Fallout 4 Review – A Welcoming Wasteland
Fallout 4November 10th, 2015
I'll admit, earlier this year I didn't think I would have been able to play Fallout 4 in 2015. Bethesda managed to surprise everyone by announcing the game at E3 2015 and releasing it less than six months afterward.
I wish more companies were able to do this, honestly. Following a game for years eventually becomes tiresome, not to mention that it builds up hype in ways that can potentially damage the gaming experience itself. I'm also grateful for my experience in the game - while it is far from perfect and I can see that more clearly now that I'm dissecting it for this Fallout 4 review, it's also very engaging and addictive; it kept me hooked for ten straight days and over fifty gameplay hours, with plenty of side content still left.
Fallout 4 allows players to choose between male and female protagonist, which is a first for Bethesda games (not counting mods, of course). The game begins with the chosen protagonist and his/her family securing a spot in Vault 111 and running to it just as the nuclear bombs are falling.
As franchise fans already know, Vaults were really about scientific experiments set up by the government of the United States. In this case, Vault 111 was meant to be a way for scientists to observe the effects of cryogenic stasis on unsuspecting subjects: upon entering it, a few staff members asked our main character's family to enter the pods for "decontamination", but it was really to activate the stasis.
At this point, our protagonist is only awakened (while still trapped inside the pod) to witness the murder of his/her partner and the kidnapping of his/her son, Shaun. Stasis is then reactivated by the perpetrators of this heinous act and the main character is only able to escape the pod an unspecified amount of time later, with the main goal to find Shaun in this new world.
Of course, this being a Bethesda game there's no particular rush to do just that. The entire Commonwealth (Massachusetts) wasteland is open from the beginning, and it's really a beautiful place.
The art style is, in my opinion, a major improvement over Fallout 3. Fallout 4 takes place in 2287, just a decade after its predecessor and well over 200 years after the nuclear bombs fell over the world - it makes sense that life is starting to thrive once again, albeit mutated by radiation. A post-apocalyptic setting doesn't necessarily have to translate into a drab, depressing environment and Bethesda demonstrated that in Fallout 4; it's a pleasure to roam the land this time around as it provides some genuinely awesome vistas.
This is also thanks to the graphical updates made by the developer in Fallout 4. While the game won't win any award for Best Graphics, it looks positively great at times, at least on a PC with settings tweaked over the default maximum.
The introduction of Physically Based Rendering clearly makes a big difference in bringing to life the wasteland and everything in it. The new god rays (developed jointly with NVIDIA) are also a noteworthy addition; I recommend to keep them on, even if on low or medium settings. If you have the performance to spare, doubling the shadow map resolution (from 4096 to 8192, as noted in our tweaks guide) brings marked improvements to shadows. Animations, including facial ones, have long been the technical thorn of Bethesda titles; Fallout 4, despite not having the best in the industry, sports noticeable improvements in this regard as well.
Fallout 4's general performance, though, can't be fully commended. Early in the game everything runs smoothly, but the true performance test happens in the ruins of the old Boston, which are filled with lots of buildings casting shadows. There, performance crumbles to low 30FPS even with a powerful GPU such as the GTX 980Ti, which made me shy away from that zone as much as possible. Elsewhere in the game performance is quite satisfying, but that's arguably because there are few, if any, buildings and/or characters in sight most of the time.
Overall, it's not a disaster mainly because the problem is concentrated in that particular zone, but gameplay in there is definitely impacted unless you are willing to dial back settings like shadow distance and shadow quality. With a PC worth well over 1000€, though, this should not be needed.
As with any Bethesda game, exploring is the best thing you can do in Fallout 4. There are tons of references for lore enthusiasts hidden in notes, terminal logs and holotapes (which you can either play on terminals or on your Pip-Boy); what's more important is that it's possible to find some great side quests even by accident while moving through the wasteland (or listening to the radio - try to do that as much as you can). Some of the best ones actually moved me and made me think for a minute of real dilemmas that could happen in post-apocalyptic Earth; sadly, most of the side quests actually use randomized and repeatable templates that become stale after a while, such as "go here and kill these guys/retrieve these items".
