Fallout 4 is a Bethesda Softworks roleplaying game. I don’t say that merely to credit the studio upfront; if you have any experience with the studio’s other titles, it should serve as the easiest summation of what you should expect. There’s an overwhelming amount of new content here to love, with extensive new systems and a host of improvements to the existing formula Bethesda has been iterating on for the last decade or so. The formula remains the same, though, so if you’ve already dumped any hours into Fallout 3 or Skyrim, you probably already have a decent idea whether you’re on board or not. Fallout 4 stands as a monumental achievement in game design, world-building, and time-stealing, but despite marked improvements across the board, it can’t quite escape the technical shortcomings and derivative writing that have become studio hallmarks. Don’t get me wrong: if you like RPGs, a dystopian setting, or previous Bethesda games, you should absolutely play Fallout 4 – and you’ll probably deeply enjoy your time with it, as I did. In terms of systems, graphics, and design, it’s by far the best and most ambitious project Bethesda has produced. Just don’t expect a radical departure from what you already know.
Fallout 4 whisks you away from New Vegas’ Mojave Desert back to Bethesda’s East Coast stomping grounds, putting you in the shoes of a Boston Vault Dweller. One of the biggest improvements this new installment brings is the complete overhaul of the player character, manifesting itself as Bethesda’s first voiced protagonist (except, of course, for the pioneering Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, which has justly disappeared into obscurity). Gone are the days of the unnerving Oblivion face-zooming and the awkward stand-and-talk of Skyrim, as dialogues now play with some nifty dynamic camera work and solid voice acting, kind of reminiscent of how Mass Effect has handled dialogue in the past. For the most part, it’s exciting and looks pretty great – with the notable exception of Bethesda’s facial animation technology still lagging far behind the industry. The uncanny valley isn’t quite a strong enough term to describe some of the horrifying, “Oh God, what is happening to this person’s face, do they need a doctor?” level of contortion the NPCs undergo while trying to deliver their lines.
I’m sure those who lean in harder to the actual roleplaying elements of the series will bemoan being shoehorned into a single voice option. It would be nice to be able to choose from multiple voices during character creation a la Saints Row (the 30-something year old voices might sound a bit out of place coming out of the mouth of anyone not, well, 30-something), but even the as-it-is addition of player character voice acting goes a long way to engender some sympathy for the protagonist’s plight and flesh them out as more than a player surrogate.
I won’t delve into story details in this review, but suffice it to say that the writing bears more resemblance to New Vegas’ character-driven intricacy than Fallout 3’s flat emotional appeals. The backdrop of the Commonwealth’s mysterious Institute and android-catalyzed paranoia explores a part of the Fallout universe that we haven’t seen much of before, and allows for some pretty great story beats that edge more into the noire territory that some of New Vegas’ best storylines were steeped in.
There are a whole host of companions to help you in your fight. The interactions with these characters provide some of the best moments the game has to offer, with each companion feeling like they legitimately have goals within the world other than to serve as a pack mule and bullet sponge. It’s not terribly deep, but it does create a sense of place and engenders a level of personal investment. Helping flesh out the proceedings even further are some genuinely impressive set-piece moments; I can’t really divulge any without spoiling things that are best experienced organically, but the Wasteland feels more alive and of a grander scale than ever before.
Despite these across-the-board improvements, the writing fails to be revolutionary beyond the walls of Bethesda’s own studio. Video game writing has come a long way – for example, this year’s deeply personal, narrative-driven The Witcher 3 affected me as profoundly as any piece of media has – but Fallout 4 falls short of these marks, instead retreading well-worn tropes. And while it’s cool to see some cleverly tweaked Blade Runner in Fallout, it would also be cool to see some more nuanced, affecting writing emerge from Bethesda.
While the companions are certainly better than the dreaded cartoons of 3, they fail to reach the heights that were reached over 15 years ago with games like Planescape: Torment. The main quest, while affecting at parts, fails to meet the standards Bethesda themselves set with 2002’s Morrowind, which remains one of the single most unique acts of world-building in video games as a medium. Fallout 4’s lead voice actress said the game was like an “action movie with heart,” and that feels pretty apropos. While there’s certainly room for big-budget, explosion-y fun, media like Mad Max: Fury Road has shown that dumb fun and thoughtful, intricate writing don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The same narrative of “better, but not quite there” can be echoed for Fallout 4’s gameplay. Here, let’s just bullet point some facets and revisions of gameplay that are awesome:
- The world is way more vertical and far denser than anything Bethesda has made before. Boston feels way more like an actual city and less like the cordoned-off zones of Fallout 3’s D.C.
