A friend of mine visited over the weekend. He'd never played any of the Fallout games, nor had he played any of the Elder Scrolls games. But he'd seen adverts for Fallout 4 and asked me to show it to him. So on went the PlayStation 4 and on went Fallout 4.
My quicksave set me loose where I'd left off: out and about, exploring Bethesda's wonderful wasteland. "This is Fallout 4," I said. "You explore, talk to NPCs, shoot monsters, complete quests and level up. It's a post-apocalyptic role-playing game set in a huge open world. It's a bit like Mad Max. It's great. You'll love it."
This is a good point to show my mate the game, I thought, because I was on my way to Diamond City, Fallout 4's biggest settlement. On the way, while crossing a destroyed bridge over a radiated river, I stopped to investigate a group of Raiders who'd claimed a boat that had crashed many moons ago. What stories would I hear? What secrets would I discover? How deep would the rabbit hole go? This kind of off-the-beaten-track diversion is Fallout at its best.
"I'll kill them for their loot," I told my friend. "You spend a lot of time scavenging, looting corpses, opening boxes, that sort of thing. They'll probably have some cool stuff I want."
After the shootout, I did my rounds, leaving a trail of naked corpses in my wake. Most of the Raiders offered up standard fare: leathers, pistols, ammo and the like. But one had something different. One Raider had extra bits and bobs for Power Armour.
"This is great," I told my friend. "I want this for my Power Armour back at Red Rocket Truck Stop." So I looted the lot.
Then, the inevitable: "You're carrying too much and can't run!"
"So, yeah, in Fallout 4, if you're carrying too much you slow right down, and you can't fast travel back to home base," I explained.
Into the Pip-boy I went, poring through my inventory, looking for something to dump on Piper, my then companion. But she didn't have any of it. "I'm full, mate. No more room for more of your rubbish." Decision time: do I drop some of the cool stuff I had on me, some of the junk items I'd picked up? Some of the weapons? I spent a good 10 minutes fumbling about the menu screens trying to shuffle bits and bobs this way and back until I came to the inevitable conclusion: I'll just leave the armour on the Raider's corpse.
"You seem to spend more time in the menu than in the game," my astute friend observed. "I don't think this is for me, to be honest."
I tried to explain that messing about in menus is part of the fun of Fallout - indeed it's a part of the fun of most role-playing games. There's a strategy to managing your weight. I need to decide what to take and what to leave behind. When you're so weighed down the game forces you to crawl, working out how to lighten the load without dumping the essentials is somehow fun. What is it Call of Duty marketing man always says? Oh yes, that's it: there's a logistics manager in all of us.
But, for me, with Fallout 4 it's just not worth it.
With Fallout 4 Bethesda did something different: it made all junk items valuable. Previously, you could safely ditch all junk items safe in the knowledge they were largely useless. You'd sell them for bottle caps, or maybe hoard them in your house. Either way, they weren't worth stressing through your inventory for.
But Fallout 4's new crafting and base-building features mean looting junk is pretty much essential if you want to make a success of your settlements. Junk items and their component parts are used to build the various items available in base building. There's a nifty new feature that shows you whether an item in the world breaks down into a part you're tracking. So you can see how important scavenging for junk is in Fallout 4.
This, though, doesn't mesh well with how often you find yourself over encumbered (or, as my wife affectionately calls it, over cucumbered). This happens much more often in Fallout 4 than other RPGs I've played because I want all the junk. And then I stumble upon something cool I have to pick up - a new fancy gun, or a new fancy piece of armour - that pushes my backpack over the edge. And I have to spend another boring 10 minutes fumbling with the inventory system. I do that, or face the prospect of fast-traveling back to base to store my stuff in a workshop, which, let's be honest, is just a painstaking, tiresome, bloated way of doing something as simple as move items from one bit of the game world to another.
I can load up my companion, of course, as you've been able to do in previous Bethesda games, but there's no way to instantly transfer ALL junk items to him, her or... it. So I have to manually transfer each item. Then, back at base, I can instantly transfer all items back to my character, but that lumps in items my companion had equipped. So now I have to go through my inventory to dig out my companion's gear, transfer it back and equip it. Then, I dump all my junk in a workshop.
It grinds you down.
Part of the appeal of Fallout 4 is it lets me role-play as a post-nuclear scavenger, picking the bones of Boston's 200 year-old corpse. I love going on "scrap runs", as they're called, braving unexplored areas in the hope of finding a fan, or a cash register, or some duct tape, or something that pre-war was so mundane as to blend into the background, now so valuable as to make me punch the air upon its discovery. And then, loaded up with the spoils of my expedition, I fast travel back to base, my eyes wide with excitement. Now I can build a slightly fancier shack for my settlers! Won't it look gorgeous!
Encumbrance triggers so often in Fallout 4 that it gets in the way of the fun - and for me no longer in a good way. I'm entranced as my scrap run peaks and troughs, a 15 minute diversion becomes a half hour dungeon crawl, a chance encounter becomes a side quest, a dusty vault door opens to reveal a world within a world, packed with horror. I am truly immersed in post-apocalyptic Boston, the game world dug into my skin with all the strength of a Deathclaw's iron grip. And it won't let go.
And then the spell is broken by encumbrance. Putting off the inevitable, I fiddle with the inventory in a vain hope some more space will present itself. I look disdainfully at my companion - who is already at her weight limit - when she offers to carry some of my stuff for the fifth time. Are you trolling me, Piper? I know you can't carry any more of my crap. Stop trying to help!
I must backtrack to the door I used to enter the mysterious hole I've just spent a glorious hour inching through, and leave so I'm out in the open - just so the game will let me fast travel home. I've had enough of weight management. I've had enough of my backpack getting me down. It's got to the stage where it's just annoying.
I often hear the word "realism" used by those who counter this argument. It wouldn't be very realistic if you could carry as much stuff as you want, they say. To that I respond: the realism horse bolted long ago. Fallout 4 and, let's be honest, all games, include magic backpacks that let you carry around a bucket load of stuff, before some arbitrary stat tells you you can't carry any more. It's already silly. Why not make it sillier?
So, after 15 or so hours with Fallout 4, I'm done with encumbrance. It's an archaic mechanic that gets in the way of the best the game has to offer. If you make junk matter, Bethesda, let us carry as much crap as we want. It's a video game, after all, about robots who tell jokes. It's not a post-nuclear simulation. Leave that to DayZ.
"Yeah, I don't think this is for me," my friend concludes. "Really, once it gets going, it's fantastic," I counter. "It looks a bit too much like hard work," he suggests. Yeah, I guess it does.