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Fallout 4 is Bethesda Softworks' latest open-world RPG. It takes place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (now just called the Commonwealth) ten years after the events in Fallout 3, which means it's 210 years after the United States and China started a war that turned the world into a nuclear wasteland.
Once again you play a vault dweller -- but only sort of. When the game opens up, the war hasn't started yet, and you're living in your nice, white-picket-fence house with your spouse and your baby son Shaun. After a brief introduction, the bombs start falling, but luckily for you, you've been signed up for a vault, and it's located almost right next door to your house, so you and your family are able to make it inside.
However, as was the case for many -- if not all -- of Vault-Tec's vaults, your Vault 111 served a secret purpose: to see how people would react to being cryogenically frozen. So no sooner do you make it inside than you're tricked into entering a pod, and you're put to sleep. Worse, instead of enjoying sweet dreams, twice you're woken up to a nightmare: once when you witness your spouse being murdered and your son kidnapped, and then again later when your pod opens up, and you discover that everybody else in the vault -- sleeper and staff alike -- is dead. So without knowing what's going on or what the world might be like, you exit the vault and go looking for your son.
Your character in the game can be male or female, with your spouse being the opposite gender (sorry, gay couples). You start out staring at a mirror, which gives you a chance to mold your appearance to just how you want. And because your character actually talks in the game, the camera now focuses on you during your part in conversations, giving you more of a chance to admire your handiwork -- unless you like to wear helmets and glasses, and then not so much. For some reason, unlike most other RPGs, Bethesda didn't include an option for turning headgear invisible, and apparently it's not something easy for modders to add.
Your character is defined by seven SPECIAL attributes -- strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck -- and also by a collection of perks. Each time you gain a level, you're given a point, and you can spend these points on attributes or perks. You're also given some points at the start of the game to spend on attributes only.
The attributes do about what you'd expect. Strength increases your melee damage, endurance gives you more health, charisma makes you more convincing in dialogue, luck improves your chances of finding items, and so on. Meanwhile, perks do things like increase your damage with certain kinds of weapons, improve your resistances, or make VATS (the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, which slows down time and allows you to target various enemy body parts) work better.
By my count, there are over 250 places where you can spend points, which sounds like a lot, especially considering that while there isn't a level cap, you probably won't reach level 60 unless you really like grinding experience against respawning enemies. But in practice, some perks are much better than others, and if you're like me and you don't really use melee weapons or VATS, then your building options are much more limited. I played through the game all the way once and then about halfway through with a second character, and I found that my builds for the two were almost exactly the same.
As with Bethesda's other games, you can play Fallout 4 using either a first- or third-person perspective. The first-person perspective still works the best, but the playability gap between the two isn't as wide as it once was. I mostly used the third-person perspective when exploring and talking to people, and then switched to the first-person perspective when combat started up. (If you try to shoot something using the third-person perspective, then you'll frequently hit foreground objects or walls without realizing it, and so it's not a recommended option.)
I played Fallout 4 on the PC, and the controls there are roughly the same as you see from other first- and third-person perspective games. You use the WASD keys to drive your character, the mouse to steer, the LMB to attack, the RMB to aim (with a ranged weapon) or block (with a melee weapon), the spacebar to jump, and the E key to interact. Bethesda inexplicably didn't bother to create a manual for the game, but luckily the controls are obvious enough that you should be able to jump right in and start playing -- and only later have to puzzle out things like how to holster your weapon or turn on your Pip-Boy light.
The interface screens all run through your Pip-Boy, which is the mini-computer attached to your wrist. This system is very immersive for the setting, which is nice, but it causes everything to look like it's being displayed on a TRS-80, which isn't. And so you still get a clunky menu system without scrollbars or tooltips or context-sensitive menus. But at least this time around the maps are more helpful (and actually look like your surroundings rather than chicken scratches), and you can jump right to the tab where you want to go, such as pressing the I key for your inventory or the M key for the map screen.
As much as I don't like interfaces infected by console-itis, the only place in the game where it's a significant problem is during conversations. That's because you're only allowed to have four dialogue options, one each for the four main gamepad buttons. This severely limits what you can say to people (you frequently get a "sarcastic" response, but that's it), and it causes issues with some quests where the quest NPC doesn't have room to talk about the quest you're trying to work on.
