You know that spectacular moment in Fallout 3, when you first stepped, blinking, into the light of day and saw what awaited the next significant chunk of your life? You’d imagine repeating that trick would be something to criticize in Fallout 4. But in the game’s earliest moments, after escaping Vault 111, I stood above the town of Sanctuary, watching and remembering what it once was. The sun gleamed through trees that barely clung to life while bird caws and the subtle swoosh of a light wind were the only sounds to be heard. In a way, it reminded me of nights out, when your tired, bleary eyes see the sun coming up over the remains of chaos from the previous night, and all seems hauntingly, almost unnervingly, peaceful.
At least, until you remember that your mouth feels it’s been chewing a Super Mutant’s loincloth and you’ll likely be asleep on your feet for the rest of the day.
Fallout 4 captures that unnerving sense of peace perfectly in your first moment in the Wasteland, and this proves to be one of many relatively small moments that comprise one of the most captivating worlds in gaming. Welcome home.
Coming five years after Fallout: New Vegas, and seven after Fallout 3, our latest trip to the Wasteland is the first Bethesda RPG of the current console generation and, as such, will set the bar that any Elder Scrolls or Fallout to come will aim to clear. The basic story beats remain similar to both Fallout 3 and New Vegas, with events surrounding your escape from the Vault being the catalyst for a tale of rescues and revenge. It’s more entertaining and intriguing than Fallout 3’s search for Liam Neeson, and a tad more varied than the narrative of New Vegas, but the long runtime and multiple subplots mean not everything thrown at you sticks.
When it does nail the beats, Fallout 4 produces some of the series’ most memorable questlines. In nearly every example of a fine quest, the reason it succeeds is down to how things get changed up and remain surprising (if rarely outright shocking) instead of sticking to the basic “Go here, do that” formula that padded out previous Fallout games. Those missions still exist, but they retain some freshness by ensuring you arrive somewhere new each time. The success rate is admirably high otherwise, with my main quibbles being how some objectives seem arbitrary and unrelated to your ultimate objective. Still others try a bit too hard to be different and ultimately fall flat.
Still, the main story is rarely what makes these games tick. Exploration is, as ever, the real quest, and things have been ramped up in that regard massively.
Fallout 4 is set in the North American city of Boston, Massachusetts two hundred years after the bombs dropped and sent mankind into a nuclear hell. The first distinct difference over previous worlds is how colorful this one is. Fallout 3 was notoriously coated in a sickly hue of radioactive green almost everywhere you went, whereas here, a wide color palette pops in vivid fashion. The impact of desolate ruins and destroyed forests isn’t lost with the change; indeed, Fallout 4’s environments look more striking for how they evoke a long-lost beauty.
With such an abundance of dull, murky palettes in modern games, the way Fallout 4 manages to create a world devastated by mankind’s tampering that still looks so striking is remarkable stuff. Battered tower buildings in the city center, stripped of their original monolithic grandeur. Once peaceful-looking seaside towns wasted away by time and radiation. Swathes of barren land, hazy with radiation clouds that create an almost ethereal, alien atmosphere. Fallout 4 divides Boston and its surrounding suburbs into distinct and memorable areas.
The map isn’t especially sprawling, but it’s substantial enough as open-world RPGs go. What matters most is that the entire map has an astounding level of depth and hand-crafted detail. Each and every place in Boston has something to do or see, which really sells the world as once living, breathing, and vibrant. Weather and lighting play a major part in creating atmosphere, too, with violent radiation storms proving a stunning, deadly highlight. There are far more uniquely designed buildings, inside and out, with far less repetition on display than in previous Bethesda games. It calls to mind Grand Theft Auto IV, another open-world game that was a masterclass in how to make the most of the space you have. Fallout 4 is still “wide open,” of course, and more so than any previous Fallout, but by ensuring that there’s always something catching your eye, it does a fine job of keeping things interesting.
