Fallout 4 review
[Reviewed on Xbox One]
Nobody wanted to set the world on fire, but it still happened anyway. What makes this story unique, though it’s been told many times over throughout this series, is that in Fallout 4 you get to see one of the initial blasts that ended the world. It’s not something you’d call brave or particularly emotive, but it is damn cool to finally see that end of the world we’ve heard so much about for almost 20 years now.
Once the introductory sequence, covering the alternative, 1950s-inspired history/future has run its course, though, you’re back into very familiar territory. In a literal sense less so, with Fallout 4 set in Boston, Massachusetts and a few New England areas – but generally speaking, this is something those who picked up Fallout 3 and New Vegas will know very well indeed. A mostly dead world. Eerie, dreamlike exploration of a ruined landscape. Dangers and death at every turn. Rust.
Exploring the Commonwealth, as Fallout 4’s region is known, is one of gaming’s great experiences. As you’re heading from one place to another, objective in mind and destination marked, there’s always something in the corner of your eye that’s going to pull your attention away, that’s going to make you break from the beaten path and discover. It’s Fallout, so what you find tends to be along the same lines: burnt out, destroyed, radiated, riddled with hostile people, beasts or things. But it doesn’t get old – there’s wonder in a world that’s so familiar, made up of places you know, or have heard of, or landmarks you’ve seen – be it in real life or the movies. And this combines with the other wonder – that of the unfamiliar; the unknown.
As with Fallouts past, Fallout 4 is riddled with the after-effects of a nuclear war and 200 years of something like life existing on the almost-dead planet. From the society-less humans, whether they be scavengers, survivors, those clinging to a past they don’t remember or those embracing their animalistic urges to destroy and conquer; through the mutated beasts of the wild (introducing: cat-sized mosquitoes!); and covering the traditional, once-human super mutants, there’s everything you’d expect out there to chat, trade and fight – mostly fight – with. This time around there’s an additional, story-specific type of foe to contend with too in the shape of synths: an addition that makes us think someone at Bethesda has been watching a fair bit of Blade Runner and playing a bit more Syndicate.
These varying friends and foes all come together across a campaign storyline that, unlike previous Bethesda games, errs on the side of pretty bloody good. It’s not superb, it doesn’t compete with focused narrative games like, say, The Last Of Us or Life Is Strange, but for a developer that has consistently pushed out games that lack in the core storyline, Fallout 4 offers a huge step up. Conflicts arise from factions of very different ideologies, your role in each is as deep or shallow as you want it to be and, of course, the ultimate decisions lay in your hands.
You may note, though, that we avoided saying this is the best story the Fallout series has produced. The simple fact is, Fallout 4’s core campaign just doesn’t live up to that which Obsidian produced alongside its wonderful Fallout: New Vegas. While Bethesda’s latest does ape the spin-off in some ways – namely in the competing factions – it falls short of really investing a huge, ongoing sense of cause and effect on the player. While what you do does have an impact, eventually, it doesn’t actually feel that way until much later on – and at some points it’s actually marked, very clearly, in an on-screen prompt that what you are about to do will change things irrevocably. This might be something down to personal choice, but we preferred New Vegas’ approach of ‘you break you buy’ – you make your choices, the consequences happen, you live with your decisions. Or reload a save.
It’s not ruinous to Fallout 4, instead acting as one of quite a few ways in which the game hasn’t moved on – or even taken much inspiration from the hitherto most recent game in the series. Fallout 4 holds closer to the third game rather than New Vegas, which makes sense given that was an entirely different team. But the gambling-centric game seemed more confident in embracing its RPG roots, successfully combining the new 3D world of Fallout with more traditional role-playing sensibilities. While Bethesda’s latest is technologically superior, it’s a shame to see some of that influence didn’t rub off.
Something that has made the successful jump, on the other hand, is the frequency of the glitches. The curse of Bethesda games. Many of which fall into the category of harmless silliness – bodies just glitching into the scenery, NPCs spawning inside buildings they can’t get out of, general rough-around-the-edges-ness. But some issues run deeper and genuinely affect enjoyment of the game – the main one being some truly poor pathfinding on the part of the AI. This sometimes works in your favour, with a raider getting caught up between a bollard and a bin, say, but more often than not we found it to be something that had a negative impact on your own companions.
