Fallout 4 review: Won't set the world on fire, but might start a (tiny) flame in your heart

For nigh-on fifteen years, Bethesda’s games have stood as my benchmark for the open-world genre—from Morrowind’s opening “Wake up, we’re here” all the way through the last minute I played of Skyrim. Even Oblivion’s obvious missteps mattered little to me at the time, given the scale of the game.

I expected Fallout 4 to do the same. Here we are, Bethesda’s first outing on the new consoles and freed from the obvious limitations of the Xbox 360/PS3 era. And...well, while it's a ton of fun, I guess I thought we’d see more of an improvement.

If you want to know what Fallout 4 gets right, look no further than its predecessor. Or any Bethesda game, really, but Fallout 3 is most pertinent. As you emerge from Vault 111 for the first time, momentarily blinded by the harsh sunlight and clad in familiar blue-and-yellow jumpsuit, there’s that familiar sense of possibility. You check the map, you walk for a minute, you check the map again, and then you estimate how long it would take to walk across the whole thing. You whistle. “Damn, this is enormous. Who knows what could be out there”

It’s an intoxicating feeling, and makes up for a burdensome main story. Fallout 4 has some interesting ideas, but it’s mostly a convoluted mess. There’s a chance, if you join more than one of the game’s factions, you’ll find yourself on missions where everyone is shooting everyone—except you. Because they all somehow assume you’re on their side, playing double- and even triple-agent. Even if you’re in the process of explicitly betraying one faction.This isn’t a one-time thing. It happens multiple times in the story. And it’s silly every time.

It's a typical Bethesda main story, in other words.

But no, Bethesda’s games are built on surprise. On mystique. There you are, wandering through The Commonwealth’s (a.k.a. Boston) nuclear wasteland when you catch glimpse of the half-reclaimed ruins of an old church, quiet in the misty Concord morn. Or the cobbled-together stronghold of a group of raiders, torches beating back the night in Bunker Hill. Or the seemingly-untouched remnants of a long-dormant factory, half-submerged in a river and speckled by sunlight. You debate walking past and then...curiosity. What’s inside

Fallout’s slice of 1950’s Googie suburbia is more than just a backdrop—it’s a character. It tells you stories, if you’re paying attention. Two skeletons, holding hands on a bed with a 10mm pistol lying between. The dry office memos and earnings reports that, when pieced together, form a compelling thriller about surreptitious backroom dealings and corporate espionage. The twisted experiments behind all of Vault-Tec’s seemingly good intentions.

These implied narratives are often more interesting than the game’s actual story beats. You’re basically playing post-apocalyptic archaeologist and piecing together an idea of who must’ve lived there, before the bombs fell, while Bing Crosby croons at you in the background.

Fallout 4 is so diluted, though. This is a much bigger game than Fallout 3, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that makes it better.

Conventional wisdom says Fallout 3 was Oblivion, but with guns. And on the surface, yes—Fallout 3 definitely had more in common with Oblivion than it did with Interplay’s isometric CRPGs.

But Fallout 3 was actually fairly radical, as far as Bethesda’s games are concerned. There are only 150ish named locations in the entire game, most separated by expanses of wilderness. And nearly every location (minus the subways) existed for some reason, be it a quest or a unique piece of loot.

Fallout 4 is actually much closer to Oblivion with guns—a vast map, littered with icons, each ostensibly representing a place for players to delve into. But only maybe half of the locales in Fallout 4 actually feel useful or special or have some sort of interesting facet to them. The rest are repetitive combat arenas and glorified post-apocalyptic spelunking.

It makes exploration feel somewhat like a chore. You come upon a factory—say, the Poseidon Reservoir or Wattz Consumer Electronics—and you have to make a snap judgment. “Is it going to be worth my time to go in here” And all-too-often in Fallout 4, the answer is no.

I could direct blame at a number of new features. I mean, the size of the game obviously. It’s big and padded with “Content,” meaning a lot of locations seem to exist just to exist—to let you shoot a few more ghouls and pick up some more bobby pins or whatever.

But that points to another issue: The lack of unique loot. There are very few unique weapons in Fallout 4—in nearly a hundred hours, I’ve found a grand total of...five. Even boss enemies, who you’d expect to have a unique weapon or unique armor, often reward you with trash items.

This was done, I suppose, to convince players to use the new Crafting system. Found a totally boring, generic 10mm pistol Now you can break down all the trash items in the game into components, which allows you to add a scope or a larger magazine or what-have-you onto basic weapons! And then you can name it and make your own custom weapon!

This process is far less satisfying than finding unique loot, though. Remember how cool it was to find Lincoln’s Repeater in Fallout 3 Or Vengeance That feeling is all but gone in Fallout 4, replaced with the dubious “thrill” of finding “Hardened 10mm Pistol with Reflex Sight” or some other generic bit of crafting mishmash, even on boss enemies.

