Wait. What’s that ear-splitting noise? I just helped a crew of robots launch their 19th century wooden ship airbound.
That’s all. No biggie. This is standard fare in Fallout 4’s Wasteland. Gaming’s most famous post-apocalyptic RPG series has always revelled in its weirdness, but I’ve never been totally sold on its vision of the future. Until now.
Mechanically speaking Fallout 3 got a lot of things right, but its desolate sprawl could feel cold and impersonal. Flash forward seven years and Bethesda has produced a game with warmth and life, as well as one that's much bigger, weirder and more wonderful than before.
This is the Fallout game we've all been pining for.
Mechs and the City
As you’d expect from a game this vast, the heart of Fallout 4 is found in its enticing story and stomping ground. Both of which are a step forward from Fallout 3.
Our new locale is called The Commonwealth (formerly Massachusetts). Fallout 4 lands you in what remains of Boston, which is a more metropolitan and enticing area of the Wasteland than we’ve ever seen before.
Moving to a vibrant city means that the map feels much larger without causing the player to traipse across unnecessary distances. The Commonwealth glows with the tacky neon of downtown ghettos and stretches up into the sky with dilapidated high-rises. This austere gloss is only enhanced by the procedurally generated battles that happen as you’re out and about.
Attack craft regularly appear overhead and clash with raiders, mutants, and the other nefarious clans embedded in the city’s labyrinth. The Commonwealth feels alive.
Down on the ground, the usual menagerie of power armor zealots and rad-haggard scum are all back for round four, and this time there’s a new force in town, The Institute. I’ll save the spoilers for the sake of my immortal soul, suffice to say that they add a new, more technologically advanced flavour of footsoldier to the mix.
The neverending story
Of course, an engaging RPG world is nothing without the narrative chops to match. Fallout 4’s questing is the biggest and best we’ve seen yet from Bethesda, and yes, I do mean better than Skyrim.
For starters, it’s unendingly huge. Crazy claims have circulated on the internet about completionist playthroughs taking over four hundred hours, and while I can’t verify that, I can safely say that this is one of the most content-heavy games I’ve ever played. The quests just keep on coming.
I never thought I’d see a game match the likes of Baldur’s Gate II, which offered about 250 hours of gameplay, but Fallout 4 might be the one to finally steal its crown.
All things weird and wonderful
With so much content on offer, I expected the game’s quality to take a serious hit. For the most part, Fallout 4 hits the mark. Voice acting is universally superb and whilst many of the quests follow the same basic structure, the characters you meet along the way are a constant joy.
Even if you are fetching that very important clipboard for a stranger you barely know, you’ll have a great time chatting with them along the way. There’s a quirkiness to the assembled cast that the previous game lacked.
Assisting maritime machines to launch their sea-vessel skywards is just one genius moment of characterisation that will bring a great, big stupid grin to your face. There’s also the synthetic human who acts like a fifties film-noir detective and the radio presenter who is too much of a nervous wreck to really announce anything. Storytelling doesn’t get much better than this.
At times, the companions you hook up with are mired by some buggy AI. In combat, my pals are all too eager run off and attack a distant enemy I've not even seen yet, getting me into fights that aren't of my choosing. Cheers guys.
Predictably, Fallout 4 has a companion app, but this app is interesting in a couple of ways. For a start, Fallout Shelter concerns building and managing a Fallout Vault and its occupants. You add rooms and facilities, and you facilitate the continuation of the human race (wink wink). It looks rather like the HQ management section of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but more involved, and I'm looking forward to giving it a go...
.. which I don't have to wait long for, because it's out now on iOS and shorlty for Android.
This time, it’s personal
Despite these occasional annoyances, you will most certainly care about the events of Fallout 4, which is a great improvement on what came before. Whereas Fallout 3 could make you feel terribly detatched while advancing the fortunes of a number of different factions, its sequel’s central plot is far more involved.
A lot more effort has been expended on its main plot thread. Intricate set-pieces are commonplace from the get go, whether that’s rushing into Vault 111 to avoid the nuclear bloodbath or walking through a harrowing visualisation of someone’s memories. It’s all handled with a deft touch ensuring Fallout 4 ranks as Bethesda’s most successful storytelling endeavour yet.
The factions are still there, and you’ll still want to pick your allegiances, but now you have a sense of personal purpose in The Wasteland.
VATS all folks
As well as improving on Fallout 3’s narrative flaws, Fallout 4 retains what was great about its predecessor: its combat system.
