Over the next few days, you’re going to see a lot of coverage of Fallout 4. This coverage, no matter the source, is going to tell you all sorts of things about its revamped combat system, its somber mood and the fact that Bethesda Game Studios may have created the best open world in the history of video games. There is, however, one very important truth that the vast majority of reviews, opinion pieces, videos and podcasts will inevitably find a way to sweep under the rug. See, as media members we are given task of answering the biggest gaming question of the year, whether or not Fallout 4 lives up to “the hype,” but pretty much every piece of content you’ll consume won’t tell you how meaningless this task is.
Fallout 4 had the most brilliant, elegant hype cycle in modern video game history and it’s all thanks to us. We were Bethesda’s marketing tools, and it worked flawlessly. Think about the actual marketing coverage you’ve seen for Fallout 4: a cryptic reveal trailer, an extended E3 unveiling, seven black-and-white short cartoons, a launch trailer, random signage and a few commercials here and there. That’s it. There’s no doubt that Fallout 4 is a phenomenon, but that isn’t thanks to anything that Bethesda did (in fact, it’s actually the opposite). Instead of pumping us full of trailers for years, begging for our pre-orders constantly and generally assuming paying consumers to be complete idiots like so many other publishers, Bethesda provided just enough detail to fuel our imaginations. We’re the ones taking days off of work. We’re the ones posting endless tweets and Facebook statuses about how we can’t wait for this game. We’re the goofballs ready to strap metal phone holders onto our arms. We gave birth to this monster. In short, we created the hype for Fallout 4, so if you think it doesn’t live up to whatever “the hype” is, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Bethesda made a video game, showed it to us and then basically shut its metaphorical mouth.
At the end of the day, none of that even matters, as Fallout 4 is a masterpiece.
I could qualify that statement in a robotic, by the books fashion like countless other reviews for countless other games, including some of my own, have done. If you’re someone who reads every review they can when an embargo lifts, you’ll likely read the same passages about how you can play Fallout 4 like an actual video game and how much there is to do. Hell, you’ll read some of those passages in this review. What does that actually tell you? Are you, a clearly informed fan of video games, going to prefer to read about how a game’s gunplay feels, or are you going to want to experience that yourself? Fallout 4 is extraordinary not because of what its gameplay entails or what its main quest-line comprises of; Fallout 4 is 2015’s most immersive game because it provides an enrapturing alternate realm that is designed to consume your consciousness. No open world title to date has felt this dynamic and if you’re looking for an example of why journalists tore into Mad Max, this is it. Fallout 4 is the clearest example of what a sandbox game should deliver in 2015 and it’s going to shape our expectations for open-world experiences going forward.
As someone who resides in the Greater Boston area (yeah, there’s totally a bias here), it’s breathtaking to exist in a game world that illustrates what your home would look like in turmoil. I’ve passed through Park Street Station hundreds of times, so having a shootout in what that subway station would totally look like in apocalyptic 2277 makes for a harrowing set of moments. Seeing the real-life station twelve hours later found a way to distort my perception in a way that no game has, as the line between reality and fiction became smaller than ever. By comparison, Infamous Second Son‘s dumbed down version of Seattle feels like child’s play compared to the Commonwealth, and that’s saying something considering Sucker Punch did a darn good job in creating mini-Seattle. Even though some of the Commonwealth’s geography and nomenclature doesn’t make a great deal of sense (namely the fact that you can leave Park Street and instantly hit Back Bay, which is a good six miles away), the idea that Massachusetts could have been different in this alternate future allows for a bit of leeway here. Who’s to say that Concord wouldn’t be this close to Cambridge in the midst of a futuristic Cold War? Because of this, the Commonwealth feels like the perfect mashup of fiction and reality. Fallout 4 is astoundingly respectful of the source material while not being so tied to it that immersion suffers; this is absolutely a Fallout sandbox in every sense of the term, but it’s also the best version of Boston we’ve seen in any game to date.
Fallout is perhaps the only series whose overall narrative is so wonderful that it transcends its respective main quests. Make no mistake, there is a compelling tale at the heart of Fallout 4 thanks to the mind-blowing nature of a character who loses all sense of time thanks to cryogenic freezing, but Fallout 4 is more about you. You’re dropped into a lonely, emotionally vapid world with the opportunity to do whatever you want, so traditional video game rules cease to apply here. Judging Fallout 4 on the back of its main narrative alone is an exercise that wastes everyone’s time, and while there are a lot of questions that you’ll wind up getting answers to, this is merely one piece of the puzzle. The main character of every Fallout game has been the setting, and while you’re likely to enjoy your time with your created character’s personal journey, that’s only one thing for you to do. The Wasteland doesn’t care about a Vault Dweller who was frozen and thawed; it exists in spite of every individual residing in it. Just as the rest of the world doesn’t care about your own personal problems, the Commonwealth doesn’t give a rat’s behind about whether or not you accomplish the most important mission of your life. There’s something stunningly poetic about this, and that’s why talking about the main quest line in any detail doesn’t really paint a picture of why Fallout 4 is so great.
