Words: Josh West
What is it that makes Fallout so unrelentingly captivating? What aspect of it compels us to spend hundreds of hours wandering through a wasteland; staring into the endless abyss of washed-out environments, wrist-mounted menus and discarded American dreams? Seriously, Fallout has to be the only game series on the planet that can so easily tempt you into dedicating so much of your time and life to simply sifting through dead people’s broken shit. But that’s what living life at the end of the world will do to you; it’ll warp you into a compulsive hoarder, potentially with murderous intent.
Can we take a quick second to talk loot before we dive into this Fallout 4 review proper, because the looting is actually becoming a very real problem for us. Once you begin playing this game, you won’t be able to walk for more that 30 seconds through Boston without spotting something to investigate. You’ll hope there’s ammo, a new weapon or some Caps to be found, but most of the time it’s just junk. Useless junk at that, but you’ll feel inclined to pick it up all the same. Like, why would you ever need to take six wrenches and 12 empty milk bottles with you out on an adventure to save your son – you just wouldn’t, right? We didn’t think we would either, but there we were, ten minutes into a defiant crawl back to a shantytown homestead – painfully cobbled together with the frustrating crafting system – as wrenches clanked around in the bottomless backpack. Maybe we’d need this crap for a side-quest or a gun modification later, we thought. And really we should have been thinking about the group of Super Mutants off in the distance. It wouldn’t take long for them to take advantage of our kleptomania. It’s okay, we’ll just respawn twenty minutes back.
The yellow eyes of synths are terrifying – wipe them out before they invade your nightmares
Where were we? Oh yeah, Fallout 4 and the countless time vampires that litter its expansive game map. But that’s it, basically. That’s the magic Bethesda has once again been able to bottle with Fallout 4. Is it the ridiculous sense of freedom? The dark humour, the future/past aesthetic or the staggering sense of decision and consequence that seemingly defines every part of the world around you? Maybe we just love Fallout because it lets us revel in death and destruction by slowing time down long enough to literally obliterate enemies with whatever junk gun we have to hand. Fallout 4’s strength and greatest asset, like Fallout 3 and New Vegas before it, is the exhausting sense of freedom that pervades every aspect of its being.
Bethesda has found great success in creating tailor-made game worlds that truly let you play in any way that you want to. Never has this design philosophy been more impressively realised than with Fallout 4. Were we concerned that after 40 hours of game time logged that we hadn’t even touched the main quest line or veered anywhere near the main path? Not really, because we were on an absolute mission to go Vault-hunting; cracking into safes that hadn’t been opened for 200 years and plundering loot that’s been gathering dust since the bombs first fell.
The crafting system is cumbersome, but the weapon selection is fantastic
To realise this ultimate sense of freedom though, Bethesda has had to subvert the balance of power in your favour. The level cap has been removed, meaning that it isn’t just feasible for you to level up every aspect of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system to maximum ferocity early on, but it’s an absolute certainty. You’ll level up faster than ever too, meaning you’ll quickly get your hands on all of the Perks that you want, and won’t waste time accumulating the ones that you weren’t bothered by just for the sake of it. Hell, Fallout 4 sticks you in Power Armour before you’ve even had time to properly get your head around the changes to the VATS combat system.
In a way, these changes are necessary to supporting Bethesda’s design philosophy, that of delivering true player freedom. By giving you all of the tools to let you play how you really want to, Bethesda ensures that you are rarely caught behind barriers to enjoy the game (though you might end up stuck in or through them, as an array of technical problems haunt Fallout 4 consistently). But this power shift has subsequently stripped Fallout of its character. No longer do you really feel like you are embodying a survivor out of time, trying to find their way in the wilderness, and that’s in spite of Fallout 4’s excellent character creation system and stellar voice acting. There’s less impetus on building specific characters and tailoring your weapons and gear to support your chosen play style; why would you choose between hacking and lock picking when you can do both, and have strength to back it up?
There are flashes of colour within Fallout 4, but unfortunately the graphics are pretty average.
And there’s no need to focus on certain types of weapons or armour any more, because a new intuitive modification system lets you tailor and overpower nearly everything in your arsenal. This means you have the freedom and tools to really explore without concern – Fallout 4 rarely challenges past the 20-hour mark – but we found ourselves longing for the feeling of danger Fallout 3 so easily cultivated. Should our dashing rogue really feel that his silver tongue and charisma is so easily interchangeable with a double-barrelled shotgun? We aren’t so sure. No longer does Fallout play to your pace or adapt to whatever ridiculous character build you’ve cobbled together; instead you’ll quickly find yourself with all of the power – the Master Chief of the apocalypse.
The death of Fallout’s role-playing threads would hurt the experience more, but Bethesda has made plenty of sweeping changes to combat that make the act of actually playing Fallout 4 an absolute delight. The studio has built on Obsidian’s sterling work with Fallout: New Vegas in this regard; pulling your weapon into iron sights returns, while VATS no longer freezes time, giving you the opportunity to meticulously plan your brutal body crushing assault on specific Raider limbs and locations. Instead, it now simply slows it down, pressuring you into making snap decisions. It’s a welcome change, and does a great job of ramping up the tension during those moments you find yourself under fire from Super Mutants, Children of the Atom and/or Deathclaws all at once, forcing you to prioritise while mutated monsters slowly close in on you.
The activation whirr of VATS is still among the most satisfying things in videogames – as is seeing an enemy’s head explode in a gory slow-motion thrill-cam – and firing weapons in real time is much improved. While it isn’t as good as the gunplay in the likes of Call Of Duty: Black Ops III or Destiny, for example, you no longer feel like you’re desperately dependent on your stock of AP to win a firefight. It makes for a more visceral experience overall, and the refinements made here are incredibly welcomed.
V.A.T.S. returns, but this time it slows time instead of freezing it for more frantic fights.
Of course, these refinements, the insane quality of voice acting and a game world seemingly jam-packed with more to do than ever before comes at a price. The frame-rate takes a pounding on Xbox One; expect regular freezes and stutters while exploring and it to occasionally crash out while in combat entirely. There’s also an insane amount of bugs to be found, none implicitly game-crippling, but sometimes they will be harder to manage than a large dose of radiation.
Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of graphical fidelity – we weren’t expecting a game world on par with the likes of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – but the washed-out and muddy environments do begin to grow a little tiresome, as does the pop-in and occasions textures that don’t load in properly. If Bethesda took as much care with QA as it did with cultivating worlds that are simply insane in scope we’d probably have the game of the century on our hands. Instead, we’ve got a sequel to Fallout 3 that’s been six years in the making. It feels incredibly familiar; there’s nothing especially revolutionary about Fallout 4, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a compulsive playability to it, and that feeling of ‘just one more mission’ will literally devour entire evenings and weekends out from under you.
Fallout 4 is the game we expected from Bethesda, though every so often – mostly at the times when you realise that you’ve just spent 20 minutes reading through inconsequential shipping reports on a hacked computer terminal while a dead Raider constantly loops in and out of a wall behind you – that maybe it could have, or should have for that matter, been more. Oh well… we think we see a shack over there just waiting to be looted. Over-encumbrance be damned, please excuse us while we strap on our Pip-Boy and indulge our new found compulsive collecting disorder; there’s an entire wasteland out there to be explored after all.