I’ve been playing video games a while (*cough* 35 years or so *cough*), so I actually fondly remember the ol’ isometric turn-based first Fallout, which in the late 90s presented one of the most original and interesting game worlds I’d ever experienced, a strange mix of retro and post-apocalypse with bags of atmosphere, wit, and moral ambiguity.
Fallout 3 was an absolute corker, revitalising an old niche property in 3d for a new console-using generation in much the same way Grand Theft Auto 3 did, really tapping into the rich atmosphere and humour of the original, and even maintaining some of the turn-based roleplaying vibe within what had essentially become a first-person shooter. You can even read my old review of it from (the horror) 7 years ago.
The next instalment, New Vegas, was still good but – with the benefit of hindsight – a little disappointing, perhaps a little rushed out after its predecessor. It was a slightly clunky and bug-prone game that drifted away from that winning retro 50s McCarthy vibe towards less atmospheric wild-west stylings, tried to summon up a less desperate and more civilised wasteland without really convincing on the factional politics, and sidelined Fallout staples like Vault-Tec and the Brotherhood of Steel in favour of the less interesting or convincing Legion and Californian Republic.
It’s taken five years for Fallout 4 to appear, but it’s been well worth the wait. There’s a cracking opening – classic Fallout both expanded on and condensed – in which you witness the fall of civilisation, are put into deep-freeze as part of one of Vault-Tec’s sinister experiments, and wake to a strange, new, and horrible future in the post-nuclear wasteland. The action this time around moves to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and though with Minutemen, Lexington and Bunker Hill there are shades of revolutionary stylings the focus mostly returns to Fallout staples like vault suits, raiders, super mutants and the Brotherhood of Steel, and is stronger for it.
The game system has been overhauled, making character development much simpler but no less deep, there’s a much improved crafting system which allows you to throughly trick out every weapon and brings a convincing scavenging value to every screw, tin can and roll of pre-war duct tape, and there’s a powerful if cumbersome base-building tool that allows you to attract settlers and construct a host of interconnected living, breathing settlements (sort of), even if, from a gameplay point of view, there’s not all that much point. Still, who can resist spending three days building a giant shack that looks like a dong?
Graphics can sometimes seem a bit workaday – certainly characters aren’t as detailed or expressive as in, say, the Witcher 3 and are a fair bit more glitch-prone, and the quality of dialogue and voice acting doesn’t come close to a Mass Effect or The Last of Us, but in a way that’s inevitable. There’ll always be something of a trade-off between a narrower, more ‘on rails’ experience that’s more lavish and detailed and something like Fallout or Skyrim which is perhaps rougher round the edges but provides that vast open world in which you’re free, to a degree, to find your own story. The sheer quantity and range of content here is mighty impressive and at times can add up to something really special – the vistas of post-nuclear Boston from the air or a high building can be breathtaking. I used to criticise Bethesda games for having hundreds of locations but all of them being the same. These days there’s far more personality and meaning to the settings. There are little nods, touches and telling details all over the place. Abandoned foundries, ruined banks, infested libraries, baseball stadiums turned into settlements – it all seems far more distinct and meaningful than it used to.
For such a vast and varied game – and I must have logged well over 100 hours – this is impressively stable too. Long load times, I guess, but very few out and out crashes or bugs, and the odds and ends of broken quests and inappropriate dialogue that can sometimes annoy in these sorts of games are few and far between. Impressive, given the vast amount of possible permutations they must have to juggle.
Some criticisms, though, now that the all-consuming joy of being sucked into such a great world has worn off and left me a little more objective. I guess Fallout 4 suffers from the same syndrome I tend to get with all open-world adventure games. There’ll be a thrilling first phase as I stand amazed by this vast new world to explore. A gripping mid-game as I build up my character and dig into the details, largely ignoring the central plot. But then, having done an exhaustive amount of side tasks, I’ll get a bit bored and overpowered, and rush through the last stages of the main plot, the climax very much lacking the punch of the opening. The structure of Fallout 4 doesn’t help with that – early on there’s so much freedom, you really can develop the type of character you want and play them the way you please. Towards the end there’s a great dramatic twist and reveal but, inevitably, thereafter, your options steadily thin out.
It’s very difficult to create the illusion of free will in a game. Ironically, I often find that offering the player choices – morally or otherwise – can break the spell more than putting them on rails, as it becomes clear just how limited and artificial the choices are. In Fallout 4 you’re obliged to throw in your lot with one of three very flawed factions, and no matter how I squirmed I couldn’t really find an option that seemed faithful to the way I’d set out to play. Everyone demanded I do things (mostly cold-blooded murder of one stripe or another) that seemed not only out of my character, but out of theirs. In the end I made my decision more out of a slightly bored and annoyed sense of let’s just get on with this then rather than as the result of a nerve-wracking moral quandary.
Some minor spoilers on my own experience follow…
First I was obliged to massacre the idealistic if ineffectual members of a freedom fighting cell who had for a while treated me like a saviour, and found myself rummaging through a heap of corpses for items of interest, trying on their technical expert’s absurd headgear like a ghastly trophy. Then I had no choice but to hunt down a long-term travelling companion and shoot him with a gun he gave me while he slept. Finally, when my old comrades in arms Paladin Danse and his team made a heroic last ditch effort to stop my murderous rampage, even showing up with sad, brave Paladin Brandis who I’d convinced to rejoin the Brotherhood long before, and I shot down their vertibird in a ball of fire then rained atomic hell on the helpless survivors, I realised I had in truth become the psychopathic villain of my own story. Which is interesting, in a way, but I wish I felt I’d chosen to do it, rather than just been given no appropriate dialogue option to avoid it.
Didn’t help that, by then, I was slaughtering whole divisions of power-armoured Brotherhood of Steel with utter impunity, even on very hard difficulty. Some weapons, armour, and perk combinations really did seem greatly overpowered…
So, in conclusion, a hugely impressive and enjoyable game and an enormous, atmospheric experience in one of the best game worlds ever designed. For truly open world adventures it sets new standards in many ways. But it does, perhaps, as far as telling a really driving and believable story within those worlds, also illustrate the limitations of the form…