2015 has been rife with water cooler moments, with games like Metal Gear Solid V and Bloodborne stealing conversations far and wide for the weeks after their respective launches. Fallout 4 might just be the best water cooler game of the year thanks to one simple fact: your friends are going to see things that you probably never will. The Commonwealth is loaded with moments and tasks both big and small for you to sink your teeth into, so the chances of two people following the exact same path are minute at best. Don’t believe this? Here’s an example: after completing one of the early main quests, a faint voice rung in the right side of my headphones and curiosity got the best of me. The source was a lone dweller, screaming about a kidnapping and banging on the door in front of her. Once I followed her inside and attempted to help her out of pure kindness, she led my character into an ambush that nearly resulted in death. Killing all of these Raiders and stealing their stuff simply replenished ammunition and health items, but this experience changed my time with Fallout 4 forever. How is anybody supposed to trust anyone when a random favor could wind up killing you? What reason would my character have for believing that every living being isn’t going to do something nefarious? This five minute detour shaped the way the Wasteland’s residents appear to me and this is something that you’ll likely never come across yourself. Think about that for a second.
Everything about Fallout 4 is deeply personal and that’s nowhere close to being a coincidence. Some view the Wasteland as the loneliest, saddest place around, while others see the inherent hope that lies within, so who’s to say that your experience is any more meaningful than anyone else’s? This is exactly what Bethesda intended. If you’re the type of person who just walks around for seventy hours before even tackling the second main story mission, then you’re no better or worse than the person who spends the vast majority of their time building the most robust Fallout settlement on the Internet. Fallout 4 redefines what it means to be a single player video game, as it gives you the chance to take any path you want in a world absolutely loaded with things to do. Sure, other games have technically accomplished this, and this isn’t meant to undermine any of those games, but no title in recent memory has provided players with more incentive to give up their worldly lives in favor of being whoever they want in a compelling virtual space. Four of my hours played were spent wandering around the Commonwealth in my underwear, stealing knick knacks from diners and office buildings, so how can anyone tell you what Fallout 4 truly is?
Yes, there is a paragraph above that says that spelling out gameplay mechanics makes for an uninteresting review reading experience, but there’s a few things that need to be addressed at some point. Of course, the thing you’ll notice right away is that you don’t have to rely on V.A.T.S anymore. Much like how the top-down camera in Dragon Age: Inquisition is entirely optional, Bethesda has revamped combat to the point where you can totally play Fallout 4 like a traditional shooter, with V.A.T.S. simply being icing on the cake. Whether it’s in first-person, third-person or done entirely through the V.A.T.S. menu, you can kill Super Mutants and Protectrons in any manner you please. This couldn’t be more of a treat for someone who, admittedly, isn’t the biggest fan of how Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas felt mechanically. Fallout 4‘s shooting feels a bit looser than that of the Bioshock games, which is perfectly acceptable for an open-world title this deep and robust. If you’re the type of gamer who doesn’t like to employ menu-based combat in a live-action game, then it’s absolutely time for you to jump on the Fallout bandwagon. Oh, and in case you were wondering: yes, it’s fun to shoot things in live-action with Power Armor on.
Easily the most important addition to Fallout 4, outside of Bethesda making, you know, the best open world in the history of video games, is the multitude of companions at your disposal. Codsworth, the British robot that you saw during the E3 presentation, is perhaps the most charming of the bunch; my character’s name, for literally no reason, is Jennifer Pembroke, and hearing this cheery fellow exclaim, “Miss Jennifer,” every once in a while is the type of small touch that makes Fallout 4 so endearing. From a mechanical standpoint, being able to transfer numerous items to your companion adds another dynamic to Fallout 4‘s robust loot and crafting system, as you now have the potential to carry far more than you have ever been able to in any other game in this franchise. Make no mistake, you’ll still get overburdened and you’ll absolutely have to drop or scrap items you once held dear, but being able to have Codsworth or Dogmeat be your personal junk-carrier is the only thing handier than Mr. Handy himself.
