MINOR SPOILERS, as always, abound!
It’s 4am and I’ve lost my dog. I have few options. Do I scour the nearby fields for signs of life? Do I recruit one of my friends to help me look? Or do I sleep for 24 hours, reload my save, and hope he reappears?
I have never owned a real dog. But I’ve spent a fair number of hours out of the 50 at time of writing looking for Dogmeat, your ever-faithful if hard-to-find companion in Fallout 4, after trading him out for another companion. I write this with no shame, knowing that somewhere in the world, someone has played four or five times as much as I have.
Suffice it to say that Bethesda’s latest post-apocalyptic outing is, like so many games in 2015 from Metal Gear Solid V to the wildly addictive Rocket League, a time sink. But a vastly rewarding one. Combat has been streamlined and feels infinitely more satisfying than its at times clunky predecessors, such that if I fall backwards off a dilapidated radio tower while fighting a helicopter hijacked by angry raiders, I won’t be too angry I have to reload another save. After I turned down the difficulty. We’re living in a post-Dark Souls world – expect a certain challenge from this game, even on Normal.
Deadlines loom, the nights draw in, and I am driven on, borne forward ceaselessly to the next sidequest, where I help the nebbish radio host of Diamond City Radio, this game’s answer to the irreplaceable Three Dog on Galaxy News Radio whose songs get stuck in my head on a daily basis, gain confidence by helping free his kidnapped Russian friend following a staged bar fight gone wrong.
Such is the richness of almost every objective in this fourth main instalment (and eighth overall, counting Fallout Shelter) in the Fallout series. For a game set in the ruins of the old world, with a dose of rad poisoning just around the next corner, it’s remarkable just how colourful Fallout 4 can be. Building on the oppressive greys of 3’s Capital Wasteland and the neon palette of the Mojave in New Vegas, Fallout 4 finds the best of both worlds, with the help of its next-gen hardware. While the game isn’t the shiniest of 2015’s titles, it hardly needs to be; the new lights, textures and character animations are a drastic improvement from any previous Bethesda game, the zombie-like NPC faces of Oblivion a thing of distant memory. Though this isn’t to say the game is without its share of quirks. On the Xbox One version, anyway. (Yes, I know, believe me.)
My first example, losing Dogmeat for days of in-game time at a time, is sometimes an engaging challenge in itself, but the framerate loss in more dense areas is less a challenge and more a chore. And yet, I can’t hold it against the game. Does the almost unanimous critical and consumer reaction to Fallout 4 highlight a deification of the franchise, a hypocrisy in gaming wherein tentpoles like Assassin’s Creed Unity or Batman: Arkham Knight aren’t afforded the same liberties?
I’ll let you know my opinion when I’ve finished setting up the dance hall in my settlement.
A new Bethesda title can be relied upon for two things; that every players’ experience is unique, fraught with action, drama and an immensely satisfying level of NPC interaction, and that those NPCs will get stuck in walls, or not trigger the right dialogue, or in extreme cases become a terrifying stick-insect character model when ordered to do the wrong thing by the player. Patches are, apparently, on the way, so make use of those infinite money glitches while you can. Don’t tell them I sent you.
It’s been a few hundred words I haven’t spoken about the story yet.
Fallout 4 spins the formula by beginning the game pre-nuclear apocalypse, in the idyllic suburbs of Boston in 2077, albeit with 1950’s-era aesthetics, from the music to the dress code (Gingham, anyone?) to the music choices. We begin on the very day the bombs hit. You and your family are rushed to the fortified bunker of Vault 111, where you are cryogenically frozen and de-thawed 200 years later, finding a world mysterious to them but familiar to us, an irradiated wasteland that used to be The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, now just called the Commonwealth, with mutated brutes, murderous raiders and a multitude of settlements and factions, fighting to survive.
The risk Fallout 4 runs is the same as its predecessors; by filling its game world with so much to explore, the player can lose sight of the main story. The game’s factions ensure this doesn’t happen; the ever-present Brotherhood of Steel are engaged in a new cold warmmagainst the shady Institute, creators of lifelike Synths, who could be hiding among humans and sending information back. The secretive Railroad is out to save synths, and the Minutemen, your first allies after you emerge from the Vault, present you with quests to defend the various settlements you unlock. The leaders and soldiers of these factions will ask you, “Why? Why risk your life for people you’ve never met, in a world you don’t understand?” The fully-voiced protagonists of Fallout 4 go a ways to providing the emotional core of the story, both male and female actors giving excellent performances as the Sole Survivor. While I often found myself distracted, if not by the locations and missions on offer then by the extensive base-building and crafting system, I found my way back into the main story – their story – eventually.
Another improvement can be seen in the companions available to you as you progress. Dogmeat is first, followed by your diligent robot butler Codsworth (who can call you anything from Princess, to Steve, to “Mister Titties”), and an array of characters of varying species, moral compasses, and fighting styles. Nick Valentine is an android gumshoe detective, complete with hat and trench coat, Hancock is an irradiated ghoul who dresses like a pirate, and Strong the Super Mutant is, well, strong. And, of course, romance. It’s the Bioware effect; in fact, some NPCs are voiced by the same actor, none other than Brandon Keener, voice of Garrus Vakarian in Mass Effect. The snarky romance option who specialises in rifles in Fallout 4, Macready, is voiced by Matthew Mercer.
With improved character models, writing and voice acting comes the possibility that we might want to keep some of your companions around. I went for Piper, another snarky, self-professed pushy journalist, complete with newsboy cap. She pulls me aside for a heart-to-heart during a quest where we’re helping to repaint a baseball stadium, while collecting memorabilia for a baseball fan who is convinces the sport involves the players swatting each other. Standard.
Given how spoiled we’ve been by the range of character interaction in Bioware RPGs, the brief conversations you can have out in the world are slightly lacking. Not that the companions are in any way useless or not fun to be around in the Commonwealth; they can be used as pack horses, lugging any of the junk and gear you don’t need.
The world of the Commonwealth is so large, yet still leaves you wanting to explore, learn more about its history and its characters. That’ll be for the next 50 hours. And the DLCs, sure to all clock in at 8-10 hours apiece.
It took me less time than in previous games to be fully immersed, and that was a considerable challenge. Fallout 4 is like a radiation storm; hard to get out once you’re in.