Bethesda’s latest open-world adventure, Fallout 4, takes us to a familiar Massachusetts setting during an alternate American timeline struggling to find its identity. At the heart of the Commonwealth lies the potential for extraordinary change, and it’s up to you, the Sole Survivor, to answer the call of these broken wilds.
Inevitably, the game will be compared to its predecessors and veterans of the series have had a lot of negative things to say (although I’d bet many of them are still playing the game), and while I will address some of the points in that regard, please keep in mind this is my opinion and I don’t want my review to simply be an answer to all of those questions.
Shooting has never felt so good in a Bethesda game. In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the 10mm pistol felt like absolute garbage. The tiniest threat— be it a molerat or bloatfly— was immediately terrifying because your gun felt unreliable. Without any weight to your shots, even the BB gun felt more gratifying to shoot. But from the moment I took my first shot with the same gun in 4, it felt like the real deal (simulated). I felt like I could use this the whole game and be happy with it. Recoil is handled tremendously within the engine, and each weapon sounds great and is satisfying to use.
V.A.T.S. (a sort of player-activated auto-aiming that’s based on a dice roll) returns, for better or worse, but with some slight variations. Rather than pausing the game entirely, enemies enter a slow-motion state, meaning you’ll have to think a bit quicker about your decisions. One of the biggest changes comes with the way Critical Strikes are triggered. Rather than happening at random, you can forcibly trigger them in V.A.T.S. using a meter that builds up from using the system to perform hits. I’m always the guy who saves Elixirs or rare items ‘in case I need them for the boss’ and then never ends up using them, but I do miss making critical shots at random. I don’t think this is necessarily a step down because I can see why they did it from a gameplay perspective, but it definitely has taken some getting used to.
This is a new system that I absolutely love. When you are out exploring, randomly a nearby enemy might mutate and become ‘Legendary’ which signifies they are much more difficult to take down. The physical differences are obvious (they do more damage, have more HP, and sometimes get slightly bigger depending on the type of enemy), but it also means they can heal themselves when you beat on them enough. The coolest part about these encounters is the enemy will drop an item with a randomly-generated bonus like +15% damage resist to humans on armor or a chance for your shot to freeze the enemy on a weapon. This keeps you on the hunt for these foes and makes it exciting each time you manage to kill one to see what new piece of loot you’ll receive.
Most of all: it keeps the encounters fresh. There’s not really a way to plan for them (unless you reload a save, and even then, a different enemy might mutate) and they add a real threat to the encounters.
The radio stations for this game are passable— it’s hard to top Three Dog from Fallout 3— but the game’s ambient tracks and sounds are absolutely incredible. As much as I enjoy the radio, I’d encourage you to leave it off for the most part. Each music score serves the purpose to guide the mood and encourage a particular reaction from the player. When you find a hidden area or witness a scenic overlook, the music somberly warms your heart with a sense of hope and wonder.
Taking it a step further, the atmospheric sounds are also quite rad— and not in a bad way [this is a horrible, horrible Fallout joke]! Experiences like fighting your way to the top of a disheveled skyskraper, stepping out onto a connected broken freeway overlooking the greater Boston area, with a calming stillness— only to be interrupted by the gentle (or not so gentle) gusts of wind that stem from the altitude— are difficult to put precisely into words (...except I just did??).
Rather than simply equip Power Armor from the menu, the devs went full-Iron Man this time around. These bad boys exist for the most dangerous areas of the wasteland and it feels right. The HUD changes. You can jump off buildings. Punch a raider into the stratosphere. Melee a robot with a gatling gun to death. It’s rad.
Of course, you can’t wear it all the time— they run on hard-to-find (at first) Fusion Cores that burn for the duration you’ve got it on. I compare it to when the Power Rangers had to form a Megazord to take down the big bad. Or Voltron. Or Captain Planet. Only when you know shit’s about to go down.
While some may disagree with Bethesda’s decision to give the player a full set considerably early on, I don’t fall in that camp. We’re not in the Mojave. We’re not in the Capital Wasteland. It’s a different game, locale, and set of circumstances. It can feel a bit funny momentarily retreating to your base when the going gets rough, but the second you step into it, you’ll see exactly why they call it Power Armor.
Setting and World Building
The recreation of post-apocalyptic Boston is both terrifying and absolutely gorgeous. When modders get their hands on this, it’ll be insane, but that’s not to say the devs didn’t do a wonderful job. It’s hard to believe a world this vast and detailed can look so damn good.
In terms of how the game builds into the famous American city, Fallout 4 delivers. The series is all about the AMERICAN SPIRIT, and there’s not many places that can beat Boston. The city has seen better days, but it has more soul than stagnation. Each building is littered with details, from the abandoned terminals, to the carefully placed Nuka Quantums, or even elaborate traps that you catch when it’s just too late.
