Review: Fallout 4
Bethesda Games Studios
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PS4, PC
Never fear! We’re mostly spoiler-free here!
I first heard about Fallout when I was a kid. I recently moved back to live with my dad, and a perk of the living arrangement was access to a considerable PC-games library, which included Fallout. It blew my mind how vicious a game could be—not just to the player, but to its inhabitants as well. I never finished the game, but I loved the tongue-in-cheek style and bleak universe. Then, on July 10, 2004, Todd Howard announced that Bethesda Games Studios (known for the immersive Elder Scrolls and DOS Terminator games) would develop and publish Fallout 3, the next entry for Interplay Entertainment’s cult hit role-playing game. Fast-forward to October 28, 2008: Fallout 3 released to universal acclaim, including multiple “Game of the Year” and “Best RPG” awards and the simultaneous ire of diehard fans. Seven years later, at E3 2015, Bethesda officially announced Fallout 4 as well as its release date five months out. Well, that day has come. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
They Call Me The Wanderer
I won’t speak much on the story—spoilers and such—but much like Obsidian Entertainment’s 2010 follow-up, Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4 orbits around different factions whose objectives ultimately conflict in big ways. You start the game before the bombs drop, and after an unfortunate series of rushed events, return to the surface with a harrowing mission. This prologue is unique to the series: Whereas previous entries take place after the fall, here we catch a glimpse at the quaint American Wet Dream. There’s something chilling about visiting your home in its tattered state after so recently walking within its walls. Fallout 3’s add-on, “Operation: Anchorage,” attempted something similar by way of a virtual reality simulation, but it fell short of the mark. As I ascend into the light to see what new world awaits, I tune my Pip-Boy to the classical radio station’s frequency to welcome the war-torn vista with Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” I can think of no song more appropriate to ring in this momentous occasion. My character Bertha descended into Vault 111 as a terrified housewife and mother, but she emerged as a bitter battle maiden with only questions and the means by which to answer them.
Your pre-Vault Mr. Handy unit, Codsworth, greets you upon returning home with equal parts jubilation and trepidation. You really feel for his plight as he expresses his frustration at some of life’s greater difficulties like the futility of post-apocalyptic floor waxing and the perplexity of polishing rust. The splintering narrative eventually takes you down a path straight out of 1950s film noir while tackling the philosophical and ethical dilemmas of what defines humanity—basically, imagine throwing the works of John Huston and Isaac Asimov into a nuclear blender to make the radioactive smoothie that is Fallout 4.
If You Build It, They Will Come…
One of Fallout 4’s major motifs is building a legacy, and the new crafting system communicates this in a tactile way. Crafting isn’t exactly new to the series—Fallout 3 had homemade weapon schematics that offered a cornucopia of slaughterous toys while New Vegas allowed you to create health kits, make ammunition and repair damaged gear. Fallout 4 feels like a mash-up of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s “Hearthfire” add-on and Facepunch Studios’ hardcore survival game Rust.
Power armor finally lives up to its name. Previously, the only real significance that power armor held was its beefy damage resistance; here I feel like an amateur Tony Stark each time I crank one open. I did struggle initially with modifying my newly acquired murder machine. It is unintuitive, and I confused myself with how exactly to upgrade the pieces when they were at once in my inventory and not in my inventory. Fortunately, the options menu does include a Help section, which provides ample description for the plethora of game mechanics and tutorials. I highly recommend wasteland adventurers spend the time to scan through these tips, as the information is invaluable. Then again, I am one of the weirdos that reads instruction manuals.
After the first few steps in my journey, I opened up the ability to found settlements, communities that function as hubs across the game’s 30 square miles. Building settlements is mostly optional, save for the helpful tutorial missions. I spent an unexpected amount of time improving my settlements, usually as a way to unwind from completing some quests but certainly nowhere near the level of commitment shown from some of Minecraft’s finest. I did notice that these settlements started splitting at the technical seams as time passed. A cursory glance through my Pip-Boy would say that some settlements had abnormally lower values or was completely devoid of any of my investments, but after fast-travelling there in cold-sweat panic, everything appeared completely fine. I didn’t like that I couldn’t trust such information while roaming the Commonwealth, but it’s something easily remedied with a patch.
Well, Isn’t That S.P.E.C.I.A.L.?
