Bethesda are a very unique company. Not only in the way they publish video games, but also in the way they create them. Their distinct brand of open world is tied to them, with the company's DNA running through every pore of their RPG titles. Since the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the developer has specialised at creating beautiful universes that really let you just…exist in them. You can do what you want, be that going and killing people for resources, getting a job, learning a skill, falling in love, exploring long forgotten landmarks or…well, like I said, more or less anything you can find within the confines of the games, which are pretty broad. It really is rooted in table top role-playing games, just on a AAA game scale.
However due to this level of openness, Bethesda's games are susceptible to being technical messes and lacking in the details we'd expect in other games. It's the catch 22 that comes with their titles, and the level of tolerance to that is often what will decide if you like their titles or not.
So in steps Fallout 4…
The easiest way I can distill this is, do you like Bethesda games? If the answer is yes, then you will love Fallout 4. If you hate their janky edges and meandering through-line, this will not change your mind on the company's output. That's the easy way I can put it. I suppose I should also do this the harder way to qualify that for you.
It's difficult to know where to start with a review for a game so massive, so lets just give you the cliff-notes up front. You start your journey in a pre-war Boston, just before the nukes go off, setting in motion the world we know from previous Fallout games. Despite the political landscape falling to pieces, you're part of a happy family home with a husband or wife and a new born baby. Before too long you will find the nuclear bombs dropping and a scramble for the Vault you're signed up to. You're then put on ice in cryo-stasis where you'll later wake up to find your son being taken, before you are in turn unleashed onto the world. Out of place by 200 years, you have to face the Commonwealth to find your son.
From there, the world is your oyster. An ugly, mutated, irradiated oyster. The nuclear savaged wastelands are the stage for you to forge a new life, build communities and foster enemies. If you liked the setting of Fallout 3, this will be right up your alley, with a world torn apart by destruction playing home to a handful of people who are trying to exist in it with various moral standings. It's certainly more colourful and varied than the last numbered game in this series too. In places it really oozes with charisma and colour, which was something that was missing in much of the other Fallout games. Just because we are in an atom bomb torn world doesn't mean everything has to be brown and grey. In fact, there are parts of this game that are downright gorgeous, which hasn't always been the case in Bethesda games.
As you explore this world, it's impossible to know what stories you'll find along the way. While the central narrative is always there, one of the real lovely things about the game is that you can choose to ignore it for hours at a time thanks to the varied and complex side missions. These can run from 10 minutes to hours, and often have neat narrative ideas tucked away in them. By the sheer number of them, some are better than others of course, but there is a real excitement to finding a new thread to follow, be it a dead body with a note on it, a cryptic message that finds its way to you or part of a conversation you overheard while exploring one of the game's hubs. The Commonwealth is just a world full of yarn, and you never know when you'll lift up a rock to find another stand to pull on. It's a real joy.
One of the other key improvements, and something that really does give the series a rejuvenated feel is the new dialogue system. In previous Bethesda games, you were mostly just a walking camera, with a few dialogue prompts here and there. Fallout 4 changes that. While this is nothing new to the medium, taking from the Mass Effect series most notably, the addition of a fully voiced dialogue tree in Fallout 4 adds a real sense of character to your time with the game. The sheer amount of opportunity for conversation in the game is staggering and it really makes interactions you have across the wastes come to life in a way we haven't seen in from the developer's output previously.
However, for how huge and satisfying lots of this game can be, there is a lot to talk about in the 'what's not so good' department of Fallout 4. As I said previously, this most certainly is a Bethesda designed games and that comes with all the caveats that statement implies. First off, and because it is the most variable, let's just talk about the technical issues the game can suffer from. While I played mostly on the PC, where the game fairs much better (not without hiccups here and there), I've had some time with the console version. The game is certainly a troubled port on home consoles in many ways. You might get long periods where it runs fine, but it's also prone to major frame rate drops in odd places. In various places in Boston, and some interiors especially, you might find your game crawling below the 20 fps rating. What's hard to explain is that this seems to happen in areas that don't look particularly intensive. On top of that, all versions of the games are susceptible to strange glitches, whether it be something mild and charming, like seeing dancing dead bodies, to borderline unacceptable, like getting stuck in walls or randomly dying for no apparent reason. But hey, that is the price of admission when your game is so huge and variable.