Just as most players won’t experience the same story or mood as their contemporaries, the majority of players will wield different weapons in different ways in different areas than their peers. Yes, out of context the previous sentence was largely nonsensical, but thanks to one of the most robust crafting systems in recent memory, an easy-to-understand (but deep-as-it-gets) progression system and the ability to build settlements to your liking make for an RPG experience all your own. Bethesda has given the world basic information as to what Fallout 4 is without actually telling us what to expect, and for good reason considering that it’s near impossible to expect anything when it comes to a title this open-ended. Long story short, every piece of junk in Fallout 4 can be used as a building block for some sort of creation, be it armor, weaponry, chems or settlement structures. To put this in different terms, you’ll probably have some sort of existential debate over whether you should search areas for more Wonderglue, as if a new Fallout game wasn’t enough on its own to rob you of your entire life. Unlike certain franchises, Fallout has been treated with the utmost respect, and this translates directly to its players. Creative minds will have just as much fun building and crafting as those simply looking to hear a good story, which shows just how much Bethesda cherishes the fans of this franchise. None of this had to be in Fallout 4 for it to be a wonderful experience that fans far and wide will love, but it is, and the entire product is much better for it.
When Bethesda first unveiled Fallout 4, hardcore fans of the franchise were shocked that the main character, someone who in past games was a Link-like avatar, actually had the ability to speak. Thanks to the inclusion of a fully-voiced protagonist, Fallout 4 feels like it actually does Bioware better than Bioware itself does. Sure, some of the dialogue can come across as a bit stiff, but never before has this franchise given players more of a sense of participation. Certain quests, like the hysterical Silver Shroud saga in Goodfellow, simply would not work with a silent protagonist, and when you combine quality conversation with the same level of writing that made Fallout into a phenomenon, the result is a game that is more immersive in its storytelling than any of its series predecessors. Everything from the conversations with your companion to pleas for NPCs to defend their actions are more dynamic thanks to two-sided conversations, and anyone who enjoys diving into some good old fashioned dialogue trees is going to have themselves a ball.
So after that brief bout of author hypocrisy (you know, the whole having a feature discussion after undermining the importance of feature discussions), it’s time to address the elephant that seems to poke its head into every Bethesda discussion. Fallout 4 is absolutely a Bethesda title, so if you were hoping for an experience with breathtaking visual quality and a dedicated absence of bizarre glitches, then this is not the game for you. Nothing is inherently broken, but then again, outside of Skyrim on PlayStation 3, none of Bethesda’s recent titles have been. On a PC whose components added up to around $1500 last December, Fallout 4 has some noticeable framerate drops. These are most notable in the Financial District and in tree-dense areas, and while you won’t really see anything under forty frames, this is not the smooth sixty frames-per-second experience that tech spec savants will hold near and dear to their hearts. Fallout 4 is no looker either, even though it’s gorgeous when taken as a whole. From blurry textures to awkward lip syncing, this is not the game that you’re going to point to when you think of the prettiest games of the generation. Combine this with the occasional freeze, subtitle hangup, ground clipping and a random dead body getting stuck to your leg here and there, and this is yet another title that will cause gamers to utter, “well, it’s a Bethesda game.” Here’s the thing, Fallout 4 is deserving of a pass here because it’s an amazing title, unlike, say, Assassin’s Creed Unity, which is still a lame video game in the absence of its technical issues. Still, it’s impossible not to wonder how spectacular this game would be if it was a perfectly polished experience.
The word “escape” gets thrown around in conversations about why video games are so appealing and never before has there been a title that is this worthy of that term. Fallout 4 contains what should go down as the best open world in the history of this medium considering the sheer wealth of meaningful content packed into it. Some people flock to sandbox games in hopes of checking off boxes, collecting garbage and simply passing time, and Fallout 4 feels like the strongest middle finger to this contingent in years. The Commonwealth is brilliantly designed, wonderfully executed and pays homage to one of the most unique cities in America in a way that will make fellow Bay Staters proud. Add all of this to a western role-playing game of unparalleled depth and the result is the one game that everyone with a PlayStation 4, Xbox One or capable PC should absolutely own. Whether you’re going to run around in your underpants stealing coffee cups and circuits, build the greatest Wasteland settlement known to man or simply take in all of the wonderful human stories littering the Commonwealth, it’s going to be tough not to fall in love with Fallout 4. This is the type of game that should be played with a spotter, as it’s way more appealing to play more Fallout 4 than it is to eat, drink or sleep. Good luck out there Vault Dweller and try not to literally die on us due to malnutrition.