Fallout 4 Review: War Only Slightly Changes

Fallout 4 is another tense and enthralling romp through the Wasteland, but it's not quite the revolutionary experience you may have come to expect given the long hiatus. Our review.

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Fallout 3 was a revolutionary experience. Fallout 4 is not. I feel compelled to address that upfront because, if Fallout 4 has one shortcoming, it's that the extremely long hiatus has resulted in a less ambitious sequel than I had hoped. Simply put, the handful of improvements and one significant new system make this feel more like an iterative sequel than the long-anticipated return of one of Bethesda's most celebrated series. There's nothing necessarily wrong with another Fallout game in the vein of its predecessors, but as much as I enjoyed another visit to the Wasteland I couldn't help but feel slightly underwhelmed. 

MireCraft

The one major addition here is a crafting system, which is so robust and well-integrated into this framework that it feels like it should have always been a part of it. In previous Fallout games, players had to develop a sense for which items were worth keeping and which could be safely passed by. That meant the vast majority of items were set dressing or bits of contextual storytelling that had little to contribute to the gameplay. This changes all that, with just about everything you find in the world being useful for crafting, or at least usable once you scrap it for parts. 

In turn, this system distributes itself through several new sub-systems: weapon and armor crafting and modding, Power Armor modifications--even the ability to create a bustling township complete with working lights, automated defense systems, and settlers willing to take on different roles. The town building also plays into the addition of the Minutemen faction, a group of do-gooders who recruit and ultimately follow you with the ultimate goal of building safe havens for the citizens of the Commonwealth.

All of this really changed the way I engaged with the world for the better, by making scavenging feel more substantial. I found that I felt accomplished after putting some time into the crafting, since I always had something to show for it, be it a markedly improved weapon or a village full of grateful wastelanders.

Family Legends

With the ability to craft your own weapons, the all-important loot drops from enemies might have felt useless if not for the addition of Legendary enemies. These randomized, extra tough versions of standard creatures and raiders tend to drop "Legendary" loot with special attributes, like a boost to the VATS system or an automatic slowdown effect when you're low on health. Being decked out with lots of Legendary gear definitely feels empowering, since all the extra effects work together to make you a terror on the battlefield.

The story is also much more engaging, based mostly on its central premise. Rather than a bland cipher, this game puts you in the role of a parent. After being shuffled into a Vault and cryogenically frozen, you're awoken temporarily to see your infant son kidnapped. The quest to find him and those responsible for taking him is the driving force behind everything that follows, and the female voice performance (I played as the mother) tinged the appropriate grief and anger into every conversation that turned to her missing child.

In the course of that personal story, your wastelander becomes embroiled in a war between multiple factions, each with their own points-of-view on how to properly maintain order in the Wasteland and the responsible use of technology. Discovering these factions and the intriguingly gray morality behind them is one of the joys of the game, so I'll steer clear of spoilers. Suffice to say I sided with the one I identified with the most and still felt uncomfortable with some of our ends-justify-the-means actions. Fallout certainly still has a way with ethical quandaries.

All of this centers around the new setting of Boston and the surrounding area, called the "Commonwealth" in Fallout lore. The setting is always the shining centerpiece to any Fallout game, letting us step into a familiar area ravaged by nuclear war, beasts, and scavengers. Bethesda capitalizes on the new area well, introducing a litany of Massachusetts locales with their own wasteland twists. The area of Boston itself is especially well-realized, as the city proper is dense with buildings and points of interest that contrast sharply with the more sparse townships surrounding it.

Boston Common

These new additions are much appreciated, but built on a foundation that feels a little too familiar. The engine is easily recognizable as a slightly modified version of the one we've seen, complete with jerky animations, stilted face-to-face conversations, and occasional pathing or A.I bugs. My favored A.I. companion hit a dialogue cue as if I'd taken him to a location, when in actuality we'd both been taken there by another party.  At one point I got stuck in geometry and could do nothing about it but reload. Another time the game crashed entirely. In the climax, I experienced severe framerate drops. 

Plus, some legacy oddities remain, like the inability to fast-travel from inside most buildings. I was forced to frequently exit a building, wait for a loading screen, then hit my fast-travel target and wait for another loading screen. How is that still in this game after seven years? All of this gives the sensation that the game is struggling to keep up with its own systems, like a clock wound too tightly and threatening to snap a spring at any moment.

As the first Fallout game of the new generation, it does look markedly better than the old games, but don't take that to mean it can go toe-to-toe with this era's best and brightest. Fallout was never particularly beautiful, making up for its visual shortcomings with an unmatched sense of scale. That remains the case here, with a remarkably massive area to explore that looks merely so-so on the whole. Both from a technical and visual standpoint, being a Fallout fan has historically meant living with those compromises, and this entry doesn't change that.

