real VR experience Bethesda’s providing. For instance, I was disappointed in the original game that looting containers just meant looking at them and then hoovering up all the items. In VR though? It kind of works. You point at a cabinet or whatever, a little translucent box pops up telling you what’s inside, and you can grab it in a split second. Realistic? No, but it’s convenient.
Settlements work great too. Settlements were my least favorite part of the base game, mostly because they didn’t fit with my interest in the series but also in part because the mouse/keyboard controls were awful. Placing every item felt like a chore. But in VR? You just plop down pieces. Need it rotated? Just rotate your wrist. I spent a solid half-hour cleaning up Sanctuary when I first left Vault 111 because it was satisfying to point at a tree and simply delete it, then put up a new fence or whatever around my home.
Most of all, it’s just interesting having a different view on the world. I’ve written before that VR is great for understanding the scale of these environments in a way that’s never quite conveyed by normal screens, and Fallout 4 VR is another perfect example.
Concord, for instance. When you enter Concord in the normal game, it’s just some empty town full of tiny houses. When you enter it in VR though, those same houses tower over you—they’re 20-odd feet tall, of course. Thus a quaint little town becomes a dark and foreboding canyon, somehow more threatening even though you know you’ll come to the town square and see a handful of bandits, then meet Preston Garvey and listen to his interminable speeches. The pieces are all the same, but it feels in some regards like an entirely different game.
So yeah, I’m torn. Fallout 4 VR is in some respects a huge boon for the fledgling medium. It will inevitably draw more attention to VR, and will give people a meaty experience to while away hours in. Bethesda’s also added an option to switch to direct movement, which should satisfy all those people with iron stomachs who complain teleportation takes them out of the game. I’ll be sticking to teleportation myself (I climbed stairs in direct motion and felt my stomach lurch) but hey, the option’s available.
On the other hand, Fallout 4 VR demonstrates the limitations of porting to VR after the fact. It’s as clumsy as porting from phones to PC or vice versa—there are certain expectations for how players interact with any platform, and translating those expectations from another medium rarely succeeds 100 percent. Fallout 4 VR isn’t even close to 100 percent. I’d estimate they’re like…50 percent of the way to a Fallout game that feels like it was built for VR from the ground up. Not great.
I found myself not caring though, the more I played. Adapting to its quirks, you might say. I learned which items I could pick up and throw around and which I couldn’t, learned again which objects contained loot and which were just for show. I could see myself playing more Fallout 4 in this environment, which is certainly more than I’d ever say about the original version. Fallout 4 VR’s expansiveness simply provides something that’s in rare supply right now—a world you could actually get lost in, quite literally, for hours on end.
So maybe we forgive its flaws. If VR survives I don’t think Fallout 4 VR is a game we look back on in 10 years and herald as an essential breakthrough, as a game that added to our understanding of the medium. It’s not. Those experiments are happening along the periphery in studios and engines and games that are much more flexible than Bethesda and the Creation Engine and Fallout 4.
But as something for existing owners to pad out their libraries with, and as a demonstration of how expansive our worlds can get, and lastly as an ambassador from the world of bigger-budget projects? Let’s just say I expect quite a few of you will have those “Oh damn, it’s already 4 A.M.?” moments.