Fallout 4 Review
Despite a laundry list of issues, post-apocalyptic Boston is still a thoroughly compelling place to spend hours in
It has been seven years since Bethesda last tackled the Fallout series, with the excellent spin-off sequel New Vegas being developed by Obsidian instead. One might expect in that time span Bethesda would have made an effort to work out some of the rather glaring wrinkles that made Fallout 3 and New Vegas feel so clunky. In some respects, they have; the shooting feels much better in Fallout 4, meaning that VATS is a sort of fallback option rather than your primary means of engaging enemies. They have also added some crafting elements that help incentivize exploration, which remains the best part of the game. However in most other regards, Fallout 4 is the same semi-broken, super ambitious open world game that Bethesda has been making since Oblivion; it has received a patchy new coat of paint and a few nice gameplay additions, but ultimately, it won’t change anyone’s minds about Bethesda’s brand of RPG.
You'll get used to having serious conversations while looking like a maniac
Story and storytelling has never been a strength for Bethesda, and Fallout 4 is no exception. The game gets off to a very rough start, with the intro taking place before the bombs fall, letting you soak in the flat writing, awful new dialogue system and stiff character animations right from the get-go. The game makes an effort to develop a bit of back-story for your now-voiced protagonist, with your son getting kidnapped early on, setting up the central hook for the main quest-line of finding him and seeking revenge against the mysterious group that did the kidnapping. After this introductory sequence, any semblance of narrative cohesion vanishes. Emerging from over 200 years of cryo-sleep, you almost immediately proceed to don a suit of power armor and engage in combat with a death claw; you are then given a clue as to your son’s whereabouts by a psychic woman who happens to be nearby.
This incredibly clumsy storytelling is nothing new from Bethesda, but in contrast to Obsidian’s narratively rich New Vegas or other modern RPGs, it is getting harder and harder to ignore. The story does eventually elevate itself from laughable to mediocre when it starts delving into some Blade-Runneresque science fiction tropes, but the flat writing and painfully dated animations make it very hard to get at all invested in the story or characters. To its credit, you do get to visit some neat locations throughout the story, and some fairly major choices do crop up later in the game, but by this point I just didn’t care about any of it, and the decisions rang hollow as a result. Given what other developers are doing with narratives in open world games, I simply cannot recommend Fallout 4 to anyone who is looking for a story driven experience. Fortunately, you can pretty much ignore the main story and still get a lot out of the game.
If you need even more reason to avoid the traditional quests, it is worth mentioning that I ran into some fairly egregious scripting bugs. At one point I needed to craft a bunch of equipment, and after building everything and wiring it together, my character repeatedly mumbled something about everything needing to be on the same grid. When in ‘crafting’ mode you can scrap most items in the world for resources, and after several hours of madly building generators and wires, it turned out my equipment wasn’t working because I hadn’t scrapped the carpet I built it on. Another time I completed objectives in an unexpected order which caused the quest to break, forcing me to reload an earlier save.
Dogmeat will sometimes lead you to a stash of hidden goodies
Fallout 4 takes place in Boston, and while I was initially a bit disappointed by the relatively modest size of the map, this quickly faded away when I realized how dense the game is. I can’t think of another open world game that has such a high concentration of stuff to do, and a large part of it isn’t necessarily quest related; the game has several systems in place that encourage exploration, and this is where Fallout 4 absolutely shines. The game is full of nooks and crannies stuffed with useful gear, and wandering around, sticking your nose into every location and hole is an intoxicating experience thanks to the captivating atmosphere and unique locations. Even after I thought I’d seen everything, I was always surprised when new quests brought me to areas I hadn’t seen before, a remarkable sort of in-filling that means almost no space is wasted. Vertical space is made great use of with tall towers and explorable overpasses littered stuff to poke at.
One aspect of Fallout 4 that also makes the early couple of hours a grind is that almost every mechanic in the game is dumped on you at once. Crafting is quickly thrown into the mix, with the bare minimum of instructions to guide you through the clunky menus and confusing interfaces that plague the game. Once you figure the system out it’s functional and lets you do some really neat things, but the learning curve could have been gentler. The same goes for the weapon and armor customization which you will need to figure out for yourself.
If you want to delve into the crafting and customization you will need to find certain parts for your creations and upgrades. These parts can primarily be obtained by breaking down existing objects, meaning you will need different objects to provide different parts. These objects come in the form of the random junk that clogged up the last two Fallout games, which is now useful and used to directly improve your settlements and equipment. You will find yourself going off scavenging for certain parts, adding further incentive to ignore the story and just wander around killing stuff and picking things up.
Finding enough fusion cores to use your power armor is cause for celebration
I found myself picking up almost everything in the hopes that somehow this pair of handcuffs will contribute to a new magnified scope for my sniper. Thankfully, you can tag crafting ingredients and they will be noted in items that contain them. As such, you end up carrying a lot junk and I would recommend investing in skills that increase carrying capacity early on. Character progression has been tweaked from past games; you now get a single skill point each time you level up. You can use this point to improve your base stats, or invest it in one of the many perks which mostly return from previous fallout games.
The new settlement building also adds a significant amount of depth. Early on you team up with a group called the Minute Men who are involved in establishing communities that they will then protect. You become actively involved in this, clearing out promising sites of ghouls or wildlife and creating a livable space complete with power, sustainable food/water and defenses. If this sounds appealing to you, then Fallout 4 can be played like a post-apocalyptic State of Decay where you manage a group of settlements and even establish supply routes between them. If you are near a settlement and get into trouble, you can fire a flare gun which will attract any nearby minute-men to come and help out.
No matter what facet of Fallout 4 you focus on, you will need to engage in a lot of combat, probably more than in the previous Fallout entries. Fortunately, the combat has seen significant improvements. Weapon handling is much better this time around, with great weapon sounds and even more impressive weapon variety gelling with well-balanced difficulty for consistently entertaining engagements. You can assign weapons and healing items/drugs to hot-keys, meaning you don’t need to go rooting around in your inventory every time you want to get healed or change weapons. You can also throw grenades or other explosives with a hotkey, rather than having to equip them exclusively.