If you have any interest in the Fallout series, you’ve probably read the quote by now from Jeff Gardiner over at Bethesda implying more than “400 hours”” of content for Fallout 4. I can’t speak to the validity of that claim, being a mere 55 hours into my experience, but it does feel like I’m just scratching the surface when it comes to building and exploration. I haven’t finished the game, but yet have already invested so much time into it, and seemingly have a good feel for what to expect, so consider this my “intial” Fallout 4 review. A 50-hour edition. Free with pre-order.
Fallout and likewise Bethesda’s other series The Elder Scrolls, have always functioned with dual stories. There is the story that the game wishes to tell you: the mostly linear path at the crater of the bombing site if you will, and then the narrative you create for yourself and your character as your experience their worlds. For myself, and I suspect for many people, that second story, all the fallout from that narrative nuclear detonation, is what most people are fascinated with. This is again completely the scenario I experienced with Fallout 4. So curious was I about post-apocalyptic Boston that I found myself having barely touched anything beyond the essentially tutorial scenarios at 12 hours in.
Depending on your point of view, it’s a shame that the writer’s story takes a backseat, as Fallout 4 is bringing some new ideas into the mix. Of course in this day-and-age where “everything has been done”, it will be easy to spot some story elements and plot devices from other famous sci-fi series. Fallout has always stuck to the historical, pulp, 50’s style science fiction, yet here have managed to seamlessly add contemporary sci-fi genres characteristics. Without trying to give anything away, think A.I., Blade Runner or even Interstellar.
The story of Fallout 4 may feel somewhat familiar after the initial twist on the Vault-dwelling experience; your character is looking for someone that’s missing. The hows and whys are vastly different than the disappearing daddy of Fallout 3 and they directly tie-in to some of the newer sci-fi elements. I will say that despite my at times inattention to it, the narrative is an interesting one as it progresses, and it feels as though it will push further than the simple “choosing sides” of previous games. There are some dilemmas here, at lest within the main storyline, and uncertainty over what and who to believe.
As Bethesda did with Fallout 3, their world takes advantage of the unique American history of the area. Everything takes place within The Commonwealth, the name for what remains of pre-war Massachusetts. Many features and monuments from the city of Boston are featured in the game. What’s perhaps most surprising is the density and variety of locations to explore, especially within areas of the city itself. The countryside opens up a bit more, but along the waterfront buildings and especially venturing deeper within the skyscrapers of the former Northeastern megalopolis, you will seemingly find something around every corner.
The colonial flair of the East Coast is essential to the style, setting and story, with your character’s first interactions with other humans being members of the Minutemen. When you first come across this militia member you are urged to grab a nearby musket. This one however, is slightly different than the ones used in colonial times, as it shoots a focused laser. These little touches are why the Fallout lore works so well. It takes core elements, but then uses local ideas and history when telling specific stories. It definitely helps sell the world’s concept here.
The two most interesting things about Fallout 4 have nothing to do with story or setting, but everything to do with how you craft, literally craft, your story and world. The first of these is armor and weapon modification. Through a combination of skill upgrades and modification parts you can tailor individual pieces of armor and weapons to match your play style. While you can grab singular armor sets, most people will be using the Vault suit with a combination of arm, chest, leg and head armor pieces, or the same thing with a power suit. Each segment can be changed do things such as: enhance stealth, extend how much weight you can carry or increase a specific stat.
The second new mechanic for the game is settlement building. Your first taste of this will be in your home town after the initial Minutemen encounter. This kinda reminds of the SNES classic Actraiser; there’s world-building, pseudo-Sim City management in my action game… and… I love it. I’ve spent hours and hours building settlements, and for the most part it seems like this is completely optional. Finally I’ve found a reason for my pack-rating, junk-item-hoarding ways. Constantly over your weight-limit and unable to run? Sure, you could sell those items for a few paltry caps, or instead you can break them down into crafting supplies via your work bench in order to build more things, including parts for your weapon and armor modifications.
It’s a pretty simple, yet complex system. A junk wall to keep raiders away from your settlement may require rubber, wood and cement. Break down some old tires, cinder blocks and a dead tree, and you’ve got the right materials to start that wall. Need to build a turret to enhance protection for your settlers? Take the gears from a clock, a circuit board from a destroyed robot and some other items and voila! As you continue to build, and provide beds, water and power, along with a radio signal, new people will show up and become residents. Often times they will find stuff to do on their own, but if they haven’t yet you can send them to a defensive wall, a trading post or to the garden for crop-gathering.
