Fallout 4 Review: Building A Better Wasteland

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(Photo: Bethesda)

I approached Fallout 4 with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I spent 100 hours of my life wandering the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3. I enjoyed those hours, though it took a few before I really got a handle on life in the Wasteland. There are few games I’ve spent more time with, and none that I can remember continuing to play for so long after I’d completed the core narrative quest.

The excitement for Fallout 4 comes from my eagerness to explore a new area of that same world. The trepidation comes from fear that the game either wouldn’t live up to my memories of its predecessor. It turns out my fears were for naught, and my excitement justified. Fallout 4 will be familiar to anyone who has experienced Bethesda’s brand of open-world RPG, but it’s arguably the finest example of the formula to date.

Bethesda asked that I avoid spoiling Fallout 4’s main story in this review. That should be easy enough as, with approximately 20 hours of gameplay put in, I’ve barely progressed the main story at all. The plot involves the main character searching for his or her lost son. The first place the wanderer is instructed to search is Diamond City, but there’s simply so much to do between Vault 111 and Diamond City that I’ve been kept busy. These adventures have including storming raider strongholds, clearing out buildings of super mutants, teaming up with the Brotherhood of Steel, and fighting synths. My character may not win father of the year, but he’s had his fair share of adventures.

The V.A.T.S. system from Fallout 3 returns to help players manage those shootouts with synths and super mutants, though it’s been tweaked a bit. Bringing up the V.A.T.S. menu now only slows time down, rather than stopping it completely as in Fallout 3. This makes firefights feel much more intense, especially since enemies seem to be more numerous than in Fallout 3. The V.A.T.S. system is still a godsend for those of us who don’t necessarily excel at gunplay, and is valuable to all players for being able to target and cripple specific limbs on enemies.

But there’s more to do in Fallout 4 than just trade bullets (or lasers) with the less hospitable residents of the Commonwealth. Fallout 4 introduces settlements, areas of the Commonwealth that players can reclaim and turn into safe havens for people to settle in. The player is in charge of building, developing, and defending these settlement, if he or she chooses to bother with them at all. There doesn’t seem to be any particular negative to not building up settlements, but taking the right perks means you can turn settlements into trading posts. Perhaps more important, taking part in the building of settlements goes a long way towards making you feel like your character is making a difference in the Commonwealth, rather than just passing through it.

Settlements also house workbenches where players can modify their weapons, armor and power armor. Modifications are made using the raw materials acquired by scrapping mundane items found during your travels. Anything from a coffee mug, to household cleaning items, to abandoned car tires can be converted to useable resources. This mean there’s tons of customization options available to players, which is both exciting and agonizing when it comes time to decide what scope to put on your rifle. It also means that you now have a reason to pick up practically every, single item you come across while scavenging the ruins of Boston and its surrounding cities, so you may want to consider putting an extra S.P.E.C.I.A.L. point into strength.

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(Photo: Bethesda)

The character-building process has been streamlined considerably from Fallout 3. The skills and karma systems are gone, leaving only S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and Perks. Increasing any of your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats bumps up the base stats associated with that ability, as well as unlocking new and higher level Perks. Each new level reached grants you a single point to spend on either your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats or on perks. The steady pace of leveling means that you’ll likely weigh decisions for a while before finally placing that point, as there doesn’t seem to be a way to undo your choices. Is it worth it to take another point of Strength so that I don’t have to unload my gear so often, or would it be smarter to take the Local Leader perk so I can build a trade post to sell this stuff at more easily? Do I take another level of Toughness to keep me alive in those close firefights, or do I up my Perception and Agility for more offensive capability? When you know you’re likely about to spend dozens of hours in the shoes of a character, each upgrade feels like a major decision, and that’s to Fallout 4’s credit.

The Commonwealth itself is wonderfully distinct from the Capital Wasteland. The barrenness of the Capital Wasteland has been replaced with colorful New England foliage (what remains of it anyway) and blue skies. The graphics aren’t going to astound anyone from a technical perspective, but the historical statues and unique locations - like Walden Pond and the ruins of a faux MIT - help the Commonwealth feel like a unique location with its own personality, and there’s more than enough variation in the landscape to keep travelling through it interesting.

Unfortunately, the same praise heaped on the environments can’t be doled out to the characters that inhabit it. The mannequin like look and unnatural sheen of the character models and the stiffness of their animations place them firmly in the uncanny valley. The unearthly look of these characters is a disappointing break from the immersion and atmosphere the rest of the game tries so hard to build.

The way players interact with NPCs has changed as well. Rather than the static close-up of an NPC that was used for conversations in Fallout 3, Fallout 4 uses a two-shot to depict interactions. The player’s character also has a voice this time around, and the voice acting is serviceable enough. So much of the character is defined by player choices that it may have been most important for the voice to simply not be distracting, and it achieves that much.

While the two-shot method certainly makes conversations more engaging, it’s unfortunate that conversation choices have been oversimplified. When asked to speak in conversation, players are given no more than four vaguely defined choices. These choices can sometimes be described with as little as a single word, such as “Sarcastic.” This leads to some frustrating moments when you chose dialogue based on tone, but the intent of your choice is completely lost by what your character actually says. It’s also frustrating that you usually only have a single dialogue choice before the conversation moves on, leaving you feeling like you’ve missed a lot of information.

Somehow, Bethesda managed to find ways to pack Fallout 4 with an even larger volume of content than Fallout 3. Between armor and weapon mods, settlement building, levelling up your character, exploring the wasteland, and searching for your missing son, one can easily be overwhelmed by everything Fallout 4 has to offer. Even so, and despite its minor flaws, once you step foot in the Commonwealth, you’re compelled to see more of it, to meet more of its creepily animated denizens, and to discover more of its many secrets. Fallout 4 looks to be another 100 hours well spent.