After many years of anxious waiting where we Fallout fans worried that we were sinking into Half-Life 3 territory, Bethesda Softworks finally a few months ago admitted that Fallout 4 was almost ready. OMG OMG OMG OMG.
Note: this will not be a dispassionate review. Nor will it be an objective or clinical review. No, I'm a Fallout addict, and it will be reviewed from that point of view. Brief history: I played the original Fallout and Fallout 2 (turn-based, top-down tactical RPGs) on my Mac waaaaaaay back in the day. When Fallout 3 was announced, I took that as a sign to finally buy an XBox (the XBox 360, to be specific) and commenced to lose weeks in that game. When Fallout: New Vegas arrived, same thing - weeks gone. So it was with excitement that I realized I finally had a reason to buy an XBox One, because 4 won't run on the older consoles.
I ordered the Fallout 4 Xbox One bundle. When it arrived on launch day, I had a crisis; I decided not to install it. I had a ton of work to do and then a trip to Vermont to make, and I knew that if I plugged that thing in, I'd get no sleep and be a zombie all week. So I held out. My brother (who had ordered his at the same time) set his up, and I went over to his place to watch the game boot up and watch the game intro, as well as the first half hour or so of gameplay.
A week or so ago I finally connected my own console up and fired it up. In that time, according to Fallout's really really clever and evil system of telling you at each game save how many play hours you've accumulated up to that save point, I've spent something like 1 day and 18 hours in game. This is because last weekend I spent most of in Fallout due to decompression from travel and losing my cat, and Thanksgiving weekend meant I had another couple of days to kill with meh weather.
So here we go.
I will assume you've played Fallout 3 and/or NV. If you haven't, then, uh, I dunno. Watch the trailers online, read some industry reviews. I will also try not to spoil anything.
Game Setting and Intro
Where Fallout 3 took place in the Capital Wasteland (a post-nuclear version of Washington D.C) and New Vegas took place...well, yeah, out West, this game takes place in the Commonwealth. That's as in the Commonwealth of Massachussetts, home of post-nuclear Boston and environs. Like the other two, it is played on a fairly large open map that is 'compressed' when compared to real space - landmarks and terrain features from the real Boston are perfectly recognizable and in the right general relative positions, but distances are compressed and 'boring' areas elided to produce solid gameplay at all points. But if you're wondering how to get from, say, Boston Common to Lexington, you'll find that your real-world Boston navigation skills require only a bit of tweaking to work in Fallout 4. Hooray!
Unlike the other Fallout games, this one starts before the Great War. That's right, you actually see life in pre-nuclear Boston - in that alternate world of 1950s zeerust that we're now so used to from Fallout, but with everything shiny new! You do your character creation in your home in a northwestern suburb, while you and your wife (or you and your husband, depending on what gender you pick) tussle for the bathroom mirror. You check in on your infant son and ponder the speech you're going to give at the VFW that evening, for you are in fact a veteran. While you're exploring this domestic bliss - Mr. Handy and all - a salesman knocks. He's from Vault-Tec.
You know what that means.
If you have nuclear war paranoia or anxiety, probably best to skip this one. The news is full of the Battle of Anchorage, an historical event familiar to Fallout players. And your Mr. Handy will warn you to come watch a news bulletin that will cause you and your family to rush for the safety of the nearby Vault-Tec vault, barely making it inside as Boston takes a direct nuclear strike (which is odd, because I haven't yet found the crater; most of Downtown still seems to be there, but...ah well, more later).
The vault...isn't what you expected. Remember, this is Vault-Tec. They're not in it to keep you safe.
Bad things happen to you and your family.
You have to escape a rusting, corroded and malfunctioning Vault 111.
When you make it out, welcome to the wasteland.
While it looks nearly identical to Fallout: NV on first glance there have been some subtle but very important changes. Here are a few off the top of my head.
