Fallout 4’s post-apocalyptic Commonwealth is rather like most of present-day Australia: its landscape is largely barren and populated by things that want to kill you. This means that, for all its scale and ingenuity, its artistic ceiling is somewhat lower than other gameworlds which haven’t been devastated by nuclear war. It’s less obvious in Fallout 4 than Fallout 3, but nevertheless, you’ll rarely experience the sheer sense of wonder or astonishment that forms such a part of games like Skyrim or Witcher 3.
Fallout 4’s topography is also relatively flat. Whereas Skyrim is punctuated by mountain ranges and ridges, Fallout 4 instead relies on high-rise buildings to provide a vertical sense of scale. These are often impressive, and innovatively used in a few missions; but they’re normally climbed from the inside, which is a quite different experience from snaking round a snow-topped mountain. After a while I found myself skipping breezily along main roads between Fallout’s main settlements, and the overall pace of movement felt a bit free and easy. In a world where survival is so difficult for most of the population, it feels weird to be able to bomb around like the world’s greatest triathlete.
Meanwhile, the absence of a mount to travel on is a bit of a letdown. Most of the best open world games allow you to ride a horse (Skyrim, Witcher 3, Ocarina of Time, Red Dead Redemption), or at least vehicles (GTA). Mounts and vehicles provide an important way for the player to control pacing and also help situate the player avatar more completely in the world they inhabit, providing a sense of dignity that’s missing if your character is just scurrying around the world map… as they do here. A mount or horse would be the ultimate status symbol in Fallout’s world and it feels like an omission.
Fallout 4 does feature a dog companion, of course, who is very welcome. But it’s a shame you can’t bring your dog and another companion–it’s one or the other. This may have presented problems balancing the difficulty, but the upshot is that after the first few hours and one story mission you’re unlikely to use Dogmeat much. Plus, your companions tend to be quite ineffective for the most part anyway. They do, of course, play a very important role in developing your character and in helping him find a place in this strange world. Several of them are quite interesting and pleasant companions, but I was disappointed to find not all of them have their own companion quests. Building and maintaining rapport with your companions is an enjoyable part of the game but ultimately peripheral. It would have been nice if there was more of a way to incorporate it into the main story.
Fallout 4’s story is quite interesting, and the latter part of the game provides some thought-provoking scenarios and forces you to make some hard and perhaps unwelcome decisions. Unfortunately, at a certain point various faction questlines will be closed to you depending on your decisions, meaning a large amount of premium content is locked out of any normal playthrough. (Unless you start reloading save files, of course.) Compared to Skyrim’s wealth of guild storylines and Daedric quests, it’s a shame you can’t see more of Fallout’s faction quests through to the end.
It makes sense in the context of the story, but again highlights a tension I referred to in my earlier posts on this game. In these massive sandbox games, the story is best conceived as a servant of the format and of the player’s anticipated desire to explore the world and all the content it has to offer. The size of the game makes repeat playthroughs problematic. In Fallout 4, the story instead has an emotional pitch and starkness which comes into conflict with the game’s structure and innate rhythm. The game certainly has its memorable moments, as well as incredible elements of emergent gameplay. But other games have done it better.
Fallout 4’s gunplay is a strong point, as is its melee combat. The game has a strong sense of humour (and a strong stomach) in keeping with the sensibilities and expectations of its target demographic. It also features a plethora of customization options for weapons, particularly, and armour, as well as a well-developed and engrossing settlement-building mechanic. There is probably less here in the way of main story and content than in vanilla Skyrim (I clocked Fallout 4 in 100 hours; Skyrim was 150) but settlements can sustain hundreds of hours of investment in themselves. For all of Preston Garvey’s exhortations to take back the Commonwealth, its building settlements rather than blasting Raiders that would really point a way forward, and it’s a shame they didn’t find a way to incorporate this aspect more into the game’s story.
There is a lot coming in the way of Fallout 4 DLC, which may improve the ultimate experience; in the way, say, that Mass Effect 3’s Leviathan expansion managed to amplify and deepen how you experienced the rest of the story. But for now, Fallout 4 feels to me like just an excellent game, rather than anything more profound.