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Fallout 4 PlayStation 4 Review: Brilliant, Maddening, and Wholly Memorable

Yes, Fallout 4 is indeed a Bethesda RPG, with all that entails.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

You know you're playing a Bethesda RPG when you're punching characters out of the scenery within an hour. En route to Sanctuary with a group of Minutemen, I had to stop and extricate poor Preston from a fence by punching him repeatedly in the face. It was at that moment that I said aloud, "Yep, this is Fallout alright."

Glitches like these are pretty much par for the course in Bethesda RPGs; and yes, they're pretty numerous in Fallout 4. Most of them were the run of the mill "Brahmin stuck in a doorway" variety, making them more funny than game breaking, but they definitely exist. With that out of the way, though, I really like Fallout 4. Bethesda plays it surprisingly safe with the formula, but its freeform exploration and roleplaying remain as compelling as ever in the way that it can get me to suspend my disbelief and just allow myself to become wholly immersed in its setting.

Moo.

More surprising is how well it executed on an area I normally wouldn't count as a strength for Bethesda - the story. Bethesda RPGs are frequently criticized for being anti-climactic (Fallout 3) or too limited (Skyrim), but Fallout 4 bucks that trend with an enjoyable mystery and some surprisingly smart sci-fi. It opens in an idyllic suburb on the day the bombs fall in a scene reminiscent of The Day After, with a young family going about their routine as a newscast in the background hints at what's to come. When the story shifts to Vault 111, you can only watch helplessly as your young son is kidnapped by the Institute - a mysterious organization known for abducting residents of the Commonwealth and replacing them with robots, which are referred to as "synths." The whereabouts of your son, as well as the motives of the Institute, form the core of an effective mystery that drives a good part of Fallout 4's action.

Part of the reason it works so well is the Institute itself. Combining elements of Blade Runner, The Matrix, and The Others from Lost (only not entirely lame), they are an intriguing foe, and the Commonwealth's terror of them feels well-founded. That they remain out of sight for a good chunk of the game only adds to their mystique, which makes the build-up to their inevitable reveal that much more satisfying. The synths are similarly intriguing, and they too play a large role in defining the setting. As you might expect, the Commonwealth has some pretty strong feelings about them, most of them quite negative. There are some hard decisions to be made, and with A.I. and autonomous weapons on their way to being a reality in the real world, Fallout 4's story feels particularly relevant. I found that it made me all the more invested in voting with my feet and picking the faction that most closely matched my views on the matter. Similarly, there are a wide range of recruitable companions who have their own views on the issues at hand, some of whom can be romanced. My favorite of the bunch is Nick Valentine - a world-weary but good-hearted synth detective with a backstory that plays around a bit with concepts like identity.

It's probably not a coincidence that my heightened investment in Fallout 4's story coincides with Bethesda's decision to pull a BioWare and give the main character a voice. The decision may well prove controversial for the way that it cuts into the franchise's famous immersion; but in this instance, I think it works given that many of the more emotional exchanges simply wouldn't have been possible if they had taken the old approach. In addition, the dialogue choices have been slimmed down so that they feel more like emotions than actual lines of dialogue, giving you an opportunity to voice your feelings without actually knowing what will come out of your character's mouth. There's a bit of risk and reward in there, too - if you pick a persuasion option and you don't have enough charisma, you may find yourself forced into an undesirable result. In that way, the conversations feel much less artificial.

I'll admit, there are a few elements that don't work. Characters in Bethesda RPGs tend to be a little too trusting, and that remains the case in Fallout 4, where it feels like the mere act of joining an organization will get you a promotion - something that becomes more glaring the further you get into the story. Bethesda does their best to keep things balanced, but in the end, it is a video game. People like to feel like they're making progress and becoming more powerful in a world like this.

All in all, I was impressed by Fallout 4's story. It grabbed me early and made me want to keep rolling the story quests in a way that Skyrim never quite managed; and in the end, I was quite satisfied with my character's arc.

Settling Down

Important as the story is, though, the quintessential Fallout experience is simply wandering the wasteland and seeing what you can find. Sometimes you'll find a new monument or an interesting building to explore; other times, you will have to deal with Raiders or the random Deathclaw. No matter what happens, though, there's little question that Fallout is at its most compelling when you're alone in the open world.