The main quest is also somewhat of a mixed bag, even though I found the first part to be quite interesting which made me eager to see the rest of it. There are four main factions in Fallout 4: the Minutemen, the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood of Steel. You can join and stay with all of them for a while, which is nice as it provides some measure of perspective regarding their objectives and ideologies. I've also appreciated that none of them (save perhaps for the Minutemen, who are basically a Commonwealth people's militia) can be defined as truly evil or good, as there are a lot of gray areas in all cases.
However, after a certain battle fought by all the factions at once, everything becomes a lot more confusing. At that point, you basically need to choose one of the factions, but the repercussions are underwhelming to say the least. In my case, I chose to side with the Minutemen which turned the Institute hostile; at the same time, though, the Brotherhood of Steel remained in a sort of limbo where no faction NPCs acknowledged my choice.
All of the secondary NPCs kept addressing me as a Knight with deference and treating me as one of them, and I was still able to complete secondary repeatable quests for the faction. However, the main faction NPCs suddenly didn't speak to me anymore, including Elder Maxson who simply said "I don't have any task for you right now" or something along those lines.
It's more than just that, anyway. Generally, the factions' motives and beliefs aren't fully explained; for instance, the Institute is seen as the ultimate enemy by all the other factions and generally by the people of the Commonwealth. When visiting the Institute, the faction leaders repeatedly state that there is no merit to those claims, because the Institute's goal is ultimately to create a better future for mankind and they have a plan for it.
However, this is never detailed for the player in a convincing way, and even after you've taken over the faction there is no way to make changes to the existing directives. It's a pity, because Bethesda built some solid foundations for what could have been great storytelling, but it ultimately left the work incomplete, just like one of the wasteland's ruined buildings. Even the ending - there are two different ones, the others being just variants - left a sour taste in my mouth, which I wiped off by adventuring out into the wasteland once again.
Aside from stumbling into cool quests, a thorough explorer can also find useful items and collectibles by searching the environments carefully. There are two main categories of such collectibles in Fallout 4: bobbleheads (which grant permanent boosts to either S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats or skills) and perk magazines (which grant certain perks or benefits).
After gathering enough of them, I can safely say that exploration is properly rewarded in Fallout 4, perhaps even too much overall. As a level 40 character, I now have enough Fusion Cores to use my Power Armor whenever I want, which coupled with my maximized melee build made my character unstoppable in all situations on Hard setting. I tried playing on Very Hard, but then I encountered a peculiar issue: my guns (for which I managed to gather loads of ammunition) are pretty much useless in terms of damage, which renders my character extremely vulnerable against turrets and enemies that are positioned on an upper level.
As such, I was forced to go back to Hard. I wish Bethesda would have made ammunition and cores more scarce even in non-Hardcore modes, but modders will probably be able to fix this.
The core combat of Fallout 4, meaning the shooting mechanics, is a lot better than it was in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Bethesda enlisted the help of id and MachineGames to improve it, and the results speak for themselves: weapons are definitely more pleasing to handle. Perhaps because of my character's melee focus, I've rarely used the V.A.T.S.; AI wasn't that smart, with most enemies somehow failing to notice my grenades until it was too late - and no, I'm not just referring to the notoriously dumb Super Mutants.
There is a whole new gameplay system in Fallout 4, and that's the ability to build (and, to a degree, manage) settlements in the Commonwealth. I've left it at the very end of this Fallout 4 review simply because it's totally optional and I will go as far as saying unnecessary. While there are some players that are already showcasing incredibly cool settlements (I can only imagine this particular feature will be even better after the release of proper mod tools), the truth is that there is no particular benefit or downside to taking care of your settlement or not.
Each settlement has some basic resources like food, water, defense and others that can be upgraded. However, it's not like neglecting any of these has any meaningful effects; I've left almost all the settlements allied with my faction untouched (that is, incredibly basic and defenseless) and nothing happened. Once in a while, I got a notice that a certain settlement was under attack, at which point I simply fast travelled there and stomped every enemy.
Overall, I don't think Fallout 4 needed this feature. I would have rather preferred that Bethesda focused on improving more important things for a roleplaying game, such as the dialogue system and the reactions to the player's choices.
Finally, let me briefly commend the sound in Fallout 4. There are some great songs to be heard in the game and personally, I liked the voice acting, including the main character's.
Reviewed on PC (code provided by the publisher).