“Fallout” is one of those rare video game series that seeps into mainstream culture.
It breaks through to the folks who may only play the occasional “Call of Duty,” “Madden,” or “Grand Theft Auto,” and for good reason: the “Fallout” series is excellent.
It’s silly, and thoughtful, and entertaining, and depressing. It asks more from players than most games, but it gives out so, so much in return. It’s a series that raises the bar of the entire medium.
The latest entry, “Fallout 4,” raises the bar another several notches. It’s easily one of the best games released this year, if not in the last several years or more.
So, what is it?
You’ve likely seen ads at this point on your bus ride, or on TV, or at your local subway turnstile (like my commute this past week). “What’s ‘Fallout 4?'” you might be asking.
“Fallout 4” is a game that primarily revolves around shooting enemies, navigating conversations, and exploring the remains of the Boston metropolitan area. But that’s as reductive as saying “Star Wars” revolves around shooting storm troopers, navigating conversations, and exploring space.
What “Fallout 4” really revolves around is making your own story within a detailed world.
Hundreds of people at Bethesda Game Studios meticulously crafted a structured sandbox made up of systems. Shooting is one piece of that sandbox — one “system” — as is sneaking, as is persuasion, etc. The interplay of those systems, bound together by the main story at the heart of “Fallout 4,” is what makes it such a delight.
This is the “story” of “Fallout 4”:
You’re a [insert type of person here] out to find out what happened to your stolen child, in a world still reeling from nuclear war 200 years earlier. How you get from A to B, where you go in between the two, and who you make the journey as, is entirely up to you.
My “Fallout 4” story
This is Vikki:
Vikki just left Vault 111, located in the suburbs of Boston, in the year 2277. She’s been cryogenically frozen for about 200 years — she went into a deep freeze on the day that nuclear bombs detonated along the eastern seaboard.
This wasn’t supposed to be Vikki’s story.
She had a husband, a newborn baby, and a nice house. She had a law degree, and was getting excited to use it once more. But then the bombs dropped, hitting places like Washington D.C. and New York City before reaching Boston. Vikki had just enough time to run to the fallout shelter, Vault 111, as the first bombs reached Boston.
Unfortunately for Vikki, the fallout shelter she and her family sought refuge in was actually one of dozens of live human experiments. In the case of Vault 111, the experiment was to see how long humans could survive cryogenic freezing.
Fast-forward 200 years and the vault’s management is long dead, as are many of Vikki’s former neighbours. She wakes up just long enough to see her husband, frozen across from her, roused from sleep. The baby — her son — is stolen from her husband’s arms by what looks like an extra from “Mad Max.” Oh, and her husband gets shot in the head.
Her baby is missing. Her husband is dead. The world is destroyed after a nuclear apocalypse.
So begins my story in “Fallout 4.” Mine is a tale of revenge. This is Vikki:
But that’s my “Fallout 4.” Yours is whatever you make it.
Your “Fallout 4” story
Above all else, “Fallout 4” is about choice. I’m playing as a tall white lady named Vikki with a bone to pick.
You could very well play it as a charming, handsome, four-foot-tall black man. Or a middle-aged Latina who’s great with swords. Or a whole mess of other options. The character creation is robust, and the choices you make in the game reflect the personality you put into your character.
Don’t like fighting? Bump up your charisma ability and charm people to death (sometimes literally!):
Don’t like sneaking? Charge in guns blazing if you like, just make sure you’re tough enough to deal with the enemy at hand:
Most of all, the decisions you make in conversation with the game’s enormous cast of characters — and the actions you take as a result of those conversations — impact your character’s story.
- Are you going to help those settlers being terrorised by a supermutant, or do you continue down the road?
- Are you going to talk down this “boss” character, or pull a gun?
- Do you blow up this entire city, or take down the organisation planting the explosives?
The choice is yours, and it ultimately impacts your relationships with characters — and, sometimes, entire factions — in the greater narrative you’re weaving.
Style and Substance
For me, what appeals above all else in “Fallout 4” is its perfect mix of style and substance.
