Review by Katie Tarrant
Edited by Sam Hughes
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Composer: Inon Zur
Sound Designer: Mark Lampert
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Fallout is undeniably a globally adored franchise. Blossoming from pixelated birds-eye graphics in to environments rich with vast picturesque landscapes, Bethesda have fought hard to prove that taking over the franchise after Fallout 2 was the right decision, and it is fair to say it was.
With the evolution of visual graphics also comes to evolution of audio, and here is where Israeli-born composer Inon Zur has excelled in crafting a sound that defines excitement, triumph, nostalgia and exploration all in one. Fallout 3 came equipped with an iconic theme and I was overjoyed to hear that same theme greet me at Fallout 4’s menu screen, only interestingly re-crafted in a much more emotional setting. In comparison with the ominous air of the Fallout 3 theme, Fallout 4 lures us in with delicate strings before bursting forth with the notorious melody that defines our love for the franchise, and overall communicates an air of victory and accomplishment, as opposed to the tension and curiosity of its predecessor.
Spanning over 400 hours of gameplay, Bethesda inevitably had a challenge on their hands to ensure there was enough variation in the audio to support that gameplay throughout. Through numerous tricks of the trade, they have achieved this to an extent, but 3.5 hours of original soundtrack can only go so far. The sounds while we travel are a combination of Inon Zur’s under-score, the sound effects of the world around us, and the beloved radio stations on our Pip-Boy, featuring several tracks from Fallout 3. Not only does this provide the gameplay with necessary variation, but it also adds another depth to the narrative. The likes of some stations, such as Diamond City and the Silver Shroud radio, whilst occasionally repetitive, provide light-entertainment whilst exploring, as well as entertaining side-missions to pursue.
Fallout 4’s soundtrack seems to have a much more emotional core, using big-room reverbs and restricted instrumentation to create a spacious bed for your thoughts to run away. Zur has experimented with minimalism and eerie sounds that work together to create a fantastic suspense, whilst also using that minimalism alongside other timbres to construct pieces that are spacious and thought-provoking.
Whilst the soundtrack possesses some strong standalone pieces, I feel the majority of the music Zur has created works best when it is integrated with the environments you are exploring. Bethesda’s sound design veteran Mark Lampert and the team worked tirelessly alongside Zur to harmonise the music and sound design. It’s undeniable that, that investment and consideration can be heard in the fluidity of the audio for each environment.
I also found it interesting studying some of the sound implementation throughout, such as randomised pitching on certain sound effects so that they are not repeated the same way each time. For effects like discovering caps and picking up scrap, the randomisation becomes a necessity because they are sounds we hear so often. This is something some sound designers occasionally overlook, but I feel it is a vital consideration for sound effects that are going to be heard repetitively.
There are a cacophony of fantastic sounds to discover throughout the game. The weapon crafting system provides a lot of freedom in how we choose to arm our characters and each of them come equipped with their own unique sounds. Application of well-crafted reverbs also provides a realistic and immersive sense of spatial awareness; being able to sense clearly where weapon-fire is taking place and, most importantly, where our enemies are. Additionally, the way sound is treated both in and out of power armour is a nice yet subtle addition. The heavy footfall and the clank of metal as you engage and disembark from your suit really indicate that you are lugging around some hefty kit. This, accompanied with the way sound becomes slightly muffled when in your suit, significantly contributes to a sense of truly being inside a monstrous chunk of machinery.
Being such a gargantuan world, you would anticipate a large diversity in the dialogue, and Bethesda delivered in that regard. Although I found some conversations subject to some painfully bland voice acting, the overall diversity between characters was ripe. Each character seems to effectively convey their personality through their dialogue alone.
Bethesda have also created more freedom with conversations whereby you can walk in and out of a conversation whenever you desire. However, this freedom also leads to some awkward moments if the NPC’s turn away or you move and suddenly an important conversation gets interrupted and you have to start from scratch, hopefully remembering which responses you chose. Whilst it provides a nice dynamic to have 360 observation of conversation, and also the ability to step out of an interaction rather than having to sit through the dialogue each time, it becomes a hindrance rather than an asset when it can lead to detrimental interruption of immersion.
Moreover, Bethesda have made a big decision with Fallout 4: to give our main character a voice. Whilst the vocal talents of Courtenay Taylor and Brian T Delaney are commendable, giving a character a designated voice in a game is a huge step to take, because it is something that immediately sets the tone for the entire gameplay. It damages any imaginative control you have over how you may have perceived or wanted your character to sound and, as a result, makes the game a lot less personal to each player.
The franchise has every ingredient necessary to be incredibly immersive, but some elements particularly in the functionality of the gameplay reduce that immersive potential. Whilst the game has made a remarkable progression from Fallout 3, I find myself wondering if it would have benefited from hanging on to more of Fallout 3’s elements. That said, the sound team have outdone themselves by crafting an atmosphere that feels as expansive and versatile as it does. This sense of realistic presence, plus the amount of gameplay provided by exploration alone, make it hard not to enjoy being back in the Wasteland.
The Sound Architect