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Fallout 4 amazes and annoys

Bethesda. Bethesda never changes.

Fallout 4. Few times over the years have I witnessed a such an insane amount of hype over a game. A good part of that buzz is warranted. After all, the Fallout series has a long pedigree of quality games, and its developer, Bethesda, is known for delivering on that promise (mostly). Read on to see whether it’s the ultimate hybrid of an RPG and an FPS, or nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Setting the stage
For the uninitiated,  the Fallout series takes place in an alternate timeline where the world was blessed with cheap energy and technological wonders aplenty. One day, the sun was shining, birds were singing, then the buckets o' sunshine landed. Nuclear war wipes out most of the world. Raiders and scavengers roam the wastes and devastated cities of the post-apocalyptic landscape, and basic needs like food and water are not guaranteed. Despite that grim outlook, humanity is slowly rising from the ashes centuries after the mushroom clouds dissipated.

Fallout 4's story begins just before the nukes hit. The protagonist's wife (or husband) and baby boy hide in one of the game’s signature nuclear shelters—a Vault—where they’re unwittingly put into cryogenic sleep for many years. At one point, mysterious Wastelanders defrost the family, and our hero is forced to watch while the interlopers shoot his spouse and kidnap his child. After another stint on ice, it's time for the protagonist to find his son and exact revenge.

The game follows the now-familiar formula established by Fallout 3 and New Vegas. It’s an open-world role-playing game blended with a first-person shooter. One could very loosely describe the gameplay as "a post-apocalyptic Skyrim with guns," but that's only half the story at best. Take combat, for example. Fallout includes the series' trademark "V.A.T.S." combat system, which lets players slow down time and pick specific enemies and body parts for their character to shoot, stab, or punch. Then there's the whole 1950s-meets-wasteland-meets-sci-fi setting, with its unique retro-futuristic technology. And the guns. Lots and lots of guns.

Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.

A crafty wastelander
If you've played the previous games, you may be wondering what's truly new this time around. For starters, Bethesda gave the game’s crafting system a massive upgrade. Players can customize weapons and armor to the Nth degree, and they can also cook their own food and drugs. To do those things, you need to chase down specific types of junk or that can be broken up into specific components at a workbench. The reward of all this dumpster-diving is that an unimpressive pistol may well turn into a weapon of mass destruction by the time you’re done upgrading all its bits. Or you can add lead lining to a suit of armor to make it radiation-resistant. Power armor is upgradeable, too, so it pays off to keep an eye out for mechanical arms and legs worth using. These are just a few of the many, many paths you can take with the crafting system.

Fallout 4 also lets the player build their own settlements. It’s hard to describe in few words, but probably the best analogy is The Sims meets Fallout, complete with the time-sinky nature of both. Find and scrap junk to construct power stations, houses, furniture, defense turrets—you name it. Make sure your settlers can grow food and have access to fresh water. Then do it again in another spot. Settlements can be connected together using trade routes, and they can provide you with a safe haven where you can store all your hard-earned junk. One can easily spend tens of hours playing house without touching the main story at all.

Crafting does come at a heavy price, one that your character’s spine and experience points will have to pay. As we just noted, to craft, you need junk. That junk needs to be physically transported to a workbench at one of your settlements. While that sounds reasonable enough, encumbrance and inventory management are central to playing the game. This means your character will often bump up against their limited carrying capacity, especially early in the game. Companions (including your loyal canine friend Dogmeat, somehow) can carry a limited amount of stuff for you, but you’ll often end up in a place where there’s not a single workbench in sight. Get ready to drop that hard-earned desk fan in favor of a more appealing piece of trash.

Of course, you can elect to skip crafting entirely, but it’s a suboptimal way to play the game. You can buy ready-made versions of fancy weapons and armor, but they’re hellishly expensive and hard to find. By the time you find That Exact Chestplate from a roving trader, you could have just crafted a better one on your own. If you really want to get ahead in the Wasteland, be prepared to dig through the mountains of junk and ruins for that precious screw or roll of duct tape.