While I was shooting up some ghouls in Fallout 4, a relative said something along the lines of “Maybe if everyone just stops shooting each other, they’d be able to pick up a broom and actually clean up the damn place!” It speaks volumes about Fallout 4 that my relative could say something like that and only be half right.
Yes, you can set your weapon down. Yes, you can actually clean up the damn place. And yes, it can be just as fun as mowing down raiders with a minigun. The problem is that there is more killing and less talking it out and cleaning. Even though the game encourages you to forge your own path and take your own liberties, that usually translates to finding different ways to maim, bludgeon, or otherwise turn your adversaries into ground meat.
In Fallout 4, your character’s peaceful life in 2070’s Boston, Massachusetts is disrupted by an atomic holocaust. You and your family hide in a vault, an underground dwelling, to wait out the nuclear fire. But after events beyond your control, your family is separated and you end up as the sole survivor of the vault 200 years in the future. The idyllic world you once knew is now a harsh, vast wasteland known as the Commonwealth filled with barely-surviving settlements and bloodthirsty psychopaths and monsters. Eventually, you find that the world is tormented by a presence known as the Institute, which sends life-like androids to the wasteland to further their mysterious goals. Now it is up to you to not only survive, but to uncover the secrets of The Institute and determine the fate of the Commonwealth.
The story of Fallout 4 is essentially Fallout 3’s “The Replicated Man” sidequest but expanded to cover the entirety of the main quest. This translates into the same questions sci-fi authors have been asking for decades. Do robots have feelings? What rights do they have? What happens when technology goes too far? These are all interesting questions, but I’m not sure that they’re the right ones to ask in the degenerate, raw world of the Fallout series. I can see it in the world of Deus Ex and other cyberpunk games, but not here. Regardless, the story doesn’t add much to the sci-fi themes that others have previously mused about.
But I wouldn’t mind all of the electric sheep if the story is told well. And for the most part, it’s pretty well written. But while the story is engaging throughout, it still feels like there should be more to it.
All of the political balancing acts between different factions and opportunities for peaceful alternatives through persuasion in Fallout: New Vegas is reduced to an afterthought in Fallout 4. There’s still plenty of that, but the game’s preference for violent acts takes moments that should have been memorable, with outcomes that should have been less black and white, and strips them of their impact.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a part where you have to kill someone in the main quest. After you do so, you then go through a sequence where you read his “diary” and find out more about his life and how he became the person he is. The section is meant to make you feel bad for killing him and make you wonder if there were any other options. But there’s one problem: my only option was to kill him. If I killed him even though there was an option to persuade him, then it would have had a much bigger impact on me. Undertale this game is not.
In fact, throughout my 60+ hour playtime of the game, I only encountered one time where I was able to persuade a group of people to not fight me or other factions.
In addition, there are many areas that look like they might lead to some interesting moments of worldbuilding, but they all just devolve into fighting more packs or raiders. There’s one area that’s a racetrack with robots racing against each other. Does that mean you get a sidequest where you pit Codsworth, your robot companion, against the other robots in a race? Nope, you just shoot up more raiders.
Memorable areas still populate the wasteland, however. You may find a quarry with the remnants of a hidden cult. You may find a husk of a huge jumbo jet with recordings of the pilots right before the bombs dropped. You may also find abandoned subway stations or comic book stores crawling with ghouls, adding a touch of survival-horror to the adventure. But because the vast majority of areas are simply places to kill raider and other monsters, and since most of the areas look the same, Fallout 4 doesn’t have nearly as many memorable locations as New Vegas or even Fallout 3.
I remember in New Vegas that there was a group of fiends that didn’t fight you right away. Sure, they threatened you, but through negotiation you could trade chems with them. It was an insight into fiend culture that showed me that not all fiends are lunatics craving carnage. If Fallout 4 had more moments like this, it would have had way more of an impact on me.
