If Fallout has taught us anything, it’s that time is fleeting. Life is precious. The good times can vanish in one mushroom-shaped flash.
So let’s cut right to the chase: Fallout 4 is an exceptional video game, a sprawling, well-nigh endless jaunt through a dangerous wasteland packed with valuable bottlecaps, mutated beasts, and people needing a helping — or harming — hand. It’s big and busy and everything you’d expect from the sequel to 2008’s revered Fallout 3.
And, chances are, your expectations are sky-high. Seven years in the making, the first Fallout on the new consoles has been the lead car on the video game hype train for half a year; with visions of Fallout 3’s amazing world scavenging around in our brains, gamers have eagerly anticipated what, exactly, this irradiated beast of a role-playing game would do to our lives.
It certainly does a lot. Fallout 4 delivers another spectacular, depressing world to explore. It fills it with memorable characters, funnels players through a much more entertaining story than previous games, and sinks its addictive hooks deep. It isn’t perfect, however, and like pretty much everything in the wasteland, it doesn’t always work the way it should.
Blast from the past
But it starts off with a bang. A big one.
For the first time in series history, we get a glimpse of the world moments before the apocalypse. It’s good stuff — a Jetsons-inspired future that mashes together the neighborly quaintness of 1950s Americana with robotic house servants — but it merely serves to introduce you to the protagonist and his (or her) family. It’s over far too quickly; before you can explore this refreshingly colorful side of Fallout, bombs start dropping and you’re ushered into a survivor’s vault.
Considering how much was made of the pre-war world in the run-up to release (and how much we all wanted to sip Nuka Cola by the side of a radiation-free pool), it’s a bummer we don’t get more time to play in the past. Bethesda seems anxious to toss you into the wasteland, though once you get there, you’ll have so much on your plate you’ll soon forget the idyllic times in favor of the cruel, blasted lands of a blown-up Boston.
Naturally, your seemingly straightforward quest (no spoilers, but it has to do with your loved ones) quickly spirals into something much bigger. You’ll tangle with a shadowy organization responsible for filling the wasteland with eerie synthetic humanoids, enlist the aid of a wisecracking, Bogart-like detective, and tussle with moral quandaries left and right as you weigh your personal vendettas against the betterment of the world. The primary narrative takes some clever twists and ranks among Bethesda’s best work.
Of course, it’s also overrun by dozens and dozens of other quests. Fans concerned that a more story-driven Fallout would lack content should toss those concerns into a barrel of toxic waste; you will not want for things to do in this game, nor will you want for help. The game’s marketing has pushed your adorable canine companion, Dogmeat, but it turns out you can run around with a variety of helper bees. Over time, you learn not only to trust your companions, but rely on them to help in a fight (they actually do!) and bear some of your burden by carrying stuff when you’re overencumbered. It’s a nice change of pace from the lonely wanderings of Fallout 3.
Whether you’re playing through the main quest or gallivanting into the countless side missions, Fallout 4 does a marvelous job weaving your choices into the broader story of Boston’s Commonwealth and making you rightfully feel like humanity’s best hope.
World of hoardcraft
You’re also humanity’s best garbage man. In short order, you’ll find yourself clambering through every nook and cranny of Boston’s dilapidated buildings, crouching to ransack every rusted cabinet for valuable (and not so valuable) resources.
The good news is that you can finally use that junk in meaningful ways. A new crafting system lets you endlessly tinker with weapons and armor. Cooking stations turn irradiated meat into tasty, healing meals. A junky, discarded lamp contains handy copper wiring; the acid from a wasted battery transforms a pistol into a much nastier pistol. Boston is one giant, recyclable junkyard, and it’s awesome. Expect to hit your character’s weight limit constantly.
All that junk also powers the game’s oddest new feature: the ability to mess with the world itself. Once you establish a settlement (these opportunities pop up organically), you’re suddenly playing The Sims: Apocalypse, clearing out detritus, planting crops, setting up defenses, and building various structures in order to keep settlers happy.
While it sounds terrific — or at least interesting — it’s a little half-baked. I’m not sure if Bethesda is intentionally giving the finger to contemporary gaming’s tendency to constantly handhold, but I would have loved some handholding when, for instance, I burned an hour trying to figure out how to attach wires from power generators to light bulbs. Or the time I unlocked a perk that let me build supply lines between settlements (frustratingly, resources are not automatically shared) but was never told how to set them up. There is next to no documentation, even for basic mechanics. For a brand-new system, it’s far too opaque.
