Republished on Tuesday 26th September 2017: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the release of Fallout 4's Game of the Year edition on PlayStation 4. The original text follows.
Well, here we are. Seven years after Bethesda's last crack at post-apocalyptic America, Fallout 4 is easily one of the most anticipated titles of this relatively young console generation thus far. The developer has more than proven that it's a master of crafting engaging open world titles in the past, and this latest romp through an irradiated Boston is no different. Fallout 4 houses what is easily one of the most impressive game worlds that we've ever seen.
The decision to move development solely to new-gen machines has really paid off for the studio. Without being limited by decidedly old hardware, Bethesda's been able to realise its ambition for open world design better than ever before. The Commonwealth is a sprawling, dynamic, and consistently gripping location that's home to wonder, horror, and a lot of dark comedy. It's a nuclear wasteland that's an absolute joy to explore, and it always feels like there's something new to discover.
As we've come to expect from the studio, Fallout 4 is utterly packed with things to see and do. Quests feel endless and you can barely walk for 30 seconds without something catching your eye, be it off on the horizon or just down the dusty old road. Indeed, the key to the Commonwealth's fantastic design is how dense it is; it's without doubt one of the most stuffed maps that we've come across – and the best part is that it all adheres to the overall tone and aesthetic of the game.
If there's one thing that the release does right, it's atmosphere. Like Fallout 3, Fallout 4 doesn't push the graphical bar, but it sets a unifying mood that few titles are able to sustain for long periods. There's always an air of uncertainty as you make your way from one area to the next – or a perpetual sense of dread that you may stumble across a wandering deathclaw. It's effortlessly immersive.
Needless to say, the wasteland can be a dangerous place. Whether you're trekking across open, desolate fields, the eerie, leafless forests outside of Boston's inner city, or scavenging your way through the treacherous streets and alleyways of urban areas, there's usually plenty of action to be found. Dynamic events occur on a regular basis, with battles between different factions giving way to player choice: do you interfere and nab all of that potential experience, or do you wait until the skirmish is over and pick off the stragglers? Weighing up your options gets you invested in the world and its workings, which is always an important factor in keeping your attention for what could be an adventure that lasts upwards of 100 hours.
Of course, you don't have to be the prey in this particularly brutal environment. Gunplay has seen a dramatic and positive overhaul after the shoddy attempts of previous titles. It's not quite Destiny good, but it's serviceable, and most armaments have a nice, satisfying kick to them. V.A.T.S. also makes a return for when you want to bask in some gloriously gory kills, although it has been tweaked slightly. Instead of pausing time completely, the system now slows the action down without fully stopping it. This keeps the tension of combat high while also giving you the opportunity to get tactical with your shots. It's a nice middle ground – especially now that the gunplay outside of V.A.T.S. is actually worth using.
It's not always about butchering every living thing that you come across, though. Once again, Bethesda gives you the freedom to do just about whatever you want in its open world. Quests often have multiple solutions which aren't always determined by black and white player choice, while defining your preferred play style takes time and effort. Developing your character through the game's revamped and intuitive perk system is a rewarding process, and an abundance of loot – whether it's found on the bodies of slain enemies or tucked away inside of a vault – keeps you eager to press on, if only to see what goodies you uncover next.
And with loot comes the new crafting system. Equipment – outside of power armour – doesn't degrade with use, so you won't have to worry about repairing your gear every ten minutes. Hardcore fans may not appreciate the change, but it begins to makes sense when you consider how heavily you can modify your weapons and armour. Items that used to be nothing but junk – like old tools or scraps of metal – may be just what you need for your new scope or lengthened barrel.
Crafting doesn't stop with equipment tweaks, however. Perhaps the series' most ambitious new feature is the inclusion of player-run settlements, which are completely customisable. These towns, villages, and huts are dotted around the Commonwealth, and after finding a way to gain the favour of the locals, you'll be able to manage everything from their food supply to their automated defences.
The amount of available customisation is impressive, and even more impressive is that the whole system works in real time: you simply open up a separate crafting menu, select the object that you wish to create, and then set it down wherever you want. Even though it takes some time to wrap your head around the more complex possibilities – like linking power generators to electrical items, switches, and even computer terminals – players with a creative spark will no doubt find the whole system fascinating.
But as with everything else in Fallout 4, you certainly don't need to commit to crafting – and that's really one of the title's greatest achievements. You're free to play exactly as you want, and the game will very rarely punish you for it. The developer has once again fulfilled its promise of providing a dynamic world that stands head and shoulders above many other titles that claim to capture a similar sense of freedom.
The same goes for the game's main story, which can be tackled as quickly or as slowly as you want. Like any other open world release, the plot can end up feeling a bit disjointed as you explore other parts of the map in between completing core quests, but Fallout 4 still does a good job of offering a tale that has weight. Featuring several great characters, blasting through the story alone will take you around 20 or so hours, and for the most part, it's well paced and reasonably well written.
It's also worth noting that your custom character now has a voice, and takes part in Mass Effect-esque dialogue sequences. Complete with cinematic camera angles, the new chatting system is thoughtfully implemented, and helps you become immersed in the varying situations that the wasteland throws at you. Your dialogue options aren't always the most original – you can usually opt to be friendly, sarcastic, inquisitive, or downright aggressive – but it's a decent attempt at working a voiced protagonist into the series. Generally good voice acting augments proceedings with plenty of feeling, too.
In fact, Fallout 4's audio tends to be top notch across the board. Alongside a slew of catchy licensed tunes that you can hear on the radio at any time, there's a superb original soundtrack at work, which really hammers home both the hope and the despair that's found throughout the Commonwealth. Likewise, sound effects are used to great effect, from the cha-ching of racking up experience points to the harrowing sounds of the various monstrosities that stalk the ruins.
We could go on and on about what Fallout 4 does right, but the game has so many intricacies that we'd end up writing a review at least three times the size of this one. All that you need to know is that it's always giving you reasons to veer from your current objective, tempting you to go off and do your own thing – and that's precisely why it's so hard to put down.
It's just a shame, then, that the experience is sometimes soured by a shaky frame rate. After 70 hours of exploring the Commonwealth, we haven't encountered any game-breaking bugs, and the title hasn't crashed on us once – which is a welcome change when it comes to Bethesda releases on Sony consoles – but with regular dips and some annoying split-second freezes, it's frustrating that Fallout 4 doesn't run as smoothly as it should. Make no mistake, these aren't major complaints by any means – but given that Fallout 4 is otherwise the most polished Bethesda game that we've played, it's a disappointing stumble.
Fallout 4 is a masterclass in open world design. Consistently engrossing and absolutely stuffed with intricacies, it's a title that'll keep you enthralled for hours at a time as you gradually unravel its desolate yet hopeful post-apocalyptic portrayal of Boston. Although it's let down by some disappointing frame rate issues, it's not enough to detract from what's otherwise one of the most atmospheric and beautifully brutal games on the PS4. Significantly improved combat, a constant wealth of gameplay options, and a heavy emphasis on player choice combine to create an adventure that's truly memorable.