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A Few Thoughts on “Fallout 4”

Fallout 4 - CoverWhen it was announced during last year’s E3, I knew that Fallout 4 would be the game to get me to finally take a leap into the current console generation.  After the greatness that were Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, there was no way I was going to miss Bethesda’s return to the Wasteland.  I sank countless hours into the previous games and was ready for whatever would come next.  And after about 60 hours or so, I think I can give you a thought or two on Fallout 4 – it’s less a review and more a conversation if you will.

OK, so for those not aware of what Fallout is all about, let me sum up:  Think of an alternate United States; one in which both the ethos of the 1950s as well as the Cold War paranoia that permeated it never went away.  Instead, bolstered by nuclear-powered technology, America surged into the 21st Century just as people in the 50s thought we would.  Except that resources eventually began to run out – which invariably led to conflict amongst nations.  It all culminated with The Great War; a 2-hour conflict between the USA and China in which both superpowers launched their nuclear arsenals at one another.  When it was all said and done, billions were dead and the landscape of America was changed into a radioactive disaster known simply as the Wasteland.

You play the role of the Sole Survivor of Vault 111.  Vaults were vast underground bunkers were people could live in safety and sold to the public as a means of ensuring the survival of American.  But it was all a lie.  Instead it was a massive secret set of social experiments from which the government could determine the viability of people managing to live in long-term self-sustaining environments. Your character and his/her family end up in Vault 111, just outside Boston, MA, where the experiment was to test for the success of long-term cryogenic freeze.  This propels you 210 years into the future where your quest is to find your kidnapped infant son.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg since, well, the world is radioactive mess filled with monsters, killers and factions vying for power.  The world may be different, but people don’t change. And war? Well….

As you travel the Commonwealth, you’ll eventually meet the four big factions that are at the heart of the story.  There’s the Minutemen, a ragtag militia trying to bring law and order back to the land by protecting settlements.  There’s the Brotherhood of Steel, a military order which seeks to control and protect pre-War tech from those that would use it.  There’s the Institute, a secretive organization that produces synths (androids of a type) and seems to be the bogeyman of everyone’s nightmares.  And there’s the Railroad, another secret organization that looks to ferry escaped synths away from the Institute’s hands. Choosing from which of these factions to support or oppose is the core of the game and, at some point, you will choose.  Some of them are easy to turn down – one is rather xenophobic, another is quite nefarious.  Others are more complex.  All the same, how they help or hurt your search for your son and the impact they’ll have on the Commonwealth will color your decisions at some point in the game.Fallout 4 - Diamond City

If you played either of the Fallout games developed by Bethesda, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with a few new wrinkles.  You can choose to play the game in first person or third.  The V.A.T.S. system is present to assist you in making that crucial head shot or crippling leg shot.  You get to battle Super Mutants, raiders, ghouls and, everyone’s favorite, Deathclaws.  It is prettier thanks to the new console systems and advanced PC capabilities.  So things stand out even better than before.  Honestly, looking back at Fallout 3 on a Xbox360 now and it’s like looking to at a similar game but covered in Vaseline.

There are a few big wrinkles new to the series.  Foremost is the Workshop that allows you to build and repair settlements throughout the Commonwealth.  Now the hoarding and hunting for scrap can be used that for more than just upgrading weapons (which is also here and also expanded).  You can rescue farmsteads and recover settlements from the dangers of the Wasteland and turn them into thriving towns that can grow and expand under your guidance.  It’s a new twist that can be both intriguing and a pain.  I can imagine that it works better on PC as I can’t imagine it being worse than it is on console. It can be quite wonky to try and line up those new walls around a settlement and the camera won’t always cooperate with dropping that shack on the ground where you want it to.

You also get a chance to wear that most iconic of Fallout gear, the Power Armor.  Actually, there’s various sets of Power Armors throughout the Commonwealth for you to find: Raider Power Armor, Brotherhood of Steel Power Armor and a few others that you can customize and tailor to your desires.  Likewise there’s a fair number of Legendary weapons and armor that deliver extra damage of one way or another. And, like I said, you can customize most weapons and armor to your heart’s desire – and to the limits of salvaged junk you’ve brought back. And trust me, you’ll be yearning for aluminum, adhesive and screws like a madman when you want that upgrade to your favorite rifle.

