There are tears in my eyes. As I step carefully through the dead halls of a long-opened vault, the haunting voice of Skeeter Davis serenades the end of the world. Skeletons of drug addicts, dead for centuries, lay around in their final poses, boney arms still grasping for their next fix. I know what happened here, about the experiments and the desperate, doomed struggle these people faced while imprisoned with the very things they sought to escape on the surface. And as I explore the remnants of their homes, I see the small stories that made up their lives. Two people, probably alcoholics, lay on the floor in front of a liquor cabinet. Another locked themselves in the bathroom and overdosed on psycho. One of the last rooms contains a small, scattered pile of supplies and a PC that holds the final journal entries for an inhabitant that tried to stay clean, but eventually gave in to the temptation and died with his friends.
I see all these small tragedies play out as I explore the vault and I can feel my heart constrict in my chest as Davis sings of loss. “Why does my heart go on beating? Why do these eyes of mine cry? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?” croons Skeeter Davis as I take in the stories. It all comes rushing in: The destruction of the old world; the callous cruelty with which the end was prepared; and all the rage, sorrow, and despair my character must feel after the incredible losses she has endured. It’s all brought to a sharp, poignant moment of empathy through Fallout 4’s brilliant storytelling and characterization.
Many people think of story as something that is delivered through dialogue and text. However, games also tell many little stories through environment design. While Bethesda has a long tradition of skillfully telling stories through their environments, Fallout 4 has some of the best instances of this. There are hundreds of small stories waiting in the wasteland. Some require some detective-like snooping to uncover and others don’t even have markers on the map, but observant players will find these glimpses into pre-fallout life scattered everywhere. The stories themselves aren’t always the most interesting, but the sheer number of them give weight to the Boston area. This was a place that once teemed with human life and could again one day, if the factions at work in the Commonwealth could be left to their own devices.
Unfortunately, the different factions of the Commonwealth can’t seem to leave one another alone and that tension ties in with the profound disaster that takes place in the opening minutes of Fallout 4. The journey to resolve the initial conflict that begins the protagonist’s journey serves as the crux of some of the game’s most interesting ethical dilemmas (that consequently have sweeping ramifications for the wider game). Those hard choices are kept grounded in a personal reality by the relationships that players build with their companions, NPCs who serve as actual characters with opinions on how the protagonist interacts with the world and its inhabitants. This improves dramatically on the follower system that has appeared in previous Bethesda titles, by endowing these friendly NPCs with real character bonds become stronger and decisions farther down the line become more difficult. You will remember the likes of Piper, Nick Valentine, and Curie long after your time with Fallout 4 comes to an end.
Fallout 4 impresses me with the many improvements that take the elements established in Fallout 3 and brings them to the next level. The most easily seen improvement appears in the graphical presentation, with lighting and details that can sometimes draw gapes and awe. Most critically, the facial animation has drastically improved, with compelling facial performances matching vastly improved voice acting (with a few exceptions). Facial expressions in particular are very expressive and characters are given the chance to show a wide range of different emotions. And, after so many years of being irritated by hair clipping through faces, Bethesda has finally devised a system that creates decent facial hair and long hair that generally avoids clipping. It’s a small improvement, but for me it eliminates something that I’ve found irritating for a long time. Also, explosions look absolutely stunning.
While a new sheen of graphical paint does the franchise a world of good, subtle changes to underlying systems create a familiar experience that offers fresh gameplay and narrative experience. The new dialogue system has been trimmed down to four responses for any given conversation. Some might see this as a limit to the number of choices you can make in any given scenario, much less than the various options Fallout 3 could potentially offer, but I think that the presentation and overall storytelling benefits from the more fleshed out dialogue. This also allows for the protagonist to be voiced and deliver lines, which leads to an actual character that feels more real than the voiceless husk players projected themselves into in Fallout 3. There are undeniably less dialogue options, but those that remain feel more meaningful.