Indeed, how open and navigable Boston is invariably makes travel less focused than before, and you’re more likely than ever to stumble across diversions and side quests on your way to some other destination. If you took issue with that elsewhere, beware Fallout 4’s vast expanse, but for anyone else, it feeds into one of the game’s strongest suits: discovery.
Despite the hype levels, Fallout 4 still arrives as a bit of a mysterious entity that’s been a long time in the making. That’s an odd thing in an age of yearly sequels and game details being almost fully explained before the public has a chance to sit down and play for themselves. This air of mystery framed my time with Fallout 4, making discoveries a constant source of unbridled joy and wonder. On one occasion, I found my journey to a mission sidetracked by the soft glow of a fire in the near distance. I headed towards it out of sheer curiosity, and when I next looked at the clock, I realized my attempt to do a couple of story missions had resulted in five hours of searching buildings, culminating in me taking on a Raider camp and stumbling into a full-on ruckus between Ghouls, Mirelurks and said Raiders. Amidst the chaos, someone fired a missile, which killed a couple of Ghouls and ignited a pool of oil. The resulting explosion burned every man and beast in the nearby vicinity to crispy death, myself included.
Another adventure saw me stray from my objective to check out a power station. To my chagrin, it was filled with Super Mutants, one of whom had a bomb in its hand. As I scurried backwards, being chased by this suicidal bomber, I was taking potshots at it and the rest of the group who trailed behind, all firing on me. When all seemed lost, I recovered just enough Action Points to land a critical hit on the suicidal Mutant’s hand and the whole group went up in a huge mushroom cloud of gore and body parts. I cackled like a madman, knowing I’d avoided certain doom. Surviving through such ridiculous circumstances was simply magical.
Moments like these happen again and again as the game constantly throws baited hooks your way. Fallout 4 almost dares you to veer off the beaten path and check out these dangling curiosities, which range from strange towering shapes in the mist to the crack of gunfire in areas you’ve not yet explored. Fallout 4 borrows heavily from stablemate Skyrim in a few ways, and one such way is emergent gameplay. Things just seem to escalate and evolve while you cross Boston. You may not be looking for trouble, but it sure knows how to find you. Fallout 3 and New Vegas are the same, to a lesser degree, but here, it just flows so beautifully. You’ll often wonder how certain moments aren’t scripted–such is the impact they create–but deep down, you know that you could have approached that situation any number of ways and ended up with a different take on it.
Of course, not all you see in the Commonwealth is quite so chaotic, though much is still touched by chaos. Littered throughout Boston are longstanding reminders of people’s last moments before the bombs dropped. Some poignant, some heartbreaking and some darkly hilarious, these vignettes–whether skeletons propped together, or data logs left on terminals–are a great, subtle way to tell stories about the apocalypse without using words or actions. Each acts as a fascinating window in time, and you’re free to interpret the finer details for yourself.
So far, so Fallout, right? What’s really new to the experience? Well, plenty, plus some gameplay refinements that deal with some of the more irritating aspects of previous titles. Starting with the refinements, a major improvement is the balance between actual shooting and V.A.T.S., a recurring system that brings the action to a stop before allowing you to target different enemy body parts in succession. In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, live combat was heavy, clunky, and inaccurate, which made V.A.T.S. a much-needed crutch and the main way you play. In Fallout 4, however, regular combat feels much closer to a standard FPS game, so your first combat instinct might not be to jump into V.A.T.S. for some head-exploding goodness.
Pulling off headshots without assisted targeting is so much easier and satisfying now, but manual aiming still has trouble with fast-moving, up-close enemies and crowd situations. V.A.T.S. is still useful, then, and it’s been tweaked to be more of a slow-motion crawl than a hard freeze. This simple change is a flexible one, letting you wait for a better shot as enemies break from cover or move behind objects. The quick-use inventory system, with up to 12 items mapped to the D-pad, does a fine job of preventing overexposure to inventory screens. Another great-yet-simple change is in looting from bodies and containers, which now simply entails hovering your reticle over the container and grabbing the items you want from a floating menu. It all adds up to make Fallout 4 flow better than ever, with fewer interruptions in the gameplay loop.
