Review: Fallout 4 – Welcome Home

on November 9, 2015 8:00 AM

In all my time with the last-gen consoles, Fallout 3 was a special game to me. Even though I played some of that generation’s most-acclaimed open-world titles to death, Fallout 3 was an experience that, frankly, I won’t ever forget.

It invested me in a world as rich, dense, and filled with possibility as its Capital Wasteland — making prospects of diving in to Fallout 4 all the more exciting as they were nerve-wracking.

When the game finally received its long-awaited reveal earlier this year, I lit up with excitement at diving back into the Fallout world once again.

But, at the same time, how could that unforgettable experience of opening the Vault and venturing out into the wide-open wasteland feel fresh once again? How could it do things differently so it wasn’t just Fallout 3 Redux?

How would the experience of going out into the world as a Lone Wanderer light up my imagination (and countless dozens of hours) once again?

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That’s really the sole concern that I had when firing up the game and getting ready to head back out into the wasteland again. Rest assured, I was able to put (most) of those concerns aside in my time with Fallout 4. Let me rephrase that: a LOT of time with Fallout 4.

I started losing track of time with the game after I well exceeded the 30 hour-ish mark, swept up in the joy of discovery and that sense of possibility that only Fallout can create. Fallout 4 gives players that and then some.

As a dense open-world shooter/RPG, the game takes what works from the previous installments while adding plenty to the mix to make it a much larger and vibrant installment than players may be expecting (in particular players of Fallout 3).

That feeling kicks off pretty much from the get-go by dropping players into the opening prologue segment before the apocalypse even happens — a first for the series.

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Following a series of events that lead you from a respectable and loving husband or wife (depending on what character you create) to the last survivor of Vault 111, from there Fallout 4 pretty much lets go of the player’s hands and lets you choose your own path and where to go next in the ruins of Boston, Massachusetts, now known as “the Commonwealth.”

From there, players explore the remains of what’s left in Boston and its surrounding areas, scavenging for items, food, weapons, equipment, and more against the various irradiated creatures, enemies, and more waiting across the wartorn, barren wasteland.

Along the way, you’ll also encounter various factions and groups that you can align with and complete missions for, with many of them having a common enemy known only as “the Institute”; finding yourself wrapped up in helping to take down the organization and finding what was taken from you along the way.

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The plot is a bit on the light side and serves mostly as your motivation for exploring the Commonwealth, so don’t go in expecting the same quality of storytelling you might find from some of this year’s other massive open-world titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

As well as the story sets up your motivations for exploring the irradiated remains of Boston, it’s the exploration and sense of discovery that’s key to the Fallout series, and here in 4 it’s once again the area where the game shines the brightest, as the game’s Boston setting is perfect in that regard.

Compared to the relatively open nature of Fallout 3‘s Washington D.C. where large parts of its “Capital Wasteland” environment were pretty sparse and checkered with iconic American landmarks, the Boston area is dense and filled with areas to discover and locations to explore.

I’ll certainly admit that a big part of me was excited at the setting alone, given that I’ve been to Boston numerous times over the years and there’s no shortage of seeing some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, let alone the game’s added retro-futuristic touch.

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From seeing the radically-altered USS Constitution with rocket jets, to fighting Mirelurks inside the Massachusetts State House, or taking out Super Mutants outside the historic Faneuil Hall marketplace, the Boston setting makes for a packed area steeped with both American history and plenty of exciting places to explore and uncover their relevance in the world.

The fact that I was able to complete a mission focused around Boston’s Freedom Trail by bringing up a map of the actual trail in real life and completing it speaks wonders of Bethesda’s commitment to making the Boston environment feel accurate and real, but also engaging and fun to explore.

That focus around exploration and discovery is the clear goal of Fallout 4 and its map offers such much for players to see and do.

While I wouldn’t say its Boston map is the largest-feeling one I’ve ever explored in an open-world game or that it’s especially vast compared to some of Bethesda’s other titles like Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it certainly feels like one of the most jam-packed game worlds I’ve played with so many areas to explore and find.

Even within my first 15-20 hours with the game, I had still really only uncovered about one-third of the map, and progressing another 5-10 hours, I had thoroughly explored about half of the map to its full extent. It’s easy to say that will be keeping you busy for quite some time.

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Fallout 4 is certainly expansive in scope, but Bethesda Softworks has made sure not to skimp on the atmosphere and setting that have made Fallout so fun and exciting to explore.

Held together by its 1950s/60s-era style and nuclear war-inspired story, its blend of retro-futuristic elements are just as engaging as they were before — especially with the game’s surprisingly vibrant and saturated color palate.

Even in its waitron and irradiated environments, it’s a refreshing breath of fresh air to see the title take such a different direction in its art direction and introduce a more colorful, and ultimately more hopeful, world than the one we saw in Fallout 3, dominated by green, brown, and gray.

