Bethesda Game Studios only releases a new game every few years, but when they do, it’s typically a game so deep that it will easily keep you playing until their next big release rolls around. Fallout 4 continues that tradition, delivering Bethesda’s largest and most complex game to date. It builds on everything the developer started with in Fallout 3 and the past two Elder Scrolls games to deliver not just a strong candidate for game of the year, but one of the most engrossing games of all time.
As great as the past two Fallout and Elder Scrolls games were, the Gamebryo Engine that Bethesda built all of them on was clearly showing its age by the time Skyrim rolled around in 2011. Fallout 4 builds on the foundation laid by those earlier games, their sense of exploration, real-time RPG combat and inventory management, but improves on what came before in every way.
The first thing you’ll notice when playing Fallout 4 is that it just feels better than previous Bethesda games. Your character moves more realistically than in the last two Fallout games. Exploration and conversations also feel more natural. Instead of pausing the world around you when you stop to talk to someone or search the body of a bandit, everything keeps going. You might be trying to find out about the encampment ahead from a traveling merchant when suddenly you’re attacked by feral dogs and have to deal with them before you can move on. Life after the apocalypse is harsh, and that’s a lesson that Fallout 4 will teach you again and again.
You won’t feel overpowered for much of Fallout 4. Most of the time you’re just trying to survive, to get slightly better equipment and material to boost your weapons a bit. This isn’t Dark Souls, but it is a more difficult game than its predecessors that emphasizes survival and ingenuity.
Thankfully, the better feel of everything also extends to the combat. Gunplay in Fallout 3 and New Vegas was kind of braindead. You paused the action with V.A.T.S., aimed for something’s head and repeated until it died. Sometimes you’d go into cover to regain more Action Points for V.A.T.S., because real-time combat was not a strong point for those games.
Real-time combat is legitimate option in Fallout 4 though. It doesn’t feel as good as a top-tier shooter like Gears of War, but it’s on par with any respectable game in the genre, and it feels at least as good as what was in Mass Effect 2 and 3. And using V.A.T.S. to only slow down time instead of pausing it makes combat a lot more strategic. It’s no longer a matter of just aiming for the head, but now there’s real strategy involved in figuring out how to take out enemies.
But that’s really what Fallout 4 is all about. It’s a game of strategy, from thinking about how to take out enemies to building your own settlement and crafting new weapons and items. It will likely be several years before players discover the absolute best ways to do everything. The depth of the multiple gameplay systems and how they interact is truly staggering.
By now, you’re probably wondering about the storyline. Well, Fallout 4’s is great. The journey of a Vault dweller awaking from cryogenic sleep to search for his missing son is told better than the stories in either of the past two games, and you will want to complete it along with the numerous side quests. In fact, the side quests are a little bit weaker in this game than the previous ones.
The switch to the Creation Engine from the Gamebryo Engine used in the previous two Fallout games makes Fallout 4’s environments look stunning. You truly feel like you’re walking through the bombed out remnants of Boston, and that level of detail remains even in first-person view when you’re literally examining junk. This is the most detailed junk you’ve ever seen in a video game. However, there can be some pop-up in the distance when you’re walking through the world, but it’s fairly minor and usually not very distracting unless you’re looking for it.
Characters look a little cartoonish or plastic at times, but once you get used to that, their design fits the overall style of the Fallout universe. Sadly, even though Fallout 4 moved to a new engine, there’s still clipping, especially with the V.A.T.S. camera. The occasional odd glitch like walking through a floor also appears while moving through cluttered areas. Still, given the scope of the game, and how gorgeous it is overall, these glitches are pretty minor.
Maybe it’s just the switch to new consoles and larger game files, but Fallout 4 just seems to sound crisper than its predecessors. It’s easier to hear enemies approaching than in the previous Fallout games, and combat and conversations sound clearer.
Giving the player character his or her own unique voice to respond to non-player characters makes the game feel more like realistic and somewhat like a Bioware production. The dialogue options in previous Bethesda games often felt like you were having awkward conversations with the animatronic characters at the local Chuck E. Cheese. Still, voice-acting was always pretty good in Bethesda’s previous games, and it’s only gotten better in Fallout 4. There’s really nothing about the sound that doesn’t feel like a Triple-A title.
If there’s one downside to the sound though, it’s that quite a few of the licensed songs on the soundtrack were present in Fallout 3. They’re still great songs, and you could make the argument that it’s somewhat realistic because a lot of music probably wouldn’t survive a nuclear apocalypse, but it still would have been nice to have more original tunes.
A better question is how much of your life are you willing to give to Fallout 4? Besides the lengthy main quest and dozens of side quests, you can build and customize a settlement, craft items and customize weapons with hundreds of modifications. There’s no level cap and you’re always free to create a new character and play the game a completely different way. Fallout 4’s depth is dizzying. There’s virtually no end to the game if it really gets its hooks into you.
And if you do start to get tired of the content that’s already here, Bethesda is already promising additional content you can preorder now through the season pass, and mod support will be coming to Xbox One sometime in 2016. Fallout 4 may actually be the last game you ever need to buy.
Reviewed by Chris Freiberg