It was near the end of my journey through The Commonwealth, and I was deep underground. My companion and I were fully decked out in power armor stolen from the Brotherhood of Steel, firing gatling lasers at synthetic men who were mindlessly trying to take us down. One of them mutated after I shot him, his health returning as he charged us with a renewed sense of vigor. He was a legendary foe indeed, but nothing could stand in our way for long now that we were fully equipped, and he fell like any other. I went over to check his pockets, to see what awe-inspiring weapon he once wielded, what new power would be added to my arsenal. I pulled out a rolling pin that inflicted more damage to ghouls, no doubt inherited from a former member of Maud's Muggers. Welcome to a new wasteland, where that old adage is as true as ever. Fallout. Fallout never changes.
Fallout 4 is the long awaited direct follow-up to Bethesda's Fallout 3, taking advantage of all of the new Skyrim engine tricks to craft a wasteland that looks just as good as The Capital Wasteland felt in the past generation. It is a deep game, concerned with welcoming you into its world and letting you play around rather than focusing on a single narrative. You are the Sole Survivor, a vault dweller from before the bombs fell who finds themselves entering into the strange world of Ghouls, Super Mutants, and Deathclaws that we all know and love. You are on a mission to reclaim the past that will put you in contact with a number of factions, each warring over the technical marvel of synths and whether these robot doppelgangers can truly be gifted with humanity.
Taking a page from New Vegas, each of these factions tie into the main quest in interesting ways, with your ties to one group affecting your standing in the other and guiding you towards one of a handful of endings. It's certainly not as complicated as Vegas with that game's multi-tiered reputation system, but it lends the plot a depth that Fallout 3's main quest lacked and allows you to define your role in the world in ways that the rest of the game doesn't deliver on. I spent somewhere just shy of fifty hours with the game for this review, so I can't say that I've seen every piece of side content that the game has to offer, but the unique quest options I had during my playthrough were few and far between. Instead of ten to fifteen well defined side quests with interesting stories to tell, Fallout 4 is littered with procedurally generated side operations that task you with clearing out encampments and killing mobs of enemies. It ensures that you'll never lack things to do, but whether you'll actually be interested enough to engage in this busy work depends on how invested you are in the game's settlement building aspects.
Expanding on the Hearthfire expansion for Skyrim, and the countless building mods for many of Bethesda's games, Fallout 4 features a robust city management mode that is introduced as a major facet of the game early on and then mostly abandoned by the game's main missions after two or three brief reminders. If you do choose to engage, you'll find a fun diversion where you can attract wastelanders to your cities, assign them to farming or defensive roles, and eventually build up an economy that will generate caps and resources for you and your people. The system is completely optional in theory, but loot drops feel tuned to encourage at least keeping upkeep on a few settlements so that you always have resources piling in.
Even if you're not building settlements left and right, Fallout 4 will grab you with its weapon and armor crafting systems. Another trick taken from New Vegas (although admittedly better implemented here), every weapon you pick up in the wasteland can be taken back home and either stripped for parts or improved upon by strapping on scopes, bayonets, and muzzle breaks. Instead of picking up unique weapons from subway tunnels and caves, the game allows you to devise your own tools of destruction. The armor system is a lesser one, restricted to specific sets of limb armor and a few full body outfits. The vast majority of clothes you pick up from lockers on your travels are unable to be improved upon, which means that most players will stick to their vault suit and a random assortment of non-matching gauntlets and chest pieces that have the best abilities tied to them.
There are a few great unique weapons to find out there, but most of the best loot comes from marked legendary opponents that randomly pop up in enemy groups every so often. Each one is almost guaranteed to have an armor piece or weapon with a unique ability, which sometimes makes just wandering into a pack of super mutants as rewarding as completing a side quest. I ended up with a few great drops, including a flaming shotgun that became one of my mainstays. However, much like the quest system, the procedural nature of the legendary weapons takes away some of the joy of finding a unique gun at the end of a meticulously designed dungeon. Especially when the game decides at two separate occasions that you need a missile launcher that specifically does more damage to Radroaches.
The focus on lovingly pouring over a crafting table with your firearms is well warranted, as Fallout 4's moment to moment gameplay is much improved over the previous two entries in the series. Each gun feels great to use, and shots generally go where you aim them instead of relying upon stats and dice rolls. This is balanced with a shrinking emphasis on the VATS system, which just seems less useful now that it doesn't freeze time and your action points are generally at a premium. This will undoubtedly make the game more accessible to people looking for a story focused FPS game, and might leave some more traditional fans out in the cold, but it is the one place where I feel that the game has improved greatly on its predecessor.
The focus on crafting and improved gunplay both bring a lot to the formula, but these features are the exception that proves the rule in this case. I went back to play a couple of hours of Fallout 3 out of curiosity, and I was shocked at how similar my experiences in The Commonwealth felt to the Capital Wasteland. Their hacking and lockpicking minigames are identical, the same songs play on their radio stations, and the buttons you press for each action might as well be interchangeable. It is natural that there are some similarities in these worlds, as Fallout 3 and 4 take place in close to the same region and only about a decade apart from each other. However, from a real world perspective, Fallout 3 was taking the franchise in a completely new direction, and New Vegas was filled with experimental ideas and grand side stories that the Black Isle developers had been thinking about for years. Fallout 4 has neither of these things, settling in as an iterative game that seems content with its place as the next game you'll mod for a thousand hours from the people who brought you Skyrim.
This would generally all be pretty reasonable, as not every game that comes out has to innovate to be a success. However, there are also several steps back that Fallout 4 takes, steps that truly make it unable to stand up to what came before. I've already mentioned the flood of procedural content replacing at least some of the more unique side missions, but even the missions that do feel meaningful are hampered by the game's new dialogue wheel. Gone are the menus filled with a dizzying array of responses and checks for specific Perks and abilities. This has been replaced by a wheel that always has four vague options on it, no matter the conversation. Sometimes there are Speech checks, but they are much less numerous than before and generally do little to up the variety. There are precious few conversations where you can spend a good chunk of time exhausting a dialogue tree, and most conversations ended before I was ready to move on. For someone who plays Fallout as a smooth talker with high Charisma like I do, it was a dampening on the entire experience.
There are other minor annoyances as well. Despite being able to see your weapon strapped to your back in every Bethesda RPG since Oblivion, that isn't the case here, and the Sole Survivor instead pulls plasma rifles out of thin air. Since there is less meaningful side content, the man on the radio has less news stories to tell you about, and the interesting Silver Shroud vignettes are sectioned off on their own radio station instead of being integrated with the music, making both stations get stale more quickly. Stripping these features away hasn't done anything to fix Bethesda's specific brand of jank either, and some players will almost certainly run into game breaking bugs and situations where they will have to replay from a checkpoint that was made twenty minutes ago.
There is a lot to like about Fallout 4 , and no other franchise in gaming lets you do the things you can do out in the wasteland. However, by integrating a few systems from New Vegas, improving the gunplay, and calling it a day, Bethesda have created a lesser experience that may disappoint die-hard fans in the long run. The game ends with a generic cutscene depending on which faction you ally with, meaning that it is the first in the franchise to end without the slide show that tells you what each character's future will bring. The Fallout games have always had a strong attention to detail and player choice, tying small events into a grand narrative that always felt handcrafted. By chipping away at these features, Fallout 4 has lost some of the magic that the franchise once possessed, and no amount of base building and mods can bring that back.
This game was reviewed on Steam with a copy purchased by the reviewer.
A largely iterative game, Fallout 4 suffers from a limited dialogue system and procedurally generated content, but still excels at creating a world that is fun and rewarding to explore.