Fallout 4 is an engrossing game that lures you in with mystery and the promise of adventure. Its wretched wasteland can be captivating, and you never know what odd person or settlement lies around the next bend. Fallout 4 uses its dark world as a canvas for exciting combat and gripping stories, and when you dig deeper into its post-nuclear-apocalypse version of Boston--defending yourself from violent scavengers and using your wits to climb social ladders--you become attached to the new you, and ultimately invested in the fate of your new world.
You transform into an influential wasteland warrior over the course of a multitude of dangerous quests, but this is difficult to imagine at the start when you're a well-to-do citizen of 1950s-esque Boston. The game begins on a peaceful morning at home with your spouse and child; a robot butler provides upbeat banter and a glimpse at what America might have become if the World's Fair era of invention and optimism from the 1930s persisted into the 21st century. Life is pleasant, until a distressful television broadcast. Your family is quickly rushed underground. It's within Vault 111 that you spend the next 200 years, frozen in cryogenic-stasis until your eventual rude awakening in the year 2277.
When your hibernation is over, you first realize that your son has been kidnapped, but you also discover a world still reeling from nuclear warfare, centuries after the bombs fell. Two-headed deer drink from irradiated streams, and your home, the once great city of Boston, lies in ruin. Fenway Park has become a shanty town that plays host to underground crime rings. The historic Freedom Trail lies broken and nigh untraceable, more likely to take you into the maw of a drooling mutant than to the foot of an important monument. Your desperate need to find your son draws you into this hell-on-earth, but you eventually become an important player in its political and social landscape. Your decisions have real impact on your journey, but perhaps more importantly, on the fate of others.
Fallout 4's story regularly challenges you to make compromises. Nuclear war further complicated life in Boston; everyone wants to survive, but nobody wants to work together. The weight of this horrible reality caused some people to go mad, but for others, it's the radiation that turned them into seething abominations.
The instability within Boston seems permanent, but if one company--The Institute--has its way, life could be better; life could be controlled. The Institute is a twisted homage to Cambridge's famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology and it's the source of Fallout 4's bioengineered androids, known as Synths. Some Synths look like animated mannequins, but The Institute recently began producing ultra-realistic models, and people are concerned with the presence of secret, robotic agents. The conflict between synths and humans is Fallout 4's defining plotline. Taking a page out of sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner, Fallout 4 tests your moral compass by challenging you to define the meaning of life. When the line between organic and synthetic is blurred, what does it mean to be "human?"
Nuclear war further complicated life in Boston; everyone wants to survive, but nobody wants to work together.
Fallout 4 is the story of the "perfect" vs the "imperfect,” where your decisions influence the victories and tragedies of not just the two overarching groups, but all of the smaller ones that get caught in the middle. Picking sides and doing favors is, at first, about finding your son, but it becomes more complicated as time passes. It's not as simple as choosing between the right and wrong thing; you are almost always sacrificing something, and the decisions get harder over time.
Though many of the secondary quests amount to dungeon raids or fetch quests, these challenges thrust you into combat, which is a dynamic and thrilling mix of shooting in real-time and carefully selecting your targets in an RPG-rooted command system known as V.A.T.S.. While in this mode, you aim for specific body parts and get to see how likely you are to hit your mark, and how much damage you will inflict if you do. It lacks the immediacy of straight shooting, but it helps you be a more resourceful and effective warrior. It's an extension of the same mechanic from Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, but activating V.A.T.S. in those games paused the action completely. Now, it merely slows down time, and you're more vulnerable as a result. The mix of utility and strategy that it presents is gratifying, unlike the real-time shooting, which is functional but lacks the finesse found in dedicated shooter games. V.A.T.S. also frames your actions with cinematic flair--far more so than any other aspect of the game.
V.A.T.S. makes combat thoughtful, but the nature of survival makes conflict exciting. It's not unusual to find yourself hunted by oafish mutants while you struggle with wounded limbs, radiation poisoning, or an unfortunate lack of ammo. You can flee, but then you may miss the opportunity to take potentially valuable items from your fallen opponents. Sticking it out may require heavy doses of stimulants that will leave you addled, but ultimately give you the strength to fight another day. You're constantly weighing the pros and cons of your actions, and there's rarely a right answer. This creates great tension, pulling you into the experience at hand, and highlighting the joy of every victory.
Each time you level up, you can invest a stat point in one of seven attributes--Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, and Luck--that determine how effective you are when dealing with others, using either words or your weapons. Your proficiency in these stats allows you to invest in perks--enhancements that boost or augment your abilities. You spend the same points on attributes and perks, making the process of upgrading your character a balancing act. This system allows you to opt for a specialist approach, be it as a combatant or a charmer, but you aren't locked into a specific path. You always have access to the entire chart of perks, and without a level cap, you ultimately have the ability to master everything. The freedom is welcome, allowing you to sample a wide skill range.