NPC companions and your interaction with them is another area of huge improvement. You’ll meet a variety of potential companions along your way, and you can change between them whenever the time feels right. Each has some tactical advantage over the others (lockpicking, hacking, combat, etc.) and their individual personalities will determine how they view you over time. Some will balk at the idea of heinous acts of violence and criminal acts while others will embrace it. These reactions replace the Karma system in a more free-form, behind-the-scenes reputation system, so no longer are you bashed over the head with “THIS IS BAD/GOOD!” choices. Your decisions affect interpersonal relationships, and the game better emulates a lawless wasteland where everyone has their own idea of what is good and bad.
As a result, there are some really interesting companions you’ll likely grow fond of as you spend more time with them. It’s nice to see them chip in on conversations you’re having with other characters or comment on your actions. There’s an impressive amount of unique dialogue recorded for each companion, which makes them feel legitimately involved in your quests instead of like cardboard tagalongs. One or two had personalities that rubbed me the wrong way, which I suspect comes down to how bland they felt next to more vivacious personalities.
NPC conversations on the whole have improved, too. No longer do they stand stock still like they’re paralyzed by the idea of talking to another living being and, like your companions, they at least remember you’ve made an impact in the world. It’s a big step up from Skyrim’s lot being impassive to your dragon-slaying, world-saving escapades. It’s still not quite where it should be, as there are horror shows in the facial animation department, but NPCs are much improved on the whole. You can also break free of the cinematic conversation camera to move around the NPC while talking continues.
As for new additions, crafting dominates. Its biggest gameplay boon is changing the motivation and context for looting. No longer are you simply scrounging for ammo, guns and medical supplies. All the junk items that were largely useless before–tin cans, baby rattles, office desk fans, and everything in-between–are now marked by their constituent materials: aluminum, copper, rubber, fiberglass, and many more. It certainly adds a new dimension to inventory juggling, and you’ll end up inspecting everything to make sure you don’t load yourself up with items you won’t need. It’s a delicate balance to maintain that only gets tougher as the items you carry get bigger and heavier later on.
The crafting itself is simple enough but harbors more depth than simply adding parts to make a weapon or armor piece incrementally better. Variables in how you customize guns, armor and Power Armor offer up additional perks. You could make your leg pieces Muffled for easier sneaking or make your chest piece Dense for better explosion protection. Mixing and matching these miscellaneous upgrades really lets you match your gear to your unique playstyle; Pocketed armor adds carrying capacity, but you might be forced to decide later between your existing Pocketed mod and a straight defensive upgrade. You need to have certain perks unlocked to create better components, too. That, combined with the pace at which you’ll find the components you need, means you won’t become an unstoppable force in a few hours, nor even dozens.
Then, there’s settlements. Early on, you’ll be tasked with fixing up a suburb to make it livable for fellow survivors. This plays out more like Day Z than Minecraft, as you take the crafting components used for your equipment to create panels, doors, power supplies, furniture and crops, among other things, to help sustain and grow a fruitful community. You can only create settlements in pre-ordained areas, but there are dozens of these sites, and within those boundaries, you can rip up old fixtures, trees, lampposts, fences, and even houses for components to realize your ideas and make your own personal fortress. It’s a highly engrossing addition to Fallout’s arsenal that I found taking up large amounts of my time early on when I should have been pursuing the story. Luckily, you’ll only ever be able to do so much for one settlement before you need to find more supplies, so the game effectively forces you back on track should you get a little too involved in creating your very own Woodbury.