No more skill scores. That's right, skills are no longer managed via points. Instead, you have perks like before, and you have your S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes like before - but skill mods like gear and power-ups work directly on the skill, rather than on the score. For example, lockpicking - locks are now graded Novice, Advanced, Expert and Master sort of like before - but rather than allocating points until you can pick them, you pick the 'lockpicking' perk, which has levels. In-game buffs like lockpicking armor works not by boosting your score but by actually making the lockpicking mini-game easier.
V.A.T.S. no longer stops time. The world continues to move very slowly in V.A.T.S. so you are no longer able to trigger it and then dither over your battle plan, get a drink, etc. You can still pause the game of course - just bring up the Save menu - but regular gameplay no longer stops the clock entirely. I approve of this change. As a result, I find I only use V.A.T.S. when the fight is hard, or complex and I need the edge (I'm playing on Very Hard, one step below Survival where ammo has weight and you have to worry about hunger. thirst and sleep). The rest of the time, unlike Fallout 3 and more noticeably than FNV, it's pretty much FPS-able (Fallout 3's aiming system was broken outside of V.A.T.S. making it pretty much unusable).
CRAFTING! There's always sort of been crafting. FNV added ammunition crafting. But the system has totally changed here. Cooking and Chemistry are pretty much the same. You can still build explosives and stuff. But the weapons crafting system has totally changed. First of all, weapons no longer degrade. I'm of mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, it was excruciating to have to keep stockpiles of weapon types in F:NV because you could only fix gun A with another gun of type A as parts. Now, guns don't break, so you don't have to worry about that. However, weapon crafting is now much deeper. There are several base weapon types (pipe pistol, pipe rifle, the familiar 10mm, submachine gun, hunting rifle, etc.) You find these in the course of the game, of course. However, weapons are now built out of components, and although the mechanics are a bit clunky, you can now (if you have the materials and the skill) upgrade or change out any component on any gun. For example, you find a standard pipe rifle. This has a short barrel, a standard receiver, iron sights, a standard magazine, a short stock, and no muzzle attachment. Each of those can be swapped out. Long barrels, short light barrels, long ported barrels, long finned barrels, etc. Glow sights, reflex sights, short scopes, long scopes, recon scopes, night vision scopes. Quick eject magazines. Larger mags. Quick large mags. Drum mags. More powerful receivers; automatic receivers (guess what those do). The pipe rifle fires .38 caliber; one option is a .45 or .308 receiver for more power - although probably not as much power (damage) as a purpose-built .308 or .45 will give you.
This contines up to the higher tech and down to lower tech options. Swords can be serrated, or electrified. Energy weapons get positively silly options. All you need is perks and materials.
Oh yes, materials. Well. Remember those billion things you used to obsessively hoard in Fallout 3 and Fallout NV because they might be useful later? So you had a billion brooms and Abraxo cleaner and cigarettes and the like? Well, those are all still here. And there still is a Junk Jet in the game (slight spoiler) so you can still use junk as ammo for that. But now, all junk is made of materials - and you can scrap it, at workbenches, to get raw materials for crafting. Wood, steel, ceramic, glass, leather, cloth, rubber - and then more complex bits, like fiber optics, nuclear materials, lead, circuitry, gears, springs, and more. One handy feature - you can just throw all your junk in the Workbench, and if you try to build something that needs components, the bench will show you a menu of the items it will be rendering down for parts and let you approve it - no need to pre-scrap.
Oh, I'm not even done yet, because...
Settlements. Yep, you get to build and manage settlements. You can build buildings, traps, turrets, terminals, crafting stations, stores, furniture, decorations, plant crops, dig wells, build generators and entire electrical grids along with lights, radios, TVs and the like. You can build the wasteland fort of your dreams. It's not quite fully open sandbox - there are a few specific sites where settlements can exist. Map locations, remember. Around those sites, in 'crafting' mode, a bright green ghost wall shows up - you can scrap anything inside that line, and build inside that line. And I mean anything. Trees. Stumps. Tires. Cinderblocks. Entire frigging buildings. Those wrecked cars. Furniture. Mailboxes. anything. And it all provides you with sweet, sweet components. Then, of course, you get to build your own stuff.
