Fallout 3 is one of my favorite games of all time. Bethesda’s update on the Interplay classic combined just about everything one could want in an open-world immersive RPG. It had the incredible world building and interactivity of The Elder Scrolls series with the fantastically bleak and oppressive post-apocalyptic wasteland. They even managed to bring the turn-based combat of the original Fallout games into the modern era with the impressive Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS for short. So yeah, I’ve been waiting (patiently?) for Bethesda to revisit this world, and it’s still hard to believe that they managed to keep Fallout 4 a secret until just before this year’s E3, and even more impressive that it’s actually out right now for all to play. Fallout 4 is more of that great Bethesda-style RPG goodness, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a little too safe in a gaming landscape that’s constantly shifting and changing.
Fallout 4 follows the story of a vault dweller sealed away just before the nuclear holocaust claims the world and most of its inhabitants. Frozen in Vault 111, you wake up in search of your infant son, who’s been taken from you during your prolonged sleep. To say more about the story would do a disservice to some of the twists and turns in the main quest line. What starts as a slightly uninteresting tale slowly evolves into a grand fable that brings together most of the inhabitants in the ruined Commonwealth of Massachusetts and puts them into a nasty conflict for technological supremacy. Hints of this story were dropped in Fallout 3, and it’s really nice to see that Bethesda is putting just as much care into their world building as their beloved Elder Scrolls franchise.
Unfortunately, Bethesda’s storytelling is still a little slapdash in places. For every interesting quest and story I came across in the wasteland, there are about three or four indistinct and detached tasks that feel more like added content instead of important story beats. My first ten hours in Fallout 4 were mostly filled with assignments to various “abandoned” buildings to wipe out super mutants, ghouls or raiders. I would recommend following the main quest at first, as you’ll find some nice gear and meet most of the important players in the world quickly. Also unfortunate is that Bethesda opted for a voiced main character in the vein of Mass Effect or Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it’s about as awkward as Venom Snake in Metal Gear Solid V. The voice work for both the male and female leads is adequate, but they lack any real personality outside of the types of responses players can choose from. You come across as a whiny doofus if you ask questions and constantly acknowledge that your main task is locating your lost son, and you’re a sarcastic prick if you choose dismissive options over and over. There’s no real characterization outside of these isolated responses, and the worst of them sees the character making flippant comments that don’t line up with my expectations. Is he/she going to be sarcastic about the situation, the person they’re talking to, or about something seemingly random? I was really excited to actually hear my lone wanderer’s voice, but it never really feels like much more than a silent protagonist getting some innocuous lines of dialogue.
Much was made of the graphics after the first reveal trailer back in June, and thankfully Fallout 4 looks much better in motion and when the proper conditions are met. At times, the game can look a bit washed out and drab, particularly when it’s raining or at night (or a combination of both). But the game’s incredible lighting and strong use of color helps to make the world feel dead and alive at the same time. Much more than the Capital Wasteland, the Commonwealth offers a great deal of visual variety and character. Bethesda outdid themselves with the art design here, and it’s probably one of the most interesting visions of the future I’ve seen in recent memory. The way it combines propaganda posters, 1950s Americana and futuristic weaponry helps to establish the world in a far more interesting way than even 2011’s Skyrim accomplished. Just look at the care and love put into the hand-cranked laser rifle; somebody spent a lot of time making this thing seem real and fantastical all at the same time.
Of course, you run into conflict in the Commonwealth, and VATS is back to provide you with the means to push back the darkness of the wasteland (or perhaps embrace the chaos and destruction around you). You can still target specific parts on an enemy’s body, and now you get even more dramatic effects if you hit the right spot. I laughed myself silly when I blew the legs off of a rushing feral ghoul and watched him collapse on the ground for an easy kill. You can even store up a critical strike for just the right moment, though I never really felt like this new feature added much outside of a little extra oomph to an attack. Fallout 4’s director, Todd Howard, spent a lot of time talking about the game’s new action combat and how it plays more like a shooter than ever, but I’m sorry to report that Bethesda still can’t seem to get this part of their games right. It certainly controls a bit better than the nightmarishly sluggish controls in Fallout 3, but it still feels far too loose and stiff at the same time. Lots of enemies, especially the bugs and ghouls mentioned earlier, have super erratic attacks that never gel well with the first-person shooting, meaning you should probably rely on VATS just about as much as you did previously. Just be prepared to cancel out of VATS when an enemy goes into cover, since VATS now just slows time instead of completely stopping it.
