At its best, Fallout 4 is a captivating game in which the hours fly by as you wander the wasteland moving from adventure to adventure, collecting scrap to upgrade your weapons, and trying to survive in a brutal post-apocalyptic Boston. It’s a huge leap up from Fallout 3 in terms of graphics, shooting, and overall immersion, and a generational leap forward initial impressions to the contrary.
Unfortunately, the positive moments are easily matched–and occasionally exceeded–by the game’s problems. The terrible narrative somehow turns a hunt for your kidnapped son into a chore that you have to force yourself to complete. The framerate is pathetic during firefights and even something as crucial as conversations with other characters are plagued with bugs that make it difficult to get immersed. Perhaps worst of all, any ability to ‘role-play’ and treat the story as your own has been entirely stripped away. Not only does the main story lack creativity, the game’s design stops players from being creative themselves. It’s a step back from the freedom found in New Vegas and even pales in comparison to Fallout 3 at times.
Fallout 4 starts strong, although with hindsight there were early clues to its problem areas that I overlooked. For the first time in a Fallout game, you take control of your character before the bombs fell. The futuristic 1950s Americana vibe is as brilliant as it is short. After all the effort Bethesda Studios Games went to in creating this environment, it’s a shame we don’t get more time here to bond with out spouse and child. Instead, you’re railroaded through meeting your spouse and infant child and invited to join the vault program just seconds before the bombs fall.
For the creative among you, the character creator is the best it’s ever been–you should be able to create the man or woman you want to play as with a little effort. To be clear though, the character creator is limited to how your character and spouse look. You can’t create a backstory for your character because the game forces one on you. If you play as the male then you are a former soldier, and if you play as the female then you are a lawyer. I can’t think of a single reason why this needed to be forced on the player because it’s never important to the story. Why can’t you be a female soldier or a male lawyer? Or something completely different. It’s needlessly restrictive.
Your family is ushered into the vault just as the bombs drop. You survive being hit by the nuclear blast which should be your first clue that the storytelling in this game is going to be a touch problematic. You wake up after being cryogenically frozen to find your wife murdered and son missing. It’s time to leave the vault and enter the wasteland.
Boston as you remember it is no more. Your home is a mess and the city is full of raider gangs, ghouls, and mutated beasts. When the game isn’t being janky, Fallout 4 looks damn good. From screenshots, it might look like a slightly touched up version of Fallout 3, but that’s really not the case. There’s a hell of a lot of detail and it feels like a far more natural world than its predecessors. Fallout 3 had a color scheme that might have inspired the title for a popular series of romance novels. The lighting system in Fallout 4 is a drastic improvement, with blue skies, green and yellow grass, and surprisingly good water effects. The temptation to explore is almost impossible to resist when you stumble upon attractions like Fenway Park and the Freedom Trail. Forests are littered with bloatflies, towns have been taken over by raiders, and you don’t want to know what’s in the lake. There’s something new around every corner and exploration is rewarded with resources, old playable arcade games, and bobbleheads and magazines that boost your stats.
Perhaps taking cues from Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4’s story centers around competing factions–the Minutemen, Railroad, Brotherhood of Steel, and the Institute–and you’ll need to choose who you want to align yourself with at the end. Unlike New Vegas, Fallout 4’s narrative is a complete mess from beginning to end. As objectives go, searching for your kidnapped son should be about as compelling as they come, and yet there’s a huge disconnect between your character’s supposed desire to find his son and the pointless distractions that are thrown your way every few minutes. Dictionaries should mention this game alongside the Uncharted series next to the definition of ‘ludonarrative dissonance.’
Early on in the game, you meet Preston Garvey, the leader of the Minutemen. You’re made the leader of the Minutemen after completing a few basic quests and yet Preston Garvey still refuses to help find your son until you’ve helped establish more settlements. Why does the main character have to continue doing quests for Garvey when he’s been made the leader of the Minutemen? Can’t someone else do it? I fail to believe the main character’s abilities as a former soldier or lawyer mean they have to be the ones to pick up the trash (the streets haven’t been cleaned in 250 years).
