“There’s no way Bethesda is announcing Fallout 4 for this year.  Every time they announce a new game we see it behind closed doors, and then they release it the next holiday season,” I remarked to my team at E3 2015, citing experience culled from over a decade of working with the Maryland-based developer/publisher.

Guess I was wrong.

Bethesda blew the doors off with their first mega-showcase event, giving us the game RPG fans have been waiting for since 2010.  For all the talk about how “war never changes,” what we didn’t expect was just how much Bethesda was mixing up their standard open-world formula.  The best part, though…you guys have no idea just how successfully they’ve kept the best parts hidden.

I’m going to talk in broad strokes about the story, but I can promise you that I’m not ruining anything of consequence.  Fallout 4 is better experienced than described.  All of that said, let’s dig into the storyline a little bit.

Fallout 4 kicks off with your character looking in the mirror.  From here you can select either a male or female character.  Using the new facial construction system, you can push and pull on the various aspects of the face, making your character as beautiful or hideous as you’d like them to be.  If this is an example of what we can expect from SpeedTree middleware for this generation, characters just got a whole lot prettier and customizable.  With your character selected, you go about your fairly normal retro-futuristic life.  Codsworth, your personal robot-butler, pours your coffee and tends to your young son, Shawn.  When Vault-Tec comes knocking with an opportunity to reserve your space on their underground Ark, Vault 111, you laughingly indulge them.  Life is looking pretty rose-colored for your young family.

Until it isn’t.

Air raid sirens ring out, and your family is rushed across town to take refuge underground, and just in the nick of time.  Friendly faces in familiar blue Vault Dweller suits greet you and guide you to a custom depressurization chamber.  In typical Fallout fashion, you just simply aren’t that lucky.  Separated from your family, your mission is simple — reunite them at all costs.

Fallout4_graph01

 

The first thing that struck me was that this game didn’t look like any Fallout game we’ve ever played.  Gone are the desaturated browns, greens, and greys, replaced by a brighter sky and more color than you might expect.  Sure, everything is rusted and dilapidated, but it’s a little less depressing than the two previous Bethesda-published titles.

You can’t tackle this hostile world on your own, so making friends is pretty important.  In Fallout 4, that can come in many forms.  In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I never felt like a part of something larger.  In Fallout 4 there is an opportunity to not only join, but also rebuild The Minutemen.  Sure, you’ll do fetch, eliminate, investigate, and other types of work, but now it’s in pursuit of allies more than experience.  Uniting the disparate survivors of this world into a force to help others, you’ll teach them how to not only survive, but also thrive.  With that, let’s talk about the new base building mechanic.

I’ve spent hours carefully balancing objects in my homes in Skyrim, but it was immediately clear that the engine wasn’t built for players to stack scores of sticky buns on bookshelves.  Bethesda took our sticky buns in their capable hands and decided to change that.

Shortly after the beginning of the game you’ll have the ability to create your first of several strongholds.  Using a Workbench, you can place objects as if you were building the game world on your own.  Furniture gives your would-be settlers a place to rest their heads, crops fill their bellies, and a basic water pump wets their whistles.  With a few of the new perks under your belt, that can be expanded to storefronts, defense turrets, and even new structures.  You can even begin to provide a little bit of modern convenience in the form of safety spotlights, radio towers to call in new friends, overhead lighting, fans, and even entertainment like television.   The best lessons for Fallout 4 come from Gilligan’s Island.

All of the random crap that we used to pick up and sell now has a purpose.  Sure, you can sell that desk fan for a handful of caps, but it can also be stripped down for gears.  Cleaning up the town means you can repurpose fallen trees, collapsed metal structures, mailboxes, and streetlamps.  Almost everything that Bethesda painstakingly placed by hand can be removed and scrapped into its constituent parts.  If you are missing a part, you can now flag it for search and Fallout 4 will locate the nearest source and place a marker on your HUD.  I started playing with this system and immediately lost track of the hours — expect to stay up way past your bedtime arranging crops and setting up trade routes.

