Developed by Bethesda Game Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. Released November 10th, 2015. Available on PC, PS4 (reviewed), and Xbox One. Review copy provided by publisher.
Fallout 4 is the latest installment in the venerable role-playing franchise revived by Bethesda in 2003. The fifth title in the main series, it introduces players to a previously unexplored region of the United States in the post-nuclear wasteland, The Commonwealth, located in the area surrounding Boston, Massachusetts. As the game begins, the military conflict known as The Great War is on the verge of ending civilization. The player character is one of the adult members, either the mother or father, of a typical nuclear family in a suburban community, forced to evacuate to the safety of an underground shelter, designated Vault 111.
Contrary to the hype, Vaults are not the comfortable continuation of normal American life they promise. In reality, they are a massive undertaking of social experiments performed by the Vault-Tec Corporation to determine humanity’s resilience when faced with various forms of crisis. In the case of Vault 111, the experiment was intended to determine how dwellers would respond to having been placed in cryogenic stasis for the duration of a nuclear catastrophe, which is where the player soon finds themselves. Locked in a cryo pod, the only thing the player experiences for two hundred years is a brief period of consciousness, just long enough to witness the murder of their spouse and abduction of their infant son.
The main plot arc revolves around the player character searching to reconnect with their lost child after emerging from this cold sleep. Starting out as a revenge tale before veering into less overdone territory, the plot is solid, easy to follow, and satisfying. Fallout 4 plays thematically with the roles and responsibilities of being a parent, along with recurring narrative about mankind’s capacity to persevere (central to the series from the beginning). The content is mature subject matter in the most literal sense and, while not always conveyed with elegance, the writers deserve no small amount of credit for the attempt.
While the central stories of games in the Fallout series are typically decent, the real draw and largest source of storytelling is found by stepping off the beaten path. Exploring the Commonwealth will introduce the player to several organizations that have arisen with their own vision for what the world should look like as it rebuilds, each with a series of quests in service to their agenda. Other stories are told by the ruins themselves. The world is packed with bite sized looks at life both before and after The Great War, told through collected notes, audio recordings, or just the simple arrangement of two corpses atop a locked safe. Often silly, occasionally heartbreaking, they make every bombed out hovel look like an opportunity to learn a little more about this mad world.
The Commonwealth region isn’t enormous, geographically speaking, but there’s hardly a shortage of places to visit and travel time between locations of note is short even in the outlying areas. Boston itself is densely packed with ruins to explore, and some excellent environment design addresses the practical limitations of building an explorable city within an open world. While a high percentage of the buildings in the city cannot be entered, they are still functional as more than set dressing. Fire escapes and other stairwells provide access to rooftops which offer additional navigation options and lots of ambush opportunities for raiders. This combination of urban density and vertical access meshes well with the series’ gradual transition to more action-focused gameplay.
War Never Changes. Fallout Does.
For better or worse, Fallout 4 is all about combining and simplifying previously established game systems. Many of these changes are welcome, particularly when it comes to the HUD and user interface. The constant activity of looting ruins and corpses has been made much more pleasant by displaying the contents of a container and allowing individual objects to be collected without having to enter an independent menu. Radiation damage is now reflected as reducing a character’s maximum health (conveniently displayed as a red bar on the HP meter), and while limbs take individual damage, repairing crippled limbs no longer requires specific attention beyond taking a Stimpak.
Fallout 3 introduced first-person combat, and this too has been refined, though it’s still a bit rough. Weapons are generally satisfying to use in both melee and ranged combat (particularly as one gets deeper into modifications – more on that in a bit), and the addition of a sprint does bring the movement mechanics into the twenty-first century. Objects in the environment have questionable collision in places, as shots fired from behind cover collide with invisible walls more often than is acceptable in a game with such emphasis on ranged combat
Players can also use the Vault-Tec Automatic Targeting System (VATS) in combat, a tool which slows the action to a crawl and lets the player target specific body parts. VATS has been augmented in Fallout 4 with a new critical hit system. Successful hits add to a meter which, when filled, allows the player to designate an attack for a guaranteed hit with bonus damage. This new mechanic adds an additional layer of strategy to VATS and makes using it a more engaging experience, as critical hits are performed after the combat action commences and can be timed for maximum effect.
The problem with relying on VATS is that it’s statistically expensive. Each shot depletes a pool of Action Points based on the character’s Agility rating, while the chance of a shot’s success is drawn from their Perception. Depending solely on the automatic targeting seems practically impossible without very high ratings in both of these stats (and a few key Perks), severely limiting the range of character builds for players who may prefer to keep twitch shooting to a minimum.
