Video Games Review: Fallout 4 (PS4, Xbox One, 2015)

Friends and adventurers, the promised time is at hand. Vault 111 is opening and the Commonwealth awaits.

War. War never changes.

Fallout 4 is the first new title from Bethesda Game Studios since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim back in 2011. Fans have been wondering since Obsidian’s spin-off Fallout: New Vegas when they would next get to venture out into the Wasteland again. Fallout 4 arrives with awfully lofty expectations to uphold and, right from the minute it starts, it goes about doing everything it can to give fans the game they’ve been waiting for.

Fallout 4’s story begins in an idyllic art-deco neighbourhood on October 23, 2077 – the day the bombs fell. A news bulletin warns of the impending bombardment and your character and their young family are rushed from their home and into Vault 111. As the vault closes, they look back in time to see a warhead detonate not far from their home town and the shockwave rush toward them. 200 years pass and your character, the Sole Survivor, emerges from the vault into a bleak radioactive wasteland. Made up of what used to be Boston, and surrounding parts of Massachusetts and New England, this new wasteland is called the Commonwealth.

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The Commonwealth is very different to the Capital Wasteland from Fallout 3 in that is much more urbanised than the ruins of Washington D.C. Some may feel that this makes the overworld map feel a lot smaller than they were expecting but what this leads to is an increase in the amount of vertical exploration rather than horizontal. There’s plenty of real world locations that have been retrofitted to support the new post-apocalyptic way of life, my favourite being Fenway Park’s refurbishment into a settlement called Diamond City (as a Boston Celtics fan, I’ve been hoping to find T.D. Garden but, alas, my search continues).

There’s more colour in the Commonwealth than there was in the Capital Wasteland too. The early areas surrounding Sanctuary Hills, your hometown, are rather ashen, lots of greys and browns, but upon entering the urban and suburban ruins, you’ll find splashes of colour everywhere. Old, abandoned cars, faded billboards and bus stop ads, it all adds further character and atmosphere to an already atmospheric whole.

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Creating your character is about as easy as it’s ever been. You’re given total control over gender, facial and body features so that you can create a character that looks just like you, a beautiful, perfect snowflake or the most appallingly ugly human being ever to see the light of day. You’re also given access to the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system of stat management (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) and a table of hundreds of different perks. You are given an initial bank of points to spend on your base stats and another point for every level up, which can spent on a perk dependent upon how good the relevant base stat is. I’m sure the min-maxers are already foaming at the mouth to start exploiting this system to build the most game-breakingly overpowered characters possible.

For my first playthrough, I went with a more charismatic build, allowing me to manipulate everyone I met to achieve my goals that much faster (and raise a substantial bit of extra loot in the process). The second time out, I was a brawny, energy weapons expert with quite a bit of luck.

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Those who attended Bethesda’s PAX Australia theatre in the Expo Hall this year no doubt heard their presenter tell them that the team had gone to id Software for help crafting a shooter system that felt beefy and rewarding. That’s certainly the feel you get from shooting things in Fallout 4. The guns feel weightier, their balances a little more finely tuned and shooting from the hip or down the iron sights feels like a solid alternative to simply going into VATS for everything.

The ever-popular VATS does indeed return, allowing you to slow down time to get a more accurate bead on an enemy or isolate a particular weak point for punishment. Targeting the legs on a feral ghoul will send them toppling to the ground, putting one in the face of an unwary raider may net you an especially pleasant head gib. VATS also features a crit meter which builds up over time, in addition to your random crit chance modifier. Once full, you can pop it for a single, guaranteed crit on your next shot – perfect for taking down tougher enemies. The true beauty of this mechanic is that you can hold onto the crit between fights. As long as the meter is full, you can hang onto it until you need it.

