Fallout 4 Review
The wasteland has stories. If you’re well-equipped and determined, you might just manage to survive long enough to learn about those stories. The nuclear apocalypse has come and gone and humans struggle to forge their way in a very new landscape, riddled with desolation and desperation. But buried beneath the filth and detritus, lurking just below the surface of some humans that have become animalistic, lies a glimmer of hope. This hope sits at the core of Fallout 4’s narrative and despite its slow start, occasional plodding pacing, and some small logistical issues, this is an adventure that will resonate long after completion. A dark world filled with mystery and promise, and you play a crucial role in the fate of humanity…hard to get more poignant.
Boston after nuclear fallout isn’t exactly a welcoming place. But that’s the point, is it not? The developers go to great lengths to present the player with an authentic and forbidding atmosphere, one that both stimulates your survival instinct and fills you with restrained wonder. And it’s only restrained because no matter where you turn, you’re forced to remember the way things must’ve been; i.e., what we’ve lost as opposed to what we might gain in the long run. In such landscapes, heroes are made and the weak are quickly eliminated. Setting aside the technical merits and drawbacks for a moment, this is a world capable of drawing you in and making you feel.
Strictly from a technical standpoint, it’s not the best-looking game you’ll ever see. I imagine franchise fans are okay with that because Fallout has never challenged for graphical superiority. Character models during cut-scenes appear old-fashioned and certain textures are just plain poor. And you can’t get away from a few small slowdown issues, especially when rooting around inside one of those burned-out buildings. Even so, where the game excels is in the construction of its vast environment. If you just stand and look toward the horizon, the sight is indeed impressive. This is how Fallout 4 grabs you with its scope and design; it’s not in the minute intricacies of visual presentation. And while we can’t ignore the shortcomings, we also should acknowledge the accomplishment.
The audio can – and often is – a big highlight, even if I believe the score could’ve played a bigger role when simply wandering (remember, you’ll be doing a lot of that, and a gently haunting and shifting soundtrack would’ve added some flavor). The voice performances are solid without being special, although a few characters really shine. The effects definitely take center-stage during the majority of the game, and these stellar special effects serve to amplify the aforementioned atmosphere. One’s immersion always increases when the mind actually believes what it sees and hears, and we often forget that our lives are filled with ambient and background sounds we typically dismiss. But these effects, which are abundant yet subtle in the game, help to solidify any virtual reality.
It’s a quaint 1950s alternate reality, in which you have a wife and a newborn son. The “alternate” part becomes immediately apparent when you meet your robot house assistant, and you get a whiff of uncertainty when a salesman shows up and offers you a space in a fallout shelter. If door-to-door salesmen can make a living selling such a thing, the possibility of a horrifying disaster seems oddly real. And before you really have time to think about it, it happens: There’s a nuclear panic and everybody who has a secure spot in an underground shelter is rushed to safety. The last thing you see before the elevator plunges below the surface is a massive explosion that will undoubtedly scorch the entire landscape. Life as you know it is over.
Worse yet, you won’t be spending your time underground trying to live a normal life. As some sort of government experiment, the survivors are frozen in a cryogenic state and at one point, you awake long enough to see two men open your wife’s cryo chamber, shoot her, and rip your infant son from her arms. Then you go back to sleep and wake up in the year 2277, where mutant cockroaches have infested a mysteriously empty facility. It’s time to begin. When you return to the surface, confused and shielding your eyes against the glare, you can’t believe what has happened. You spot an impossible creature off in the distance and everything in sight is destroyed. You can go just about anywhere but beware because exploring too far off the beaten path can be extremely dangerous.
Well, in point of fact, there is no “beaten path” and everything you do, especially at the start, can be extremely hazardous to your health. Some might even complain due to the steep difficulty of the first ten hours or so, because death is always right around the corner. It doesn’t help that humanity appears to have splintered into a series of safe havens and other, more unstable, makeshift towns. The situation really does seem almost hopeless but with every level gained, you feel just a little stronger, and with each new piece of equipment, you feel just a little safer when wandering about. There’s a hugely robust character advancement system that role-playing enthusiasts will love; you’ll spend a lot of time pondering the allotment of your hard-earned points.
I like that you have to earn your way to the top, and the depth of the character system holds your attention and rewards the diligent and thoughtful. Furthermore, your decisions have such a huge impact on the storyline that you actually start to think about those, too. In most games, there’s a well-defined line between “good” and “bad” but Fallout 4 takes another step into the realm of uncertainty. Morals take on a very different tinge when humanity is on the brink and you’ll soon find that sacrifice is inevitable. You just can’t have it all, so you have to make some tough choices. This, combined with the inherent challenge of building your character, is by far the most appealing aspect of the game, in my estimation.
