Fallout 4 is exactly what you hope it is, as long as you were hoping for more of the same. While that may sound like an obvious statement to make at the start of a review dedicated to a numbered sequel, the build to release - fueled by rabid fan anticipation - has seen it painted as some type of game-changer. It's not. But it is incredible.
Easily the developer's most accomplished title to date, Fallout 4 takes everything that made its predecessor such a success and refines it, rather than fundamentally altering it. Be it the gunplay, the story, the world, or just how seamlessly everything fits together, this feels like the zenith of the model Bethesda has been working on for a significant period of time.
It's the gunplay that will be of interest to the majority of players who loved (and hated) it in previous games, especially as much has been made pre-release about the involvement of id Software, brought on board for its 'point gun and kill' expertise. VATS still dominates proceedings and is far more polished than it ever has been - its rhythmic nature when you find your combat flow proving to be excellent - but your more standard shooting experience is much improved.
Every weapon now has a certain individuality to it, meaning you'll warm to specific models that match your playstyle. Even the first pistol you stumble across snaps back and explodes like you'd want an instrument of death to do. It's an incredibly important area to get right, and Bethesda has, but those who would rather ignore VATS are still in for a rough ride. If you want to use the system as a last resort - instead approaching Fallout 4 as a first-person shooter - you most certainly can. That doesn't mean it's all of a sudden Call Of Duty, but nor does it need to be. Taking this route will make proceedings a hell of a lot harder, though, and trust me when I say this is one of the toughest challenges you'll have faced all year.
No matter the improvements, VATS will still confound as many as it delights, but Fallout games live and die by their world building and quests, and Fallout 4 is a showcase for how far the developer has come as a story-teller. While many of its older games - Fallout 3 especially - managed to sink its hooks in almost instantly before slowly petering out, Fallout 4 does the complete opposite. What starts as a fairly obvious tale - identify the bad guy, get people to help you find the bad guy, kill the bad guy - which does little to intrigue soon evolves into a fascinating and,more importantly, engrossing plot that you're desperate to unravel. Do be warned that events do drag initially, almost painfully so.
Get past it, however, and you'll realise that instead of having 'main' quests and 'side quests', there's now the feeling that everything is linked, with factionalism playing a huge role. What often begins as a fun aside soon starts to weave itself into every aspect of an overarching theme. It's masterfully done and encourages you to continually jump from faction-to-faction, mission-to-mission, all the while getting new insights into your journey.
This is extra impressive given how formulaic everything seems at the start of such distractions. The Brotherhood Of Steel, for example, stumble into the picture as if it's 2008 all over again. Nostalgia and familiarity are wonderful tools, but a small part of you may initially be disappointed. Whereas in the past these groups made a strong initial impression before fading from the story, here they're so well balanced you remain interested in them, their lives, and their missions right up until the finale.
Conversations and moral quandaries serve a significant role throughout your adventure as well. As before, your actions can play a part in how some situations pan out, and there is a need to consider your actions given that there could be consequences. (Better get that charisma perk ready). It shifts events from simply relying on firing a bullet into someone's skull, and asks that you play slightly smarter: with the right tools there is a certain amount of social power you can wield.
The conversation system, too, is broadly the same as before, but again the finer points of it are interpreted better: dialogue trees feel more expansive, and it's less like you're cycling through options trying to get the right one.
Fallout 4 isn't just a retread of what's come before, however, with the biggest additions coming in the form of weapon crafting - which while pleasant is as you would expect it to be - and the ability to construct entire towns. It's the latter which could be the most addictive extra to any game this year.
While what's here isn't revolutionary, it's so simple to understand and yet so satisfying to carry out don't be surprised if you lose hours as you embark on a digitally-inspired architecture career. Taking Sanctuary - the first town you stumble across - as a template, almost everything you can see can be scrapped for a specific resource: a car can be recycled for steel, a table for wood, and so on. You can then access dozens of buildable items which can be used in order to bring life back to a settlement while also strengthening its defences against incoming attacks.
This all ties into the many factions you can join and protect, ensuring there's multiple threads happening simultaneously in Fallout 4, and yet it never comes across as too overwhelming. Sure, there's a learning curve, but once again it makes you feel less like a man with no name hunting someone through a desert and more like an agent of influence, no matter how limited it actually turns out to be. It's exceedingly well pulled off.
The same can be said for the Wasteland itself. When you watch Fallout-related marketing that's filled with recognisable music and Dogmeat running around, gleeful look etched on his face, it's easy to forget that the setting is post-apocalyptic. Lives have been ruined. People have been killed. Misery is rampant. It's not a fun place in the slightest, but this is exactly the point. The fact that Todd Howard and company have managed to achieve this desolate, hope-deprived atmosphere for a second time is a credit to everyone involved. It makes brighter moments all the more special, and also allows the darkest depths to be truly harrowing. Expect to be more than just a little uncomfortable.
This is Fallout 4's skill, however, made all the more enticing by how it aims to surprise even over 50 hours in. Whether it's the moment-to-moment gameplay that you won't see coming, or the occasional spectacular set piece designed to make your jaw slack, you'll be desperate to discuss these with others (secretly hoping what you saw was for your eyes only).
It's obvious that Fallout 4 is a contender for the game of the year, and if you've never played its elder brother then adding an extra point onto this score wouldn't be too far out of the realms of sanity.
The fact of the matter is, though, that this is more of the same, even if that 'same' has been pushed to new heights. If you hated Fallout 3, then there's not much to get you onside here. If you loved it, then you'll love this all the more, because of its differences as well as its similarities.
Version Tested: PS4. Buy Fallout 4 now on PS4, Xbox One or PC.
Fallout 4: Does It Look Any Good?
Given how huge the world is coupled with how much there is to do in Fallout 4, you'd think no one would actually care how it looked. After all, sacrifices need to be made somewhere, right? And yet even when this this so apparent to the general public, there's still people debating whether Bethesda's latest has been downgraded after such stellar showings at E3 and Gamescom, and whether it actually looks as good.
To enter this place of no return for a minute: No. No it doesn't. From an aesthetic point of view Fallout 4 looks very much how you remember Fallout 3 looking. If you were to boot the two up the differences would be obvious straight away, but the mind's power to recall things in a certain way may make you think that what's here visually is a little disappointing.
Going down that path, however, is slightly nonsensical given just how packed Fallout 4's world is this time around. There's a ridiculous amount of places to discover, each with their own stories to tell and secrets to discover - anyone expecting a 'The Order: 1886' level of sheen is on the wrong track.
Furthermore, it does have moments of utter beauty. When daylight breaks as you're wandering around in the wilderness, or the opening segment before nuclear war has ravaged civilisation, Fallout 4 can be exceptionally pretty. Yes, load times can be jarring in places and the frame rate has utterances where it's not as solid as we would all probably like, but the sheer size of it means it makes allowances as and when it needs to. And you know what? That's okay.