Most of the sidequests are also pretty uninteresting and all devolve into, again, shooting up raiders. A few interesting ones crop up from time to time, such as getting dirt on the mayor of Diamond City or finding out where all of the food rations for The Brotherhood of Steel are going. But are they as trilling as a race against time to prevent a high-class society from succumbing to cannibalism or helping a bunch of religious zealots to make their exodus into the cosmos like in New Vegas? Not really.
Not to say that there isn’t anything interesting to the story. On the contrary, there are still plenty of political intrigue and grey area moments to be had. Once get to the second half, when you join one of the four major factions and discover what The Institute actually is, that’s when it really gets interesting. While the goals of each faction are noble, they might not have the purest methods of achieving said goals. In fact, the goals themselves may not be all that noble. And there are many times where you’re hard-pressed to carry through the will of your faction.
While Fallout 4 still has some moments that are compelling when taken individually, the story as a whole is rather generic and by-the-numbers. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but it can’t top what you can find in previous games in the series.
The story is the only major disappointment I had with Fallout 4. But as far as gameplay goes, it’s exceeded my expectations. Where do I even begin?
Let’s start with by far the biggest addition to Fallout 4: settlement building. At different points of the map, you can build your very own communities. You have structures to build, people to keep happy and fed, crops to farm, defenses to build, shops to browse and much more. It’s essentially a more personal and raw version of Fallout Shelter (which I reviewed back in September). You get surprisingly invested in combing a settlement for every last bit of scrap and then building your very own home from said scrap. And everything just works; buildings snap together like Legos™, settlers automatically assign themselves to other tasks once you assign them to one task, and turrets fend off raiders tower defense-style.
However, building structures can turn into a chore as sometimes building structures off of others can cause the structure you’re about to place to flicker between being placed one way and another. Plus, the first-person perspective occasionally gets in the way of building. And it can be difficult to build on sloped surfaces if you don’t use a foundation first. I would have preferred a grid-based system over placing objects yourself if it means ironing out these problems.
It can also be a hassle to assign jobs to your settlers as you have to go right up to them first and then run all the way back to the resource you want them to tend to. And while building defenses is important, I never get to see them in action and in turn never get to see if the investment was worth it. But you still get a sense of pride with developing your community, even if the process is a bit sloppy.
Crafting has also been greatly expanded. Not only are there structures to build, but there are several different mods that you can add to your weapons and armor. You can make a gun with automatic fire or turn it into a bolt-action sniper rifle. You can make armor that adds extra backpack space or gives you greater stealth capabilities. While most of the options are better versions of existing ones, every gun and armor piece you craft none the less has your own personal flair to it.
And the benefits reaped from crafting weapons and settlements make exploration all the more important. Instead of having to hunt down a specific kind of item to craft a building or a weapon mod, you instead use the materials gained from scrapping different items. For instance, you can hunt down toy cars, globes, and typewriters to find screws. Everything you find, from the biometric scanner to the humble coffee cup, is valuable.
The different collectible items also add to the fun of exploring. Bobble heads and magazines give passive effects to your character when collected. Unique weapons and armor are either found in the deepest parts of an area or found on randomly spawning legendary enemies (though quite how a dinky radroach becomes legendary mystifies me). The weapons come with passive effects you can’t find on any other weapon like it and their randomized nature adds to the role-playing feel of the game.
Because of items and collectibles, exploring every nook and cranny of the wasteland is always rewarding even if some of the locations aren’t that memorable. And since there’s more things to collect per square inch, you never feel like you’re wasting your time just walking from point A to B. You actually have a purpose in exploring the area; it’s not just for some paper thin, collect-a-thon fluff like in so many other big budget, open world games.
Inventory management has seen some changes as well to make looting easier. When hovering over a container or corpse with the cursor, you can loot individual items instead of having to open a menu first. There are also shortcuts for looting everything or giving all of your stuff to a container. Inventory management is still a bit of a nightmare, especially with a low carry weight, but it’s still an improvement.
