Fallout 4 (2015), Bethesda’s beloved post-apocalyptic open world RPG, is now in VR, letting you stalk the Wasteland as the sole survivor of Vault 111 from the immersive point of view of the HTC Vive headset. This comes with most of the important trimmings and trappings of the original; a seemingly endless number of interesting and varied quests, multiple causes to join, base building, and plenty of guns and armor to scrounge. Fallout 4 VR successfully provides all these things along with the promise of holding a gun in your own hand, but fractures somewhat as it mutates from its native 16:9 aspect ratio to the new land of VR.
Fallout 4 VR Details:
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Available On: HTC Vive (Steam)
Reviewed On: HTC Vive, Tested on Rift (see note below)
Release Date: December 11th, 2017
Note: I have over 70 hours logged in the PC version of ‘Fallout 4’, but I’m attempting to set aside my personal affection for the non-VR version to put ‘Fallout 4 VR’ on the same plane as any other modern made-for-VR game.
If you’ve already played the PC or console version of the game, you’re probably looking forward to experiencing the world you know so well in the most immersive format available. If you haven’t, then your impression of the game will be entirely based on this version. It won’t be a ‘VR port’ to you, but rather a native VR game judged on its own merits.
As an action RPG, you’ll have to fill out your stats first to push you in the desired direction you want to pursue: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. You can grow these areas using the associated abilities and by spending XP to make them even stronger, which in turn gets you ‘Perks’ that can unlock abilities like master-level gunsmithing, better accuracy when shooting, master lockpicking, etc. It’s really a fun system that lets you play the game you want to just by being that person and by pursuing the sort of gameplay and abilities that you want to specialize in.
Like Skyrim VR, Fallout 4 VR underperforms in a few areas specific to the VR medium while at the same time drastically outperforming many of its VR contemporaries thanks to the game’s overwhelming size, variability of quests, numerous AI, and gameplay length. Now for something you haven’t heard a zillion times before: the nuts and bolts of VR gameplay.
Fallout 4 VR’s default teleporting locomotion scheme can be pretty tedious when moving around the Wasteland overworld. Although I found its precision much more useful when moving around a building’s interior during dungeon clearing, I still opted for the free locomotion option in the end. If you stick with the default teleport scheme, you’ll quickly find out that long teleports will drain your action points (AP) which are useful to have when you engage V.A.T.S., the game’s bullet-time mode. The AP drain is true for running at top speed in free locomotion mode too, so both locomotion styles end up offering an AP cost for faster movement. You can technically do as many ‘close’ teleports as you want, as there’s no cool down period because of the lack of AP cost, making teleportation the fastest way to travel across the Commonwealth (besides actual fast travel, that is). That’s a lot of trigger presses though.
Head Controller-relative free locomotion is the only other option. Snap-turning is an available option, but most Vive-owners are probably running a full 360 setup (while most Rifters are likely rocking the standard front-facing setup), so while it’s a welcome addition, some users simply won’t want or need snap-turning. I’ll speak more about locomotion in the ‘Comfort’ section below.
If you haven’t heard yet, Fallout 4 is mostly about wielding guns, although there are some melee weapons like machetes, baseball bats, bayonets, and (my favorite) Grognak’s axe. It’s safe to say then, if Fallout 4 VR can’t nail the shooting aspect, it’s failed in a pretty big department. Shooting is mostly a positive experience, although there are some hitches.
On my way through the world, my first gun was a 10mm pistol. Upon picking it up, I was happy to see the developers didn’t paste in an omnipresent laser pointer aimer, which always cheapens the shooting experience for me. That’s a big plus. While at close range, using a gun’s iron sights isn’t really an issue either, but the game’s occasional drabness demands at very least a glowing sight so you can get a good sight picture in low light conditions. Thankfully, the base game is the gold standard of gun modding, letting you alter every gun you come across to make it stronger, take larger magazines, change sights etc. The VR version is slightly less effective in this regard though for one reason currently.
While a glowing iron sight made the shooting experience much easier, to my ultimate dismay I found that optical scopes simply don’t work. You can construct them, attach them, collect them, find guns sporting them, but when you try to use a gun outfitted with a scope, you’ll be presented with a dead, matte surface where you should be seeing a zoomed-in view of the world.
