Fallout 4

I love/hate our review process. I mean, I totally agree that games should be finished before you review them; writing a review based on a few hours of play is a ridiculous idea. Yes, okay, I knew Kick-Ass 2 was shit within ten minutes, but a lot of games only really reveal themselves after extended play. Anything involving heavy story requires you to see the end of the story to really understand how it resolves, as lacklustre beginnings might build to a heart-wrenching ending; anything involving complex mechanics might require many, many hours of play before you really start to understand how it all functions.

So here’s a first warning: I am writing this sentence at 1:10pm – ten minutes past the embargo time – and I have just finished Fallout 4. I have been awake since yesterday, and have played through the entire night. I have ingested more caffeine than is probably legal. I’m pretty sure I can hear flavours and smell colours. In short, this review might be a bit weird. Forgive me.

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Well, I was always told it’s best to start with a bang.

Here’s a second warning: Fallout 4 is really, really fucking big. I’ve played for roughly about 60 hours, and I’ve finished the main plotline… but one quarter of the map remains barely visited, I haven’t undertaken loads of quests, I haven’t met plenty of quest givers; I haven’t tried a lot of things. Were I playing for pleasure rather than for review, it probably would’ve been another 20 or 30 hours before I got around to completing the critical path.

As such I’m likely going to write at least one follow-up article later this week, because I want to try out a few bits and pieces to get a deeper perspective on the game. If I wasn’t confident in this review and satisfied with my ability to judge the game then you wouldn’t be reading this, but I’ve still got a few burning questions in my head which I really want to try to answer.

Third warning: this’ll be long. As we got review code on time, the usual stuff about the PC version will be here rather than in a separate article.

Fourth and final warning: Fallout 4 is not Fallout 3, nor is it Fallout: New Vegas. It’s something quite different, and quite remarkable in its own right. (It’s also obviously not Fallout, Fallout 2, or Fallout Tactics, but you’re either an idiot or ludicrously optimistic if you thought it was going to be any of them.)

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As is true Fallout tradition, you can absolutely make a Bloody Mess.

I’m an old-school Fallout player, and from what I can gather, most of us ancient white-haired RPG types preferred New Vegas to Fallout 3. It just felt more like classic Fallout: it had character, it had charm, it had lots of possibilities and lots of potential for building a character in your own way. Fallout 3 felt a little… bland. And, much as I really like Skyrim, I felt the same about that. Gorgeous world, but not one full of memorable events or characters, barring those who were sworn to carry my burdens or who took an arrow to the knee. And those are lines of dialogue rather than actual characterisations.

So! Imagine my surprise when Fallout 4 turned out to be full of fantastic characters, decent dialogue, clever quests, and decent diversions. It’s probably the least Bethesda game by Bethesda yet; it fixes a lot of the stuff that was a bit rubbish in their past games, although it also loses some of those games’ stronger points. None of this, though, occurred to me for a while.

You probably have the gist of the game’s plot: you’re a cryogenically frozen resident of Vault 111 who wakes up in the post-apocalyptic wasteland with the sole aim of finding his/her infant son, kidnapped from his own cryo tube sometime before you awoke. This child theft may or may not be related to the Institute, a shadowy organisation rumoured to be kidnapping people and replacing them with robotic duplicates, and ultimately results in you deciding the future of this particular stretch of wasteland.

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Looks more like an explosion to me, but whatever you say Mr. Raider.

But long before that – maybe half an hour into the wasteland, in fact – you help out some guy wearing a minuteman costume and wielding a laser musket, by putting on a suit of Power Armor and fighting off a Deathclaw. By ripping a minigun off a Vertibird and then charging at it. This was about the time I started to genuinely panic that Fallout had been sneakily replaced by some sort of setpiece-heavy high-octane shooter.

Shortly after that, I was asked to build a town and introduced to a ludicrously in-depth crafting system, and I felt exactly the opposite: that I was way out of my depth.

Thankfully, neither of these were accurate. Fallout 4 isn’t over-complicated, nor is it a brainless shooter.

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It is, however, weirdly gorgeous.

That said, the crafting/building is arguably the biggest change to the series in this game – or at least, the most overt one. Most armour and every single weapon, from baseball bats to plasma rifles, can be modded if you have the resources and the technical know-how. That semi-auto rifle can be turned into a long-range death dealer with the addition of a scope and a sniper barrel, or maybe you’d rather fit it with a drum magazine and give it a full-auto mode to create more of a machine gun.

This system is incredibly cool, and I spent a long, long time staring at my crafting benches, flicking through the options and working out what I had the resources for. Should I add a mod to my laser rifle so that it set people on fire, or was it more worthwhile to add extra pockets to my armour to increase my carry weight? Hmm.

All of your customised equipment can also be renamed to really add that personal finishing touch, which is why I’m wandering the wastes with a silenced .50 cal sniper rifle called Sleeping Beauty, a rapid-fire shotgun called Merida, a flamer called Cinderella, and a cane wrapped in barbed wire called The Spangtwatter. (That’s where my Disney Princess theme fell apart, sadly.)