Another quick note: this is a series high with atmosphere as well. Radstorms and highly radiated areas are visually apparent and it’s thrilling to see the sun set or moon rise.
But most of all...
No, I don’t mean the story. I’m speaking of the stories you tell your friends about the game. I know this doesn’t directly impact the game, but it does impact what you think about it.
Recently, I sat down with some friends over a few beers and the discussion turned to Fallout. A friend told me about a run-in he had with a robot-turned-hero that managed to empty an entire camp of raiders by itself. Someone else mentioned how terrifying it was to first experience the HEAT LAZERS that come out of an Assaultron’s face. I mentioned a quest where some Skyrim-level-mythical cultist action happens at a dig site.
I could keep going on for pages, but through it all, two things always amaze me:
1.) The breadth of things there are to do. We could’ve been there all night talking about the game.
2.) How amusingly bizarre the encounters are. To me, thinking back on that night, that’s what told me Bethesda did right with this entry in the series. Fallout has always been known for its zaniness and even if you don’t get the same kick as your peers as they did when you find something, it’s a lot of fun telling them about how you liberated a beer-making robot for a hotel that’s run by ghouls.
As you would expect from a post-apocalyptic setting, there’s a whole lot of... stuff just lying around the wasteland. In previous games, this would be mostly useless, dead weight that you’d either chuck on the ground or sell to a vendor. It was arduous going through your inventory to toss a junk item when you accidentally picked it up.
Fallout 4 does things differently. Each and every item can be used for scrap and made into something. All items have a purpose. You’ll still be scrounging around, looking for stuff to dump (or, most likely, forcing your poor companion to carry), but there’s a lot more decisions to make. Do you dump the heavy microscope that has a wealth of parts, or the stack of broken beer bottles that can be used for glass? It makes me feel like I’m really working up to something, and in this regard, crafting works very well. However...
Weapon / Armor Mods
Often times, the decision on which mod to craft isn’t really a ‘decision.’ There’s almost no real reason not to craft the mod that makes your weapon do the most damage, other than lack of skill or materials. Why does slapping saw blades onto a baseball bat do more damage than sticking a bunch of nails into it? With armor, you’re always going to craft the most protective coating if the only trade off is additional weight.
The interesting decisions are for weapons are usually made when it comes to the scope and silencers, if the weapon can support them. There are different trade-offs for each, and I typically like aiming down sights rather than a scope 80% of the time. With armor, it’s the additional function it has— do you take a lighter-woven armor for less weight, muffle your footsteps when sneaking, or build it so it increases your unarmed damage? These are the interesting decisions I’d like to make more of. Note: I DO like the existence of mods and am glad it’s there, I just wish there were more options.
The voiceover work in Fallout 4 is... passable. This is the first Bethesda game where your character actually speaks in dialogue. I played as a male, and I thought it was fine. It didn’t wow me, but I didn’t hate it. I can’t speak to how female characters are, but I’ve gathered people have similar opinions.
The companions, for the most part, have good voices— especially with ringers like Nick Valentine and Curie— but most of the problem originates from the generic characters. Guards. Citizens that only serve one purpose. Again, none of it was turn-me-off-from-the-game-bad, but nothing I’ll go telling people about.
I like how there are a wide variety of enemies— the ghouls and super mutants don’t all share the same model like they did in previous games— but I don’t like how textureless they can look sometimes. This isn’t the case with everything, but sometimes it makes the engine look a bit dated.
Comparing 3 and New Vegas
Ultimately, this is where the comparison to the other games will be drawn. New Vegas did a tremendous job at handling the tension between each faction— House, the Legion, NCR, etc.— and building the story around them. Each had their own set of values that constantly clashed, and each had their own view of what was ‘right.’ 3 was a bit more generic in the one-sided nature of it: the Enclave is built into the ‘evil empire’ and the Brotherhood of Steel is pushed to be the saviors. But each game did an excellent job at representing what it really meant to be a part of those factions, and they created story elements that really broke you down, wowed you, and made you say, “This is what it means to be Legion/NCR/Brotherhood.” I only got that feeling very briefly once or twice in 4.
Elaborating on that a moment longer: in Fallout 3, for me, it was probably when you first fight the giant Super Mutant and get your first opportunity with the Fat Man that made me perceive just how hardcore the Brotherhood was. In New Vegas, that moment dawned upon me with the Legion at seeing live citizens strung up and crucified in a small burning town. It’s not just the sight of it— it’s the Legate walking calmly up to you and presenting the work of the Legion. They don’t make an immediate enemy of you, they give you a choice: Hail to Caesar, or death. The whole interaction just emanates power.
