It’s taken its sweet old time coming, but after the surprise of a 2015 release that was announced at this year’s E3, Bethesda has lived up to its promise, and Fallout 4 is with us with no slips or setbacks. Surely a contender for the most anticipated game of the year, which is saying something with the quality of titles release so far this annum, Fallout 4 is one of the biggest game releases in recent times. It’s also the company’s first proper foray into current gen, so the pressure is surely on.
Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s first Fallout game since Fallout 3, having passed the reigns to Obsidian for New Vegas. It’s set in Boston after the events of the previous two games, and takes place later in the Fallout time line than any previous instalments. It’s a pretty much self-contained story, though, so no prior knowledge of the series is needed. It helps, of course, so you know what’s going on out of the gate, but regardless of your experience with the series, you can jump in and enjoy.
As always, I won’t spoil the story, save to say that you’re a survivor of Vault 111, another fallout shelter designed and operated by the mysterious Vault-Tec. After a brief prologue that takes place before the bombs fell, showing the 50s-style atomic-era life in its prime, a first for the series, you’ll find yourself in the familiar wasteland we’ve come to know and love. From here you’re free to wander and explore the wasteland, and there are virtually no limits to how you approach the game, a trademark mechanic of Bethesda’s large-scale RPGs.
Unlike many Bethesda RPGs, Fallout 4 doesn’t pull its punches, and gets you right into the action and new features early on. Within the first hour I’d emerged from Vault 111, found an ally, helped some settlers, donned some power armour, killed one of the game’s most dangerous foes, and established a new settlement. Phew!
The game gets you right into the action quickly, and it doesn’t hide its new features away behind hours of play. What’s more, your quest list will build up in no time, and from the off you’ll be swamped with things to do alongside the main story thread. In fact, it was over 20 hours until I even moved on to the second story mission, so busy is the world, and so numerous are the quests. This is one densely packed game. This is even without taking into account a major new feature, one that’s a huge distraction, in a good way.
Very early on you’ll get the chance to set up your own settlement with a small group of people. This settlement isn’t just a simple fixed location where you can rest up, it’s a fully working township in which you can build structures, place equipment, build power grids, and much more. It’s surprisingly complex, and it’s implemented brilliantly, with an easy to use interface.
Junk collected from the settlement location and around the world can be used to construct all sorts of items, from buildings and generators, to defence turrets and water purifiers. You can craft furniture, decorations, and even simple machines and circuits, a la Minecraft, to personalise and grow your settlement. Buildings aren’t just pre-built options either, and should you so wish, you can build an entire structure from scratch, placing each individual wall and roof panel. It’s a powerful system, and you can create some impressive locations. Yes, that’s locations, as there are multiple settlements you can control, with more being made available as you help settlements out and add them to your cause.
Each settlement has requirements too, such as food, water, power, defence, and even the needed number of beds for your occupants, each of whom has to be assigned to a duty, such as growing food or defence. More occupants can be added by assigning them to other settlements, and they can also come under attack from enemies, which requires good defences, or even your personal attention. Should a settlement fall, you’ll lose it and your allies.
It’s a well-implemented and addictive system that you’ll enjoy using, as you stamp your own mark on the wasteland, but even better, it’s optional. You can ignore it completely if you like, and the game doesn’t force you to partake. Sure, you’ll miss out on all sorts of benefits and extra missions, but if you prefer to simply play Fallout as before, as a nomadic hero, you can.
The base building may be great, but it’s the core gameplay we all want, and Fallout 4 doesn’t disappoint. Once again we have a huge, densely-packed location to explore, and although this is a wasteland, it’s full of life and interesting sights to take in. You can’t wander for long before you stumble upon a new location to explore, or a new situation to deal with. Missions can be added out of the blue, simply by finding a radio signal, or wandering into a fire fight between two different factions. Even reading a letter found on a dead character can open up a new quest.
Importantly, these missions and quests are always interesting, and always have their own back story and detail. Just as with previous Bethesda games (except the mediocre TES: Online), and the excellent Witcher 3, even the smaller side-quests are interesting and absorbing, often with more story than many other games. You’ll even find lore, or hints to it, when mooching around random abandoned buildings, with context placed in just to enrich the game world. It all adds up to a game world that pulls you in, and you’ll gladly let it do so, for hours and hours on end.
Improvements have been made to various areas of the game, with one of the most welcome being the previously clunky and downright poor real-time combat. The V.A.T.S. system, which is still one of the most satisfying and gleefully gory RPG combat systems around returns, and for the most part is unchanged. There’s a new guaranteed critical hit system that can be executed when you fill up a special meter, and the whole system handles more fluidly, but it wasn’t really broken before, so needed minimal work.