Most of the changes are a lot more fun with power armor, and the game wastes little time in providing it. As the most powerful form of protection in the wasteland, the acquisition of a suit of power armor has traditionally been a long-term goal in Fallout, often requiring considerable effort to earn. In Fallout 4, there are multiple ways to gain a set very early on, within the first couple hours of play, and it’s likely that several will be available to the player by the end. While this makes having such armor feel like less of an achievement, it’s no less useful.
Power armor isn’t equipment that you wear from within the inventory system. It functions like a vehicle, an object that characters (including NPC companions) climb into, and it feels like one too. Movement becomes slower and heavier, but the amount of punishment a character can take while wearing it more than makes up for that issue. Wearing power armor also increases a character’s carrying capacity, provides invulnerability to fall damage, and makes them a good foot taller than everybody else in the Commonwealth.
It is not without limitations. Power armor is fueled by consumable fusion cores. Without a fusion core, the frame is just an inert hunk of metal. Running out of power while traveling means having to leave it behind (though it will remain where left, and the in-game map helpfully indicates the location of the most recently used suit). Thankfully, fusion cores are common enough, found powering generators in many buildings and even available to purchase from most weapon traders if things get dire.
Speaking of Changes…
Other changes may be less welcome. Character progression has been dramatically streamlined, combining formerly disparate elements into a single system, represented by the Perks chart. Each experience level earned allows the player to either increase an attribute, select a new Perk from the chart,or purchase a higher rank of an already acquired Perk. Available Perks are based on the character’s ratings in the seven core attributes. (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck; SPECIAL, for short.)
In the simplest terms, the new Perks system reduces the process of character leveling to a simple action, instead of calculating out individual point values for a range of available skills as was done in prior Fallout titles. But the choice isn’t less overwhelming at the outset, seeing as the first selection comes from a list of nearly thirty options. Worse, the ability to increase attributes undermines the significance of SPECIAL as a system that defines the range and limitations of a character.
But nowhere is the push toward simplification more keenly felt than in the dialogue system. For the first time in the series the player’s character is fully voiced, and that voiceover does a lot to make other voiced dialogue feel more natural. The downside is thatFallout 4 has abandoned list-based trees in conversations for the more modern “cross-style” interface, presenting four responses to any dialogue prompt. When faced with a choice, usually two will represent a binary of being polite or a jerk, a third will be either milquetoast or self-serving, and the fourth will ask for more information about the last thing said. Occasionally, these options can be a bit vague, as they consist of only a few words that could have multiple interpretations, expecting that the player will correctly guess at the intent.
Sometimes, one option will be highlighted, representing a persuasion test governed by Charisma, and some responses can affect how companion characters feel about the player, but the complexity of the dialogue seems to end there. A character with an Intelligence rating of 1 converses no less capably than at a rating of 10, and a character with 10 strength is no more intimidating to chat with than anyone else.
This is tragic. One of the defining characteristics of the Fallout series up to this point has been the importance of a character’s attributes on how they see the world and how the world sees them as reflected through conversation. Distilling dialogue down to a more linear model with fewer choices – seemingly unaffected by a character’s perks or abilities – completely disregards a fundamental strength of the series. It’s as if in making the decision that players need not start the game again upon completion of the story, the developers decided that players would therefore no longer desire to start again at all, and put little effort into offering the kind of narrative depth which would make such a prospect appealing.
It’s made worse by knowing Fallout 4 has some of the more interesting non-player characters and companions the series has had in some time. Along the way, you’ll encounter a brassy journalist digging into a possible relationship between the Mayor of Diamond City (the region’s largest settlement, built within Fenway Park) and the shadowy Institute, an aged and hard-boiled synth private investigator, and an idealistic soldier seeking to unify the settlements of the Commonwealth for their mutual survival, among others. By traveling with them, they provide very helpful combat and carrying assistance and will open up and talk about their personal histories.
What they won’t do is shut up. Each of these characters has a couple of canned observations that they can (and will) blurt out whenever they witness you performing basically any action. Crafting something? They have something to say about it. Picking up an item off a corpse? Your companion can’t resist commenting. If you could take a dump, they’d probably compliment you on the size of it. It doesn’t take long to have heard every variation, but they’ll repeat themselves anyway. When it comes right down to it, Dogmeat may not be able to fire a gun, but still manages to be the best companion based solely on his relative inability to pester you.
If You Build It, They Will Come
While almost every aspect of Fallout 4 seems to narrow its focus, there is one major exception in the game’s crafting system. Rebuilding human society in the aftermath of nuclear annihilation has been a major component of every Fallout, but never has it been so literal. Every non-quest related item that the player can pick up can now be broken down into basic components at workshops found in settlements and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Very few objects cannot be scrapped for parts and repurposed, which means basically everything has some value even if worthless in a bartering sense. The result of this is that it’s easy to feel compelled to collect everything.
