Deathclaws and Radscorpions, how I’ve missed your horrible, merciless embrace.
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: November 10, 2015
Copy supplied by publisher
The Wasteland is a brutal and terrible place – a place of desolation, destruction, and desperation. Super Mutants pillage and terrorize wherever they go, Radscorpions rise from the earth to carve their victims to shreds, and settlements are beset on all sides by violent raiders and ruthless Gunner mercenaries.
God, does it feel good to be home.
Fallout 4 has been a long time coming, and slipping back into its merrily vicious world has been an absolute joy. Some systems have been overhauled, some drastic additions have appeared, but despite the initial culture shock that comes with its alterations, the same old Fallout lies at its heart, and five years after the delightful New Vegas, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Like war itself, Fallout never changes. Except when it does.
As the Man or Woman Out of Time, you start your journey before the bombs actually fall, giving you a rare – albeit brief and restricted – glimpse of the world before nuclear destruction turns it into the hellhole we know and love. For the first time in the series, your character will be voiced, which takes a little getting used to, but soon becomes a natural part of the experience. While you can’t choose the voice, both actors do a fine job, and deliver lines in accordance with the personality you want – be it a noble hero, a money-oriented merc, or a sarcastic dick.
The narrative involves you waking up after being cryogenically frozen by Vault-Tec, and without giving away too much, you’ll be driven to track someone down. Given the nature of what happens, and how it ties into your family, there’s an awkward dissonance with the plot – you should be moving Heaven and Earth to try and find the people you’re finding, yet you can totally ignore it and start collecting bottlecaps right away – a preferred path, of course, if you want to start leveling and getting more prepared for the horrors of the Commonwealth.
This dissonance soon melts away, however, if you just roll with it and accept your character finds popping heads and making bank more fulfilling than their old life. That’s certainly how I played my complete arsehole of a protagonist.
Set in Boston, the overarching plot involves a sinister group known as the Institute, but you’ll find they’re quite a different prospect from the Enclave or Legion encountered in prior games. Taking some liberal inspiration from Battlestar Galactica and Terminator, the settlers of the Commonwealth are gripped by fear of the Institute, and paranoia over synths – robotic constructs that have evolved to become indistinguishable from humans.
The nature of free will and plenty of other science fiction tropes are all explored, and the story can get surprisingly dark. However, there’s still some solid humor to be found among the apocalypse, with one or two sidequests that actually got a real-life laugh from me.
Fundamentally, this is the same old Fallout that Bethesda-era fans have grown to love. A vast open world, first-person shooting aided by the V.A.T.S targeting system, and tons of sidequests to provide days upon days of Massachusetts massacring.
Combat outside of V.A.T.S has been enhanced a little, allowing traditional FPS gameplay to be a more viable option, but you’ll still want to rely on V.A.T.S to single out targets in what can become hugely anarchic battles. In previous games, the assisted targeting system stopped time completely, allowing you to target individuals and their separate limbs at leisure. Here, time is slowed but not halted completely, making targeting a more pressured situation.
It certainly makes for some tense moments when a Super Mutant Suicider is running at you with a nuclear bomb in his hand and you need to pop that arm before he gets close.
The fighting is sleeker and faster than it’s been in previous game, with a range of weapons that deal some serious impact. It’s still a little bit messy, as one might expect, but you can feel the improvement. It’s just a lot more fun to take on the Commonwealth’s nasties this time around. Most crucially, sniper rifles actually feel effective at last. Amazing!
Extra tweaks can be found here and there. Radiation is a more persistent threat, quickly reducing your maximum hit points and doing a great job of encouraging your investment in endurance-based skills. It makes combat with Ghouls all the more scary, as even regular ferals deal radiation damage. As you level and gain more RadAway items, it becomes less of an issue, but the early goings are tough thanks to what I feel may be slightly overpowered effects.
Sprinting is now a thing, too. It costs your Action Points (the currency used for V.A.T.S) but it’s well worth it.
There are less city-level settlements and lengthy sidequests overall, with a focus being more on repeatable quests that tie into the settlements you can build. There are still loads, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like the game could have used more traditional quests alongside the repeatable “Clear this area of raiders” ones that pop up. Of course, I say this having spent a week with the game and still not having fully explored the world, so who knows what else lies in store?
It’s quite a big game, obviously.
Some of the less subtle changes might overwhelm players at first, especially when it comes to leveling. A separate system for S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats, skills, and perks are gone, replaced entirely by one uniform perk tree. Whenever you level up, you gain a single point that can be invested in one of your main governing statistics – strength, charisma, agility, etc. – or the perks associated with those stats.
If you want to unlock the ability to survive off human flesh, for example, you’ll need a certain amount of points in endurance first. Likewise, if you want special abilities tied to melee combat, you’ll need a high enough strength stat. Without separate skill points, it becomes more important to level up your S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats, and make some forward-looking plans based on what perks you want to unlock.