The actual real time combat, however, was broken, but not any more. Although it’s not on par with the likes of Call of Duty or Destiny (the latter of which it was modelled on), the gunplay here is now actually serviceable, and feels good. It’s actually possible to forego the use of V.A.T.S. if you so wish, and you’re able to fight foes with the standard FPS controls. This includes responsive aiming, iron-sights, and even the ability to hold your breath when using sniper scopes. Head shots are possible for critical damage, and on the whole, Fallout now feels much more like a proper FPS, only with a mammoth RPG strapped on. Fantastic.
Other elements have also been improved, including dialogue. Bethesda’s traditional multiple-choice dialogue has been replaced with a more Mass Effect-style system that gives you four choices of response type, including contextual, sarcastic, straight yes or no, and others. You’re also not always instantly locked into a talking heads cut scene either, and can move around and interrupt conversation. It can be a little clunky, as characters can often be tricky to get locked into dialogue, but it works well enough.
The various mini-games return, including lock-picking and computer hacking. These work exactly as before, although now you can’t even attempt a pick or hack that’s above your skill level. Previously you could try (and probably fail), but now you can only attempt a task when you have the requirements. For example, you’ll need the expert lock pick ability to even try an expert lock. Without it, your character will simply say it’s too hard.
One of the cooler new additions is the way Fallout 4 handles power armour. Surely one of the favourite items in the game series, the hulking, and iconic power armour now functions as such. Whereas previous games featured this armour, it was always handled just like other apparel. It granted more defence, with more weight, but that was it. Here that’s not so.
Power armour is now more like a vehicle, in that you actually step into it and ‘drive’ it. It’s made up of a basic frame, and onto this frame you can bolt various parts, including the older pre-Fallout 3 armour, the Brotherhood of Steel-style armour shown in Fallout 3, and other additions, like junk-style Raider power amour, and futuristic Enclave armour. Parts are interchangeable, so you can style your suit as you see fit.
When you’re in it, your Pip-Boy is replaced by an on-board computer, and you even have a cool head up display. You can move fast, survive falls, and can wield heavy weapons with ease. Of course, you can also take a lot of damage.
To avoid overuse, and to avoid making combat trivial and the armour commonplace, it can’t be worn all the time. To use it you need to fuel it with fusion cores. These are quite rare, and once they run out (a fuel indicator on the HUD keeps you informed), the armour is useless. This means you’ll need to use the armour in special situations when you really need it. It’s a great move, and one that keeps the armour a cool feature, not an overused one.
As you progress through the game you’ll encounter various allies, some of whom can accompany you in your travels. This isn’t new to Fallout, but it’s used here in a much better way. For one, your companions can’t die. If they take enough damage, they’ll become incapacitated, unable to help. You can get them up again with a stimpack, but they’ll also get back up on their own after a fight is over and no enemies are around.
This is a huge improvement, as companions in previous games could die, and it created a game that often felt more like a constant escort mission, with constant reloads needed to keep your ally alive. It’s a change I gladly welcome.
Companions are also more useful, with better AI and a streamlined command system. It’s easy to tell them where to go and what to do, and you can trade with them easily. You can also manually equip items too, instead of the AI deciding what to equip solely based upon the best damage or defence. And yes, you can even equip gear on the dog, as I found to my delight when I slapped a collar, dog armour, and some steampunk goggles on may faithful mutt.
Pip pip, boom!
One of your most important pieces of equipment is the Pip-Boy, you wrist mounted computer. This is your menu, inventory, map, radio, and much more. It’s much more than a simple menu, though, mainly as the game integrates the mobile app. Shockingly, it does so in a way that’s actually useful. Using your phone you can access your Pip-Boy, allowing you to manage your character remotely. Add this to the Collector’s Edition Pip-Boy, if you’re lucky enough to have one, and you’ve got a fourth wall-breaking gadget that’s really very cool, indeed.
Another improvement I should mention is with weapons and armour. As with New Vegas, you can customise weapons and armour at specific workbenches, adding different sights, barrels, muzzles, stocks and other customisations. Unlike New Vegas, though, there’s no more degradation. Weapons and armour won’t break or wear down, so you don’t have to worry about your favourite gun jamming mid-combat.
This will displease some, who found the degradation to be more immersive and heavy on actual role play, but even as a fan of degradation systems (I even liked System Shock 2‘s system), I actually find Fallout 4 is better for its loss, and combat is improved.
