Game Review: FALLOUT 4 Puts The Rad In Irradiated

Hope you’ve got a hundred hours to spare.

If you’re at all interested in games, it’s definitely crossed your radar. Anticipation has been blindingly hot since developer Bethesda’s reveal at E3. It’s the followup, in one way or another, to two of the best games of the last console generation. On launch day, it raked in $750 million in 24 hours, neatly pipping even the latest Call of Duty and Halo games as the biggest entertainment launch of the year. It’s also really, really good, in spite of a few irritations.

Yeah, Fallout 4 is kind of a big deal.

The first thing that’ll strike you about Fallout 4 (after its lengthy download and install) is its storytelling. The breathtaking, emotional opening cinematic establishes the world and backstory of Fallout, highlighting how American culture stagnates in the 1950s while nuclear-powered technology advances in leaps and bounds before destroying civilisation through global war. War never changes, but the weapons sure do.

You start your game, as always, by creating your character - or rather, two. Male and female options are available, but the one you don’t play as becomes your character’s spouse - adding extra emotional weight to the pre-war prologue. These two characters are the parents of a child who, after the family is frozen for two hundred years in one of future America’s Vaults, gets abducted - kicking off the most personal story Bethesda has yet told.

Fallout 4’s character creator is the best Bethesda has made, sporting intuitive push-pull controls and an enormous range of customisation options (including skin conditions up to and including vitiligo). It's so much fun creating bizarre faces - with inevitable made-up backstories - that I wish Bethesda would release a standalone character-creator app. But the creator highlights an interesting issue with the game’s story: by being more emotionally-driven, it creates a certain degree of dissonance. For example, my character Buffy Bulletface - in my head canon a psychopath trying and failing to reform herself - had to undergo backstory retconning as the game progressed to give her parental instincts (and full voice acting) more motivation.

(Pictured: Buffy Bulletface and life partner Brody Bumpkin)

The personal story also makes the disconnect between narrative and exploration all the more jarring. As with any Bethesda open-world game, a significant portion of the enjoyment derives from poking about the landscape and seeing what you can find. That sucks the urgency out of rescuing your kidnapped son, making you feel guilty when the first thing you do upon exiting the vault is loot the nearest house for valuables. Rescuing my son feels like just another item on the increasingly long shopping list that is the Fallout 4 quest screen. 

Stranger is the fact that I don't really have a problem with that. The exploration is so compelling, the world so rich, that you end up telling your own story with it. I’ve come up with my own reasons why Buffy Bulletface has, for the time being, abandoned her main quest, and that makes it more fun. Roaming the Commonwealth, as the game’s playable area is known, is an at-times tense game of survival, with ammunition scarce and most food items irradiated. That’s not even counting the giant, mutated creatures and Mad Max-y raiders. Between survival, exploration, and elements as simple as which companions you travel with and where you store your shit, it’s hard not to formulate your own personal narratives as to who your character is.

Fallout 4’s game world may not boast the surface area of other open-world games, but the Commonwealth is rich and dense, thanks to terrific environmental design and a surprising degree of verticality. There are almost too many things to see and do, with new places of interest constantly competing for your attention. I’ve complained about post-apocalyptic games feeling too populated before, but Fallout 4 gets away with it, by virtue of being less about desolation than about the weirdness of post-nuke society. Plus, the game’s side activities are proper stories, ranging from tiny tableaus to full-blown quests driven by bizarre, well-written, and well-voiced characters.

Like most Bethesda games, Fallout 4’s sidequests and self-directed roleplaying are its best content. Should it take your fancy, you can solve murder cases, cosplay as a noirish comic book character, venture into a creepy witchcraft museum, and more. You can align yourself with the game’s multiple factions, each with its own questline and outlook on the world. Or you can just roam the landscape, picking through the remnants of civilisation while listening to the radio, the excellent ambient music, or the whistle of the wind.

As far as combat and movement go, Fallout 4 is a surprisingly slick stealth shooter. The assistance from Id Software and inspiration from games like Destiny really show. Touches as simple as the inclusion of a sprint button, or the amount and speed of head-bob, make an enormous difference. VATS, Fallout’s nod towards old-school RPG combat, is also improved, slowing down time to make firefights all the more exhilarating, challenging, and tactical. And power armour, acquired surprisingly early, functions more like a vehicle than an item of clothing, requiring constant maintenance and fuel to keep it running. It all makes for much more enjoyable play as an action game.

Fallout 4 has copped much criticism for its supposedly under-par graphics. And indeed, on a technical level, textures are low resolution, frame rate hitches are disappointingly regular and intrusive (especially in situations involving many enemies or particle effects), and some of the animation is clunky to say the least. But those aren’t dealbreakers, because the art direction in Fallout 4 is second to none. The colour palette is rich and vibrant, the lighting atmospheric and mood-enhancing, and the world and character design astonishingly detailed. There are things in here that most players will gloss over or just straight-up never even find. It makes you wonder how many of the graphical complaints come from a vocal, tech-obsessed minority.

