“Fallout 4” takes place in Boston, 200 years after nuclear annihilation caused by the “Great War” between the U.S. and China. You, the protagonist, see the first nukes go off and live to tell the tale 200 years later because you were cryogenically preserved in a Vault — a bunker developed to house (and experiment on) civilians in the event of nuclear war. When you wake up, your wife is killed and your child is kidnapped. After being put back under and then waking up again, you make haste into what’s now known as the Commonwealth wasteland to find your child.
I should say from the jump that this piece will not concern itself much with “Fallout 4’s” main story. I know this is probably an important part of some people’s RPG-playing experience. For me, it is not. I constantly procrastinate on the main questline in favor of exploring, looting and completing sidequests. To me, discovery and a sense of freedom in an open world determine its quality. All my favorite open-world games have this. In “The Witcher 3,” I played Gwent against NPCs for hours. I dread completing main quests; once they’re done, the rest of the game feels pointless.
With that out of the way: “Fallout 4” is consistently Fallout at its best — a gritty, stylish, post-apocalyptic Americana vision board so rich you can get lost for hours. You’ll melt into the wasteland as you surf curious character arcs and grim quest lines. And what “Fallout 4” nails — perhaps more so than its two predecessors, 2008’s “Fallout 3” and 2010’s “Fallout: New Vegas” — is exploration. The Commonwealth is a wellspring of discovery. Bethesda, the game’s developer, achieved this in a few ways.
First, it cannot be overstated just how superior the combat system is in this game compared to previous installments. Gunplay is far more dynamic and responsive. It plays like a true first-person shooter, which means that you can have fun with an extra, previously nonexistent element as you discover new locations. In previous installments, it was tempting to use the V.A.T.S aiming system — a targeting mechanic that slows time and vastly improves accuracy — as a crutch. In “Fallout 4,” for the first time in the series, combat is enjoyable without it, which makes roaming the wasteland more rewarding. If you want to just enjoy killing and looting aimlessly, you can.
Second, there is more cool stuff to be found that can actually be used by the player. Wonderglue is adhesive; Deathclaw hands are leather; toy cars have screws — all of which can be used to build things like missile turrets or sniper mods for your pipe rifle. Ingredients like wild plants and vodka can be cocktailed into an array of drugs that give special abilities when consumed. What you forage in the Commonwealth has more utility than in previous titles. Exploration has more purpose.
Third, “Fallout 4” is just plainly a beautiful game. Its graphics are crisp and stunning — but looks are more than that. The setpieces tell a story. The skeleton of a soldier leaned against a destroyed tank, pistol in hand and a live frag mine beside him. Fragments of information found scrawled on paper notes, and computer terminals that pique the player’s curiosity, kicking off quests. Old schools with ruinous, desolate classrooms that still have children’s books and toys scattered around, lending a forlorn quality to this post-apocalypse. This kind of discovery now looks better than the franchise has ever looked. For me, this elevates the experience enormously.
The Commonwealth sometimes explodes into life out of nowhere. Picture this: You’ve ventured north from Starlight Drive-In, a key outpost in your settlement, to find supplies. You spot a gang of Super Mutants. Suddenly, a shower of hellfire from a hulking Brotherhood of Steel gunship rains down upon them. A big fight breaks out. Then, outta nowhere, a consortium of Mirelurks shows up, led by a Legendary Mirelurk Hunter. There are explosions. There is fire. You watch, plasma rifle holstered. This is a spectacle, for now.
Random AI combat feels natural, which makes you feel part of a vibrant world that turns by itself. Anything can happen, which gives those moments life.
The game, of course, isn’t perfect. The complexity described above is likely a key reason the game struggled with so many bugs upon release. Unrendered surfaces, odd camera angles during dialogue and frequent crashes left some fans infuriated in 2015. But fret not: In 2023, bugs are few and far between. NPCs still obstruct each other like big awkward fridges, but the worst bug I had to deal with was the occasional five-minute-long load time between locations (which, I learned later, can be fixed).
And while the bugs have mostly been resolved, a key gripe of many Fallout fans — “Fallout 4’s” dialogue system — remains unchanged. For the first time in the franchise, the protagonist has a voice (you can choose between a male or female voice actor). This is accompanied by fewer response options — usually a maximum of four — than in previous games. Moreover, each potential response is described on screen with just a handful of words. In previous installments, dialogue response previews were exhaustive; here, it’s easy to say something you didn’t mean. Since dialogue is such a crucial part of the Fallout experience, this may bother some prospective players.
The distaste of many for the new dialogue system is, in most cases, tied to expectations about what a Fallout game should be. In fact, I think nostalgia for previous entries holds “Fallout” 4 back. Common sentiment among fans and critics is that both “Fallout 3” and “New Vegas” rank above “Fallout 4.” Fallout is my favorite game franchise, and “Fallout 3” sparked the love affair. Before “Fallout 3,” there was no Fallout as we know it today. The game blew the hinges off the franchise in the best way: “Fallout 2,” released 10 years before “Fallout 3,” had a bird’s-eye view a la StarCraft and turn- and tile-based combat. The detail and scope of first-person “Fallout 3” transformed the series. In 2010 came “Fallout: New Vegas,” developed by the same team that worked on the first two Fallout games. It was a return to form for the developers, who this time around had all the resources of a huge publisher like Bethesda. Many fans consider it to be a perfect execution of the style introduced by “Fallout 3” two years before.
It’s impossible to divorce “Fallout 4” from that lineage. Objective technical improvements notwithstanding, a common criticism of “Fallout 4” upon release, besides the bugs, was that the dialogue changes did not work. Many believed — and I agree — that giving the protagonist a voice, and limiting and obscuring dialogue options, was a harmful change. Part of Fallout’s beauty lay in the depth of interaction with NPCs. When this was tampered with, the game lost some of the franchise’s essence (though I would argue not much; the quests and characters are as compelling as ever).
But in 2023, expectations about what a Fallout game ought to be are not as fresh. That fans felt “Fallout 4” did not possess the same magic as its two predecessors is understandable, but I would implore those people to play the game now — with the burden of 2015’s expectations in check, and bugs all but removed.
My therapist says people develop in seven-year cycles. If that’s true, and you played “Fallout 4” when it came out in late 2015, play it today and you will play it a different person.
Is it appropriate to rank games retroactively? Perhaps not. Games are — fairly or not — judged in the context from and into which they came. Maybe it’s not right to tout “Fallout 4” for its technical improvements; of course there are technical improvements over time. But the fact remains: In 2023, “Fallout 4” plays like a dream. It is an immersive world, executed wonderfully by Bethesda, that is a joy to lose yourself in. Moreover, its next-gen graphics and transformed combat have given it stamina — perhaps more than its predecessors. Whether you’re a wasteland newbie or vet, you should play it.
Billy Studholme is a freelance reporter from Manchester, England. His work has been featured in Digiday, Dexerto, Dot Esports and more. He is also assistant editor at Esports Insider. Find him on Twitter at @BillyStudholme.