War. War never changes. But since its inception almost 20 years ago, the post-apocalyptic action-adventure RPG series Fallout sure has. When Fallout 3 was released in 2008, it dazzled players with its enormous, dangerous open world of mystery, mutants, and radiation poisoning, and in the years since, Vault Dwellers have been champing at the bit to get back into it, even after a very successful and engaging entry from Obsidian in the form of Fallout: New Vegas. And now? Fallout 4 has finally arrived, and despite some puzzling changes in design and new mechanics, it's still the same massive, post-apocalyptic open-world action RPG you remember, though I've already taken several mushrooms off its rating for refusing to let the decrepit detective robot be my husband.
As the game opens, you're enjoying a morning of idyllic "nuclear" family bliss with your husband or wife (opposite sex only, unfortunately), while your cheerful Mr Handy robotic household helper Codsworth attends to your baby Shaun. Not even the obnoxious Vault Tec representative at the door, who has been relentless in his efforts to get you to sign on to space in the local Vault they're building, could possibly ruin this picture of warm 1950's-style domestic harmony. Those bombs that begin to go off a few moments later, on the other hand... ? But though you believed yourself safe in Vault 111, well, things don't work out the way you expected. Suddenly it's two centuries later, your spouse is dead, and your baby has been kidnapped. The world is a vastly different place than it was when you left it, but you're going to have to learn the rules, and your way with a weapon, if you want to survive. And... get your child back, I guess. Whatever.
Like the rest of the games in the series, Fallout 4 plays as an action-adventure with RPG elements. Once you've created your character through the game's endlessly tweaky visual appearance setup, after a short tutorial you'll be booted out into the wide world to fend for yourself. The Wasteland is a hostile place, and action happens in real-time, so you'll be defending yourself against everything from chameleonic horrors and feral ghouls, to raiders, mutants, and more. As your character gains experience, you level up, gaining a point to put into statistics and perks to improve your abilities, though you can also find magazines throughout the world that grant permanent bonuses. While you'll be given objectives, the only limit to where you can go is your own ability to defend yourself. Fallout 4's world is huge and full of threats and treasures, and everywhere you go you'll find new quests to uncover. There are a lot of great little touches that bring Fallout 4 to life, like Bethesda's ability to tell stories without words. You may stumble across two skeletons with their hands about each others' throats over a pile of money with a gun on the floor, for instance, or someone crushed to death beneath a fallen tree on their own sleeping roll. One surprising touch was the way some enemies react to the deaths of their friends, and it may make you feel a little horrible about blowing away that raider that was, to be fair, trying to carve your face off.
If you're playing it right on the heels of a lot of Fallout 3 or New Vegas, Fallout 4 is going to feel pretty... weird. There are a lot of minor differences to the gameplay, like the way VATS is tied to the [Q] key now and no longer freezes time even while choosing your shots, that mean you're potentially fighting against a lot of muscle memory. You'll also notice how weirdly trimmed down some aspects of the game are. Stimpaks automatically heal all injuries instead of needing to be used on the specific limb. Weapons no longer decay. There's no karma system, though nobody likes a thief or a murderer if you're caught. The classic skill point system is gone in favour of Perks all tied to specific S.P.E.C.I.A.L. statistics that you get a point for per level. On the role-playing side of things, putting aside how motivating you may or may not find the whole Sally Field-esque "Not Without My Daughter" style plot moppetry, Fallout 4 also feels like it's simplified and limited the way your character behaves. Even ignoring the Bioware-sy compass of short dialogue options, you're still shoehorned into heterosexual parenthood whether you like it or not, and the dialogue choices tend to be limited to sarcastic jerk/do-goodery. It's not that the main story doesn't have interesting parts to it, especially once you begin to get into the whys of your wee bambino's kidnapping, it's just that it feels like it doesn't allow for as much freedom of character as it did before.
Companions have also changed a bit. You can only take one with you at a time, but they're essentially immortal, so rather than dying and forcing a tearful reload of your most recent save, they just get incapacitated until you heal them or the battle is over. In addition to getting used as packmules for things you can't carry, companions can be ordered to perform actions to you on the fly, even during battle. Point at your companion and hit [E] to bring up the command function, then point and click on an enemy to order them to target it, for instance. How useful they actually are is probably going to depend on how much direction you give them, in fact, since on their own, their AI can be a little lacking. I found myself too busy with enemies to really be able to focus on where they were or what they were doing, treating them as a distraction for enemies rather than a combat partner. Then again, you can equip them as you please, and the various perks you can unlock to boost their damage and effectiveness can really make them useful if you put the time into them. Or you could just appreciate Dogmeat's happy pleased paw dance that he performs whenever he brings you something. Is he a good boy?! Yes he is. Yezzeis!
Still, you'll need to grudgingly track down your token infant at least a little if you really want to break open most of the content. The game opens up a lot more once you finally reach Diamond City, a feat that may require some time more due to the increasingly powerful enemies in your path and the need to be strong enough to deal with them than distance. The various companions you may choose to take with you are all fairly interesting and well written. They don't take as big a role in the game plot-wise as you may like, but their distinct personalities means you'll likely find someone you enjoy taking with you, and if not, well, that's what the Lone Wanderer perk is for. But let's say you want to take it to the other extreme. To romance a companion, you need to do lots of things they approve of to increase their affinity with you (while they're traveling with you, of course). Macready likes to see you dicker with folk for rewards and lift the odd drug, for instance, while Piper appreciates someone who can pick a lock but also is willing to help others. Once they warm up to you, and providing your charisma score is high enough, you can begin to get flirty, ultimately culminating in a romance. While a lot of us will never (never) get over Nick Valentine not being a romantic option, the relationship progression is actually... kind of nice. It depicts two people getting to know one another first as allies, then friends, and then have that grow into something more, rather than allowing you to be flirty right off the bat. These trysts don't really feel essential, but they do add a nice bit of extra personality and interaction with someone you're otherwise going to be using to carry all your heavy junk and soak up sniper bullets.