While a shocker at first, I’ve grown to love the new leveling system. Having everything streamlined into one unified skill tree makes sense, and it’s made gaining experience a more fun endeavor for me. Every perk has several levels, often leading to big rewards in exchange for dedicated points investment. Fortune Finder, for instance, not only allows you to find more bottlecaps around the world, but it offers a chance for enemies to explode in a shower of them during combat at its highest level.
It’s more rewarding than ever to customize your character, unlocking the new abilities and working toward those big perk payoffs. Also, thanks to the lack of a level cap, no investment is truly wasted. You’ll still want to tailor the character you want as early as possible, but if you feel you’ve made a mistake, all you’ve lost is a bit of time, and you’ll still have the benefit of whatever you invested in, even if you didn’t want it.
Bonus perks exist in the wild, taking the form of collectible magazines. Books no longer boost skill points, but grant their own unique stackable perks – Grognak the Barbarian comics, for example, boost melee damage regardless of your skillset, while Astoundingly Awesome magazines confer random and often strange passive bonuses.
The other big difference involves Fallout 4 getting its Minecraft on. A full-fledged crafting system is on display, taking what New Vegas did and evolving it tremendously. You can of course upgrade any piece of armor or weaponry you find with a variety of mods, but you can also build entire settlements out of the various scrap and junk collected throughout the Commonwealth. All that pointless vendor trash in prior games now have uses, providing materials for building.
Crafting is simple, though not brilliantly explained by the game itself. Similarly to Minecraft, you select various objects to build and place them around the world from your player character’s perspective, plonking down defensive turrets, crops, walls, or even entire buildings. As your settlements grow and attract people, you’ll need to ensure water, food, power, and furniture are in adequate supply, as well as ensure idle inhabitants are assigned to work the fields or man the defenses.
I wasn’t too into the crafting at first, and felt a few of the missions forced it onto me too much, but after hours of tinkering, I’ve become quite fond of making my own home in the Commonwealth, complete with disco lights and bobblehead display cases. I’m still yet to get the perk that will allow me to build entire trading outposts, but I’m looking forward to it.
The only major drawback to crafting is the need to lug that aforementioned junk around. Rather than just dumping all the desk fans and ashtrays you pick up, you’ll soon see them as valuable assets, providing rare screws or precious ceramic for the building of stuff. The biggest cause of becoming encumbered and maxing out one’s carrying capacity is this need for scrap, which can get rather annoying if you didn’t build your character with strength in mind.
While you can scavenge and customize any gun you find, there’s a new focus on “loot” as traditionally found in other roleplaying games. There were always rare and special weapons in previous games, but in Fallout 4, you’ll regularly come across “Legendary” enemies that always carry some specially enhanced gun or armor piece. These rare finds can be truly amazing – a pistol that bleeds targets for an extra 25 points of health with every shot, or a gamma gun that never needs to be reloaded – and are all still customizable at a workbench.
That 10mm bleeding pistol, for example, has become a firm favorite of mine. Initially it was modded for semi-automatic fire, which I found to be a waste of ammo. With a little scrap and a rank in the Gun Nut perk, I’ve made it single-shot and upped the damage, turning it into my favorite emergency weapon. I even named it Fenrir, after the best character in Norse Mythology. You can name your guns, by the way. You can have a rifle called Chungus.
While full sets of armor can be worn, it’s more efficient to use armor pieces instead. Your legs, arms, torso and head can all be outfitted with their own pieces of armor, each one contributing its own defensive value and – in the case of legendary items – special bonuses. These armor pieces can be worn over any clothing thin enough to fit the job, such as a Vault Suit or longjohns.
I love the idea, and enjoy cobbling together my own junky-looking gear, but I wish the game were more flexible in what you can wear underneath it all. Only a handful of clothing items are compatible with armor pieces, which really limits how neat you can make your character look.
If you want to look cool or silly, you’ll need to wear clothes that are incompatible with armor pieces, which I find to be a real shame. There should be no reason I can’t wear a nice dress or tuxedo underneath my random assortment of combat armor and metal plating. The armor system would be perfect if clothes were universally treated as different from armor, and if I could make one change to the game overall, that would be it.
Speaking of armor, it’s time to talk about the series’ most iconic forms of the stuff – Power Armor. In previous games, this was just like any other bit of gear, though you’d need special training to wear it. Here, you’re given a suit almost immediately, and it’s treated almost like a vehicle as much as it is a protective form of clothing.
You don’t so much wear the stuff as encase yourself in it, enjoying the benefits of extra strength and endurance, as well as the ability to jump from high places without taking damage and generally feel like a clunking behemoth of a badass as you stomp around the world. The catch is that power armor can be damaged and will need repairing with crafting materials. It’s also powered by rare fusion cores, meaning you can’t just spend the entire game in it. It’s nicely balanced, and it makes those times when you decide to strap the suit on all the more special.
As with everything else in the game, junk can be used to modify your armor, and you can even earn several suits of armor throughout your travels. I’ve got a Brotherhood of Steel set that I’ve painted in Vault-Tec colors to gain a bonus to my charisma. I don’t need that bonus (I’m already maxed on charisma) but my armor is blue and yellow. It looks fabulous.