More of a problem is that Bethesda added a lot of things to the game (like cover and settlements, which I'll get to later), but instead of creating an interface for everything, they tried adding the new stuff on top of their existing interface, and they ended up overloading hotkeys haphazardly. And so instead of just having one key -- like, say, escape -- close windows, there are three keys used at different times (escape, tab, and enter). And while the R key normally reloads your weapon, if you're pointing at a corpse, then it opens the loot dialogue instead. Worse, if you're pointing at a corpse (which happens a lot during combat), then all non-corpse hotkeys get ignored. So you might think you've switched weapons or injected a stimpak, but you really haven't. And god forbid you accidentally hit the F key, since it locks you into the favorites interface and prevents you from doing anything else. This is all stuff that you can get used to as you play the game, but it's still pretty much a mess.
Fallout 4 is definitely a Bethesda game. You're given a large world to explore with lots of creatures to kill and quests to complete. This is the format they've used in the past, and it's what they're employing again here. I used to call Bethesda games "big and boring," but they've gotten better about improving their signal to noise ratio, and so while you still discover lots of buildings filled with anonymous bad guys, you also sometimes stumble across a bandit racetrack, or a mall run by Mr. Handy robots, or a town hiding a mysterious treasure, which make your explorations more rewarding.
First and foremost, Fallout 4 is about combat. Many of the enemies you encounter are old hat at this point -- raiders, feral ghouls, mirelurks, mole rats, mongrel dogs, and super mutants make up the majority of the encounters -- but there have also been a few tweaks since Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Super mutants have a suicide bomber who tries to blow you up with a mini nuke, ghouls play possum and then jump up when you're not expecting it, mole rats and mirelurks burrow up from the earth and ambush you, and more. There are also some new types of human enemies (including gunners and fire-enthusiastic forged), plus synthetic humans, to keep things interesting.
But the most noteworthy type of new enemy is the "legendary" enemy. These enemies are much more powerful versions of regular enemies, and especially early in the game, they can tear you apart. So you have to be careful. Even if you're fighting a regular group of raiders or something, they might have a legendary compatriot in their ranks, and so you can't just take a battle for granted. You have to stay on your toes. And you also have to save often.
Better yet, legendary enemies always drop a piece of legendary equipment, which is a regular item with an extra bonus. So you might find a weapon that shoots two bullets at once or deals fire damage along with its regular damage, or you might find armor that adds to your luck or increases your resistances when you're standing still. Early in the game you'll probably have to run away from legendary creatures (or load your game after they kill you), but later they become great hunting targets so you can use them to improve your gear.
Another new thing in combat is that humanoid enemies will use cover. This isn't any sort of sophisticated system like in the Mass Effect games, but enemies will at least try to hide behind walls and only expose their head and weapon when they shoot at you. You can do this as well if you feel so inclined, but mostly I didn't bother. Nothing locks you into place or shows you where cover is available. You just sort of have to walk into a corner, and then when you aim, you look around it. So it's awkward and mostly only useful to enemies, but at least Bethesda is trying something new.
After defeating enemies, you of course get to loot their corpses. Equipment seems to appear in tiers. You start out by finding ballistic weapons and leather armor, then you move up to laser weapons and metal armor, and finally you reach plasma weapons and combat armor. You can also acquire impressive suits of power armor, but new in Fallout 4 this kind of armor can get damaged, requiring repair, and it also needs fusion cores to run, which means you can't wear it all the time. There are also a few unique items in the game (many of them sold by shopkeepers), plus all of the legendary items, plus a multitude of bobbleheads, comics and manuals, which give you permanent bonuses.
Along with regular items that you can use immediately, there are also items that you can break down into their component parts, such as springs, gears, copper, ceramic, and cloth. You're then allowed to combine these components together to create items. You can't craft weapons or armor or ammo, but you can build mods for your weapons and armor (like scopes to improve accuracy or lead-lining to improve radiation resistance), plus food, chems, and bombs. You start out knowing almost all of the recipes in the game (although you won't be able to use them until you've learned the right perks), but there are a few recipes you can only find during your explorations.
I enjoyed the crafting system in Fallout 4. It's easy to use (the game breaks down items for you once you've stored them at a workbench), it allows you to become more powerful as you gain levels (since the crafting perks have level requirements), and it gives you a reason to keep your eyes open and loot strange objects (like antique globes for cork and desk fans for gears). Crafting is the one addition to the game that both works well and has a clean interface.