There’s value in doing that, though. These parts are used to construct modifications for weapons and armor in a component-based system. Guns can have their barrels, receivers, sights, and grips replaced with parts that affect damage, range, accuracy, recoil, magazine size, and fire rate. Armor can be constructed from individual segments (head, torso and each of the four limbs) and each part can also have multiple mods affecting resistances, carry capacity, and other benefits.
Even more modification options are available for suits of power armor. Just like the standard armor worn by characters, power armor comes in these same segments, which can be mixed and matched on any frame. Each segment can have their resistances upgraded and get an optional mod providing benefits suited to the component (arms offer damage bonuses, leg mods affect movement, and so on). Power armor can also be painted with collected color styles, giving another stat bonus when all parts fit the same theme.
As deep as the weapon and armor modification system is, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of crafting. As the player explores, they’ll encounter settlements which are struggling to survive or have previously failed. The player can assume management of these settlements and use their collected resources to build new structures and establish communities.
Building a good settlement means ensuring that the needs of its settlers are satisfied. Settlers need food, water, a bed, and protection to thrive, much of which the player will have to provide. Vegetables can be planted as crops, while building pumps and purification systems keeps a supply of water on-hand. To defend settlements from random enemy spawns, guard posts and turrets can be constructed. Some items in a settlement need electricity to function, requiring the player to build generators and run wires to powered objects. A variety of switches, pressure plates, and timers allow you to design deathtraps for invaders, if that’s your kind of thing.
The building interface for settlements works adequately in most circumstances. After entering “Workshop Mode”, objects to be built are selected from a menu and aimed into a suitable location. A few styles of pre-fabricated buildings are available, or the player can make their own using floor, wall, and roof tiles which snap together at edges. Furniture, decorations, and container items can be built and similarly snap to their appropriate surfaces when placing.
As placement is done entirely in first-person view, it can take a little fiddling to get objects exactly where desired. When objects can’t be placed in areas, it’s often difficult to determine why. This is particularly vexing when trying to place walls with a door frame, which often don’t snap to other walls when it seems like they should. These problems aren’t too detrimental, more of an annoyance than anything, but they can make the development of settlements tedious and time consuming when it really should be at its most fun. There also doesn’t seem to be much consistency in how settlement populations grow. You may have two settlements that both have the necessary requirements to attract new settlers and only one of them will see growth while the other just rots for no explicable reason.
While it can be a lot of work, there is a payoff. After joining a community, settlers will automatically start harvesting resources. Excess food and water is stored in the settlement’s workshop for later collection by the player, along with caps and other random junk scavenged by settlers without a specific task. By acquiring specific perks, stores can be built to generate a steady trickle of income. And every object built with the crafting system, whether a weapon mod or a windmill, is rewarded with experience points, offering a progression path not wholly dependent on combat. Apart from the tangible benefits, there is also a sense of satisfaction to be derived from building settlements. Despite (or perhaps because of) the occasional frustration caused by the building interface, getting all of the pieces placed just right feels like an accomplishment.
It simply wouldn’t be Fallout without some technical hiccups. While perhaps not as bug-laden as other games in the franchise have been at launch, you’ll likely run into oddities now and then. NPCs have somewhat frequent pathfinding issues, running into, clipping through, or otherwise getting stuck on environmental objects. A very specific, recurring glitch causes the game to fail to load armed explosives in environments where they’re intended to be, only to reappear in a subsequent visit, usually when you’re backtracking under the assumption that all threats have been dealt with.
At a 1080p resolution on PS4, the game does occasionally dip below 30 fps, though our limited testing suggests this may be a less common problem on Xbox One. There are rare cases where textures and objects pop in, the infrequency of which should probably be celebrated in a Bethesda product. On PC, a recurring glitch causes the player’s model to disappear, making the Pip Boy menus and aiming down the sight useless – this isn’t disastrous, as reloading a quicksave fixes the issue, but it’s an occasional frustration.
Bethesda has succeeded in many ways with Fallout 4. The Commonwealth and its characters do justice to the wasteland, and being in that world is as engrossing as ever. Combat is faster-paced and more enjoyable than it has been previously, thanks to system refinements, more effective use of the environment, and the new implementation of power armor. Its crafting and settlement systems, though simplistic and a bit arcane in terms of how they function, are easy to become lost in and can extend the game indefinitely.
Whether or not players find other changes displeasing, such as the new dialogue system and its limitations, is likely going to depend on their personal relationship with the Fallout series. Newer players will probably never know what they’re missing and are likely to have a fantastic time, while fans who have stuck around may be disappointed with the direction Fallout 4 takes.
Bottom Line: While Fallout 4 has some concessions in its RPG backbone to make a more accessible game, the post-nuclear wasteland remains as intriguing as ever.
Recommendation: New players will probably have a wonderful time. Long time fans may be disappointed with the game’s new direction.[rating=4.5]