Fallout 4 Review
Fallout 4 brings the long-running, post-apocalyptic game series to the latest console generation. If you're completely new to Fallout, fear not, you can easily start your experience with Fallout 4 and not find yourself lost and bewildered, a luxury not afforded to those whose first Halo game was Halo 5. If you're returning to the wasteland with some experience, then you'll find a lot of Fallout 4 to be very familiar territory from a gameplay perspective, although there will be a few surprises and changes in store for you.
Newbie or veteran, you'll begin the game with a new character at the moment shortly before the nukes started dropping from the sky on October 23rd, 2077. Fallout's pre-apocalyptic world probably doesn't resemble the kind of picture that comes to mind when you think of what the world will look like over sixty years into the future. In fact, it's really the kind of world that would have been dreamed up in the 1950s by a Science Fiction writer with a limited imagination or a comic book obsessed ten year old. This vision of the future is one in which people enjoy high-tech wonders like atomic-powered cars and robot servants while still watching TV on a CRT set and enjoying doo-wop on their radios. Everything from art and design aesthetics to architecture is straight out of mid-20th Century mid-America. It certainly gives the game a unique setting and a rather fascinating one, but unfortunately the time that you spend in this particular vision of the late 21st Century is very limited. I wish the game let you explore more of its world in 2077 and gave you more time to get to know your character in this setting, but the opening is really just an extended, albeit clever, character creation sequence.
All too soon the sirens will sound and you'll be rushed to the underground fallout shelter known as a Vault to avoid the nuke blasts and wait for the radiation to subside. But Vault-Tech, the company who sold your family a spot in the Vault, was not entirely honest with you in ways that drive the story for the game, and that I don't want to spoil all of that for you. I'll just say that when it comes time to emerge from the Vault, you'll be doing so alone and walking into a world ravaged by years of anarchy and nuclear radiation with no idea of what has happened to your son.
Once back in the sun you'll be free to explore a swath of what used to be the Boston area of Massachusetts, a state that is now referred to as the Commonwealth. The game takes an open world approach to things, and while you'll come out of the Vault with your first story-based objective set for you, you are pretty much free to do what you want. A big part of the game's appeal comes from this freedom, as the Commonwealth is filled with interesting areas to explore, people to meet and/or kill, mutant fauna, and a large number of side quests to distract you for hours on end. There's so much to see and do that you can go for hours without even thinking about tracking down the missing son, a form of amnesia that's oddly shared by your character as well. You would think that when you're asked by someone to help them that there would at least be one conversational response option that lets you say, "Not now, my son is missing and I have to find him!"
There is more freedom here than just setting your own path and schedule, though. Numerous factions vie for control of the wasteland's limited resources and you'll need to decide where you want to place your loyalties. And it's not just a matter of which quests you decide to take on - little things like an action you decide to take, or not, and choices that you make during a conversation can change the way that you're perceived and open new opportunities or close off ones that you will never know you had. There's a bit of a butterfly effect at work here, and sometimes you won't see the consequences of your actions, good or bad, until hours later in the game.
You're also free to be the kind of wasteland wanderer that you want to be. You're not forced to be a "good" person, or even forced to choose between "good" and "evil", and even if you wanted to be either the choices that you make in the game that determine the course of its story are not necessarily easy to make. There's a lot more gray here than black and white, and as in real life you'll often have to make do with doing your best to make the decisions that you feel are right, at least in regards to how you'd like to play your character.
You won't have to make your way through the game alone, even though you can certainly choose to do so. The game allows you to recruit certain special NPCs as companions to accompany you on your journeys. Quite early on in the game you'll meet up with Dogmeat, the German shepherd featured in many of the game's trailers, and it's easy to befriend him and have him accompany you on your journeys. He is more than just a buddy, though, he'll fight for you, too, biting down on and immobilizing enemies while your finish them off or killing smaller enemies himself. You'll encounter others that you can invite to join you, but you can only have one companion with you at a time. When you dismiss your old companion you send them off to a safe zone to wait for you, so you can always bring them along again if your new companion doesn't work out. Companions that can speak offer a bit more than you can get from Dogmeat. They can carry a fair amount of stuff for you, so you can dump all of the junk that you pick up (more on that in a bit) on them and go for a longer period of time before you become too encumbered to do anything but move slowly along at a shuffling pace. They will also speak up while you are conversing with other characters, and it's interesting to get a different perspective on what is transpiring. A veteran of the Minutemen has a little different perspective on the Brotherhood of Steel that can help you to better evaluate the Brotherhood's spin on things while they are hitting you with a recruitment speech. All that aside, you may find yourself wanting to stick with Dogmeat most of the time anyway, simply because his smaller size keeps him out of your way. Companion AI can be pretty spotty at times, forcing you to try and push your way past them in tight spaces or to hold your fire in a battle because they've walked right into your line of fire.
