There was a time when a video game could be easily slotted into one of several categories: You had your shooters, your RPGs, your strategy titles, your action/adventures romps. But nowadays, with our computer chip-bulked next-gen consoles, some games are deliberately angling for the hodgepodge label “all of the above.”
Bethesda Softworks’ mammoth alternate-reality adventure Fallout 4 is such a game.
Things start out with a brief glimpse of this franchise’s retro-futuristic pre-war world. As in all the Fallout titles, this peeked-at version of reality is quirky and compelling, with the combined flavor of hovering Jetsons-like robots and 1950s Father Knows Best sensibilities. But before we can really start to enjoy this thank-you-for-the-vacuum-tubes-and-don’t-forget-your-hat existence, the bombs start falling and we’re shuffled off to an underground vault to wait out the nuclear holocaust in a deep-sleep cryo-chamber.
When you finally stumble back out—gun in hand—to the radiation-blasted landscape of your former Boston home, it’s with a single purpose: Find and rescue your infant son who was kidnapped while you were incapacitated.
That may seem like a pretty straightforward game plan until you realize that the few small clues to the boy’s whereabouts are scattered out over what is now a vast devastated macrocosm. It’s a place packed with rabid monsters, crumbling and decayed cities, secretive institutional overlords and the combative human detritus of a dying world. That makes for the possibility of myriad quests and challenges, of course.
But it also allows you to pretty much play as you please.
Do you want to find a robotic battle suit and run-and-gun down everything and everyone you encounter? Have at it. Do you want to slip and slide through the shadows, using developed lock-picking and charm skills to join human factions and strategically build your power base? You can. And if you’re interested in selflessly dedicating SIM-style hours to helping a group of people rebuild their community, that’s on the table, too. On top of that, nearly every bit of scrap and trash you encounter or search out can be broken down to its metal, rubber, screws and springs basics to help build better weapons, armor and tools.
By the time I had spent 60-plus hours digitally chewing my way through Fallout 4′s central story—exploring all the irradiated deadlands, devastated urban areas, creature-packed swamps and hidden-away dystopias that the quest entailed—I came away with the certainty that my travail had only barely scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. There are quite literally hundreds of hours of side quests and stories to explore before, during and after that main tale. And the myriad choices you must make along the way to boost your abilities and skill sets in so many different ways make it a real challenge to wrap your brain around all the possibilities.
Mind-stretching complications and conundrums aren’t Plugged In kinds of problems, of course. And I really do wish I could end this review with those kinds of amoral aesthetic observations. Alas. As you make all those decisions and plod along in all those different directions, you’re asked to kill. And kill often. You may decide to be altruistic and heroic as you interact with the digital world around you (though greedy, murderous, untrustworthy and loathsome are all on the list of possibilities, too), but being deadly is still a must. As everything from angry wasteland wanderers to rabid beasties to feral ghouls to gigantic bloodsucking mosquitoes come your way, you will need some kind of club, cutlery or cannon to beat them down with. And depending on how large your weapon is, flying body parts, lopped off heads, and outrageously splashing gore and flesh-chunk goo will follow.
Your Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System makes all that rending and rupturing even more prominent by slowing time down just enough to pinpoint specific target areas on your foes. Even a table leg can crush a skull into mush with the right application, leaving mangled bodies and bloody dead things laying around pretty much everywhere.
Syringe-injected drugs, popped pills and swilled alcohol can be pretty common, too, as your character either moves to boost his “health” and “strength” or tries to ward off the detrimental effects of the surrounding poisons and radiation. And with repeated misuse, addiction can also be a part of your Fallout experience.
Outbursts of f- and s-words and other crudities are unavoidable in this danger-filled world. And you can run around in your underwear—if you want to die quickly.
So there you have it. The crazy and cool Fallout 4 is a colossal caboodle of the compelling, the contentious, the consequential and the corrosive. And it’s all part of our new age of gaming. For better and for worse.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.