It took me around 50 hours to feel like I finally belonged in the irradiated Commonwealth. It’s fun all the way, but that’s when it all clicked for me. The moment came as I tinkered with my power armour - fixing the left leg broken on my last mission, repainting the arms and tweaking some mods. It was basically some gentle Sunday afternoon downtime. A moment away from all the fighting and exploring. When you’re having an in-game day off, it’s time to admit you’re not playing Fallout 4 anymore: you’re living in it.
The sheer density of what’s here means you’re in for the long haul once it bites. Part of the reason it took time for me to settle in involved simply trying to get my head around everything: the missions, crafting, settlements, weapons, economies, companions and so on. Nothing’s difficult, there’s just a lot to process and as soon as you’re out the vault you’re free to go anywhere and do anything. It all falls into place eventually and, as soon as you find yourself thinking ‘I understand this place now’, it’s the point of no return (in a good way).
You’re never far from a discovery or a new thing. Whether it’s a mission thread, a random faction clash, a new settlement or just a bit of environmental narrative detail - the whole world is a story waiting to be told by the direction you take next. There are radio signals to follow, conversations to overhear, bodies with notes on them, abandoned buildings full of potential and so on. It’s the kind of game where you set a mission marker, head off to begin it and then four hours and multiple accidental side quests later you remember what you went out for. MILK! No, wait, kill all the supermutants.
This huge level of distraction comes in part from the fact that Fallout 4, like all of Bethesda’s games, makes no real distinction between a main mission or a side quest. The world’s a far more interesting place because of this and you never know what to expect. Some no-name objective tucked away in the ‘miscellaneous’ tab can turn out to be a three hour, multistage event that’s easily the match of anything in the main plot line. I’ve solved murders, robbed banks, crashed… something into a skyscraper and posed as a superhero - none of which were on the main path. Finding them is half the fun. Sure, there’s a story for the back of the box but it’s not the point of the game at all.
Companions in Fallout 4 are far more than animated pack horses now. They’re all interesting characters and a joy to talk to as you probe backstories or check your relationship (better standing earns you bonuses). All of them have different likes and dislikes, replacing karma, so you can game them by taking bad people on bad missions and so on. And, to be clear: the robot Codsworth is the best. The dog might star in the ads but he doesn’t have a buzzsaw for a hand and a flamethrower, or act like Alfred to your post apocalyptic Batman. If you’re really lucky and it’s on the list then Codsworth will use your actual name too - hearing him call me Mr Leon has been one of my 2015 gaming highlights.
There’s far more life and character this time around too, creating an atmosphere much closer to a futuristic Elder Scrolls than a continuation of the sparser Fallout series. An incredible amount of effort has been put into bringing the world to life. There’s so much colour now, and the wasteland pops with primary reds, yellows and blues, making even the most bomb-shattered pile of rubble an interesting place to rifle through. Rad storms sometimes crackle with green flashes of radioactive lightning, eerie mists can draw in around the trees and, just occasionally, there’s a brilliant blue sky giving you hope that you won’t end up in a ditch with a wild dog pulling at your guts like a chew toy.
The makeover isn't the only series-criticism getting a much needed overhaul. Combat is far more satisfying here. It still isn’t quite Call Of Duty standard just yet, but it no longer feels like a disconnected event overlaid on the rest of the game. You can now have an actual honest to God real-feeling gunfight that works well enough that the time-slowing Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System is no longer the only way to be sure of hitting anything. There are a few hiccups: the lack of aiming assists means small targets are a nightmare to deal with, but guns finally feel like they have an effect linked to their physical presence, not their stats.
There are other clarifying tweaks that simplify a lot of old mechanics. Radiation poisoning no longer makes stats deteriorate, and instead eats away at your maximum health. It’s a more immediate concept to grasp as you juggle staying alive with eating food that makes you weaker. Elsewhere, guns no longer decay or need repairing and the weapon wheel’s been replaced by a cleaner D-pad system. The new voiced character works well too - played just neutrally enough to slot in inoffensively, but definitely a person in place of a blank camera for NPCs to talk at.
I had a few issues along the way - a couple of freezes and straight up blue screen crashes, a restart after a mission critical NPC froze, and a bizarre bug where activating VATS kept teleporting me around. But considering I’ve hammered the game in 10 hour chunks some days it’s done pretty well. I even made a point of leaving the PS4 in sleep mode to see if any of the memory issues that plagued Skyrim on PS3 turned up. No issues. Okay, there’s a Brahmin stuck in one of my houses, glaring angrily out of the window, and the frame rate could be better but nothing’s really ruined the experience yet.
The big new feature this time is the settlement building. Working for the Minuteman, a sort of local militia, you visit different locations, clear out nearby enemies and then help the community rebuild. Needs like food, water, power or defence must be satisfied by collecting scrap from the area and using it to build pumps, generators or turrets.
It’s something I largely ignored initially (it’s completely optional) in favour of running around the wasteland with a laser musket looking for faces to shoot. But, as my to do list expanded and I tired of fusion-based murder, I found myself whittling the odd toilet here and there for a bit of a break.
Another distraction that serves a far greater purpose is the weapon and armour crafting. Although this is a little less relaxing thanks to the annoyance involved in gathering enough glue, screws, steel, springs and all the other bits of crap you need to fashion ‘a slightly better sight’.
Every bit of junk you can pick up in the wasteland now has a use where you break it down into components, but the practical upshot is that you’ll be hoovering up every last damn clipboard and alarm clock, blowing your weight allowance, and then finding out all it gets you is one measly upgrade. It’s not a pointless endeavour but you have to devote a lot of effort to it. The high resource requirements and level gating means crafting is more about hope for the future than immediate results, and it’s often easier to buy or find better guns.
Slightly easier but still a bit of a pain in the ass is the power armour. You get a beat up, partially armoured chassis early on in the game but only one of the fusion cores needed to run it, meaning it becomes little more than a metal onesie very quickly. Initially, that meant I just left it at my settlement for a good 20-25 hours until I had the power and bits to get it running. Now, I just about love it. Unlike guns it needs constant repairs after every mission and, like the guns, upgrades and mods, seems to require a preposterous amount of materials, but it’s so satisfying to get in and out of the thing and tank your way through conflicts. Think of it as a car with legs. You’ll grow attached to it, get annoyed by scratches, and tinker for hours under the hood.
Which brings me back to the start - pottering around the garage on an in-game day off. Even now, 70 hours in, every time I set out I’m not sure what I’m going to find. My Pip-Boy’s full of missions but sometimes I just pick a direction and walk until something happens. There’s still a bit of the map I haven’t fully explored, mainly because I always get distracted en route. There’s a whole world here to discover and even after all the time I’ve spent in it I barely feel like I’ve scratched the surface. Maybe I won't tick everything off the list but just trying to see what’s out there is the real draw - for all the missions, quests and other stuff Fallout 4 contains, by far the most important thing in it are the decisions I’ve made. Few games nail a feeling of total freedom and this is an experience made of nothing but that.