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Wasn’t kidding.

Armour is now modular – you can have Combat Armour on your right arm, with a leather chestpiece on your torso, and metal leg armour – which is great, and you can even wear clothing underneath this to get your look just right.

Unfortunately, you can’t wear everything underneath the armour, which is rather disappointing when you suddenly find yourself in possession of a fine tuxedo. Want to wear that into battle? Well, you can, but not while wearing any armour, which makes it pretty much useless. You don’t seem to be able to save “sets” either, so if you want the Charisma boost from wearing that dapper hat and suit you’ve found, you’re going to have to manually re-equip every piece of armour you were wearing after that one conversation.

Of course, you could devote your time and resources to building up a settlement instead, constructing houses from either pre-fab parts or setting them up just so, and then creating fields and water pumps and trading posts and everything else a growing community could need. And then sentry guns, because the wasteland is full of raiders, super mutants, and a variety of other nasties who’d rather take your crops than grow their own. It’s almost entirely optional, but it can become pretty all-consuming if you let it.

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It’d be a lot easier to manage where buildings and crops are going and what people are doing what job if there was some way of actually viewing all of that information easily and instantly.

I do wish the crafting was a little better optimised for the PC, though. Building settlements can only be done in a first person view, while trying to line things up just so would be much easier from a top-down perspective. Likewise, as you start to assemble glass and circuits and steel and wood, your inventory is going to get very, very full of crap. You can sort by weight, or value, or fire rate, or whatever, but you can’t Page Down through the list, or tap the initial letter to skip ahead.

Comparing items is also a pain in the arse; there doesn’t seem to be a direct comparison tool, and the best you’ve got is to equip one item and then check it against the other. Which is a bit of a nightmare when you’ve just looted seven bodies and are trying to work out if their crappy equipment is better than your crappy equipment. Maybe not a surprise – the UI of Fallout 3 and Skyrim and so on left a lot to be desired on PC – but it’s still a disappointment.

Ah, sod it. Let’s do the “PC Version Impressions” stuff before we get into the stuff I really love about Fallout 4.

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Like how beautiful the world is thanks to the art design. I’ve said that already, right?

The rest of the PC port actually holds up remarkably well. Mouse and keyboard controls are pretty spot-on across the board, with a few mild exceptions (which – once again – are mostly tied to settlement construction, though I would also have liked the ability to separate functions to different keys, rather than having one key for both pistol whipping someone and throwing a grenade).

I’d also have appreciated an FOV slider, but that’s relatively easily fixed with an .ini change, and 60FPS is natively supported. Fallout 4 even decided my i7-3820 with 16GB RAM and a 2GB GeForce GTX 670 would be best suited to run the game on High detail, and that generally kept things around the 45-50 FPS range, barring a single area that tended to drop it a bit further. For a somewhat ageing mid-range computer, I consider that entirely acceptable.

Eerily, there also aren’t many horrible bugs, Radroaches and Bloatflies aside. I had one occasion where a crate was apparently possessed by a poltergeist, and at one point a quest giver randomly turned hostile and tried to kill me until I reloaded to an earlier save, but beyond that the only bugs encountered were generally nothing major (NPCs teleporting around the room, two crates spawning on the same spot) or hilarious (I got up from a chair and the animation made me fall out of a window). I did think a couple of missions had become unfinishable after passing a certain point in the plot, but it turned out they weren’t; it was just a temporary thing.

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Bessie, get the fuck off my roof.

The port’s okay and the crafting is cool. The best thing, though? The best thing is the world.

The Commonwealth is a varied and beautiful (in a desolate, post-apocalyptic way) landscape full of great characters and fascinating little nooks to explore. In Bethesda’s usual fashion, some of the best bits are found not by quests but by just wandering and taking in the sights. A minor example would be a bombed-out cafe I found, where the upper level contained a bare mattress, a stash of drugs, a chemistry crafting set, the corpse of a human, and the corpses of a few ghouls. Nothing in the way of actual storytelling there, but the instant reaction was that this cafe was where a drug manufacturer had set up shop before ghouls got to him.

A more major example would be one side-quest which tasked me with clearing out a mining complex. I did so and got my “Report back for your reward” message… and then realised that I hadn’t actually explored the bottom level of the mines, and that the terminals dotted around hinted at something very bad down there. No quest to go there, and no reason to go down except for my own curiosity – and that curiosity was rewarded with a rather trippy, creepy experience, which was very deliberately staged and set up, but had no quest log or objective marker overtly pointing me towards it. And that, believe me, was far from the only time something like that happened.

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If it wasn’t for Undertale, Nick here might actually be my favourite game character this year.

The characters, too, are brilliant. As you’d expect, there are a few dull companions and shopkeepers lying around, but loads of them have at least some personality invested in them. There’s the guy selling melee weapons who’s keen to tell you how (he thinks) baseball worked. There’s the strangely sultry arms-dealing Assaultron that identifies as a female. There’s the drug-addled conspiracy-theorising engineer. There’s the trenchcoat-wearing robotic private eye who talks like he’s from a noir movie. They’re all an utter delight to talk to, work with, or side against.