As I said, there are still a few unique pieces of gear in the game, but the incidence is far less than it was previously and as a result there are entire locations in Fallout 4 that exist solely to replenish your supplies of RadAway and Stimpaks. As if you need more. I currently have over 500 Stimpaks.

Crafting also has the unintended consequence of making you use the same weapons and armor for hours and hours and hours. A hundred hours in, I’m still using the same customized rifle I built six hours into the game.

This is Fallout 4: A bunch of systems that seem interesting at the beginning, but kill the experience stretched over 100 hours. You’ll take over Settlements, for instance. These are custom bases of operation, where you can put on your carpenter hat and build new houses, furniture, fences, et cetera. Cool—initially. I spent an hour early in the game building a fence around my first settlement. It looks kind of intimidating (although it kills the frame rate whenever I’m nearby).

But then the game made me unlock two settlements. Then three. Then a dozen. And with each new settlement, I became less and less interested in making sure everything looked good—on placing the fence pieces just so. It would’ve been far more interesting to have one settlement you put all your resources and work into. But no. There are a bunch, and each will periodically come under attack and expect you to come help defend. Tedious.

Or we can talk about Power Armor. In an effort to make you understand that, yes, Power Armor is A Big Deal, Bethesda has changed the way it works. You no longer wear it perpetually. Instead, it now acts almost like a vehicle—one you need to periodically refuel with a rare item, called a Fusion Core.

The actual result I never wore Power Armor, because it’s too much a hassle to monitor.

And the radio’s rotation of tracks is still way too small to support a game a hundred hours long. Even worse, multiple tracks are repeated from Fallout 3. I hope you weren’t sick of hearing “BONGO BONGO BONGO I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE THE CONGO” yet because you’re going to hear it a million more times in Fallout 4.

I guess we should talk about bugs. It wouldn’t be a Bethesda game without bugs.

Let’s see. 1) Accessing Power Armor from the front sometimes results in your character trying to walk through the suit, locking all the controls and forcing a reload. Accessing Terminals that have chairs in front of them can sometimes have the same result.

2) Late in the game, trying to fast travel to a certain location (named “Ticonderoga”) would cause the game to crash-to-desktop. Every single time.

3) Companions are dumb as rocks. I actually loved the one I was traveling with—a gentleman by the name of Nick Valentine—except he is apparently programmed to go sit down whenever the player is busy. It would be a nice touch except that he’ll often sit down and then never stand up to come find you again. Companions will also try to walk through walls, take off running in the opposite direction when you get in an elevator, fall through the floor because they can’t jump, et cetera.

4) You can walk away from any conversation. You’re no longer frozen in place. Unfortunately, neither are NPCs. Sometimes you’ll be having a serious conversation and characters will just turn around and walk away from you, forcing you to start the whole conversation over.

5) I had three different quests where the scripting broke. Two of them I was able to fix by fast-traveling away and then back, forcing the game to reload the quest triggers.

6) The game wouldn’t even launch to the menu on my laptop (with a 970M) in fullscreen mode, Low settings, but ran fine on a mix of Medium/High in borderless windowed.

7) Not really a bug, but the menus in this game are a mess. Sometimes Escape is used to exit menus (like the workshop), other times it’s used to pause the game—at which point Tab is typically your means of exiting. Actually, keyboard and mouse controls are across-the-board wonky.

These are only the major ones. There are innumerable graphical and audio glitches that also plague the game, plus fairly major optimization issues in downtown Boston—issues that seem to get worse the higher you climb a building. And the load times are predictably lengthy and obtrusive.

If Bethesda releases a patch that eradicates some of the more egregious bugs, add another half-star to Fallout 4's review score. It's that buggy.

For a long time, nobody made games like Bethesda. There is a leniency afforded to you, I think, when you’re the only one doing A Thing and it’s A Thing people like. You overlook the bugs. You overlook the bad AI. You overlook the poor main story.

But now...It’s not that Fallout 4 is a bad game, or even a bad Bethesda game. It’s that other studios started doing Bethesda’s whole open-world thing. Sometimes doing it better.

I enjoyed the hell out of my time with Fallout 4, despite my complaints. I expect a lot of people will. The setting is Fallout’s strongest asset, and if Boston is less iconic than Washington D.C. or Las Vegas it at least makes up for that fact by being an extremely important locale in Fallout lore.

This isn’t the step forward I expected, though. Here we are, the first Bethesda game on a new hardware generation, and I can’t help feeling like we’ve regressed—like Fallout 4 really is Oblivion-with-guns. A decade later, it certainly makes many of the same mistakes.


Hayden Dingman

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