Fallout 4: when a bad UI distracts from strong gameplay

Fallout 4 relies on a classic RPG feedback loop. Venture out and discover. Aquire loot and experience from combat and finishing quest lines. Improve your character, equip cool weapons and armor. Repeat. But thanks to an unwieldy user interface, part of Fallout 4’s feedback loop is broken. It’s increasingly problematic for me as I advance through the game’s main narrative.

Admittedly, that’s not a factor during most of my playtime thanks to Fallout 4’s superb open world design. There’s always something new to explore, little of which feels like filler content. The art direction and detail on most locations is impressive. Map layout is intuitive and influenced by real world constraints. Many terminals and safes add to a location’s backstory and the characters that populate it. It all adds to a breadth and unpredictability to Fallout 4 that I haven’t encountered in any other game this year.

Yet solid open world exploration and interesting loot only get you so far. Once you’re back at home base, Fallout 4 strains during character improvements and management. I’ve burned long stretches of time micromanaging inventory, encumbrance, and crafting items.

The root problem is Pip-Boy, Fallout 4’s UI for navigation, inventory and character stats. It’s poorly organized and cluttered. And the UI feels shockingly unintuitive, especially given the game’s multi-year development cycle.

There’s no easy way to run direct comparisons between weapons, armor or other items. And there’s no filters for armor, ammo or weapon types. That makes sorting loot to keep, scrap, or sell a chore.

Fallout 4 involves a lot of combat, so you’ll regularly dive into Pip-Boy for healing. My Pip-Boy regularly lists forty or more consumable aid types. Each restores a set number of hit points, can boost character stats, but may also deliver harmful radiation. This forces you to juggle different aid types for different scenarios. Yet the Pip-Boy provides no clear way to sort or filter effectively. Often in frustration I’ll just pick the first aid I spot that has hit points needed to survive. There are often smarter aids further down the list, but given the interface, it’s rarely worth my time.

And for Pip-Boy screen real estate, Fallout 4 only uses about half of your screen for actual Pip-Boy content. The rest shows bits of your character’s arm and your standard first person view. With less room available, menus feel cramped. And lists have more scrolling than I’d like. Clearly the goal was aesthetics over pure usability. But in practice, the charm of an analog heavy recreation fades fast.

Some of this could be forgiven with intuitive controls, but at least on my DualShock 4, it’s a mixed bag. You cycle between the main menus with your controller triggers. Yet you’re unable to “wrap around” to quickly get to menus on the other side. Up and down on your directional pad scrolls through a list but left and right drop you into an entirely new sublist. You can move around the map with your left analog stick. Yet it’s easy to lose track of your cursor and differentiate locations or waypoints close by each other.

In spite of its flaws, Fallout 4 is still fun to play. There’s no other recent game with its raw ambition and scope. But it’s 2015 and I expect more from UI design. I work on a Mac, I commute home on an iPhone, and I when I get home, I might play a match in Heroes of the Storm or Rocket League. From a complex OS for engineering to a simple multiplayer game, solid user interfaces are commonplace. It’s baffling Fallout 4 feels so comparatively far behind.