Your settlement might get attacked by raiders. So you'll want to eventually build turrets, and build walls and gates to channelize attackers, and watchtowers for your settler NPCs to fight from, and traps, oh my head the traps. Tesla traps, flamethrower traps, bomb traps.
Respawning. Remember how some areas respawned randomly and you never knew until you arrived out of fast travel? No more. Areas now list as 'CLEARED' on your map - and if that note vanishes, guess what happened.
I'll stop for now, although there's more. The power armor system is completely new. Hell, you can build frigging jetpacks for your power armor.
As you can probably tell, I'm hopelessly addicted to this game and its tech.
It's Fallout. The story is pretty brutal. I'm probably 1/3 of the way through, and I'm not going to tell you anything about the story, because that's what keeps me playing, a big part of it anyway. I will say the story feels much more like Fallout 3 than Fallout NV - it's more personal, and not as crazy branching. I approve.
The game looks great - but because this is Bethesda, it definitely isn't as good as these consoles are capable of. That's the engine's fault - they clearly decided not to completely rewrite the engine. Characters are still pretty wooden, although they're better; the clipping problems are still easily found, if you look. The companion/AI pathing is terrible and painful. The dialog options aren't as deep as FNV, it feels like - dialog in this is more storytelling than actual CYOA choice. There are some attribute checks for dialog options, but they no longer tell you which or what the required numbers are, or what your success percentages are.
Generally, it feels like they're trying to polish away the RPG system that made Fallout what it is. Not destroy it or remove it, but bury the numbers below the game so that the compulsive minmaxers don't get lost in the mechanics. The changes all serve to keep my head in post-nuclear Boston, rather than crunching stats or worrying about my 'character build', so I approve.
For the money? This game is cheap at the price, given how many hours of entertainment I expect to get out of it. Already, it's rought 5-8 times more efficient than movies in terms of $/hr. I've been telling friends I'm unavailable because I'm 'in post-nuclear Boston.' Many of them fully get it, as they themselves are trekking the wasteland. Those that don't? They'll figure it out.
Remember. War? War never changes.
Update: A week or so of play in. As the delirious joy of a new Fallout game fades, it's easier to see the warts, and there are warts (if there weren't, it wouldn't be Fallout). Here are some. WARNING: There are mild spoilers here - not of story, but of game mechanic specifics.
Settlements. Settlements are neat. They're mostly neat, though, I've come to realize, because they're new and they finally validate being the crazy hoarder packrat scavenger that all of us have been in Fallout from time to time. They're fun to play with. But they also have problems. First up: they don't have much of a point. I am suspicious that it's entirely possible to finish this game without ever paying a single bit of attention to the settlement mechanism, leaving the settlers to fend for themselves, and never starting new settlements, at the cost of nothing more than the opportunity cost of some XP and caps from mission rewards. Sure, it's good for my morale to come home to Sanctuary Hills after crawling the Commonwealth wasteland and to see lit houses and ready beds, with food growing and people active. But that's about it. On the negative side, the 'Raid' mechanism seems seriously broken. You're supposed to get notice when your settlements are being raided so you can fast-travel home and fight them off, both with your own weapons and using the network of traps you may have devised. The problem is that this mechanism seems really broken. I've come home three times to find my settlement in ruins having never seen an advisement. When the raid resolves without your presence - which seems to happen if you wait too long to respond, but I don't know how long 'too long' is - it doesn't get resolved according to combat play. So all your layout work and trap laying and turret positioning is for nought. I just come home to find all my stuff trashed, requiring resource-investment 'repair.' Let this be a lesson - keep some food crop seeds in the workbench, because you'll need them to revitalize your crops after a raid. I want to like the Settlements mechanism - and I do - but it needs to be fixed. Maybe when I get high enough to build stores etc. I'll have a different opinion. But the Raid mech is definitely broken. I had a Defense rating more than high enough, according to the rating system (in the Pip-Boy) - but raids happened anyway, invisibly.
