It's been years since I last frolicked through the Capital Wastelands of Bethesda's Fallout 3. A gray mass of earthy turmoil crawling with radscorpions, super mutants, and small remnants of actual humanity, it was a huge departure from the earlier games in the series, but a not so huge departure for the developers. Built on the back of their Elder Scroll series, Fallout 3 represented another cog in the wheel of iteration. Fallout 4 is another cog on that same wheel. I don't say that to be dismissive, as both quality and story wise, this is by far the strongest title in Bethesda's run of open world role playing extravaganzas, but merely to state what we already know: Fallout 4 is a Bethesda RPG in every manner of speaking.
Avoiding as many spoilers as possible, Fallout 4's story flips the coin on 3, asking the player to assume the role of a parent looking for their child, as opposed to the child searching for the parent. Having found their way through the nuclear apocalypse under the costly protection of a Vault-Tec vault, the player character emerges onto the Commonwealth, a decimated version of Boston, Massachusetts and its surrounding areas. As with every Fallout, basic survival is challenged on a daily basis by both the land and the mutated denizens that make it their home, so on top of searching for your kid and the reasons for his disappearance, you also have to survive a world you've been missing from for over 200 years.
Thankfully though, Fallout 4's secret subtitle is Taken, as your character, has a certain set of skills, which begin, but certainly do not end, with the ability to kick all kinds of ass. It's kind of silly to think about, but had Liam Neeson's talents not been applied to the parent role of Fallout 3, he would have made a prime candidate for the main characters voice in this game, if, that is, you decided to choose the father over the mother. In fact, the first big change that 4 rolls out is the ability to choose the gender of your protagonist, a move which, given the depths that the developers try to go with their narrative, is both surprising and welcome. Again, no spoilers, but the difference in choice between mother and father feels like it could lead players down some truly different paths.
These different paths are a tremendous improvement over the rather boring story of Fallout 3, and they only really make themselves clear once you are placed in the literal center of a quickly escalating conflict. Numerous options open up regarding different factions, with each representing an extreme position regarding the future of the Commonwealth. On a smaller scale, this act of choosing plays out within the conversation system as well, as Fallout 4 features Bethesda's first attempt at a “conversation wheel.” Relegated to the face buttons, the options tend to fall in the same slots as those used in other games, namely a “good/bad” set, a sarcastic answer, and an information option.
As a first attempt, it's not bad, and alleviates the talking head-ish dialog dumps of their previous games. It also falls into some of the same problems that other developers have mostly worked out, like difficulty in dealing with conversations when the player is avoiding making a direct choice, or having conversation options that sound different then the dialog they summon. I will gladly, GLADLY, deal with those small issues in thanks for a voiced protagonist. It goes such a long way to making me engage with the story, as unfortunately, my years of playing MMOs have reduced my patience for any and all quest text to damn near zero.
To add to the further characterizing of the protagonist, Fallout 4 features a number of customization options in the form of armor pieces and weapon modifications. Given the right perks, you can modify any kind of gun to serve nearly any type of purpose, within reason, leading to some pretty kicking variations of anything from laser rifles to huge mini guns. Armor has been given a more modular approach, where different portions of the body, like arms and legs, can wear different pieces offering different bonuses and a variety of looks. Modding armor and weapons is driven, primarily, by the assorted forms of junk you collect on your travels, as each item breaks down into simple components like steel, adhesive, or circuitry. Need to add a scope to a weapon? No problem, just bring some adhesive, some glass, and anything else the game asks for to a weapon crafting station, and your will is its command. While it may sound like a bit of a hassle, having to find a crafting station to do the work and all, there are so many scattered through out the Commonwealth, that it may be more of a challenge finding a building that doesn't have one on offer somewhere.
Power Armor, which serves as kind of a faux mascot of the series along with the Pip-Boy, has also undergone a pretty significant change. Presented as a modular system, Power Armor is no longer worn in lieu of other armor, but as a suit on top of what you already have on. Opened from behind, the player literally steps up into the armor before it closes around them, providing a ton of protection on top of looking pretty awesome. What makes this a pretty major change is the fact that Power Armor now requires a power core to work, so while you are wearing it, the fusion core you are using as a battery loses power. Based on the number I collected through my playthrough, I imagine that you could go through a better portion of the game wearing the suit, but it does force you to think about whether or not you need all that protection.
The portion of this equation that does come off as a hassle though, is the “workshop” table. Activating one creates a zoned off portion around the table where you can build just about any kind of structure you can think of. The purpose of this is to both construct, and maintain, safe spaces for your allies around the Commonwealth, but the game pays so little attention to that side of things that its very inclusion seems more like an after thought, or a way to play into specific events deeper in the main story, then an actual worthwhile system. Sure, I can hover over a location on my mini-map and see how happy the four people that live at Crazy Acres Farm are, but if that information doesn't matter then why are you giving it to me.
This issue of system abandonment feeds into the story as well. Fallout 4, while attempting narrative steps that its predecessors were nowhere close to taking, collapses under its own weight about ¾ of the way through its main story. A clear victim of the amount of plates they set spinning, I made it through to the end without ever hearing a satisfactory explanation for why things were going down the way they were, and while I purposefully skipped a lot of side content that probably might have shed some light on those mysteries, not having that information as part of the “main” quest feels like a major misstep. It was such a problem, that even now, hours after having wrapped up that portion, I am still trying to mull over where things veered so scarily off course.
I am, however, happy to report that the Commonwealth is not nearly as gray and dreary as the Capital Wasteland, and those of you familiar with the Boston area, and its rich history, will find a number of interesting landmarks hidden within the wreckage. I'm also quite happy to report that Fallout 4 gave me the lowest number of Bethesda bugs that I have yet to encounter within one of their games. They are still there, as I spent three hours walking around looking like I was made of liquid, hot magma after having been attacked by a Raider and his Flamer, but I ran into nothing game breaking in the nearly 40 hours it took me to get through the critical path.
I would also be remiss to not bring up the vastly improved shooting of Fallout 4. While still not at the level of a traditional shooter, being able to aim down the sights and actually hit what I was aiming at without having to rely on some mystical background percentage was a true joy. Where Fallout 3 was played having to use the VATS system as a crutch, Fallout 4's mechanics finally allow it to be used as an option, a tool to slow things down enough to find your bearings in the middle of some very heated firefights. I do miss the times where VATS used to call out where things I had shot had been critically hit, as that system has been changed to allow you to build up to and store a critical, but it's far more effective in its current incarnation then it ever was in 3.
All changes aside, we now come to the part of our critique where I have to acknowledge the fact that the whole package is kind of the same thing Bethesda has been doing since Bethesda has been around to do them. There are so many parts of this, like, for example, the lockpicking minigame, that have simply not changed over so many iterations, that the same tricks I used throughout both Fallout 3 and Skyrim worked again. In fact, had Fallout 4 not dropped weapon degrading, I have no doubt that the same vendor trick I have been using in the games for years would have worked. I imagine, sometime soon, Bethesda is going to be asked to come to terms with this, to change or evolve beyond the next carefully crafted iteration.
I can tell you, with a certainty, that while its most ardent critics will echo this argument as loudly as they can, it won't make a lick of difference to the noise made by the people who love this game. Fallout 4 is a good game, an absolutely solid work horse of a title that will, if you let it, carry you away for hours at a time to explore its depths. At a time when titles seem to be losing content, Fallout 4 has more then you can possibly consume all at once, and its host of options mean that when you come back for a second, third, or ninth pass, the experience can actually, honestly, be something different. That's not something you can say about a lot of games, and in that regard, Fallout 4 is truly in a class by itself.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!