We’re right in the middle of one of the hottest release seasons in years, with heavy hitters like Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Halo 5: Guardians and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate all coming out within weeks of one another. The flood’s not over yet, either – next week we’re looking at a big release in Star Wars: Battlefront, so you better make some time and forget about retirement (sorry, poor bank account). You’ve got a lot to do.
This week we’ve got Fallout 4, the latest heavily anticipated post-apocalyptic RPG from Bethesda. You’ll take control of the Sole Survivor, a man (or woman) displaced in time and exploring the ruins of post-apocalyptic Boston.
The pedigree is obvious from the second you start playing: Fallout 4 is to Fallout 3 what Skyrim was to Oblivion. It’s not the revolutionary experience that some might have expected it to be, though it’s hard to say it was marketed as such. Instead, Fallout 3 and 4 are deeply similar and the basic gameplay loop remains the same – explore the world, shoot the baddies (using VATs if you wish) and scavenge for loot – and gunplay and movement are on the whole practically identical, but Fallout 4 makes several important changes to streamline the experience.
For one, character development has been altered significantly; skills are gone entirely, as are traits. What remains are the SPECIAL stat system and perks, which now work in a manner that’s somewhat similar to how Skyrim handles things. Every level you’ll earn a perk point which can be spent in a giant chart with various bonuses ranging from improved lockpicking to increased weapon damage to regenerating health in sunlight; alternatively you can simply use it to bump one of your SPECIAL stats up a point, which might allow you access to a greater variety of perks the next time you gain a level.
Frankly, I can’t say I’m crushed by the removal of skills, though it would have been nice to keep traits. Skills often served as a level-gating mechanism, particularly in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, and while gating is still in place it’s more explicit now. You’re also no longer tied to a high intelligence stat to have an optimal character since there aren’t any skill points to derive from that stat. Finally, the ability to pick up and use whatever weapon suits you without having to pour points into the appropriate skill is welcome and suits the “post-apocalyptic scavenger who uses whatever they can get their hands on” feel that the game’s going for.
Fallout 4 also removes weapon degradation, so anything you find is yours to keep forever. This might seem like it would unbalance the game, but the new gear modification system provides a use for both redundant weapons and the piles of previously-worthless junk that litters the Commonwealth. Basically everything is made of various combinations of resources like plastic, steel, adhesives and screws and can be dismantled to use those resources elsewhere. You can customize your weapons and armor to your liking, adding bonuses like scopes or automatic capability to guns and changing the protective qualities of armor. This even includes cosmetic changes to the weapons, so your pimped out shotgun is actually going to look pimped out. It’s nice.
Another new system that came completely out of nowhere is the ability to build your own settlements. This uses the same resources as gear modification, though typically in higher amounts, and plays out a bit like the construction in games like Ark: Survival Evolved. The interface works well enough, though given the available parts you shouldn’t expect to make masterpieces. There’s an entire settler-management minigame associated with this as well, as well as construction-specific perks that use the Charisma stat, but I found myself primarily using construction to build myself a badass base for storage and gear crafting.
As for the setting and story, they’re both fairly standard for this series. I’ll admit that as a Beltway resident I was particularly fond of Fallout 3’s portrayal of Washington D.C., but I haven’t been to Boston so the Commonwealth doesn’t have the same sense of familiarity. It’s still a wide and varied area worthy of exploration, however, with crumbling apartment complexes, toxic swamps and a city built in the ruins of Fenway Park. Some cursory research suggests that the Commonwealth includes plenty of iconic Boston locations, though I’m sad to say that I’ve yet to find anyone who’d offer me chowdah.
The plot, which revolves around a search for your missing son after you’ve spent hundreds of years in suspended animation, goes in pretty much the way you’d expect and doesn’t break the mold by any means, but it’s not like people play these games for the plot anyway. Your character speaks, a first for the series, and dialogue is handled through a sort of Mass Effect-style system where you select from specific topics and attitudes to take during conversation; this is interesting in theory but in practice it doesn’t add much, though I did appreciate your character’s chatter during exploration and combat. One nice bonus is that the game continues after the main plot, unlike the original release of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, so you can keep on keeping on to your heart’s content. You don’t even need to buy DLC to keep playing after the ending this time!
Graphically I’d put Fallout 4 perhaps a notch or two above Skyrim. It’s pretty, but it’s not the game you’d use to show off your next-gen console or high-end gaming PC. Disclosure: like most critics I played the PlayStation 4 version of the game and found the visuals to be about average for that platform, meaning it pales in comparison to visual heavy hitters like The Last of Us Remastered and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but that doesn’t have much of an effect on the gameplay experience.
The framerate is relatively consistent, though highly crowded scenes might result in a a drop or two – reports that there are issues when using scoped weapons appear to be unfounded as I didn’t have any issues of that nature. I’ve watched friends play the PC version, meanwhile, which looks better and runs at a more consistent clip but seems to be plagued with bugs; on the PS4 the only serious bug I encountered in 40 hours of gameplay was one occasion where my character got stuck in an object, requiring a complete reload.
Bottom line: Fallout 4 doesn’t revolutionize open-world gaming, but it’s a solid entry in a solid series. There are enough changes to make the game feel fresh, and based on my experience with the console version (PS4) it’s one of the more polished games we’ve seen out of Bethesda. Fans of Fallout or Bethesda’s unique brand of exploration RPG are going to have a great time here, and newcomers could do worse than starting out in Boston.