It is a calm morning on October 23rd, 2077 when, coincidentally, minutes after you reserved a place for yourself and your family at the local vault, the first bombs begin to hit the village of Sanctuary, a few kilometers away from Boston, forcing you to flee the city and seek refuge. It’s a few minutes prior to this event that Fallout 4 story begins as you and your better half are staring into a mirror, trying to get ready for a gala night.
This lovely bathroom scene is what introduces you to the character customization screen and from here you can define both of your facial appearances and choose your body types. The system allows you to pick from a variety of presets as well as directly drag and reshape parts of your face, such as your nose, chin, cheeks, eyes, and eye brows. It took me quite a lot of tinkering to get a satisfying result primarily due to one of Fallout 4‘s most annoying flaws on PC: the totally counter-intuitive user interface that will accompany you throughout your journey.
the controls system tries to emulate a joypad on a keyboard
It is immediately clear that the game was designed and realized with a joypad in mind and that, when porting the title to PC, Bethesda decided to emulate the dual analog sticks by using the directional and WASD keys. This, and the fact that the “confirm” and “exit” buttons will randomly change from ENTER, to TAB, to ESCAPE or to a letter, make navigating menus a lot harder than it should be and will take a few moments to get used to, unless you decide to plug in a controller. The game also seems to have inherited a few other features from its console version such as cursor acceleration while aiming and a fixed Field of View (FOV). Both of these cannot be changed via the in-game or launcher menus and result in an uncomfortable gameplay experience especially while using larger guns that will end up covering the whole right side of your screen. A dedicated key for grenades has been added to the game, but is bound to the same key that you’ll use to bash your enemies with your main weapon: tapping the key will result in your character hitting an unlucky opponent with the equipped weapon’s butt, holding it will pull the pin on your equipped grenade and ready it for tossing. A rather simple system at first, it will reveal its flaw as soon as your character is cornered by a group of critters and you start to frantically mash the button in an attempt to escape, eventually holding it down just long enough to send your enemies, along with your own severed limbs, flying in a picturesque firework of blood and guts.
Fast forwarding through the intro, which sees you entering the vault, being put in cryogenic stasis, and, after witnessing the brutal murder of your significant other,the kidnapping of your only son. Thawing and escaping to the surface, you’re thrown into the wasteland that makes up 90 percent of Fallout 4‘s locations. After finding a Pip Boy right before leaving the vault and being finally allowed to access your inventory, which was somehow unavailable to you for the whole duration of the first part of the game, you then decide to return to your former home where you meet your loyal robo-butler Codsworth, a Mr Handy that apparently survived the nuclear apocalypse and that informs you that roughly 200 years have passed (210 years according to your Pip Boy internal date, which now reads Oct 23rd, 2287).
Narration follows a quickly changing pace and results in confusion rather than being enthralling
There’s no time to mourn your family though, as Codsworth immediately suggests to visit the neighboring village of Concord and meet the local population. Travelling to Concord will introduce you to the first of Fallout 4‘s factions, the Minutemen, who require your help to survive an assault by raiders and that will mark the beginning of the main storyline. Writing and narration in Fallout 4 tend to follow different pacing at times, as is easily noticeable in this segment of the game. Only a few minutes pass from escaping Vault 111 to saving the Minutemen and leading them back to Sanctuary, where they decide to settle and rebuild the village. This results, especially later in the game, in a story that tends to be confusing rather than enthralling, and that is easily forgettable. The game also almost forces you to feel something for the characters and factions you’ll meet during your travels but doesn’t accomplish this because most of these are so superficially developed to completely fail in evoking any kind of feeling.
This also applies to the various companions you can choose from. The companions system is more evolved than what we’ve seen in previous iterations of the series and now lets you talk to your buddies, order them around with increased accuracy, and even exploit their unique sets of skills to unlock alternative paths to a quest objective. Moreover, chatting with a companion will disclose additional details on their personality, the events unfolding around you and their take on the world. It’s almost a shame that, exception made for Piper and Nick Valentine, most of them just utter generic and forgettable lines. The fact that your companions will often screw with your attempts to remain undetected by directly charging at an enemy even while in stealth mode, their tendency to get stuck in doorways and the “Lone Wanderer” perk, which increases your stats while travelling alone, coupled with the aforementioned run-off-the-mill lines, will push you toward letting them rest in one of the settlements you’ll end up discovering rather than asking them to tag along.
Returning to Sanctuary, now known as Sanctuary Hills, unlocks the last two of Fallout 4 novelty features: gear customization and the ability to build structures and villages. As you reach the village, the Minutemen will ask you to aid them in the reconstruction by providing them with a few necessary amenities such as a power generator, a water source, shelter, beds, and a food production facility. This is by far the part of the game where you’ll sink most of your time and one of the worst when playing Fallout 4 on your PC.
