Your reaction to Fallout 4 will depend greatly on your expectations. If you're a fan of the series - or at least Bethesda's rebooted first-person take on it - then you'll find everything you wanted, and more. If you despair of Bethesda's creaking game engine, with its frequent glitches, stutters and occasional fatal crashes, then you'll also find everything you feared.
Fallout 4 is one of the most contradictory big-budget releases in recent memory. It's insanely ambitious and utterly absorbing, a game that has clearly had thousands of hours poured into every detail of its compelling world. At the same time, it's often falling apart at the seams and pushing its game engine far beyond its comfortable limits. If you were expecting the move to powerful new generation console hardware to smooth out the kinks that endured in Bethesda's RPGs for the decade-long lifespan of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, you'll be disappointed.
And yet I can't bring myself to slam the game too hard. For every minute spent cursing the inconvenience of some random glitch, there are 30 more where I'm completely, wilfully lost in the desolate ruins of Boston, dreading the moment when real life intrudes and pulls me back out. Maybe such creaky, chaotic rough edges are just the price that must be paid for game environments that are this detailed and alive.
The environment this time is Boston, and following a gruelling opening sequence that leans heavily on chintzy Americana for its emotional weight, you awake in Vault 111 and emerge, blinking, into the exact same suburban landscape, now blasted by atomic fire and years of decay. It's a neat narrative trick, as effective as it was when used by Valve in Half-Life. By making us navigate the world both before and after the cataclysm, Bethesda gives us more of a sense of what's at stake than simply dropping us into the wasteland.
That adventure that awaits is, of course, whatever you want to make of it. Debate will surely rage about whether Fallout 4's map is smaller or bigger than previous games - scale is always an elastic thing in the virtual world - but it feels bigger simply because there's so much to do. Right from the start, your compass lights up with intriguing silhouettes which grow brighter as you approach, until they fill in with a drum roll and the on-screen declaration that you've discovered another location of interest.
What is it? That's the beauty of Bethesda's approach to sandbox design - you won't know until you investigate. You may stumble across a new sidequest, a diversion that takes several hours, or it may just be a self-contained place with its own sad or strange story to tell, the details of the long dead spelled out through environmental details and hacked computer logs. You may find over-powered enemies that send you scurrying back into the night, mainlining Stimpacks to stave off imminent death. You may find a teddy bear wearing glasses, reading a newspaper on the toilet.
When so many open-world games lead you by the nose to every last collectible, splattering your map with icons that tell you exactly where specific items can be found, Fallout's genius remains the way that it uses waypoints and map markers to show you the start of the trail, not the end. This is a game where you discover things through your own agency, curiosity driving you to check out a new place on the horizon, to eavesdrop on a conversation or tune into a mysterious radio signal that keeps crackling into life.
Engage with this world in the intended manner and it sucks you in like few other games can. Much, however, is carried across from previous Fallout titles. Enemies are almost always ones you've faced before, a rogue's gallery of Super Mutants, Radscorpions, Mirelurks and Mr. Handys. Lockpicking still works in exactly the same way, as does computer hacking. For a game driven so much by discovery, it's an oddly familiar bedrock to build upon, and with visuals that look far better than previous Bethesda games while still falling short of what most people will expect from "next-gen" systems, some players may experience a nagging sense of déjà vu once the elation wears off.
The elements that are new are largely excellent, however. Some are small details, such as the way containers now reveal their contents when you look at them rather than forcing you to open everything up, making loot gathering much less of a chore. It's a necessary innovation, too, because the new crafting system means that the detritus that has always been strewn across Fallout maps now has purpose.
One of the first things you do in Fallout 4 is establish a new settlement in the ruins of your old home. This is far more than just a place to store your gear in chests, blossoming into a community that offers longevity beyond the quest lines as well as a much-needed sense of engagement with the world and its inhabitants.
Locations that can be settled allow you to enter Workshop Mode, from where you can build and place all manner of structures and objects, as well as scrapping scenery items and junk from your inventory to get the materials needed. That ruined house? Scrap it, and use the steel and wood to make something new. Need screws, oil or solvents? The game will automatically find something from the objects you've stockpiled to fit the bill.
In this fashion you're able to create pre-designed huts and shacks, or make your own from individual walls. Generators supply power and must be wired to the devices that use them. Switches and relays allow for more complex set-ups, while turrets, sirens and radio beacons will keep enemies at bay while attracting new residents. Picked up any fruit and vegetables on your travels? Plant them in the ground to feed your growing township. Unlock the right perks and you can set up supply lines between settlements, allowing traders to open stores across the wasteland. You can even design and modify your own suit of power armour, complete with flame decals, should you wish to go a little bit Tony Stark.
Where previous Fallout games have leaned into the iconic idea of the lone badass wanderer, that Clint Eastwood frontier fantasy, Fallout 4's long-term masterstroke is this deep and robust system that is all about rebuilding, putting down roots, and maybe settling down. Once you've completed the story, once you've exhausted the side quests, once you've found and cleared every location on the map, there's still gameplay to be found in managing, maintaining and protecting these communities.
The broad sweep of the game is as absorbing as ever but, like the cockroaches that survive a nuclear blast, Bethesda's bugs have also endured the shift to new-generation console hardware.
It's impossible to miss the glitches, bugs and downright broken bits in Fallout 4, and that can't help but dim its shine. I've watched my dog sink slowly into the floor. I've beaten countless high-level enemies that have got snagged on scenery or locked in an animation cycle, holding them in place so I can snipe them at my leisure. I've watched textures pop in and out of existence, and seen the very walls and streets around me vanish, revealing the ghostly void underneath.
I've also put up with the inexplicable stupidity of numerous companions, none of whom seem to exhibit any combat awareness whatsoever. They'll charge into the fray and try to take down a Deathclaw with melee attacks, or use a mini nuke to take out a Bloatfly, killing us both in the process. They're always the first to go down in a fight, and sometimes vanish right when you need them most. That's when they're not lodged in a doorway, preventing you from getting past, or blundering into your line of fire. As in previous games, they're more useful as walking backpacks than as actual companions.
More troubling still, I've suffered an appalling frame rate that plummets to what appear to be single figures during moments of intense action, and lengthy pauses while the game hangs and decides if it wants to continue or not. I've only suffered one fatal crash in over 50 hours of play, but that's not really a record worth celebrating. Experience tells me that with any Bethesda RPG, such issues tend to get worse over time, as your save file balloons, rather than better.
However, fans - and I count myself among that number - will likely shrug and accept that this is simply how things are in a Bethesda RPG, and it's true that the highs do outweigh the lows. Fallout 4 has given me some of my best gaming memories of 2015, along with some of my most frustrating. These are legacy problems that aren't going away any time soon, and as fun as the settlement crafting is here, I'd gladly do without it for a game engine that offers a more dependable foundation for future adventures. Fallout 4 is a great game. It's also kind of a mess. Caveat emptor.
If you've come unstuck in the game, our Fallout 4 guide is also live now.
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