The world feels fully realised in a way few games are able to achieve, from the Cold War-era rhetoric, to the grim reality of life in the post-apocalypse. Goofy jokes about radioactivity are juxtaposed with the murderous, harsh world that civilisation descended into after advanced society was wiped clean in a flash of white hot heat.
References to the cheeky, wink-and-a-nod style of the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s are quite literally littered throughout the game. Look no further than this signature “Nuka Cola” advertisement for evidence:
Even the user interface looks like it was designed for a a computer from the age of floppy disks. This is from the inside of a suit of “power armour,” which is a giant metal outfit that essentially turns your character into a tank:
And here’s the “Fallout 4” version of an iPhone:
But all of that style is built into the substance.
The Nuka Cola doubles as a health restoration tool, though it poisons you with a bit of radiation in the process. The power armour helps you defeat especially tough enemies, and it’s powered by an atomic core (thus playing into the “atomic age” theme). The Pip-Boy is your inventory management, your map, your radio, and so much more — like the game’s computers, it’s monochromatic.
And all of this style and substance is set within a massive, open world based on real-world Boston, Mass.
Are you ready to visit Fenway Park in its new incarnation? It’s now known as Diamond City, and it’s home to a scattered group of survivors. Oh, and the mayor might be a secret robot. Nobody’s sure.
Or how about the new Mass Pike Tunnel, which is full of mutated ghouls? It’s even scarier than rush hour traffic! In Boston Common, there’s a monster hiding under a swan. So, uh, maybe don’t go for a swan ride there. And on Newbury Street, the comic book store is full of nightmares (and a few comics that survived the apocalypse, like Grognak the Barbarian).
From Cambridge to Concord, and Lexington to The Fens, “Fallout 4’s” Commonwealth is a love letter to the Boston area — albeit a love letter told through the scope of nuclear obliteration. Even in the 23rd century, apparently, people from the Boston area are poking fun at Southie accents while using “wicked” in common vernacular.
Around every corner is a new story
Despite the apocalypse, The Commonwealth is full of characters.
There are settlers scattered everywhere — these are essentially loose, peaceful survivors trying to make it in a harsh world.
There are also raiders scattered everywhere — these are also loose survivors, but they’re making it in the harsh world with the edge of a knife. They don’t want to talk with their words, if you know what I’m saying.
And that’s to say nothing of the supermutants, who are mostly interested in destroying humans. They also — rarely — take an interest in Shakespeare:
It’s these characters that provide the strongest backbone of “Fallout 4”: dialog and storytelling.
Around every corner there’s another shockingly deep, thoroughly developed story with its own variety of characters. Sometimes those stories factor into the main story, and many times they don’t. Many are entirely optional, waiting for you to find them with your own curiosity.
That’s a risk many games don’t take these days, and it’s a huge component of what makes “Fallout 4” such a compelling package. No other component so single-handedly delivers on the promise of making your own story in “Fallout 4.” It leads to the kind of conversations I’ve been having with my colleague Dave Smith across the past week, where we’ll play the same missions entirely differently than each other, or he’ll find something I don’t (and vice versa).
Much of our conversation revolved around how totally different our experiences were with the same game. That’s thrilling and cannot be overstated.
You should almost certainly play “Fallout 4”
There is only one caveat to my otherwise straightforward recommendation of “Fallout 4”: it’s a really, really long game. Even if you’re mainlining the story and not exploring the densely-packed, delightful world of “Fallout 4,” you’re looking at dozens of hours of game here.
For some, that may be a major bonus. For you folks, I salute your copious free time.
For many, staring down the barrel of 50 hours with a single game is both daunting and unrealistic. You’ve got a family, and a dog, and stuff to do — we’re with you. If you’re ok with dedicating small pockets of free time to a relatively massive undertaking, “Fallout 4” is still for you. Realistically speaking, you should be aware of what you’re getting into here.
All that aside, “Fallout 4” is a remarkable package. It’s exciting and emotional and funny and dark. It’s a game with more memorable stories and characters than most entire game franchises. It’s a blast to play, and it’s one of very few games I’m willing to dedicate 100 or more hours to this year.
If you’re crazy like me, “Fallout 4” is perfect for you.
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