"Fallout 4" is the most anticipated game of the year, although you probably didn't have to be told that. Odds are, you've heard of the game through its ubiquitous marketing (including the mobile game "Fallout Shelter" that's been teasing eager players for months) and you've got more than a passing interest in getting your hands on Bethesda Softworks' latest post-apocalyptic adventure. If you've played previous Fallout games you know what to expect from this installment, but if you're someone who's only seen advertisements, you may want to take a seat.
Here's the setup: In 2077, humanity is heavily reliant on nuclear energy. As a result, the world stands on the brink of war -- and, as you might guess, somebody detonates a few atomic bombs on U.S. soil. You and your family are evacuated to the nearby Vault 111, run by the seemingly benevolent Vault-Tec, to wait out the bombs' effects. To make a long story short, things don't pan out the way your character expect them to, and some time later you must venture out of the vault. The nuclear fallout has ruined everything, however, and you're going to have to find some answers, and fix the broken mess the world has become while you're at it.
You'll probably want to stock up on Nuka Cola. Like other open-world games released this year, "Fallout 4" doesn't respect your time -- it will consume weeks of your life. There's so much content here that it'll probably take you 100 or more hours to truly finish the game.
If you're new to the franchise, be warned that the wastelands are not a forgiving place. "Fallout 4" poses a challenge, and it will slap you down any chance it gets. It's purposefully difficult. There's limited ammunition and most of the guns aren't that powerful at first. There are times when this is frustrating, of course -- this is one of those games where the "Save Early, Safe Often" mantra will become your personal motto -- but challenge is welcome. Gunplay is usually slow, and often your enemies will overwhelm you in real-time combat.
That's where the definitive feature of "Fallout 4" comes in. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, aka VATS. With the press of a button, time slows and the game allows you to shoot at specific parts of your enemies. There's something incredibly satisfying about blowing an enemy away with a shotgun in slow motion. To new players, this may feel a bit like cheating at first, but the wastelands are stacked so highly against you that you'll need to use VATS at every possible chance to stay alive. At least until you build an arsenal of super weapons.
You won't be doing that for a while, though. This is the post-apocalypse after all, so you'll have to wander far and wide to find materials and people to help you survive. But if you're diligent (and you allocate points to the right perks) you will be able to build insane weapons. For example, one gun you can build fires railroad spikes -- yes, the kind you've seen in old westerns -- that can rip off enemy limbs and nail them to wall. There's another that fires concentrated pockets of radiation that incinerate everything before you. Once you start climbing the ranks, you'll be able to bounce around the world, decimating everything before you with massively deadly and sometimes hilarious weapons.
You're going to be in the wastelands for a while before that happens, though. And through all that exploration, you'll see just how broken nuclear war has left this once-proud section of Massachusetts, dubbed the Commonwealth.
The wastelands are more often than not some mix of gray and brown, and it's easy to get bogged down in that, although that’s kind of the point the game is attempting to make. There are remnants of the old world, but they've lost their vibrancy. The new world feels hopeless. Until you look up: You'll see the brightest, clearest skies that humanity has viewed in a long time. The evening sunset is positively gorgeous, and there's really nothing that touches the brilliance of the Commonwealth's star-studded night sky. Too bad humanity had to bring itself near extinction for anybody to pay attention, a metaphor "Fallout 4" conveys subtly.
As I was picking my way through an abandoned brewery somewhere in the wastelands about 10 hours into the game, I blurted out, "When is something interesting supposed to happen?" I was bored, even after running through a few of the main story quests. "This is the hill I'm going to die on," I thought then. "Fallout 4" has very dedicated fans, and I imagine the reaction to these statements won't be particularly positive. So it goes.
To be fair, I praised the sheer number of activities and quests available in "Dragon Age: Inquisition," a game similar to "Fallout 4" in at least its open-world nature. However, "Dragon Age" had a decently captivating plot and, more importantly, charismatic characters who invest you in their world, make you laugh and pull the story along. "Fallout 4" doesn't have either of those things. It's not that the game doesn't give you things to do. It gives you far more than anybody could reasonably expect. It's that it doesn't really supply a consistent set of reasons to want to do those things.
The story itself isn't the problem: It's the pacing. "Fallout 4" is a very, very slow game. And I'm not exaggerating this point for effect: The first five to 10 hours after you leave Vault 111 is mostly spent trying not to die at the hands of a random mole rat and on farming side quests to gain enough strength to push through the main ones. But the side quests often involve boring nonplayable characters (NPCs) you’ll never interact with after the quest is done. There's never really a reason to care about what's going on, even as some quests have you defending downtrodden settlements.
The main characters don't really help matters, either. Some of your companions are mildly interesting, but for the most part there's not much to talk about. Conversations are usually bland and boring, aside from the sarcastic lines your character can spit out assuming you're so inclined. Nobody grabbed my attention right away, and nobody will stick in my memory (with the possible exception of Codsworth the robot). After 20 or so hours, when you've got a nice set of perks and a decent arsenal with which to complete some of the bigger quests, the story does get a bit more interesting, but I'm not confident saying that the payoff is worth the investment. As a newcomer, it's hard to really care about the fate of the wastelands.
There has been some concern about Fallout 4's map as well, namely that it's too small. The truth of the matter is, yes The Commonwealth does look small. If you compare it to the aforementioned "Dragon Age: Inquisition" or even "Borderlands," it seems like a much less spacious expanse. But it does score some points for its density; while northern sections of the map are suburban/rural, much of the main game takes place in an urban setting with tons of hostile inhabitants packed into small spaces. Even so, there is so much to discover and collect in these locales that the world map never feels small. Put it this way: you're still going to be thankful for fast travel.
"Fallout 4" is by no means a bad game, but, past the veneer of ruined Americana, I'm having a difficult time believing it's going to live up to the hype preceding it, at least for those who are new to the series. The pacing deflates an otherwise interesting character motivation. But there is a staggering number of things to do, places to find and Deathclaws to challenge. If you’re looking for a grind or already a "Fallout" fan, "Fallout 4" will be more of what you love -- I'm just not seeing what's really in it for newcomers.
"Fallout 4" was reviewed with a PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by Bethesda Softworks. It released Nov. 10, 2015, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.