The Commonwealth is a vast, treacherous wasteland that only the most hardened souls survive in. This is where you enter. The year is 2287 and you’re a survivor of a nuclear war that has turned the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. As you emerge from the underground sanctuary of Vault 111, it’s up to you to forge your own path through a ramshackle Boston on a quest to find your kidnapped son.
For Fallout veterans, this will all sound familiar, and for the most part that’s a good thing. What fans will also know is that reciting the synopsis isn’t just pedantic video-game journalism, but instead an invitation into a world rife with places to explore and characters to acquaint yourself with. After taking over the reins of the series with Fallout 3 (2008), developers Bethesda Game Studios have established themselves on the cutting edge of open-world action RPGs, and Fallout 4 is no exception. Once again it’s an adventure that’s easy to get lost in and sink hundreds of hours into…but only if you choose to.
That’s the way that Fallout 4 plays out. As is the modus operandi with Bethesda games, the story is in your hands and you have control over how you engage with the expansive and diverse open world. Driving the story is the quest for your son, but it’s the characters that you meet along the way that make the experience memorable. You’ll join factions and fight raiders; you’ll ally with certain characters whilst betraying others. This is all in your ultimate aim of taking the fight to the morally dubious organisation called ‘the Institute,’ which has kidnapped your son and hides itself from the Commonwealth.
Needless to say, there is quite a lot to see and to do in the game. It all begins with a robust character builder, which you can spend hours in meticulously designing every detail of your character’s face. I spent a fair amount of time modeling my character into the perfect looking hero. However, it all ultimately felt like it was for naught when I spent most of the game with a helmet obscuring my face. The option to hide headgear, at least while in safe hubs, would have been a nice addition – I liked my gorgeous mug. Nevertheless, the options afforded to you right at the beginning sets up a high standard for the game, and it’s a standard that is upheld throughout the rest of the experience.
The game’s RPG element comes into play with an extensive upgrade system that allows you to play any way you want. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skill tree lets you assign upgrade points towards perks that cater to your gameplay sensibilities and play style. The system splits upgrades under seven distinct categories: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. Under these headings are a huge amount of perks to choose from – far more than can feasibly be attained – giving you the choice as to how you want to approach gameplay. Want to go into a fight with guns blazing? Or maybe you love stealthy sneaky stabby murder? You can do any of that, and much more.
This sense of variety is extended to the vast amount of items you can collect, mod, craft, and build throughout the game. I’m not ashamed to admit to being a digital hoarder, collecting random items out of the possibility that they may come in use later on. Every enemy I killed and every location I explored was an opportunity for me to gain new loot that in turn could help me upgrade my own weapons and armour. The dense open-word also features a ton of unique environments and locations strewn across a fairly large map. Empty hospitals, deserted airports, destroyed suburbs, and so on, all paint a vivid picture of a devastated Boston. By the end of the game, my map was littered with hundreds of areas that I’d scavenged and explored, and no two areas felt exactly the same.
As you make your way through the wasteland, gunplay plays a vital role in ensuring you don’t fall prey to the terrifying creatures that loom in the devastated landscape. Fortunately, shooting is just as smooth and refined as you would expect from a first-person shooter. However, that hasn’t undercut the tactical advantage of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS). Entering VATS during combat slows down time and highlights enemy limbs, letting you choose exactly where you want to shoot. I often found myself looking for the best position to get an effective shot off at an enemy. When successful, there’s a rather gory bullet cam that shows your shot tear through the enemy, with blood and limbs flying in all directions. It’s satisfying in the most twisted way, and with its tactical effectiveness, ensures the game never devolves into mindless shooting.
On the story front, the best way to describe Fallout 4 is as a massive adventure. As the old adage goes: the journey is more important than the destination, and Fallout 4 is a testament to that statement in the best possible way. As the main quest is rather slim, side content is the bulk of what you’ll be spending your time with, but it feels like a disservice to call it ‘side’ content. There is an arc and purpose to every mission you undertake and with branching dialogue options, there are many different ways in which you can go about them. And for the first time in the Fallout series, fully voiced protagonists add a mouth to your dialogue decisions and provide some much needed emotional depth to your character.
Morality also plays a big part in choosing how your missions play out. Without spoiling much, there are some big choices you have to make towards the end of the game that raise some interesting moral questions. For someone like me, who played through most of the game idling in the middle ground and trying to appease everyone as best as possible, being pushed out of this grey area was a welcome dilemma. I had to consider my actions and choices, knowing that I would have to deal with their repercussions. After finishing the main narrative, I couldn’t help but reflect on my decisions and question whether I had made the right choices, and if there was even such a thing as a right choice. It all made for a thought-provoking narrative that lingered on my mind for some time after.
The game’s aesthetic is also worthy of special mention. As is a staple of the Fallout universe, the retro-futuristic styling of the game effectively captures the Cold War-era zeitgeist, where nuclear war paranoia was at its highest, in a futuristic setting. Old computer terminals and out-dated machinery are contrasted by futuristic robotic technology and laser weaponry. Vault Boy himself is emblematic of the type of iconic poster-boy you would see in wartime propaganda. This juxtaposition of the old with the new reconciles the game’s sci-fi elements with profound real word significance. Whether it be a decades or centuries from now, the game’s opening reminds us that “War never changes,” and it’s a sentiment that is carried through the game’s aesthetics.
However, the game suffers considerably from technical issues. Bethesda has been using the same game engine for a while now, and what has been creaking in the last console generation is spluttering in the current generation. Bugs are heavily prevalent, both literally (in their disgustingly mutated form) and technically. Some glitches are easily overlooked like A.I. getting stuck on debris, but on a number of occasion I had to hard reset the game on account of the screen freezing up or a mission crashing (Pro tip: Save often and everywhere!). For a game of this size and scope, these issues are mostly forgivable, but they still present a lingering issue that has plagued past Bethesda games.
Graphics also leave something to be desired. While I certainly belong in the camp that prioritises good storytelling and meaningful gameplay over flashy visuals, the muddy textures and poor draw distance on the PS4 version of the game still come off as disappointing given the game’s beautiful overall aesthetic. On top of all this, you’ll have to deal with ever-present loading screens. Every time you enter or exit a building and every time you fast travel, you’ll have to sit through a loading screen. As you will often be doing one after the other, being subjected to two loading screens in quick succession can certainly get frustrating.
Furthermore, the user interface (UI) is hampered by some frustrating design choices. For one, active missions are all listed in one block, making it difficult to distinguish between main story quests and side missions. This becomes particularly annoying when you want to develop relationships with certain groups but can’t identify which missions correspond with which faction. Additionally, looting weapons and armour is complicated by the lack of side-by-side comparison between items in your inventory. Instead, you’re forced to scroll through your inventory every time you want to pick up a new item and make a mental note of the statistics to draw comparisons.
When all is said and done, these complaints are simply minor trade-offs to an excellent role-playing game. Fallout 4’s immense scope and the diversity of its world will have players coming back for more for some time yet.