Fallout 4 Review (XONE)

Fallout 4 screen
Fallout 4 screen. Bethesda

The most striking thing about Fallout 4 - after spending about 40 hours with it so far and counting - is that for every way that it is similar to Fallout 3, there are a ton of changes or brand new mechanics that change the way the game is played.  The core of the experience is still scrounging around in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland trying to survive, but how you level up, how you use power armor, how you interact with NPCs, and how you fight are all remarkably fresh and different from past games.

  It's still decidedly Bethesda's brand of Fallout, but deeper and more rewarding and even more addictive than before.  Fallout 4 is just a fantastic experience all around that no Xbox fan should miss.

Game Details

  • Publisher:  Bethesda
  • Developer: Bethesda         
  • ESRB Rating: “M" for Mature
  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Pros:  Incredibly dense world with lots to see; awesome story missions; tons and tons of side quests; crafting system; solid gameplay; solid presentation; no level cap
  • Cons:  Sub-par dialogue system; doesn't carry over New Vegas' gameplay improvements; small map

Story and Setting

Fallout 4 takes place in The Commonwealth, the bombed-out remnants of Massachusetts some 200-ish years after nuclear war destroyed civilization as we know it.  Your character is a Vault Dweller who was placed in cryo-sleep when the war began (you do play a little bit before the bombs drop, and it is absolutely chilling) who wakes up to find the world destroyed, your partner dead, and your infant son missing.

  The story then unleashes you out into the wasteland to try to find your son.  Your enemy, besides raiders, rabid dogs, super mutants, deathclaws, and other nasties, is The Institute - a highly technologically advanced organization that terrorizes The Commonwealth with androids called synths.  No one actually knows what The Institute really is or where it is located, however.

  Find The Institute and you'll likely find your son, but you don't find The Institute, The Institute finds you.

The story of Fallout 4 isn't just about your search for your son, however.  It is also about The Commonwealth as a whole and trying to make it a better place for the people that inhabit it.  You meet up with a group called The Minutemen and through them build a network of settlements that all work together to help each other survive.  The Brotherhood of Steel has a massive presence and are the main army behind you in your fight against The Institute.  You also meet a number of NPC companions that can join you on your journey, and each one has their own backstory and missions.  There are stories on top of stories on top of stories here, and unraveling them always ultimately leads back to the boogeyman of The Commonwealth, The Institute.

The main story and characters you meet are solid (and there are some truly great ones like Nick Valentine ...), but the overall writing isn't quite on the same level as New Vegas.  Side missions in NV were well written no matter how simple they were, but 99% of NPCs in FO4 have absolutely nothing of value to say.  Of course, your character doesn't ever have anything interesting to say either, so dialogue usually boils down to banal pleasantries without saying anything important.

  The new dialogue system gives you four choices for every conversation - usually some variations of Yes, No, Sarcasm, Threats, Questions, or occasionally more specific things affected by your Charisma - and what your character says doesn't always match what you expect based on your choice, which leads to outcomes you probably didn't really want (like Mass Effect or L.A. Noire).  The dialogue just isn't that great.

The Commonwealth isn't a huge area, unfortunately, so players hoping for a bigger map than Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are going to be disappointed.  What it lacks in square mileage, however, it makes up in sheer density.

 There are a somewhat ridiculous amount of named locations all over the place instead of the long stretches of bland nothingness like in past games.  All of these locations have something important tucked away in them as well, so thorough exploration is always rewarded  Even better, locations actually repopulate with not just enemies, but items as well a while after you clear them out, which is important due to the crafting system and fact there is no level cap in Fallout 4.  What all of this means is that while the map isn't huge, there is tons of stuff to see and you won't ever run out of things to do.

For more post apocalyptic games on Xbox One, check out Sunset Overdrive, Dead Rising 3Mad Max, Borderlands, State of Decay, and Dying Light.

Gameplay

Fallout 4's gameplay is just like FO3 and NV on the surface, but it is very different once you start digging in.  You can still play in a first or third-person perspective and can choose to either shoot in real time (which still isn't great, to be honest) or use the V.A.T.S. system that slows down time and lets your character automatically target enemies and shoot.  This all works the same as ever.  Somewhat disappointingly, things like the different ammo types from NV or having to repair weapons that wore out didn't make their way to FO4.  Now everything lasts forever (except power armor) and there's just one ammo type.  A shame cause I really liked the different ammo types. 