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The big draw for weapons fans this time around is in weapon customisation. No longer are you bound to a cache of weapons looted from raider scum, you can now strip them down and turn them into nightmare fuel. The sheer amount of combinations is mind bending and the results cannot be argued with. You want that awesome gun from the trailer that shoots teddy bears? You want the junk launcher, which quite literally uses items from your junk inventory as ammunition. Got yourself a shotgun or laser rifle but feel that it would be improved with a bayonet and a hand crank? There’s nothing to stop you making that if you have the resources available. Armour, too, can be upgraded to better protect your adventurer, all the way up to a full-blown set of Brotherhood of Steel power armour, yours for the tinkering. The weapons crafting makes a great case for checking every building for supplies. If you’re the sort of person who picks everything little thing up, finally, you will have found your calling!

The guns aren’t the only thing that can be constructed to your liking, however. The advent of games like Minecraft means that customisation and ownership over one’s home base is important and Bethesda understands. To wit, they’ve included an entire system of building construction for you to mess around with. You can create entire towns with this system, I’m not even kidding. Everything, from building materials to power, food and water, adequate defenses and commerce, it’s all entirely down to you. You want to build a series of small steel houses for your little town of survivors to live in? Go right ahead. How about one gigantic ramshackle wooden McMansion in the middle of town to call your own? That is also a thing you can do. It’s so smart and the community is going to run with this mechanic in a big, bad way. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

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I can see some fans potentially being disappointed with the visuals in Fallout 4, but this is a concern that will likely only affect console players more than anyone else. There’s more than a few muddy textures in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One builds we used for this review, though the various character and weapon models are definitely a trade up from Skyrim in terms of detail. Having said this, Bethesda have never really been known for face-melting, cutting-edge visuals and I’m sure, with time, the modding community will create all sorts of amazing visual mods to enhance the experience (though whether those mods make their way to consoles remains to be seen). For now, just temper your expectations. Don’t go in expecting Star Wars Battlefront and you’ll be fine.

The thing Bethesda games are known for, however, is bugs. Specifically, for being absolutely lousy with them. We all remember dragons that would fly around backwards (and, on one memorable occasion in my case, become completely invisible). Thus, I went into this review expecting to be thwarted by bugs at every turn. I’m pleased to report that through the forty-odd hours I have been playing Fallout 4, I have so far only encountered a handful, mostly to do with clipping, and none that impeded my progress too badly.

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The one that troubled me most occurred in the PS4 version of the game while wandering through the ruins of downtown Boston. I was following the Freedom Trail and ticking off landmarks when my controller began to lag. I would move the right stick to look around and my character would stare straight ahead for two or three seconds before following the command. I wondered if I was getting bitten by the bluetooth and so I checked my connection. Nope, everything seemed fine. I changed controllers and the issue presented itself again immediately. Once I moved beyond this area, the issue seemed to resolve itself and I was allowed to go on my way again without any interference. I’m sure what caused it but I certainly hope I don’t run into it again. Like I say, didn’t run into that many (but I may have just been lucky).

Companions are also a big part of this experience. Where you could certainly have them tag along in other Bethesda RPGs, here it feels like the devs really want you to have a friend. From Dogmeat to a lawman trying to bring order to the Commonwealth to a reporter looking for story material, you’re never short of people to take with you. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little backup but every now and again I found myself telling them to go home and wait for me there. Dogmeat, in particular, had a very bad habit of getting in my way (though he was useful for clearing out anywhere containing landmines due to his apparent invulnerability).

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Reviewing a game like this is an incredibly difficult proposition. A game like Fallout 4 is dependent entirely upon player choice and there are plenty of people who are going to approach this experience very differently to me. And that’s okay, that’s the point of a game like this. The variations and different approaches to the same problems are what separates Bethesda RPGs from the rest of the pack.

Fallout 4 is the latest feather in an already heavily-decorated cap. It is desolate and crowded, complex and restrained, sad and darkly funny. It’s a shining beacon of player agency in a world of games that hold your hand and force you to progress through a linear narrative devoid of choice or consequence. I love Fallout 4. You will too.

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You have a lot of work to do, Vault Dweller. Better get started.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Boston is an excellent location choice; Staggering level of choice; Customisation is amazing
Lowlights: Probably not as pretty as some are expecting. Manage your excitement accordingly (or get it on PC)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Released: November 10, 2015
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One