To that end, Fallout 4's Commonwealth feels much more open and interesting than Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland, albeit a bit smaller than Skyrim. All of the expected monuments are there - the Freedom Trail, Bunker Hill, Fenway Park, and even the Salem Witch Museum. Boston itself is pretty much a 24/7 warzone crawling with Raiders, Super Mutants, and Gunners, but much of the travel mercifully takes place above ground rather than the claustrophobic and repetitive subway tunnels of Fallout 3. Outside of Boston is scrubland dotted with rusted out cars and bare trees - not too different from the Massachusetts of today, actually (I kid, I kid... mostly). The sun will appear from time to time, but there's something about walking the Commonwealth that makes me feel chilly, which I suppose is appropriate given that much of the game takes place in the fall. In short, Bethesda has nailed the feel of their setting, which is to be expected given their track record to this point.

Settlements also dot the Commonwealth's landscape, and they are one of Fallout 4's more intriguing additions. Early on, you help an organization called the Minutemen - most of them laser musket toting farmers and ex-soldiers - establish a new home in your character's former hometown, which involves collecting resources and turning them into beds, power generators, and buildings that will attract random settlers. One practical consequence of this new feature is that there's finally a use for all the junk that so often litter Bethesda's RPGs. Like the Junk Lady in Labyrinth, I soon found myself toting around fans, microscopes, aluminum cans, and anything else that could be turned into items that would help my settlements grow.

I'll admit, I was surprised how invested I got in building up my settlements. I spent far more time than I intended experimenting with prefabricated walls and corners in building up a suitable mansion for myself, which ultimately turned out really well. And whenever I saw the happiness at my settlements declining because they didn't have enough food, power, or beds, I couldn't resist running over and rectifying the situation. After a while I had a thriving network of settlements that if nothing else offered me a bit of respite if I was out exploring and needed somewhere to rest.

Invested as I was in the settlements, though, the whole experience felt a little more unfocused than I would have liked. A lot of that had to do with the comparative lack of rewards for building a thriving settlement, at least from what I could see. It's not like Fable where you can charge rent and make a nice pile of cash (or bottle caps), and there's no territory minigame. From what I've been able to tell, the most tangible benefit of investing in a settlement is the ability to build shops that make it easier to access certain items for crafting purposes. Otherwise, it's kind of like tending a garden. I did it because I'm a nut for building in-game housing.

Easy as it can be to ignore, though, I'm still glad that it exists. It adds texture to the world and gives it that lived-in quality that defines the best RPGs. By offering a tangible piece of the game world to build and develop, it naturally heightens the sense of investment in how everything plays out. Mostly, though, I was just glad to have a convenient place to store my Power Armor.

And speaking of Power Armor, Fallout 4 brings with it crafting, which is always a welcome addition in an RPG. Crafting ties in closely with the settlements in that it requires at least some of the same materials, though there's enough junk in the world of Fallout to accommodate both. As with the settlements, I spent a lot of time building up the requisite perks and gathering the materials needed to add beam focusers, scopes, and overcharge capacitors to my weapons. By midgame, I had a couple really nice rifles, which with the Rifles perk lasted me all the way to the end of the game, give or take a railgun and a rocket launcher.

Crafting is one of those good, solid additions that can get lost in the shuffle, but feels indispensable once you really engage with it. Certain weapons could stand to have a wider variety of unique effects - most of the additions are stat boosters - but its simplicity is also a virtue in that it's relatively easy to understand. Hopefully a future expansion or sequel will build upon the base that Fallout 4 has established, including introducing non-violent effects for those who'd rather not splatter the Wasteland with blood.

Beware of Exploding Heads

I suppose that brings me to Fallout 4's actual combat, which is once again a peculiar hybrid of stats-driven dice rolls and first-person shooter - a system that can be as awkward as it can be entertaining. Underpinning the combat is the SPECIAL system, which looks impressive but is simpler than it seems. Each successive level gives you a point that can be spent on one of seven stats or a corresponding perk like Black Widow, which increases your damage against men and makes them easier to persuade in conversation. There are some weird potential builds in there - I love the idea of being an idiot savant who gets major benefits from having the lowest possible intelligence - but you can have a lot of success with just sticking to meat and potatoes perks that offer immediate boosts to endurance, accuracy, or certain types of weapons. Like the rest of Fallout, it's relatively freeform, with many perks unlocking once you invest enough points into a particular stat, which means you can get some pretty powerful boosts right off the bat.

When in battle, you can use your Pip-Boy system to slow time to a crawl and target individual body parts, with the head almost always being the preferred option. As always, Fallout's combat is at its most satisfying when you're vastly more powerful than your foe, making you akin to the Terminator as you wade through a sea of blood and exploding heads. In fact, there's a mission that reminded me powerfully of The Terminator's amazing police station shootout, down to the fact that I was wearing a suit of Power Armor at the time.

Sorry, Kendra.

