I was surprised by Obsidian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas in 2010. While I've put time into each of the mainline Fallout titles, New Vegas was the first to keep me playing for dozens of hours and compel me to actually finish the core story. Fallout 1 and 2 were a lot of fun to mess around in, but I never really cared about their worlds, and while nothing about Fallout 3 felt seriously wrong to me, it didn't capture my attention in any real way. New Vegas was, somehow, different. Its writing and its characters were strong enough to keep me going the whole way through in spite of the fact that I was playing the bug-riddled PS3 port.
When Fallout 4 was announced and I learned it would be set in and around my home turf of Boston, I was pretty pumped. Development duties returning to Fallout 3/Elder Scrolls bosses Bethesda Game Studios, and I was confident they would have learned what made New Vegas tick and reproduce that magic. I'm let down to say that instead, Fallout 4 is just an average RPG/shooter with standard video game writing. There's nothing abominably bad here, but nothing that lights the same spark New Vegas did.
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|Making the hard choices.|
The story begins in 2077, shortly before nuclear war wipes out the remnants of an America that worships the 1950's and jettisoned any culture that grew after that time. The year is mostly an excuse for robots and laser beams to exist, as the fears (nuclear and Communist) and fashion of the age is decidedly a romanticized post-World War II society. The licensed music ranges from the 1930's to the late 50's, and reuses a bunch of tracks from the previous games. Some of it's good, some's bland, but it's all roughly the same style and that gets kind of old after three games, even with years between them. Keeping Fallout in the faux-50's doesn't do much for me any more, but I know people would burn down some buildings if the world changed. "War never changes" is the series catchphrase, and war's not the only thing that's gotten stale.
|Boston Public Library, where you can exchange overdue books for toothbrushes.|
Our hero is saved from nuclear annihilation in a cryogenic chamber along with their spouse and infant child in the depths of Vault 111. You can play as either the husband or the wife, and I do like that you get to design the looks of both characters, even if the one you DON'T play as gets very little screen time. If you play as a man, you're a combat veteran; as a woman you're a lawyer. This doesn't matter, as it doesn't come up in dialogue at all and you're a super soldier either way. You get a rude awakening two hundred years later, when a group of mysterious villains break into the vault, kill your spouse, and steal your child. You pass out, wake up later, and now it's time for revenge, but not before you smile and laugh and goof off and solve the problems of every passing stranger in The Commonwealth.
|Concord, where the deadliest monster is no longer the rotary.|
|This whole exchange was pretty funny, though.|
I'm also just a little baffled that my hero's name, Tara, was not one that was available in the game's name database, so it's never said out loud. Other common names like Kyle and Annie aren't available either, but don't worry, Bethesda was sure to include "Boob" and "ASDF" and all the pop culture names you can think of, unless your favorite Star Trek character is named "Wesley." Then you're out of luck.
|I'm rolling my eyes too, Tara.|
As you explore the Commonwealth, you come across two factions early on: The Minutemen, a shattered organization of do-gooders with no dark side, and The Brotherhood of Steel, a Fallout mainstay that brings some airships to the party this time around (and crashes them almost every time you see one.) Both sides are fighting against hordes of Raiders, Feral Ghouls, and Super Mutants, but you soon learn about a secret society known as The Institute that serves as the real villain in this game. In Fallout's world, MIT (Called CIT here) is an Illuminati-style all seeing eye, rather than an engineering school full of nerds. They build artificial humans called Synths and abduct people from the Commonwealth for dark but largely unexplained experiments using their massively advanced technology.
|The last living Village Person protects The Commonwealth.|
|Don't get Terminated!|
|Piper, with a cute hat.|
|Nick, with a cool hat.|
In general, there's less Role Playing going on here than I expected. For the entire first act of the game, your four dialogue prompts generally map to "yes/no/sarcasm/ask question." In the second half, you get more opportunities to control the tone and flow of conversation, but very rarely do you have any choice in how a mission is handled. Almost every mission involves entering an area and killing all of the enemies. You rarely get a chance to talk your way through, bribe your way through, or go with an unconventional or weird choice. It does happen sometimes, and it's nice when it does! But for the most part, you're looking at a much simpler series of choices than in New Vegas or in this year's other big RPG, The Witcher 3, which offered some genuinely great moments where players were unsure whether or not they were making the right choice.
|Get used to this.|
|If you're so smart, how'd you get stuck in a door?|
|Riding the DNA elevator to the future|
The Institute has reasons to have beef with the Brotherhood of Steel and with the Railroad by the end of the game, but there is zero reason for them to pick a fight with the Minutemen; the only reason they do is because that's the faction I sided with for my first run. The story kind of breaks when you side with a faction that no one has any reason to oppose, since the Minutemen don't do anything but farm and protect people from roaming monsters. Unlike the Brotherhood and the Railroad, they don't have a political ideology outside of "be excellent to each other," so it feels ridiculous that The Institute would target them for anything. There isn't even a good reason for a personal, petty grudge here. And after all's said and done, the ending is simple and about as detail free as you can get, and you don't even get little epilogues for anyone. I also question the logic of the final mission, where players get to blow up The Institute, if they choose not to support them. You're really telling me that the Brotherhood wouldn't be interested in preserving some of this technology? Or that the Minutemen would suddenly engage in nuclear war and ignore this new resource? Or that The Railroad, after fighting to save Synths, would blow up unknown hundreds of them instead of taking control of the building and setting them free?
|Thanks, every video game hero of the 2000's.|
While I have a lot of criticisms of this game's writing and plot, I don't think it's terrible, just decidedly and thoroughly average. It's mostly fun to follow the story from start to finish, even when it gets stupid and when the emotional twists feel unearned, but there's nothing to really celebrate here. I did however have lots of fun just wandering around aimlessly, taking in the sights and finding new buildings and towns around Boston. It really doesn't feel at all like the Boston area, outside of some well-replicated landmarks, but The Commonwealth is still a pretty cool place to walk around. Areas are understandably compressed, but it was a little sad when I went into Park Street Station and it just had the same generic blue walls as every other underground subway area in the game. The Last of Us was a better Video Game Boston, though it's obviously easier to do there since that game was so much smaller in scale.
|The Green Monster|
|The old familiar "Martian Mountains" district of Massachusetts.|
Fallout 4 can be played as either a terrible third-person shooter or as a serviceable first-person shooter. I generally prefer third-person, and stuck with it throughout all of New Vegas, but the game play here is faster, louder, and more obviously designed for first-person, even if you rely on VATS, a semi-turn based system that pauses the game to allow you to precisely target enemies in exchange for ability points. VATS carried me through New Vegas, but here, the game was much easier and smoother to play with VATS largely ignored.
|Playing Laser Tag with a Raider|
|No perks enable you to talk to skeletons.|
|Looks just about right.|
|It's not even as good as Crazy Kong.|
|Maybe next time water won't look like this...|
|...and my head won't disappear...|
|...and characters won't swim when on dry land...|
|...and zombies won't get stuck floating in mid air.|
|You said it, Zombie Trump.|