Fallout 4 review: War never changes, and that's just fine
The post-apocalypse goes next gen
There’s nothing quite like listening to “Crazy He Calls Me” as the sun rises over an abandoned highway. A radioactive scorpion could attack at any moment, sure, but when Billie Holiday is in your ears, the end of the world doesn’t seem so bad.
The Fallout games are collision points of two disparate forces. On one hand, you have a role-playing game set during a horrific future in which nuclear war has decimated the population, forcing humans to become scavengers, fighting to survive alongside mutants and monsters. On the other hand, there’s hope. Hope comes from trying to not just live in this awful place, but thrive. Hope resides in Fallout’s 1950’s retro-futurism, an alternate timeline where humankind was on the precipice of a technological revolution that would improve life across the planet — only to be squashed by warheads. War never changes, and hope never really disappears.
Fallout 4, the latest game in the series and the first since New Vegas in 2010, shows off this duality more than any predecessor. Fundamentally, it’s not that different from Fallout 3, the game that transformed the series from an isometric RPG to a first-person shooter / role-playing hybrid. Fallout 4 still takes place in a huge open world, provides you with an incredible amount of freedom with which to customize your character, and throws you into dangerous scenarios cast with immoral baddies. The game also features the series’ infamous technical problems, with frustrating glitches and bugs that often pull you out of the experience at best, and at worst, lose hard-won progress.
But all of that — the world, the characters, even the bugs — are table setting at this point. What Fallout 4 adds to the series is heart. For the first time I really cared about what happened in the story, and found myself struggling with its moral dilemmas. I still spent dozens of hours tweaking my guns and killing feral ghouls, but this time, it felt like I was doing it for a reason.
Fallout 4 actually starts before the war. You play as a civilian turned vault dweller, literally frozen in time via cryogenic stasis, only to awaken hundreds of years later in this terrible future. At the outset, you have only one goal: find your kidnapped son. This directive pulls you across the entirety of post-war Boston, an area known as The Commonwealth, and, in typical Fallout fashion, into a story that expands to encompass more than just your personal struggle. You’ll deal with familiar groups, including the technology-obsessed Brotherhood of Steel, as well as new entities, like the mysterious and feared Institute. You’ll engage in massive, multi-faction battles and travel to a literal radioactive sea. In most games, this kind of epic quest is an assumed part of the genre, even if it’s not exactly believable or motivated. But in Fallout 4 it makes total sense: who wouldn’t travel to the end of the world to save their child?
Initially Boston doesn’t feel all that distinct from previous locations, like Fallout 3’s Washington, DC. It’s styled in brown and grey, sewn with burned out cars across crumbling highways. If you venture into an abandoned shop, you can bet it’s filled with zombie-like ghouls and lots of useless clutter. The city’s currency is, as always, discarded Nuka-Cola bottle caps. But Boston is also a great place for Fallout to revel in its own particular brand of Americana. It may be a few centuries (and nuclear bombs) later, but the passion for baseball hasn’t died, and the region’s biggest settlement can be found in the remnants of Fenway Park. Security guards are dressed up like umpires crossed with Mad Max, and the Green Monster helps save lives. Mercifully, serious Boston accents are few and far between.
Like the repurposed ballpark, Fallout 4 builds upon the familiar to create something new and strange. Chief among these new elements is the hardboiled detective vibe: one early line of quests has you partnering with a stereotypical gumshoe named Nick Valentine in the search for your son. These were some of my favorite parts of the game. Most Fallout quests are primarily about going somewhere and killing a bunch of people (or monsters), but the detective element is a welcome change to the familiar format. Similarly, Fallout 4’s narrative has a strong emphasis on synths, human-like androids that were only briefly touched on in past games. Their inclusion raises some expected but still fascinating questions about what constitutes life and sentience, things that will feel familiar to Blade Runner fans.
Neither of these additions are especially original on their own, but feel fresh within Fallout. They also help contribute to arguably the best story in the series to date. One moment you’re decorating a small home in the corner of the suburbs, the next you’re making decisions that will impact what remains of the world. The Fallout games always give you the option to align with particular interests, whether it’s a technologically advanced squad like the Brotherhood or the mysterious Railroad, but it feels more pronounced and important here. I spent most of Fallout 4 trying to play it safe, working with all sides, but as the climax approached I was forced to pick a side, and I genuinely struggled with my choice. This is Fallout, so it’s never really clear who is good and who is bad, and no matter what you’re forced to betray someone.
Of course the main story of a Fallout game is just the beginning of its adventure. Players will spend dozens if not hundreds of hours discovering what else the wasteland has to offer. Fallout 4 plays a lot like its predecessors, blending elements of FPS and RPGs into something that’s not quite either. You explore the world from a first-person perspective (you can switch to third person, but I wouldn’t recommend it) and attack as you would in any other shooter. But the returning VATS system also affords the option to play Fallout 4 like a pseudo turn-based game. VATS slows time, so that you can zoom in on enemies and determine the best shot to take. Your ability to do this is limited, and recharges over time, but it’s really the best way to play since Fallout isn’t the most capable shooter, with its frustrating aiming. The poor feel of shooting is most obvious when facing a swell of enemies without enough VATS points to guide your shots.