Bethesda’s overhaul of the gunplay is certainly the best improvement made from Fallout 3 to Fallout 4. It is actually possible to play the game entirely without using the VATS targeting system, as the shooting can now hold its own as a gameplay mechanic. It leads to a combat system that feels fluid, effortless transitioning between the tactical VATS view that allows for players to call their shots on specific body parts while slowing time and the often frantic shooting in real-time. It’s a simple, straightforward change, but it feels like the most necessary update to the franchise.
While most of the changes have been overwhelmingly for the better, some wrinkles persist. The user interface for Fallout 4 feels muddled and messy. Forgetting the name of an important audio tape or note could leave you searching through your inventory for several minutes. Spending a scant few minutes searching through an inventory pales in comparison to one of Fallout 4’s biggest irritations: Finding dismissed companions. Every time a new companion is recruited, the previous companion can be sent to any settlement under the player’s control. At first this isn’t a huge problem, but once the pool of companions expands and you learn that you can only send one or two companions to the same settlement it becomes a colossal issue to track down a particular sidekick. At one point I spent almost two hours trying to find Preston Garvey, one of the first companions the game throws your way. Even if you manage to track down the right settlement it can be difficult to spot a human NPC milling around with the twenty other settlers living in your settlement. A small UI tweak noting where to find each of your recruited companions on the list of controlled settlements or a companion-only base would have been a huge help.
One of the main systems that Fallout 4 introduces early on is the ability to control and build in settlements. Players are supposed to build structures that feed, water, and shelter potential settlers. The building mechanics are actually really fun and reward players who can’t help picking up everything they see. Building possesses one huge drawback: There is almost no incentive to do it. Building successful settlements doesn’t have a reward and never expands much past the initial concept. These settlers never come to your aid in a Wasteland war or provide amazing, unique items; they just wander around and sometimes do the jobs you assign to them. The building is fun, but that fun is its own reward. That doesn’t make it bad, I certainly enjoyed more than a few hours building settlements and growing them as large as possible. However, the lack of tangible benefits does make building defenses and homes feel like a time sink when you ultimately realize you could be exploring new locations, meeting new challenges, and interacting with interesting quests and characters.
Despite the issues a new era have ushered into the franchise, I don’t feel like I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Bethesda’s latest venture into the post-apocalypse could very well be their best game to date. I’ve poured over 100 hours into Fallout 4 and, while I’ve finished the main campaign and a decent amount of exploration, there are still vast areas that remain undiscovered and unexamined. The irradiated area around Boston jealously guards some of its most potent secrets. To see and find everything would take hundreds more hours.
That Fallout 4 managed to reach something raw and emotional in me after dozens of hours spent becoming desensitized to the misery and violence of the Commonwealth’s new world testifies to the underlying power at Bethesda’s fingertips. While almost every single Bethesda title has been revolutionary in some way and highly polished, Fallout 4 strikes me like the herald of something even better. I don’t know what that might be, but the developers have the talent to do something not just good or great, but something earthshattering; glimmers of that potential can be seen in Fallout 4.
My time with Fallout 4 has been a roller coaster, both inside the game and in the real world. I started playing it the day it released, the day after my great aunt Winnie passed away. I continued to trek through the post-apocalypse as terror attacks unfolded in France, Lebanon, and Nigeria, an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and as I received news that one of my aunts has cancer. The world has seemed like a pretty horrible place for the last couple of weeks. Fully aware of the irony, I found comfort in the war-strewn, harsh, and violent landscapes of Fallout 4. Our world is a complicated place, full of shades of grey, competing agendas, and people who are perfectly willing to exemplify the worst of what humanity can be. Bethesda’s Fallout 4 has a lot of that, too, but it is also full of compelling characters that bring out the good in people. Even in that world of radiation and unchanging war, a city can rise from the ashes and people can stand up for one another. It reminded me that good exists out in our world, too; it can be easy to forget that when faced with hate and happenstance. Like Diamond City rising from the ruins of Boston, We can build our own communities while embracing our differences and looking out for one another… and that’s something I’d like to believe that’s what we’ve been doing here at Extra Life. So, thank you to all of you for being a force for good in a world that sometimes seems to have gone completely mad.
Bethesda teased hope out of a scorched and tortured world and that hope is worth experiencing for yourself.
Fallout 4 was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.