Reaching out to Bethesda, I was told usable scopes would come in a later update, but wouldn’t be available at launch. Reflex sights, the type of device that gives you a floating cross-hairs, work just fine though (hmph).
Otherwise, I’d say the game’s shooting experience is hampered by the lack of two-handed weapons, the lack of intuitive holstering mechanic, and a few comically-scaled guns. On the flip side, despite knowing two-handed weapons will never quite feel real with a dual-controller setup (not Fallout 4 VR‘s fault), the effect of shooting two of the game’s justifiably large weapons—the Fat Man tactical nuke launcher and the 5mm Minigun—was exactly as I predicted: pretty fucking awesome. Those certainly don’t make up for one of the most important gun mods being broken at launch, but you certainly can’t argue with being able to pistol-whip enemies in the face when they get too close.
My most favorite moments in Fallout 4 VR is battling two of the world’s medium-to-large menaces; nuclear football-wielding Mutants, and Deathclaws, the scaly behemoths that pop out of the ground to cause havoc. These hulking tank-beasts will make you practically drop your controller in fright as you try to run away, engage V.A.T.S., and cycle through your Pip-Boy hoping to find your highest-powered weapon that you forgot to favorite on your quick inventory list. There are larger baddies to battle, but those are usually boss-level fights that only happen every so often.
I don’t do companions besides Dogmeat, my mostly non-judgmental doggy pal. There are a number of companions available to befriend (and use as pack mules) though, but I find they get in the way more than anything. You can go it alone, or with any number of Wastelanders to make attacks a little less lonesome. Seeing these companions in real life was a bit jarring at first; from the whole new POV of a VR headset, the artificiality of the game’s NPCs comes to light—but I talk about this more in the ‘Immersion’ section below.
In any case, difficulty levels are variable, and can be changed on the fly during gameplay, making it as easy or as hard as you like at a moment’s notice.
It’s hard to beat getting a chance to walk around the more densely-packed areas like Diamond City either, which feel appropriately sized and filled with enough quests to satisfy several hours of losing yourself to the game. Yes. Side quests are abundant, but even the primary quest line will require tens of hours to complete—a main attraction to the game for sure. If you can overlook some of the less immersive bits (detailed below) you’ll find Fallout 4 VR mostly delivers on its job of plugging you into the Commonwealth.
A note about Rift support in Fallout 4 VR: As it is now, you can technically play the game on Rift (thanks to its inherent compatibility with SteamVR), but buttons aren’t appropriately mapped to make browsing in-game menus easy, or to make locomotion simple. Most interactions are based on touchpad swipes, which translate poorly to Rift’s thumbsticks. The game can be run on the Rift, but Bethesda doesn’t officially recommend it at this time.
Even though you’re carrying a trusty map, genuinely massive games have a way of letting you figuratively lose yourself in the fabric of the story as its elements are strewn across an open world. Making your way into new territory for the first time can be a harrowing event, fraught with Ghouls, Mutants, and Raiders looking for blood. While the acute anxiety fades as you obtain higher levels, having a place as richly detailed as the Wasteland in VR is a major boon to immersion (despite the few ways it’s stretched to fit VR), if only for the fact that there’s always a challenge ahead, or a mystery around the corner to uncover.
While the game is both interesting and massive, I wouldn’t call any of the actual interactions within the world particularity immersive. That may be a harsh assessment, but as a two-year old game originally targeting flat screens, it feels too simplistic in some areas that a made-for-VR title would either do better, or avoid altogether.
Since you don’t have actual hands, which are replaced with floating controllers, hand presence is effectively null. This isn’t really a terrible thing, but the lack of meaningful object interaction in a world full of lootable buildings is. You won’t get a chance to do some of the things common to native VR games like manually inject a stimpack, physically reload a gun, or even pet a certain German Shepard (and tell him he’s a GOODBOYE). There simply isn’t any real object interaction to be had, as talking, eating, looting, and commanding your companion to do an action is all done through a single emotionless button press, often from a 2D menu. This may be convenient, but it isn’t really immersive.
