Fallout 4 is many things. Above all, it is as ambitious as it is divisive.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the underlying premise for Fallout’s post-apocalyptic world is one of historical divergence. Here, the cold war never ended. America’s cultural identity came to a screeching halt in the mid-twentieth century while technology progressed well into the realm of science fiction. In the year 2052, in the wake of global resource shortages, the world plunged headfirst into war, culminating two decades later in total atomic annihilation.
Set in The Commonwealth, the series’ post-apocalyptic vision of Boston, Massachusetts and its surrounding area, the game begins on October 23rd, 2077 in the peaceful suburbs of Sanctuary Hills mere moments before nuclear devastation lays waste to the world in one fell swoop. Players are given the option to play as one of two spouses, either male or female, and may customize both characters extensively prior to being thrust into imminent chaos. As the alarms begin to sound, you, your spouse, and your infant son rush to the safety of nearby Vault 111—one of the fictional Vault-Tec corporation’s glorified fallout shelters—and are placed into cryogenic stasis, where you and your fellow Vault Dwellers are to remain until the Vault’s Overseer receives an “all clear” signal.
To put it mildly…things don’t go as planned.
You are brought roaring back to reality on October 23rd, 2287, a full two decades after the opening act, and sent spiraling into a brutal, twisted landscape filled with tattered reminders of the world you once knew.
For fans of the series, the idea of an individual sent head first into the unknown horrors of post-apocalyptia is nothing new. It’s the execution of that premise this time around that’s proven to be an issue of contention.
More so than perhaps any of Bethesda Game Studios’ prior undertakings, Fallout 4 has had an undeniably polarizing effect on fans of the franchise.
For the first time in the series’ (and Bethesda’s) history, both male and female player characters are fully voiced and given a predetermined backstory. In a franchise known largely for the depth of its roleplaying, this decision represents a huge shift in the series’ long-established formula, and has been met with both criticism and praise from the more vocal members of the fanbase.
Fortunately, the voice acting for both the male and female player characters, provided by Brian T. Delaney and Courtenay Taylor, is fantastic.
While it simply wasn’t possible to replicate the more overt style of roleplaying that existed in the franchise’s previous games wherein the player character’s backstory and motivation was (by and large) left a deliberately blank slate, I came to wholeheartedly embrace this decision despite my own initial trepidation. Player agency does feel strained at times due to the more personal and predetermined nature of the narrative, but by the same token, the big decisions the game tasks the player with making feel all the more impactful because of it. This is an area where Fallout 4 trumps its predecessors.
Both actors bring a unique quality to the role that makes the choice of gender feel much more impactful than prior games in the series, in which playing as a male or female was an almost entirely aesthetic choice that differed very little outside of one or two gender-specific perks and a handful of unique dialogue options.
Between the stellar performances of both leads and the rest of the game’s cast, Fallout 4 is easily Bethesda’s most polished and varied production in terms of acting chops. Not every single line is a winner, though, and the decision to voice absolutely everything does yield downright wonky results on occasion.
The most egregious offender lies in the woefully underdeveloped dialogue choices you are presented with when interacting with the unique companion characters you encounter throughout the game. By their own merit, the companions you may choose to travel with are leagues above and beyond what Bethesda has accomplished in their previous titles. There are 13 companions scattered across the Commonwealth, seven of whom are ‘romanceable’ in an underdeveloped, video game-y sort of way. As you adventure alongside them, your actions form the foundation of your relationship based on that character’s specific principles. As they come to like you more, they open up to you in increasingly personal, meaningful ways, while they will eventually abandon you altogether or turn hostile if you give them a reason to hate you.
It’s a considerably more developed and nuanced approach than the companion system in Skyrim, Bethesda’s previous big outing. While the characters themselves are a big step in the right direction, the manner in which interaction between the player and their companion is handled often feels archaic, stilted, and sometimes downright humorous in its awkward implementation.
The most prominent example of this was in my first playthrough, after I had advanced my relationship with one of the female companions, Cait, close to the highest achievable point. Each companion has different things they ‘like’ or ‘dislike,” and one of the things Cait ‘liked’ was whenever I successfully pickpocketed someone. I was curious to see if the same applied to pickpocketing her, so I dismissed her as a companion, crouched down and followed her as she walked away, sticking to the shadows to remain hidden, and pickpocketed a couple of items from her. She ‘liked’ it and promptly turned around and engaged me in a meaningful conversation in which she professed her love for me. I had a high pickpocket skill, so I reloaded the save to right before this point and kept trying until I failed, at which point she became immediately hostile and started punching me into a bloody pulp. This confirmed my long-held suspicion that the key to a woman’s heart is to steal something from right under their noses in such a way that they only figure out they’ve been robbed a few seconds after the act of theft. Because it’s totally charming at that point, obviously, but utterly unforgivable and grounds for being beaten to death if they catch you one or two seconds too soon.
While the companion system and fully voiced dialogue serve as two of Fallout 4’s biggest gameplay renovations, the most immediate area of improvement lies in the game’s combat. Both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, while great games, suffered from janky, unresponsive gunplay. Fallout 4 blows its predecessors out of the water and into the stratosphere in this regard. The game feels much more like a fast and fluid first person shooter this time around while retaining many of the endearing RPG elements of the previous games. The V.A.T.S system, which previously allowed players to freeze time mid-combat and tactically target different areas of an opponent’s body to shoot at, no longer feels like a crutch that the player is forced into utilizing simply because the basic shooting mechanics are garbage. Furthermore, V.A.T.S no longer stops time, but slows it down considerably. On paper, it might not sound like much of a difference, but in-game, it removes the awkward and clumsy “stop and go” routine present in the previous games and introduces a much more dynamic and visceral element to combat.
