The UI of Fallout 4

Fallout 4 has been available for a few weeks now, and I've really enjoyed being back in Bethesda's post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather than reviewing the game, I wanted to take a look at a specific aspect of it, its user interface.

I'm neither a UI expert or a regular player of games, but I am a frequent user of things, and I like those things to be well-designed. Bethesda have a history of making massive, sprawling yet untidy games, so I thought it would be interesting to see how they have progressed with their recent release.

I'm playing on a PS4, so undoubtedly some of these points aren't applicable on other platforms.

Start screen

Beyond the splash screen, Fallout 4's main menu options are as you'd expect: Continue, Load, Settings etc. Nothing much to report here, with user getting their first taste of the game's basic controls; Cross to select or confirm, Circle to cancel or go back:

Main menu

However, even on this menu things aren't quite right. Scroll down to the Settings option, and the button hint for “Confirm” is missing:

In the same menu

If you've played any Playstation game before probably you'll know to use this menu. But why are the two screens different? "Confirm" is used in other areas, so I assume this is an oversight. A tiny one, but it hints at the messiness elsewhere.

I appreciate the settings to change the RGBA values of the Pip-Boy, and generally speaking the text is clear and readable - a lesson presumably learned from Bethesda's other recent RPG, Skyrim, where the font was painfully thin.

Heads-up display

You'll be looking at this version of the HUD for a big chunk of the game (see Power Armour below for the other version), and I think it works well. Radiation has been integrated into the HP counter, and the compass now shows nearby map markers as well as vertical indicators when enemies are positioned above or below the player.

The detection system is different from previous games, with square brackets indicating how close the player is to being seen. It's a nice mechanic but wasn't immediately obvious.

One small issue I encountered was the ammo counter sometimes disappearing:

Now you see it...

...now you don't.

This tended to happen in areas with no combat, with the counter re-appearing after pointing at a character. I couldn't tell if this was a bug, or if the game decided I didn't need the counter when there was nothing to shoot at.

Power Armour

When donning Power Armour, the HUD will change from the abstract to a "real" overlay, showing what the player sees from inside the helmet.

The Power Armour HUD looks great

It's a nice touch, but the presentation is actually worse; the dial makes it harder to check your HP & rads at a glance, and your ammo counter has shrunk inside the action points dial. However, the Pip-Boy now benefits from a larger display area.

(Considering this is meant to be a "real" HUD, it's also slightly odd that you still get this style when in the 3rd person or when not actually wearing a helmet.)

My one major gripe about the Power Armour is exiting the suit. There's no information on how to do so, and the answer is counter-intuitive: you must hold down Cross, which everywhere else in the game signifies the "enter / confirm" action.

Pip-Boy

The Pip-Boy is Fallout's iconic gadget the player uses to manage their inventory, quests, map and much more. As in previous games, it is designed to perfectly fit in the world's retro-rocket-science style with big dials and monochrome display, and fails spectacularly at being pleasant to use. Fallout fans will argue that this awkward design is part of the series' appeal, and they're correct, but you have to learn to like it.

The first issue is space; in an effort to keep the user immersed, the display is presented along with various pointless dials on the player's arm, meaning the useful information is squashed into half the screen. The designers recognised this problem and allow you to zoom in to just the display, but this is a hidden feature which I discovered by accident.

The Pip-Boy's menus are generally the same as they always were. Navigation is slightly awkward, for example cycling through the main menu is done with R/L2, but cycling through inspected items with R/L1. This kind of inconsistency isn't surprising considering how much functionality is crammed in there, but perhaps this could be solved in a better way.

Camouflage

A much bigger issue occurs when using a Stealth-Boy or camo armour, both of which render the user invisible. In keeping with immersion, the designers decided the Pip-Boy should change appearance too, which follows logical sense yet makes it impossible to use. Either the text becomes unreadable or, in some cases which may be a bug, the entire gadget is transparent:

Sometimes the text is completely unreadable.

Bug or feature?

I like the fact that there's a downside to being stealthy, but it becomes difficult to even remove the armour that's causing stealth in the first place!

Map

Fallout's maps have always been purposefully obscure, partly due to the Pip-Boy design and partly to encourage exploration. This hasn't changed much, although a there are a few nice additions: the map now shows undiscovered areas as an outline, with an icon to roughly show the kind of area it is (which shows up on the compass when nearby).

As in Skyrim, when the player removes all enemies from an area, its map icon is marked as cleared. This is nice, although I'm unable to discern between areas remaining to be cleared and areas which have no enemies to start with.

The interior map is useless except for the most basic of layouts. Looking like a schematic or satellite photo, with features from multiple levels superimposed upon each other, making sense of it requires far more effort than just exploring on your own.

The Pip-Boy app

Bethesda have released a companion app for Fallout 4, which utilises your phone as an external Pip-Boy screen. It's a great idea, but it suffers from the same issue as the main game; there's too much going on for a pleasant experience.

Pip-Boy app on an iPhone 5

On my iPhone 5 the controls are too tiny and squashed together, although newer iPhones and most Android phones might be better suited with their larger screens. If nothing else, it's useful for keeping a map available while walking around.

Perks

The levelling / perk system has been simplified from previous screens, with everything taking place in one perk chart.

The Perk chart

Each individual SPECIAL category is presenting along the top of the chart, with stars representing the number of points in each category. This is a slightly odd choice since many perks have a point requirement; expressing the points as numerals would make it far easier to determine how close you are to meeting a requirement.

