This article complements our video on the world of Fallout 4, part of our Open Worlds series, made possible by NVIDIA. Watch it here.
Fallout is iconic in a few ways. Its pseudo-1950s aesthetic is as much a character as any playable avatar, and the series' Vault Boy mascot is plastered across just about every kind of merchandise imaginable. However, both Fallout 3 and the following New Vegas struggled to really present a wasteland that truly conveyed the difficulty, the outright horror, of eking out an existence, pitiful though it is, in a post-apocalyptic world.
This was because both those games told players plenty about the dangers of the Capital and Mojave wastelands, but the reality of said environments delivered something rather less threatening. Many enemies, from decaying feral ghouls to massive super mutants, are described as terrifying and ruthless – but it never took much for the player to tear through them like a particularly enthusiastic radroach through rice paper.
Fallout 4 is different. To suggest it's a more challenging game, in terms of its base difficulty, may be misleading and quite possibly entirely inaccurate. But where Fallout 3 and New Vegas talked a good game when it came to the opposition, Fallout 4 does a much better job of actually showing the strengths of your Commonwealth-sharing life forms.
Feral ghouls are likely the best example of this, having previously been little more than cannon fodder. Fallout 4 positions these monsters, once men but now irreversibly ravaged by radiation, as one of the biggest threats to Commonwealth survival, both in settlements and during exploration. Their new, aggressive design ensures that situations that might have been sweat-free in Fallout 3's Washington ruins are turned into tense face-offs of life or death.
In Lexington, for example, feral ghouls fill the streets and can quickly swarm a gung-ho player, presenting a real and tangible threat, even at lower levels. Raiders, meanwhile, are scarcely seen on the streets, instead preferring the safety of the rooftops and the nearby Corvega Plant, both of which are guarded by automated turrets and heavy weaponry.
Given how the ghouls behave, crawling out from enclosed spaces and congregating in large numbers, they're immediately more threatening as enemies, if for no other reason than because of their sheer numbers. It's easy to see why even Raiders carrying all manner of firearms and explosives would want to hole up away from them. The risk they pose to settlers, then – who rarely spawn with anything stronger than a pipe pistol and some harsh criticisms of Goodneighbor – are as clear as a midday sky over a shattered Boston, and makes the Sole Survivor's importance in defending these settlements far more believable. The Sole Survivor is you, by the way, so look busy.
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This doesn't necessarily make them more threatening to the player themselves; the average feral ghoul will take at most two hits from a shotgun or sniper rifle before they drop, and blasting off limbs can make a stronger variant that much easier to deal with. But what it does do is create the impression of a more threatening being – not necessarily based on your experience, but on the knowledge of what these creatures can do to unprepared scavengers and settlers.
This means that instead of running through abandoned buildings, you're sneaking through, slowly and vigilantly, occasionally hitting V.A.T.S. to make sure there aren't any enemies crawling out from under a fallen shelf or through a narrow window. This tense atmosphere while exploring means you're always alert, which manifests in gameplay terms as you travelling further in Power Armour, stocking up on shotgun shells before entering tight, claustrophobic ruins, or packing enough stimpaks and chems to heal and buff your way through whatever enemies charge your way.
Feral ghouls aren't the only monsters redesigned for Fallout 4, as most received at least a new coat of paint and some raised damage resistances. Creatures like mole rats and radscorpions received new burrowing abilities, making tracking them an issue once they notice the player, and evading either of them an absolute nightmare. It's another move that forces the player to be aware of their surroundings at all times, prepared with weapons, buffs and a rough plan for engaging specific enemies.
Related, on Motherboard: Just How Realistic Is the Apocalypse of 'Fallout 4', Anyway?
The environments add another layer to this dread-heavy atmosphere. The thoroughfares of Boston actually give the player very little room to manoeuvre, forcing them to either battle raiders and super mutants head on, or face a long trek around backstreets and alleyways which may see them facing even tougher foes than the ones they're trying to avoid. Outside Boston, the player is afforded more space and generally more freedom to move around, but this can actually be more stressful as one pushes towards the southern part of the map, where faster and more ruthless enemies reside.
The interiors of buildings allow developers Bethesda to show a different side of the threats the player encounters in the streets: how these horrors interact in their own living spaces. This goes from the recreational murder of captured travellers, presumably from ransacked caravans and looted colonies, to the imprisonment and torture of settlers elsewhere. Take a wrong turn in the wrong place anywhere in the game and any number of ghouls might set upon you; but beyond the walls of Diamond City, which can still be breached, Fallout 4's wasteland really does feel more dreadfully dangerous than any previous Bethesda-made open world.
The game does eventually reach the inevitable point where the player character is so powerful that nothing in the world can pose any meaningful threat to them. This removes much of the tension created by the early game impressions of the Commonwealth's myriad threats, but it doesn't make encounters any the less electrifying, or intimidating for other humans. However tooled up you get in Fallout 4, its mutated monsters remain a constant presence in the ruins and open spaces alike, sometimes unseen but always ready to surprise the over confident and the disrespectful. They roam the wasteland, they rule the night, and no Fallout's ever been quite as evocative of time and place as a result.
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