Yup: side against. While Fallout 4 doesn’t seem to have any overt Reputation/Karma system (and I’m fairly certain a full-on rampage run would be impossible, but I’ll be trying that later this week) it has borrowed the Faction system from New Vegas. There are a bunch of factions battling it out for control of the wasteland, pretty much all of whom occupy that uncomfortable moral grey area where – even if you don’t agree with them – you can usually understand why they act the way they do.

I think one of the many points where I fell in love with Fallout 4 (again) was when, after signing up with most of these factions and doing bits for all of them as they got established, they actually started fighting it out for control. One would offer me a mission to strike against another, which is fair enough – but I had the option of playing the double agent, and reporting this planned attack before it happened. And then they’d tell me to go along with the attack anyway, only they’d have an ambush prepared, and we’d stage it so that I was the only survivor to maintain my cover.

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Battles can get awfully chaotic when multiple factions get involved. Particularly when you’re on the side of all of them.

I can’t say how non-linear Fallout 4 is without playing through the last half of it again, as that’s when the factions really come into play, but all of them seem to have their own set of final missions. Better still, it looks like you can dick around with this in a number of interesting ways. As an experiment, I deliberately failed a couple of covert assignments… and, sure enough, this seemed to lead me down another route, because it led to a conversation I otherwise would’ve missed and seemed to pretty much take one faction out of the running far earlier than would otherwise have happened. Hell, in another experiment, I outright murdered the leader of one faction long before they became particularly relevant. Most important NPCs have plot-based immunity, so I’m not sure how the hell that would’ve resolved if I’d continued down that path.

This is all great, and absolutely not what I expected. Slightly less good is the shift away from proper conversations to that crap dialogue wheel system, which tends to offer four responses – More Information, Be Nice, Be Mean, or Be A Jackass. This presents the usual problems, where sometimes you’re not sure if an option is sincere or sarcastic, and where you’re not sure if your character is lying or not. You might claim to be totally on board with some extremist ideas, but as a player, you’re unsure if the game knows that you’re lying about this, or if it’s now putting you down a certain route. I’ll have the days of “(Lie) Yes, I agree that we should murder those ghouls” back now, please. I like my RPG characters to be my avatar, and not to be a person I just happen to be controlling, and this is part of the reason why I reckon a truly evil run isn’t possible.

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The best thing about having a voiced protagonist is that, when you skip a line of dialogue, he goes “Right” or “Uh-huh” in a bored tone of voice. For maximum amusement, do this while someone’s screaming for help or begging you for something.

The way you level up has been somewhat tweaked and limited, too. Gaining a level now gives you one perk point, which you can either use to boost one of your base SPECIAL stats by one level, or pump it into a particular perk. Despite some of those perks being frankly amazing (breathing underwater and becoming invisible when submerged, anyone?), it also means that your initial stat allocation matters a lot less. Fallout 4 is massively combat heavy so that’s probably for the best, but I sort of miss the days of scouring around for something that would let me raise my Strength by one point so that I could use that new sledgehammer I’d found.

That combat focus also means that sleazing your way through the game as a 10 Charisma charmer or bumbling through as a 1 Intelligence idiot whose dialogue options are all variations on “Duh” are no longer viable. (Well, okay, 1 Intelligence is viable, but it doesn’t change a thing about conversations.) You cannot talk the final boss to death. I did at least talk a friendly character into committing suicide just to see if it’d actually work, though, which resulted in a brief moment of horror and a quickload.

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And yet, somehow, I managed it.

So, while you can choose to focus on melee weapons or rifles or stealth or whatever, you’re going to be a fighting a lot even if you spend your perks on persuasion and crafting to become a jack-of-all-trades. As such it’s damn good that the combat has improved significantly, with contextual cover and leaning, smarter enemies, better VATS, a really helpful system that builds up critical hits and lets you unleash them at a moment of your choosing, and a whole variety of extra additions. Plus, you’re fighting with weapons you modded yourself, and testing out your new hand-made toy is always a thrilling experience.

And there’s always the qualifier that this is a huge game, so there’s doubtless stuff I’ve missed. Maybe a truly evil rampage run is possible. Maybe I can sell my companions to slavers. Maybe there’s another faction I can join up with. Maybe I should’ve spent more time with the base crafting. Maybe

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Maybe I should go with this moustache for my attempt at a rampage run. Actually… that’s not really a “maybe.”

As I said, Fallout 4 is not Fallout 3, and it’s not Fallout: New Vegas. It’s got a heavier focus on combat, that’s true, but that’s buoyed up by the fact that the combat can now rival most full-on shooters. It’s got an incredible crafting system, a surprisingly good plot that focuses more on morality than in having a Big Bad Villain, excellent characters, at least some degree of non-linearity and genuine choice, and an utterly exquisite world full of secrets to find and stories to uncover. And all of this with fewer bugs than you might expect, and a PC port that seems to be both pretty well optimised and entirely playable.

Best of all, though? No giant spiders.

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For fuck’s sake, Fallout, you had one job. ONE JOB.

Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.

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