“War. War never changes.” the game’s main protagonist (if you play as a male, of course) intones at the beginning of the game. You return to the world some time after nuclear apocalypse occurs, this time near the sprawling city of Boston.
At first I was unimpressed. Thanks to how many times they have showcased what happens at the beginning of the game and the hints of something happening, the loss you experience never hits in the same was as the intro sequence of The Last of Us. It is a pretty ham-handed affair and very shortly after is almost forgotten about because hey look, power armour for you, for free. I was hating the power creep I was seeing: within two hours I had power armour, a minigun and I had killed a deathclaw. This was by following the game’s story, not by wandering off and doing odd things. It didn’t sit well with me, and I parked my power armour in a base in disgust.
To get my mind off things I started building up a settlement. At first I thought it would be a chore, needless busywork to keep people occupied. It wasn’t building a settlement that gave me access to several workbenches and crafting stations. These stations can upgrade your fully modular armour and weapons, and with a little work you can create some truly masterful items. With my poor character having a charisma of two, shopkeeps would rather do business with a glowing one than me, charging some ridiculous prices. So I built instead. Now I am high level and rich and have hardly anything to buy because I have built or found and modified things that are so much better. That is the bounty waiting in the wasteland, the scrap and the junk that many ignores gets collected and used to create amazing things.
It took a while until things clicked for me. Things clicked when I started doing quests for factions, climbing up the ranks and helping people. Respect was generally hard won and it felt a lot more challenging than being given free power armour. They also clicked when I had a weapon that could hit the broadside of a barn from beyond 10 metres. Then things got too challenging. Why was this enemy capable of killing me with a single shot? Had I somehow started quests in a place for someone of a much higher level? It dawned on me then, why the game had been so generous with power armour: it meant the world of the Commonwealth never had to pull its punches. Sometimes you need to suit up and deal with a threat greater than what you could safely face on foot, before dumping your armour back in your stash and moving around with a lot more mobility. It became a rhythm, exploring places on foot, sprinting around and talking to people. Then if I encountered stiff resistance I head back to camp, suit up and walk into warzones like a human tank.
Fallout 4 is similar to Fallout 3 in a comforting way. Just like putting on your favourite pair of socks that just fit so well, Fallout 4 offers a similar experience. You have a massive open world to explore. Exploration and curiosity is rewarded with rare or powerful items and sometimes it is completely silly, like stealing an item that someone is wearing before placing an armed grenade in their pocket. In general a lot of the game’s systems fall apart under logical scrutiny, but in a way that has become a hallmark of Bethesda. Whether you are giving your dog several missile launchers to carry… somewhere or trying to work out how you are opening a safe with both hands on a rifle, sometimes the quirks just need to be seen and accepted for what they are.
Boston is a massive place. In Fallout 3 a sense of scale was achieved by showing large areas that were blocked off; scenery that you saw as you navigated through the metro tunnels below. This time you get to explore the whole city, entering buildings or small suburbs looking for caps and quests. There is something remarkable about finding a nearly intact skyscraper waiting to be explored, especially an open one that is a part of the city and doesn’t load into its own little zone. The big issue with these buildings is that your companion seems to get lost at times, either not climbing into an elevator or heading off on a murder spree without you. Eventually when it changes areas it fixes itself, but sometimes I wished for a button to call my companion, either to come to me or at least signal where they are in a messy maze of rooms.
Sadly Boston is also where you will have the worst performance hit while playing the game. Playing on the Xbox One the game sometimes went down to slideshow speeds, becoming almost unplayable without using VATS or running away. Every time I heard a vertibird I prepared for the worst. When one faction goes up against a group of raiders or supermutants a short distance away from where you are fighting or looting and things just slow right down.This is made worse by the sheer size of Boston. If you intend on clearing every location you discover, prepare to have this happen to you pretty often. (I have been told the PS4 version never reaches the slideshow status, and even PCs suffer performance hits during these conditions).
The interplay between factions feels a lot more authentic now, with faction members and the general populace of the world reacting to your deeds. It gives a feeling that your actions affect more than a little 10 foot bubble from where you initially did them, which is great. Everyone has their own idea of what is best for the Commonwealth and they aren’t all compatible with each other’s ideas. The idea that you might one day fight the people you have been questing with because one side sees them as a threat to their operations is a scary, dark place to be thrown. It makes you think and the connections you form with these characters make it a painful experience. It feels real and in my playthrough there were decisions that were really difficult to make. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, with none of the options presented to me not having dire consequences. I haven’t felt that since The Witcher 3, so it was a pleasant surprise to find such an engaging story after the rather poorly handled intro sequence.
Your companions will also question your actions, so be prepared to be hated if you take an upstanding companion on a crime spree. Maybe you should keep other company, unless you enjoy slowly watching someone who liked you learn to loathe your actions. Maybe you are into that. Me I prefer finding someone compatible. But then I am also the kind of player that fetches all the equipment that I want to sell, puts on his Sunday best and a dapper hat and goes on a day of shopping, having a few drinks in the local pub before draining every merchant of all his caps, ammo and fusion cores in exchange for a pile of guns, armour and other rubbish that I don’t need. On the way back a radio signal calls for help. I rush off and realize I am probably 200 years too late as I approach a broken building, half-buried in irradiated mud. The environmental narrative, the story told by objects and the world’s set pieces, is amazing. A children’s ward in a hospital is empty, toy blocks scattered on the floor with Halloween decorations barely clinging to deteriorating walls. A table has been laid out for a family dinner, the whole family dead in their chairs, skeletons slumped over in faded clothes. It shows what once was, and sometimes it forces you to wonder how terrible it would be to lose everything instantly through war.
One oddity in the game with its introduction of a fully voiced protagonist instead of the eerily silent characters from before is that the conversation wheel doesn’t actually tell you what your character is going to say, just the jist of it. Sometimes this leads to conversations heading into completely unexpected places, my intent not matching up with what my character chose to say. If you are on PC there is already a fix for that, but I must say as much as it niggles me, I find having a voiced character adds a lot of weight to the story, even if sometimes my character ends up saying something I wasn’t expecting them to say.
So much has changed in Fallout, and so much is the same. Even some of my choices, looking back, echo decisions I made in Fallout 3. The lure of discipline and stability and power armour in the Brotherhood of Steel caught me once again. I am aware, too late, of the brutal cruelty and unwavering zealotry when it comes to ghouls and anything not human. Anything different from us has to be destroyed, in nuclear fire. War, war never changes.