I hated Preston Garvey at first. How dare he give me chores to do when I need to find my son? Turns out, he was doing me a huge favor. You see, the secret to enjoying Fallout 4 is to not care about the story. I had a decent amount of fun with the game after putting the story to one side and wandering the wasteland treating it like a survival sim. I even changed the backstory a bit to help. It’s ridiculous that pre-war trash is still littering the streets after all this time, so in my version of events, Boston only recently became habitable again after levels of radiation in the air dropped off in recent years.
You don’t have to wander Boston alone. There are plenty of companions to choose from this time around and they’re a step up from the mindless sacks of flesh found in Skyrim. They still don’t have much depth mind you. Nick Valentine and Piper are worth spending time with, but the companions you get later in the game feel like last minute additions. I would have preferred a small handful of meaningful companions who influenced the story as opposed to lots of interchangeable ones.
Wandering the wasteland is fun due to the vastly improved combat. Fallout 4’s combat still falls short of open-world games like Far Cry, but it’s leaps and bounds above Fallout 3 and New Vegas. You no longer have to deal with the frustration of lining up a perfect shot only to miss because of a hidden dice roll that determined the outcome. Fallout 4 utilizes basic hitscan functionality so you’ll hit where you’re aiming with the damage dealt determined by the stats of your character and weapon. Hardly revolutionary, but in the context of the Fallout series, it feels that way.
All weapons are now customizable if you have the appropriate materials and perks. There’s no reason why you can’t play through the entire game with a weapon you found in the first couple of hours so long as you keep upgrading it. The upgrade system can get a little silly at times. A revolver can end up as a semi-automatic with laser sights and a bayonet if you so choose. Still, the weapon and armor upgrades give real purpose to all the junk you pick up during the game.
The VATS system makes a return in slightly revised form. VATS now only slows time instead of freezing it completely. It’s still helpful in combat, but less tactical than it used to be. With enemies bearing down on you, there’s less opportunity to shoot weapons out of enemies hands or cripple them with a shot to the leg. On balance, I prefer the new and more dynamic version of VATS because I never liked it used to interrupt the flow of combat so dramatically. And let’s face be honest, the old version of VATS was largely designed to mitigate the dreadful shooting mechanics.
Despite the long production cycle for Fallout 4, not everything from the previous Fallout games has been improved. In fact, Bethesda Studios Games has managed to take a few gigantic steps back from previous titles in terms of role-playing and dialogue. Not only do you no longer have any control of your character’s backstory, you no longer have much control over what they do or say. The dialogue wheel is similar to that found in Mass Effect games, except Bethesda attempts to be even more concise in its descriptions. So concise, in fact, that you often won’t know what response your character will give after selecting an option. Worst of all, the choices are nearly always meaningless. In over 90% of cases, you’re just choosing the tone of voice you want to say ‘yes’ in. A typical conversation choice has the following options: yes; sarcastic yes; more information followed by yes; and angry yes. Even when you have an apparent choice to make, the response from the person you’re talking to will be exactly the same. Early on, Piper and the Mayor of Diamond City–the first major settlement you come across–want to know whether you support freedom of the press. On this occasion you are allowed to answer yes or no; however, the response from the town mayor is exactly the same regardless of what you say. The limited dialogue options are presumably the result of the protagonist now having full voice acting, but give me a silent character with meaningful things to say over this mess any day.
The dialogue wheel is indicative of the lack of role-playing options in the game. I can’t discuss this in too much detail without spoilers. I will settle for saying that you have very little influence on how the story plays out, although thankfully there’s no decision on par with the stupidity of Megaton and the nuke from Fallout 3. There’s little to no replay value on offer here. Your character build makes no difference to your story due to the limited dialogue options. You can play as a clever character who is bad with guns (as a lawyer might be!). You can play as a stupid, but charismatic guy. You can play as a combat vet. You can do all those things, but none of them make a blind bit of difference to how your story plays out.
