Most role-playing games are set in fantasy worlds, which is why the post-apocalyptic Fallout series is so beloved by fans. But it was when Bethesda took control of the franchise, and moved the action to first-person in Fallout 3, that it really hit with a wider audience. With Fallout 4 the company hopes to further explore its futuristic fiction, build on its systems, and - we hope - correct its technical shortcomings.
Relics of the past
Set in Boston, Fallout 4 begins with America under the threat of nuclear war. The franchise's signature faux 1950’s suburbia tech is maintained but excitingly, for the first time, you get to experience a few moments of life before the bomb – literally moments.
The sirens begin to wail and you run with your family to Vault 111, just in time to watch the bombs hit as you are lowered beneath the earth. All is not as it seems, however, and upon being asked to step into a cubical to be “sterilized” you’re frozen for 210 years.
During a brief moment of consciousness you watch helplessly as a harrowing scene unfolds. Your partner is murdered and your baby is taken by raiders – instantly establishing the game's motivation.
Seemingly moments later you awaken in the empty vault. With nothing but a desire for revenge you head out into the world. Exiting Vault 111 the stunning expanse of the open-world stretches out before you, and your journey of discovery begins.
To Fallout 3 veterans the similarities are striking – which, at times, feels like a failing. Bethesda’s open world still manages scale wonderfully, with you able to interact with everyone, accept dozens of quests, and choose how you want to solve every problem presented to you.
But there is a trade-off for this complexity and ambition, much of which manifests in the characters and their AI. Characters regularly look awful and happily block your path, hover in the air, or stand in the most unnatural positions during important dialogues. With so much of the way I play the game revolving around conversation, this hit me particularly hard – though, mercifully, the writing did keep me invested.
You have to look past these initial failings, because what lies beneath is undoubtedly a better, more refined experience that builds on the wonderful world navigation and character building of Fallout 3.
Take the bad with the good
The first thing of note is the presentation and pacing. There is no hanging about, and after creating your character it take less than an hour to start out into the beautifully realized Boston wasteland.
Combat is also notably improved, with gunplay now more reliant on your ability rather than a hidden Perception or Agility stat. This change means that Fallout 4's fights can play out far more like a satisfying traditional shooter, with your own skills reflected in every shot.
VATs has also been changed to create a faster play experience. This system - which previously allowed you to stop time to target enemies - now just slows the action to a crawl. It is a tiny change, but one that keeps things flowing, while still giving you a little more time to plan attacks.
This accelerated pace is a constant theme. Rather than making you wait half the game to get fun toys like the power armor, it is a fairly early acquisition - although there have been some changes to it. Firstly, the advantages of this heavy duty equipment is not as pronounced, with its use throttled by the need for fusion cells to power it. Also, any armor you find is just a starting point as you can customize it with scraps and items you scavenge. This leads to some down and dirty - but kind of awesome - builds, with metal grills and plates welded on to add defense, or lead lining to provide protection from radiation.
Finding these upgrade elements and items is mercifully more streamlined than in other Bethesda titles. Stumbling upon a storage chest or table, you will be met by a helpful pop-up that stops you having to trawl through menus just to see if you want what is contained within. You can also easily break them down into useful parts, use them to craft, and check them for any interesting buffs they can provide. All that said, if you collect everything you find, managing your inventory can become a chore as you navigate the multi-layer interface.
Customization is not limited to weapons and armor, Fallout 4 also adds settlements. These bases provide a place for you to store your items, and to send any friendly survivors you discover in the wasteland. At some point this feels like an end unto itself, as the benefits of upgrading these areas – and defending them from raider attacks – only seem to aid further construction rather than any substantive gameplay advantage. But it does at least mean that you can find some use for everything you collect.
Wait for the dust to settle
Fallout 4 does not correct all the problems of its predecessor, with the same technical flaws dogging your every step. But it doesn't feel like Bethesda doesn’t care, it feels like it had greater aspirations. Instead of focusing on correcting some minor – often endearing – problems, it has instead spent its time working a larger, more fleshed out, and complex world.
It’s a fair trade-off, because Fallout 4 is a brilliant RPG and a worthy successor to the franchise name.