DEVELOPER Bethesda Game Studios
Bethesda Softworks’ games are undeniably magical. The Elder Scrolls series and rebooted Fallout sequels embrace the ‘go anywhere, do anything’ motto of sandbox gaming like no other games, with astonishingly realised open worlds and the promise of new surprises around every corner, which makes it easy to dismiss their shortcomings. Fallout 4 retains that seductive power. Its world is vast, beautiful and abundant with adventure.
In a slight twist on the usual formula, Fallout 4 begins minutes before the bombs fall. You create your character using a brilliantly designed set of sculpting tools, and spend a precious few minutes enjoying the peaceful idyll of postscarcity Americana. Within minutes, however, a terrifying news bulletin sends you and your family racing towards the nearest Fallout shelter – Vault 111. Your character emerges years later into a radically changed world, and begins the search for their son, Shaun, who was kidnapped when the Vault first reopened.
As ever, Bethesda’s environment design is stunning. Fallout 4’s wasteland is far more detailed and vibrant than that seen in Fallout 3. The skies are bright blue rather than sickly sepia, and the patchwork skyscrapers of post-nuclear Boston gleam a dozen different shades in the midday sun. It’s eerily beautiful, but the wreckage of humanity is a constant reminder of this new world’s hostility too. Centuries- old skeletons litter streets and buildings, the roads are shattered shards of tarmac playing home to rusting cars. Many of the buildings you pass are little more than hollowed-out shells filled with debris, and those you can enter are cluttered with pre-war junk that’s long since lost its purpose.
The central storyline takes you from the woodland suburbs of the Massachusetts Commonwealth deep into the heart of irradiated Boston, and revolves around the search for the mysterious Institute, which terrorises the local populace by infiltrating human-like Synth robots into society, and is the prime suspect in your son’s disappearance. As always with Bethesda’s games, however, Fallout 4 is really about exploring freely and taking on whatever missions suit you, be it helping out the Brotherhood of Steel fend off Feral Ghouls and bandit Raiders at the Cambridge police station, taking on missing person cases at the Valentine Detective Agency, or investigating strange goings-on at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft. There’s no shortage of activities to occupy your time.
The mission structure is buoyed by a more streamlined dialogue system, with a fully voiced main character, and writing that’s stronger than that of Bethesda’s previous effort, Skyrim. It still doesn’t carry the emotional heft of BioWare’s games or The Witcher 3, which is a shame, given that the thrust of the plot is that you’re searching for your missing baby boy. However, it’s definitely more characterful than before – detective Nick Valentine and dogged, fiery journalist Piper are two particular highlights.
Whatever goals you pursue in Fallout 4, achieving them will likely involve fighting at some point, and the emphasis on combat is noticeably greater than in previous Bethesda titles. You’ll rarely go more than a few minutes without something trying to kill you. To a certain degree, this focus makes sense; Fallout 4’s Commonwealth is inhospitable by its very nature. However, the combat system, albeit improved through slicker animations and an extra injection of pace, still becomes repetitive simply due to how often you need to use it.
The combat focus also means many of the potentially more interesting approaches to the game have to be neglected by necessity. Stealth is rendered all but useless – usually, the only way around an enemy is through it, and resolving conflict through dialogue is an option that’s sparingly offered. Moreover, the levelling system is fairly stingy in its rewards, meaning that many of the more interesting perks have to be ignored in favour of improving your combat prowess. This compromise between a stats-based RPG and a twitch-based FPS means Fallout 4 fails to truly satisfy in either category.
This problem of trying to include features that lack strong foundations is present elsewhere too. Fallout 4 doesn’t want you to travel the wastes alone, and includes a dozen possible companions to accompany you on your adventures. The standard companion is Dogmeat, a friendly German shepherd who can sniff out goodies amid the wreckage of the waste, and pin down enemies during combat. He’s good company, and useful when acting on his own initiative. However, actually interacting with him is a pain, as you can only issue commands when up close and standing still. Companions also have a tendency to get lost or stuck because of the complex landscape geometry, and if you want to switch one for another, you have to seek them out in the world first, which quickly feels like unnecessary busywork.
Lastly, Fallout 4 introduces an extensive crafting system that lets you build workstations, houses and entire settlements in certain areas. These ramshackle villages attract settlers, and you can even establish trade routes between them. It’s a neat idea, but in practice, it’s a bit like dropping a Lego set on a Dungeons and Dragons game – the two don’t feel organically connected. It doesn’t help that the interface is clunky and there’s a lot of information that the game simply doesn’t communicate, such as how to assign work details to settlers.
Ultimately, the crafting systems smacks of desperation to introduce a new idea in a game that uses a formula largely unchanged since 2003’s Morrowind. The sad thing is that there’s actually nothing wrong with the Bethesda formula, except that its components require considerable refinement. It needs either exceptional combat or the proper accommodation of alternative play styles, and a dedicated system for managing and commanding companions. Fallout 4 remains broadly enjoyable, with a stunning open world and environment, but it feels like Bethesda is resting on its laurels.
Centuries-old skeletons litter streets and