Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Systems: PC, XOne, PS4
The newest addition to Bethesda’s open world cataclysm is perhaps its most thoughtful yet. It’s been five years since the rockabilly charms of Fallout: New Vegas went for our hearts (and guts), and with current-gen capabilities now in full swing, it’s surprising how much the wasteland has changed.
Indeed, there are prominent narrative and mechanical changes that depart from the conventions set in motion by prior installments, but after a fortnight staggering about in the twisted ruins of post-nuclear Boston, Fallout 4 has well and truly become my vault.
For the first time in the Fallout series, we’re given a brief glimpse at the sort of life that preceded the void of the mushroom cloud, and it’s a quaintly Utopic one. A cheery projection of the 1950’s ‘Home of the Future’, you begin as an amiable family man or woman of Boston, who, after news of the impending atomic tirade, is suspended in cryogenic stasis in the underground vault of 111. Upon waking, however, 200 years later, you’re soon released to seek answers and familiarity in the tortured echo of the society you once knew.
The opening is more walking simulator than fully-fledged action content, but however restricted, it attributes a greater sense of mourning to the many wastelandic skulkings to come. In Fallout 4, you’re still the detached Vault Dweller you were in previous games; you’re still the lost lamb in a world of faction, distrust and insanity, but having a visual conception of what it is you’ve lost this time round makes for thoroughly more heart-wrenching gameplay.
The Wasteland itself has been revamped in its five year haitus, and I’ve never been happier. The Glowing Sea is a noxious No Man’s Land, barbed with pre-war detritus; Diamond City a metropolis adorned with tatty iron patchwork. Everywhere you turn in Fallout 4, there is a distinct will to survive; a sense that the best has been done with what has been salvaged, and you’ll often stumble across waterlogged dug-outs and lone, makeshift shacks to assure that you’re not the only survivor here.
Indeed, the game certainly doesn’t wait around to acquaint you with your irradiated neighbours. Cyincal, anxious, quite often insane, the Commonwealth populus lives in the shadow of an elusive organisation known as The Institute. A wry reference to the famous Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Fallout 4‘s Institute is behind the creation of synths; cybernetic beings who have developed to resemble humans.
Whilst a refreshing break from the beligerent antagonists of the previous two games, the narrative circling the omnipotent Institute takes a notably more philosophical standpoint. The main storyline raises ethical questions surrounding compassion and free will, often taking really quite dark and existential turns, especially as those you come to care about are inevitably caught in the innumerable crossfires of The Wasteland.
The fate of everyone you meet across the course of Fallout 4 are subject to the nuclear politics of The Commonwealth, and although the storyline observed my epic transition from lone Vault-Dweller to fierce freedom fighter, the decisions I was forced to make along the way were profound enough to convince me that it’s never just a simple case of good and evil, and the web of allegiance only deepens as the plot progresses.
Allegiances aren’t just general affairs now, either, with a heavier focus on the personal relationship between yourself and your companion. Whilst early whimperings of German Shepherd, Dogmeat balances amusement with your induction to the inhumanity of the new world, the friends you make later possess a deeper substance; their own likes, dislikes and backstories; and how much all of this is divulged depends heavily on your relationship with them. One chum might delight in watching you hack terminals, whilst stealing is decidedly off-the-cards when it comes to winning over others.
Several carry the potential to become super friendly, too. Romance can be comically flirtacious or innocently poignant, and no one will mind if you’ve eyes for another simultaneously. It is the apocalypse, after all, and even Super Mutants need some loving now and again.
The gargantuan Deathclaws and adamantium-plated Mirelurks of previous entries make a gorgeous 1080p reprise, there are other beasties to contend with. Bloodbugs and bloatflies are particularly repugnant, as they slurp your blood only to spew it back at you; now more than ever, the various cosms and crannies of Fallout teem with stuff that wants you dead, and each deadly encounter thrills in its own, poisonous way.
And when you’re not being charged by feral ghouls or taking on a clan of radscorpions, there’s always the RADS to contend with. The threat of radiation is more significant in Fallout 4, and will gradually eat away at your maximum health if not kept properly under wraps; potentially rendering endurance a more attractive route to take when it comes to character levelling. Once the quests really start rolling in, however, you’ll soon find salvation in popping as much Radaway and Rad-X as you can find.
Sprinting has also been incorporated, and after the many hours I spent traversing the Wasteland at a speed akin to an 80-year-old jogger (which, I suppose, is technically rather well-suited to Fallout‘s toxic atmospheres), it’s a welcome addition.
