One thing which stands out in Fallout 4 is how hurried it is. Their last time around, Bethesda calmly, patiently reintroduced the series for the benefit of a wider audience; charting the growth of its Vault dweller in a mini-arc, culminating in his push out into the wasteland. Obsidian’s spinoff, Fallout: New Vegas, branched away from formula, putting players into the shoes of a lone gun whose spaghetti western revenge tale morphed gradually into a heist flick, with Nevada as the score. Setting established a console generation ago, Bethesda has opted now for the route of an impatient child, ready to show off its toys: Fallout 4 rams your Sole Survivor from the Fall of America into a cryo tube, murders a spouse and abducts the baby, then sets you off in post-nuke Massachusetts. Before the first hour, you’re already in power armor, punching out giant lizards and being hailed as the destined savior of Boston. Ugh.
Thankfully, Bethesda allows the option to politely tell the monomyth to fuck off after a few quests and get down to doing what Fallout does best: heading towards the general direction of a goal, with some distractions along the way. The Commonwealth is well-suited to this purpose, dotted with settlements and traveling weirdos to help or hurt, ruins to explore, enemy camps to obstruct your path. Progression from place to place becomes a series of exciting mini-stories, with rhythms all their own. The countryside and smaller towns offer deceptively serene vistas that can become long range gun battles or animal attacks. The metro area brims with escalating turf wars between raiders, mutants, feral ghouls, and more, forcing a cautious, block by block movement and counter-intuitive navigation around ruins. Each location packed with secrets, whether it’s a suspiciously cheery gated community, an underground shelter/science experiment run amok, or some abandoned flophouse and its skeletons. You’re left to sift through it all, figuring out what the wonders and horrors you witness mean. Bethesda may have sacrificed plotting and pacing, but their mise en scene has been sharpened to scalpel precision.
Fallout 4‘s biggest addition, a settlement-building side-quest that plays like Minecraft-lite, could easily have been a distracting, perfunctory experience which undercut the main portion. Yet, it’s treated as a natural outgrowth of exploration. Besides collecting scrap needed to build up their new home(s), players can begin to see the world in new ways: examining another community’s arrangement, what works and doesn’t, a subtle guide to how one should build their own. Changing, dismantling, building and rebuilding is complementary to the journey through the nuclear remains. How do you handle necessities? How much of the old world do you keep? Any of it?
In a series which, textually, has been asking those questions from day one, Fallout 4 feels the closest to addressing them interactively. It bristles with exciting possibility. Bethesda must’ve known this, too, as the other staples of the series–the skills and perks; the speech checks; the diverging quest-lines–have been streamlined into (at best) mundane functionality. As an iteration, it’s a growing pain; as an individual, it’s fascinating and eager. Either way, it stumbles towards greatness.