Now while the game may resemble a first-person or third-person shooter (you can instantly switch between the two perspectives) from the player's viewpoint, the game resolves its battles with all of the dice-rolling under the hood that's inherent to RPGs. You'll still need to be smart about using cover and picking your shots, but there's more going on here than simply pointing your gun at the right spot and pulling the trigger. Even if you aim down the sights of your weapon and line up a perfect headshot there's no guarantee you'll drop your target or even hit it. The game will take a number of factors into account to determine the chance for a hit, and if that hit is made, the same will be done for determining the damage. This may not be as obvious when you're in the middle of a shootout, but it becomes more apparent when using the game's VATS targeting system.
Pressing the left bumper trigger will slow time significantly and allow you to select the enemy (or enemies) to attack. Furthermore, each enemy will be divided into a number of target zones such as the head, torso, or an arm, and a number will be displayed on each of these zones indicating the percentage likelihood that you'll be able to hit that zone. While it's usually easiest to hit the torso, hitting a leg can cripple the enemy and a headshot can inflict a lot of damage or even result in a kill. You're free to target any areas on enemies as long as you can see them or to put all of your shots into one spot on one enemy, but there are a couple of limiting factors at work. First is that the number of actions that you can perform is limited by the number of available APs, or Action Points. The number of APs that you have available depends on a number of factors, and once you've used them all you'll need to wait for them to recharge. The other limiting factor is the fact that time is not completely frozen while you're lining up your targets, and you can lose a target as it jumps behind cover or find yourself coming under direct attack. The VATS system also includes a critical hit meter that fills even more slowly than APs refresh, but when it is full you can use it while firing your weapon to increase the chance of scoring a critical hit. In practice the VATS system helps you to pick out where your enemies are and helps you to aim right at them, but it's more useful when you're dealing with a stronger enemy than it is for lesser ones. I often found it faster and easier in the latter case to simply aim down the sights and fire off a burst of rounds.
The Power Armor that you see on the box cover of the game isn't some end game tease - you'll come across your first suit pretty early in the game. The armor gives you a big advantage, allowing you to absorb a tremendous amount of damage and enemy fire. There are numerous "clear this area of enemies" missions in the game and these can be very challenging if you're not a walking tank. You'll have to be judicious as to when you use the armor, though, as the suits are powered by special fusion cores that are in tight supply in the game world, and a suit without power is pretty much useless. The cores will get you through an extended battle, but not much further than that. If you leave a suit in an armor repair station, you'll see it on your game map, which makes it easy to saddle up the next time you find a core and need to ride in a rodeo.
The wasteland is a dangerous place and so you should be prepared to die ... a lot. The battles are challenging, especially since it is relatively easy to run into enemies that are too strong for you at your current level. The game makes it difficult to deal with fast-moving enemies, both in real-time combat and while using the VATS targeting system, and if you're facing more than one of them, then good luck. Things are also made more challenging by the fact that you're in a nuclear wasteland. There are plenty of things in the environment that can give you radiation poisoning, including some of the food you'll need to eat to restore health, and the game represents this poisoning by reducing your max health an amount corresponding to your radiation poisoning level. There are ways to reduce this poisoning, as well as ways to restore health without incurring more radiation, but these are uncommon enough that you'll be judicious in deciding when to use them.
Fallout 4 doesn't just want you to clear the wasteland of irradiated scum, though; it gives you the chance to rebuild civilization. As you clear places of danger and befriend the locals, they will form settlements. There's a bit of a game within a game here as you try to provide the settlements with basic needs like food, water, and defense, all through crafting items, and this is where all of that junk comes in. Junk are items that you can collect that have no direct benefit to your character - they can't be equipped or eaten or what have you. However, these things can be broken down into crafting materials, for example a lightbulb might give you glass and wire while a wrench is good for steel. You can then use these materials at a crafting station to produce furniture, generators, defense turrets, and everything in-between. The game will give you a quest here and there that has you producing the basics for settlements, but it's an aspect of the game that's largely optional. A network of thriving settlements gives you what amounts to a collection of safe houses, places that you can go to resupply, trade, and tinker with your weapons and armor, as well as a creative outlet for those who enjoy building things. If you're in that latter group, there's a lot for you to build and a lot of room for creativity. You'll be able to lose untold hours in just rebuilding the towns of the Commonwealth, taking breaks only to scavenge for resources when you need them.
