An A-Bomb for Effort
HIGH Primary colors.
LOW The eleventh-hour plot twist that's supposed to tie all the threads together.
WTF An NPC calling my character "Mike" with full voice acting.
Fallout 4 is Bethesda doing their usual routine, for better or worse. It means that we're getting potentially hundreds of hours of content in a massive world with the level of depth and variance to justify that sort of playtime. It also means that we're getting a technical blunder. Plus, anyone who loved New Vegas for its sharp wit will find little of that here; since Obsidian is out of the picture, we're back to thin characterization and half-hearted stabs at "philosophical" science fiction punctuated by a super-serious tone.
Despite all of that, Fallout 4 is absorbing as hell, and some seemingly-small changes actually made it a more welcoming experience for me than the last two Fallouts were.
The most notable is the visual style. A particular bugbear of mine with the Fallout series is its drabness, and while I get that post-apocalyptic settings aren't meant to be opulent candylands, if I'm to spend dozens of hours in an immersive sandbox, I want to like what I'm looking that. This latest entry injects the franchise with a long-overdue dose of color; as soon as players step out of Vault 111 for the first time, they're greeted with an array of rich blues and reds. It makes a difference.
That's not to say Fallout 4 holds up to close visual scrutiny, though, as the textures, modeling and character animations are all pretty lacking. But in a game that's so much about the world, I spent less time picking at the details and more time marveling at the lovely fog effects or the god rays that pour in between buildings during early hours. A heavily-radiated region in the southwest corner of the map is home to thick hazes and harsh yellows, making the handful of mandatory trips there menacing and distinctive. Technical limitations be damned; this is a gorgeous game and it's all the better for it.
Beyond the visuals, I'd actually say that Fallout 4 is Bethesda's most cohesive sandbox design yet. Getting lost among Fallout 3's nightmarish labyrinth of repetitive metro stations and arbitrarily boxed-in outdoor areas was a huge red light for me, but their interpretation of a bomb-ravaged Boston here feels organic and unconfined. There are few (if any) regions that can't be explored from the outset, and it plays like an authentic examination of how two centuries' worth of anarchy would warp a civilized landscape, complete with low-altitude areas hosting hideous abominations and elevated sections of highway being transformed into bandit strongholds.
Unfortunately, while there are a plenty of delightful details tucked away for those who go looking for them (get a load of the government-fearing gun nut who accidentally kills himself with radiation poisoning from the nukes in his bunker) the plot falls disappointingly flat, which is a particular shame given the more ambitious approach that Bethesda took with this one. Fallout 4 actually begins before the war, with a young family being squirreled away into cryosleep prior to bombs falling. During stasis, the spouse is murdered and the infant son is kidnapped, prompting the protagonist to seek answers and revenge when they return to the world.
The abduction thread is resolved through an utterly ludicrous twist that's only made possible through some cheap misdirection, but it's ultimately beside the point in a narrative that's far more focused on asking the age-old Sci-Fi question of whether robots have souls.
A shadowy organization called "The Institute" is manufacturing synthetic beings, and there's a lot of debate whether these machines have lives, if they should have free will, or if their servitude can be considered slavery. Players are asked to make important alliances based on their moral outlook on these synths (as they're called) but the characters are so thinly-written, and our attachment to them so mercenary that I suspect most people will opt for the convenient route, even when Fallout 4 tries to guilt them into doing otherwise. The writers just don't give me a valid reason not to join the faction with airships and power armor.
Mechanically, Fallout 4 plays almost identically to its predecessors, with the usual slow-time-to-target-specific-parts VATS system molding something smart and tactical out of what would otherwise be a sub-par FPS engine. Equipment tinkering has been given a few tweaks for the better, though — weapon degradation is completely gone (an absolute godsend), and a new modification system allows players to break down useless items for more practical purpose. It's nice that there's finally merit in looting for junk since a random cake pan or ashtray may eventually become a new rifle muzzle or something.
A considerably less successful experiment is the new base management mechanic. Players can now occupy certain locations and – using the clunkiest interface imaginable – build structures, plant food, manage resources, and keep the inhabitants safe and happy. Thankfully, barring one late-game quest in which an important item must be constructed using this system, it's an easy mechanic to ignore, but it's so out-of-place and poorly implemented that I have to wonder why Bethesda sought to include it in the first place.
Apart from the new tweaks, Fallout 4's successes are predictable. The enjoyment, as always, is in building a character that suits one's play style and roaming the landscape looking for excuses to put that style to use. Skills and perks have been smoothly merged into a single tree, and it results in a terrific sense of ownership over one's version of the protagonist. There are so many individual quests and so many ways to go about solving problems and earning profits, that by the time I'd reached the end of Fallout 4's campaign, I felt as though I'd completed the journey on my own terms. That's a powerful feeling, but anyone who's played an open-world RPG of this scale will be familiar with it.
In fact, this familiarity is a bit problematic since it makes Fallout 4 the safest, least surprising Bethesda game in ages. The comfort-food factor would be more than good enough if they'd finally gotten their technical act together, but as usual, Fallout 4 is overrun with bugs ranging from the hilarious to some which were damn near game-breaking.
My favorite was when my dog appeared to be locked into a swimming animation while on land. Less endearing was a recurring glitch wherein my Pip-Boy became invisible, effectively making the game's menus impossible to navigate. On a smaller scale, pathfinding issues and lip-sync hiccups abound – all in all, it's got the expected quirks for a Bethesda release. Mercifully, I never encountered anything that a simple reload didn't fix, but the game's rampant instability alone makes me hesitant to recommend it.
In a year when games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt have redefined what open-world RPGs are capable of, I suspect that a lot of Fallout fans will be forced to question whether the usual Bethesda shtick of providing vast amounts of unpolished content with no emotional investment is still enough. I had a pretty good time, but despite its many strong points, Fallout 4 feels like one of Bethesda's minor works.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 40 hours were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, strong language and use of drugs. For those unfamiliar with the Fallout games, the combat involves watching thousands of enemies get their heads and limbs blown off in slow motion. Combined with the harsh profanity, drug use and general grimness of the post-apocalyptic setting, this is absolutely not a game for children.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: There's enough visual feedback that actually playing the game shouldn't be an issue, but I've noticed quite a bit of infidelity in regards to the subtitles. Some are outright missing, while other times, dialog overlaps and the game has trouble picking out what's most important. Those relying on the subtitles to follow the story will have a tough time.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.
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