Fallout4_graph07

 

While I applaud Bethesda for this new stronghold crafting system, I do wish it mattered a little bit more.  In a game with literally hundreds of locations to discover, now you can build dozens of strongholds as well.  Each has to be crafted somewhat independently, with trade routes established to build up their junk stockpiles.  Once they have enough materials you can create  defenses, beds, structures, and much more.  In the end, you’ll likely neglect most of them as it begins to feel very repetitive.  In this case, more quality over quantity would have made these locations feel more like they mattered to the overall movement.

The aforementioned junk-location service mentioned above, coupled with the new inventory system, makes for a rather large flow improvement.   Rather than having to pause and open each and every item in the wasteland, you can now simply run your eyes over objects and snap them up with a single button press.  If an enemy has multiple items, you can use the D-pad to scroll rather than, again, “opening” the object.

I’m playing Fallout 4 on the Xbox One and the PC, and I have to admit that there is a stark difference between the two.  That isn’t to say that the Xbox One looks poor; far from it, but the PC version has much cleaner textures.  The Xbox One is bound to 1080p and 30fps, whereas the PC version is unbound by any such limitation.  Similarly, the loading sequences entering and exiting buildings are roughly 11 seconds measured on an external hybrid drive (which is faster than the internal one), and just two seconds for my Origin PC laptop’s SSDs.  My desktop is more modestly equipped with hybrid mechanical drives and tachs in a just one second more for transitions.

Gunplay in Fallout 4 received a bit of a tweak.  V.A.T.S. used to freeze time in place, but now it simply slows it to a crawl.  This changes things a bit, as you no longer have unlimited time to plan your tactics — bullets are still in motion.  Given how fast ghouls can suddenly close distance as they hurl themselves at you, this change is significant.  Similarly, the guns themselves feel more like a shooter and less than an RPG — it’s hard to further quantify, but I think we can agree that prior Fallout titles needed a tweak, and that is present and accounted for.  Critical hits and amount of damage still link directly to dice rolls behind the scene, but using V.A.T.S. successfully banks towards a critical meter that can be unleashed as an on-the-spot critical hit when you need it most.  Altogether these changes turn what amounted to sometimes-pedestrian firefights into something a little more frantic.

Crafting isn’t all about building your homestead — you can now modify almost everything you can put your hands on.  Guns have dozens of adjustments that materially change the way they function.  A few adjustments can turn an average weapon into something devastating, evoking equal parts Diablo and Borderlands simultaneously.  Similarly, armor can add pockets (additional carry capacity), armor plating to stop ballistic damage, ceramic plates to stop laser fire, and much more.  Gun stocks, barrels, frame, receivers both upper and lower, scopes — everything you can imagine is here.  Hell, I even found a Fat Man Mini-Nuke launcher that also stacks an additional 25 bleeding damage, as ridiculous and hilarious as that is.

For those who enjoy an up-close-and-personal attack profile, the melee attack system has been vastly improved.  You aren’t limited to just bats and swords any longer.  A deathclaw appendage matched with some steel braces makes for a formidable clawing device.  Rebar when combined with a steel frame (and wrapped with chains for good measure) can allow you to punch your target into next week.  Sure, enemies feel like they glide along on ice skates at times, making melee occasionally feel silly, but it doesn’t stop it from being a whole lot of fun.  There’s even an entire perk wrapped around the melee skill.

Speaking of perks, they are handled quite a bit differently than previous games.  Fallout 4 is squarely aimed at allowing players to experience it any way they might choose, and perks are a big part of that.  Rather than restricting, Bethesda now allows players to place their points anywhere they’d like.  Want to ignore the perks entirely and stuff all of your points into your attributes?  Done.  Want to ignore your attributes and simply pick perks?  As long as you have just enough of the requisite attribute to meet the requirements, that’s your choice as well.  Going further down the perk tree requires higher numbers, as well as some level gating, but otherwise you are free to build as you see fit.   Since equipment like eyeglasses can grant +1 to Perception, or armor can have attributes that provide +1 to Strength (as just the smallest of examples), attributes are more fluid than ever.