The striking visual direction is completed well by some impressive visuals and its massive draw distance — even after the memorable “escaping the Vault” opener and setting out into the world for the first time, Fallout 4 is filled with environments that have been lovingly crafted and are incredibly detailed.

In particular, the Commonwealth comes to life with great lighting effects that often made me stop for a second to pause and admire them, such as catching my gaze with the morning sunlight coming through the wasteland’s trees, or a violent radiation storm rapidly making its way through the Boston streets.

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From its scope and art direction, Fallout 4‘s world comes to life and is just begging for players to explore and wander to their hearts content. Though from a graphical and technical standpoint, the game still doesn’t quite overcome the numerous technical issues that has plagued Bethesda Softworks titles for years.

The visual and artistic polish is there in pretty much every aspect of the game, from the clever and cute Vault-Boy animations in your Pip-Boy and Perks chart, to getting in and out of Power Armor, all the way to the striking character creation system that let’s you “mold” your character to your complete liking (I probably spent a good half hour in that system alone at the game’s beginning).

That being said, it’s far from technical perfection with numerous glitches and bugs being apparent, from fallen enemies or characters glitching into walls, to explosions rendering incorrectly, and more.

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In my time with the game, I’ve only had one game crash from playing our review copy (PS4), and the majority of the glitches and bugs I’ve encountered are far from anything I would say is game-breaking or ruins the experience.

Glitches and bugs have always been one of the quirks of a Bethesda title, and unfortunately they’ll still have just as much as presence in Fallout 4 as before, though those that don’t mind those errors and bugs as much won’t find themselves having the experience lessened as much.

To a greater degree however, the character models and animations are a bit rough compared to the polish that care that has gone into crafting the environments and interiors you’ll spend countless hours exploring. Although 4 is certainly a big graphical improvement compared to Fallout 3 and New Vegas, character animations and lip-syncing still leave a little bit to be desired.

Thankfully, the uncanny valley effect from looking at characters head-on in Fallout 3 has been revised to a more traditional dialogue system compared to something like Mass Effect, though the character animations still retain some plastic-looking facial animations that are a bit rough compared to the rest of the game.

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The dialogue system in particular has seen some revisions from the previous games in removing the “Karma” system, where players’ interactions were noted in “Good” and “Bad” values that influenced your relationships with other characters.

While it’s not a major removal, the dialogue system itself feels a little sparser compared to the more expansive dialogue options available in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, where new options would open up based on your proficiency in certain “S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” stats.

Here, most conversations go into four paths with certain influences (a sarcastic answer, a positive one, negative, etc.), and you can mostly keep to one button press during an entire conversation depending on how you are playing out your character.

It’s kept to a bit of a simpler scale here than in the past, which may be a bit of a change for Fallout veterans, but to those that enjoyed similar systems in Mass Effect and Dragon Age they should feel right at home with Fallout 4.

The options in how to lead a conversation may not feel as diverse as before, but there’s still a ton of great dialogue and voice acting throughout, and with over 100,000 total lines of dialogue, there’s surely plenty of opportunities to hear new lines and have options open up in future playthroughs.

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Fallout 4 isn’t going to be the type of game that will “wow” you compared to some of the powerhouse visual spectacles that we’ve had earlier this year, though its world and content will easily make sure it’s one that you will easily spend the most time in.

It’s hard to knock it for some its technical flaws, as in every other area of the game, underneath the hood there is so much happening that really, I can’t see two (or more) playthroughs of the game ever being the same, as more than ever Bethesda is handing over the keys to the player to shape and customize the game’s world to their liking.

More than anything customization is the king, with a staggering amount of options you can toy with, equipment you can tinker with, and even from the ability to create, manage, and maintain complete new settlements to your liking.

The biggest example of that comes through with the new Settlement mechanics, where players can reclaim specific areas of the map and shape them into entirely new areas by forming and rebuilding, recruiting survivors to help build a community, and building up defenses against bands of raiders and Super Mutants.

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Players that have sunk a lot of time into the mobile-friendly Fallout Shelter will certainly find a lot to like in building Settlements, and adds tons of new options to building your own “homebase” into your own personal bachelor pad, or in establishing a miniature community to call your own.

While you shouldn’t expect the depth of something like Minecraft, the Settlement-building system is pretty robust in establishing and build structures from wood, steel, and other resources that you collect in the environment.

Building settlements is restricted to specific areas and zones, and while you can’t do any terraforming or landscaping to change the physical area, you can go around and scrap various objects in the environment not only to clear space (such as trees, ruined structures, etc.), but also to use them for resources and set-up.