Story and Dialog. The story itself is fine; as I said, I'm probably only 1/3 of the way through the story arc (don't know, I haven't spoiled it by looking it up). But the mechanics...eeenh. This is intimately tied to another change I didn't really talk about above - they seem to have entirely removed the karma system. The only penalties for stealing stuff are that your companions and nearby NPCs might get a negative opinion of you. Also, I don't think there are any negative karma impacts from dialog/quest choices - at least, I haven't seen any. This is really annoying. One of the fun parts of Fallout to date has been role-playing; coping with the wasteland as you'd like, either a good guy, neutral, or complete bastard. There were pluses and minuses to each; in FNV, for example, your karmic status basically acted like positive and negative perks, and changed the dialog choices as you progressed. Here? Nothing. Zip. I actually enjoyed going back through FNV and playing it as a complete bastard after completing it as a goody two-shoes; it was a noticeably different game. I don't think that's going to happen here.
This leads to something I already touched on above - dialog choices. In prior Fallout games, they were custom based on the conversation, and really felt like writers had crafted them for each individual conversation (with obvious exceptions for traders and 'static' characters). Here, though, it feels like every single dialog is basically 'yes, no, sarcasm, huh?' and it gets really boring.
I'm still enjoying it of course, because I have a ton of wasteland to explore, yet. Went back and checked the areas near the starting point I hadn't looked at and found a bunch of stuff, including an actual sniper rifle. Woo!
Post-Completion Update (SPOILERS, POSSIBLY)
Well, I finished it. At least, I took it to one possible ending; akin to Fallout: New Vegas there are several possible endings, four basic types depending on which faction you choose to be loyal to.
I have to say, I now understand why so many people online were lambasting this game. It's a serious disappointment. I'm not sure how I feel about it overall - I mean, Act 1 and Act 2 were fine, normal Fallout stuff. But Act 3 - it just fell apart, story-wise. This, on top of the game mechanic changes I really didn't like, make me look back on my 2.5 months playing it with a bit of bitterness, and mean it's unlikely I'll either play past the main story end or retry for a different ending - both things I did in Fallout: New Vegas.
F:NV was written by Obsidian, not by Bethesda- although it's clear Bethesda tried to learn both from Obsidian's story structure (four-way faction split ending) and from the community (the whole settlement system is the result of a fan mod), they don't seem to have done a terribly good job. Any narrative grab that the main story had on me was blown away near the beginning of Act 3, basically by poor writing, in my opinion. The lack of Karma or a decent dialog system made the Act 3 story progression even more painful than it had to be.
In discussions with various folks, including several serious Fallout fans, I've come to agree with many of them that the issue here seems to be the tension between the open-world sandbox game with great physics, and the story-telling in a compelling world that FO1 and FO2 were known for and started. I'm not sure why we can't have both - F:NV, while not perfect, was yards and yards better at doing both in the same game than FO4 despite the combat mechanics not being as smooth. It just feels like FO4 put so much energy into fixing combat that they decided to just turn it into a shooter with a few story elements.
So incredibly frustrating. In FO3 and FNV, there were actual play style options. Not just karma - the dialog system offered you, consistently, the option to either use diplomacy or violence, with a bunch of humor thrown in for fun - and story tidbits passed on not just via exposition but by reference. FO4's dialog essentially offers you three choices: yes, no, or walk away (and come back to the same yes or no choice if you want to advance).
Aigh. I hate saying all this, because I dearly loved exploring the wasteland in FO4. And in fact, if you make that your main point - it will not disappoint (much). You probably won't be able to be a diplomat, but maybe you can be a sneak build, or an energy/science build, or a pistoleer...but you see the point, they're all combat roles.
I'd still spend the $60 again, given that I got 2.5 months of entertainment out of it. But I'd probably try to avoid ever getting into Act 3, and just keep playing for exploration and sandbox value.