To the Point
Fallout 4 has four major factions: the Railroad, Brotherhood of Steel, Institute, and Minutemen. To put them simply:
Railroad: likes synths (synthetic people); believes they should have free will / same rights as people; anti-Institute; works to liberate synths that want out
Institute: creates synths; uses them for their own agenda, but believes they should have some amount of freedom
Brotherhood of Steel: absolutely anti-synth; thinks they are abominations and an abuse of technology; believes the Institute should be annihilated
Minutemen: a ragtag group of civilians and settlements; not really any kind of specific leadership; minor agendas (they do become involved with the other factions, however)
I really like the choice of factions, but I never really felt like my interests were aligned with their goals (some of which I still have no idea about) or felt the tension between them. There’s not much that stands out in their quest lines, and one of them is even a rehash of something that happened in Fallout 3. The Institue and Brotherhood definitely make the biggest entrances, but don’t carry on that momentum. The Minutemen are the most neutral, and I liked that part of them, but they were just so boring. And with the Railroad, I was expecting much more sleuth and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than what was given.
Locked into the Story
Oh, right. There’s a story for you, too! The big event that starts the whole game is your infant son, Shaun, gets kidnapped. Like any good dad, you set out to go find him out in the Wasteland. Things happen, and the twist that happens to you specifically is a rather great one— I won’t say anymore there.
I wouldn’t so much as call this a problem as to what it could have been. Skyrim and, to a degree, New Vegas are great because your character essentially comes from nothing. You’re a blank slate: free to fill in the details yourself. The burden of having a wife/husband and child is that it ruins the sense of roleplaying. I agree that it’s an excellent motive to work on, but it writes into your history more than it should. If you were intending to be an evil sonnuva gun, well too bad, you’ve got a relationship and child to deal with.
Weird Armor System / Not Enough of It
I like the armor that’s available in Fallout 4, but I wish there was a bit more. Or that you could actually wear it all together. Let me explain:
Out in the wasteland, you’ll find different armor pieces you can wear— other than your basic “shirt/pants”— I compare it to what ultra-protective parents make their children wear when they go roller blading. Things like protective elbow / knee padding. Then are head slot items— hat, glasses, scarves, etc.
This all sounds fine and dandy, except that you can only wear it on top of a very limited supply of outfits. Things like suits or leather jackets? Can only wear it alone. This wouldn’t be an issue if the armor and (if you find one) rare bonuses weren’t so good on those select pieces. Look at that ridiculous outfit I’m wearing above. The same thing goes for Power Armor. Once you find the prized Best Armor in the Game, it makes all the other models essentially worthless, even if you upgrade them. I just wanna sport my fashionable T51b, please!
Bethesda did a good job with the amount of stuff— there is a lot— but I do wish they looked at some areas that need vastly improved. (NAMELY *cough*, the lack of fist weapons. Bring back the Ballistic Fist!) Color dyes would do wonders— it’d be neat to color my combat armor like the Blue Suns or Eclipse! I’m sure they’ll add many more options with the DLCs, but for now, it’s a bit underwhelming.
I can see why Bethesda wanted to go down this route to make it a bit easier to understand / function for console versions, but it does nothing if the choice doesn’t tell you what it actually does. Take a look at this:
What the hell does SARCASTIC tell you? Am I talking down to my dog? Making a witty comment? Will it be funny? Modders have already developed solutions for this, but this was a terrible design choice.
User Interface / Inventory Management
There were some improvements in 4, like the quick-loot that’s particularly useful, but in many ways, it was a step back from 3. Nothing is clear, it’s a giant mess, and I’m amazed they shipped it. The power armor inventory interface is slightly better, but still garbage. Kirk has already said most of what I would, check out his thoughts on the matter for more on that.
I like concept of them (even if the interface is lacking), and I think they allow a lot of creativity, which is cool. What I don’t like is how they function. Assigning settlers isn’t intuitive, they still tell you almost nothing about them even from the ‘tutorial’ mission, and defending them all is more of a burden than it is fun. I also wish you could make “nice walls” if you got a skill high enough so my fort doesn’t look cobbled together.
While the only bugs I’ve encountered have been funny (deathclaw flying away), there have been a lot of reports of game-breaking bugs. I can safely say it’s not nearly as bad as New Vegas was, but it’s more than enough to warrant mentioning.
A game as expansive as this is very hard to review (why it took so long), and it’s still got a long way to go. There’s the DLC that will be coming out throughout the year (I’ll be sure to say something on each as they arrive) and mod workshop on both Steam and consoles! I can’t wait to see all of the content the modding community will have for us.
With so many options, whether it’s in the dialogue, what weapon to use, or what perk to take, there’s a lot to be said about Fallout 4. But for me, it’s not a matter of if I’ll make a particular decision, it’s a matter of when.