Outside of combat, you spend a lot of time exploring. The world map isn't all of Massachusetts. It's just the area around Boston, and it includes places like Fenway Park, Bunker Hill, and MIT (although it's called CIT in the game). During my first game, I discovered about 250 locations on the map, and I know that I missed some. I also know that there are numerous locations not marked on the map, including apartment buildings, banks, and even a downed UFO where you can pick up the ever popular alien blaster. So there is plenty of content to work your way through. I spent over 100 hours playing my first game, and I didn't see everything.
Unfortunately, the locations in Fallout 4 aren't as recognizable as the locations from Fallout 3, and they're not as fun as the locations from Fallout: New Vegas. The only Boston site that I really know anything about is Fenway Park, and luckily it makes a major appearance in the game, since it's the home of Diamond City, one of the region's major hubs. For the rest of the locations, Bethesda could have created everything out of whole cloth (and maybe they did), and I wouldn't have known the difference. And so while technically the game takes place around Boston, for me it could have been located at any major city anywhere. If Bethesda continues with the franchise, I hope they think a little more globally in the future and try out something like London next.
Interestingly, the world map only includes four towns of any significance, and one of them can get destroyed depending on how you complete a quest. The reason for this is no doubt because one of the major additions to the game is the settlement interface, which allows you to create your own towns.
There are a dozen or so sites on the world map where you can build a settlement, including town of Sanctuary Hills where you start the game. Each settlement requires covered beds, power, defenses, food, and water, and you can construct these things using a workbench and the crafting system. Then once you've got at least the basic elements of your settlement set up, you can build a radio beacon to attract settlers to it. Settlements can have at most 18 people in residence, which is more than enough to fill the jobs necessary to run them (such as farming and guard duty).
Settlements are sort of a fun idea. I like them better than some of the fortresses other RPGs have inflicted on me recently. Given the right perks, you can build shops, workbenches, houses, and storage containers in your settlements, and you can link settlements together so they can share components. This means you can build your character a house with a bed and a place to store your excess gear, and you can place shops right next door, so your settlement is much more convenient than any of the default towns. You can even set where you want the fast travel marker to be (fast travel allows you to teleport to any location that you've discovered) to reduce excess walking even further.
Unfortunately, Fallout 4's engine doesn't support settlements very well. You're not allowed to zoom out far enough to see what you're doing. You can build structures piece by piece, but the pieces don't always fit together very well, giving you an ugly result. You're only allowed to build structures that look like they've survived a nuclear war rather than something brand new. There isn't an easy way to see what your settlers are doing, what you're producing, or what components you have. There isn't an undo command. And currently there's a bug where your settlers keep losing happiness when you're not around. I had fun enough putting one settlement together, but I have no idea why you'd want several of them.
To help you out during your explorations, you can take a companion with you, including the faithful canine Dogmeat. There are about a dozen companions in all, and they've seen an upgrade since Fallout 3. Now they care about what you do, and they'll approve or disapprove of some of your activities, like when you steal items, pick locks, or demand money to accept a quest. If you gain enough approval from a companion, then you'll receive a quest and a perk from them. For certain companions, gaining enough approval will also allow you to romance them (and Bethesda took a page from BioWare here as you're allowed to romance companions of either gender), but this doesn't really lead to anything.
The companions are well constructed. They have recognizable personalities, they comment on the locations you visit, and they're useful in combat, especially since they can't be killed (if they take too much damage, then they just sit down for a while). But unfortunately, Bethesda just loves creating cluttered, narrow locations, and your companion will get in your way all the time. In my first game, I gained max approval from three companions before giving up on them, and I had a much better time when I was playing solo. In my second game, I didn't bother with companions at all except for Dogmeat early on. You can't beat Dogmeat, but even he got irritating after a while.
The campaign for Fallout 4 works well enough, but it has some ups and downs. After a strong start, where you're given all sorts of motivation to rescue your son and find the killer of your spouse, the main questline goes into neutral. Almost no emphasis is placed on the search for your son, and you're allowed to flirt with all sorts of people, showing just how much you care about your dead spouse.
This obliviousness pervades the entire game. Sometimes after completing a quest, a random person will comment on it as you're walking by, but for the most part the denizens of the Commonwealth have no idea about anything. For example, there are three factions in the game that basically hate each other, but you can join all three, complete quests for all three, kill agents of all three, and nobody will comment and care -- until the end of the game when they randomly decide to kill each other, and you're forced to pick one.
