Something truly S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
It's difficult to know where to start in an experience this massive. More so than most open-world games, Fallout 4 is more than happy to leave you to your own devices, letting the tantalizing prospect of what awaits you in post-apocalyptic Boston be the force that pushes you forward. There are quests to undertake, but Fallout is at its most rewarding when you simply pick a direction, start walking and stumble across something wholly unexpected: it might be horrible, or beautiful, or funny, or it might just kill you, but it will always be interesting.
Publisher Bethesda's ruined Boston is such a wonderful place to explore because so much attention has been lavished in every detail. Exploration is always rewarded, but not necessarily with a new gun or piece of armour; sometimes the rewards are more unexpected. I still remember my journey through a derelict house that led me to the skeleton of a woman -- still in her Sunday dress -- hunched over a crib in a last desperate attempt to protect her child from the nuclear blasts. This kind of masterful environmental storytelling is in evidence throughout Fallout 4 and often left me dumbstruck by its effectiveness, simplicity and how ably it contextualizes the game world. If you rush through Fallout, these moments will pass you by. Each new location is an experience to be savoured; the wasteland is a place where even the most innocuous structures can be full of intrigue and adventure.
Boston wasn't always a wasteland and Fallout 4 offers a rare glimpse of a time before the nuclear apocalypse, but this idyllic life doesn't last long. The bombs begin to fall, and soon your cosy home is traded in for Vault 111 and a cryogenic freezer. When you emerge 200 years later, the world is ruined, except for a few isolated pockets of survivors. You need to find your son, who was kidnapped while you were frozen, and this central quest does a good job of settling new players into the overwhelming scope of Fallout 4. Of course, between you and your son's captors is a wealth of compelling content. Numerous factions vie for control of Boston and you can't please them all. Fallout asks you to pick sides in these territorial conflicts and deciding who to work for is never a morally straightforward decision. The singular goal of survival has not made anyone less complex. The wasteland is full of ambitious, selfish, multifaceted personalities and choosing who to take sides with typically requires a fair few compromises. The ambiguity of the games characters and moral choices is strengthened by the removal of the karma system from Fallout 3. The consequences of your actions are much harder to predict as a result and necessitates a more thoughtful approach to the thorny situations you are routinely thrust into.
There's nothing ambiguous about the multitude of freaks who want to kill you, however. The wasteland is chock-full of terrifying beasts, from the familiar dogs and cockroaches (now irradiated mockeries of their former selves) to grotesque deathclaws and mirelurks who seem to be born wholly of radiation. These creatures often pop up when you least expect them, sometimes literally. The huge radscorpion that dropped on me from the ceiling of a seemingly abandoned shack is proof of that. The unexpectedness of the enemies creates a survival horror style tension, particularly in the game's early stages where you are at your most fragile.
Fighting these monstrosities is a mixture of real time and pseudo turn-based combat. VATS (or Vault Assisted Targeting System) handles the turn-based element. Once activated it slows the progress of your opponents to a crawl. From here you can select which part of their body you want to shoot and VATS tells you how likely you are to hit it. You have a limited number of action points, and the lighter your gun the more shots you can fire in VATS before you need to recharge. It's a clever system designed to mimic the purely turn-based combat of older Fallout games and it is at its most useful when you need some time to think about how best to deal with whatever enemies are coming for you, or when you want to experience those hugely satisfying kills that only a slow motion bullet to the face can provide.
As much as I love blowing raiders' heads off in slow motion, I wasn't as reliant on VATS as I was in Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas. Guns are now much more accurate, and for the most part, a bullet will go where your crosshairs are pointing. The range and accuracy stats on a given weapon still have some effect on your overall ability to score a hit, but it's now possible to play the entirety of the game as a run-and-gun style shooter. Of course you'd miss out on those slow motion executions, but it's nice to know that accuracy is dictated by skill, and you don't always need to use VATS to shoot that nuisance radroach nibbling at your ankles.
