You're going to be hearing much about Fallout 4 in the coming weeks, and if you're not interested in the game the gaming press may begin to feel like a radio station that keeps spinning that pop song that you don't want to hear. Fallout 4 is going to be November's "Call Me Maybe," and if you're not a Carly Rae Jepsen fan? God help you.
Fallout 4 is a genuine pop-culture movement at this point. Every bit of news about the game was repeated, clicked on and used as the source of endless speculation and discussion. Bethesda has released a seemingly endless array of products you can buy to show your allegiance to the franchise, including a real-life Pip-Boy accessory sold with an $120 version of the game that always seemed to sell out, though restocks were common.
I haven't finished the game, and in fact after many nights and many hours I've only put the tiniest dent in the full experience. What's striking about the level of commercial interest in the game is how unabashedly hardcore the experience continues to be for the average player, even though grognards who grew up with the series may howl at the tiniest concessions to the mainstream or usability.
The game piles on systems, and very few of them are explained in clear, understandable ways to the player. There are a substantial number of things to learn in Fallout 4, and the game will only kinda sorta help you do so. My first attempts at playing the game and tackling even the opening missions ended with my death, which mirrors what my real-life experience would likely be should I find myself in the wasteland: a few minutes of confusion that end with a bullet in the back of the head.
It's not that a fun, bouncy pop song is dominating the charts in gaming right now, it's as if we woke up in a world where everyone is so damned tired of hearing that Ministry song on top-40 stations. This is the gaming equivalent of audiences giving the bird to Jurassic World in order to see the new Lars von Trier film. Bethesda has created a surreal world in which Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music goes triple-platinum.
I'm not claiming Fallout 4 isn't enjoyable, it's that it's enjoyable in a way that feels more suited to mid-'90s PC games than massively anticipated, big-budget console games of 2015. It's been fun playing the game at the same time as other folks from Polygon and seeing where everyone gets stuck or needs help, and I've found that my own pace hovers around a single mission every evening. And that mission will take me hours, and can sometimes require careful management of game saves and perhaps even a return to town to rethink the weapons and armor I'm carrying.
"More than Fallout 3 and even New Vegas, Fallout 4 killed me with very little warning an awful lot," Arthur Gies wrote in our review of the game. "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."
Death isn't the end in Fallout 4, and in fact that uncompromising depth will ultimately set you free to approach the game on its terms:
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.
Don't be afraid to sink
You'll spent a whole bunch of time — perhaps a bit too much — managing your inventory. The game throws an uncountable number of items at you, and the "junk" system now means that everything you can pick up has a use for crafting. The base-building systems are likewise deep, and you may find yourself spending an entire evening working on building the perfect base while not being 100 percent sure you're doing things in the right way.
While so many modern games hold your hand through any and all adversity as you play, Fallout 4 throws you in the deep end while continuing to strap cinder blocks to your ankles. It's not a bad thing, but you can and will feel like you're drowning until you learn to slow down, allow yourself to sink, and realize you can breathe underwater and you have all the time in the world to figure things out.
I haven't read all the reviews for the game yet, but I expect them to vary wildly depending on the author's tolerance for choice paralysis. It's so easy to get overwhelmed or feel lost in the game, and I imagine that one of the many joys of Fallout 4 is going to be sharing knowledge and best practices with your favored online community as you play together — and we have some guides coming very soon to get you started, in fact. If you dislike or even hate the act of figuring things out while you die, sometimes over and over, you may reject the game entirely.
In a way, I feel lucky to have been able to begin playing before the game was released and there wasn't a way to look up solutions to puzzles or even ask someone else how to do something; there is something to be said for being completely lost in a game that often feels completely ambivalent about your struggles.
I was often frustrated while playing Fallout 4, and sometimes angry, but I always felt great once I emerged on the other side. Bethesda has released a game that's unashamed to be hardcore and a bit inscrutable, and the fact something this strange and often unwelcoming is going to be one of the biggest games of the year is something to be celebrated.