Perks you have taken are animated, other perks are transparent and currently unavailable perks are shown by an outline. I like this system as it's easy to understand at a glance.

Some perks have ranks, allowing you to gain additional powers in specific areas. I found this confusing initially, assuming "Next rank" would grant me the rank rather than simply showing some detail.

The "L01 ... L10" markings on the left of the chart are strange. At first I thought these were level requirements, but that's incorrect since each perk can have its own requirement. As far as I'm aware these markings don't mean anything other than "higher is better".

Items, trading & crafting

Finding junk is a huge part of a Fallout 4 play-through, as building better weapons & armour requires components from the scrap you come across. Although it was strange at first, I'm glad Bethesda streamlined the process for opening containers; previous games forced you to manually open them, whereas now they do so automatically.

This system isn't perfect, though, as it conflicts with the item shortcut system. Since they both utilise the D-pad's up / down buttons, you can't use the shortcuts while inspecting a container. Quickly administering a Stimpak in the heat of battle can be tricky if you're surrounded by a pile of dead ghouls; rather than healing, your character is rifling through their pockets.

You'll spend a lot of time managing your items, so it's merciful that the item transfer screens are consistent regardless of who or what you're interacting with. Items can be inspected to see them up close, although reading a book or note is a different action for some reason.

Modifying weapons and armour is a fairly simple process, helped by a consistent menu system:

Basically a ray gun...

There's a lot of information but it's sensibly positioned; item stats on the left (including a comparison with your equipped item), necessary components in the middle and any perk requirements on the right.

My only real annoyance here are items with so many customisations that the name is truncated, even after font scaling. Often you'll pick up something like "Calibrated powerful night vision..." and will have to select it in the menu to remind yourself what it is. You can rename items while crafting, but there's only so many puns one can come up with.

Conversations & companions

In an effort to make Fallout more cinematic, Bethesda recorded the protagonists' voice for the first time, with a concise version of each speech choice presented to the user. I'm familiar with this from the Mass Effect series so quite like it.

Some choices involve attempting persuasion or intimidation. The player's perks influence the chance that the attempt will succeed, with that chance indicated as yellow, orange or red text. Sometimes text is more transparent which in other areas denotes an inaccessible item, but it simply meant I'd already used it previously.

You can talk to your companions and give them various commands, although sometimes they'll refuse to do what you ask:

Oh, Codsworth.

Dismissing a companion brings up a menu of settlements, so you can choose where to find them later. There are no button hints here, and strangely the Circle button doesn't cancel the action but instead seems to send the companion to the default settlement. I've dismissed my companion by accident more than once because of this.

V.A.T.S.

The targeting system has had a few changes, but nothing that particularly affects the UI. The critical hit system is fairly obvious, and although I sometimes struggle to switch between targets & limbs correctly, this is mostly because I'm panicking due to a rush of ghouls (time doesn't completely stop as in previous games).

V.A.T.S

My only suggestions here could be making the hit chance more explicit; new users might, for example, confuse the "95" label as damage inflicted rather than hit chance. Yes, it soon becomes obvious after you've missed a few times, but you may be dead by then!

Settlements

Everything else in this article is at most a minor issue, but the Settlements system really is a disaster. I'm not a massive fan of micro-management sims so I didn't expect to love this part of Fallout 4, but the way it's handled just made me hate it.

The game doesn't help by launching you into settlement building very early on, with minimal assistance. You're asked to build a few specific items using a menu system that is quite different from everything else in the game, and then you're left to your own devices.

Presumably Bethesda had a dedicated Settlements team, but it feels as though they didn't communicate with their other designers. Consider, for instance, the menu which categorises items by function. In the game's other menus, submenus appear to the right, but here they appear above - I can't think of any menu system in any game or website that works this way, and there doesn't seem to be a reason for it here.

The workshop menu

When an item is selected, the various panels take up much of the screen. Using a standard menu could create more space and lose the category icons, which are hard to distinguish when, as often happens, you lack the necessary components.

The space is more of a problem with larger items. Here I'm trying to place a prefabricated shed:

Where do you want it?

The item is so large it becomes difficult to see where I'm placing it, but it's also the same colour as the other panels, making them hard to read.

This wouldn't be an issue if you could zoom out for a birds-eye view, but Fallout's determination to maintain the character's perspective limits what's possible here. Not only does it make your settlement hard to build, you often find yourself performing actions you didn't intend; the button used to enter "workshop" mode is also used to switch between 1st and 3rd person. Your character can still sprint, but can't stand up if you entered workshop mode while crouching.

Many other small issues stack up here. Some buttons aren't labelled, others are inconsistent, multiple menus can be open at the same time, items are stored in categories you wouldn't expect, and placing them seems arbitrary especially when trying to snap pieces together.

Creating and managing a town could be fun, but it just doesn't work in the 1st person perspective. Breaking out into a top-down view (which isn't new for the Fallout series) would perhaps ruin the immersion, but there's simply too much going on otherwise. If you love management sims then I'm sure you can build cool things in spite of the interface, but it discourages me from investing any time in this part of the game.

TL;DR

That I made the time to write this shows how much I'm enjoying Fallout 4 regardless of these problems. It's not perfect, and I have a list of other niggles (the pacing, the dialogue, those interminable Minutemen quests!), but overall the interface is good considering just how much is crammed in. Fallout's style is arguably its best asset, so sacrificing usability in its name has, on the whole, paid off for Bethesda again.