There’s something magic that Bethesda puts in its games that’s difficult to pinpoint. They’re littered with bugs and sport a list of flaws longer than a Deathclaw’s arm, but there’s an overriding sense of wonder that helps all those worries ease away. I think it must be those spectacular moments, like in Fallout 4, when you first step outside of Vault 111 and see the world sprawled out in front of you. Knowing you can go anywhere at any point and see anything. They’re special like that, and it makes the laundry list of problems feel inconsequential.
To have seen Fallout 4 revealed ahead of E3 this year you could probably have mistook the reaction for the discovery of eternal life or the answer to world peace, such was the maelstrom of hyperbole. Fallout 4 isn’t the game changer it was made out to be; it doesn’t tread new ground. What Fallout 4 is, though, is a drastically improved successor to Fallout 3 that refines it in almost every conceivable way.
At the risk of sounding daft, the best way to conceptualise Fallout 4 is as a sequel to Fallout 3. Just pretend Fallout: New Vegas doesn’t exist, because it doesn’t borrow any ideas from Obsidian’s fine attempt at the series.
You know the formula by now. You’re in a vault with your nearest and dearest before something dreadful happens and you’re thrust out into the world, post-nuclear apocalypse, on a grand quest, yadda, yadda, yadda.. So far, so Bethesda. But. What. A. World. War-torn Massachusetts is hands down the greatest creation to ever come from the world crafting wizards at Bethesda. Key to this is not just the large scale but the sense of place and an incredible density of things to do and see. You never have to walk more than a few hundred metres to stumble on something amazing that you want to have a poke around, and it’s not long until you fall into the Fallout trap of spending hours away from the main quest line, scavenging for batteries while off your tits on a heady cocktail of Mentats and Jet.
There’s landmarks and oddities everywhere, with heaps of nods to Bostonian culture, including its love of American history and the American Revolution, along with its baseball heritage. You can round a corner to find a giant stadium, or discover a hidden cave behind a dam, or stumble into a robot factory. That sense of discovery is unparalleled and it does a better job at it than just about anything out there - including The Witcher 3. It’s all imbued with a fresh sense of colour that breaks away from the overwhelming brown dreariness of Fallout as we know it, aided by its glistening blue skies and a sense the nuclear holocaust is a past concern. Radroaches and Bloatflies will quickly slap that idea out of you though.
Where Fallout 4 doesn’t match CD Projekt RED’s masterpiece however is in the narrative. It’s always been a crux for Bethesda and the same is true here, to a degree. The quest writing can swing wildly from fascinating to dull, with most falling towards the latter. It’s certainly an improvement on the drab Skyrim quests and excessive filler there, with an ensemble of much more memorable characters and an involving main storyline. In fact it’s probably the strongest story Bethesda has ever created, but long-time fans will know this isn’t saying much. On the search for your kidnapped son, it’s an effective and simple motivation that can be easily steered back on track after some sidequest meandering. It’s refreshing after Skyrim, where I never really felt I had any real grasp of what the overarching narrative was, other than snippets of Greybeards and Dragonborn. It felt secondary to just adventuring about, but in Fallout 4 the main quest is at least a driving focus.
Unusually for Fallout there’s some great set-pieces on offer in the main story, which help them stand out from the assorted side content. It’s here Bethesda stretches its storytelling muscles a little more, and it’s hard not be impressed by some of what’s on offer in the main thrust of the game.
This is supplemented by a stack of side quests, picked up from the waifs and strays you find wandering the wilderness. Ultimately the side-quests all boil down to reasons to go somewhere and pick something up, so they need a strong narrative component to make them engaging. For the most part there’s a lack of finesse and moral ambiguity that hurts them, despite some occasionally great missions. There’s still nothing here than stand up to Oblivion’s murder mystery or entering the oil painting, at least to my knowledge. It’s fortunate that much of Fallout 4’s charm lies in its world building and atmosphere.
Moment to moment much of your time will be spent stalking across the wasteland, poking around undiscovered, possibly abandoned locations, picking locks, hacking terminals, killing enemies and grabbing loot. Combat is much improved over Fallout 4, with some genuinely good shooting mechanics that clearly took a leaf out of Rage’s book. Again there’s a reliance on VATS (Vault Assisted Targeting System) to slow down time and target enemy weak spots, which makes manual aiming still seem like a bit of a fool’s errand. There’s still something awesome about blowing an enemy’s head clean off with a slow-motion though which keeps VATS entertaining until the very end.
So that’s where the meat of Fallout 4 lies, and it’s where it’s at its best. What you ideally need is to back this up with a driving force, something to propel you through and give you a reason for doing it. As I said I believe Fallout 4 lacks this, but it excels enough in its complex gameplay systems and its high degree of customisation that it feels like a fair trade-off. You’re free to expand your character in any way you see fit, with a vast S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skill tree offering perks galore. The lack of a level cap also takes some of the pressure off your choices, so you can take a punt on some more unusual perks that you perhaps might not have normally.