This Fallout staple has been about from day one – you don’t try to rebuild (or re-destroy, or whatever you want to do) civilisation without some chums at hand. Fallout 4 brings you Dogmeat the German Shepherd pretty quickly, and a host of future friends (or enemies, or lovers) are available to join your travails in the Commonwealth. But there are times – not so many that you want to turn the game off, but enough that you dread the next encounter – when your AI pals fail to retrieve items, move to a position as commanded, hack a computer system, get out of the way while you’re having a grenade thrown at you or anything else along those lines. They often become liabilities thanks to their inability to navigate the most simple terrain. And when Dogmeat gets in your way for the 30th time in any given hour, there’s a real desire to send that pooch to the farm.
Unfortunately, Fallout 4’s failings aren’t limited to the expected Bethesda glitches and bugs, instead stretching out into some peculiar design decisions that impact on enjoyment in myriad ways. Take the new conversational system, for example: the full sentence responses written on-screen are gone, replaced with a few words to indicate the gist of what your fully-voiced character will say. Great, just like Mass Effect, then? No, because in Mass Effect you had a good idea of what your character would actually say. In Fallout 4 you’re left second-guessing what these prompts actually mean, worried you’ll end up once again making an aggressive comment to a friend, or failing to threaten the man you’re trying to extort.
When there’s confusion, you lose confidence – and in a game so reliant on its conversational system, that’s just not good enough. But you get by – you always get by – and soon enough it’s another minor irritation. You make it past the idiosyncrasies and realise that all along you’ve actually been enjoying it. No major problems are encountered, no game-breaking bugs are on show and even though the frame-rate regularly drops (a fair amount on Xbox One, not so much on PS4 and hardly at all on PC), it hasn’t really registered as something to be annoyed about. But in that moment of blissful enjoyment – the way you will feel through the majority of the 60 or so hours it will likely take to play through Fallout 4 – you come to a startling realisation: you’ve been shooting a lot of things.
For you see, Fallout 4 has edged a step further away from its post-nuclear RPG lineage. With much better gunplay on show, Bethesda has clearly deemed it necessary to make more missions focused on the act of shooting. Initially it’s refreshing, as combat is better than it’s been before and so something you want to play about with – but when you sit back and think about it, this isn’t how Fallout has been for three of the five main games released. Fallout has been the game where you can go in with an assassination target in mind, only to meet them and switch sides in a discussion.
It’s been the game where when encountering the last ‘boss’ character you’ve talked them down and won with words. It’s not a game where you’ve just solved every problem by shooting at it – at least, not until now. This will sit just fine with those who always wanted Fallout to go more in that direction, as well as those unfamiliar with the series’ past – but for the Fallout purists out there it’s a smack in the mouth. Choice is lessened, your impact on the world is defined by the amount of bullets you carry and the cleverness you shared with those creating the game, both marvelling at the depth and complexity of a particular quest’s design, is all but gone.
For all that negativity, it’s impossible to say Fallout 4 is a bad game. We wouldn’t go anywhere near saying you shouldn’t play it or buy it – it’s the kind of thing countless players will easily put dozens – hundreds – of hours into. Its systems, while very familiar to Fallout 3 players, have been tweaked and refined to make them easier to use, while the new additions are generally solid – if not entirely, absolutely necessary. The building/crafting options, for example, work brilliantly in the sense of the game’s fiction – but they’re really just a sideshow in the game; something you can very easily ignore if you so wish.
It’s because of these things that Fallout 4 is a very good game, but not a great one. Fallout 3 was great because it was so new and fresh at the time – hindsight highlights its flaws, but at its time it was a true pioneer. New Vegas showed the new tech and old sensibilities could be combined in a wonderful (if rather buggy) experience, rich with detail and full of contingencies for almost anything the player thought to do. Fallout 4 feels more like a Fallout 3.5: an improvement on Bethesda’s last game but a compromised one that loses some of the core appeal of the series. It might not have wanted to set the world on fire, but Bethesda has lit a flame in our heart. It’s just a bit dimmer than we expected it to be.