Something that is a little more stable and easier to critique is the game's central narrative. The search for Shaun, your child, is a mixed bag that doesn't often stick its landing. Now, there is no need to be overly harsh here. The story really does try interesting things. There are intriguing twists and turns throughout, and it certainly has a lot of good ideas about itself. However, the problem I had, and it is a problem with the entire game, is that playing Fallout 4 is like riding a monorail at times. Where as plots and stories are meant to have peaks and falls like a rollercoaster to create drama, there are just no big moments for the majority of the game. While it tries to implement those at times, they never feel as grand or as distressing as they should. When your game is about existing in this world with dizzying player choice, at times it can become monotonous, killing story momentum and the power of the next narrative peak dead. Walking endlessly, being forced to look for resources especially, in the game's central missions hurts the experience. While I understand some might consider this more immersive to the game, it can sometimes feel like the game is disrespecting your time a little.
As I did say though, the narrative does take chances, in parts. I am happy to say it is probably one of the bolder outings from Bethesda in terms of twists. One place that is going to prove to be decisive is the ending of the game. I won't go too far into it, but just as you think you are jumping into the final mission, everything changes. You find out there is a significant portion of game still to play and the things you thought were so are spun on their head. It's a pretty daring position and the final missions in particular are certainly going to prove controversial. They centre a lot on tearing apart what you have built with your time in the game, and for want of making a pun, the ending goes a little nuclear, with no easy way around the problems presented. It's pretty brash and I'm not convinced it completely justifies how much you must betray to see it through, but it's at least a thing worthy of praise in how bold it is.
Another place the game stumbles though is in the improvements it has tried to make. Weird notion, right? Hear me out. It's pretty clear Bethesda spent the long production period on Fallout 4 trying to create more story, more depth and more mechanics. Added are things like the ability to build. You can build new weapons, new armour, new power-armour, even whole towns with the resources you find in the world. You'll be able to build huge bases with advanced defence systems and even lights you can configure to make pictures if you are really feeling artistic. All of this is a fun distraction and something else to engage with in the game. The weapon crafting system in particular is an incredibly well thought out and useful addition with tons of customization.
My concern here is that, at least in my case, I somewhat wish Bethesda scaled back and focused more on their basics. To illustrate, let me paint a picture for you: at one point, I was in a conversation with an old woman. For various reasons, I gave her a hit of the drug, Jet, which she thanked me for. However, instead of any indication she had taken them, like an animation of her bringing the Jet to her mouth or even a simple noise, she just stood there the whole time before then starting to talk like she had taken drugs. It's a small detail, but it really does break the immersive feeling that these games try to build so diligently. The tutorial system is also severely lacking as the game often doesn't instruct you how to do anything. For newcomers, I imagine this is a nightmare. It doesn't even tell you about V.A.T.S which are a key part of combat, so that should tell you how 'on your own' you are when it comes to something complex like building settlements or even other little nuances. At times, the game just feels a little archaic for 2015. Instead of adding features and mining more depth in what was already a deep formula, I'd almost prefer to see Bethesda return to there foundation at this point and make that stronger. There are just large portions of the game that feel outdated, especially when you consider how big a company like Bethesda is and how well their games do in the market place.
Fallout 4 is a big, messy, wonderful, complicated title. There is so much more I could talk about, from delightful moment to moment stories or world shattering bugs, for a great deal longer, but I will save them for you. Really, this comes back to that first question, do you like Bethesda games? Or if you've never played one of their games before, how much are you willing to put up with in the way of technical issues, monotony and slightly outdated design choices to explore this world. Don't get me wrong, it's an intoxicating experience once you do see past all these faults and the Commonwealth is somewhere I was happy to exist in for all my hours. There is so much to find and explore and love about Fallout 4, that it is near impossible to not recommend. It's a real marvel and something I think you owe it to yourself to play. However, it is certainly lacking in polish and Bethesda's games have been lacking that for a while now. Coming into 2015, parts of the game just feel a little more than archaic and this is coming from one of the most successful and beloved developers in the world. It feels time to push on and really update this formula to make something a little more cohesive and modern. Ultimately, the question becomes what are you looking for? Do you want a game that is 100s of hours with new things to find and do that could keep you going for months, if not years. Or do you want something a little more polished and directed, that respects all of your time while playing it? If the former is the case, go for it, you'll love it. If the latter is true, you might want to avoid it. Fallout 4 is a wonderful achievement and a hell of a game when taken as a whole though. The level of love and passion built into it seeps from ever pore of this title. If you are willing to put in the commitment and let the more janky portions of the game's design fly past you, I doubt you'll find a bigger experience for a few years to come.
Get it if: You are looking for an intoxicatingly huge world to explore in your spare time. A quintessential single player RPG game.
Skip it if: You have a lesser tolerance for technical quirks and are scared by a huge time investment.