In keeping with the emphasis on combat as well as making looting easier, the combat itself has been given a big boost. I didn’t mind struggling a bit with the combat in previous Fallout games because wrestling with it as ghouls tried to tear me to shreds added to the survival-horror aspects of the game. But I do agree that the clumsiness can get tiring pretty easy. In Fallout 4, combat is much smoother and snappier even without modern enhancements like aim assist or a cover system. Enemy AI has also been retooled to make them more interesting; some may heal themselves and even pick up stronger weapons laying on the ground.
V.A.T.S., which allows you to target certain body parts, has seen some changes to better suit the quicker combat. Instead of freezing time like in past games, it only slows it down. This means that not only can enemies still harm you, but the chance to hit each body park increases and decreases as the enemy moves. It can lead to many dynamic moments, such as quickly selecting an option before an enemy ducks behind cover or waiting for the chance percentage to increase and shooting at just the right moment. While V.A.T.S. became a crutch to make up for the clunky combat in previous games, the system here complements the already strong shooting.
Power armor has also seen a much-needed improvement. In previous Fallout games, power armor was just another clothing item that was so heavy that it undermined the increase in strength and agility. In Fallout 4, it functions more like a vehicle as it has a finite fuel system. You can collect a reasonable amount of fuel to power it, but its best to save it for especially treacherous areas. And when you do slip it on, not only do you get a sizable upgrade to all of your stats as well as some new abilities, but you feel noticeably more imposing. It feels like… well, like wearing power armor! And you can customize it with mods just like you can with weapons and regular armor.
The perks system has also seen a huge retooling. As I wrote in my analysis of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. video series, skills have been discarded in favor of keeping everything focused on perks. Now it works a lot more like a skill tree; you either select a new perk granting a passive effect (such as increasing the damage of certain attacks or even acquiring new abilities) or increase one of your seven primary statistics to have access to more perks. You can also increase the rank of perks if you level is high enough.
While I can understand if people are upset for the removal of skills, the new systems is so much more streamlined. Now instead of being constantly frustrated every time I don’t have enough skill points to unlock a perk, I can just pick whatever perks I want within reason. Perks that would take ages to unlock in previous games, such as “solar powered,” can be instantly received if your primary statistics are high enough. And because leveling up is so much quicker, you can not only get more perks over time but take perks you didn’t know you needed but want right now. Of course, with the focus on combat most of the perks revolve around just that, even the ones in the Charisma line.
Companions have always been an integral part of the Fallout series, but they’re even better than before. Not only are they more useful thanks to a smoother commanding mechanic, more perks that revolve around them and the fact that you can heal them in the middle of combat if they take too much damage, but you get even more attached to them. There are more opportunities to get to know characters and learn about their fleshed out and gripping personalities and backstories. Some companions are more compelling than others, but all of them are useful and worth taking along for one reason or another.
Most importantly, companions tie into the new karma system. In previous Fallout games, your karma level would rise and fall depending on how many good and bad deeds you do, which in turn passively affects certain aspects of the game. But in Fallout 4, your own karma system has been replaced with a karma system for every companion. So depending on your actions, companions can grow fonder or more unfeeling with you. This makes the consequences of your actions feel a lot more personal. You want to raise your companion’s devotion to you not only because max affinity with each one unlocks a very useful perk, but because you genuinely care about them and you don’t want to disappoint them.
This can lead to the interesting moments that I wanted to see more of in the game. When I took a mission from The Brotherhood of Steel kill to bunch of super mutants, my companion Paladin Danse reveled in the thought of slaughtering mutants. While most of my actions up to this point were “liked” by my companions, Danse “loved” this one. It took me aback. Not only have I met a friendly super mutant, but one of my companions was a super mutant too. Should I continue slaughtering super mutants to please Danse and the rest of the brotherhood?