It’s a completely optional aspect of the game, though those looking to build their own communities or set-up an awesome pad will surely find the system completely addictive and open to (nearly) anything you want to build, limited only by your imagination and the resources that you have on hand to build with.

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Crafting has also been expanded deep into the game’s weapons and armor system, with tons of options open to customize your weapons and armor and open up their abilities even further.

Thanks to some changes from the Fallout 3/New Vegas days, weapon and armor degradation has been removed (aside from the game’s Power Armor, which still needs repair from damage).

The focus on crafting and customizing weapons makes even basic weapons near the beginning of the game are also made more viable thanks to improvements and upgrades, such as scopes, new stocks, barrel upgrades, silencers, and much, much more.

It’s a refreshing change from the previous games, as weapons or armor that a player might develop a particular attachment to now aren’t rendered completely obsolete by a stronger weapon or piece of armor.

While the options that a particular weapon or armor might be open in crafting variety, the options easily help to extend a favorite piece of equipment’s lifespan, and make them bigger and badder in whichever way you choose, whether you want a silent killer shotgun or an explosive sniper rifle to take out enemies in the wasteland.

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My personal favorite is easily the new options available for Power Armor, which has seen quite a bit of change from the previous Fallout titles, and most of it for the better.

Where the iconic Power Armor suits were more or less treated as highly-powered pieces of armor, 4 instead treats them like suped-up bonuses for the player to utilize for some of the game’s hairier scenarios, like going against giant monstrosities or venturing into highly-irradiated environments: Power Armor is going to be your best friend in those cases.

In Fallout 4, Power Armor also gets its own special crafting station where you can mix and max Power Armor pieces from different armor sets, and also customize them in similar ways to the regular weapons and armor at your disposal.

Regularly, Power Armor provides players with an insanely durable piece of equipment along with the ability to completely shield players from the effects of radiation in the environment.

Customization is available to completely alter your Power Armor’s abilities and functionality, such as adding a jet boost or jetpack to boost their movement abilities or stronger, more durable armor components to make your wanderer a literal walking tank.

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That overwhelming dedication to the weapons, armor, and equipment at your disposal all feed in to the game’s combat system, an area where Fallout 4 has easily made the most strides in providing players with the smoothest combat system the series has seen yet.

While billing itself as a mix between a first-person shooter and RPG, 4 makes clear of the great care that Bethesda has taken in improving the combat system of Fallout, where a mix between real-time combat and the strategic use of your “VATS” (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) plays a great role than ever.

Players engaging against enemies can use VATS to slow down time to a crawl while highlighting specific enemies, a system which has provided the greatest elements of strategy and depth to the franchise’s particular brand of combat.

Once engaged in VATS, players can aim for specific parts of an enemy for unique effects, whether you want to impair their aiming ability (and go for higher damage) by aiming for the head, or instead going for the more tactical approach of shooting their legs to cripple and slow them down.

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The core combat mechanics are largely unchanged from previous titles, though they have also made the most refinements and improvements to make Fallout 4 feel closer than ever before to being as much of a first-person shooter as it is a dense, thoughtful RPG experience.

While I wouldn’t be able to put Fallout 4 against the likes of Call of Duty or Halo anytime soon, the gunplay and combat is incredibly satisfying in both its controls and in the feedback of engaging enemies.

Where VATS has always been a key part of Fallout‘s combat experience, the controls and combat system are smoother than ever and realistically, you can take on most combat scenarios without even needing it.

Taking a lot of cues and inspiration from Destiny (as the game even utilizes a specific PS Vita Remote Play control scheme from Josh Hamrick, who designed the controls for Destiny on Remote Play), feedback from both the guns and fighting against enemies feels great and far, far improved from that of Fallout 3.

The refinements to the combat options have also extended into loot and enemy identification, as the game will tag higher-powered enemies with stars, skulls, and other monikers so you have a clearer picture of what you’re up against (and whether you can take them out or not).

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For many, Fallout 4 has been quite a long time coming. That’s pretty clear from the unprecedented level of excitement surrounding its official reveal earlier this year, and even clearer that in nearly every way, is a bigger, better Fallout experience than we’ve ever had before.

It’s held back a bit by many of the technical bugs and glitches that Bethesda has been notorious for, and for that the game is far from the perfect experience that some might be hoping for.

But, in blazing past 40+ hours with the game and no clear end in sight just yet for me and my time in the Commonwealth, its scope and ambition far outweigh the few issues it does have, as glaring as they are.

It’s been over seven years since I first fell in love with the series with Fallout 3, and obviously with 4 on the horizon, there’s no way of knowing when  (or long) it will be until we can jump back into the wasteland once again.

However, all I can think of in my time with Fallout 4 is how great it is to be back home again: I don’t mind staying for a while.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.