What certainly don’t come from a minority are the glitches. The game crashed twice for me within my first hour of play (once during the character creator and once in a quest), and though it hasn’t done so again, the threat hovers ever-near. It’s pretty aggressive with autosaving, and it’s easy to create quicksaves, but those are workarounds, not fixes. Some of the physics glitches - whether game-breaking or benignly amusing - have been present in Bethesda’s engine since Oblivion in 2006. Bethesda says it’s impossible to test every permutation of actions a player could take with this degree of freedom, and that’s absolutely true. It’s also true that hiring QA testers gets less cost-effective the more you hire. But that doesn’t take the sting out of being forced to reload a game you spent a lot of money on. 

In the end, though, it’s amazing a game with this many interconnecting systems managed to ship with “only” this many bugs. Bethesda’s trademark player freedom is here in abundance. The Elder Scrolls parallels are obvious, with crafting and factions present and accounted for, and buildings marked “cleared” as if they were above-ground dungeons. There are a dozen characters that can accompany you as companions, including the loveable mutt Dogmeat (another win for video game dogs in 2015). Even Skyrim’s “radiant quest” system is tucked in to supply you with theoretically limitless (if repetitive) gameplay. But it’s elements like the fights that break out between different creatures, or synths killing and impersonating settlers, or raiders stealing your stuff while you’re away from your base, that make the post-apocalypse truly feel alive.

When it was announced at E3, Fallout 4’s workshop system - and the larger settlement-building system surrounding it - looked as intimidating as it did incredible. Bethesda has essentially plopped a fusion of The Sims and Minecraft on top of Fallout, adding tower defense and resource management for good measure, and it’s surprisingly versatile and deep. Construction doesn’t quite reach Minecraft’s flexibility, and some of the positioning mechanics are tough to nail, but damn if they didn’t pull it off. It’s entirely optional (which will either please or irritate players only here for ARPG stuff), but if you want to, and have hours to devote to it, you can build entire villages, populate them, and start rebuilding the Commonwealth. Or you can just build a little fortress for you and your dog, wallpapered with paintings of animals.

If only weapon and armour crafting were quite as much fun. Fallout 4’s crafting is robust and useful, allowing you to create scopes, magazines, bayonets, armour plates, and so on. There’s great variety in there, and it makes you feel like you’re wielding the weapons you want. You can even name your weapons. But along with the workshop, it requires a sea change in how you manage your inventory. Suddenly, “junk” items are now useful, as they break down into materials for crafting - which means your inventory fills up faster and more often than ever. You’ll become overencumbered all the goddamn time, forcing a choice between performing junk-exclusive raiding sorties (time-consuming), using your companions as beasts of burden (mean), or just not crafting (unthinkable).

Crafting is also one of the many mechanics that’s frustratingly opaque at times. Bethesda claims that certain game mechanics are “hidden” to better simulate being lost in the wasteland, but that’s hard to stomach when it feels more like incomplete menu design or outright obfuscation. For example: it’s unclear how to remove mods to apply them to other weapons, or how to see which mods you have ready-made. Magazine sizes don’t show up in crafting menus. The new leveling system is incredibly confusingly laid out. The cover-shooting mechanic isn’t mentioned anywhere. And that’s only the beginning. I watched a friend play through the early hours of the game, and found myself having to explain how many functions worked, or to shrug and say, “the game’s just like that.” Basic features shouldn’t need verbal explanations or online listicles to reveal them.

Both Fallout 4’s storylines and settlement-building put forward a strong theme of rebuilding. There are no easy answers as to how to put society back together in a world that has super mutants, ghouls, and sentient robots, and that leads to a surprising degree of racial metaphor, right down to the presence of an underground railroad. But it’s not an entirely serious game - it’s also incredibly scary at times, heartwarming at others, and loaded with a weird, sick sense of humour that most AAA studios would focus-test to oblivion. Fallout 4 has the spirit of an indie game, on the scale of a blockbuster. 

Like Skyrim before it, Fallout 4 is less of a linear game than a platform for play. If you want to experience an epic post-apocalyptic story, you can do that. If you want to abandon the story and roam the sprawling wasteland, you can do that. If you want to build a giant animated ejaculating penis, or use console commands to create a gigantic multi-way rumble, you can do that too. There’s crazy gameplay variety on offer, and the inevitable onslaught of mods will increase that variety even more.

Fallout 4 keeps surprising and delighting me. Few other games have the depth or idiosyncratic character to get me consuming their content this greedily or obsessively. Clearly made by a passionate team, it’s my favourite Bethesda game to date, and one of the finest games of the year, warts and all - one whose likely destruction of my already-struggling social life I welcome with open arms.

I mean, c’mon. It’s Fallout.