Fallout fans aren’t exactly quiet about any changes to their favorite series. When the second game came out I remember hearing complaints about not playing a Vault Dweller. When Fallout Tactics was released people were rather unhappy about the swap to more tactical gameplay with a user created squad. Things only got even worse when Brotherhood of Steel was released for consoles, swapping to a top down hack and slash that bore no resemblance to the series proper.
All of that happened before Interplay even closed so its easy to see why when the games were taken over by Bethesda people were dubious. You’ll hear lots of cries of Fallout 3 being “Oblivion with guns” due to Bethesda using a variation of the game engine used for the Elder Scrolls games. Personally I’ve enjoyed every entry in the series barring the console hack and slash. When it comes to the Fallout series I'm very open minded so long as it has the proper feel to it more than I am to the gameplay mechanics themselves. I felt it was important that this be established going in so people knew where I was coming from.
Fallout 4 tries very hard to do its own thing, unburdened by the past of the series. Fundamentally it still plays like Fallout 3 or New Vegas but there are an ungodly number of changes to how the game plays. While many of the basic gameplay mechanics are superficially similar to the games that came before there is much that has been changed under the hood. Obviously whether or not you’re receptive to all of these changes will greatly how you feel about it. It took me a bit of time to adjust myself in all honestly.
The changes become noticeable as soon as you hit character creation. Normally you get a bunch of SPECIAL points to allocate to your stats, here you barely get any. Then you notice that you’re not asked to select favored skills. Kinda weird. No picking starter perks either. Huh. Then you finally start playing the game and realize that the leveling up system has been drastically overhauled. Skills are replaced by your stats and the various perks you can take with the single point you get every time you level up. This means that your ability to sneak, lock pick, persuade people and just about everything else other than pointing and shooting your gun is based off of your stats with perks modifying them.
This system is... weird. I get what they were going for by streamlining the experience. It works incredibly well in that regard. But it has a strange effect on your character. When you first start out in each Fallout game your character feels competent but ultimately average unless you specialize hardcore. Here though you feel very weak to start with. The developers addressed this by giving many of the armor pieces the ability to boost your stats. Very quickly I found myself with a boost to strength, agility, perception and charisma to made my life a good bit easier. It was at this point that I realized it would be best to focus in on things so I eventually swapped over to giving myself bigger perception and endurance boosts to survive the bigger fights.
That’s another big change from Fallout past - the scope of the fights. In previous games you’d typically have to deal with only a couple enemies per room, typically moving from room to room shooting enemies as you go. Enemies are smarter and in greater numbers here so that’s no longer the case. You’ll walk into a room and shoot the first enemy before he notices you. Then four other enemies will pour into the room, taking cover behind pillars, desks, boxes or whatever else is around and start pummeling you and / or your companion with bullets. That’s the smaller fights by the way. There are some areas where you’ll walk into an enemy base and find yourself in a huge gunfight with dozens of enemies at once.
In previous games you could chew through whole rooms of enemies using the VATS mechanic. It was a lot easier to just lock onto enemies, blow them away, wait for your action points to refill and then do it again. Here though, that’s not the case at all. They added the ability for you to inflict critical hits on enemies using VATS, accrued by landing enough successful hits in VATS mode. You'll be surprised at how often you'll need this if you plan on killing these tough jerks in the Commonwealth with any form of expediency.
One of the worst parts about a game like this is trying to review the blasted thing. I got it considerably in advance but there are only so many hours in a day to play games. Normally this isn’t a big deal but with Fallout 4 it’s even worse than I expected. There’s so much content in the game that its incredibly easy to get lost in the world. After finishing the opening of the game I managed to lose 24 hours of gameplay before I remembered that there’s a main storyline to explore and I should probably check that out for review. Oops.
It’s a shame too since Fallout 4 has probably one of the most compelling plots in the series thus far. It’s hard to get into without really spoiling too much but the general gist of it is this: The Commonwealth, set in the Massachusetts area, is plagued by a new threat known as Synths. These androids have showed up previously in Fallout 3, a few of them appeared in Rivet City alongside Dr. Zimmer. There they were part of side quests, here they’re a huge part of the game itself. These constructs have begun fighting for control of the wasteland and battling humans, ghouls and super mutants alike for control. It’s not uncommon to come across any of these groups fighting each other or even three way battles at a raider or super mutant outpost.
That’s just the beginning of the craziness going on here though. Fallout 4 has a number of set pieces that rival the awakening of Liberty Prime in Fallout 3 and are all incredibly impressive. There’s one that happens after dealing with your first real storyline threat that immediately springs to mind. Seeing that one was a real game change for the Fallout franchise as a whole. It’s likely going to be controversial among the more hardcore fans but it’s still an incredibly impressive part of the experience.
Another impressive change is what they’ve done with power armor. Previously the power armor was nothing more than just another suit of armor for you to wear that was desirable since it boosted your stats in addition to damage protection. Here though it’s something else entirely. You gain access to one fairly early in the game but using it is highly restricted thanks to the fact that you need fusion cores to provide battery life to the armor. Without that it’s a giant paperweight. But while you’re wearing it your defenses go through the roof, allowing you to go toe to toe with anything from a Deathclaw, super mutant behemoth or an army of angry synths.