The major differences from past games start becoming more apparent in the way the difficulty is balanced, however.  Your character takes a long time to level up before they are decently accurate, and the weapons you spend the first large chunk of the game with pretty much suck.  Ammo is scarce.  Health items are scarce.  Enemies take an absurd amount of hits to kill.  Radiation actually builds up surprisingly quickly, and managing it with Rad-X and Rad Away is a full time job.  Thankfully, deathclaws actually got nerfed pretty hard here, so even though they are bigger and scarier looking than ever, they aren't instant deaths the moment they spot you anymore like they are in New Vegas.  With that said, as a whole there is no question that Fallout 4 is a more challenging game than the last two even on the easiest difficulty.  You feel much more like you're actually fighting for survival and really have to scrounge for every single stimpack and bobby pin and bullet you can get your hands on, which makes the experience even more immersive than ever.

You would think that getting your hands on some power armor would make the experience easier, but that isn't the case here.  You actually get a suit of power armor within a few minutes of entering the wasteland but, once again, Bethesda flips the script and changes how power armor works.  Power armor is now a skeletal frame that you attach different pieces of armor to, so you can mix and match helmet, torso, arms and legs from different power armor designs into one suit.  Power armor also now requires a battery of sorts in the form of fusion cores. 

A fusion core only lasts a few minutes, and while you can still slowly move with no power, you're pretty much dead in the water.  For the first several hours of the game, fusion cores are a precious resource that you steal from power generators or you might randomly find one while scavenging.  I would usually leave my armor at my base and then come back for it when I needed it a lot of the time because fusion cores were so hard to come by.  Eventually, though, you do reach a point where you have access to an almost unlimited supply of them (and can get perks to make them last longer), so it isn't much of an issue anymore.  For your first several hours (and depending on what order you do missions, perhaps the first 20-30 hours ...), however, power armor is best saved for emergencies instead of something you wear all the time.

The two biggest changes in Fallout 4 are the addition of an extensive crafting system and the way you level up.  Crafting and weapon mods were introduced on a smaller scale in New Vegas, but Fallout 4 just goes nuts with it.  Now you can create crazy fully customized weapons that combine all sorts of features.  You can fully customize and change your armor and can even do things to power armor like giving it a built in stealth boy or automatic stimpacks.  And, biggest and most importantly, you can now build settlements and bases and attract people to live at them.  You can build buildings and decorate and furnish them, as well as build defenses to protect your people against raiders.  You can even build shops and assign your settlers to work at them in order to generate income. 

All of the customization and base building requires resources, of course, which is where Fallout 4 really comes into its own.  In past games you'd find tons of worthless crap that was just there to make the world feel real and lived in.  Things like silverware and dishes and toasters and other junk.  They were all pointless, though.  In Fallout 4, all of those items, and literally everything else in the world, are as good as gold because you can break them down and use them as materials for your crafting.  There are dozens of material types you need in order to build stuff, so picking up everything you see becomes second nature.  It also means you have to carry a lot of weight around, so I recommend investing in Strength points.  In order to build more complicated and cool stuff, you also need the proper perks as well, so the really impressive things aren't available for quite a while.

Which brings us to the other huge change - leveling up.  Fallout 4 doesn't have a level cap and also doesn't have skill points anymore (you know, separate point values for lockpicking, energy weapons, sneak, etc.).  Now you just have your 7 S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes along with 70 perks (most with multiple levels) that you can invest a point in each time you level up.  So you have 7 core attributes, each with 10 points each, plus 70 perks (ten for each S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute, get it) with multiple levels to apply points to.  Want to pick the highest level locks or hack difficult computers?  You have to choose those specific perks.  You can't just pick any perk you want, of course, as they are governed by an overall level requirement as well as a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. rank requirement.  The idea is that, since there is no level cap and the game gives you a pretty much endless series of side quests while also repopulating the world with items / enemies, you can just play forever until you maxed out everything.  You also find bobbleheads and skill books that boost your stats and give you extra perks as well.  The game is just totally huge and absolutely nuts with how much content it has.