Yup, the Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) back again this time for more head-sploding delights. The basics remain largely unchanged with players being able to spend action points (AP) to target a specific area of an enemy with an attack. AP recharges slowly over time, so fighting without VATS is often necessary.
Subtle changes make for a smoother experience this time around as well, with critical hits having undergone an overhaul. A ‘crit meter’ now charges up with every successful attack in VATS and once it’s full, the player can choose to unleash devastating blow however they please.
This means you can pump up your crit meter with long-range weapon and then switch to a high-power shotgun in close quarters, unleash a blast that explodes Wastelanders like a blood-filled balloon. Kaboom!
As satisfying as VATS is to use, Fallout 4’s biggest combat surprises come outside of it. The FPS elements of Fallout 3 felt sluggish and underpowered, so moments where the AP bar fell to zero inevitably ended in a sigh and retreat from the battle until it topped up again.
A great deal of effort has been made to make Fallout 4 a more competent shooter.
For starters the handling of weapons is greatly improved, and movement no longer feels as stiff. The weapons themselves are also more suited for real-time combat. You can pop improved sights or a distance scope on pretty much anything, and the accuracy of each weapon when in first person has been improved.
Perks of the job
There are also a slew of always-active abilities (known as perks) that make this playstyle easier. My vault-dweller’s rifle shots did double damage, and sneak attacks three times as much damage. Sitting in the shadows in stealth and aiming for heads almost always ends in cerebellum salad for my enemies.
Many old favourites make a reappearance (I was a lady so chose Black Widow for increased damage to the opposite sex), but there are some tantalising newcomers, too. ‘Cannibalism’ allows the player to regain health from gnawing on human corpses, and ‘Mysterious Stranger’ sees an ally appear occasionally to aid in combat.
It’s now possible to tweak in more detail than ever before. Not only has the level cap been increased from 20 to 50, but most perks now have five ranks, each being upgradable after a level up. I’ve always found the levelling system of Elder Scrolls an utter bore but wished that there was more subtlety to Fallout’s perkiness. Fallout 4 finds a comfortable middle ground.
I want a jet-powered sledgehammer
Choice is Bethesda’s cornerstone and Fallout 4 doesn’t disappoint. Crafting is back, allowing players to make all manner of insane modifications to weapons and armor.
Even before you begin tinkering, the arsenal available is ostentatious and wonderful. There are laser rifles, shotguns, even the Junk Jet, which can be loaded with useless inventory objects and fired with frightening velocity at your foe. You’d have to be inhuman not to smile when a 200mph typewriter whips off a mutant’s leg.
Each of these weapons can be adjusted at a workbench with an enormous variety of mods and the new components system. The selection is vast, and varies between the useful and the bizarre. My rocket launcher has an attached bayonet. Why? BECAUSE I CAN.
Crafting doesn’t end there. Players can now take control of certain settlements and construct their own fortress.
Each settlement has needs, such as water, power, and defences, that must be satisfied but the player receives benefits for their effort such as a free bed and the ability to call on local forces during times of dire need.
It’s a neat feather to Fallout’s bow, but like all base-building activities in RPGs, ends up feeling redundant. After constructing a steel fortress armed with automatic turrets interspersed by the odd painting of delightful kittens (Fort Kitty was its name), I quickly tired. RPGs are focused on individual development and progress, and whilst there have been efforts to try and integrate the new toolset into missions, it feels divergent from the game’s core.
Better from a distance?
Where I’m not willing to cut slack is in the game’s visual appearance. Up close and personal Fallout 4 is next-gen beautiful, but as the vistas get larger and the draw distance bigger, everything begins to unravel.
When playing on PS4 the buildings begin to look like coloured boxes, and the overall impression of the city from afar is one of painted cardboard. I’m guessing that visual acuity has been sacrificed for consistent performance, which is always the right decision, but I found myself disappointed that the rooftop views were so ugly.
Fallout 4 verdict
But who gives a crap about ‘beautiful’ when the game beneath the facade is so damned good? Fallout 4 sets its sights high and brings home the bacon.
It’s not just the sheer scale and quality that makes this a must-have RPG. The complex systems Bethesda has created all overlap in a mesmerising fashion, creating an experience that is both huge and beautifully tailored at the same time. The lessons the company has learned from two decades of game making are all brought to bear in a tour de force of role playing wonder.
You’d have to have an irradiated brain to not make this your Christmas pick. There’s never been a better time to pop on your Pip-boy and go out in search of adventure.