You don't need to face those pesky radroaches alone either. There are several companions who can be recruited to your cause who will accompany you into the darkest depths of the Commonwealth. Each of your buddies has a distinct personality and fighting style that makes them much more than just an extra gun. Choosing who to accompany you depends a lot on how you choose to play. Each has their own likes and dislikes, and if you want to cheat and steal your way through Fallout 4, it may be best to leave do-gooders like Preston Garvey at home. Building an affinity with certain companions grants access to new side missions, so keeping them on side is in your best interest. If in doubt, just bring Dogmeat. He loves you, no matter what you do.
Just as important is shooting skill, and VATS management is your arsenal and armour. The wasteland is bursting with guns and melee weapons, and they can all be upgraded and altered to your heart's content. A basic revolver can become a high-powered sniper rifle if you add a scope and a long barrel; put a silencer on it if you want to be stealthy and a new stock if you're not happy with the recoil. The system allows you to keep your favourite weapons by upgrading them, ensuring they remain useful and strong enough to deal with any enemy. The flexibility extends to armour too. Full outfits of armour have been replaced by interchangeable gear for your limbs, torso and head. The eventual mishmash of armour gives your character a truly post-apocalyptic look and all bar the unique armour sets can be upgraded.
Upgrading your gear requires copious amounts of materials which are found in everyday items left behind by a world that no longer has use for them. Everything from board games to desk fans can be broken down into their component parts and utilized in the many crafting stations found in the scattered settlements throughout the wasteland. As well as serving as a stockpile for your hoarded goods, these settlements are a canvas for you to build a base and carve out your very own corner of the Commonwealth. The base building toolset is remarkably refined and allows a great deal of freedom to the post-apocalyptic architect. Steel or wooden structures are simple to erect and as the walls, corners and roofs slot together, what seems like an arbitrary addition soon becomes a satisfying endeavour. The shell of your building is merely the tip of the iceberg. Inside, you are free to decorate as you see fit. A nice cosy home is easily achievable with a few armchairs and a nice rug, or perhaps something a little more functional: a few trunks for that extra gear you can't bear to part with and some turrets on the roof to protect your new base from would-be invaders. Things get even more complex with the addition of powered structures. The aforementioned turrets, as well as lights and water purifiers, all need to be wired to a power generator, but once again, the toolset makes a potentially clumsy system very straightforward. It's as simple as selecting the generator, walking the wire to your power-hungry new toy, and pressing a button to connect them up.
The addition of the extensive gear upgrade system and base building to the core Fallout 4 gameplay makes it the most feature rich entry in the series to date, and the variety doesn't stop at the gameplay. The Commonwealth of Boston -- and its outlying countryside split by the Charles River -- is a tapestry of different landscapes, and most importantly, colour. The drab greys and browns of Fallout 3 have been replaced by vibrant blue skies, neon-lit ramshackle cities and buildings still daubed with the paint and posters of pre-war life. There is still ugliness in the wasteland too and that's how it should be. For every charming, characterful town there is an irradiated, death-filled hovel that captures the creepy tension the series is known for.
Sometimes the game's visual ambition is a little too much for the underlying engine to handle and there are noticeable framerate drops, particularly in more built-up areas like central Boston. I also encountered a few strange bugs along the way, and I don't mean bloatflies and bloodbugs. There were times when my character would stop talking during dialogue scenes and would get stuck in odd bits of scenery. In a game that is capable of fantastic levels of immersion every little issue, however small, detracts from that overall engagement. These bugs are akin to someone poking tiny holes into the Mona Lisa. The overall picture is still exquisite, but it will never be perfect.
These quirks and stutters are easily forgiven when you consider the scope and ambition of Fallout 4. The near constant stream of captivating places and people soon become an addiction. I lost track of the amount of times I would tell myself, "Just one more quest, one more location, then I'll definitely go to bed." It's the compass that does it, nestling innocently at the bottom of screen showing you all those nearby places that you haven't yet visited, and I just have to see them all. I can't miss anything. I have such confidence in Bethesda that I know that whatever waits for me in that factory, or school, or museum, or vault, will be 100% worth my time.
This game was reviewed with a digital copy on Xbox One provided by Bethesda.
Images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks.