“War never changes” runs the tagline for Fallout 4, and though that’s a dour descriptor for this sometimes bleakly hilarious game, it’s also sort of true that the Fallout series hasn’t really changed. However, that’s because of another important saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Short of changing the setting to the Boston area, circa 2277, Bethesda Game Studios simply hasn’t had to tinker with much since 2010’s near-perfect Fallout: New Vegas.
There’s irony in that statement, since the big, new, questionable improvement is basically the inclusion of a built-in mod kit, which allows players to fix up their liberated settlements. As it turns out, it’s a bit more onerous to construct things on a 3D plane, as opposed to the 2D plane of the game’s mobile prequel, Fallout Shelter. It’s also largely unnecessary to waste skill points on perks like Gun Nut that allow for deeper customization on one’s arsenal, given that every slain foe drops everything they’re wearing. Then again, this only enhances the realism of the game, both in terms of the cobbled-together post-apocalyptic aesthetic and in the freedom given to those who want to play through on their own terms.
But Fallout 4 is far more than an expansion. Without spoiling too much, the plot introduces a new creature beyond the standard irradiated monsters like the bearish Yao Guai and self-descriptive Bloatflies and Feral Ghouls. These new foes—or, potentially friends, given the beyond-black-and-white approach Fallout 4 takes to its narrative—are Synths, robots that are all but indistinguishable from humans. It’s Blade Runner in all the right ways, and most of the moral, story-altering dilemmas presented this go-around revolve around which of the various factions players choose to support, from those in the Railroad who want to set the enslaved Synths free, to the familiar faces of the Brotherhood of Steel, who want to destroy that dangerous technology. As in New Vegas, it’s impossible to please every group, and, thanks to the quality of the writing, agonizing to ultimately have to betray at least one of them.
Complements to the so-called main campaign aside, the majority of a player’s time in Fallout 4 is spent wandering around the Commonwealth, especially now that Bethesda has removed the level cap, and it’s the setting that ultimately needs to hold up as a central character. Those who were skeptical that Boston—a less immediately familiar setting than Washington D.C. or Las Vegas—can rest easy that the Commonwealth is well represented. Fenway Park, has been repurposed and turned into Diamond City, walking the historic Freedom Trail plays a pivotal role, the Salem Museum of Witchcraft is open for business, and there’s a new batch of Minutemen out to beat the drums of revolution, or at least protect citizens from the Raiders and Super Mutants attempting to divvy up landmarks like Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill, and Walden’s Pond. And while it’s nice to have coastal options available for exploration, like the floating, anarchic raft city of Libertalia, Fallout 4 is filled with other unique environments, such as the Glowing Wastes and the airship Prydwen.
Admittedly, while the various vaults, hospitals, military bases, and libraries all start to bleed together given enough time, the sideplots that send you there are filled with more than enough variety to pick up the slack, whether that means facing off against a serial killer who’s festooned an art gallery with his bloody paintings and skeletal sculptures, or exposing Vault-Tec’s nefarious experimentation by finding sub-vaults hidden within the main ones. The first-person shooting also grows stale after several dozen hours, but as with Borderlands and Destiny, the constant acquisition of new weapons and perks at least provides a sense of achievement for all that marksmanship.
That’s important, as at times it seems like exploring every landmark might take as long as the 200 years that Fallout 4’s protagonist spent in cryogenic suspension. But when things slow down or seem repetitive, players need only stop in a the nearest town to meet odd characters like KL-E-0, an assaultron who self-identifies as a woman, or to recruit new allies, from Strong, a mutant educated and reformed by the power of Shakespeare, to CVRIE, a violent robotic nurse, and Nick Valentine, a synthetic modeled after noir detectives.
It’s a bit weird to say Fallout 4 is operating under the principle that less is more, especially since its representation of Boston is dotted with hundreds of hours of things to do. But Bethesda more or less leaves the revolution to the Commonwealth residents and the literal fine-tuning to the players (by way of customization features), and doesn’t do much more than upgrade the graphics (those radiation storms are as beautiful as they are deadly), declutter the skill tree, and throw in the ability to wear Power Armor. But, hey, if traveling through Bethesda’s version of Boston for 60 hours has taught me anything, it’s that the little things are what matter.