The best thing about this base-building lark is that it roots you in the world, gives you a sense of belonging, and represents a serious investment of time and materials that will be totally unique to you and your game world. Growing a community–upgrading defenses, attracting new settlers–gives you a constant accompanying goal to your main ones. This is even more true as you branch out into new places and get them connected on supply routes. It is in this area of Fallout 4 that you begin to see where those “400 hours of play’” quotes get validated. If only the act of actually building your settlement was a little more refined. Snapping together most parts in this mode is relatively simple, but some objects are fiddly and refuse to fit together in quite the way you want. This isn’t helped by a fussy camera that sometimes fails to give you space to piece together your creations. Also, assigning settlers to jobs, like harvesting plants or manning guard posts, is confusing at best and aggravating at worst. The command prompt might fail to appear, the NPC might move to the assigned post but then change their mind, and it sometimes feels like your commands get reset after a period of time. There’s also no way to tell what settlers have been assigned to which jobs after the fact–there’s no task list or settler menu to speak of. But altogether, these are still mercifully small blights on an ambitious new feature that’s robust enough to command dozens of hours of attention.
A lot has changed in the gaming landscape in the seven years since Fallout 3 came onto the scene. While Fallout 4 is true to its roots, it has also been adapted for modern needs and boasts Bethesda’s most ambitious feature set to date. But the elephant in the room where any Bethesda RPG is concerned is their library’s buggy, crash-happy nature. There’s no reason gamers should forgive and forget the launch state of New Vegas, nor the torrid mess of nonsense in the PS3 version of Skyrim. On PlayStation in particular, many will need assurance that this won’t be the same old song and dance. Forever will I sit on sixty odd hours of play in Fallout 3 because the game simply fell apart with much for me still to explore. New Vegas will remain frozen in time for me at no more than a dozen hours because of a catastrophic level of bugs, glitches, crashes and various other flavors of disaster that scuppered it.
Here’s the bottom line: Fallout 4 seems to be Bethesda’s best-performing, most-stable console release yet, but the game still visibly creaks underneath the weight of its own ambition. Occasionally ridiculous load times, infrequent framerate drops, character clipping and texture pop-in all break immersion at some point or another. The important factor here is that, while these things happen, they haven’t negatively impacted my experience to anywhere near the same degree as previous titles. For example, I’ve already passed the fateful 60-hour mark that saw the end of my time with Fallout 3 and I’ve yet to experience any hard crash or freeze. I’m not going to commend Bethesda for creating a game that works better–that was the minimum requirement. Nor am I able to guarantee that issues I haven’t seen won’t happen in your game, but at the very least, some of Bethesda’s console demons appear to be laid to rest.
I’ve put a huge amount of time into Fallout 4 and still don’t feel like I’m close to seeing and doing everything of note. Whole story branches remain untouched, whole areas have gone unexplored, and my settlements are only half-built. Even as I become more and more familiar with Fallout 4’s Boston, it continues to surprise and remains a thoroughly satisfying RPG.
Does Fallout 4 represent a revolutionary change to the Fallout formula? Not really. It adds and successfully incorporates plenty of new parts and cleans up some of the bigger quirks that riddled earlier games, but this is, at its core, a logical evolution from previous Fallout and Elder Scrolls games in design. That’s no complaint, as it takes the best of both worlds and creates a tantalising new whole. To top it off, Fallout 4’s world is easily one of the best in recent times, subtle in ways Assassin’s Creed can’t fathom and detailed in ways that shame the soulless streets of InFamous. Fallout 4 has that special something that made the previous games so appealing despite their glaring flaws. But here, those flaws have never been fewer. Fallout 4 feels like the final, definitive version of that storied engine behind the modern Fallout and Elder Scrolls titles. At long last, the Creation Engine has been refined, optimized, and tweaked to make do on its full, grand promise.
There is so much going on in Fallout 4 that your opening moments of unnerving beauty and serenity will inevitably give way to an even more beautiful chaos. From this chaos springs emergent adventures, the struggle for survival, and near-limitless options, all with their own merit. Despite an air of familiarity, I’ve not been quite this captivated by a game in some time. That’s high praise when considering some of the games that have commanded obsessive hours and play in recent years. Fallout 4 meets one’s expectations of a new installment in impressive fashion. In doing so, it proves to be one of the best games of the generation to date. Say goodbye to life for awhile. The Wasteland is calling you home.