When I found out I was reviewing Fallout 4, an overpowering sense of dread streamed through me. How does one go about reviewing a game as vast, varied and complex as this? I’ve clocked in well over a day of play and I’m still intimidated by the potential of what might be around the corner. And I’m not even talking about enemies. I’m talking about the number one dilemma a gamer can never have enough of: the dilemma of choice. I’ve been overwhelmed like this in a game before, but few games have challenged me to keep moving forward like Fallout 4 does. These choices bury me in an empowering sense of belonging, ironically in a world that is as welcoming as it is hostile. Fallout 4 paints a pretty picture initially, but it rips it down in a rampage of passion and urgency. It might be tough to wrap your head around it, but stick with it: this world needs you.
That world — a ravaged Boston — is equally as mesmerising as it is monotonous, the unfortunate reality of a land overcome by war and nuclear fallout. Those first few hours, I was admittedly fairly underwhelmed by what this world offered, but I’m angry at myself for forgetting about the contextual relevance of your place in the wasteland. You could call it a “grind”, but I think that undersells it. It’s more like a culmination of sharp turns and immediate reward, countered by a seamless integration of new opportunities. I used this interpretation of Boston to create a legacy, a character whose actions would be shared throughout the ages. That’s what Fallout 4 is: it’s yourstory.
Yet it’s a story I’ve had trouble crafting. There are many, many quests here, with a story divided across many a moral boundary. In those early moments, your character is driven by a single goal, one that eventually branches out far beyond where you might expect it to. But ultimately, Fallout 4’s perceived linearity is actually your own doing: there’s no distinctive way to work your way through the story — if you can really call it that — because the varied approach to incentivisation is going to appeal to different people in different ways. I’ve tried talking about Fallout 4 to a colleague, but we soon discovered that we had branched off in totally different directions, despite having played around the same amount of time. I’m quite shocked as to how different our paths were, but again, I came to remember what it is that defines Fallout: that flexibility to shape your own experience.
It’s important at this stage to recognise Fallout 4’s main story for what it is: background noise. The star of the show here is the wasteland, the characters that live in it, and the threats that await around every corner. Just as with Fallout 3, the pull of Fallout 4 is its game world, one that can switch between beautiful and desolate in only a matter of minutes. It’s a time-sink: a long, unforgiving and at-times painful one that won’t miss you once you’re gone. This is important for newcomers and those that didn’t enjoy Fallout 3 or New Vegas: the core experience is intrinsically the same, because this is the Fallout for a new generation, one that left behind the symmetrical strategy standards of the series’ early years. Fallout is a series I playbecause and not in spite of of these traits, as someone appreciating of that unforgiving nature of a wasteland with a story to tell but not at all in a rush to tell it. If you don’t have the patience for that, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Admittedly, Fallout 4 is hard to recommend for the uninitiated, but that’s because it’s hard to explain. It’s the sort of game with no real loyalty to any one genre, instead spreading its wings to encompass the best of many. One friend said she liked the look of the game, but that she doesn’t like shooters. I explained that Fallout 4 has shooter elements, but it’s really a game about choices and personality building. At the same time I didn’t want to dilute the importance of combat, because I know how frequent it can be, no matter how much you try to avoid it in this vast world. Explaining it as a Skyrim hybrid doesn’t do it justice, because there are vastly different incentives and mechanics here that shape the experience. That’s really what makes Fallout 4 so special: there’s nothing quite like it. Much like Fallout 3, Fallout 4 still stands out as a special experience that embodies a number of key fundamentals from across multiple genres, including the FPS, sandbox, RPG, survival and strategy genres.
Those shooter elements, for example, act as a survival trait balanced out next to the usefulness of V.A.T.S., a system evolved out of the turn-based combat mechanics of Fallout and Fallout 2. This system doesn’t necessarily dilute Fallout 4’s at-times heavy-handed approach to combat, but it’s there as a means to both limit the length of a firefight, and permit the player the flexibility to engage and preserve ammunition. Introduced in Fallout 3, it slows time and targets a nearby enemy, presenting a percentage mark for each targetable body part: the higher the percentage, the more likely you’ll make a critical hit. The difference here is that it works dynamically, with percentages changing as the enemy moves. Queuing up the shot at the right time matters, at least more than it did in Fallout 3.
In this way I feel it works better: it maintains an element of accountability and promotes a more refined approach to gunplay. It still very much puts the battle in your favour, but it’s by no means a sure-fire way to victory. When V.A.T.S. was introduced in Fallout 3, some argued it was a method of cheating, a means to counter the incredibly hostile and responsive nature of the wasteland. But I admire its purpose here. It’s a balancing act, one that tries to uphold Fallout’s promise of engagement alongside the expectation that’ll it promote the more confronting survival mechanics. If you want to play Fallout 4 as a first-person shooter, V.A.T.S. will deter from that genre’s core fundamentals. But if you embrace the system for what it is, you’ll surely recognise its spirit in honouring the action-point philosophy of the original Fallout games. V.A.T.S. exists in honour of those games, as a way to protect the series’ roots for a new generation.
The RPG and FPS elements are really stretched out across multiple facets, although Fallout fans need no introduction in this case. Fallout 4 is first and foremost a character building simulator, and this is evident from the game’s opening moments. You could easily spent a few hours simply moulding your male or female character, and then expanding throughout the world with perks, and then weapon and armor mods. The perks system — the aptly named S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) — shares traits with Fallout 3 and New Vegas, as well as Skyrim. My personal issue with this system is that eventually, if you play the game for long enough, there’s no distinguishable difference between characters, because focusing on one specific perk doesn’t adversely affect your capacity to improve your character in other areas. Eventually, every player that’s played 300-400 hours will be at exactly the same point. It’s probably a good thing, then, that this is strictly a single-player game, but it breaks down the game’s initially impressive uniqueness from player to player. That said, the perk system is deep and mighty intimidating: it’s hard to hone in on specific traits, even if you have a certain type of character in mind. That’s because each perk is so appealing, particularly once you hit the 20-or-so hour mark and start to really get a feel of what the wasteland has to offer.