When you put it all together, Fallout 4 is just a huge game that draws you in like no other.  Just about everything you do is enjoyable, too.  Building bases and customizing weapons is fascinating.  Wandering the wasteland and exploring every building and cave and crevice you come across is just as fun and addictive as ever.  I have to admit that I didn't even really touch the main story until I was 25 hours in and was having a great time just helping settlements and exploring and doing side missions that popped up.  Then I started doing story missions, and they turned out to be some of the coolest missions I've ever played in a Fallout game.  Fallout 4 overwhelms you with stuff to do, but constantly rewards you with new weapons / armor / XP / perks for doing all of it which just keeps you playing. 

Graphics & Sound

Fallout 4's visuals have been a sore spot for many a blog commenter and forum poster.  It is true that it isn't a show-stopping current-gen game, but it does still look quite good overall and absolutely looks better than FO3 or NV.  Everything has a lot more detail than before, and there is a lot more "stuff" all over.  More items.  More enemies.  Better special effects.  Actual weather like rain and thunderstorms along with truly frightening radiation storms.  I have to say I also like the re-designs of the enemies.  Feral ghouls, deathclaws, radscorpions, and mirelurks have never looked more horrifying.  Human characters were overhauled as well, but still look kind of fugly.  There are some sequences where you're in the middle of massive battles with dozens of A.I. all fighting each other, and it is hard not to be impressed with the visuals after seeing explosions all over and lasers filling the screen.  You will experience some slowdown occasionally in these hectic sequences, but for the most part the framerate has held up pretty well in my experience. 

The sound is solid overall.  The soundtrack borrows a few songs from Fallout 3 while introducing a few old-timey nuclear-themed songs of its own.  Once again, a fantastic orchestral soundtrack from Inon Zur hits at just the right moments as well.  Voice acting quality is on a per-character basis - some are great, some are not so great.  Your character is fully voiced this time around, but rarely says anything worthwhile to justify it (really only during story missions and when talking to companions).  It seems like the dialogue overall was dumbed down to accommodate having a voiced main character, and I don't think it was worth the trade off.

Performance

Seeing as this is a Bethesda title, overall game performance deserves a mention as well.  There is still a moderately high level of jankiness in everything that is hard to ignore.  NPCs don't always respond when you click on them.  Dialogue options sometimes don't appear when they're supposed to.  Characters will pop in and out of existence or spin around in place.  There is a sort of "cinematic" camera the game switches to during important dialogue, but a lot of the time the view is blocked by your power armor or the camera defaults to looking straight at a wall or column.  Picking up items is finicky.  The list goes on and on.  Like I said, the game is janky.  However, I didn't ever have the game crash on me or quests get broken or my character falling through an object and getting stuck or having anything happen that impeded my progress and didn't let me keep playing.  I'm willing to put up with jankiness as long as the game doesn't break.     

Pip Boy App

I also played the game using the free Fallout Pip Boy app for my Android tablet, and I have to say it is pretty impressive.  Just to be clear, you don't need the special Pip Boy Edition of the game to use the app.  The app mirrors the Pip Boy in your game and gives you access to everything you would normally have to open up the Pip Boy in-game for.  You can change radio stations, change weapons, armor, check quests, use the map, and more all within the app.  I liked having my tablet propped up on the table in front of me with the map open while I played.  It seems kind of gimmicky, but once you actually use it the Pip Boy app is really useful and probably the best second screen experience this gen.  

Bottom Line

When all is said and done, through both ups and downs, Fallout 4 has a lot more positives and is an absolutely fantastic game overall.  It's still Bethesda's Fallout at its core, which means the atmosphere is amazing and the feeling of exploration and discovery is incredible, but it makes key changes to the gameplay and introduces a lot of new mechanics to create a game that is familiar and fresh at the same time.  The shift in gameplay balance to be more challenging makes you feel like you're actually trying to survive, and the crafting and settlement systems give you a presence and a responsibility in the world rather than just being a bystander.  The game is deeper and more satisfying and more rewarding overall than ever, which makes Fallout 4 easy to recommend.  The promise of mods and DLC looming in the future also mean it is a game you'll be playing for a long, long time.  There is no reason to hesitate, Fallout 4 is a great game that is worth a purchase.    

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.