As I crept up the rotting wooden staircase, I fished a handful of pills out of my pocket and popped them one by one — a mix of amphetamines and painkillers to jack me up for the coming fight. Seeing that was the last straw for Hancock, who pulled me aside to confess his deep admiration for me. I ventured that what we were feeling might be something more than friendship, and damn what anyone else would think. The ghoul smiled and we shared this quiet moment of joy before readying our weapons and rounding the corner to face certain doom at the razor-sharp hands of a monstrous deathclaw. Welcome to life after the end of the world.
“War never changes,” Ron Perlman traditionally intones in the opening to every Fallout game, though this series of post-apocalyptic adventures has changed a lot throughout its 18-year run. Starting as an isometric PC RPG in the late-1990s, the franchise exploded to a much-wider audience with a new developer and fresh first-person perspective in 2008 with Bethesda’s Fallout 3. After lending the franchise back to some of its original creators at Obsidian with New Vegas, Bethesda is back at the helm again with Fallout 4.
Burned out Boston
Bethesda continues to carve out its own corner of the Fallout universe in the Northeast, following up on 3’s Capital Wasteland around Washington D.C. with a setting in and around the ruins of Boston, known to its residents as the Commonwealth. The expansive map is dotted with the remains of familiar Massachusetts landmarks such as the Bunker Hill Monument, the USS Constitution, and Fenway Park, all recreated in nostalgic detail that evoked this reviewer’s Boston childhood. Starting up near Concord in the northwest corner of the map, the playable area ranges over to Salem in the northeast, down through forest, suburbs, Cambridge and downtown Boston to a swampy Southie.
The repetitive grey-green from the Capital Wasteland has fortunately been replaced with a more dynamic range of looks and settings. The look of Fallout 4 is instantly familiar to anyone who has touched the series before, but it’s looking lovelier than ever. Everything still has that signature Fallout dinginess, but it pops much more against vibrant blue skies that give way to sickly yellow when a radiation storm drifts in.
The developers at Bethesda have learned a lot about creating open worlds with their experience on Skyrim. The Commonwealth is expansive, with a well-tuned density of sites and encounters that feels organic and invites exploration.
Before letting you loose in the Commonwealth though, Fallout 4 performs a series first: It shows you what life was like in idyllic suburbia just before the bombs dropped. The prologue is brief, but it’s an effective device for providing a little perspective on how the game’s world came to be.
Improved leveling, better control
While much of the moment-to-moment action has remained the same from Fallout 3, Bethesda has overhauled the character progression system to excellent effect. Whereas before every level saw you assigning skill points and selecting from perks that were gated by level, those have now been combined into perks that improve your abilities in any area of the game. At every level you have one point to spend either boosting one of your core stats or taking a perk. Perks are laid out on a grid with columns for each special stat and rows corresponding to each level of that stat. For instance, in order to take the Solar Powered perk that buffs you up during the daylight, you need to have 10 endurance. Additional degrees of each perk have level requirements, but the first is available to anyone from start of the game if they have the prerequisite stats.
Fallout 4 performs a series first: It shows you what life was like in idyllic suburbia just before the bombs dropped.
The flexibility of this new system allows for much more freedom early on in what kind of character you can create. Whether you want to be an axe-wielding brawler who eats people, or a fleet-footed hacker with a silver tongue and a penchant for finding spare change, there are perks to support however you want to play. Providing so many options so early and giving you control over the order in which they become available allows you to specialize from the beginning, and encourages replays to try out entirely different builds. Unlike Fallout 3 there is also no level cap, so you can explore and develop your character indefinitely while waiting for more DLC to drop next year.
Bethesda hybridized Fallout’s RPG roots with first-person shooter mechanics in 3, but the marriage was rocky. The gunplay felt clunky, but was largely made irrelevant with the VATS system for pausing the action and cuing up attacks against particular body parts. This was fine for roleplaying fans, but let down players expecting a viable shooter. Fallout 4 corrects this with a much greater attention to how the shooting feels. Bethesda, which is also publishing the upcoming Doom reboot, brought in the FPS genre experts from Id Software to consult. Bethesda also hired a senior systems designer who previously spent six years at Bungie with the explicit goal of modeling Fallout 4’s gunplay off of Destiny.
The result is much smoother than its predecessor. Everything from the iron sights aiming to the reload animations feel weighty and satisfying. VATS is still present, but tweaked so that it only slows down the action, and doesn’t pause it — keeping things tense. Players who really want to rely on it can choose perks that greatly increase their power to chain deadly attacks within VATS, but those who prefer to keep the action at full speed can instead focus on weapons damage perks or unlocking more powerful mods to tweak their guns just right. As an extension of the character customization system, combat is extremely flexible and allows for an excitingly wide range of options when you’re out in the wasteland.