In the early game, though, Fallout 4 is a world of low percentage hit chances and declining ammo, which gets to be a bit of a drag in the early dungeons. To their credit, Bethesda takes steps to mitigate this issue by almost immediately giving you a laser musket, a suit of Power Amor, and a minigun - powerful early game weapons balanced by a relatively limited pool of ammo and energy. If you're struggling with one of the early dungeons, they will do in a pinch until you get some more reliable weapons.

The dungeons themselves should be familiar to Fallout veterans, comprising the usual mix of abandoned buildings, subways, and fields. Believe it or not, there are actually some pretty good setpieces to be found in Fallout 4 - always a tricky proposition given its freeform structure. There's one battle toward the end of the game that falls pretty flat - and suffers from some pretty gnarly framerate issues besides - but most of the bigger moments work. There's nothing as breathtaking as one of Skyrim's dragons in this game, but Deathclaws come pretty damn close, announcing their presence with a bloodcurdling roar as they try to rip you right out of your Power Armor.

As always, my favorite battles are the ones fought with words rather than weapons. One of my favorite moments came when I suited up in my Power Armor, replenished my ammo, and marched in convinced I was about to embark on a massive battle, only to find myself in a tense and emotional but ultimately non-violent conversation. I wish there were more such moments in Fallout 4. It may be my fault, but I can't think of many opportunities to truly think out of the box and play mind games in Fallout 4, which is to its detriment. That said, Fallout 4 has its share of cloak and dagger moments, particularly toward the end of the story. It also has plenty of inspired quest lines, including a darkly funny but unsettling dungeon in which the original inhabitants were driven to madness from working too much overtime (truth in fiction, Bethesda?), and a series of missions where you get to play a Batman-like superhero named the Silver Shroud. Fallout 4 also has its share of filler - I was asked by settlers to clear out ghouls more times than I can count - but the opportunity to uncover the real gems makes exploration worth it.

In all honesty, I could probably nitpick Fallout 4 to death. It's glitchy, the framerate drops noticeably at times, and the combat can sometimes feel repetitive. But its inherent structure and the sheer craft that goes into the creation of its world also makes it more than the sum of its parts. At its best, it gives you the feeling that you're carving out your own place in the world and that your decisions carry real weight. It's one of the few single-player games where I find myself going in just to hang out.

One thing that stands out in particular about Fallout 4 is how well Bethesda walks the line between giving you control over your fate and exercising some control over the narrative. One of Skyrim's big failings was that it forced you to commit to one of two factions warring for control, which was a bit of a drag if you didn't like either one of them. Factions play a role in Fallout 4, too, but they're considerably more forgiving; and if you play it right, you can remain in everyone's good graces for quite a long time. It helps that the Minutemen are introduced as a kind of neutral faction - non-aligned settlers who can help advance the story without the burden of any particular ideology.

Sometimes Fallout's freeform nature can be poignant. Having spent so much time with one faction before turning on them, I was legitimately sad to have to gun down a quest giver that I recognized and liked. Other times it can be silly, as when I concluded a heartrending death scene with a character I liked by stripping their corpse of their armor, which I had been coveting for ages. They were left to rot in their underwear while I made off with an admittedly really sweet-looking piece of loot.

Ridiculous as such moments can be, I'm willing to accept them as the price of Bethesda's scope and ambition. You can always find more polished games, but none that offer quite the same sense of immersion as Fallout. As always, it remains brilliant, maddening, and wholly memorable, and I expect to be playing it for many more hours to come.

InterfaceMenus and quests are loaded with little Vault Boy animations, which add to the overall flavor while being attractive to the eye.

Lasting AppealThe hardest part of reviewing Fallout 4 is that I basically devoured a Thanksgiving meal in five minutes. Even now, there's still so much left to explore. It really is a massive game.

SoundA selection of radio stations have some fun classic and old-time pop music, while the rest of the soundtrack blends neatly into the background. The voice acting is strong, further buoying the story.

VisualsFallout focuses on creating stunning environments at the expense of character models, which animate awkwardly and at times lack detail. As with every Bethesda RPG, the visuals are enhanced by the sheer scope of it all. It's hard not to be impressed given just how big it all is.

ConclusionIf you've played a Bethesda RPG, you should have a pretty good idea of what you're in for. Bethesda plays it surprisingly safe with the formula, but they also do a much better job with the story this time around, serving to elevate the game as a whole. While there's no denying that it can be a bit ridiculous at times, its sheer scope speaks for itself. Bethesda has succeeded in crafting yet another fascinating open-world RPG.

4.5 / 5.0

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About the Author
Kat Bailey avatar

Kat Bailey

Contributor

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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