By the time you see this, dear reader, I will have spent 30 hours playing Fallout 4, and I am by no means anywhere near the end of this massive action RPG. On the contrary, I've barely scratched the surface. In my short time back in the Wasteland, I've founded six settlements, donned a suit of Power Armor and faced off against the irradiated denizens of a ruined world. I've learned that in spite of gigantic scorpions and bloodthirsty horseshoe crabs, man remains the most dangerous animal alive. Oh, yeah — and that war never changes, but a video game just might.
Out of Time and Place
In Fallout 4, you're once again cast as the Vault Dweller, a survivor of a nuclear war that took place in the 1950s. You, your spouse and your baby were frozen in cryogenic chambers — but 200 years later, you’ve awoken to find your spouse murdered and your child kidnapped. Once you free yourself from the vault, there's only one mission: Find your child by any means necessary.
Outside the vault, you find what's left of Boston — mutated animals, highly irradiated humans and unfeeling androids called Synths. But you'll also find allies willing to aid you, as well as hints of an America long gone.
One of the first major settlements you discover is built upon the ruins of Fenway Park. In one exchange with a resident, I learned that people thought the sport consisted of the two teams actively trying to beat each other to death.
Despite the new plot and characters, the game still plays like Fallout 3. Many of the quests consist of the same old formula — receive a mission assignment, go to mission location, kill things, retrieve an item, bring it back, rinse, wash, repeat. You'll also find yourself doing a lot of side missions to earn enough experience points to let you carry more gear and wield better weapons in the main missions. It's a grind with which fans of Fallout will be familiar. I met several interesting characters during my grind session, including a pharmacist who sent me to find some mutated herbs — for medicinal purposes, naturally.
Playing Fallout 4 felt like catching up with a good friend I hadn't seen in awhile. But something about my friend had changed: Bethesda has toned down the morality system present in earlier iterations of the series. If I decided to murder an innocent person in Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas, I would earn points toward creating an evil character. If I did it in Fallout 4, I might get a look of disapproval from someone, but that would be about it.
Without the morality system, I developed a more nihilistic approach to my game play. This allowed me to explore all of my moral triumphs and failings, but it didn't feel like being a good person — or not — mattered one way or the other.
Just Putting on My Face
Unlike the two previous entries, Fallout 4 doesn't begin in the vault. My journey instead began in my bathroom in the 1950s with my spouse as he practiced a speech he was scheduled to give later in the day. It's here, at the bathroom mirror in your skivvies, that you customize your Vault Dweller's look.
The character creator is at once simple and complex. To change a specific facial feature, such as jowls, forehead, lips or jaw, I simply moved the cursor and hit X on my PlayStation 4 controller. Moving the right stick up or down would cycle through the possible looks. For example, when cheekbones were selected, pressing up repositioned them upward, while holding the stick downward set the position lower. You can sculpt perfect upper or lower jowls, or the position of your nose's bridge, nostril size or overall position on the face.
What really impressed me was the wide range of skin tones and ethnicities available. In addition to several skin tones that could be used for African-American and Latino characters, Fallout 4 also had several palettes depicting Asian features.
Using the tools at my disposal, I made reasonable facsimiles of my boyfriend and myself. I spent about 30 minutes making both models, which yielded a baby whose skin tone split the difference.
Well Aren't You S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
After you've set the look of your nuclear family, it's time to go about the business of living your life. After checking on the baby, you answer the door to greet a Vault-Tec salesmen. This may be one of the most important conversations you will have in the game, as it sets up your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. A Fallout standard, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system allows you to allocate 21 points between seven key categories: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck.
How you divvy up the points can influence how many items you can carry, whether you can pick a lock or accurately target enemies, as well as many other abilities. For example, if you don't assign enough points to intelligence, your conversations will be a series of grunts and broken English.
But since Fallout 4 is an RPG, you can rise above your meager station through perks obtained via leveling up or by finding special magazines and Vault-Tec bobbleheads, which add a permanent bonus to your overall stats. When I happened on the Melee figurine, all my attacks utilizing bats, knuckles or any bludgeoning tool got a 5 percent attack bonus. Finding an issue of Life and Love magazine in the rubble raised my maximum health. It's a huge incentive to go exploring every nook and cranny of the Commonwealth.
