Fallout 4 is the best game that Bethesda has ever created. Despite sitting on familiar foundations, the refinements made here – to its storytelling, character development, quest design, shooting mechanics and world-building – all combine to make Fallout 4 a tighter, more precise experience than any series entry before it.
While it may fail to convince those daunted by the idea of spending hundreds of hours questing and exploring, or those put off by the fact that it's up to you to decide your own pace, Fallout 4 delivers wondrous moments of exploration and discovery with aplomb. Rarely will you find a world as rich and alive as that of the post-apocalyptic "Commonwealth", aka what's left of Massachusetts and New England in 2077, and even rarer will you find a studio so confident with the scope of ambition that Fallout 4 delivers.
It starts boldly. After going through the familiar motions of choosing your face, your hair, your beard and even the placement of your freckles and dimples, you're thrust into pre-apocalypse America. Fallout 4 wants to show you what things were like before everything goes south, and it does so without labouring the point. It's a brief glimpse at an idealistic impression of the American Dream – perfect beyond perfect, filled with floating robots carrying out household chores and children playing in the street, all under the imminent threat of nuclear war. After a visit from your local Vault-Tec rep, who conveniently gives your family three spaces in the local vault, you get a glimpse of the last few hours of human civilisation as you sprint towards your underground haven to escape nuclear fire.
And I won't reveal anything else so detailed about the plot, because spoilers, obviously. But the tale that's told here is simultaneously a detective story, a revenge flick, a thriller and several other things between, and everything expands and transforms as you progress. It starts slowly, as Bethesda games often do, before pulling you along to really cool, unlikely places that get more intriguing as you discover more of them. The scope here is unprecedented, even by Bethesda's already hefty standards, and the game's capacity to subvert your expectations and consistently offer up something new is an impressive complement to its familiar formula.
Bethesda has learned how to make a world feel alive, dynamic and reactive to your actions as a player. It handles individual factions in bold and complex ways, intertwining them into the main story unexpectedly, forcing you to think carefully about your actions and the ramifications of what you decide to do and somehow making everything you do feel rewarding and, above all, exciting.
Fallout 4's internal mechanics are much more solid than its predecessors. Looting is so fluid now that you only need to hover over an unlocked storage space to see what's inside, while shooting feels and sounds punchier with a dual trigger system for more responsiveness. V.A.T.S., the game's slow-mo tactical targeting system, is still a legitimate option, but the real-time shooting is now so good that it was by far my preferred method.
The unique feel of every single gun – combined with the thousands of varied customisation options for your weapons – makes experimenting with your arsenal a sizeable distraction. Enemies all fight differently – humans and super-mutants will take cover, while feral ghouls and Mirelurks will charge headlong at you. They react to your gunfire in cool ways, too. Take out a ghoul's legs and he won't die, but fall to the ground and crawl towards you gnashing his jaws madly; fighting robots lets you tactically ping important circuitry off of their bodies – they'll even change tactics as you destroy them, running at you and self destructing. Shoot the mini nuke in a Super Mutant Suicider's hands, and he'll go up like a mini-apocalypse before he's had a chance to get near enough to take you to Hell with him. The fact that every kill is accompanied by an satisfying "da-ding" is all the more gratifying.
When the going gets really tough, and on many occasions it will, you'll need to suit up with your power armour. This works completely differently to how it did in previous Fallout games. Instead of being a normal piece of gear, Fallout 4 treats power armour like a living entity. Rather than carry it around, you have to construct it using power frames that exist at certain points around the world. Here, you can customise and mod it like anything else you own, but it requires fusion cores – a finite resource found around the wasteland – and constant maintenance and repair.
Article continues after the video below
I wasn't sold on the armour system at first – it felt like an odd setup – but over time I've come to use it more tactically. Power armour now feels like a badass option for me to even the odds, rather than just another piece of gear with higher stats. I particularly love the animation when you get into the suit, as all its pneumatic gears hiss apart to let you step inside, as well as how the on-screen HUD and arm-worn Pip-Boy display change when you're inside it.
By giving your character a fully-voiced role in this world, your presence is enriched in a way that previous Bethesda games simply couldn't manage. The game's writing, and the voice acting to deliver it, ranges from good to fantastic. Individual story beats and the characters you meet are suitably weird, whacky and wonderful, and the game hops fluidly between the hilariously absurd to sinisterly dark in a way that feels natural rather than inconsistent.
