*SPOILER ALERT! This review will contain plot spoilers for Fallout 4, and is significantly longer than my average review. Fair warning.
I’d like to preface by saying I’ve never played a Fallout game before, despite owning both 3 and New Vegas. I don’t know why, really. Maybe I’m just bad at prioritizing, or maybe it’s just an irrational fear of “not getting it” when there’s so much fanfare surrounding the series.
It’s what I like to call Dark Souls Syndrome.
I finally got around to playing Fallout 4 at the end of January, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I don’t have any prior experience to base my comparison, so I’m not sure what I expected, but this wasn’t it. At all.
Our tale begins in a retro-future Boston, with the player customizing their male or female sole survivor. The character creation suite is vastly improved over New Vegas (which is as far as I’ve gotten), allowing you to modify everything from facial structure, body type, and standout features like scars, acne, or blemishes.
You’re then given a small amount of time to explore your home, catch a brief glimpse of your baby boy, give the mobile hanging above his crib a spin, and have a chat with the local Vault-Tec salesman about securing your place in Vault-111, should anything bad happen. Because of course it does.
A nuclear explosion rips through Boston’s Commonwealth as your family narrowly escapes in to the underground shelter of Vault-111. It’s here they say their temporary farewells and strap on their vault suits before stepping in to their assigned cryo chambers for (unknowingly) 200 years. As you begin to thaw, not only do you witness your child being abducted, but your other half is murdered in the process.
This is the exact moment when Fallout 4 began to lose me–roughly 20 minutes in to the game.
I don’t feel that Bethesda gave me enough time to care about my neighbors, let alone my own family. You interact with your robot butler more than your significant other, and you barely interact with your son, yet I’m supposed to emerge from Vault-111 with a colossal sense of attachment to a town I never explored and a family I know nothing about. The concept of family and the act of abduction or murder isn’t enough, which feels weird to say.
Fallout 4 is all about choice, and once you exit the vault you’re free to explore the Commonwealth and do as you see fit. As my girlfriend pointed out, you can now explore the artist formerly known as Boston and learn more about your long dead neighbors–something I complained about not experiencing pre-nuke.
Should you follow the quest structure though, one of your first objectives is to meet up with and assist one of the game’s four factions: the Minutemen. This uninteresting group of individuals introduces the player to the optional mechanic of settlement building, but also thrives on sending you on repetitive fetch and kill quests that grow old rather quick. My son has just been kidnapped, but the breadcrumb segment for the story mission wants me to forgo that in the name of expanding the commonwealth with unorganized farmers?
The main story arc in Fallout 4 is fine–though the only big moment is a twist near the end–it’s just really thin for such an expansive game. In typical Bethesda fashion, this is fleshed out by voluntary exploration and aligning yourself with different factions, which all seem to tread this morally grey area the player needs to evaluate… but they’re just not interesting.
During the search for your missing son, do you align yourself with a xenophobic military unit, an unorganized group of farmers defending the Commonwealth, a shady organization creating sentient AI and using them as slaves, or an underground faction that would gladly take human lives at the cost of freeing the robotic synths?
I didn’t really care for any of their ideals, but I had to choose one in order to complete the primary objective. Some of their methods were baffling as well. Why would a group of humans put the well being of lifelike synths ahead of other human beings at a time like this? Better yet, why would I, a lone survivor in search of his missing son, braving a world buried under nuclear fallout, side with AI sympathizers over actual human beings? You don’t see lions killing other lions to save an elephant, right?
I expressed my disinterest in Fallout 4’s story to a group of friends, explaining that I didn’t want to waste time with boring quests or settlement building, and they gave me the best piece of advice I could ask for.
Don’t. For the first 10 hours of Fallout 4, I treated it like a linear experience. I knew the world was massive and that I could explore at my leisure, but I wanted to rely on the quest structure to get a feel for the characters and have a sort of road map to my next location.
I then went in to the game with the mindset of an explorer rather than a survivor. I’d look at my map and visit the undiscovered areas, stockpile crafting materials, and tune in to the local radio station for a bit of background noise. In turn, I’d stumble upon distress signals, legendary monsters, and new companion quests, which provided some of the game’s most memorable moments.
