I don’t want to to set the world on fire. Just most of the things that live in it.
One of the trademarks of every free-roaming Bethesda game I’ve laid my hands on is a point at the end of the tutorial sequence where the entire world is revealed to you. In TES: Oblivion you left the relative safety of the Imperial City’s sewer system to gaze across Elven ruins and the rising land beyond; the Shivering Isles expansion put you in a wooden shack, and then melted the thing in a technicolor miasma to revealed a sky only normally visible to those on acid. TES: Skyrim releases you from the dungeon that saved you from dragon fire and gently suggests that, as the worst is over, you should get on with it.
These openings are beautiful and cinematic, and they grab you emotionally, but they’re a little soft and photogenic. They are not the openings of the Fallout series, which are designed to rip you from a comfortable and sterile home and kick you out into a barren wasteland that has killed most of humanity, and is now going to try to kill you. Fallout 4 has you leave your picturesque village and descend to Vault 111 to escape nuclear desolation. As events unfold, you are separated from your family, and arise from the vault alone and naive. There is one overriding emotion: “What the fuck do I do now?”
This only works, in part, due to the beauty of the graphics – you wouldn’t have your breath taken away by a post-apocalyptic cartoon. Some of the textures on the console versions are a little lower quality than expected, and there are some drops in frame-rate in particularly demanding scenes, but the superb lighting and character models are more than enough to compensate. The experience is much smoother visually than in previous titles; for example, your character actually turns before starting to walk in a direction, rather than adhering to the hilarious ricochet physics of previous Bethesda games. Plus, for PC gamers, there are undoubtedly mods in the works that will genuinely make the Commonwealth look better than pre-apocalypse Boston in real life. There shouldn’t be any doubt that it’s leaps and bounds beyond Fallout 3, but as the debate continues to linger, here’s a comparison of the Protectron from Fallout 3 and 4. The advance is obvious.
The game begins 10 years after the end of Fallout 3, but there’s no chance of getting any of that sweet un-irradiated water: the Capital Wasteland of Washington D.C has been replaced by the Commonwealth of Boston. It is essentially more of the same as in Fallout 3 as there is only so much one can do with square miles of nuclear desolation, but any Fallout fan can tell you that this is no bad thing. Fallout 3 was a game so deep that a sister game, Fallout: New Vegas could sell for full price on the same systems, with the same game engine, and still receive critical and commercial acclaim. The map is big enough to intimidate and take genuine time to traverse, but still retains hundreds of the little intricacies that give Bethesda a reputation for the soul they put into their work – my most recent favorite is stumbling across a skeleton in the bath, with a toaster and a fork. No quest, no explanation, no reward. Just a little humanisation.
In line with keeping the map similar to previous console Fallout games, combat hasn’t seen much change since the days of the Lone Wanderer. It’s still ‘Elder Scrolls with guns and V.A.T.S’, the aiming system that lets you pick limbs based on a percentage chance to hit. There’s a little more emphasis on gunplay and tactical combat, such as the ability to shoot around cover that you’re pressed up against, but there’s little major in the way of change. If you want to spam V.A.T.S while running backwards for 50+ hours of gameplay, you still can.
With this said, there seems to be a little issue in the balancing of combat in the early stages of the game. Having played every game since TES: Oblivion on maximum difficulty, I flatter myself that I’m capable of proceeding at an acceptable pace on such a difficulty. However, the higher the difficulty, the higher the chance of ‘Legendary’ enemies spawning – basically very hard versions of standard enemies, always carrying some sweet gear. All enemies considered too high a level for you to compete with are marked with a skull, including these legendary enemies, and I’m coming to learn that anything with a skull is pretty much untouchable without repeated stealth headshots and a lot of grinding. Only at level 20 am I starting to becoming confident at taking on more than one enemy at a time – and that’s with an invincible companion to be my meatshield. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this patched slightly in the near future.
Despite this minor annoyance, it can be easy to forget that the core mechanics of Fallout 4 are as good as they are – as much of the core gameplay has stayed within familiar territory, it just feels the norm. The reason Fallout 4 has received so many positive reviews, and will pick up a lot of awards, is that the ‘if it ain’t broke’ mentality works sometimes. If you’ve put hours into previous Bethesda titles, this may feel like a re-skinning or an apocalyptic Elder Scrolls, and this will not stop you ruining your social life hunting for power armor.
One entirely new aspect of the game is the ability to construct. As you go through the game, you are able to take control of settlements on behalf of the Minutemen, a group of peace-keeping good guys who want to do something selfless and good for the people of the Commonwealth. As part of your responsibility to these settlements, the junk you collect can be covered into resources to build defenses, power systems, and structures for the people of your towns. You’ll need to provide them with food, water, beds, and a safe place to live, but can go as far as setting up marketplaces and equipment stations so you can utilise services in every corner of the Commonwealth. Essentially, you get to build your own wasteland.
As with any new mechanic – particularly one so divorced from dark RPG’s – there are some nitty-gritty issues. It can be hard to clip pieces of building together, and the foundations upon which old houses rested before you converted them into 200 wood and 1 ceramic don’t really fit the prefabricated abodes or the individual pieces too well. This is a pain to those of us who have what people who don’t understand OCD call OCD, that itch when things don’t fit. But on the other hand, it’s a wasteland. It’s supposed to be neat – the damned commies dropped a bomb on it. The freedom of choice and direction you have when building a settlement far outweighs the annoyance that my doorway is a little too far to the left.
On top of this, you have equipment customisation, which operates on the same resource principles as crafting; better start grabbing those shiny cans like a misguided kleptomaniac. You can turn a pistol into a rifle by sticking a massive stock on the back and a scope to the top; a laser rifle can become an old-school musket, with a hand crank to increase the power. Handheld nuclear launcher not powerful enough? Make it fire two nukes instead. The customisation leaves huge scope for originality and surprise, and it’s a joy to play with in the menus. It also extends to armor and clothing, so you can keep that starting set of power armor all the way through if you’re that attached to it. And build pockets into it.
Speaking of surprises, I am going to take a paragraph on behalf of Bethesda to address the glitches that you will undoubtedly experience in the early days of Fallout. This game is too big to not have a multitude of bugs upon release, despite a 7 year waiting period, and the saving grace of these issues is that they are, almost without exception, fucking hilarious. They range from NPC’s copying our Fallout 4 playing posture to people literally running into loading screens. Combine this with blood that acts akin to water in a sprinkler and tear-inducing ragdoll physics that once sent an enemy I shot in the head straight up into the air at 1,000mph, and you have too much novelty to truly be bothered when the game shits on you for no good reason. It’s got to be taken in good faith. Bethesda’s novel clumsiness shines through as always.
And once you accept those glitches as part and parcel of an incredibly complicated product, there is very, very little to complain about with Fallout 4. It has an incredibly deep and rich lore supporting one of the most tried and tested game engines in the world, and builds upon previous titles from the same developer without sacrificing the needs of the core gameplay. Even console versions without the specs or resolutions of a high-end gaming PC allow you access to a gorgeous game. There is a massive amount of content to be found, before any DLC are even released. And if you need statistical support, get this: PornHub’s traffic dipped by 10% of the day of Fallout 4‘s release. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what else to tell you.