Fallout 4 review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Bethesda Softworks
Developer Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date Nov 10, 2015

Fallout 4 is too big for me to tell you even a fraction of all there is to say about it.

Its user interface is often too opaque, and at times Fallout 4 has some of the same technical issues as Bethesda's previous games, from strange AI quirks to performance hitches and actual hard locks of the software. It's frequently unforgiving. And occasionally, despite a next-gen visual overhaul, its human characters still look a little terrifying. I'm not nearly as big a fan of the Diamond City radio DJ as I was of Three Dog in Fallout 3.

And all of that matters just enough for me to feel obligated to say it before I explain how, after more than 60 hours of Fallout 4 in seven days, the only thing stopping me from going back into it is taking this time, right now, to tell you about the game.

Fallout 4's Skills and abilities are considerably streamlined

Like every Fallout game, Fallout 4 places you in the shoes of a fish out of water, thrown into the wasteland remains of a nuclear post-apocalypse. Before the bombs fell, some citizens were able to find shelter within the Vaults, massive, hyper-advanced underground cities designed to withstand the end of the world. You play as a survivor from Vault 111, who, through circumstances I should best leave unelaborated, finds himself transported 200 years into the future and separated from his family.

Ostensibly, Fallout 4 is an RPG — those familiar with the genre will immediately comprehend the game's SPECIAL system, which stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck.

While this is lifted directly from previous Fallout games, Fallout 4 is considerably streamlined in the way that the player character's abilities are managed. Each SPECIAL ability has 10 skills attached to it, and each skill requires a progressively higher rank in that ability to unlock. When you level up, you have a single point, which you can use to unlock an available skill, or to increase one of your SPECIALs. Granted, the change is initially intimidating — available perks and SPECIAL skills are shown together on a giant poster, listing every perk available on a grid.

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An Alternate Future

Fallout has a history, and that history never changes. From its inception in the '90s, that history has played a key role in charting the course of the Fallout universe in countless small ways. When did the bombs fall to begin the Great War? Who are The Enclave, and how did they become so powerful? Where did the Brotherhood of Steel come from, and why are there super mutants anyway? Answers to all these questions, and more, can be found in our timeline.

Check out our Fallout Lore timeline.

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Still, after a few levels, it felt like a much a simpler way to play Fallout. At first, I missed the multiple layers and point systems present in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I felt like Fallout 4 gave me less room to focus with my character, to determine his build and pursue it. The new skill system feels more general, more haphazard and do-what-you-want.

But after allowing it time to breathe, I didn't find myself playing Fallout 4 any differently in the moment than I did every other Bethesda game of the last decade. I snuck around, unlocking anything anyone had the temerity to try to close off, attacking enemies from afar. And the openness of the new skill system allowed me to hold onto skill points after leveling to use them as whim struck.

Bigger changes are reserved for VATS, or the "Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System." In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, hitting the left bumper on your controller would freeze time completely, allowing you to target specific enemies and their weak spots using a number-driven system of probabilities and critical hit rolls. And while the latter elements are still present, the safety of frozen time is nowhere to be found. VATS now slows time down to a crawl instead, which is still useful, mind, but not godlike in its broad, ass-saving applications.

Even with that change, Fallout 4 feels familiar out in the Commonwealth, Fallout's alternate-history catch-all merging of the New England states that most prominently features Massachusetts and Boston. Except that Fallout 4's shooting and movement make it feel like a functional, competent shooter now.

Competency shouldn't be a bullet point for a game's store page, but it was jarring to actually enjoy the gunplay in Fallout 4 after trudging through the controls in literally every other game Bethesda has made. Functional used to be the watch-word, and it's been replaced by something that can actually be fun. Of course, skill shots aren't always possible, and weapons still have stats that determine their effectiveness, accuracy, recoil and the like — especially now that you can modify literally every piece of gear in the game.

Bugs and glitches

If the glitches that have come to exist like David Foster Wallace footnotes on every Bethesda open-world release have infuriated you beyond all reason, have ruined your ability to take any joy in its games, you may want to exercise caution. Multiple editors experienced full game freezes, though thankfully without the console locking up in turn using pre-release copies of Fallout 4. I found myself stuck on geometry a couple of times when I jumped somewhere I very clearly wasn't supposed to be. Anecdotally, the also game seemed to perform slightly worse over time, and benefited from a restart every now and again.

These issues applied on both PS4 and Xbox One. The PC version performed well with recommended specs, but we experienced major issues running the game on a 3D monitor. These are at least in part likely to be uncommon issues that pop up for a small group of people, and a number of performance problems were mitigated by pre-release patches on both Xbox One and PS4. We'll be monitoring the situation in the meantime.

Fallout 3 had crafting of a sort. The limited schematic system from that game has been replaced entirely with a modular system for weapons that allows you to take a base part and make completely different tools for your wasteland survival efforts. This ranges from the predictable, like scopes and clip sizes, to more fundamental changes. For example, Fallout's classic laser and plasma weapons all have the same root — whether they're pistols or rifles depends on what you build around that base.

In turn, Bethesda leverages this into a full loot system that resembles action RPGs like Diablo, replete with prefixes and suffixes. And there are noted, legendary versions of enemies in the game that drop unique gear that can also be modded. This applies to clothing and armor, too.