Fallout 4 - CombatWhere will you find all this salvage? Throughout the Commonwealth, of course.  Once again, the highlight of a Bethesda game is the world they’ve built for you to explore.  I’ve heard it said that this is the biggest map they’ve developed and it feels that way.  From the ruins of  downtown Boston to the outskirts of Lexington, Concord and the swamps of Dorchester, there’s a large environment to get lost into and you will.  Whether it’s uncovering other Vaults or walking into former landmarks of Boston or visiting the village that’s sprouted inside Fenway Park, a great deal of the game’s charm comes from seeing how people lived past the nuclear apocalypse.

It is often in the nooks and crannies of the Commonwealth that you’ll find stories and tales from those who were living their lives unawares of the devastation to come.  And this is where my imagination starts working with the game.  Because I start to thinking about the kind of America that people were living in before the Great War.  Let’s consider that this was a society living what must feel like World War 3.  The European Union and the Middle East nations have already destroyed one another.  The US has freed Alaska from the Chinese by invading Taiwan.  People are living with the constant fear of nuclear retaliation – to the point that a company like Vault-Tec can be out and advertising for clients to sign up so they may survive the apocalypse.

But it’s more than just that.  As you explore the Commonwealth, you’ll find evidence of all sorts of experiments, of secret cults and of other methods with which people managed to live with the constant fear of the apocalypse.  I think this is what’s really stuck with me.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  You eventually find the fallout shelter for Boston’s mayor and find out that he was siphoning off city resources to ensure his family’s survival – only for something worse to find them.  Then, there’s the story at Dunwich Borers, a quarry where various raiders have taken refuge.  As you go deeper into it, you begin to have uncover a secret doomsday cult’s actions which led to tragedy in the quarry before the bombs fell.  It’s stories like that, interspersed throughout the map, which give the experience of living through a lived-in world and give Fallout much of its bite.

Because that’s really where Fallout 4 hits its stride: in satirizing and subverting history and American culture. The world of 2077 America is one full of nuclear-powered cars and homes and yet fuel running out is on the verge of destroying it.  People apparently smoked like chimneys given all the cigarettes you can easily find.  Guns of all kinds are easily found stashed in every building.  (I’m guessing it was all the end of the world stress).  On the one hand, people were preparing for the apocalypse. Meanwhile they were being told to go about their every day lives without a concern.  It’s almost as if they never thought it could happen.  Or perhaps they thought someone else would back down from their threats.  They clearly didn’t think the nuclear bombs would really fall.

Fallout 4 - PG MemeComplaints?  I have a few.  There’s the obvious presence of Bethesda bugs in this game.  Nothing as bad as Fallout: New Vegas to be fair, which crashed the whole game, but they’re in there.  The engine is showing signs of needing to be replaced.  This is, as everyone has complained, a prettier and bigger Fallout 3.  The construction system is not as good as it could be as I said before.  You are going to get a lot of basic quests that are way too similar from the factions.  The standard “Go here, help these people out by taking out bad guys X” or “Fetch this for us” which are ever-present in RPGs are really present here.  Specially from the Minutemen.  I mean, poor Preston Garvey has become the memeable character in this Bethesda game, replacing “Arrow in the knee” guy.  It does suck the fun out to have to repeat the same quest over and over and over again.  It gets to a point I don’t even finish sidequests just to prevent them from giving me new ones.

But these are complaints of a few moments standing against the hours of enjoyment the game provides.  I got it around Black Friday and it has yet to stop being interesting or engaging or fun.  At any moment, you can get a quest that takes you deep into the bowels of the earth or has you facing off against a Super Mutant Behemoth with a Fat Man (a portable mini-nuke launcher) and things get exciting.  Or you’ll spot some unknown part of the map and start getting a distress message that will send you searching for its source, only to bump into a Mirelurk nest or a Raiders hideout.  Will you go in stealthily with the Deliverer?  Or put on Power Armor, grab a missile launcher and go in all guns a blazing?  Or better yet, get the Brotherhood of Steel to ferry you in a vertibird while you control its minigun to mow down enemies?

Fallout 4 is a great game and a great RPG.  And I enjoy all of its moments, big and small.  I just wish there was some more polish to make the game as groundbreaking as its predecessors have been.  Even so, I do hope the eventual DLC and expansion packs manage to add new wrinkles and new fun missions.  The Wasteland remains a great place to get lost in.

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