Fallout 4 review: Check your next-gen expectations at the vault door

Just a tease of one of our favorite locations in the game.

Fans of giant quest video games—MMOs, RPGs, and other open-world slogs—will sometimes point to the number of hours before the game “gets good” as a mark of quality. Once you have proven yourself worthy by investing in a game’s mechanics, power-ups, abilities, lore, and so on, you can start appreciating the giant world laid bare before you.

, the sixth major release in the beloved post-nuclear series, enjoys this “gotta earn it” distinction more than any release in the series thus far. This game is in no rush to acquit itself as a particularly impressive game. Its opening sequence sputters instead of splashing; its most obvious gameplay tweaks, and changes take too long to pay off (and in some ways, never do); its storytelling drags thanks to too much ham-fisted dialogue and herky-jerky pacing; and its visual presentation looks utterly pitiful compared to games two years older, let alone ones from 2015.

And yet, every time I was drowning in a cloud of repetition and boredom, a little radioactive glimmer would appear—some incredible quest, some hidden plot morsel, some revelatory new plot twist or expanse of land. Honestly, I had to get to roughly the 30th hour with before I thought the game presented a good enough experience to be worth its aimless enormity. (And here I thought ‘s 12-hour tutorial was insane.)

That’s a big asterisk to attach to a game that has enjoyed so much anticipation—not to mention pre-launch secrecy. The gaming industry has grown up since Bethesda-produced open-world hits and , and doesn’t offer enough consistent quality to top other modern fare in the genre. But if you’re one of gaming’s giant-quest masochists, then you’re in for one of the most surprising quest payoffs we’ve seen in recent memory.

Synths: As good as the real thing?

For the uninitiated, began life as a futuristic, nuclear-technology take on D&D-style adventure games (first as ’80s game before taking on the name in 1997). The original versions required lots of mouse clicking to talk to non-player characters (NPCs), make decisions, get into turn-based battles (or avoid them with tactics such as stealth or diplomacy), and so on. Instead of fighting dragons and wizards, characters explored a post-nuclear America and the radiation-singed people and ghouls who remained in it.

 and its semi-sequel, , established the Bethesda formula for how the series would operate from here on out, and that’s still the case in . Though the quests pretty much operate the same way as before—find people, receive requests for missions, and have the game unfold differently whether you act nice or naughty—’s major modern twist is that you run around in a first-person perspective. This mostly impacts the game’s active gunfights, in which you can aim and shoot in real time like in most modern gun games (and while third-person views are available, you’ll want first-person for skirmishes). The series still offers a “VATS” system; when toggled, the game slows time down so that players can precisely aim at which limb of a baddie they’d like to shoot at.

In that sense, looks and controls a lot like and , meaning the interface is simplified for the sake of PlayStation and Xbox controllers. You’ll bop around menus on your character’s handy Pip-Boy wrist device, which lets you manage inventory, maps, quests, and the like. These have been designed with joystick controls in mind. You can use a mouse to click around a Pip-Boy, but some of the clickable portions are annoyingly small.

In the good news department, that means the primal action of acquiring powerful guns and aiming them at foes—either in real-time shootouts or strategic, VATS-assisted blasts of amputation—remains as satisfying as in prior 3D Fallout games. You’ll eventually wield all kinds of high-tech heat, including guns with burning, freezing, melting, and exploding elements. The game’s variety of blunt and sharp melee weapons offers some great blood-‘splosion moments as well.

The VATS system has received one noticeable change since : toggling it no longer freezes time while players use its menus to aim attacks. Instead, time slows way, way down—enough to let players make choices, but not enough to treat VATS like a pause screen. The change is noticeable, but whether it feels exciting or annoying will probably come down to personal preference.

Each game takes place in a different city in the same alternate-America universe. This year’s model takes players to Boston, where they assume control of a military man (or his lawyer wife) shortly before a major nuclear bomb goes off. The couple and their infant son Shaun are invited to a new, exclusive fallout shelter, where it turns out they become part of a mysterious experiment, with residents cryogenically frozen against their will. Players wake to see their spouse murdered in cold blood and their son absconded by shadowy figures. A spare, loaded gun sits nearby.