In a game that feels decidedly cruel and capricious, the loot and gear was a lifesaver. More than Fallout 3 and even New Vegas, Fallout 4 killed me with very little warning an awful lot. In fact, death seemed like the game's way of telling me I was either somewhere I just wasn't powerful enough to be, or that I needed to look at my gear and reevaluate my priorities.

Once I remembered that Fallout is unforgiving and that I could save whenever I wanted — even in conversations! — I went into problem-solving mode like I hadn't ever felt empowered to in a Bethesda open-world game before. I found it easy to lose 15 or 20 minutes at a workbench in Fallout 4 fiddling with my weapons, trying to come up with just the right combination of parts to suit my playstyle, and my available resources.

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This is the double-edged sword of crafting in Fallout 4. All the crap found in Fallout's world is now not just junk; it's materials to make mods for your stuff. This adds a great incentive and sense of reward to finding all sorts of things out in the wasteland. It also adds a sense of obligation to picking up every piece of trash left in the post-apocalypse, and there's only so much you can carry.

I found myself returning to my chosen base of operations about every hour or so to dump off the crap I had accumulated, which, to be fair, Fallout 4 handles relatively well. You don't have to break items down manually — it all just sits in a pile, and as you're creating new mods your trash is automatically converted to the needed parts, assuming you have the needed materials. But in a series that's always struggled somewhat with carrying capacity, it was just one more thing to have to think about once the game informed me for the 27th time that I was overloaded and couldn't run or fast-travel.

I used those materials for my gear, but you might use them for something else entirely; Fallout 4 also introduces a fully developed settlement component that allows you to 1) take over specific spaces, 2) attract settlers whose happiness is determined by the resources you make available to them, and 3) clear away most trash and debris and build complicated structures with elements powered by generators that can in turn be controlled via chainable switches.

Bethesda has essentially lifted the construction element of modern PC survival titles nearly whole cloth and dropped it into Fallout 4. It can be a little intimidating, and some of the interface is obtuse — if you're not paying total attention to each tutorial early on, I predict you'll be running to Google to find out how to, say, run a wire from a generator to a powered turret.

The addition of such a major, time-sucking element is impressive — Fallout 4 is not lacking for things to do

The addition of such a major, time-sucking element is impressive both because of how well it works and because Fallout 4 would not otherwise be lacking for things to do. Without the weapon modding and settlement bits, Fallout 4 would still be an intimidatingly large open-world game that takes the fundamentals of Bethesda's open-world formula and grows them all the hell up.

There are complicated internal politics and conflicts happening within each city — peace always seems fragile, and while there are factions, the term feels reductive here. The social hierarchy of the Commonwealth is far more nuanced than in previous Bethesda titles. Each city has a relationship with the other outposts, and generally, characters have relationships that link them to more than one place. It's not as simple as jumping through a checklist of hoops to do some quests — though that's also available for each. Instead, there are difficult relationships between them. There are no easy allies, and no easy moral positions to align yourself with.

Even companions see a deeper sense of development and interconnectedness. When you're not traveling with a companion, you can send them back to a specific settlement. And when you take on a different companion, they almost always interact with your previous partner in a way that reveals a relationship there.

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Bethesda leverages this dynamic, along with the strongest writing it's ever managed, to present really difficult choices in the latter half of the game's "story." In turn, it's exponentially more complicated than the Enclave vs. Brotherhood of Steel narrative from Fallout 3 or even the mangled amnesia plot line of New Vegas. It dawned on me fairly early into Fallout 4 that my choices could have unexpected consequences that wouldn't be clear till later. As I approached the last third of the game, I agonized over trying to do the right thing — or even knowing what the right thing was. Fallout 4 played enough with my expectations of its fiction to keep me guessing, and its endgame is tense and fantastic for it.

All of that was great, but it's not where I wanted to spend most of my time. Fallout 4 continues the series' impressively effective apocalypse tourism. My favorite times in Fallout 4 felt like an archaeological expedition through an alternate history. The Commonwealth, like the Capital Wasteland before it, is a character all on its own, full of black humor and tragedy. There are so many stories everywhere, whether in Bethesda's macabre but impeccable set dressing or in more fleshed-out incidents that feel like nothing so much as post-nuclear ghost stories. Fallout 4 feels like wandering through a giant, haunted city, and I want to know every secret it has.

Wrap Up:

Fallout 4 brings great gameplay to match its world and ambiance

Bethesda's open-world strengths have always differed from its contemporaries in that focus on world-building and a sense of place above all else. Fallout 4 has all the ambiance and history that made its predecessors such wonderful places to get lost for hours at a time, with a much more coherent set of stories within it. That Bethesda has integrated a major building and crafting tool while finally building a great-playing game almost feels like a bonus.

Bethesda's games tend to be giant and ambitious, and have in turn routinely experienced technical issues at launch and beyond. While some bugs are to be expected in such large games, occasionally these issues exceed the general public willingness to put up with a little wonkiness in exchange for the next big thing. As such, this review will remain provisional until we're able to ascertain an idea of Fallout 4's launch state.

Fallout 4 was reviewed using an Xbox One retail disc-based copy provided by Bethesda. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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