Luckily, the side quests work better. There are several where all you have to do is go somewhere and kill something (or several somethings), but there are also a bunch that are unique and a lot of fun. For example, in one town you meet a fan of a radio hero called the Silver Shroud, and he convinces you to take on the role and clean up the criminal element in the area. So you have to track down the costume of the superhero, and then if you wear it while completing the rest of the quest objectives, you get thematic dialogue options, which are great. There are also memorable quests where you can help a robot crew launch a boat, tunnel your way to a fortified vault, rescue a thespian from super mutants, and build up the confidence of a meandering radio host.
In other words, the main questline isn't really the focus of the game. Bethesda isn't great at storytelling, and every one of their design decisions points to them wanting you to just wander around exploring and completing quests rather than focusing on what should be important to your character. Plus, the main questline doesn't have a great ending -- I actually thought it was kind of creepy -- so you might be better off ignoring it for the majority of the game. But at least when you do eventually get around to it and complete the final quest, you won't get kicked out of the game. You'll be allowed to return to the Commonwealth and continue your adventures.
Graphics and Sound
Sort of surprisingly, Fallout 4 looks almost exactly like Fallout 3. Someone with a better eye and more technical know-how might be able to point out lots of differences or improvements, but the only things I noticed were nicer fog and lighting effects. For example, if you walk through a forested area during the daytime, then you'll see the sun streaming through the branches of the trees, which is a nice sight. But otherwise, the games look about the same, which isn't meant as an insult. Fallout 3 looked good, and so does Fallout 4.
As for the sound, there is some music in the game, but it is mostly tied to radio stations that I didn't listen to (because they mask the ambient sounds, and you don't really want to miss the cues for ghouls waking up or mole rats burrowing). The most important aspect of the sound for me is the voice acting. Given the sheer number of characters and conversations in the game, the voice actors did a tremendous job, and Bethesda hired enough actors that you rarely hear a repeated voice.
I was less impressed by the male and female voice actors for your character. This addition to the game made me think of 3D effects for most movies -- a lot of time and effort for at best a neutral result. I guess Bethesda wanted a more cinematic feel for the conversations you have, but it sounded to me like the actors rarely knew the context of what they were saying, and so their lines often came out wrong. The female actor also stumbled over her lines a lot -- she's no Jennifer Hale -- and she had a terrible time trying to be the Silver Shroud. So it wouldn't bother me at all if Bethesda went back to a silent protagonist in their next game.
I spent about 150 hours playing Fallout 4, and it only crashed on me a handful of times, which is pretty good. Better yet, the crashes only came during map transitions, which always follow autosaves, and so I never actually lost anything other than a bit of time. Plus, I only experienced the crashes with the initial version of the game. I haven't had a single crash since Bethesda released the 1.2 patch.
Otherwise, I only noticed a couple of technical issues worth complaining about. One is the loading screen times. These can be extremely long, especially when you're in downtown Boston where the maps are crowded. But luckily, unless you're repeatedly fast traveling or running in and out of buildings, you don't get the loading screens very often, and so the waiting times are acceptable. The other issue is just strange. For some reason the interface sometimes stops displaying your gun and the Pip-Boy, which prevents you from doing much of anything, and to fix it you'll have to save, exit, and reload your game, which is sort of annoying. But neither issue is huge. In general, Fallout 4 is stable and runs well.
Overall, I enjoyed Fallout 4 a lot more than I was expecting. Part of how I rate a game is whether I'm happy or sad when I have to move on to my next review, and with Fallout 4 I'm on the sad side of the ledger. I ran through the game pretty easily on the "normal" difficulty setting -- I could tell I was too powerful when a suicide bomber sneaked up behind me and detonated a mini nuke... and only took off about half my health -- but my character playing on the "survival" setting is having a tougher time, and I'm curious if the game can maintain the challenge all the way through.
In any case, Fallout 4 is in pretty good shape now. The game is stable, the locations are plentiful, and there are numerous interesting quests to complete -- and this is all without a lot of mods being available since Bethesda still hasn't released their construction kit (it's apparently waiting in a "to do" queue along with the manual). So if you like open world RPGs in general, or Bethesda's offerings in particular, then Fallout 4 is a worthwhile game to pick up.