While the related E3 trailer showed a system where everything “just worked” and would nicely fit in with the rest of the environment, reality is a lot more dire. Placing items in the world is a pain whenever you are trying to build on anything else than a perfectly flat surface as the items will magically float several inches above the ground rather than gently resting on it as they should. While placing furniture, aligning it with the rest of your house or rotating it using the mouse buttons remains one of the most difficult actions you can perform within the game and will almost never succeed, as you have to resort to rotating your whole character for your items to be placed correctly. Managing your village is also a rather confusing task. Each structure you build, besides shelters and beds, will need one or several settlers to be assigned to it in order to properly function. Settlers have to be manually assigned by choosing among the ones living in your settlement and then commanding them to the resource.
While this seems like unnecessary work, as the game could have just been designed to automatically assign settlers to resources as long as unemployed ones were available, the matter is further complicated by the fact that assigned settlers, except Provisioners, special NPCs in charge of supply lines connecting your villages, will not be labeled in any way, resulting in cases where you will pick settlers from the crowd and assign them to a new structure just to discover that you just took workforce away from your farm or from one of your shops.
The gear customization system does its work quite well and allows a decent degree of customization for both your weapons and armor. Through the use of workbenches, you’ll be able to craft scopes, improved magazines, barrels, and other parts or to add bits and pieces to your traditional or Power Armor. As both systems rely on junk items to be used as a source for materials, this process highlights the fact that the developers decided to maintain the same encumbrance system already seen in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. While in the previous episodes junk was relegated to being a mass of useless items that you could pick up and sell for caps at your discretion, these items now play a central role in Fallout 4 as they can be scrapped for steel, copper, wood and other useful materials. You will be inclined to pick up as much as you can just to make sure you have the required parts for that much awaited upgrade, only to find out that you can no longer run under the weight of all that stuff. Fortunately, your companions seem to be totally immune to the laws of physics and will happily let you unload some of your gear on their backs. You can also decide to invest some of your skill points in the “Strong Back” perk, which increases your maximum carry weight by a set amount with each level.
Quantity does not mean quality
Once this segment is over, you’re left to your own device as you explore the Boston wasteland. Fallout 4 is still an impressive game in size and content and can take up to entire weeks to be explored. Returning to the wasteland still feels great and a more interactive and dynamic world featuring changing weather, different biomes and where NPCs react to your choices render the journey a lot more pleasant. Quantity does not mean quality though and most of the side quests will require your character to liberate a certain location from monsters or raiders, fetch a specific item, follow a radio signal or aid a minor NPC from one of the factions in the game, with just enough exceptions to keep you interested enough to play through the title. Even the Diamond City radio station, which is the background to one of the most intriguing side quests in the game, won’t be safe from the “curse of the reused assets” as most of the songs that play are taken straight from previous episodes of the series. Other assets from Fallout 3 or from other Bethesda titles can also be spotted if you look closely, like the hammer-on-metal sound that is played while customizing weapons being the same one you could hear while using a forge in Skyrim or some terrain textures being a rescaled version of those used in New Vegas.
The main story is a rather short one and revolves around the kidnapping of Shaun, your only child. As you struggle to reunite with your family, you’ll be presented with a series of challenges and tasks and end up deciding the fate of the whole region. The plot is a weak and rather predictable one and lacks the character and twists that made the previous Fallout games so interesting. While featuring a few choices that will radically change the ending, these can be identified and fully understood way before they are presented to you. As the final battle closed in, I found myself wondering if Fallout 4 was in fact all there or if during one of my compulsive-hoarding induced looting expeditions I missed an important part of the story. As the credits roll, a generic recap is thrown at you along with the famous “war, war never changes,” a quote which Bethesda managed to transform into a mantra and that is used three times within the first five minutes, draining all forms of meaning from it and making it quite annoying to hear.
All things considered, Fallout 4 is a title that, in its current status, does not meet the expectations Bethesda set for us when it was first announced, at least on PC. The machine that was used for this review sported an AMD GPU and processor on top of an ASUS motherboard and while satisfying the minimum and recommended requirements it was unable to run the game at a steady framerate. The 60 FPS the game is locked at would drop down to 40 in crowded areas and at times inexplicably reach the low 10s in some parts of the Boston ruins such as the Freedom Trail or the Trinity Tower rendering the game unplayable regardless of the chosen performance settings. In these events the hardware would result as only partially used, probably due to the fact that the game has been designed and optimized for Nvidia GPUs and a patch is yet to be released. Having to manually access and edit the engine configuration files in order to alter the field of view or to permanently disable specific visual effects or mouse acceleration in an attempt to prevent FPS from dropping or to improve smoothness also detracted from the experience, ultimately pushing me away from the title rather than reeling me in. As with other Fallout games, the modding community and the developer will soon make sure most of these glitches, none of which can be considered game-breaking, will be patched and that more content will be added to Fallout 4. “Please Stand By” then and unless you really can’t resist only play this game in a few months when the bugs have been ironed out and more content has been patched in.