Trailer1

 

Graphically, Fallout 4 is a fairly solid, if occasionally uneven affair.  On Xbox One, it’s clear that some concessions were made to hit the 30fps target.  Sometimes the game dips below that target, but never anything detrimental.  There are still plenty of clipping issues such as monsters sticking through doors, Dogmeat jittering though the environment, or most hilariously, a Tricorn hat sticking out of the top of a Power Armor helmet momentarily.  On the PC, textures are an order of magnitude better across the board.  Neither console version could be described as “ugly,” but if you’ve got the rig to handle it, PC is the way to go.

Be it console or PC, the new lip sync work Bethesda has put in frequently oscillates between fantastic and odd.  Sometimes the mouth motions match almost perfectly, and then characters make motions with their mouth that makes you wonder just how much radiation they might have absorbed.  Couple that with the occasional audio cutout, strange and awkward pregnant pauses in conversations, and the usual bevy of voice repetition (even with a game that has over 50,000 lines of recorded dialogue), and some of the veneer comes off.

If you’ve played Bethesda titles in the past, you probably have a mental scale for the number of bugs.  There are over 100 hours of content here, but so far it’s a fairly clean execution.  There are a few bugs here and there, and YouTube will come alive once again with skeletons that wave and mirelurks that dance, but I didn’t see any creatures flying backwards or any other Skyrim-launch-level of oddity.

Speaking of creatures, I do have to mention that the AI has been improved a bit.  Enemies, depending on their intelligence, will work harder to take cover, use appropriate weapons, or otherwise try to preserve their own life.  I mentioned that ghouls are a lot faster, but that’s only half the story.  They’ll play possum and pop up behind you (I have resorted to just shooting them to make sure they are really dead), mutate and grow stronger, crawl out of the ceiling, and bodily throw themselves in your direction to try to kill you.  When I say throw, I mean leaping and falling on the ground should they miss.  If you want a zombie comparison, think 28 Days, not Night of the Living Dead.  Deathclaws are far more dangerous, throwing vehicles, grabbing you at close distance and ripping off your parts.  Even Raiders can kill you with a well-thrown grenade if you aren’t careful.  Fallout 3 felt like a walk in the park once you reached a certain level, but Fallout 4 continues to challenge without resorting to the usual auto-levelling system tricks.

The main story is wrapped around a Bethesda-level attempt at pulling the heartstrings, but I can’t say I remembered that I was searching for my divided family until I happened to decide to jump back on the main story thread.  The side mission pendulum swings wildly between awesome and teaspoon-depth repetition.  A settlement has an impending ghoul attack “just around the corner,” you say?   Oh…it’s actually all the way across the map.  That’s taken care of — oh, another ghoul problem in another settlement?  There are times where you feel like you are being trolled. Thankfully, most of the side missions feel more fleshed out than this, but if you want a classification, think more Fallout 3 than New Vegas when it comes to writing quality.

While NPCs remain somewhat flat, the companions you’ll encounter in Fallout 4 are more well-rounded and better written than before.  One character is innocent and cute in her interactions, another is a hard-boiled detective, and then there is Dogmeat, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  They can all be assigned to your various strongholds, adventure with you, and express their own needs and desires.  They feel more complete than ever, even if they still insist on running directly in front of your shots at all times.

In the end, even with a review this long, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Fallout 4.  Mod support is incoming on the console side, bringing with it no shortage of improvements and wackiness from the community.  There are some bugs, and the writing is nowhere near the hand-crafted excellence we’ve seen from other, more recent RPGs, but this is Fallout.  There is no game series that feels as completely interactive, and now even more than ever before.  It is a world of possibilities, and it is beginning to feel a little bit more like a world you can even influence, even if your strongholds don’t matter as much as they should.