Bethesda has a reputation for two things: stunningly realised worlds and frustrating technical issues. In both cases, the most recent Fallout does not disappoint
War, intones your character solemnly. War never changes. Fallout 4 begins with the go-to line of the series, before recurring it at the monologues close. There is a point when tradition can turn into clichA( c) or, even worse, into parody.
Fallout 4 is one of the biggest releases of the year but it is an unusually musty game, a new experience that feels over-familiar. Perhaps the lines true after all.
The opening briefly suggests a more unusual spin. After being introduced to the excellent character creation tool, where I sculpted a post-apocalyptic hero named Corbyn, youre guided through some tinned conversation with your husband or wife in the sunny suburbia of Boston, 2077. The vibe of these games has always been 1950 s futurism and period Americana( here with the added flair of a British-accented butlerbot called Codsworth ), but explored many decades or centuries after the bombs have fallen. So a pre-war scene proving nuclear armageddon through ordinary eyes, and evacuation to the Vault, is definitely new.
But the execution is so small-scale it lacks credibility: as you and your family walk past a checkpoint, the neighbours only stay where you are cycling through voice clips. A nuke is about to hit this city in seconds, theres a fallout shelter 50 metres away, and people are standing with their kids doing what a handful of guards tell them. The nuke hits as soon as youre in. Upon returning to the surface 200 years later you find their idiotic skeletons, and its hard to care.
Fallout 4 isnt all about the production values or directorial flair, of course, and a good thing too. After leaving Vault 111 the game begins to rev up, and the first vista is unbelievable: heaps of colorful junk, a horizon stretching far away, and the undeniably piquant touch of knowing what this area looked like 200 years ago. There are nearby quests that situated you up with main story missions and factions, or you can just toddle off any which way and find whats up.
Its a pity the default setting indicates points of interests on the map and set quest markers( which can turned off in the options) because the magic of this world is in discovery. Bethesdas visual decorators are brilliant at devoting landmarks a distinctive silhouette on the horizon, and varying the topography then cramming secrets into hidden wrinkles. When theres a bunch of glowing green symbols flagging everything up hundreds of metres before you see it, the surprise is lost.
Sit! Photograph: Bethesda
Wandering the Commonwealth, as the wasteland blending Boston and Massachusetts is now known, is a new experience in some way: basic foes have much better animations and smarter behaviours at the least, but some are winningly reimagined. Radscorpions never bothered me in Fallout 3, but here the first encounter was an epic after an ominous rumbling it crashed out of the ground, stinging me to half health and crippling a leg. I hobbled onto a nearby branch, injecting a stimpack as it ran mad with the claw, then I jumped off the other side and bravely ran away. In Fallout 3 this would have been the end of it; here the Radscorpion sought relentlessly, nipping my health down, so I had to stand and battle. Endless bullets, grenades, and stimpacks afterwards, it fell.
What happened next is a good illustration of why Bethesdas games are special. I pressed on, knowing a settlement was simply up ahead. As I get closer, another Radscorpion popped up. I dodged and ran upwards, hoping to use the rocks for covering, when another crashed in. I kept operating as yet more Radscorpions appeared, and finally I hit the top of the ridge, the settlement visible a short distance away. I pelted down, never looking back, and just made it in the front gate.
The nearest non-playable character( NPC) greeted me, we began chatting, then the camera remained on my face but the NPC ran away. The other NPCs pulled out their weapons and started firing not at me, but past me. Yes, Id strolled for hours to find this settlement and then led a demise ball of Radscorpions to the front doorway. The NPCs fought bravely, but the earth ruptured as the vile arachnids isolated the defenders one-by-one and stung them to demise. With my resolute back-up, two of about eight survived. The dead may have been quest-givers or merchants, but well never know. I respectfully looted their corpses, found the item Id come for, and left without building eye contact with any survivors.
This various kinds of event may not play out perfectly in the detail( the survivors bore me no ill will) but the fact its happening at all is amazing a split-second decision with big and unpredictable consequences. Fallout 4s quests are structured with situated encounters, of course, but even during these breadcrumb roads emergence can creep in thanks to the Legendary enemies. These super-tough foes spawn arbitrarily in the world and are a one-shot bargain if you die theyll disappear forever. The most important detail being, of course, that legendary adversaries fell legendary armour and weapons.
These are great battles because theyre unexpected, and survival is much higher in your mind than usual. The first time I watched a Legendary Supermutant I fired a couple of shootings but then the retaliation blew my character off the face of the Earth. Over hour you come to treat these battles as events, something to splurge supplies on, and the rarity keeps them interesting. My finest moment is probably killing a legendary Mirelurk( a big crab) with about ten frag mines and a hundred laser blasts while hopping up and down on a railing it couldnt quite master. I feel zero dishonor, the rifle on his corpse was a beauty.
While these moments are easy to get excited about, the bread-and-butter remains the huge number of main and side quests you can find across the Commonwealth. These do a superb chore of highlighting the variety of environments and interiors Bethesda has constructed, but the formula throughout is almost entirely, run from A to B and then kill lots of X. Theres a sprinkling of conversation-based and discovery quests, as well as more unusual set-pieces, but most of the time youll be gearing up to shoot something. And this is where Fallout 4 begin to frustrate in a big way.
