To say that I was excited for Fallout 4 would be a fairly large understatement. It was, by far, the game I was looking forward to the most coming into this console generation. I had put more than a hundred hours into both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, so I knew that I was going to be spending a lot of time in the Bostonian wasteland, getting myself into trouble and hopefully saving a few people along the way. So now, four months and 219 hours later, I’ve come out the other end of the journey both with a sense of enjoyment and disappointment for what should’ve been a generation-defining experience.
For those not familiar with Fallout’s general premise, the games take place in the United States in the 23rd century, years after nuclear war has rendered the world a razed trash heap. Filled with irradiated resources, mutated beasts, savage mutants and cunning human survivors, the series generally has you coming out of Vaults created to house survivors leading back to the time the bombs first made impact. The first two Fallout games took place on the West coast, before jumping across the country to Washington D.C. and then jumping back across to the California/Nevada wastes. Each game had its own specific issues that you had to deal with (busted water-purifiers, drought , long-term radiation removal) that put you out into the zany, alternate-future remnants of the US.
Timeline-wise, Fallout 4 takes place some time after Fallout 3. Well, that’s not entirely right. You actually begin the game pre-nukes in the Commonwealth, a pastiche of New England. Right after you create both your character and your spouse, the bombs begin falling, leading to a harrowing escape into the near-by Vault 111. Due to several plot-contrivances, you, your spouse and your son are cryogenically frozen. Sometime later, you’re partially awaken and watch as your spouse is killed and your son is kidnapped before you’re unceremoniously returned to cryo-sleep. Thanks to faulty tech, we wake up again and find yourself the Lone Survivor of Vault 111. After scrabbling out of the ruined Vault, your search for your son begins.
The problem that nearly every version of Fallout has had is that the base story that’s supposed to drive you forward is quickly forgotten when you get out into the Wasteland, and that doesn’t change here. With a goal like looking for your kid, you’d expect to be hustling to find out more. Instead, you get wrapped up in the conflict between several factions. While each group will inevitably push you further into the story, there’s very little driving you to the next story beat. I found the stories within each of these groups far more interesting than the search for my son.
It helps that the Commonwealth is full of interesting locations to play around in. Yeah, there’s a lot of general wreckage when you get into the city proper, but there a ton of places that you can poke your head in and investigate. Some of them lead to longer, more interesting quests, some of them just have a couple of Super Mutants guarding resources or a pack of Ghouls snoozing on the second floor. It all serves to make the whole place feel lived in and active, a problem that I had Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Just wandering from place to place is one of the reasons why my play-time was so damn high.
In previous games, the lived-in areas were pre-designed and there was little you could do to personalize. Likely taking the idea from PC mods of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Bethesda added locations that you could link together and build up as part of one of the factions’s quests. Using the tons of scrap items you find in just about every location, you can build these settlements into legit towns with stores, pure water and crops that you can sell. This Sims-like part of the game is the other reason why I was in this game for 200+ hours on a single play through. I got immense satisfaction of building up these locals and filling them with people. It isn’t for everybody, but if you get enjoyment from things like Minecraft and Little Big Planet, you might find yourself in a similar situation.
However, one thing that was drastically changed was the dialogue system. The previous games in the series had silent protagonists, allowing for some rather deep dialogue trees that let you do just about anything you wanted. Have a high enough Charisma score and the right perks? You could talk yourself out of almost any situation and, in some cases, get out of potentially difficult encounters without having to fire your gun. This time around, your player-character is voiced, which is probably why Bethesda reduced your speaking options. More often than not, you’ll find that the solution to your problems will involve your trigger finger and your ability to move around fire. Thankfully, they finally got the shooting right in Fallout 4, so it feels less like background dice-rolls and more like a proper first-person shooter.
Character progression is done through fairly standard leveling. If you’ve played a role-playing game before, you know what to expect here. A welcome change is the removal of a level cap, so you can keep leveling to your heart’s desire through the game. While some decry the removal of the level cap as a making your character more generic, I liked that my character was still growing up to the last mission. In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I hit the level cap way before I was done with the game, so I felt little need to fight and do extra quests.
As for the factions, I find them less engaging than what was in previous games. Initially, you meet the Minutemen, a pseudo-militia who you can rebuild a formidable force again. They exist as a neutral catchall organization for the Commonwealth. Normally, that group would be the Brotherhood of Steel, an actual military organization that hordes technology in order to protect humanity from themselves. This time around, they share antagonistic duties with the Institute, a collective formed from the descendants of this world’s M.I.T. The Institute has been in hiding for so long they’ve become boogie-men who send out robotic synths to replace Commonwealth citizens. Directly opposing both the Institute and the Brotherhood are the Railroad. These guys fight for the rights of sentient synths and get them out of the Commonwealth before they can be recaptured by the Institute or killed by the Brotherhood.
In this game, there is no way for any of these groups to play together, so you’ll find that you’re pushed into becoming enemies with one (or more) of these groups by games end. What’s irritating is that there are obvious narrative hooks for getting most of the groups to play nice and the game just sails right by them. Instead, get ready to shoot robots, power suits or people in coats in the face to get your point across. It’s a lost opportunity that, at times, feels like it was supposed to be there and was cut out at some point.
Despite the ridiculous amount of time I spent with Fallout 4, I can’t call it a perfect game, nor can I say it’s for everybody. It lacks several aspects from previous games that put the player in control of their destinies and forces you to make decisions that at times don’t make sense. However, the things that were added to the game, on top of visual upgrades and (generally) a more stable overall experience make this one of better examples of what you can do with better tech. I hope to see a New Vegas-like game in a couple of years that takes the improvements in Fallout 4 and adds more flexibility with dialogue and a better overall story.