For the most part, the moment-to-moment action is very similar to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. You’ll wander the wasteland discovering new locations, and split your time between fighting, talking to other characters, and customizing your own. The streamlined perk system works well and simplifies character creation. I began by focusing on my character’s charisma, which let me talk my way out of a lot of sticky situations; as someone who isn’t so into the combat, this was the perfect solution. Later on I beefed up my battle skills in preparation for some big final scrimmages.
This familiarity largely benefits the game — Fallout is beloved for a reason — but it can also make it feel frustratingly dated at times. This is particularly true with the quests. Generally interesting from a narrative perspective, a quest’s action is often predictable and repetitive:
- Go to a location
- Kill monsters
- Collect an item
- Return home
After a while killing feral ghouls switched from scary to annoying. Occasionally the game puts an interesting twist on this structure — one highlight has you travelling through a life’s worth of memories from a dead raider — but those moments are rare, and so the quests can often feel like a list of chores more than anything else. It’s better than in past Fallout games, but in comparison to recent RPGs like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it can feel archaic.
One of the more refreshing changes is a focus on companion characters. Hardly new for the series, companions feel more robust and interesting than in games past. I rarely traveled alone. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that you can have a dog or robotic assistant accompany you through The Commonwealth, but you can also partner up with other humans. There are a lot of them (though only one can be with you at a time), and they make the game a lot more interesting. Not only do they help mechanically — they provide an extra gun and can hold items for you — but they add narrative depth. I spent most of the game with a reporter named Piper, and she would often act autonomously; as I walked around the city buying new gear and supplies, she would venture off and start interviewing people for a story. Companions will also react to your decisions, and I found myself making different choices because I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Unfortunately, the companions are also indicative of some of Fallout 4’s biggest problems. It’s a huge, complicated game, but it often feels like an experience built upon a brittle, aging foundation. I ran into numerous technical problems, from the mundane (characters talking over one another during dialogue sequences) to the game breaking (at one point I loaded a save and my character was unable to move at all; another time I couldn’t bring up the menu). People would block a door so that I couldn’t leave a building, and sometimes a character I needed to talk to would refuse to speak to me. I was able to get around all of these issues by restarting the game — I’d recommend saving often to avoid losing progress — but that might not be the case for everyone.
The companions, more than any other feature, suffered from these technical problems. During one early sequence, I had to follow a dog who was tracking someone’s scent, and he continually got stuck on trees and rocks, and at one point wouldn’t progress because he was distracted by a flying mutant bug that was too high for him to attack. I managed get him back on the trail after I spotted the tiny bug high up in the air, and shot it out of the sky. Other times, companions refused to follow me into battle, yet mysteriously showed up minutes later when I took an elevator to a different section of the level.
These moments really break the illusion that you’re travelling with something other than a video game AI. The companions also show the limits of what the game can do. They both add to the game’s realism, and take away from it. Over the course of the game my character and Piper ended up falling in love, yet when I took another character out on a date, I found Piper waiting outside of the hotel room the next morning. When I asked how she felt about our relationship, she gushed that she was on cloud nine, the happiest she’s ever been.
The other changes to Fallout are welcome add-ons rather than huge shifts. Take the new crafting feature, for instance. In certain areas you can break down old furniture, cars, and houses, and use those resources to craft more useful items and structures. I spent a few hours helping a settlement by making beds and water purifiers, and then keeping them protected with the addition of some well-placed machine gun turrets. It was a surprisingly satisfying diversion, and as I traveled throughout the game I was able to convince friends to join the growing community. But it’s also something that you can completely ignore if you want to. More useful is the crafting of weapons and food, which really makes you feel like a proper scavenger. Instead of eating a piece of raw, radioactive bear meat to heal, you can turn it into a tasty steak.
People often complain about new games not being innovative enough. More than any other medium, games are judged on their ability to do something totally new, to take what past games did and make them even bigger and better. Fallout 4 doesn’t feel particularly innovative. It introduces a few new features, ones that don’t change it all that much, and it retains many of the same problems as past games in the series, most noticeably the frustrating and consistent technical problems.
But it’s still very much Fallout — a game that doesn’t really need to change all that much to trigger that familiar mix of dread and joy. A new location and a much better story were enough to pull me into this world, and 60 hours later I’m not done with it. There are settlements I still want to finish building, and crimes I still need to get to the bottom of. At some point I plan to ignore everything altogether, and just wander into the wilderness to see what I can find. Even if I’m alone, at least I’ll have Billie Holiday’s voice to keep me company.
Fallout 4 launches November 10th on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.