That family-loss opening sequence puts ‘s worst foot forward, as it lacks the emotional heart or Hollywood-caliber presentation of a game like . The issue isn’t just the cliché repartee between husband and wife or that the sequence drags on for way too long; it’s how freakish these people look the whole time. Light and shadow reflect off every character in a very plastic way, and when faces animate, the movement comes mostly in the mouths. This makes all the characters look robotic and a little silly. This is especially true when they respond to button-press dialogue attempts with shouts that in no way match their faces. (Worse is your infant child, who looks like a cross between a dead-eyed Ken doll and a ghoulish monster.)

At any rate, whether players choose to hunt for their missing child, become the people’s hero, or just go on a bloody tear as a mercenary for hire, they’ll eventually wind up on the same road to tackling the game’s major villains. In-game factions like the Brotherhood of Steel, the Minutemen, and the Railroad all have different opinions about why their post-nuclear world’s gone to hell, but they all have one enemy in kind: the Institute. This secret, government-like society is frequently accused by ‘s NPCs of kidnapping humans and replacing them with identical, chip-loaded “synths,” and everybody’s tired of the robotic scourge in one way or another.

“SPECIAL” isn’t a compliment

Getting to know post-nuclear Boston isn’t the same as in other games. The biggest knock I can level on the game is how boring its characters and scenarios are until at least the 20-hour mark, no matter how you play the game. The first few “settlements” you encounter are full of one-dimensional characters, particularly the law-abiding types that dominate the opening settlements.

You essentially get three people as tone setters: your opening pal, robotic servant Codsworth, and the quest-givers at early hubs Sanctuary and Cambridge Police Station. Codsworth enjoys a lighthearted vocal performance for a script that is nothing more than simple and subservient—and that voice actor, thick British accent and all, is recycled for nearly every other robot in the game. Meanwhile, the aforementioned quest-givers are utter squares who neither open up to you in interesting ways when you ally with their positive natures nor offer any compelling rebuttals or refusals should you not play nice.

Major characters have a little more spark later on, whether because they dwell in the darker corners of a new Boston or because their appearances make it hard to pin down their true motivations. Still, even their scripts are generally as limp and unconvincing, with characters spending more dialogue time answering ponderous plot questions than offering anything in the way of convincing personalities.

Even if you can stomach those plot issues, they still have a negative effect on the series’ reputation for player-controlled narrative. ‘s early missions rarely offer any major “good or evil” consequence decisions. Instead, you’ll arrive at a battle in progress, encounter certain characters marked with red text, and if you don’t take them out, you’ll get shot at.

Nobody’s hiding in an alley in the early missions with explicit offers—and rewards—for walking a dark path. Instead, when you try to kill or rob friendly players, you’ll either wind up insta-murdered or paid off with very meager rewards. games have offered some of the most memorable “let’s try being bad for a while” moments in gaming history, so it’s no small complaint to point out how few of those I encountered in the hours upon hours of ‘s goodie-two-shoes Boston.

The other issue is that the best content—the primary plot quest alongside a peculiar detective, the ghoul-assisting missions you’ll do with members of the Railroad, or the Brotherhood of Steel missions that open up once you advance past the “initiate” rank—requires all of those hours of ho-hum grinding missions to power up your character. You’ll need a lot of weapons, armor, ammunition, healing packs, and level-up perks before facing off against some particular bottleneck foes like Super Ghouls. And this holds particularly true for the opponents that come in a new, extra-bullet-absorbing “legendary” flavor.

This is all bad news for gamers who have high hopes for the series’ “S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” system—which lets players invest level-up points in Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. This time around, SPECIAL includes a giant slew of perks for each of its seven traits. When you get enough experience points to increase in level, you’re given a single level-up point, which can either be spent to boost your general rank in a SPECIAL category pick a category-specific perk.

Sometimes, these are redundant. For example, you can boost your general strength rank to carry more items in your backpack, you can pick the “heavy lifter” perk to carry more stuff. Each perk has multiple tiers, as well; you’ll have to spend level-up points on the unlocking skill three times before you can unlock every single safe and door in the game.

All of this limits the character customization you can achieve with your initial 21 points of SPECIAL distribution. Dumping all of your points into intelligence, luck, charisma, and agility won’t make you a stealthy, diplomatic, speedy character by default. You’ll still need to devote more points to the associated traits to shine in those ways—and you’ll be a slow, clumsy wimp in the meantime while you try to accrue early experience points. The fun and appeal of kicking the game off as a specialized character is rendered a bit moot unless you dump points into combat-focused stuff like strength early on (in which case, let ‘er rip).

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