The problem with combat
Fallout 3 translated what had been an isometric, turn-based strategy RPG series into a first-person, realtime open-world game. Of all the things it get right, shooting wasnt one a cracking that was papered-over by the VATs targeting system. Fallout 4 attains countless improvements to the feel of shooting: everything from gun sway to recoil is vastly improved, with beautiful reloading animations and cacophonous SFX stimulating Fallout 3s pea-shooters seem like a bad memory.
Numbers still underpin everything in Fallout 4s combat, however, and so your targets dont physically react until their thresholds are violated. This is a strange combination: the guns have great feedback, but the adversaries offer very little. Things are even worse with the melee combat, which has new animations and feedback too, but feelings as disconnected and simplistic as it ever has done in Bethesdas first-person games.
Unfortunately, the solution to Fallout 4s combat is also its biggest problem. The VATs ability lets you slow period and choose shots on visible adversaries, each of which has a percent chance of making. Depending on the weapon, VATs will fire multiple precise shoots over seconds of normal period and present each from cinematic angles. The inverted commas are necessary, because for VATs the angles have always been( and continue to be) hard to get right. That said, there is no denying the slow-mo glory of the tracking shootings that are consistent with bullet from barrel to head, and finish with a gooey explosion of cranial chunks.
VATs is so central to combat, however, that it comes to feel like a crutch. Use the ability depends on AP( action points) which slowly recharge, and in later fights especially the tactic is often to pop out, VATs an adversary, then hide until your AP has recharged. Theres nothing else to do against certain tougher foes, all of which are clearly designed with VATs in mind. Your character has so little in the way of movement alternatives that it grimly amused me to see a subsequently perk that buffs your defensive abilities while standing still. The combat system is not designed as a whole, so much as a bunch of compromises hanging together because they just about get the job done. And the culprit is that big failsafe button at the centre.
For most shooters, such a mess would be a death knell. For Fallout 4 it will barely matter because, despite all the combat, this isnt genuinely a game about combat. The trappings may be post-apocalyptic death squads and radioactive mutants, but this is a world built for hoarders and kleptomaniacs. The Commonwealth is an open-air museum of trinkets, each hand-placed and ready to be collected or sold or re-used in whatever manner you please. The weight restriction on carrying items soon exposes itself to be video games true antagonist, the one thing that stands between you and a few more cooking pans or doll trains. This stuff is not incidental. In Fallout 3, I had a house dedicated to Nuka-cola bottles and human skulls, which I saw more interesting than anything in the main game.
That settles it
Attractive four-bed detached homestead. Ample parking. Would suit post-apocalyptic survivors. Photograph: Bethesda
Fallout 4 ups the bet with Settlements, a new feature that lets you build townships on dozens of possible sites across New Boston. Settlements are constructed in first-person via a slightly fiddly menu/ placement system, and the guidance devoted is terrible, but I eventually managed to set up basic amenities and shelter for six, as well as a few defences. I like the idea of a whole township dedicated to skulls and Nuka-cola, so its easy to sink a lot of time into planting crops, laying out new infrastructure, and planning for trading posts.
This last is a niggle because Fallout 4s greatly-changed levelling system is so unforgiving. Constructed as ever around the acronym SPECIAL( Strength, Perception, etcetera ), the player is given 28 points to distribute among these attributes at the start, and one point thereafter on each level-up. The real bear with this system is that, before you have any experience at all with the game, it expects you to know what you wishes to do.
Find a legendary sniper after twenty hours and want to focus on that weapon? If you didnt set enough phases in Perception in your first half hour of the game, you got a looong road ahead. There are plenty of fun abilities and no level cap but, given the slow pace of levelling, it feels a little too miserly.
The big bug hunt
Bethesda is a studio with a reputation for delivering buggy games, and with Fallout 4 it delivers once again. In the PS4 version we tested, minor issues include NPC friends getting stuck in walls, conversations objective but leaving you stuck in conversation mode, enormous loading days when leaving interiors, and inescapable-deathtrap autosaves that ruin several hours of progress. Occasional manual saves are a must.
The major problem is frame rate drops-off during especially intense combat, in certain areas of the map, or while use certain handguns. Employing a sniper rifle in the area around Diamond City ensure the framerate reduce to treacle, while in other instances its simply an unpleasant drag that over time irritates and causes eyestrain.
Much of Fallout 4 improves immediately on 3, which is great, but this may be why it feels theres not much genuinely new here, and not even much in the way of refinement. It will swallow many people for hundreds of hours, especially on
PC, but it will have others wincing at the same old problems yet again. From one angle, its a masterpiece, from another its a mess, and to play is to constantly encounter both.
Fallout 4, then, is a contradiction, delivering in many of the areas that matter most but undermined throughout by poor combat, technical problems, and what feels like a lack of focus. So here we go again. Its not war, but Bethesda that never changes.
Bethesda; PC/ PS4( version tested )/ Xbox One; APS4 5; Pegi rating: 18+