It’s an interesting balancing act using your power armor. You need those cores but they’re expensive to buy and hard to find. You’ll find maybe one in any indoor location with a power supply, that’s about it. I ended up hoarding them for the first half of the game or so and then using the armor to bull rush my way through some of the tougher, late game encounters. That’s before you even craft some upgrades for the armor that make it even more overpowered.
In Skyrim I found the crafting system to be an amazing addition to the game. Here it’s been expanded upon and made yet more impressive still. You can modify nearly every aspect of your various weapons and armor to improve their various aspects. Many of the various types of weapons have been broken down into mods for other, simpler weapons. For example a sniper rifle is nothing more than a hunting or combat rifle with a scope, long barrel and weapon stock. An even better example is the humble laser pistol. Add a stock and barrel to it and now you have a laser rifle. Add in a beam splitter and you have a tri-beam rifle. Throw on a scope with the sniper body and you’ve got a laser sniper rifle. Armor crafting isn’t quite as expansive but you can definitely adapt your equipment to your play style.
This led to a bit of a problem I had with all of this tinkering. There’s so many damn junk items to be gathered for materials, so many different types of materials to be gathered, that it’s nearly impossible not to get overloaded with stuff. It only gets worse when you start using the cooking station to create a wide variety of foods with various buffs and bonuses on them. This problem then proceeds to double down when you realize that upgrading your equipment often makes it weight even more. This means that anything that boosts your strength or carrying capacity is of more value than even most of the defensive boosts which is kind of a shame.
Luckily you can store your goods in the crafting benches in a location, like one of your settlements. Oh did I say settlements? Yes, that’s right. The vault dweller will be helping various farms, co-ops and villages with their issues and they in turn will agree to join the Minutemen, the militia that serves to protect the Commonwealth. You can construct defenses against raiders or build shops to promote trade. It’s even possible to set up a power grid with lights, laser turrets or a radio beacon to attract new settlers. More impressive is how it lets you build houses - you can lay down the individual walls, floors, ceilings and just about anything else you could ask for. I've created some rather sprawling lodges for my settlers in the wastes. It's a little irksome that there's no way to smooth the land down so your fences and such may end up sticking out into thin air but the workshop interface is a pretty powerful tool to just be plopped into a game like this.
This is a lot of fun for a micro-manager like me but it comes with its own hassles. I don’t mind having to go back to help defend places occasionally but it is a huge pain that your resources aren’t shared between settlements. Instead you have to turn people into provisioners and create shipping routes between settlements. This lets them share excess food / water and access your supplies from any of these locations but it prevents these settlers from doing more productive work, like farming. It’s manageable early on but it becomes a pretty huge nuisance as you unlock more and more settlements. Since you'll regularly hear about settlements requiring your aid these start to add up pretty quick unless you choose to deliberately ignore these side quests.
One area where Fallout 4 inarguably shines is in the graphics. While some of the facial animations can be a bit on the odd side everything else is absolutely smooth as butter. All of the character models look great and the environments are incredibly well detailed. Since you’re in New England you can expect lots of large buildings and a more densely populated world, both in regards to people and structures. If you get high enough you can often look around at an entire city off in the distance or just see the various locations waiting to be visited off in the distance. All of this runs very smoothly on the consoles unless there are a huge series of explosions happening. It comes together to create a visually powerful experience that never falters while still throwing things that you've never seen before at the player.
An area where the Fallout games have rarely disappointed is in audio design. A great soundtrack full of old timey music paired up with phenomenal voice work really brings the world to life. As a first for the Fallout games you have a voiced main character as well. I was initially concerned by this as the blank slate nature of the character lets you put yourself into the heroes shoes more easily. However since you’re not restricted in how you talk or act towards people in any way there’s really nothing stopping you from just projecting yourself on him. Don’t like someone? Insult them repeatedly. When you meet someone kind then chat with them amicably. There’s no real penalty to acting how you like, when you like so this change is fairly minor as far as immersion goes.
With all of this said special attention should be brought to the PC version. While the game itself seems devoid of the various problems that plagued Skyrim, the system requirements on it are crazy. I have a pretty powerful desktop computer and Fallout 4 could barely hit 30 fps at low graphical settings. I’m not sure if it just doesn’t like my video card or what but it runs terribly. Check those system requirements and if you aren't sure about how well the game will run on your rig then do not just blindly buy it and hope that it works. You'll likely be disappointed.
I’m not going to say that this is a completely perfect game - it has flaws. But like any great piece of media it balances out any of its flaws with lots of good stuff. If there’s an issue it’s clearly because they tried something fantastic and it only half-succeeded. It just means that in later expansions or downloadable content there is plenty to build and expand upon. Plus the promised mod support for consoles? Oh very much yes. The overall package for Fallout 4 is one of the first must own titles of the newest console generation and it is one hell of an amazing experience.
Editor's Note: A whole lot of time was devoted to Fallout 4 before this review went live. Over 100 hours were devoted to the Xbox One version, as the primary platform of review. Only two minor issues ever cropped up, that of the game failing to load (fixed by a hard reset) and Sanctuary showing up as constantly in trouble. No real fix was available for this. About 15 hours were spent with the PS4 version, no glitches were found. On PC about 7 hours were spent playing around and no issues were found beyond harsh system requirements.