As well as the game's cast – some good, some bad, and some brilliantly elusive shades of grey – you can also find unique companions who'll act as your partners if you want them to. You're able to develop relationships with each, which can even unlock unique quests when you've reached a certain affinity with each one. Your buddies become intrinsic to how you might decide to pursue larger stories – they'll throw information at you that seems peripheral at the time, but eventually comes back to influence your decision making.
Recruiting companions adds them to your network of settlements, which act as your personal pockets of peace throughout the wasteland. Settlement building is mostly optional, and save for the camera perspective occasionally making construction tricky, it works well to give you further ownership over your experience.
At the moment I've got six or seven settlements dotted throughout the wasteland, but I concentrate mostly on Sanctuary Hills – my pre-apocalypse hometown. I've built homes for my settlers and defences to keep them safe from any possible raider attacks. I've grown food there, and set up water pumps to keep everyone fully nourished. Sanctuary Hills truly feels like a sanctuary because I made it that way, and it's where I pop back to whenever I need to clean the irradiated muck off my boots and have some downtime.
Unlike Fallout 3's brown wasteland, the Commonwealth is vibrant, bright, dynamic and alive, despite its foreboding desolation. There's greater contrast between its different areas, but it all still fits together as a cohesive world. The downtown ruins of Boston – a financial district where skyscrapers groan and creak amid abandoned banks and some of the city's most iconic landmarks – feel more like what was once a major urban centre than the smaller towns and outcrops, with their modest houses, Super-Duper Mart complexes and Red Rocket filling stations. There's tons more to find, from hideouts on top of crumbling overpasses to colossal satellite relays, army bases and drive-ins, abandoned cafes, churches, airports and stuff I haven't even reached yet but can see in the distance, begging me to go and look at up close.
And it does look fantastic, thanks to some much needed improvements to overall art direction, which helps Fallout 4 rise above any low-res textures you might bump into, or anti-aliasing issues that occur as you scrutinise the environment. This world is impeccably detailed, and there's clearly an understanding of the importance of atmosphere to convey a sense of place, with superb music both in the game's orchestral soundtrack and its various radio stations bringing the entire thing to life with a faux-1950s sheen. Dynamic weather is just a cherry on the top; seeing a perfect blue sky juxtaposed against the devastation below never grows old, while sunrises and sunsets cast an orangey hue over any scene. Heavy rainfall makes adventuring at night-time even more eerie, and occasionally you'll witness a full-blown nuclear storm, with green mist and thunder-cracked skies. It's all fantastically realised.
The only real thing that detracts from all this wonder is the game's frame rate. While playing on PlayStation 4, it dipped frequently, even with the day one patch installed. It never became unplayable, and it didn't even particularly affect my enjoyment, but that's testament to the core qualities of the game. Frame rate dips mostly happen in busy areas and during intense firefights, or when you're exploring the ruins of downtown Boston; but it also randomly affects interiors, even if they're empty, or when you first discover a new location. Sometimes these dips directly hinder combat: fighting off a handful of buzzy bloodbugs becomes a pain in the arse when you not only have to track their movements, but also keep up with the jittery frame rate.
New on Motherboard: Xbox One's Killer App This Christmas Is Its Backwards Compatibility
But frames-per-second inconsistency is the only notable technical issue I've come up against after well over 40 of hours of play, which is surprising for a Bethesda game as large as this. There are some minor AI pathfinding issues with your companions, janky animations here and there, and the odd bit of clipping, but I've considered them small quirks that haven't yet damaged my enjoyment. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Fallout 4 represents the result of a studio taking seven years and two games' worth of learning and implementing every lesson into one of the richest virtual worlds we've ever seen. It is a major refinement rather than an overhaul of a genre, but this universe has lost none of the magic that was there in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, which makes it so exciting to dive back into. This is a game that displays a small handful of Bethesda's flaws – most of them technical, rather than artistic – but many of its strengths, while also showcasing a number of new strengths I never expected from its makers. It is, quite simply, an unmissable open-world experience, vibrant beyond its peers, with a sumptuous personality, an empowering sense of freedom and an ambition few other games nowadays can hope to match.
Fallout 4 is out now for PlayStation 4 (version tested), Xbox One and PC.
Find more video gaming articles in VICE's dedicated section, right over here.