Those technical considerations were minor nuisances, however. I felt underwhelmed because in contrast to Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I never felt enraptured in this living, breathing world. Those games stand out to me because all of their systems worked together to make a magical unpredictability that helped the world feel alive. In the seven years since, we've seen those systems imitated and innovated, and we all more-or-less understand how the machine works. Fallout 4 adds one new system, but it's transparent by nature, and the revisions to the old systems are slight. As a result, nothing here makes the world feel alive again by today's standards the way Fallout 3 did in its day.

Back to the Wastes

Fallout 4 is exactly and precisely more Fallout. Its couple of new gameplay elements are well-executed and enrich the experience, but they don't make this feel especially different than the Wasteland we were exploring almost a decade ago. If you enter looking for a heaping helping of the Fallout action you already enjoy, and an enthralling romp through a newly realized portion of the Wasteland, this certainly fits the bill. Just don't hope for another revolution, because like war, the Wasteland apparently never changes.


This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by the publisher. Fallout 4 will be available in retail and digital stores on November 10, for $59.99. The game is rated M.

Editor-In-Chief
Review for
Fallout 4
8
Pros
  • Sense of scale is still unparalleled
  • Robust crafting systems fit perfectly into Fallout framework
  • Legendary gear makes for delightful surprises
  • More personal story gives your character emotional stakes
Cons
  • Very little has changed given such a long wait
  • Fallout's reputation for bugs continues unabated
From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 9, 2015 5:00 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Fallout 4 Review: War Only Slightly Changes

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 5:05 AM

      What system was this reviewed on? I am probably just missing it but I re-read it a few times and didn't see it mentioned.

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        November 9, 2015 5:07 AM

        Yeah, given all the doom and gloom over the PS4 version the other day (which seems to be overblown, based on many other accounts I've seen), I'm curious what system this was on since he only mentioned framerate in the climax.

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          November 9, 2015 5:10 AM

          Plus he mentions the loading.

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          November 9, 2015 5:15 AM

          yah i saw some videos of the PS4 framerate issues... it's pretty minor really some small drops to 20-25fps.
          I'm wondering if it's CPU bottlenecks on the PS4?? The console has a ton more GPU power compared to the XB1. But has a bit slower CPU.

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 5:12 AM

        You're right, I missed the disclosure notice. It was reviewed on PlayStation 4, and the disclosure has been added now. Thanks!

        As for Vincent's comment about frame rate, it took a few hits here and there, but it only really chugged to a halt in the climax, both during big setpieces and (oddly) when it was just me and a handful of characters in a fairly small room.

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 5:17 AM

      Good review Steve! Your last paragraph sums up what I was looking for out of the game so I can't wait to play now!

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 5:24 AM

      . I was forced to frequently exit a building, wait for a loading screen, then hit my fast-travel target and wait for another loading screen. How is that still in this game after seven years?

      It would be interesting to know the reason that bug couldn't be fixed. I wonder what the unintended side effects were?

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        November 9, 2015 5:32 AM

        It's intentional -- you can coc to any location trivially in Skyrim or fast travel from anywhere with mods. Presumably they don't allow fast travel indoors because it allows you an instant out of tailored areas and scenarios. If you restricted fast travel with more specific rules, it would be come complicated, so I'm guessing they just said no fast travelling indoors to make it simple.

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 11:26 AM

        Wait, what version did he review?!

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 5:52 AM

      Revision disclosure: One more paragraph has been added to sum up the feeling of being underwhelmed, and to clarify that the technical shortcomings weren't the major factor in that.

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 6:01 AM

      How did the combat turn out? That's the one big question that's not really answered.

      In general, it honestly sounds roughly like what I was expecting. I mean, Fallout 3 was a revolution because it was transforming a traditional isometric, turn-based RPG to a first-person, real time RPG. That allowed the artists and designers to go wild fleshing out the world and its denizens visually. There's no possible way you can match that kind of revolution in a subsequent game, no matter how much time you have to work on it.

      In addition, each BethSoft RPG is generally evolutionary rather than revolutionary relative to the previous. Old systems are tuned, enhanced, and occasionally overhauled, and new systems are added on occasion, but the core of exploration and questing is always the same.

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 6:04 AM

        IGN's review mentioned the combat feeling like a competent FPS if you were interested in just ignoring VATS entirely.