There are a couple significant changes to the series. Bethesda recently revealed how Bungie’s hugely popular Destiny gunplay mechanics influenced Fallout 4 combat. This is great news, considering that Destiny’s saving grace was its exceptional gunplay. You can now sprint—which consumes Action Points—and bash foes with your gun. These additions provide more options at your disposal on the battlefield. They feel natural, making combat more fluid than the slower pace to Fallout 3. To be honest, I built a sledge-slinging valkyrie that charged into the fray without a second thought, but on those occasions when I decided to shower enemies in 5mm rounds with “Sprinkler” (my appropriately named minigun), it was a lot of fun.
There isn’t a karma system—at least not like in previous Fallout games—and truthfully, I’m happy for it. Rather than the cardboard cutout ethical quandaries in Fallout 3, your decisions are judged based on the motivations of your companions. Will you give Mama Murphy a hit of Jet to glimpse into your destiny? Clearly the others won’t look kindly upon that, nor will she appreciate your makeshift intervention. Perhaps you’ll aid a rogue scientist or even join up with the militant tech junkies in the Brotherhood of Steel. I really enjoyed the companion list this time around, though there was no one as memorable as Fawkes or Lily Bowen from previous games. One issue with the companions: I really wish they showed up on the compass. It’s frustrating when Dogmeat finds a cool loot stash, but he blends into the surrounding environment, causing me to spend five minutes actively searching for him only to step on a series of fragmentation mines. I have a theory about the furry companion: Considering the fact that the first Fallout (Dogmeat’s first appearance) takes place in the year 2161—126 years before the events in Fallout 4—and given how often he phases through flooring, I posit that Dogmeat was at ground zero when the bombs dropped, and is now a wraith with an insatiable thirst for revenge. OK, not really; I just like to create stories behind the various technical malfunctions in role-playing games.
Fallout 4’s success also stems from its attention to the little things. Spend some time wandering aimlessly, and you may stumble upon secluded pyramid schemes or heavily guarded treasure troves. I love how my character fiddles with her new Vault-Tec accessory whenever I move between the various tabs, open up other sealed vaults, or discover and play holotapes. I actually feel like I have a super-science utility tool rather than a pretty inventory management screen.
The soundtrack is great, if not a bit repetitive. Todd Howard said that Fallout 4 has triple the music selection compared to Fallout 3, featuring five original songs written and performed by Lynda Carter (who also voices one of the characters) and some memorable tracks from the previous titles. I will say that the shuffle is lacking; it seemed like Billie Holliday’s “Crazy, He Calls Me,” for example, played almost every hour—though investing over 100 hours into a game will surely burn anyone out on the accompanying tunes. Even with the boosted soundtrack, I actually found myself turning off the radio just to listen to an original score hauntingly reminiscent of something Thomas Newman might compose, often reaching an epic crescendo amid the bullet holes and bloodshed.
A Bug’s Life
Bethesda-developed games, while praised for their open worlds, often share criticisms of instability within the same breath. The fact that a game like Fallout 4 even exists is an achievement in its own right. That being said, the game is also afflicted with many of the same aches and pains. I noticed jagged frame-rate drops after playing for a few hours straight. A console reboot always fixed the issue, but both combat and immersion suffered up until the moment I decided to give my system the opportunity to come up for air. I highly recommend that you save often and back those files up regularly. Game crashes still show up from time to time to remind you just how foolish you were by not saving before going into that glitchy elevator. The Pip-Boy autosave function is a life-saver that I will praise for the rest of my days, but at the same time, I don’t like depending upon such a failsafe to cushion a video game’s technical hiccups. Overall the game runs better than its predecessors, but not by leaps and bounds.
The Revolutionary War
There are those who will make a case saying this isn’t the Fallout they wanted or that the changes ruin the experience. I emphatically disagree. The removal of the karma system amplifies moral ambiguity rather than the typical good or evil caricatures, and the robust crafting systems add greater depth and customization to an already massive game. Is Fallout 4 perfect? Certainly not. Rampant bugs and shoddy AI are still the main sources of frustration, and they detract from the sense of immersion. Is Fallout 4 ridiculously fun? Without a doubt. If you were to focus solely on the game’s main story (which is an exercise in futility), you might “finish” Fallout 4 in about 40 hours, but doing so ignores the dozens of hours spent exploring the Commonwealth’s rich world. Some of the changes and new features may divide fans of the series, but I think Fallout 4 continues to accomplish what Bethesda set out to do 11 years ago when they first announced Fallout 3: “Player choice, engaging story, and non-linearity.” War may never change, but it certainly evolves.
“If you can dodge a ghoul, you can dodge a ball.”