Another method to improve your stats lies in the perks system. When you reach a new level, a perk point can be assigned to a specific feature on the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. chart, which further supplements your chosen attribute loadout. I was pleased to see that perks from Fallout 3 and New Vegas such as Black Widow, which increases your Charisma points with men as well as your overall damage potential, made the leap to the latest title. Other returning perks include Lead Belly, Mysterious Stranger, Bloody Mess and Cannibal.
Perk points can also be added to your initial S.P.E.C.I.A.L. setup, which makes sense in some cases, but I found myself placing the majority of my hard-earned points on perks. I mean, who can resist the chance to stealthily place a grenade into an unsuspecting foe's pocket? Not this gamer.
Horrifying Mutations Never Looked So Good
Bethesda applied a heavy coat of next-gen polish to the Wasteland, and the world looks better for it, especially the fauna. Everything about my German Shepherd companion, Dogmeat, looked perfectly normal, down to his signature brown-and-tan markings. His unassuming fuzziness is comforting and purposeful, because it's the only instance of cute you'll get in this nuclear horror show.
In previous iterations of Fallout, Mirelurks — the local mutated crabs — just didn't look threatening. In Fallout 4, when I heard their telltale skittering, my pulse raced as they rushed toward me with glistening greenish-grey carapaces and barnacle-caked appendages. The beasts’ offspring are just as disturbing — just picture a tick after it's gotten a full feeding, and give it a 3-foot circumference.
Ghouls, or humans exposed to so much radiation they look like desiccated zombies, have also gotten a makeover. Whether they’re man or woman, expect grayish skin pulled tautly against the muscles, with gleaming black eyes and sad, open wounds where noses used to be. Scant traces of hair, as fine as corn silk, still grow from their scalps and blow wildly as the Ghouls are lunging and hissing at you, ready to tear you limb from limb.
Just Call Me Deadshot
As you're exploring the Commonwealth, it pays to have your head on a swivel and a bullet in the chamber. When a surprise attack happens (and it will), you'll be thanking your irradiated stars for the V.A.T.S., or Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, which lets you target specific body parts on an enemy, including head, arms, legs and torso for a chance at grisly, yet satisfying amputations. A key difference between this system and the V.A.T.S. of old is that the current model only slows down time instead of freezing it. The bad guys can still lob shots at you, so you have to be decisive and quick on the draw.
When V.A.T.S. is triggered, you can quickly cycle between enemies and see the likelihood of your attack connecting. Effectiveness hinges on several variables, such as the type of weapon you use, your distance from the target and your number of action points (AP), which determine how many attacks you get per turn.
The V.A.T.S. system worked wonders when I was being attacked by two or more foes. I quickly chose which parts of my enemies’ anatomies I wanted to alter, and boom! After a few well-placed shots, one was left bleeding out from the bloody stump where his right arm used to be, while another's head exploded in a geyser of blood and brains.
The shooting mechanic is solid and responsive, but you definitely have to keep an eye on your AP points, or else you'll be caught reloading while the enemy is unloading on you. I love the fact that I can toggle between first- and third-person view at my leisure. I typically play Fallout from the default first-person perspective, but third person did help me get the drop on several enemies in wide-open spaces.
It's Dangerous to Go Alone, So Don't
Whether you're exploring a spooky basement or the wide-open Commonwealth Wasteland, get used to being attacked by two or more enemies at a time. These fights can get a bit hairy if you’re by yourself, which is why you should make use of the companions the game has provided.
I've come across six traveling companions, but you can travel with only one at a time, which is kind of a bummer. The first, Dogmeat, is a returning character from previous Fallout series. I was glad that I couldn't accidently kill him with a misplaced bottle cap mine as I did in Fallout 3 (sorry, fella). He can get hurt in battle, and it's your job to heal him — or not. The dog — and many other companions — magically healed themselves once the battle had concluded.
All the companions have learned new tricks. Dogmeat can search for items and enemies; another character can hack any computer terminal, no matter the difficulty. Your traveling buddies can also carry things for you, so you can scavenge to your heart's desire.
Your good or bad deeds can affect your relationship with your current companion. Most of my new entourage approved when I picked a difficult lock or hacked a terminal. But they were not pleased when I stole or charged people for saving them from Raiders. Anger a buddy enough, and he’ll refuse to travel with you. In those cases, I switched to a companion whose moral ambiguity suited my purposes.