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          November 9, 2015 6:11 AM

          That's rather disappointing. The lack of pausable vats is the number one reason why I didn't pre-order. I'm still going to get it and play it, eventually. I loved Fallout 3 too much not too.

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            November 9, 2015 6:13 AM

            How does vat work if you can't pause?

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              November 9, 2015 6:14 AM

              VATS just slows down time significantly now... I'd guess maybe 8 to 10 times slower than realtime??

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                November 9, 2015 6:31 AM

                I really preferred that change, personally. It makes combat feel like it's still tense with slight pressure to pick your targets and make a decision.

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                November 9, 2015 11:37 AM

                You can create drugs that slow time down for you :)

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            November 9, 2015 6:48 AM

            That's gonna be modded instantly

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              November 9, 2015 7:01 AM

              I generally don't like non-graphic mods for Bethesda games. They tend to break the game critically somewhere down the line. I mean they are fun after you complete the game.

          • reply
            November 10, 2015 12:27 AM

            It's not bad or do you need to take a dump mid-combat?

        • reply
          November 9, 2015 11:38 AM

          Yes, the out of vats gunplay is a very competent FPS.

          In fallout 3/vegas out of vats gunplay was pretty goddamn horrid. Not the case now.

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 6:09 AM

        Combat feels a little smoother when you get in a pinch, but I wouldn't recommend playing it like a first-person shooter. The underlying core is still just too RPG-based with things like accuracy stats to make for a great FPS experience. You're bound to know for a fact you hit a headshot but a random dice roll determines that you whiffed. VATS is still a must.

        My added paragraph (above) expounds on the "not a revolution" critique a bit. Obviously it would be unfair to expect a 2D-to-3D jump, but my point is more about it failing to recapture that feeling of an organic living world.

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          November 9, 2015 6:17 AM

          Yeah, the failure to embrace the adult, as in maturity and depth, that games like Last of Us and Witcher 3 are delivering for plot and character motivations for Fallout 4 are a disappointment. But if you're one of those players who looks once at the plot quest and shrugs to go explore the wasteland, then that criticism won't affect you. If you like what FO3 delivered, this not-a-revolution FO4 is going to be a fun experience.

        • reply
          November 9, 2015 6:29 AM

          Would it even be possible for them to take the game to the next level without re-writing the entire engine?

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            November 9, 2015 6:32 AM

            Very possibly.

            But to be fair they had seven years, and if any engine is in need of a rewrite, it's this one.

            • reply
              November 9, 2015 6:08 PM

              Perhaps the engine is perfectly tuned for what Bethesda is trying to accomplish.

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                November 9, 2015 8:00 PM

                I can't imagine that this degree of continued jank is intentional. It's not really a major concern for me, mind you, I think it's just part of playing a Bethesda game at this point, but the "it's not a bug it's a feature" explanation doesn't really cut it here.

        • reply
          November 9, 2015 6:48 AM

          You're bound to know for a fact you hit a headshot but a random dice roll determines that you whiffed.

          That's not how combat worked in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Did they really change it to that?

          • reply
            November 9, 2015 6:55 AM

            Maybe I didn't explain my point well there. My point is that the accuracy stats on weapons can make it feel imprecise, which makes it less than ideal as a standard first-person shooter.

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              November 9, 2015 7:31 AM

              Okay, that's clearer.

              Your point then is that the weapons in Fallout 4 vary too wildly in accuracy and are simply too imprecise by default?

              Then that's unfortunate, the weapon spread in New Vegas was balanced well, but it wasn't Bethesda.

              Is accuracy one of the things that can be improved with mods and perks?

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                November 9, 2015 7:35 AM

                Yes, and the mods system makes the perks less vital. Frankly there are an absurd number of perks here, so any way to achieve the same effect without spending an upgrade point is really helpful.

                Though, in some cases you do need to invest in a perk that allows you to get certain kinds of scrap. I was confused about why I had found no screws whatsoever despite them being necessary for a bunch of mods, until I realized that one perk lets you gain screws when you scrap materials.

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                  November 9, 2015 8:19 AM

                  Overall it sounds like a lot more busywork. I'm not sure I'd call that streamlined, essentially requiring the player to map out 200+ perks across the game sounds like a chore.

          • reply
            November 9, 2015 6:55 AM

            He may mean that "headshots" count as damaging someone's head, but don't automatically result in critical hits.

