Going from other Fallout games to 2015’s Fallout 4 certainly makes for a strange experience. The rough yet earnest early games eventually lead to the modern reinventions.
Fallout has always been pulled between change and tradition. Fallout 4 deviates from series expectations in significant yet fascinating ways. At the end of the day, though, does that make it worth your time?
Fallout 4 clarifies its purpose from the word go with its unorthodox choice of premise. The player begins by choosing between either a female law school graduate or a male combat veteran. Either way, you’re a resident of the United States before the infamous nuclear strikes of 2077.
Your chosen character and their spouse — the character not selected — flee for a nearby vault. With their infant son in tow and nuclear armageddon on their heels, they enter into cryogenic slumber.
Following a brutal incident involving said spouse, you awaken and set about hunting down your character’s son in the warped future version of Massachusetts.
The experience of playing Fallout 4 breaks down in various directions, woven together with mixed results. First, there’s the wandering you do across the Commonwealth, Fallout’s irradiated take on Boston and the surrounding area. Gunfights and combat are important in moment-to-moment play. Just as significant is picking up junk and usable items from environments. Multiple factions live out in the Commonwealth, that you engage with to progress the story. Quests to find, companions to meet, raiders to fight — it’s a lot of content to manage.
There’s particularly great satisfaction in picking up loot and breaking it down into manufacturing parts. You then combine them to craft or upgrade weapons, armor, and other valuable equipment. Early on, you find a suit of power armor that you modify in the same way. With tinkering and experimenting being so important to the game, it makes all the work of finding materials more rewarding.
Where things get dicey is in the sense of plot accomplishment. Some side quests are fun and endearing, especially those relating to your loyal companions. Others, usually related to factions, tend to feel like hollow busywork without meaning. A particular middle-of-game reveal changes how you end up looking at one faction, but it comes hours in.
Furthermore, the game has some underlying issues that get tiring real quick. Some combat tools at your disposal need a lot of upgrades before becoming useful. The game’s SPECIAL system for gaining experience and unlocking perks feels weighted towards fights above all. Rarely does talking or clever misdirection work in situations, unlike past Fallout games. Grinding through quests gets increasingly important for making any progress in perks you want to fully unlock.
It’s safe to call Fallout 4 a stunning game. The Commonwealth is beautiful and elaborate in its own sick and irradiated way. Long-dead trees erupt from grey grassland; roads and highways crumble over time. Entire zones nearly pulse with radiation. It is often terrifying to go from sunny streets to stormy overpasses, fleeing from roaming raiders.
Worth noting, too, is the creepy charm of the creature designs — the massive deathclaws, the rotting ghouls, and so on. As strange and unsettling as some of these can be, they nonetheless stay memorable from start to finish.
Lighting is especially important to this game. Some locations benefit from being low-lit, mainly underground or indoors places. A great deal of outdoor vistas wouldn’t be nearly as impressive without the sun’s rays glancing down in heavenly fashion.
Music and ambient sound also play a sizeable part in player enjoyment. You get your fill of classic rock and pop music via the game’s various radio stations. The orchestrated soundtrack proves quite compelling, rising and falling with a given scene’s mood. And the growls and cries of the various monsters and machines of Fallout 4 add a certain tension to fights.
Typical for Bethesda of late, voice work is top notch. Your various companions may not have the most original personalities, but the performances make the difference. Nick Valentine in particular is among the best of Fallout and Bethesda-made party members, based largely on how charming he proves. That said, your options also include a righteous journalist, a stressed housekeeping robot, and many more.
Fallout 4 is admirable, creative, and forward-looking in many ways. It is also deeply compromised and somewhat infuriating in nearly as many.
On the whole, it’s an artistic work that tries very hard and can generally be enjoyed on its merits. Those able to overlook problems of storytelling and limiting perks will find an enjoyable experience on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.
Even for Fallout fans put off by some of the changes, there’s much to appreciate here.