In any case, though, city-builder or occasional tinkerer, the crafting system requires a lot of patience. First of all, there is the need to spend so much time collecting and managing junk. The wrist-computer Pip Boy that serves as your catch-all game management tool makes it difficult enough to work with vital items such as weapons and armor, but managing junk is a nightmare. The best that you can do is have the game flag items that contain materials that will help you build something that you're interested in. There's no way to tell if you have enough of those materials yet or which ones you're still lacking, tough, or even how much of each material that you have on hand. You'll need to write things down while at a crafting station or begin to remember recipes before heading out into the wasteland, and then scroll through your massive junk list item by item tallying up your inventory. And for a game that's quite concerned about your weight-load, why is there no way to sort your items by weight so that you can drop the low-value weight hogs? The life of the crafter is one of constant inventory management and numerous trips back to a settlement to offload the latest haul of junk for use later. And crafting itself can be a bit of a chore - the interface is a bit obtuse and object placement can be tricky and error prone.
While the Pip Boy is far more of a clever showpiece than it is a usable and practical device, I do like the leveling and perk system. Although it is accessed through the Pip Boy, it's thankfully managed on a completely separate and self-contained screen. On this screen you can invest the skill points that are earned by leveling up into your base stats - Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck, or S.P.E.C.I.A.L. - or into the perks that are aligned with these stats and displayed in columns below them. Each point in a base stat will unlock and make available a new perk that sits lower on the column below the stat. The perks all provide a unique bonus skill or characteristic to your character, and go a long way towards allowing you to customize your character to your style of play. For example, if you don't care to have a companion with you during the game, you can use the Lone Wanderer perk to decrease the damage that you take and increase your carrying capacity. All perks can also be leveled three times each, yielding greater bonuses with each level.
The greatest danger I faced in the wasteland wasn't giant mutants, but rather the bevy of bugs that plague the game. Once I became stuck between the bucket and cab of a bulldozer, unable to run, jump, or fast travel my way out, forcing me to reload a saved game. At another time my gun disappeared, and I was unable to equip weapons, use VATS, or even melee attack, forcing me to reload a saved game. These were not isolated incidents, but the type of situations that occur with a regularity that's unacceptable in a AAA game release. The game auto-saves for you with a good regularity, but you'll need to make your own regular saves into a couple of different slots to be safe. The auto-save for that bulldozer incident put me right back where I was, and that gun problem required going back three save games to fix. If you decide to play Fallout 4, then you'll need to be disciplined enough to save your game very frequently.
Lastly, I should mention something about the game's graphics. While Fallout 4 is the first Fallout game for the current generation of consoles and a game that's exclusive to the new generation, it doesn't entirely look the part. While there are some nice vistas and detailed structures in the game, character and object models look more like they belong in a game from the last console generation. After having played and reviewed Black Ops III, Halo 5, and Rise of the Tomb Raider recently, the difference in overall graphics quality in Fallout 4 is noticeable. The graphics engine also has its share of issues, noticeably with clipping, especially with characters. I found myself inside man and beast looking out on several occasions. Now I don't want to give the impression that the graphics are necessarily terrible, but do be aware going into it that Fallout 4 is not a testament to the graphical prowess of the Xbox One.
Fallout 4 is a huge game and as such this has been a long a review, so I will conclude by summing things up. The world-building in Fallout 4 is phenomenal - the world itself is huge, it's packed with places to explore and things to do, and it will take you a very long time to get through it all. However, at times it will be a labor of love as you'll have to put up with difficult to manage inventory and crafting systems, not to mention the game-killing bugs. There's enough that's good here to recommend the game to those who have previously enjoyed playing Fallout games, or to those who want to experience the Fallout universe for the first time, but I can't help to be left with the feeling that the game needed a little more time in development to realize its full potential.
Final Rating: 82% - A rich post-apocalptic world to explore, but you'll have to survive the fallout from all of the bugs.