You'll also be able to bolster your abilities by acquiring new gear. Looking for loot is a constant pursuit, in part because it grants you much- needed resources, but also because everyday items--housewares, gadgets, and other pre-war conveniences--can be scrapped for their constituent parts and repurposed to build mods for your equipment. You can trade in scrap to extend the usefulness of basic items using workbenches that you find throughout Boston, but it's not until you've levelled up enough to meet the best mods' requirements that it becomes truly valuable. More often than not, weapons and armor taken from bosses and legendary-class monsters provide all the stopping-power you need.
Ammunition and health items are key to your survival, so you check the pockets of every corpse, pick locks in hopes of riches, and hack computers to access hidden rooms. These activities are puzzling and challenging at first, but because they become only slightly more complex over time, this cleverness fades.
Junk is also necessary for another of Fallout 4's features. You can erect homes, establish small vegetable gardens, and fortify defense systems to provide a new lease on life for lost souls. There's a lot you can build and the process is easy, but unless you love to be creative, you may not find this pursuit very worthwhile. There's something to be said for the contrast between killing monsters and providing aid to the down and out, but the main quest only asks you to construct an object or two, and never incentivises you to build a proper settlement.
As you look for signs of your son, you exchange services and information with established societies of survivors. You grow sympathetic to their problems over time, and once trust is established, individuals may choose to join you on the battlefield. Having a capable partner who's spent his or her entire life in the wasteland should make your adventure easier, and sometimes it does. Depending on who your travel partner is, they can provide cover-fire during skirmishes, or locate hidden items or enemies for you.
Your likely first companion is a German Shepherd, affectionately known as Dogmeat. With a wagging tail, an infectious bark, and a subtle, toothy grin, I grew fond of his presence. He lightens the mood, but he and other companions can be a hindrance at times, too. Issuing commands is an involved process that requires you to move the camera toward your partner and navigate a menu; these tasks are cumbersome and difficult to consider in the middle of a fight. The lack of streamlined companion controls is a disappointment, but it's also tough to count on a companion who fails to keep up with you because they've become stuck in the game's scenery. They're most useful when you employ them to carry heavy items that would otherwise slow your character down, and when all of their systems occasionally click in just the right way.
In order to truly enjoy Fallout's vast world and dynamic gameplay, you need to accept that it has obvious flaws. Navigating the wasteland is made easy thanks to the ability to fast-travel between locations that you've discovered, but surveying the world map can be a chore due to Fallout 4's woefully limited map functionality. A compass on the bottom of your screen shows you the direction of your next goal, but when you try to gauge how far distant locations are from one another, you have to slowly scroll through the map as you're unable to get a complete bird's eye view. Local maps prove even less useful, as they present vague x-ray like blueprints with almost indecipherable details.
You're constantly weighing the pros and cons of your actions, and there's rarely a right answer.
Similar frustrations afflict your inventory, which allows you to sort by item category, and a handful of other attributes, but not all. This is most troublesome when choosing a weapon loadout. If you want to look for the best weapon that uses a certain type of ammo, you need to scroll through lists and manually recall details to draw comparisons. Because ammo is often limited, this becomes a regular step as you plan your next strategy, and thus a regular annoyance.
Beyond the aforementioned disappointments, plainly framed scenes and basic animations lend a roughness to the finish product, as do its frequent glitches. Lines of spoken dialogue will sometimes stop mid sentence, forcing you to turn on subtitles as a precautionary measure. Characters walk through objects now and then, or stand in thin air. It's nostalgic in that sense because these qualities recall the quirks of other great Bethesda RPGs, such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout 3. Fallout 4 may cause you to recall the past on occasion, but given its timeless story and many wonderful new experiences, this is hardly a problem.
In the grand scheme of things, Fallout 4's minor issues pale in comparison to its successes. When you put the controller down, you think about the friend you betrayed to benefit another, the shifting tide of an incredible battle, or the moment you opened a drawer and found someone's discarded effects, making you wonder how they felt before the bombs fell. In moments like these, Fallout 4 can be an intoxicating experience. You're often forced to sacrifice something--a relationship, a lucrative opportunity, or your health--to make gains elsewhere. And the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more you wonder: what if I chose a different path? You second guess yourself, not just because you had other options, but because you aren't sure if you did the right thing. The fact that your decisions stick with you after walking away from the game is a testament to the great storytelling on hand. Fallout 4 is an argument for substance over style, and an excellent addition to the revered open-world series.