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I didn't know much about the series when I first popped Fallout 3 into my Xbox 360. To be totally honest, I hadn't given any role-playing game a fair shake until then. But over 100 hours later it was obvious there was a void being filled I didn't even know I had.
Fallout 3 changed the way I thought about games. Not only was it the first one that really got me into RPGs, it was one of the first that got me to really buy into the fictional world it created. For me, it was a feeling similar to that of playing BioShock, the juxtaposition of 1940s and '50s aesthetics smashed up against a supernatural world in chaos. But in Fallout, it was the endless isolation, the feeling of being so small and insignificant that made the game such a powerful influence on me. The fact that you could just do whatever you wanted in such a rich open-ended world captured my imagination.
Not without its share of rumors and overanalyzed supposed leaks, it wasn't until this past June that publisher Bethesda Softworks finally made it official: Fallout 4 was coming. And it was coming real soon. And for what it's worth, give Bethesda credit for the manner in which the game was announced. In a landscape where games get teased three or even four years ahead of time, it was refreshing to see so much so soon.
Great, but that's not why we're here. Does Fallout 4 rise to the occasion? Does the dormant franchise awake from the wasteland ashes and reign supreme once again?
It's been over seven years, but Bethesda Game Studios has delivered an even more massive experience, one overflowing with seemingly endless activity, personality, characters and appeal. There is a short list of items where it needs attention, but overall Fallout 4 is tremendous fun. It's amazingly focused and realized and is easily one of the best games I've played all year.
At the rate I'm going, it's impossible to know just how many more hours I'll dump into the game. At the time of this review I'm at 52 hours and I haven't seen the end credits. Fallout 4 will suck you in and not let go. This is a time-travel game. You'll start playing and then before you know it, six and a half hours have gone by. You haven't eaten and you probably should use the restroom. But you can't, because you have to complete just one more mission or explore one more building.
Fallout 4 puts you in the role of a resident of Vault 111, an underground bunker that's hastily populated right before a nuclear holocaust scorches the surface. The year is 2077, and you and your family must wait it out until the all-clear comes from above. But when you wake up from an unexpected cryo-freezing, something isn't right. It's 200 years later and you're finally ready to resurface.
What's not to like about a story like that? But where Fallout really shines is its artistic style. Before the fallout, the alternate future the game depicts is a sort of "nuclear art deco," where the people of 2077 have embraced American culture from over a century before their time. That, combined with a selection of music from the '40s and '50s lends Fallout a unique yet oddly charming aesthetic.
Whereas Fallout 3 took place in and around Washington DC, Fallout 4 focuses on Boston. Much of the gameplay of Fallout 3 (and its New Vegas spinoff) returns in Fallout 4. You can customize your character's face -- playing as a man or a woman -- and assign attributes. As you collect experience points you can explore different perk branches. Fallout 4 alters the way you upgrade the category system, or "SPECIAL" as it's referred to, by unlocking more tiers as a single characteristic is filled out.
If you spent any amount of time playing Fallout 3, its logic will come rushing back to you. The VATS targeting system is back, but isn't highlighted in the same fashion as it was introduced in Fallout 3. In fact, it wasn't even part of any kind of tutorial when I started the game. The system temporarily slows down time to allow you to choose a section of the enemy's body to attack, but Fallout 4 actually winds up being a very capable first-person shooter (FPS) in its own right. You can switch between first and third-person cameras, but I found myself mostly ignoring VATS, thanks to Fallout 4's FPS prowess. As enemies get more difficult to eliminate, you may need to rely on it more often.
Fallout 4 continues the previous game's overwhelming open-world design. From the moment I left Vault 111, I was blown away by the world in front of me. It's a massive area to wrap your head around. Every area you come across tells a story. Everything looks lived in and real. But there's more new in Fallout 4 besides the location. There's also settlements, crafting elements and companions.
Settlements play a significant role in the game. These are areas you'll discover and will need to manage and construct basic resources for the new settlers that occupy them. Things like power, food, water and shelter are up to you. Providing the bare necessities determines the overall happiness of the community, which then can dictate the type of relationship you'll have with them moving forward.
Fallout has always been about exploration and looting, but Fallout 4 seems to have provided some incentive to what's otherwise been the mindless collecting of junk. Fallout 4's crafting system places material value in the items you hoard, giving meaning to the typewriter and hammer you've decided to carry around with you. Weapon, armor, cooking and settlement crafting makes use of the core components of all that junk. So instead of just offloading these items for a few bottle caps -- the game's currency -- you can now turn that typewriter and pencil into a defense turret for a settlement. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea.
The new settlement and crafting mechanics add up to another layer of complexity for you to enjoy while roaming the Bostonian wasteland. But in Fallout 4, you don't have to go at it alone. A number of different companions are available to keep you company, be it the game's new unofficial canine mascot, or Codsworth, your family's robo-butler who's been hanging around doing nothing for two centuries. Every companion acts differently, but I quickly grew attached to the dog who will voluntarily seek out health packs and other vital goodies for you.
All of the game's information, inventory management, maps and objectives are accessed via the Pip-Boy, a retro computer mounted on your character's wrist -- or a smartphone case you put on your real-life wrist if you buy the deluxe collector's edition of the game. It has most of the same functionality as it did in Fallout 3, but I wished for a few improvements outside of the Pip-Boy's interface just for the sake of convenience. It'd be great to be able to compare a weapon's stats without having to access the Pip-Boy -- believe me, you'll spend enough time staring at that thing.
Fallout 4 isn't without some other faults as well. At times I found that Fallout 4 puts too much confidence in the player, regardless of the fact that this is a game that demands you jump right into the deep end. Some of the game's crafting and settlement mechanics aren't very clear to start with. They're not unsurmountable, but an intimidating game like this probably shouldn't have anything else that makes the barrier to entry that much higher.
The in-game compass can become confusing and frustrating to use too. Objective markers aren't always very clear and you'll occasionally need to juggle going back and forth to your Pip-Boy to double check that you're heading in the right direction. It certainly takes getting used to.
There are few oddities in the conversations you'll have with other wastelanders. Sometimes a character will be shown from a strange camera angle or something will be blocking their face. Then there are the handful of bugs I encountered in the game. The PC version has issues with exiting computer terminals and sometimes you'll get locked up and won't be able to move away from one. If you get caught without having saved recently it can be awful. Sometimes characters won't always respond to you at the first press of a button because it appears you caught them in a weird animation.
I've been playing Fallout 4 on PC, but also tried it out for a few hours on PlayStation 4. If you have the means, give it a go on PC. A GTX 970 card should be more than enough to play Fallout 4 in nearly all ultra settings. On the PS4 the game plays in 1080p resolution at a rough, mostly unstable 30 frames per second. When you arrive in crowded areas, however, or any time the action picks up on screen, that number very noticeably tanks.
Fallout 4 manages to service its fan base all while introducing new elements and evolving its unique take on the true open-world game. Brimming with an astonishing amount of detail and content to interact with, odds are you'll never see every last thing Fallout 4 has to offer. It's easily a must-play for anyone with a solid gaming PC, PS4 or Xbox One and is all but guaranteed to provide well over 100 hours of play time.
Read what GameSpot has to say about Fallout 4