I came across a television broadcaster attempting to “civilize” a group of super mutants by reciting Macbeth, and later a disfigured ghoul child who locked himself in a refrigerator as a last ditch effort to escape the nuclear explosion 200 years ago. Random encounters in the Commonwealth created a deeper connection than any of the game’s factions, as did the personal tales of the sole survivor’s companions.
You have to spend a lot of time with each companion to open up their quests, and with so many companions to choose from, that seems like a daunting task. The ones I experienced though were pretty great.
I loved the character development of the synth detective Nick Valentine, who assists you in the search for your missing son early on. He knew that all of his memories were tied to the implant of an actual deceased human, but he never let that define who he was. To let go of his final memory, I helped him avenge the murder of his implant’s fiance. Nick was now free to be himself, his actual self, which was a powerful moment–more emotionally stimulating than anything the primary arc had to offer.
I’ve seen a lot of complaints (and received similar replies on Twitter) that Fallout 4 looks dated. Some have even compared it to Fallout 3, in terms of graphics. While it doesn’t look as astonishing as other current-gen open world games like Batman: Arkham Knight or The Witcher 3, the latter statement just isn’t true.
Trust me, it’s just nostalgia blindness.
After finishing Fallout 4, the first thing I did was pop in New Vegas on PS3. The world is barren, devoid of the complicated back alleys and run down factories that litter the Commonwealth. There’s far less explorable structures, NPCs, and the third-person character models are laughably bad.
Fallout 4’s character models didn’t ooze the same current-gen quality I found in similar games, especially with their soulless eyes and questionable facial animations, but the game isn’t ugly by any means. Sure, there’s off-putting textures here and there, especially within some of the armor and foliage scattered about the Commonwealth, but it’s fine. And I find myself saying that a lot here; Fallout 4 is fine. It’s not as good as I had hoped, but the game is fine.
I found myself enjoying Fallout 4 more than I did at the start, but there were still some major hurdles to overcome in the form of combat and frequent technical hiccups.
Again, I’d never played a Fallout prior to 4, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of combat. I’ve played my fair share of shooters though, so I anticipated iron-sight aiming, ammo management, upgrades and the like, but it felt unpolished, clunky, and downright unenjoyable. I’ve been told that it’s a vast improvement over the previous games, which is good I suppose, but it just never clicked with me.
10 hours in to the game I decided to drop guns altogether, in favor of heavy hitting melee weapons and explosives. This made Fallout 4 feel more like Skyrim, just with landmines and radiation poisoning, but it still felt as half-assed as it did in Skyrim in 2011. It’s as if Bethesda refuses to evolve, slapping this not-so-fresh coat of paint on to an engine that hasn’t changed much since 2006’s Oblivion.
In the 50-ish hours I spent with Fallout 4, I experienced a laundry list of bugs that hindered my enjoyment while elevating my frustration with its dated gameplay and cumbersome UI. Game crashes, subtitles freezing on screen, frequently becoming immobile after using stimpaks, getting caught on terrain, awful AI pathing causing NPCs and companions to avoid quest objectives, quest prompts claiming that I’ve failed a quest when I could still turn it in as completed, NPCs wandering away during conversation (requiring me to start all over), AP being spent on V.A.T.S. that bug out and never actually happen, enemies teleporting for no apparent reason, and NPCs not responding to any form of interaction don’t even scratch the surface.
I’ve been told by many other players that Fallout 4 was the most polished Bethesda game they’d ever played. I’m not sure if my experience is something isolated on the PS4 version, but it felt more like an early access Steam game than a finished product. It was a mess, to say the least.
However, even with all of the technical issues I still found myself enjoying Fallout 4. I’m not sure how, as I’ve stopped playing games with far less issues, but something compelled me to stick with it.
Maybe it’s the world itself, or the element of surprise storytelling out in the Commonwealth. It could also be my interest in open-world games, exploration, and things that aren’t human. But it sure as hell wasn’t the clunky combat, the laundry list of technical hiccups, the dull factions or forgettable main story arc.
But still. Fallout 4 is fine. Just fine.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.