First, a word on the previous two installments in the modern Fallout era: Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I enjoyed the quests and gameplay of NV over FO3, but I like the Capital Wasteland envrionment of FO3 better. The bombed out buildings and underground warrens felt more post-apocalytpic than the endless desert of the Mojave (I did LOVE the environment of the Honest Hearts DLC, though). I played both games multiple times, and at least once each completely unmodded (a real challenge on New Vegas, due to all the bugs; it wasn’t until my third modded playthrough that I actually got Veronica’s quest to work; my first game she got stuck and wouldn’t move at all, EVER). Still, I played the heck out of both of them, racking up over two hundred hours of play time on each game (over 400 hours on Skyrim, though, between 3 playthroughs).
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, though there may be a few (particularly about the opening). I haven’t played through the entire game yet, so I can’t speak to the ending. I do know you can continue playing after the ending, however, so it can’t possibly as bad as the original ending to FO3.
Fallout 4, the latest entry in the post-apocalyptic RPG series by Bethesda, starts off suitably bleak with you the Sole Survivor of Vault 111. Technically, that’s not true; you start off in 2077 before the war, and get to see a slice of life in the final days as you and your spouse plan your day with your infant offspring. The war comes to Boston and as fiery mushrooms sprout on the horizon, you race to Vault 111. Fade to black and when you come to, you are the Sole Survivor… sort of; your infant survives, too, and is kidnapped before you can free yourself from the cryogenic tube in which you’ve spent the last 200 years. Yes, Vault-Tec is back to its morally questionable antics with non-consensual experiments on its residents.
Thus begins the Main Quest: GIVE ME BACK MY SON! (Confession: I made a male character, so I don’t know if your child is a girl if you choose a female protagonist). It would be appropriate to make your character look like either Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson, and the robust character creator (which is similar, yet more detailed than Elder Scrolls Online’s character creator) allows creative and patient players to do just that. SPECIAL is still there, but skills are gone and you’re allowed to put a point into perks at each level (or level up a SPECIAL attribute; your choice). I hear there’s no level cap, so there’s plenty to go around (in fact, I understand in order to max out at 10 in all attributes and every perk (most, if not all, perks have multiple levels now), you’ll have to be over level 220). This makes it really hard to gimp your character by creating an energy weapons guy, then find out there aren’t very many at all in the first 1/3rd of the game (New Vegas, I’m looking at you).
That being said, rushing headlong into every fight thinking you can FPS your way to victory is a bad idea. It’s easy to get carried away exploring and wander in an area that’s far too dangerous for a fresh-out-of-the-Vault dweller. Power Armor makes a comeback, though, and with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. the responsibility to make sure you have enough fusion cores, because power armor actually uses power this time around. It’s also customizable if you’ve scavenged the right materials, so you can pimp it out and make it your own. Weapons and armor come in different flavors now, so they can be found with special qualities, similar to the weapons in the Borderlands series. While it’s pretty awesome to find a shotgun that fires exploding ammo from a game play perspective, it does take me out of the game a bit, because it just doesn’t feel real. That’s a minor quibble, though, because you can still mod those weapons and make them more awesome. You can’t break them down for scrap, though, so if you don’t want a particular legendary weapon, just pawn it off to your companion or sell it.
Fallout 4 is a scavenger’s delight and by the same token, the Settlement Building mini-game is an OCD packrat’s worst nightmare. You’re probably already in the habit of taking everything that isn’t nailed down. While you will immediately have a use for it (most things can be scrapped for parts), you can easily spend hours at a time building up your settlements. In theory, you could spend quite a lot of time doing nothing but. Too bad the controls are a little funky, a situation that will be modded on the PC, I’m sure.
Speaking of controls, Bethesda has committed the cardinal sin of screwing with keybinding. Some baffling choices have been hardcoded into the game. For example, melee and grenades are bound to the same key and cannot be separated. Rebinding the movement keys removes your ability to move around in Workshop mode, making building settlements such a huge pain-in-the-butt, that it is no longer something you’ll want to spend time on. If you’re not a leftie and are comfortable with a controller or the WASD default set up, this won’t be a bother. I’m a leftie though, and WASD is very uncomfortable for long periods of time. Breaking the interface when reassigning keys is extremely irritating (ME3 did this, too). I know WHY this is: it’s easier to design one control scheme shared across Xbox One, PS4, and PC than it is to design multiple control schemes that play to the strengths of each one. Still, that’s no excuse. It sucks, frankly. Fortunately, some Googling showed me how to install a keybind applet that resides in memory and bypasses the game’s keybinding so I can set up my preferences without breaking the interface too much (it’s NOT a mod for the game, so it doesn’t interfere with quests in any fashion). I can’t use the workshop menu at all with that script, though. I’m not sure which solution is better. The script is easier to disable when I do want to work on my settlements. I shouldn’t have to do that fiddle with these things to have a playable experience, though.