When it comes to levelling, Fallout 4‘s character system is one of the more discernible differences to previous games. Stats, skills and perks are no longer separate, but exist along a singular perk tree. When you level up, you gain only one skill point this time, that can either be used to improve your core traits such as strength, endurance or intelligence, or to acquire perks associated with those traits once your skill level is high enough.
If you’re keen on obliterating your opponents into bloody sacks of gore, for example, you need to buff your Luck stats. This takes a lot of the confusion that existed in previous games away from levelling; instead encouraging you to advance your stats in concordance with the routes you’d like your character to take.
Your character will also be fully voiced; a bold decision that stands out amongst Bethesda’s other titles. Despite there only being one male or one female voice for your character, both actors give strong, versatile performances, offering a variety of tones from tearse and forelorn to flippant and sarcastic, according to the dialogue options you choose.
Dialogue options themselves appear minimalist; streamlined to a general gist to be elaborated upon by the protagonist. However, this renders decisions in the game more ambiguous. Often, the implications of your choices only become apparent once they’ve been made, occasionally making for unwelcome consequences.
Combat is smoother and less clunky than in previous games, and with a larger arsenal of heavy duty weaponry, taking down the titans of the wasteland has never felt more rewarding. You can even give your beloved missile launcher a name at any nearby workbench.
Many combat elements, especially firing aim, have also been greatly improved, leaving more room for open fire, without having to single out body-parts each time in V.A.T.S. V.A.T.S isn’t as integral to your survival this time round, but it’s still available to bring some much-appreciated clarity in the midst of what can quickly become chaotic and explosive brawls. Although now, rather than pausing the action completely, you can expect a graceful time-slow whenever you peek into V.A.T.S.
So if you’re caught with a Fat Man up your nostril, it’s unlikely even Vault-Tec will save you there.
But bar none, the largest difference Fallout 4 carries for me is its crafting system. The idea of crafting in a game that is largely about exploration first seems offbeat; almost pandering to the convulsive fad Minecraft has become. But Fallout at least makes it relevant, requiring you to build tumultous generators to add basic light to your ramshackle bedsit.
Settlements also provide some much-needed storage space, as crafting means that every item you encounter on your travels can be dissected and scrapped for materials. I found a companion particularly helpful here – as I could pack them up with all the junk I could salvage. Like a kleptomaniacal Womble.
Whilst Fallout 4′s societies and environments are there to remind you of their tenacious survival amidst the smog, you can finally return the sentiment, and there’s something comforting – something quintessentially primal – about forging a colony, to whom you can always return if the raiders ever get you down.
It’s also a place where I get to fulfill my 10-year-old dreams of building a treehouse city. I’m embracing my inner Ewok, and I’m deeply, deeply excited.
Over the years, the glitch and the bug have come to be recognised almost as inhabitors of Bethesda’s Fallout, alongside its innumerable feinds. And as much as any Super Mutant Behemouth, technical hitches are back with a vengeance. Controls can be janky; often causing you to veer uncontrollably sideways, and getting stuck on scenery is becoming a little too routine not to find irritating. It’s frustrating enough when using analog sticks; I can only imagine how it handles on the PC.
Character conversations frequently halt without player input, when they aren’t all garbling over each other in some sort of verbal free-for-all, and occasionally, dialogue options fail to activate. Larger glitches have been found since Fallout’s release a fortnight ago, which is unfortunate considering the great number of things the game does well.
More often than not, these are but minor inconveniences. But finding you can’t complete a quest because Preston Garvey won’t talk to you can place a palpable tamper on immersion, especially in a game that so easily opens itself up to role-play. Most trivial bugs can thankfully be rectified with multiple save slots, and a quicksaving function has been added to ensure backtracking is kept to a minimum.
Hitches are certainly no surprise in a Fallout game, and have come to be considered blots on the escutcheon of Bethesda. But the major changes and striking overhauls Fallout 4 carries is ultimately worth those things. Of course, you’re still borne into a big, bad, broken world teeming with mad locals and volatile beasts, but the sheer mass of added systems, treasures and trinkets make it impressive just how much the old Fallout shines through.
As the main narrative kicks into full drive, the paths you take and the company you keep become genuinely moving, as the stakes inevitably soar the further into the wasteland you proceed. There’s rarely confirmation that you made the right choice, which translates into a gripping sense of uncertainty to match your hostile new surroundings. It’s something that haunts, that beckons, that intoxicates – and partnered with the wasteland’s gorgeously living, breathing vastness, Fallout 4 is a ruthless testament to Bethesda’s open-world capabilities.