Should you invest some points in the Science perk, you can outfit the armor with all sorts of lovely things – a cleanser to cure your chem addictions, a jet pack, and other kinds of fun toys. There are also several opportunities to get hold of the clunking hardware, too, allowing for multiple suits with a variety of modifications.
Companions are scattered throughout the Commonwealth, waiting for you to take them under their wing. They also represent an alternative to the now missing karma system. Doing bad or good things in the Wasteland is no longer governed by the game’s own nebulous rules – instead, you’ll be judged on your actions by those who travel with you.
Individual characters enjoy it when you do certain things – Cait the morally ambiguous pit fighter, for example, loves to see you steal and pick locks, while Paladin Dance pops a boner every time you put your Power Armor on. Most companions hate it when you indulge in cannibalism (the philistines) but you might find your ghoul friend is indifferent, or that one particular “person” actually likes it.
If a companion enjoys your actions enough, they’ll tell you more about themselves, sometimes open optional missions, and eventually confer their own perks once your friendship is maxed out. Naturally, a number of these friends can become love interests – there are no clumsy sex scenes, thankfully, but sleeping in a bed near that companion grants a “Lover’s Embrace” XP bonus.
What I love most about the companionship of Fallout 4 is the fact that, yes, you can pursue multiple romantic partnerships and the game totally allows it. You’re not locked into a single relationship, and can actually maintain more than one without getting judged or upsetting anybody. This is certainly the first game I’ve seen – and arguably the first mainstream one overall – that simply allows for polyamorous relationships without making a big deal about it.
I’m very happy in my three-way love affair between a lady Irish rogue and a charming ghoul fellow, I can tell you that much.
Which brings us to the less savory matter at hand. It’s time to talk about bugs – Fallout 4 has them, and I’m not referring to Radroaches. Being a Bethesda open-world game, you might be inclined to expect glitches and, well, those expectations will yield frustrating fruit. Pretty much everything you’ve seen impact Bethesda games of the past can be seen here, from a handful of potential quest bugs to wacky A.I. pathfinding and a number of physics-based anomalies. I’m also not sure whether or not an early story mission became unbeatable on a test file, but I’m sure the raiders I needed to kill weren’t spawning.
Fallout 4 is not worse than prior Fallout or Elder Scrolls games when it comes to thinks being borked, but it’s certainly not better, and you’ll have to bear that in mind. I advise autosaving regularly, just in case.
Bethesda’s always gotten some leeway with its quality control, mostly due to how expansive its games are, and Fallout 4 is certainly of a high enough quality overall to where I find myself more forgiving than I otherwise would be. It’s certainly nothing like Assassin’s Creed Unity, where the bugs were constant and often devastating, and the fact the experience is so damn good that I’m willing the fight through even the most persistent annoyance says something about how great Fallout 4 is in spite of itself.
Elsewhere, the production value is undeniable. The Commonwealth is downright beautiful in its own bleak way. It manages to be vibrant and colorful place while maintaining the look of an irradiated dystopia.
Dynamic weather effects, including radiation storms, are gorgeous in their own unique ways, and the character designs can be deliciously disgusting. Feral Ghouls are now terrifying as they crawl from hollowed out walls and fling themselves at you like the zombies from World War Z. Deathclaws are bigger and scarier than ever, and the various mutated insects of the world have never appeared more detailed – nor more grotesque.
Character models are more varied than ever, with animations that are no longer stilted and puppet-like. Some diversity in the body types is fantastic to see, Fallout‘s world now being free of that single physical build every Bethesda NPC has had until now. There’s also a greater variety of vocal talent – including a number of authentic Bostonian accents – so it’s less obvious that one man is voicing a hundred different guys.
Oh, and you can walk diagonally now. You can walk diagonally. What a time to be alive!
I have my gripes with the game, and the typical “Bethesda Buggitude” is in effect, but I have to say I’ve not been this engrossed, this enamored, with a “AAA” presentation since Bloodborne. I went in expecting yet more Fallout and got exactly that – with a load of extra fun stuff on top of it. Fallout may never change, not in its heart, but it can certainly warp itself in some fantastic ways, and I’m close to suggesting this is the best one yet. I may need a little more time to think before cementing such a bold claim, however.
What I can say is that Fallout 4 is a wild ride that gets its hooks in you deep, with a number of welcome improvements and a settlement management system that could be its own entirely separate game. All that, and not a single microtransaction in sight, despite the game being easily structured for such a horrible business practice to slide right in. That is impressive.
Even as I wrap up the review, there are a dozen things I could still talk about. Using your settlements as farms to earn income, playing retro game pastiches on your Pip-Boy, defending your home from raider attacks, there’s so much going on, so many little additions, that it would take another 3,000 words to go into everything.
The changes made overall may scare series fans, but those who roll with the differences may find a sleeker, deeper, altogether more captivating Fallout than they’ve gotten used to.
Fallout 4 is something special. Something special indeed.
No, scratch that.
It’s downright S.P.E.C.I.A.L.