Maybe Bethesda ran out of time, or perhaps they’ve secretly invested in what will undoubtedly be a cottage industry of Fallout 4 construction FAQs. Whatever the case, it's too bad, because it can be genuinely fun playing wasteland god. You can build some very cool structures if you put your mind to it, and watching a busted settlement turn into a flourishing town is rewarding. But it just never really gels.
Thankfully, you can largely ignore the settlement business and instead focus on the real meat of Fallout 4: killing stuff.
This is, at its core, a first-person shooter, and it happens to be a much better one than Fallout 3. Gunplay is significantly punchier, and the guns are more plentiful. You’ll have a hefty arsenal within the first 10 hours, and by hour 20 you’ll have enough firepower to blow up the world all over again. All of those guns feel unique, too, with different recoil and kick. You can actually get by pretty well playing in real time. The running and gunning simply feels better.
It’s not Halo, though. It’s Fallout, and that means V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System). Fallout’s combat calling card has been upgraded as well. Time no longer stops when you cue V.A.T.S.: it merely slows down. Dillydally and that 90 percent chance to hit a Super Mutant’s head might drop to 5 percent if he makes it to cover before you trigger the shot. And he’s shooting back, too, so staying in V.A.T.S. doesn’t keep you from getting a bullet in the belly. It’s a great change that lends intensity and urgency to each battle.
Much has also been made of the game’s intimidating power armor (that suit seen hanging in a workshop in the game’s debut trailer), but I was surprised that they doled out this epic gear so early on in the game. The catch? You need pricey, hard-to-find fuel to get it working. I tend to not use the armor since I’m perpetually in a panic over running out of fuel, but you need it for certain sequences, including a harrowing trek through the most dangerous chunk of wasteland ever seen in a Fallout game.
Unfortunately, the combat sometimes suffers from stuttering frame rates, though this is the least of Fallout 4’s delivery issues. You expect some glitches when you play a game of this size and scope, but Fallout 4’s overall performance is mediocre at best and flat-out broken at worst.
The graphics, for instance, don’t do justice to the terrific environmental design. Characters have a dreary, zombified look — even the non-zombies — and at times laughably stiff animations. I’m not a graphics maniac, but when you’re in the middle of an intense conversation and the character you’re speaking to inexplicably stares off in the distance with dead eyes or their lips stop moving, it sort of ruins the mood.
And that’s if you can even get the conversation started. Button prompts sometimes vanish. Characters occasionally clip through the ground. For a half hour, I couldn’t progress through a side mission because an elevator’s floor was missing; another time, a key character in the main story refused to talk at all and instead started firing at me. I often had to load older saves to clear out the glitches. Fallout 4 just isn’t particularly stable, so no matter what platform you’re playing on, heed the old advice: save early, save often.
War never changes
The game’s dated look has another unsavory effect: It makes you feel like you’re playing Fallout 3.
A great deal of Fallout 4 is spent in the trenches — roaming the wasteland, collecting stuff, shooting at things — and it’s during these long stretches that the game sometimes struggles to distance itself from its beloved forbear. The main radio station, Diamond Radio, plays many of the same songs Fallout 3 permanently lodged in your cortex. Boston’s burnt-out remains are the same browns and grays as Fallout 3’s Washington, D.C. It’s the same Pip Boy user interface, the same minigames for unlocking safes and computer terminals, the same Super Mutant growls, the same radroaches and Feral ghouls and bloatflies and Nuka Cola bottles you piled into your pockets in 2008 (or 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas). Despite appearing on new systems, there is an inescapable, unflattering sense of déjà vu pervading Fallout 4. For a game seven years in the making, it mostly plays it too safe.
Which isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying Fallout 4. To the contrary, I’ve sunk many, many hours into its vast world, and plan on sinking even more. It’s massive and compelling and at times boneheaded, but usually brilliant. Stylish, deep, story-driven, tactical, action-packed: Few if any games manage to be so many things at once, and despite some hiccups, Fallout 4 turns the end of the world into a real blast.
What’s Hot: Engaging story; a huge, exciting world to explore; improved combat; well-drawn characters; crafting turns junk into treasure
What’s Not: Graphics still come up short; building tools are poorly explained and distracting; stability problems; too small a leap from Fallout 3
Platform reviewed: Xbox One