TL;DR(eview) - Fallout 4 is more Fallout 3, with some much-appreciated improvements to core systems like gunplay. This meant it was pretty much exactly what I was hoping for when it was announced but your mileage may vary depending on your relationship with the Fallout universe and Besthesda's open-world game design.
In the lead up to Fallout 4's release, I replayed through Fallout 3 and quickly remembered why, bugs and significant PlayStation 3 performance issues aside, it is one of my favorite games of the modern era. As the hype surrounding Bethesda's latest entry reached a fever-pitch, I was admittedly swept up in the excitement, wondering what parallels could be drawn from their other insanely popular open-world series: The Elder Scrolls. How would Fallout 4 be the Skyrim to Fallout 3's Oblivion?
After more than a month with the game, I finally wrapped up (one version of) the main storyline tonight and finally feel like I'm ready to present my verdict on the game.
The "Welcome Home" marketing campaign of the game felt incredibly apt. From the games opening moments, it felt like returning to the world Bethesda developed in Fallout 3. As a fan of the series from it's isometric PC roots, Fallout 3 took the Grand Theft Auto approach and completely re-assessed the series for a new generation, while keeping recognizable elements from it's history. Fallout 4 continued that trend building upon the lore of the franchise, including some elements that were introduced in the last entry. From the Fallout 3 side quest "The Replicated Man," fans of the series were already privy to some of the goings on in the Boston Commonwealth and it was fun to explore that new thread of Fallout's alternate future.
One of my very favorite aspects of Bethesda's approach to their worlds is their story-telling. Fallout 4 provided what very well may be my favorite of the series' main narratives. Admittedly I did have some issues with how that narrative was told. Without going into spoilers, I found myself easily able to identify what a lot of the "big twists" they were building toward because they telegraphed those moments. A few tweaks to how some of the early moments were presented and I think a lot more of the surprises would have caught me offguard. But that's also coming from someone who has spent a lot of time over the past decade heavily involved in theatre: reading, watching, performing, and analyzing countless plays and the way stories are told.
Even more successful are the games boon of side quests and environmental storytelling. In virtually every location I explored, I was rewarded with some interesting tidbit of the place's history. Sometimes it came in the form of terminals describing what happened pre-war or after the bombs fell. Other times, it was something simpler like the haunting image of a lone skeleton with a nearby gun holed up in a bathroom of a building infested with feral ghouls. As for the aforementioned side quests: in my time scouting the commonwealth, I ran around acting like a pre-war vigilante and striking fear into the hearts of criminals, bolstered the apprehensive in-game radio DJ's confidence, and helped the robot crew of the U.S.S. Constitution fly across Boston with the ship's rockets.
What's Old is New Again
While much of Fallout 4 feels like an extension of Fallout 3, the game did revamp a lot of mechanics from the previous game, usually to great affect. The biggest success is the game's vastly improved gunplay and V.A.T.S. In Fallout 3, the gunplay was so atrocious that it almost required you to go into V.A.T.S., fire off all your shots, run and hide until your AP refilled, then repeat as needed. Fallout 4's gunplay is a much tighter mechanical experience, feeling significantly closer to a modern shooter. This combined with the trade-off that V.A.T.S. now only slows time down instead of stopping it completely made for much more challenging, and subsequently rewarding, combat experiences.
The leveling system in Fallout 4 was streamlined from it's Fallout 3 counterpart. In Fallout 3, when you leveled up you received a combination of skill points to assign to traits like Lockpicking, Small Guns, Speech, etc. as well as one of the game's Perks. In Fallout 4, skills are folded into the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. traits and instead you are limited to either adding/upgrading a Perk, or adding a point to your core S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. While not for everyone, I appreciated this bit of streamlining over the older game because it allowed me to more quickly invest in the kind of character build I wanted.
The one change from Fallout 3 that I could have done without came in the form of the revised dialogue options. I didn't mind that my character had a voice this time out, but I was often annoyed that I was now limited to four responses in conversations. And I much preferred Persuasion Attempts in Fallout 3 being influenced by a variety of different factors (as well as giving me the percentage likelihood of success) compared to Fallout 4's one-size-fits-all approach of your Charisma stat suggesting you might have a better chance at passing the darker color-coded prompts.
Customization is King
Finally, my Bethesda-induced hoarder tendencies were rewarded with Fallout 4's weapon and armor customization options, as well as the option to build out your settlements. By devoting a few Perks to the right skills, I was able to take all of the crap I picked up in the nooks and crannies of this world and build up an impressive arsenal of weapons and armor fit for dominating all of my foes. I loved having the option to throw a huge ammo magazine and a silencer on a handy shotgun I found with a camoflauged chest piece that made me invisible when crouched and standing still. A combination like that allowed me to sneak into a raider camp and blow my enemies away one by one without alerting everyone. Or if I wanted to try a different approach, maybe I'd set up a sniper laser rifle that set my enemies on fire and pick off foes from afar, then switch to a baseball bat with saw blades attached for when enemies got too close. This ability to finely-tune my weapon and armor customization tied in perfectly with the revamped Perk system allowing me to focus on improvements that directly connected with my own personal play-style.
The Bethesda Bugs
While I would, of course, prefer that I be able to have all of these experiences and more without running into Bethesda's notorious bugs, I understand that the nature of the world design makes that near impossible. Fortunately, my probably 100+ hours with the game on PlayStation 4 weren't too terribly problematic. The biggest issue I ran into was my game suddenly crashing a couple of times as I tried to travel from one area of the map to receive the Alien Blaster. On three back-to-back attempts, running away from one of the game's hospitals led to the game crashing out. Eventually, I took a different route or fast-traveled to a different spot in the world and never had the problem again. Other minor bugs involved being unable to progress in a quest because the person I was supposed to talk to just told me to leave him alone instead of giving me any kind of dialogue prompt. I wound up killing him out of frustration at some point and was, ironically, able to complete the quest at that point. Lastly, while probably not a bug per se, I often ran into issues where I couldn't find my companions because they weren't at the settlement I had sent them to, having gone to their own "home base" instead. I hope at some point Bethesda patches (or somebody else mods) map markers that say where in the world your companions are hanging out.
I've had a blast with Fallout 4 so far. It was pretty much everything I expected and was hoping the game would be, which was essentially: more Fallout. I'll be taking some time away from the game to finally squeeze in a few more experiences before I close out 2015 but I absolutely see myself coming back to this one to continue exploring the world with different companions, engage in the side quests I missed, try alternative play-styles, and just enjoy more time in that rich universe.