The Good: Incredible, intricate open world.
The Bad: The wasteland has never been a more expansive and exhausting rummage sale. Many elements lack a tutorial, and they could use one.
The Ugly: Some terrible GUI designs. Some technical glitches.
War never changes. The catch phrase of Fallout 3 is likely to also become the catch phrase of Fallout 4 – after all, we’re told it three times during the opening movie alone. You know what else never changes? Fallout. Fallout never changes. Some may see that as an unfair assessment of a game that has taken every facet of open world sandboxes and added plus one to all of them, but the core Fallout game remains unchanged. I’m still blowing people’s heads off with the V.A.T.S. We’re all still S.P.E.C.I.A.L. I’ve still got the lockpicking and hacking minigames. I’m still roasting mirelurks for supper and popping Radaway like TicTacs. There are some new pieces: most notably a huge, new crafting system and a kind of ongoing quest to create and modify settlements which have a very State of Decay flavor to them, but on the whole Fallout never changes.
I’m not going to go in depth into the mechanics of Fallout gameplay here. If somehow you’re thinking of picking this iteration of Fallout as your starting point, I’d recommend against it. Go pick up Fallout 3 – it’s probably available somewhere at some low sale price, plus it has some good tutorials, which this game definitely lacks. Little pop up moments of text and several hundred pages of an encyclopedia to read through are about all you’re going to get in Fallout 4. Some stuff – the V.A.T.S, the hotkeys, inventory, quest log and maps – are going to be more or less obvious to anyone who plays RPGs. Other stuff, like the new workshop interfaces, seem needlessly tangled and inconvenient. Suffice to say, if you’re really dead set on making Fallout 4 your entry into the series, the game is a 1st/3rd person (you can pick the camera angle) action RPG set in a post nuclear apocalypse Boston. Weapon up, armor up, and get out there. You can either use a bullet-time targeting interface (called V.A.T.S.) to pick your shots in combat, or aim down whatever sights your weapon has available. I’ve always found hip-firing in Fallout 3 to be very inaccurate, and that hasn’t changed in Fallout 4, and (word of warning) ammunition can be in short supplies at times. In the wasteland you can help out the little folk, bring a slice of civilization back into the world, join the ersatz law enforcement community of the Minutemen, hitch your wagon to the Brotherhood of Steel, or just run around making a nuisance of yourself. The choice is up to you.
The game has a new, expansive crafting system, one in which nearly every bit of junk you can pick up in the wasteland is good for something. Encumbrance has never been more of a challenge. I’m loaded down with animal remains and random plant clippings and small kitchen appliances. I’m lugging around a dozen pieces of armor and weapons, planning to break them down to improve my own weapons and armor, and this interrupts my adventuring, drives me back to the settlements again and again to allow me to unload. You end up revisiting the same regions repeatedly, realizing the things you left behind the last time you were there, the dishes and silverware and toys and fire extinguishers, you suddenly need (or at least can use) it all.
Beyond the ability to plus up every weapon and piece or armor, cook up all manner of chemical compounds, a big piece of crafting is the ability to build things for settlements. You find these settlements scattered around the map, and by doing things for the inhabitants (most commonly defeat some group of bad guys who have been harassing them) they agree to join you. As a benefit you get to call for help from nearby settlements when you need it. In all honesty, I never thought to try this feature. I mean, in the heat of battle, am I really going to shoot a flare into the air and see who shows up, or focus on surviving? It would have been nice to try this out in some kind of scripted engagement, but I never came across one. Anyway, in exchange for this offer of assistance, you help them by scavenging the wasteland to build shelters and electrical sources, defensive structures, planting crops, and in general making the place more homey. There is of course damned little in the way of tutorials as to what exactly you’re trying to accomplish. Just trying to figure out how to plant a crop took me an inordinate amount of time, and then I’m sticking corn and carrots all over the place with no logic because I don’t seem to need any, and I have no idea what happens if I don’t do it, and I have no idea why the settlers don’t do this kind of stuff themselves. Who exactly died and made me king, and farmer, and butcher, baker, and candlestick maker? Plus, I started out the game with a mission to find my missing son, stolen from his mother’s arms in the vault while I watched helplessly, and you’d think that would consume all my time. But nope, I’ve got tomatoes to plant. As interesting as the wasteland is to just explore, and as much fun as clearing out a building is, the overall handling of the plot and the side quests feels poorly thought out at best.
Spanning events both before and after the nuclear apocalypse, the events of Fallout 4 seem more poignant. The world goes from being recognizable to being rubble. I find myself making comparisons to the recent Mad Max game (they’re both open world post apocalyptic adventures, but really have very little more in common than that). The open world of Mad Max felt manufactured and empty. Regions had limited, very limited, stuff to do. The world of Fallout 4 is dense. Downtown Boston has a huge number of buildings, and while many of them are boarded up and can’t be entered, many others are alive with activity – raiders and super mutants and huddled settlers just trying to survive. Where Fallout 3 had many sections of the wasteland that felt like many others (I’m thinking up you, endless subway tunnels), the areas and buildings of Fallout 4 are unique. The color palette remains drab. I think they’ve tried to add little dashes of color here and there, but rubble, rubble never changes.
Finally, I’ve got a couple of glitches to complain about. Companions get themselves stuck here and there all the time, and in narrow passages get in your way continually. I did on the whole enjoy having my indestructible dog Dogmeat along for the ride. Enemies have pathing problems too. Sometimes, during an important moment of dialog, the music will suddenly swell and drown it out. And though this isn’t a glitch, while I’m talking about dialog, the conversation menus give you a very limited set of options, often leaving out what seems (to me at least) as the most natural one.
I suspect you could blindfold most players, drop them into some random Fallout scene, and they would be unable to tell if they were playing 3 or 4. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. To some extent criticizing Fallout 4 in this way is like criticizing Skyrim for being a lot like Oblivion. Still, unfair though it may be, people who were hoping for some vast re-imaging, some electric new element that was going to make them fall in love with Fallout all over again, they’re going to be disappointed. If you had enough of Fallout between 3 and New Vegas, Fallout 4 is like signing up for more of that. However, if you, like me, haven’t given a lot of thought or playtime to Fallout since NV, and were kind of thinking “What the heck, I’ll give it a go again,” you’re in for a treat. And of course for the Fallout fanatics, the wasteland (this time set in and around Boston) offers an environment chock full of new adventure.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
This review is based on a digital copy of Fallout 4 for the PC provided by Bethesda Softworks.