- The weapon modification system allows for a far greater amount of customization in playstyle, and helps incentivize exploration in areas that may not have a quest.
- The same praise can be given to the expanded loot/armor system, and the addition of more unique loot drops.
- The addition of settlement-building is…look. You know that satisfying feeling of building a perfect house in The Sims? Of pulling up that old junk in Viva Piñata and planting the new, beautiful, green grass? Yeah, I’ll probably lose quite a few hours of my life to beautifying those little pockets of hope in the Commonwealth. Finally, Bethesda has realized that we really want isn’t dragon-slaying or bigger guns: it’s interior decorating.
- The actual trigger-pulling feels way more satisfying than before, but still not up to par with even a decent first-person shooter. The decision to have time slowly creep forward during VATS selection helps build some great tension and lends a hectic, frenzied feel to the proceedings.
- Thank you, Bethesda, for just having a container or enemy’s inventory pop up when you hover over them and not making us go into a menu. I can’t give you enough adulation for this.
- The small touches of detail, like unique animations for each perk and each quest description, really stand out.
- As always, the mise-en-scène of the broken down buildings, howling wind, and distant gunfire is deeply immersive. Fallout has always really shone through in its moments of exploration for the sake of exploration, and seeing the bodies from the old world, piecing together their last moments from under the dust, is deeply affecting.
But as was foreshadowed, all is not well. Fallout 4 is still plagued by many of the issues that have haunted past Bethesda efforts. Animations are stilted, awkward, and break immersion. AI pathfinding ranges from passable to abhorrent, and occasionally game-breaking. As mentioned before, the facial animation most closely resembles marionette-esque contortion. The addition of settlement building/customization feels shallow, lacking the variety you would hope for (are there no sheets in this world? We have cloth, why can’t we put sheets on a single bed? This is apocalyptic). Sure, there’s always the hope (knowledge) that eventually I’ll be able to have more puppy pictures to decorate my home with thanks to mods; at release, however, at launch, there are more cat pictures than puppy pictures. And that’s absolutely not okay.
Speaking of things that need to be fixed, Bethesda’s track record of releasing buggy-as-hell games remains untarnished. Most of the bugs I encountered were pretty harmless, if not amusing: textures not loading, getting stuck in the geometry, absolutely busted ragdoll physics (please, don’t patch this), and the occasional clipping issue of falling through the earth into the nether below. However, in one instance, I ran into an issue where an entire town became hostile at me for seemingly no reason; this also happened to be the town where I needed to go next for the main quest. It wasn’t an issue I could even fix with the console, so I had to load my last hard save, which was about 50 minutes prior. Lessons learned? Don’t trust quicksaves, as each one overwrites the previous.
While the sound design is uniformly excellent, I have similarly mixed feelings about the graphics. Some fancy new lighting effects and a staggering amount of detail in level design help balance out lackluster textures that fluctuate between perfectly fine and grimily low-res. There are certainly some screenshot-worthy moments of beauty, but too often they’re interrupted by lackluster distant LOD or a texture that looks straight out of the early 360/PS3 days. The loading screens can also be horrendously long, rivalling Bloodborne at times: I once had a loading screen for two and a half minutes just to dump me from an interior to the main sandbox. I guess it’s worth noting the game was installed on my hard drive and not my SSD, but the wait was so long at some point I was just waiting to see whether the game had completely given up its lease on life.
It’s not my intention to come off as overly negative about the game. It is superior in nearly every way to every game Bethesda has produced before. It’s their most ambitious, best-playing, and prettiest project yet. They’ve been iterating on a formula for years, and this is their shiniest new iteration. Nonetheless, a creeping sense of sameness is encroaching fast, and at some point bolting on new systems to an old framework gives diminishing returns. Fallout 4 is worth your time and money, and a lot of the former at that; it’s also worth hoping that a studio with so much talent will soon take a look at their formula and, much like the Wastes, rebuild from the ground up.
This review is based off a review copy of the PC version of Fallout 4 developed and published by Bethesda Softworks.
- Bethesda's most ambitious, dense project to date.
- Gameplay and writing are uniformly improved.
- Voiced protagonist and new dialogue systems are smart additions.
- Yeah, there are bugs. A lot of them.
- Creeping sense of sameness for Bethesda RPGs.
- New systems feel somewhat shallow.