Even the big choices at the end are underwhelming. I’m dancing around spoilers a bit here, but there’s one big scene at the end which pitches two factions against each other as one faction attempts to claim a building. I reloaded an old save to play the mission from the perspective of the other faction, however, the quest was exactly the same. Instead of playing as the faction defending a building, I attacked it again with the other group now playing the defense.
The stat system has had a huge shakeup and initially looks expansive, but once again there’s little that will vary your playthrough. You still allocate skill points between your SPECIAL stats–strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck–and when you level up you can put points into perks. A small handful of perks provide a completely new ability, but most just provide a percentage boost to existing skills such as enhanced ability with non-automatic rifles, extra health from stimpacks, and stat bonuses when traveling with or without companions. While these perks sound boring, I felt like I had to stick to them because of the way enemies level up with you. You need to spend skill points on boring perks like enhanced health and weapon abilities just to keep up with the extra hit points on enemies. This level scaling also means there’s nothing stopping you just powering through the story and completing it in roughly 15 hours. That would be a fairly miserable experience mind you. The scaling also means that the same radroaches that gave you problems at the beginning of the game can also kill you when you’re 100 hours in and equipped with far superior weapons. This can be a real immersion killer.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bethesda game without a load of bugs and performance problems. I played Fallout 4 after a number of the worst problems were patched out, and I’m happy to say the game only hard crashed on me once. Conversations were a disaster, with characters often not properly lined up, or other characters walking in the way or just generally bugging out. Early conversations were immersive thanks to the impressive voice acting, but the further you get from early story missions the worse they become. On the PS4, I spent as much time fighting the frame rate as I did the ghouls, and in any kind of crowded outdoor environment, the game verged on unplayable. The frame rate was so bad at times that entering slow-motion VATS actually sped up the game. Having bought Skyrim for PS3, I can’t pretend to be even slightly surprised by this, but I am disappointed.
Fallout 4 introduces settlement building, so you can now build entire towns exactly the way you want. The level of detail and the ease with which this all works is thoroughly commendable. You can demolish nearly everything in a settlement with just the press of a button and build everything from furnished homes, to security turrets, to water filters. You can plant crops and arrange trade routes between settlements. Workbenches in settlements are used to improve your armor and weapons and store your loot. Settlement building doesn’t fit particularly well into the story, but it’s far from a gimmick. It can also help with immersion if you’re like me and prefer to treat Fallout 4 like a survival game instead of pretending to find that pesky son of yours.
Settlement building and weapon modding would have been a lot more enjoyable if Fallout 4 didn’t have incredibly restrictive inventory limits. It’s hard enough carrying around all the weapons and armor you want: if you start picking up junk for use in your settlements then you’ll never make it more than halfway into a dungeon before needing to turn back and drop off your loot at a settlement.
Despite all these issues, I somehow had fun with Fallout 4. Not a lot, but some. Wandering around Boston with your dog at your side listening to songs on the radio can be a great way to spend your time. The amount of work put into some parts of Fallout 4 is staggering. Building interiors are littered with clutter and structures feel appropriately old and weathered. I roamed for ten hours at a time without touching the main story and did my best to pretend it didn’t exist. But it does exist, and eventually, you’ll feel compelled to go and complete it. No part of the narrative is particularly strong, but the final act is so bad that it threatened to sour my entire experience with the game. I honestly cannot understand how such a bad story found its way into a such a big budget game.
Fallout 4 represents a huge leap forward from Fallout 3 in terms of visuals and combat, but it somehow delivers an even worse story, and the reduced role-playing mechanics mean that a Fallout game has never been this shallow. Bethesda Studios Games needs to completely revise how it approaches stories in its games or Fallout 5 won’t be worth playing. For clarity, Fallout 4 only just earned a 3/5. It’s closer to a 2 than a 4, but ultimately I did enjoy playing the game at times, even though I had to come up with my own head-canon to do so.