Outside of the refined gunplay, though, almost every element of gameplay feels more or less like a small upgrade to similar systems that existed in Skyrim. Depending on who you ask, this is either a good thing, a bad thing, or a bit of both. I fall into the last category.
Speaking of Skyrim, it’s worth noting that Fallout 4 runs on an upgraded version of the Creation Engine, which was the same engine used to build Skyrim. Which was itself an upgraded version of the engine used to build Oblivion, which was an upgraded version of the Gamebryo engine that was used to build Morrowind nearly 15 years ago.
Bethesda has milked this engine for everything its worth and then some. Surprisingly, Fallout 4 really is Bethesda’s most stable release ever…which is frankly awe-inspiring, given their track record. I only encountered 5 or 6 random crash-to-desktops over my entire play time. That’s practically unheard of. While the expected glitches associated with Bethesda releases are all present and accounted for—including my old favorite, “randomly clipping through a solid surface into a never-ending abyss of nothingness” and even some fancy new ones I hadn’t seen before, such as “companion suddenly swimming in mid-air indoors”—they seem (mostly) harmless. Being a Bethesda game, however, performance will vary tremendously from person to person for no obvious reason, so caution and skepticism is warranted.
Despite the game’s surprising overall stability, uneven optimization and lengthy load times remain almost universal issues across the game on every major platform.
But what about everything else?
Despite all the hubbub over the game’s graphical fidelity, the game is beautiful, and I don’t care what anyone else has to say. A bit washed out here and there, and the light fog that seems to mysteriously inhabit every interior and exterior across the Commonwealth does get a bit tiresome to look at, but the game world itself is gorgeously realized with an immaculate attention to detail. It’s wonderfully cluttered, varied, interesting to look at, and provides a sense of verticality—particularly in the tightly packed streets of what’s left of Boston—that’s simply nonexistent in previous Bethesda games.
As far as the plot is concerned, I enjoyed my first playthrough tremendously and thought the narrative stood as Bethesda’s strongest in terms of writing, characterization, and moral ambiguity. It felt surprisingly open and non-linear, and at several points in the game’s latter half, I grappled with what were, at the time, very difficult decisions. Upon completing the story, I was left with the lingering question of whether or not I had actually made the right choice, in the end. I’d never really felt that in any of Bethesda’s games before.
Starting up my second character, however, I experienced something entirely different. In going out of the way to play through and experience the game from an entirely different perspective, I realized just how linear the path laid out for me really was. I hadn’t noticed it in my initial playthrough because I wasn’t trying to do everything the way I wanted to; things just seemed to naturally fall into place and I followed through up until the endgame. The second time around, though, when I deliberately altered my playstyle and challenged myself to complete the game in a different order than the one established by the story, I found myself running into one figurative wall after another. Certain areas were artificially locked off, reaching points that would have triggered certain events a little earlier than I was supposed to didn’t trigger those events, and I was ultimately forced to follow the same path I had followed before.
Granted, this isn’t true of the entire game. At a certain point after becoming embroiled within the machinations of each of the game’s three primary factions—the Railroad, the Brotherhood of Steel, and the Institute—the story opens up and you are given more freedom in how you choose to resolve different plot points. Even then, however, linearity seeps into the framework of the plot in other, similarly unavoidable ways that, while sensible in the context of the overarching narrative, can prove aggravating nonetheless.
This is especially pronounced after spending time completing just about every side quest I came across during my initial playthrough. In starting up my second playthrough and coming across the same exact quests, I realized that there really wasn’t all that much in the manner of questing content outside of the small handful of side quests and the storyline. There are plenty of repeatable “radiant” quests and objectives, much like in Skyrim, but they lack any semblance of substance; they’re there simply to repeat again and again for experience. It’s an artificial way of supplementing content that feels hollow and, frankly, meaningless.
Aside from quests, the game does feature the (mostly) optional and impressively expansive ability to create and maintain a wide variety of settlements, which is pretty fun, though the implementation of this system is rather bizarre and a little out of place. The system is multi-faceted enough to warrant its own review, but in short, it’s like a small game unto itself, and if it’s the sort of content that appeals to you, you’ll most likely spend a lot of time with it.
So what, then, do I ultimately feel about Fallout 4?
This is a massive, entertaining, and meaningful game that walks a very thin line between being completely awesome and completely frustrating. There’s ample replay value for completionists who want to unlock every achievement, explore every location, and experience the full storylines for each of the game’s factions. The release of the Creation Kit in early 2016 will allow the already-bustling modding community to take their creations to the next level, and the release of as-of-yet-unknown downloadable content in the future stands to further lengthen the lifespan of what is already a massive game in its own rights.
As it stands, it obliterates just about every one of its contemporaries. Based on its legacy, it struggles to capture certain elements responsible for the series’ initial success and lasting appeal while simultaneously introducing new, creative, and experimental ideas—some of which work, while others don’t.
And at the end of the day, I still find myself itching to come back to it and play some more.