You thought these kinds of open worlds were time-sinks before? Add city-building and management into the mix and you may never see your family and friends again. And this is all before the modding community or Bethesda themselves have begun to add or change content. Taking a step back, that 400 plus hour claim could easily become true for some players.
But what about the bugs and the clunky engine concerns? And where are my “AAA” graphics? Basically Fallout 4 is everything both fans and detractors expect. I have yet to experience a game crash as I head towards 60 hours, but there have been plenty of bugs along the way. That being said these issues, save one brief problem, are not of the game-breaking kind. Troubles are usually in two categories, AI and clipping/collision detection. Followers run into things, occasionally disappear and like to fight in many stupid ways. Dogmeat, God love that goofy furball, loves to run directly into hoards of enemies and immediately be in “essential character” down-state. Also, apparently my best friend and companion in this harsh new world is a bit suicidal as he likes to fall off of buildings and cliffs randomly.
Clipping and collisions will almost always involve AI or the camera in VATs. I’ve walked into towns with a Brahmin inside a house standing on two people sleeping in a bed. I’ve seen a guard stuck in a walking animation half way through a stair ladder. When world building, walls and floors aren’t fans of the uneven terrain, making placement very awkward. How awkward? Come by and visit my floating melon garden. I grow fruit out of thin air! Similarly the VATs camera gets a little crazy, particularly in the complex layout of the city. You’ll score a dismemberment and watch as the camera tries to edge through the floor and the enemy disappears from inside out.
It’s nothing that’s going to make or break the game for you, though I once got a weird filter effect on my screen that stuck permanently causing me to reload an older save and lose time. Most of the problems are going to be expected from something of this depth and scope. Like I said if you hate those little things in the previous games, you’re going to hate them here. If you love the games in spite of their issues and quirks, you’re still going to love this too.
Visuals and sound are the bow on the Fallout package. They aren’t the present inside, but they’re the thing that ties it together. Fallout 4 features classic old-timey tunes, some are repeats, others are newly licensed oldies, and still others are newly composed tunes in a retro style. There’s a classical music station in the game as well as a nice alternative, and sans radio the game’s original musical score is an excellent accompaniment to any wasteland adventure. Inon Zur’s compositions have gone to a new level here. I love the ethnic undertones of many of the selection, including the occasional bagpipes for the Boston-Ireland connection. Voice acting is well done and more varied than previous entries; there’s less repetition for characters, though you can easily spot some of the standard Bethesda actors.
Visually-speaking the graphics are good to very good on high and ultra settings. The Fallout series doesn’t exist to push the boundaries of graphics in gaming. There are certainly better-looking games, including the Witcher 3 in the RPG genre. However, Fallout’s style is consistently executed to create believable spaces within their setting. Most impressive in Fallout 4 are the lighting, weather and particle effects. Character models have received a nice upgrade. Texture quality is probably the most incosistent thing in this department. Check out those godrays.
The Fallout series evolves, or maybe we should say it mutates a bit, with this latest entry. Along with crafting, modification and settlement building, the title borrows a bit from games like Borderlands and The Witcher 3 when it comes to enemy varieties. Foes several levels higher than you will have a skull next to their names. A star in that same place, as with weapons and armor, means that particular thing is unique. The “Legendary” tag means this instance is going to be much tougher than the others, and also means that they may “mutate” into a more difficult form during your fight.
Fallout 4 has been a ton of fun thus far. I’ll continue to play it and evaluate the game. Maybe the story goes horribly wrong somewhere down the line, and the quality falls off a cliff deeper within the game. I don’t anticipate this happening, but with so much left to do and see and a main storyline far from complete it would be folly to call this a final verdict. Fans of the series, I don’t see any reason to wait. Get your wasteland-wandering adventure on. Haters, there’s still plenty to ha.. err dislike. Now, this has taken up far too much time, I’ve got more settlements to build!
Fallout 4 digital review copy for Steam was provided by Betheseda. Look for high-res photos from a personal copy of the Pip-Boy Edition on release. The game is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One November 10th.