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            November 11, 2015 2:37 AM

            I've played around with the Fallout 3 and New Vegas SDK on PC, and as I recall, the way it worked was the "auto-aim" feature was integral to the way the shooting mechanics worked. Bullets would be generated at the tip of the weapon model, then the game would force the bullet trajectory to "auto-aim" directly at your crosshair, which was determined by using a node that extended off from the character model's skeleton. Variables could be tweaked in the editor to determine how random the trajectory was for each shot fired. So in that sense, there was some dice rolling involved.

            From a design perspective, it was a really clunky system that I suspect few games use. I really hope it was overhauled in Fallout 4.

        • reply
          November 9, 2015 6:48 AM

          Thanks. I was apparently reading the article and writing my post while you were adding the paragraph. It not feeling like a living world is odd, as that's generally something that Bethesda excels at.

          • reply
            November 9, 2015 6:57 AM

            It feels living inasmuch as Fallout 3 does, but seven years removed the industry has grown enough that matching that standard isn't the same thing as matching the modern equivalent of that standard. Which is to say, it does it reasonably well, but it's not adjusted for inflation, so to speak.

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 6:24 AM

      I'm crazy excited for what the modding scene is going to do to this game.

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 6:42 AM

        I need high-res textures and face fixes stat!

        • reply
          November 9, 2015 6:46 AM

          And the UI. The UI seems really unsophisticated and, frankly, disappointing.

          • reply
            November 9, 2015 4:46 PM

            See i feel completely the opposite. I've had a boner for all the highly colored neon, and shadowed larger font they're using on top of the HUD. Plus the pipboy animations and what not. it oozes vibe

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 7:21 AM

        bring on the titties on the Radscorpions!!!

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 6:32 AM

      Great read! But Not entirely sure what you expected in regards to change. I've been expecting more Fallout, with some minor changes here and there but I haven't been expecting earth shattering changes. Bethesda is known for general improvements on each iteration rather than complete whole new experiences.

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 7:23 AM

      I'm excited that the biggest negative is "It's more Fallout",

      FUCK YEAH IT'S MORE FALLOUT! THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED!

      • reply
        November 9, 2015 2:30 PM

        Seriously. I would still be playing the earlier games if they had continued pumping out content for it.

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 7:42 AM

      Unpacking!

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 11:25 AM

      So it's exactly what everybody wanted!

      11.63249 out of 10.

    • Zek
      reply
      November 9, 2015 11:39 AM

      Not sure I agree with the premise here that because a sequel spent a long time in development it should be dramatically different than its predecessor. If anything, it's yearly franchises that suffer from being too similar. When a franchise doesn't put out sequels very often, more of the same but better is often exactly what you want.

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        November 9, 2015 8:05 PM

        To be clear, I'm not arguing in favor of change for the sake of change. I just found that repeating the same systems with such minimal changes made it feel like it was an iterative sequel. This could have come out a couple years after New Vegas, albeit with less-improved graphics, and no one would have batted an eye.

        To look at it from another angle, my main critique is that it isn't similar enough, in that it doesn't put forth the necessary iteration to invoke the same feeling of a complex interwoven "living" world given the current state of the gaming landscape.

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      November 9, 2015 12:08 PM

      So how long about did it take you?

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        November 9, 2015 8:07 PM

        It's hard to say. I looked around for a clock in the PS4 interface and never found it, but be sure to let me know if someone with sharper eyes manages to. It certainly wasn't in the gameplay Stats menu where I assumed it would be.

        I had it for a little more than a week before launch, though I didn't play much over Halloween weekend. I was playing probably a solid 3-4 hours during the day and another 2-3 at night. That probably totals to around 40-50 hours, and I did a fair bit of meandering around because, you know, it's a Fallout game. Plus I died quite a bit, for what that's worth. If you really critical-pathed the story, you could probably seal it up in about 20 hours. But where's the fun in that?

    • reply
      November 9, 2015 2:30 PM

      So how were the load times? Looks like this game isn't going to be awe-inspiring to look at, so I might just go with a console version so I can play in the living room.

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        November 9, 2015 4:19 PM

        They aren't bad. You only run into them for interiors and I didn't notice any problems and I don't even have this installed on my SSD

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        November 9, 2015 8:09 PM

        It depends. Loading into the main world really takes the longest, for obvious reasons, but it's not like you should go make a sandwich. My complaint wasn't really about the loading times themselves, per se. It was just frustrating how often I'd finish a mission inside a building, have another waypoint automatically set halfway across the Commonwealth, and then get an error message when I tried to fast-travel there.

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      November 9, 2015 4:41 PM

      I liked this review a lot. Nice and straightforward. My only Q now is PC performance, but I'll just wait t'ill it unlocks.

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      November 15, 2015 1:36 PM

      Great review, and writing. This has been my review of your review.