On the plus side, the game is playable. It is, in fact, the most stable Bethesda game I’ve ever played at launch. I didn’t come into Skyrim until several months (at least 6) after launch, so I can’t speak to it, but I remember the absolute nightmare FO3 could be (and NV was worse, but that was an Obsidian game built on Bethesda’s engine). Of course, WHY game publishers get away with releasing such buggy software could be a whole essay in and of itself, and I won’t get into that here.
In addition to the stability, the companions are the most well-rounded of any Bethesda game, to date. They have personalities and quests, and romance options more in depth than Skyrim’s “I see you have an amulet and I like you well enough, let’s marry!” Many of them have quests of their own for you. One in particular is a source of Radiant Quests, ala Skyrim that you’ll either love or you’ll grow tired of and avoid him (or if you’re on a PC, hunt down a mod to turn off his Radiant Quests). Gone is the faction/Karma system of New Vegas, now your companions judge your actions based on their own philosophies and the rest of the world doesn’t really care if you steal from the raiders who have been shooting at you.
The skeleton tableaus and subtle back story woven throughout the environment is just as strong here as it has been in past installments. Sometimes, these after-the-fact stories are stronger and more engaging than the actual plot. Someone in the Commonwealth certainly likes setting up their teddy bears in odd positions. I found a couple in flagrante delicato, and another trying to read the paper while doing his business, if you get my meaning. In addition, I understand Bostonians find the geography unsettlingly accurate, if a bit compressed, much like D.C. residents did FO3.
Crafting is pretty robust, even putting the settlement building aside. You don’t have to hunt for food recipes, though perks are needed for some of the more advance chems, meds, weapon, and armor mods. In fact, food is pretty awesome, better than stimpacks in many cases. Plus, you get XP for cooking. Save your stimpacks for broken limbs and Dogmeat (if you can stand the whining when he’s injured, he’ll heal quickly, but it’s REALLY realistic and I hate hearing a dog in pain). They didn’t include the ability to craft ammo, though. It makes ammo nearly the most valuable resource in the Commonwealth, especially once you have a strong settlement up and running providing you with clean water and food. You can also rename your modded weapons, so you could have a ripper called “Dr. Teeth” and a gauss rifle called “The Electric Mayhem.” My double-barrel shotgun is called “Nora,” after my character’s wife who was a lawyer before the war. See, she’d give the opposition both barrels in her closing statements, like I do Feral Ghouls, even after I think they’re dead (ESPECIALLY if they look dead). I also modded up a flamethrower and called it “Trogdor the Burninator” and my scooped rifle is AT&T (reach out and touch someone).
The shooter portion of combat is better than it was in FO3 or NV and VATS is still there when you need assistance (and the annoying, darting giant insects are much easier in VATS). You’ll want that assistance when you finally encounter Deathclaws and Super Mutant Suiciders (they give new meaning to the term “Nuclear Football”).
Bethesda has definitely learned in the years since FO3, and probably have taken cues from other games as well. Fallout 4 is challenging and fun and a worthy addition to the Fallout Universe. There’s hundreds of hours of content here and future DLCs will no doubt only serve to strength that. Unfortunately, as much as I praised the companions earlier, some of the interactions with other NPCs is lacking. For example, the first time I encountered a friendly ghoul in the game (which did NOT exist at all for my character just a few days ago), there was no dialog option why this guy was so obviously inhuman; he just just another Bostonian. As I understand it, there are certain friendly ghouls to whom you do have a WTF? reaction the first time you see them, so apparently, I wasn’t supposed to encounter this guy before all the others. So, it’s possibly an oversight, but it was immersion-breaking.
If you think it’s a travesty that the Fallout series has moved beyond turn-based isometric games, then Fallout 4 is not going to change your mind. If you liked FO3 and NV, you will likely enjoy Fallout 4. PC gamers are used to Bethesda’s quirks by now and know that a decent game by them can become great with the proper mods. Fallout 4 is already a great game, mod will make it awesome.