Fly in the Ointment
As pretty as Fallout 4 is, there are noticeable bugs. On both PlayStation and Xbox, the camera inverted several times, giving me a look inside my own empty body. If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, there were instances in which I mowed down an entire army of foes, only to see someone, or something, twitching long after the life drained from its eyes. These bugs were annoying, but somewhat funny — something at which you'd roll your eyes and say "Oh, Bethesda" in a wry tone.
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But in one case, the dialogue options didn't show up, forcing me to choose an option that wouldn't gel with my Vault Dweller's personality. The end result forced me and my companion to kill off an entire town that I had just spent the last hour or so running missions for, so I'd be accepted into the community. Thank God for Quick Save.
Speaking of which, here's a pro tip. Save often. Exploring the Wasteland is a risky proposition, and you don't want to lose precious resources and experience points because of an errant Yao Guai or Radscorpion attack. It will happen, and you'll have to backtrack to try to recoup your losses. In a game that can take a minimum 100 hours, you don't want that.
Remaking the World in My Image
Denizens of the Commonwealth aren't the only things worth seeing in the Wasteland. Traversing the hollowed-out shell of a world struggling to rebuild itself is a constant reminder of the beauty to be found in abject ruin. Irradiated Boston was a mix of abandoned buildings that stood as evidence of a far-gone world, and the desperation and hope of one crawling back from the edge of extinction.
Beyond the city lay vast swaths of cracked highways littered with ruined cars and sparse, but determined, vegetation slowly reclaiming the world. It's here where you can make your mark on the world by establishing settlements. The building mechanics are similar to what you'd find in a survival or tower defense game. You can build prefab abodes from wood or steel, or create them piece by piece, including walls, roofs and floors, from the junk you gather around the Commonwealth or scavenging materials laying around the settlement.
In addition to creating shelter, you also have to provide enough food, beds, power, water and defense to support a (hopefully) growing community. Once you unlock certain perks, you can develop lines of trade between settlements and open stores, which creates a steady line of revenue.
Of the six settlements I started, I've obtained steady growth. But every time a new settler shows up, I have to return to add another bed, more food or some other resource. Suddenly I found myself spending an hour trying to make everyone happy — time that could have been spent working on the main quest line. Overall, I think this settlement feature would be better-served in a Fallout MMO offshoot.
It's Armor and Crafts Time
The other major new feature is the crafting system. Scattered throughout the Wastelands are Weapons and Armor workbenches that allow you to modify your weapons. Assuming you have the necessary mods, perks and components, you can transform your average peashooter into something that would make Dirty Harry jealous.
My favorite aspect of the crafting system is the ability to trick out your own set of Power Armor, which is created by the Brotherhood of Steel faction and is like wearing a mobile tank. You can carry more items, wield bigger weapons and absorb more damage than without it.
In previous Fallout iterations, you got to use the armor in only a couple of missions. But in Fallout 4, you can use the powerful suit throughout the entire game, if you have enough fusion cells to power it. You can also repair and modify the suit, adding all manner of defenses, depending on the situation.
The Soundtrack of My Life
It just wouldn't be Fallout without the music. Diamond City Radio and Classical Radio provide players with musical accompaniment in the Wasteland. I preferred Diamond City, as it delivered a jaunty mix of 1940s jazz, swing and blues, which was surreal, given the game's bleak backdrop. Holdovers from previous Fallout titles, such as Billie Holiday's "Crazy He Calls Me," Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" and Roy Brown's "Butcher Pete" remain in the rotation, alongside new additions such as Bing Crosby's "Pistol Packin' Mama" and Nat King Cole's "Orange Colored Sky."
With the radio switched off, I was left to listen to my own heavy plodding footsteps, set to sparse musical accompaniment. The music springs to life in a combat scenario, surrounding you in a swell of tense strings, meaty bass and urgent horns.
War might never change, but Fallout has. As the first next-generation entry into the series, Fallout 4 delivers the polished graphics, kitschy music and eclectic weaponry we expect, but not without Bethesda's usual cadre of bugs. The massive open world is ripe for exploration and modification, but its seemingly endless side quests can get repetitive.
I highly recommend the main plot line, which is one of the most emotionally engaging stories I've encountered in the series. The new-settlement component of the game is an acquired taste, but it does offer a break in the monotonous grind and really lets you make an impact on the world.
Overall, Bethesda gives fans of the Fallout series more of what they love, while tweaking the formula enough to entice new players. Either way, Fallout 4 is a must-play title.