Plus, the V.A.T.S. system is back and better than ever, which is another huge highlight for those who love their RPGs. When this mode is enabled, you can pinpoint specific body parts on your opponents; percentages will pop up, telling you how likely you are to land a hit, and how much damage you’ll inflict. With better Perception, these numbers are more accurate, and the mechanic lets you be quite meticulous. The one big difference – which admittedly, I don’t like – is that previously, V.A.T.S. stopped time completely; in Fallout 4, it merely slows time. Well, of course. Stopping for any reason in any video game these days is considered ridiculous and yes, I do place part of the blame at the feet of a populace with perhaps the lowest attention span in the history of the human race.
But V.A.T.S. still works exceedingly well and lends a cognitive twist to the standard run ‘n gun we find in most games with a first-person viewpoint (by the way, you can switch to third-person if you choose but I wouldn’t recommend it). On top of which, the system gives you an opportunity to evaluate your chances, which becomes all the more critical if you’re suffering from radiation poisoning or something like that. Perhaps more so than any other game I’ve played recently, Fallout 4 imparts a constant sense of urgency and impending doom. So, even when you feel pretty confident in your equipment and abilities, you’re always considering the distinct possibility of death. In this way, the game actually feels more like survival/horror at times than a typical action/RPG.
Between the stats that make you S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) and the perks you earn, there’s a lot to think about in regards to your character. Toss in those tough decisions you have to make and believe it or not, you’ll spend a ton of time in this game sitting back and just thinking. It’s not something you commonly do these days with video games, you know? Me, I’ve always been a specialist; I want to heavily invest in combat style that suits me, and this works out much better than the jack-of-all-trades approach. I’d say this is also true with Fallout 4 but the freedom and experimentation is so enticing that chances are, you’ll fiddle a bit. Undeniably, there is a massive amount of freedom throughout, from character progression to the far-reaching world.
Then there’s crafting, which can basically own your life if you get sucked into the process. If that doesn’t get to you, maybe the building element will and God help you if you can’t get enough of everything this game has to offer; you may as well quit school or your job. But there are issues and they don’t have anything to do with my personal distaste for the game (which you don’t really see here, do you?): First is your companion, Dogmeat. He’s a great friend to have in the wasteland but giving him – or any of the companions you recruit – commands can be cumbersome and irksome. It clashes with the generally streamlined nature of the rest of the experience. On top of which, the map functionality isn’t anything special; the world map has its limitations and the smaller maps for populated areas are even less helpful.
And while I’m certainly not one to say graphics lessened my enjoyment of any game, there’s no doubt that the lack of polish here is too evident. Throw in some glitches and mediocre non-interactive sequences, and there are times when you feel taken out of an otherwise compelling experience. Lastly, the pacing can be way off, even more so than in most open-world games that put a premium on exploration and discovery. There’s a plodding, methodical nature to certain parts of the adventure that really weigh heavily, and admittedly didn’t help my mood. I love subtlety and well-scripted downtimes in games but when you’re only wandering and trying to level up your character, there’s a decided MMO feel that I just can’t abide.
All in all, though, Fallout 4 is a masterful production that features a wildly ambitious and nigh-on unparalleled scope. There’s just so much to do that it often feels overwhelming, but this isn’t going to stop the franchise faithful. In fact, I’m sure they’ll welcome the deluge of options, content, and endless exploration. The choices you’re forced to make, how you build and equip your character, the crafting and building, and the largely oppressive yet intriguing atmosphere; all of this makes the game special. There are drawbacks, on both the technical and artistic sides of the production, which is why I don’t believe the game deserves anything more than a flat 9. At the same time, however, I had difficulty in considering a high 8 because really, when compared to the competition…yeah, it’s a 9.
The Good: Huge, wonderfully compelling world, filled with stories and sights. Great sound effects and decent voice performances. Solid control throughout. V.A.T.S. gives you that cerebral complement to combat. Character progression, crafting and building are insanely robust. Tough, thought-provoking player decisions.
The Bad: Minor technical hitches, like clipping and choreography issues. Pacing can take a serious hit. Clunky companion mechanic.
The Ugly: “Oh, there’s lots of ‘ugly’ in the wasteland but if you can see the humanity beneath it…”
11/11/2015 Ben Dutka