You can’t get to know your companions, or anyone else for that matter, without actually talking to them. And this is where the retooled dialogue system comes in. It plays similarly to more narrative-driven games such as the modern works of Telltale Games: instead of getting a list of sentences to say, you are instead presented with four phrases to choose from. This can lead to some awkward moments as sometimes the phrase you select doesn’t always reflect the actual sentence uttered by your character. But other than that, it works just fine. And what decisions you have access to can lead to some tough dilemmas. Plus, hearing your own character actually say the dialogue makes your choices all the stronger.
I also can’t talk about this game without mentioning the presentation, because this is one impressive-looking game. Previous Fallout games have been very ugly, not just because of the super mutants and ghouls running around but because the games had technically poor textures and models (even at the time) and only used a few sets of color. When I think of Fallout 3, I think of a lot of greys and yellowish greens. Fallout: New Vegas fares a bit better, but I still think of a lot of reds and browns. It’s not very pleasant.
In Fallout 4, not only are there a lot more colors and much better textures, but they all contrast with each other. And the lighting effects make everything pop out even more. It’s so wonderful to see a bright, blue sky against the brown ground and trees along with the faded yet primary-colored cars and buildings dotting the landscape. Even something as simple as seeing a golden bobby pin and a red screwdriver against a dark grey lock during lock picking is so refreshing. It reflects how even among all of the death and decay, there’s still some goodness clinging to life.
Adding to the presentation is the soundtrack. While tonally the same as Fallout 3, it’s a lot fuller than in previous games. It can be calm and subtle, grand and proud as well as tense and brooding at just the right moments. Licensed 50s and classical music is also put to great use as it always has been in the series. You haven’t lived until you’ve mowed down packs of super mutants with a minigun while flying above in a vertibird as Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” or even “Atom Bomb Baby” by The Five Stars plays.
But as beautiful as it is, it’s equally as gruesome. The Fallout games always had a strong art direction when it came to character and location designs, and the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly makes this even more apparent. Armor and structures look even more like they’ve been cobbled together from bits of scrap. Ghouls, which previously looked like goofy zombies with their budging eyes, are now downright horrifying and look even more like decayed humans. And who can forget all of the thick, delicious gore?
The animation makes everyone feel so much more alive, especially your companions and enemies. It’s lovely to see everyone talking much more spiritedly than before and it’s horrifying to see a ghoul’s frail limbs fall apart, wriggling around as it lunges out to bite you.
And best of all, there are hardly any bugs. Bethesda games are notorious for being riddled with bugs at launch. Thankfully, I hardly found any bugs that hindered gameplay in any major way save for the occasional floating object, shimmering texture, and companion popping out of and into view. It also runs at a pretty consistent frame rate on PS4, though there are a few times I ran into some significant slowdown.
Narratively, Fallout 4 is on the weaker spectrum of the series. There’s so much potential for moments that really stick with you, but they all fall short. While it still has a lot of meat on its bones to stay engaging, it still feels like more could have been done to really grab me. And it seems like a lot of the story is meant to be an excuse for have guns go bang. It makes me fearful that Bethesda Game Studios are either running out of ideas or feel the need to dumb down the story for a wider audience. But is also makes me hopeful that Obsidian Entertainment will pick up the great gameplay of Fallout 4 and add a much more compelling story to it, just like they did with New Vegas.
In terms of gameplay and presentation, however, Fallout 4 is among the strongest in the series. The combat, crafting, settlement building, and companions have all been streamlined and work off of each other. Even though there is more of an emphasis on combat, I don’t mind as much because it makes all of the exploration and crafting all the more satisfying. Exploring should have gotten old by now, but it never does! While it feels less like a role-playing game and more like every other open-world shooter, all of the improvements make it leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.
Fallout 4 is the fantastic Fallout sequel that we were all hoping for. While it may not set the world on fire, it’ll still start a flame in your heart.