Nobody makes games quite like Bethesda Softworks. The developers of Elder Scrolls and Fallout have established a name for themselves as world-builders at a scale that often seems impossible. They’re ambitious, crafting enormous role-playing games with adventurers, beasts, and loot aplenty. All of it is playable as an action game with real-time combat. Fallout 4 is their latest release, inviting players to create a hero or heroine and explore the post-apocalyptic ruins of Massachusetts. In that world is the promise of a unique adventure defined by the player. It’s a game that twenty years ago could have only existed in the imagination of a young sci-fi addict. While Fallout 4 achieves many of these lofty goals, it also often crumbles under the same values that make it great.
Fallout 4 wastes no time tossing the player into the deep end. After creating a character, you witness their life collapse almost immediately. An unassuming suburbanite, you seek refuge in an underground vault when the bomb drops. One two-century nap later, and you awake in a post-apocalyptic era with a kidnapped son and a dead lover. The game rushes you out the door to start exploring the wasteland, regardless of how many questions you have. This lack of acclimation is a strange constant for the Fallout 4 experience. Virtually nothing is properly explained to the player. For veteran Fallout fans, this detachment will be refreshing, but new players may be in for a rough first few hours.
Once you’re acclimated to the Wasteland, there’s no lack of things to do. You can follow the trail of clues to locate your lost son, unraveling a fun sci-fi mystery in the process. You can align yourself with one of several factions, each of which come with rich quests that cover detailed new locations. You can form relationships with various companions (including a robot butler and trusty canine). You can start rebuilding society by constructing settlements – or you can wander into the abyss, taking on whatever goal meets your fancy. You’re always given a purpose, another goal to chase.
But all of this content comes with a consequence. With so much to do, it’s mathematically impossible for Bethesda to test every situation a player could get into and lock it down for bugs. This is a game that can and will break, in ways that range from humorous distractions to game-breaking disasters. The threat of the latter is always present, adding external tension to every moment. Running into a dead end within a building confronts you with the possibility that everything may have just broken. It doesn’t help that on consoles, the game has severe performance issues in certain areas.
But ultimately, Fallout 4 could please a gamer for anywhere from twenty to 200 hours. It’s not always the most polished experience, but you’ll be far too immersed within the game to care.