The game really starts with a character waking from a sleep of some 200 odd years, then making their way, blinking, into a world where everything’s familiar yet weirdly strange.
It’s a feeling you’ll empathize with while playing Fallout 4. On the one hand, this isn’t a revolutionary sequel. Its style, tone and core mechanics build on groundwork already laid down by Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Yet with a new story, a new setting and an enhanced engine, this is roughly to Fallout 3 what The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim was to Oblivion, only with the kind of increase in graphics fidelity you get when a franchise hits a new console generation. The shift from Washington and New Vegas to a rain-soaked Massachusetts wilderness is more than just skin-deep.
The unique position of your protagonist in the world plays a major part in this. He or she remains a fish out of water, but one with history and a different kind of personal quest. When they leave Vault 111, somewhere to the North West of Boston, they find a world where chaos reigns, mutants and raiders are a constant peril and the tiny green shoots of humanity are struggling to take root. This isn’t just a game about the aftermath of mass destruction but about how you rebuild. Sure, you can focus on looting and mindless slaughter, but in a way Fallout 4 is about how individuals can help transform the bleakest world.
What you do and how you do remains reasonably open. Like The Witcher 3 or Metal Gear Solid 5 it’s a massive buffet banquet, and nobody’s telling you what dish you need to be eating next.
The commonwealth, as the game’s Massachusetts area is called, is a sizeable open world full of mystery and danger, not as huge in scale as The Witcher 3’s vast map or Metal Gear Solid 5’s warzones, but rich in activity and detail. Here there are friends and enemies to make, settlements to build, plus weapons, armour and other useful gear to craft. You’re free to define your character and their objectives, and you can prioritise your own personal quests or team up with like-minded souls and do your best to restore peace and justice. You can fight your way through situations, or use charm and guile. Why kill all the raiders in a rusting factory yourself, when you can activate the robotic security and settle down with a big tub of popcorn? Well, at least until the survivors spot you munching.
With so much choice though comes a multitude of systems, and at times Fallout 4 threatens to buckle under their weight.
While it’s roughly possible to play it like a first-person shooter with RPG-style inventory and character progression systems, it’s not really practical. To survive the game’s war-torn city and post-nuclear wilderness you’ll need to learn how to scavenge resources and modify your equipment, adding armour piece-by-piece, reconstructing weapons with different parts, stocks, cartridges and sights. Get involved with settler communities and you’ll also need to get your head around base-building, transforming scavenged or scrapped materials into shelters, furniture, generators, water pumps and resources. Fallout 4 takes this kind of detail to a whole new level.
Combat, meanwhile, is both tactical and as tense as any action game. Good weapons are hard to come by and ammo scarce, while your foes – both human and mutant – are fearsome, fast and deadly. Like Fallout 3, Fallout 4 mixes real-time, first-person combat with a slow-motion, tactical VATS mode, where time slows to a crawl and you can flick not just between targets, but between parts of a target, giving you a chance to blast vulnerable areas or take out an arm or leg to cripple a more powerful foe. It’s a near-perfect balance, making the game feel action-packed while giving fans of more conventional RPGs something closer to the feel of turn-based combat.
Crucially, everything in Fallout 4 reflects the underlying numbers. You might think you’re the headshot king, but if you haven’t got the relevant Perception abilities and aim-related perks, you won’t be making long-range shots or delivering the game’s gruesome critical hits. Like the Mass Effect trilogy it’s an action/RPG hybrid, but this one that never forgets that it’s an RPG at heart.
You don’t have to fight alone. Follow the right quest-lines and make the right friends and you’ll find companions for your journey, ranging from your initial canine chum, Dogmeat, to Minuteman rangers and thick-skinned investigative journalists. They’ll fight for you, evening the odds or delaying more powerful enemies. You can get them to carry stuff or kit them out with new weapons and equipment, and even give them basic orders of the ‘stay’ and ‘go’ variety.
Fallout 4 also goes big on power-armour, giving you a basic rig early on with the chance to customise it with more powerful limbs or tougher shielding; a real advantage when you’re fighting off towering super-mutants, waves of raiders or the tougher boss ghouls and monsters. It’s tempting to over-use it, but doing so runs the risk of having parts damaged and out of commission when you need your armour most. In a mutant and ghoul-infested city, going loud isn’t always the best approach.
Throughout, there’s a great sense of progression. Battling raiders and clearing buildings will net you better arms and armour, which can themselves be modified to do more damage or work more effectively at range. You’ll level up as you gain experience, not only adding points to the core S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats, but opening a series of perks that boost your damage-dealing capabilities with specific weapons, add secondary damage effects, make you more resilient or decrease the effects of radiation. If you love the character-building aspect of RPGs, Fallout 4 will give you a bewildering array of options.
What hits you most is how well everything is balanced, forcing you to make trade-offs all the time. Sure, eating will heal you, but when the most effective foods are radioactive you need to keep your anti-rad treatments close by. And while you can modify a primitive pipe rifle into a superior sniping tool, you’ll still need to compromise somewhere, say, damage or reload speeds, to get accuracy and range. Even using VATS involves making choices. It can be the best way to tackle small groups of foes with ruthless efficiency, but every shot uses valuable action points, potentially leaving you helpless as the ghouls or raider skirmishers try to rush you. Sometimes, simply blasting away with automatic gunfire can be the better choice.
Fallout 4 doesn’t make mastering this stuff easy. I’m not one for lengthy and tedious tutorials, but while Fallout 4’s quest structure gives you room to get to grips with the fundamentals early on, key systems and activities go relatively unexplained. I can’t actually recall whether or not the VATS system was actually introduced at any point, and I also can’t remember a game of recent years where I’ve had to refer so much and so often to the in-game help. In a way, though, this is part of the charm. Fallout 4 is a game about people using their own ingenuity to make the most of scant resources. Isn’t it only fair that you should put some effort in yourself?
You might have to. I’ll be honest, for the first four or five hours I didn’t really click with Fallout 4. After a cracking start it seemed a little pedestrian, the plotting, the quest lines and the game’s identity struggling to gel. It doesn’t help that it’s no unalloyed technical masterpiece.
Don’t get me wrong; the landscapes are beautiful and the interiors detailed, with some fantastic, atmospheric lighting effects as the weather changes and the Commonwealth moves through its day to night cycle. The art direction is fantastic, giving us a world that reached a cultural and technological zenith in the mid-1950s then just stuck there, giving everything this brilliant decayed retro sci-fi look and feel.