Visually, Fallout 4 is a mixed bag, and as always with Bethesda’s open world titles, the aesthetic quality depends on how you view it. When taken in as a whole, or as a large vista, as you roam the wasteland and gaze at the stunning environment unfolding in the distance, Fallout 4 looks great. The world is huge, full of locations, and the lighting effects, coupled with the strong design make it a truly beautiful game. This is a devastated and grim, but strangely gorgeous nuclear wasteland.
However, when you take a closer look, and take individual items and characters, that overall visual polish can fade away. On closer inspection, Fallout 4 has some low quality textures that even last gen or older systems would be ashamed of, and there’s a metric ton of graphical glitches and weird bugs that rip you out of the immersion. Characters and items clipping into the world, objects getting stuck on scenery, dead bodies having fits, floating cars, and much more. AI pathing is still as much a problem as ever too.
The audio is spot on, much more so than is usual from Bethesda. There’s a far greater variety of voice acting, much of which is handled very well, and sound effects are top notch, with a greater range of effects for weapons and creatures. It’s richer all around, but also not without bugs.
I’ve had conversations cut off unexpectedly, some audio glitching here and there, and occasionally after an NPC’s line of dialogue, my character will simply stand there, mute. I’m not sure if a dialogue choice should pop up, of if my character is supposed to say something, but the end result is a very uncomfortable silence until the game kicks the NPC back into action.
We’ve become accustomed to Bethesda’s usual assortment of bugs and glitches, and the jump to current gen hasn’t been able to stomp out these problems. Indeed, according to reports, Fallout 4 has some serious bugs, some that can even halt game progress, as well as hard crashes. Now, I may just be lucky, but in my time with the game, I didn’t encounter any major bugs, only minor graphical glitches and a bit of frame rate drop.
That’s not to say there aren’t bugs there, as I said, this is a Bethesda title, so I fully expect the odd crash at some point, I’ve just been lucky so far, but I am aware that others have had it much worse, to the point where it’s even been questioned if you should avoid the game until its patched. From experience, I’d say no, but that’s just one experience, so take it as you will.
Aside from the expected bugs, which I’m not defending, I just knew they’d be there from past experience, there are some genuine issues with the game that need to be addressed.
First up is a feature that I’m really sad to see isn’t included. Fallout 4 lacks a hardcore mode, which was introduced officially in New Vegas. This gave players a hydration and hunger meter, which would decrease over time. To stay healthy, you needed to eat and drink. This meant that there was a genuine feel of scavenging to survive, and every building became a potential life-saver, as you rummaged around for food and water. This is absent here, replaced by the survival mode instead.
This doesn’t operate in the same way, and there’s no hunger or hydration. Instead, health items take longer to heal you, along with increased enemy damage and defence, less ammo, and more scarce supplies. It’s a challenging mode, but I’d prefer a proper survival mode. It’s lost the urgent need to scavenge and survive by finding food, the only aspect that I found was superior in New Vegas over Fallout 3.
True, the need to find resources to build up your settlements does encourage scavenging and exploration, and you’ll still be happy to find aluminium cans, items with gears or circuitry in, and other elusive things you need. They just won’t save your life and be as time sensitive.
Other issues I have are more down to sloppy coding. The autosave feature, for example, seems totally pointless. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve lost progress thinking the autosave had my back, only to find myself set back to my last manual save. Even when the game says it’s autosaving, it isn’t. So, do yourself a favour, turn off the autosaves and do it manually, and often, as the game lies to you.
Traps, which can outright kill you, are often a little odd. Not only are they hard to see without better perception and skills (purposely), but they often disappear upon reload. Many times I came a cropper to a landmine, and when I returned to the spot, ready to defuse them, there was nothing there. I’m unsure if this is by design to keep things random, or a glitch. It’s either a clever, challenging touch, or an oversight. It’s hard to say.
Once again, Bethesda has delivered a game that, whilst it’s undeniably full of bugs and little quirks, packs in so much incredible, open world content, it’s hard to be upset. The team’s unrivalled ability to craft a huge, living world that begs to be explored is clearly demonstrated, and it’s also crammed with enough story and lore that you’ll probably not be seeing sunlight, or your significant other for quite some time.
Fallout 4 has all the hallmarks of greatness, and it’s improved upon previous releases in the series, making use of current gen to deliver a far more cohesive mixture of RPG and FPS. No longer is it an RPG with shoddy, bolted-on FPS features, it’s now a proper fusion of the two, a fusion that doesn’t sacrifice the content we’ve come to expect from the immensity deep storytelling and world-building.