Creating an inventory system for VR isn’t an easy thing either—nor is adapting one from an inherently menu-based game. Because a physical backpack full of 300 items wouldn’t exactly be practical, Fallout 4 VR definitely gets a break when it borrows a majority of its UI from the flatscreen version for its more utilitarian purposes. It does make a few VR-specific overtures when it can so as not to be entirely choked with floating 2D windows, but you’ll find those are pretty few in number.
Floating status bars aren’t really the most elegant of solutions for VR. There, I said it. Usually a developer would tailor the guns to give you some sort of indication that bullets were running out, or attach the counter directly to the gun so it doesn’t limit the field of view any more than it has to, but the blaring HP/AP bar and the ammo counter combined with the barrage of on-screen commands (looting, talking to NPCs, etc,) take away from the experience by being front and center most of the time. While navigation is neatly tucked away below your line-of-sight, everything else demands your immediate attention. It seems like a cheap fix to what rightly should have been overhauled entirely for VR.
The Pip-Boy arm computer tries to make up for all this PC-to-VR port-ness by being right there on your wrist, ready to flip through in a moment’s notice, enlarging somewhat as you bring it up to view. I liked using the Pip-Boy because it’s really the only place a 2D UI element makes sense. If you get tired of raising your wrist, you can make it function as a regular menu, although you’d be missing out.
Another big factor in immersion is the game’s NPCs and how you interact with them. NPCs move their heads and eyes to follow you as you move about the room during dialogue, but you won’t see anything like subtle reactions of getting too close, or any variable dialogue outside the game’s strict dialogue tree. Because VR is more immersive than traditional monitors, these things stick out more.
I know we don’t live in a time where perfectly realistic NPC characters are actually possible—but if the NPC interactions we see in Lone Echo (2017) are the best we can manage right now, Fallout 4 VR is showing its age.
On the more positive side of things, base building really helps the game feel more like ‘home’, and works really well in VR. Perusing a carousel of 3D objects on your left controller and placing them in the world just feels right. Once I was sufficiently impressed with my base, I set up a chair on the top of the Red Rocket station, turned on the radio and kicked back to watch the sun go down. It’s honestly what VR is all about.
Like its non-VR forbearer, there aren’t many display options to turn up the visual quality of the game. Bethesda’s minimum requirements says you should be running at very least an Intel Core i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350, 8GB RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 / AMD RX Vega 56 GPU. The recommended spec specifies an Intel Core i7-6700K or AMD Ryzen 5 1600X, 16GB RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 / AMD RX Vega 64 GPU.
My Exemplar 2 system meets those recommended specs, so while your mileage may vary, I found the game’s visual detail to be pretty incredible considering it’s supposed to run at or above 90 fps. NPCs don’t appear significantly worse than the flatscreen version, textures seem high enough quality, and draw distance seemed to be impressively far. The odd radioactive storm and night/day cycles really tie it all together nicely.
As always, teleporation is one of the most comfortable locomotion options outside of natural room-scale walking. Even the controller-relative forward motion is good enough to be called comfortable though, thanks to an adjustable ‘comfort vignette’ that reduces your FOV while moving to keep you comfortable. You can of course turn this off to get the full FOV while moving.
Snap-turning is also adjustable, allowing you to pick the angle and type of transition; instant or ‘smooth’, the latter of which tosses in a few frames to better blend the normally jarring snapping transition. There is no smooth-turning to speak of though.
There’s no ‘seated’ option in the game, which might artificially raises your POV when playing sitting down. When I play longer games, I tend to stand up for the first hour or so, but then naturally sit down to give my feeble, lazy legs a rest. If you are physically seated, you’ll be continuously lower in the world.
Update (12/12/17): Clarified the capabilities of the Rift regarding two-Sensor front-facing vs. 360 configurations. Thanks bobzdar.
Update (12/11/17, 5:00PM ET) : It appears I mistook the controller-relative free locomotion for head-relative, which would explain some of the strangeness I initially perceived.
We partnered with AVA Direct to create the Exemplar 2 Ultimate, our high-end VR hardware reference point against which we perform our tests and reviews. Exemplar 2 is designed to push virtual reality experiences above and beyond what’s possible with systems built to lesser recommended VR specifications.