Crafting and settlement building are two of Fallout 4's biggest new additions, and the latter is just sort of... there. It's hard to feel motivated to provide anything other than the bare minimum for NPCs to complete quests, and that's a shame since it's a surprisingly neat little bit of crafting. All that junk scattered across the land, all the broken fans, coffee mugs, old typewriters and more? It can all be used, broken down into its components such as various types of metal and other resources, to build things. Things like improved armor and weapons, in addition to the settlement structures, which are extremely helpful, as is cooking yourself up a variety of tasty wasteland delicacy. Roasted bloatfly, anyone? It may sound disgusting, but harvesting meat off of animals and finding other ingredients to cook up with it turns out to be extremely beneficial. Their stat boosts and healing won't go unappreciated when you don't want to deal with expensive Stimpaks. Heck, you can even tweak your Power Armor piece by piece... which I'm sure is a great comfort to the sullen settler NPCs who I have all crammed into a single building with a bunch of beds and noisy generators. Look, lady, two days ago you were hunkered down in an abandoned building eating two-century old instant mashed potatoes. I happen to think your new between the machine gun turrets and the magazine rack is an improvement, even if I deleted all the toilets.
In the beginning, combat can be absolutely grueling. It's not so much that the enemies are smarter, as that the game seems to expect more of you, so being drastically outnumbered and outgunned (and frequently covered in grenade shrapnel) is common in the beginning. There are a lot of great, tense, scripted battles that can be pretty thrilling, and often charging straight ahead guns blazing is a good way to get vaporized. You may want to fire off a bullet to lure enemies to your more defensible location, or sneak around to snipe turrets, or, well, just cheat and fire off a min-nuke at the guy and his robotic army across the room as soon as the conversation ends. (I'm sure that boss fight was supposed to be challenging.) On the other hand, once you start getting some decent equipment and the caps to keep yourself armed, a lot of combat feels like it comes down to a game of simple firepower. I went from slinking silently down hallways desperately trying not to so much as knock over a tin can, to charging into an encampment full of supermutants, laughing like a maniac and firing off several dozen missiles. You'll still find challenge, but you may wind up needing to look harder for it earlier on than you expect.
As for how it looks and sounds, well... it's a Bethesda game. Faces animate a bit more expressively than before, but unless you're in one of the rare main plot-centric cutscenes, most characters are still just going to be staring stiffly at you while they talk. While most of the environments you'll explore are beautiful in their own way, even if they lack the more lonely, blasted look of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, a lot of the maps feel like they wind up almost too samey the farther you go. It's just dead trees and rubble everywhere to the point that a lot of places feel almost interchangeable, and very few of them are actually truly memorable... though those that are, such as a serial killer's personal gallery filled with secret passages, tend to be pretty darn memorable. Voice acting holds mostly solid across the board, though some characters give more natural performances than others like Piper's brassy, self-confident verbal swagger, and the ambient soundtrack is... well, it's actually pretty good! Fallout 4 has a more varied soundtrack than its predecessors, with a wide array of musical pieces that seem to fit wherever you are and whatever you're doing, which may mean you reach for the radio less. Potentially way less, given that the game's main radio DJ isn't... quite as charismatic and engaging as Three Dog ever was, though that's admittedly part of a questline.
When it comes to bugs, well, as of this writing so soon after release, Fallout 4's got plenty of them. Some are minor and annoying, like the way your character's weapons/hands/targeting suddenly vanish from the screen until you reload, or low-resolution textures popping in regardless of your settings on certain rigs, while others are more major, like watching your dog slowly sink through concrete, or having to restart the whole game because all your saves mysteriously became corrupted and refused TO LOAD AT ALL AFTER THIRTY HOURS OF PLAY. Not that I'm bitter. In a weird way, restarting Fallout 4 sort of made me appreciate it more, because all the mechanics and new controls that had originally felt so awkward and strange were now a lot more familiar, thus allowing me to enjoy the game more instead of focusing on how out of water I felt with it. On the other hand, it destroyed my saves and I am so mad, so players concerned with bugs and glitches may want to give this one a few patches first. I played on a five year old custom built PC and had no issues running the game with every setting cranked to ultra, though admittedly that's with 16GB RAM and painstakingly chosen parts. Others have reported painfully long load times and stuttering even on new computers, while others like myself have no problems, so caveat emptor.
Ultimately, however, one of the biggest surprise complaints with Fallout 4 might be how familiar and by-rote it all feels. It's a Bethesda game... it's got a massive open world, tons of detail and quests, and even more secrets, but it's also not anything we haven't seen before. Games like Fallout 3, and later Skyrim, were striking and startling because we hadn't seen anything like them before, and while Fallout 4 is still a lot of fun, it also doesn't substantially innovate or deviate from the formulas those games established so recently. You go into it thinking you're going to be floored again, and instead you wind up with what is "merely" a good, engrossing game. It's a bit of an odd mash of random changes, but it's simply massive, and full of all the weird characters, intense firefights, and intricately posed 200-year old skeletons you've come to expect. Even after the extensive exploration I'd had in my bugged playthrough, when I fired up the second, I still found an incredible amount of locations, secrets, and items I'd missed the first go through in areas I'd already been to, while picking up different companions and seeing how they reacted to my actions was great. Fallout 4 isn't as revolutionary as its predecessors, but it still has more than its fair share of incredible moments and hours and hours of content to discover. Even if I can't romance the robot detective. I'LL GET OVER IT WHEN IT TURNS INTO DLC.