Of course, the likes of Strength, Charisma and Intelligence tend to have more immediate influence on core gameplay features like persuasion, looting and hacking, but other perks tie into these features in strange ways by enhancing things like hit-rate percentage, looting ability, and perception in battle. Whatever path you choose, it’s going to take you a long time to completely max out your character. After 24 hours I was at level 26, which equates to 26 unlocks. There are 70 total perks across the seven S.P.E.C.I.A.L. categories, as well as 275 ranks. You do the math: you’re looking at hundreds upon hours of gameplay here to reach optimum wasteland drifter. The depth, variety and volume of the content here is both inspiring and intimidating.
Once you wrap your head around that, the mods present an entirely new way to mess with your head. In a world brimming with junk, random collectibles and items, looting is as important a gameplay feature as anything else in the game. The weapon and armor mod system ties into this by offering a means to modify and improve whatever heat you’re packing, and what this presents is a challenging balancing act in managing your inventory across weapons, aids, attire and ammo, alongside your perk upgrades. It took me around ten hours to really start caring about the modding system … or have the guts to sink my teeth into it and start choosing which weapons I wanted to stick with over the long term. That’s among one of the toughest decisions you’ll make in the wasteland, because so many of the weapons are so great, and with the potential to improve them further by compromising weight (and therefore room in your inventory), you’ll have many a tough choice to make when it comes to refining your armor and weapon loadout.
Thankfully, the game makes it slightly easier to track what resources and junk you need for specific mods, not to mention objects and tools for expanding your settlements. Settlements have proven to be one of the more intriguing additions in Fallout 4, and I think it’s important that Bethesda chose to implement them as more of a side-quest than a compulsory task. You’ll gain experience points by helping settlers with random tasks — like taking out raiders or ghouls — and once you set up a recruitment beacon and claim a settlement, you’ll be able to start building, growing and defending an area as a means to expand a particular group’s presence in the Commonwealth.
I’ve spent a few hours with this system, and it’s a tough system to wrap your head around in the early hours. Settlements I feel are really something that can’t be fully realised until you’ve spent a few real-time days with the game, because at least then you’ll have a better understanding of resource planning and usage. I do personally enjoy helping the settlers out with random tidbits and tasks, and one of my settlements had actually grown out to be a stronghold in the region (thanks to my meticulous building and planning goals), but overall I didn’t feel that it had much of an influence on my individual standing in the wasteland. These settlements will mark as red any lacking requirements (like power, food, water, defenses etc.), but I never experienced a settlement being overrun by enemies, or wiped out by famine or lack of water. I actually applaud this design decision, because you can benefit from helping these settlements grow, but there are still plenty of other means of benefiting in the wasteland without having to sink hours into building and protecting settlers. It’s an intriguing addition, sure, but I can’t imagine it being one you’ll fall head over heals for before the 50-hour mark. It really does feel like a feature that grows on you over time, which I guess is befitting of a game that can potentially last for hundreds of hours. My word of advice is to mess around with it initially, and then return once you have both the patience and know-how in the world to expand.
All of the above combine to help form a compelling, rough and tragically beautiful world. This virtual interpretation of Boston has its moments, and many times I’ve had to stop and admire how vibrant a world Bethesda has created here. It’s not the prettiest game around, but under the right light, it shines. Framerate issues every few hours slow the game down to an unplayable slug on Xbox One, but let’s consider what’s actually on offer in this world: a countless number of engageable items and locations, and impressively deep building interiors that almost always have a secret ready to be told. Broadly, the game runs better than both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas did at launch, but it still has issues: a number of mission bugs halted my progress, making save game exploitation a legitimate gameplay method for progressing through. Because of this I highly recommend activating auto-saving for every five minutes. In one case I had an NPC who was supposed to be friendly but was instead hostile towards my character because I had arrived at the location at the exact same time a Legendary enemy had spawned. I had to fast travel away and rest for 24 in-game hours for the loop to reset and for the mission to begin. This happened in a variety of different ways across my many hours. Hardly a deal breaker, but frustrating nonetheless. But the quicksave function seems to exist as a means to walk around these inevitable issues, so it’s easy to look beyond them and just move on. After all, you have a pretty big world here waiting to be discovered: it lacks the verticality of Fallout 3 and Skyrim, but I think it offers more variety and surprises. It’s still a massive game world, one you still will not have fully discovered after 50 hours.
The Final Verdict
I’ve only just scraped the surface of Fallout 4. That’s after almost two days worth of gameplay. I’ve covered the basics and engaged with the fundamentals, yet I still have a lot of ground to cover. I’m still surprised by what I find and who I meet. It’s not as revolutionary as Fallout 3 was upon release, but it’s just as compelling, confronting and mesmerising. If you couldn’t get enough Fallout last generation, Fallout 4 may be your Game Of The Year. If you couldn’t quite wrap your head around those other entries, then Fallout 4 will be even more of a challenge. But I suspect that’s what fans want, and because of that it’s hard not to recognise it as one of the year’s best. It offers exactly what the audience wants: a long, unforgiving and at-times painful journey through a hostile world. Welcome home.