Certain aspects certainly feel like they’re simplified. In Bethesda games there’s usually complex systems running behind the scenes tracking your involvement with factions, criminal organisations and the law enforcement, but it’s strangely lacking here. There’s factions sure, but I never felt like I was playing one off against the other, and my decisions never seemed to truly matter in the ways I’d hoped. I walked up to one hard-up farming couple and proceeded to be a total dick to them. Aside from some sarcastic responses it didn't really end up altering the situation we were in, and they still ending up giving me a quest and paying out, no matter what I said to them. It was a bit disconcerting really, because if someone spoke to me like I did then I wouldn't chuck them £50 and ask them to mow my lawn. While Fallout 4 slips up here though, it makes up for it in other areas like crafting.
Early on in Fallout 4 you’re introduced to the crafting. I say introduced but it’s more like a nod as you pass on a busy street. The flimsiest of tutorials takes you through some basics but barely anything is explained and much it comes down to experimenting. Which is no bad thing but it’s sure to put plenty off from attempting it entirely.
For the first time in the series, pretty much everything in Fallout 4 can be picked up and converted into scrap. The resources you get from these things are pretty logical also. If you’re after wood then fallen trees and huts should be your target. Ceramic can be found in pots and mugs. Steel from post boxes. You can gather it all up and then select from quite a large selection of structures, ranging from simple chairs and beds up to full buildings, and gun turrets. Delve deep enough and you’ll inevitably stumble onto lighting and power supplies, running cables from house to house. I’m not kidding when I say you can waste hours on this stuff, compulsively picking up scrap and turning it into something useful. There’s not too many limits either. I started trying to make a skyscraper and it’s perfectly feasible, provided you’ve got enough resources.
I say useful, but the entirety of Fallout 4 can be breezed through without spending a minute crafting. It’s all totally optional if you want that added layer, and build enough and you can attract people to your settlement and get side-quests or fend off bandit raids. It’s fun, and it’s conceivably the only real way in which Fallout 4 differs from Fallout 3.
As well as building you can also craft your own weapon mods using the same scavenged supplies. You can take a pistol and add a stock to make a rifle, put a silencer on the end or even add a bottomless clip. It’s a little bit fiddly but you can achieve some powerful results when you stack mod upon mod. One oversight is that the gun names can become even longer than the text box that fits them as you get a bit crazy with your designs.
Overall it’s a good way of eking a bit more performance out of the firepower you’ve already got, but the best gear is to be found on enemies, Legendary enemies in particular. These are identified by a star next to their name and they are massively over-powered versions of normal foes. These can be some titanic battles but you’re rewarded with some top-tier loot for your troubles.
Visually I found Fallout 4 very easy on the eye. It might not have the polygon pushing power of some of today’s graphics giants, but it has a style and sense of scale all its own. It’s certainly on a whole other artistic level to any of Bethesda’s previous work, and sometimes you do just have to sit back and soak it all up. Special praise indeed must go to the lighting and weather effects, which drastically alter the mood and create stunning spectacles. Get up close and examine every texture in minute detail and you’ll come away disappointed, but on the whole I think it’s an accomplishment, particularly given the scale and density.
As you’d expect for a game as ambitious as this, there’s a vast amount of niggling problems to contend with. Fallout 4 has been created with console gamers in mind, so it feels like a halfway house between mouse & keyboard and gamepad, with neither feeling wholly satisfying. Comparing inventory items is pretty much impossible. The building tutorial is a joke. Try and move a construction while you’re in and things go haywire. At times you do feel like walking a tightrope and one wrong move could bring the whole thing tumbling down.
Luckily for me, serious problems have been relatively few and far between. I’ve encountered no game breaking bugs to speak of and performance has been great. I’m using a GeForce GTX 970 with an Intel i5-4670K CPU and 8GB RAM, and for the most part I hit a solid 60 FPS on Ultra, and you can’t ask for more than that. I can’t speak for everyone here but to me it’s been one of the easier rides for a Bethesda game. However, I know there are plenty of people having major issues, so if you’re worried then it might be worth waiting until Bethesda has applied the Band-Aids.
That feels like nitpicking though, and overall it has to be said in Fallout 4 Bethesda has crafted one of the most enthralling worlds gaming has yet seen. Packed with incidental detail and begging to be explored, it’s one of the grandest adventures you can have without putting on a rucksack and stepping out of your front door. All of this is just the beginning as well. We know Fallout 4 is going to be one of the most well supported games by the modding community, and in a year's time every conceivable problem can be ironed out. Fallout 4 is truly limitless potential.