Crafty new gameplay
The other major change to the core gameplay is the addition of crafting and settlement development. Item crafting has become an almost obligatory feature of modern open world games, and Fallout’s could have very easily felt tacked-on, but fortunately this is not the case. It works because the game already includes a heavy focus on collecting scrap materials everywhere you go in order to sell. Now instead of serving as dead weight to be exchanged for caps, every piece of scrap you find comprises a list of elemental components, such as steel, rubber, adhesive, or screws. These are the required ingredients for crafting things like weapon or armor modifications.
Fallout 4 performs a series first: It shows you what life was like in idyllic suburbia just before the bombs dropped.
In addition to crafting personal effects, you can also use these materials to create objects, furniture, resources, and structures for various settlements around the map. This mini-game is essentially a large-scale version of Bethesda’s casual mobile management simulation, Fallout Shelter. Each settlement has a population, resources like food, electricity, and water, and a happiness rating. By building amenities you can attract more settlers to live there, and collect surplus food, water, and caps that they generate from stores and workstations that you build.
Thankfully, if you just want to kill it’s entirely impossible to ignore all of this settlement and crafting stuff. If you want to play it like previous games and just sell your scrap for caps and never give crafting or settlements a second thought, that’s your prerogative. The game smartly doesn’t force these new systems on you, but leaves them available to reward the effort you put in. It’s all pretty lightweight, but putting in a little bit of effort to build a nice home base pays off, and it’s nice to have the option for more for people that want to settle down.
Companionship in the wasteland
As in previous games, there are a wide variety of companions that can join you in your travels, one at a time. In addition to the faithful German Shepherd featured in the game’s promotion, they include the likes of a sycophantic robot butler, a high-minded Brotherhood of Steel paladin, and a street-wise ghoul, self-styled as Hancock, among many others.
The companions largely provide combat support and a peanut gallery of commentary on the action, but they are all well painted and distinct. Their opinion of you fluctuates based on your action, with a little notification popping up whenever they like or dislike something you just did. At certain thresholds they might grab you to talk, which can lead to a quest, and if you max out their affection it unlocks a unique perk. It’s a simple, but effective feedback mechanism to reflect your style of play and to give the companions a dash of depth.
A grim story with little surprise
The main storyline takes a page from Fallout: New Vegas by structuring itself around multiple, competing factions. While it is initially possible to become friendly with all of them, as time goes on it becomes harder to support one group without actively pissing off another. Where you put your weight ultimately determines how things fall out when tensions inevitably boil over. The factions and their respective quests are all different, which gives the game a fun variety. The site of one player’s epic final battle could be where another player spent most of the game between missions.
Combat is extremely flexible and allows for an excitingly wide range of options when you’re out in the wasteland.
Fallout 4’s events are a familiar mash-up of sci-fi tropes and ethical linchpins. It’s studiously and solidly executed, with a few good twists and fun characters, but overall it falls a hair flat. Once all the pieces are in place, the story’s trajectories are pretty obvious, and it rarely grips or surprises you.
It’s also straight-laced. Fallout 3 disappointed some fans for its serious tone, where previous entries contrasted the grim realities of the post-apocalypse with more dark and strange humor. New Vegas, with some of the original writers back on board, returned to this lighter tone, but Bethesda has once again focused on the grim.
There are moments of levity to be found off the beaten path, however: an email chain of someone’s play-by-mail RPG in an old terminal, or a rocket-powered USS Constitution crewed by robots with British accents. This is a massive game, best enjoyed at a leisurely pace where advancing the story is mixed with wasteland serendipity.
Although systems like combat and character progression have improved distinctly over the previous games, they may have come somewhat at the expense of role-playing. Conversations in the previous games gave you a list of full-text options for what to say. You could try special options if you met certain thresholds in various stats, such as being smart enough to offer a technical solution or strong enough to intimidate someone. Dialog in Fallout 4 has been reduced to a wheel of four options of just a word or two to indicate the general sentiment of what you’re saying. Options with a chance for failure are color-coded from yellow to red, depending on your odds, which are only affected by charisma.
It’s unfortunately reductive, and that is reflected in the relative paucity of conversation-based alternative answers to quests. Most problems are about raiders or supermutants, and the solutions generally involve lasers and bullets. That’s not a problem for players chiefly interested in the action, but it’s a little disappointing when previous entries offered a greater variety of interesting, non-violent alternative solutions in addition to combat.
Fallout 4’s staler story and oversimplified dialog are relatively minor dings to a largely satisfying whole. Bethesda had two hugely popular games in Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Fallout 4 doesn’t make any radical leaps forward, but it smartly iterates upon the accumulated wisdom of its predecessors. It has simple, smart improvements to combat; companions have more depth; leveling is a more elegant process; and the addition of crafting and settlement building open up entirely new forms of play.
All in all, Fallout 4 is the best, most polished Bethesda RPG to date. The Commonwealth is expansive, inviting, and a lovely place to explore for a few months.
- Massive, inviting world
- Deeply flexible character development
- Smoother gunplay makes it a more viable action game
- New crafting integrates smoothly without obtruding
- Greater visual variety than Fallout 3
- Overly simple dialog and limited role playing
- Solid, but predictable genre storytelling