Fallout 4 review-in-progress (OXM)

Hello, and welcome to our review in progress. It feels wrong to put a score to this massive RPG, even after 40 hours of solid play, so we are holding off on delivering our final verdict until we've scoured every square inch of the map and sent every super mutant to the grave.

Fallout 4 is the first game in the series to open pre-Wasteland, where you spend some quality time with your spouse, child and robot butler. It creates a stunning contrast between the bright safety of Suburban life and the devastation to follow once the bomb drops. Not that the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth is devoid of colour. One of the brownest series in gaming has finally figured out how to make the apocalypse attractive, with golden beaches, glowing green plant life and neon signs beaming out of primary-coloured buildings. It's still a dead world, but a richer colour palette makes it a more inviting, less repetitive one than we explored in Fallout 3. That's helped by a map that is three times bigger, but far more dense with places to see and things to do.

You only need to pull the trigger once to feel what a step up this is from Fallout 3. Id software reportedly lent a hand refining shooting mechanics, so guns have never felt more satisfying or their shots meatier. Even melee strikes give better feedback. Improved close-combat and electrified swords are almost enough to tempt us away from guns for good. Almost.

V.A.T.S has had the most noticeable overhaul. Previously it would freeze time, letting you leisurely pick which limb you wanted with no pressure (and thus, no tension) whatsoever – turning an OK shooter into a polite point-and-click. Now, V.A.T.S just slows time to a crawl, so Super Mutant suicide bombers are still rushing towards you, Raiders are still throwing molotovs, bullets are still piercing your flesh, and every second you waste choosing a target leaves you more vulnerable and exposed. It's an inspired adjustment that creates tense, tactical stand-offs, easily the best combat we've seen in a Bethesda game, whether apocalyptic or ye olde fantasy.

Enemies benefit from a burst of speed too, meaning a group of Feral Ghouls is now a far bigger threat, as they leap forward for a taste of you. We just wish there were a few more new enemies to fight. Super Mutants, Raiders, Ghouls… much as new V.A.T.S keeps encounters fresh, fighting the same monsters we did in 2008 gives us severe deja vu. The Synth's (sinister human-imitating androids) are an excellent addition, and there may well be new hazards lurking in the Commonwealth, but we'd have liked to have see some more original foes early on.

Companions from all over the Commonwealth can be brought along to help you, like journalist, Piper and Super Mutant, Strong – often unlocked after completing their own story quests. By tying these characters more closely to the central narrative, the world feels that bit more cohesive and alive. But a word of warning: if your name isn't one of the 1000+ Bethesda recorded to be said by Codsworth, your robot butler, go and have it legally changed. It's worth it just to hear you charming robo-Alfred refer to you personally.

But playing with an AI ally has its drawbacks. Companions have a tendency to run ahead and play Fallout 4 for you, blasting Synths and saving the world while I'm still rooting through filing cabinets for bottle caps. You can give companions some limited directions, but that's no good if they've already sprinted ahead. It's nice that they can handle themselves in a firefight, but their gun-ho approach makes taking someone along for the journey a bit of a mixed bag.

Still, using Codsworth as a literal bag is a great way to store all the guns and junk you keep finding. Because this time you'll actually want to pick everything up. Almost all the junk we've found has a use – capable of being broken down into steel, wood, plastic, etc, that's perfect for modifying weapons or structures for our settlements. Delving deep into a sewer full of Super Mutants and ghouls, only to find an empty bottle, was one of the more constantly infuriating anti-climaxes of Fallout 3. In 4, we caught ourselves tearing up when we found a tin can. Precious aluminium!

Modifications for weapons start simple with improved sights and silencers. You'll want to invest in the Gun Nut perk to see the best of them, but weapons are weird enough to make you want to keep enhancing them and seeking out materials. Frankly, if you're not interested in modding your sword so it conducts electricity, then you shouldn't be allowed to play games.

Building a settlement is more complex, as you have to adhere to the needs of its settlers and make sure it's defended (there's an Achievement for getting a 100% happiness rating on your settlement, which we're not optimistic about unlocking anytime soon). Once you get generators set up, it's possible to install lights, radio towers and even get some music going. It's a smart idea, one that we could see keeping us invested in Commonwealth life long after we've (finally) explored everything. Again, this is one of the more time-consuming elements we hope to dig deeper into in our full review.

It's a little disappointing that the population look pretty last-gen, with patchy facial animation and some lip-synching that would make the Life is Strange developers scoff. But voice acting is consistently high quality and the cities you visit feel like real communities. It's not uncommon to see the mayor giving a speech, or a fight breaking out while townsfolk watch, or even a wedding triggered by something you said earlier, all happening in the background. You can go up and watch, maybe even interact, or just keep walking on by. It's up to you, and really helps sell these as actual places that keep going when you're not around.

Naturally, the main reason we're gossiping with townsfolk is so they'll send us on the quests that give our lives meaning. But most of the ones we've done so far follow this formula: Go to place – kill all the enemies in said place – obtain item/person – win! The places have never looked better (although framerate can chug in busier interiors), the enemies are stronger and more satisfying to defeat and the weapons you find are excellent – but it's still disappointing how many of the quests fit such a rigid, familiar template, especially in a post-Witcher 3 world.

The quests we've enjoyed most deviated from that formula or gave it clever twists. Like one that casts you as a superhero from an old radio show (complete with old timey radio voice), or the mission to find a robot that's been designed to brew beer. Which leads us to what we like most about Fallout 4 - the real quest is not getting distracted. We know that we have to return to Diamond City to hand in this quest or that, but how can we resist popping into the Super-Duper mart? Or exploring this shopping mall that seems to be ran by robots? Or finding out what could possible be inside a factory called Hallucigen Inc?

We can't resist and wouldn't have it any other way. It's an explorer's paradise. Maybe not as revolutionary a step up from Fallout 3 as we were hoping for, but we're yet to see a change we've hated, or an idea that hasn't improved the core mechanics massively (it's by far the most fun Fallout has ever been to play). Based on our first 40 hours, an easy game to recommend. We'll get back to you after the next 360 as to whether it's an essential one.