The subpar gunplay is on display more than ever because of the new crafting system that Bethesda seems most proud of with their latest creation. You can outfit just about any gun in this game with a stupid number of different modifications. Why not put a reflex scope on that new shotgun you just found, or maybe a bigger magazine on the combat rifle you picked up from a dead raider? You can do tons and tons with these weapons, but it almost feels perfunctory given the reliance on VATS above all other forms of combat. Sure, you can put a stock on your hunting rifle to reduce the recoil, but are you really going to feel that difference if you’re shooting from VATS most of the time? I spent nearly an hour trying out different stock combinations and barely noticed any discernible difference in how my weapons felt. Most egregious of all is the fact that there’s no direct correlation between most things that you attach to a weapon and how many shots you can take when using VATS. It seems mostly tied to the weapon’s weight, but even this isn’t a clear indication of how many pinpoint shots you can take before having to resort to the clunky action mechanics. I expect this will be added quickly with mod support down the line, but it’s baffling that Bethesda would choose to leave this kind of critical information out of the game.
The crafting system extends to bases and settlements you can ally yourself with around the Commonwealth. To be honest, I didn’t spend much time building the perfect house, as there was so much adventuring to be done, but I’m sure others will waste a large amount of time with this feature. It was also nice to see Bethesda finally listen to one of my chief complaints with their games and give me a home base where I can store most of my loot in the first hour of my journey! You’ll need lots and lots of junk in the world to craft all of these amazing weapons, gadgets and furniture, however. Most of those random pieces of crap you overlooked in Fallout 3 now have a real impact on your livelihood (bottles provide glass and toy trucks give you screws, for example), and you can mark specific projects so you can easily identify if you need a plunger or a typewriter to help you build a new scope for your automatic rifle. This means a lot of hovering over random junk in the world to see if you need it, which can get a bit tedious after a few hours.
There are lots of new dangers in the wasteland, which is probably one of the strangest additions to the Bethesda formula. You’ll run across legendary enemies who are tougher versions of standard enemies not unlike champion and elite monsters found in Diablo. These nasty foes are placed seemingly at random, and boy can they be a pain at times. It’s especially frustrating to spend most of a dungeon blowing away raiders with just a few shots and then run into one super raider who absorbs just about everything you throw at them. They randomly get to regenerate their health at points, and that’s about the most interesting thing these “legendary” enemies can do. You’ll probably run into some large difficulty spikes in the first few hours of your journey, as these guys can generally kill you in one or two hits. Thankfully, you get unique pieces of equipment when you manage to kill these minor annoyances, but it’s a loot system that hasn’t been fully thought out and implemented. It feels like Bethesda played a lot of Borderlands and Destiny and decided that they needed something like that for their equipment, but it’s not really worth the trouble and rarely feels like more than minor statistical boosts and number increases.
These additions don’t do much to tarnish the proven formula here, however. You still talk to lots of characters, steal their stuff when their sleeping, fiddle with lockpicking or computer hacking minigames when you need to open a locked something-or-other, and take quests from people who can’t seem to solve their own problems. You’re still the most interesting person in the world because you do what people tell you to do. You make alliances and can break them quickly should you choose, you don a suit of power armor that makes you feel like a small tank when things get tough, and you shudder as you finally notice that deathclaw on top of the hill when it roars in your general direction. I ran into less of the Bethesda jank we’ve all come to expect from these games, but they were still noticeable and annoying all the same. Sneak attacks, in particular, seem to work about a third of the time, lip syncing is pretty terrible across the board, and I did run into one flying bear.
There were some incredible moments during my journey that shone brighter than anything else that Bethesda has done before. One particularly eerie and moving part (which was ruined in the launch trailer, so avoid that at all cost) made me contemplate not just humanity but what we could have easily done to ourselves during The Cold War. Whoever wrote the dialogue for the first real villain you meet on the main quest path and his backstory needs a gold star and a raise, because it’s an introspective piece of characterization that feels far more BioWare than Bethesda (in a positive way). And it was especially nice to see so many uniquely designed environments and the way a story can be told without lots of dialogue or exposition. Fallout is still the lonely and oppressive world it’s always been, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like the Vault Dweller, Fallout 4 emerges into a world that’s seen a lot change. The core mechanics and fundamentals of the immersive Bethesda RPG are still here and quite competent, but there have been too many advancements just in this genre to ignore. Wandering the Commonwealth feels all too similar to wandering the Capital Wasteland, and that is both good and bad. You’ll most likely find a great deal of enjoyment and intrigue in Fallout 4, but don’t be surprised if it feels like an irradiated case of déjà vu.