Probably the single most anticipated game of the season, “Fallout 4” has been hyped five ways to Friday and marketed with the kind of budget usually reserved for blockbuster movies. When video game commercials start dominating Sunday NFL broadcasts, you know it’s getting serious – and that holiday shopping time has arrived.
In this case, you’ll want to go ahead and believe the hype because “Fallout 4,” hitting shelves this week, is a strong contender for Game of the Year.
Developer Bethesda Softworks revitalized the post-apocalypse franchise in 2008 with “Fallout 3,” updating the game with a first-person POV and a vast open-world RPG structure. With “Fallout 4,” the designers have delivered a major upgrade for current generation consoles, expanding the game in every direction.
The world of “Fallout” is set 200 years after a global thermonuclear war that devastated the planet in the year 2077. The game trades heavily in the usual post-apocalypse tropes – mutants, radiation hazards, ruin porn imagery – but with a clever twist. In the story’s alternate history, American cultural mores are frozen in the 1950s Cold War era, giving everything a weird and satiric retro-future twist.
Like ‘Minecraft’ for grown-ups
We get to see that pre-war world for the first time in “Fallout 4,” which opens with a tutorial sequence on the day the bombs fell. Your character is escorted to a Vault-Tec brand nuclear shelter only to emerge 200 years later, thanks to some cryogenic intrigue.
To avoid spoilers, we’ll leave off with the story details from here, but it’s safe to disclose that the game takes place in and around the ruined city of Boston and concerns a sinister organization known as the Institute. The origin of the Institute is the first of the game’s many wicked running jokes. The series’ dark, sophisticated humor is one of the abiding joys of the “Fallout” games.
“Fallout 4” introduces a new crafting system that’s remarkably complex, and really constitutes a kind of parallel game in its own right. Virtually everything the game world can be scavenged and broken down into component parts, which are then used to construct new settlements. Non-player characters will flock to the settlements you build, and a kind of resource management game emerges in which you must provide your new citizens with food, water and shelter.
It’s much more fun that it sounds, and I probably burned 80 percent of my week with the game just wandering around and building things. It’s like Minecraft for grown-ups.
New monsters, harder to kill
The game also introduces several new wasteland monsters, plus variations on some old favorites. Androids known as “synths” are a menace throughout the Boston area, and the designers have some fun referencing classic movies in the genre such as “Blade Runner.” Also watch out for giant mutated mosquitoes and mini-nuke-toting suicide mutants.
Enemy AI is much more challenging this time around. Monsters no longer stand still and let you snipe them repeatedly from an elevated position. Instead, they try to lure you out by retreating behind cover. The game’s irradiated ghouls, meanwhile, ambush and attack in swarms like the fast zombies from Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.”
The game’s heralded time-stop combat system also gets an overhaul. You can still spend action points to enter the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System – or VATS – but now enemies are merely slowed rather than frozen completely. This adds some urgency to VATS combat sequences, but I would have liked to see the old system retained, maybe in the easier difficulty modes.
For the returning player, “Fallout 4” features dozens of small improvements that reveal themselves as the story proceeds. Those computer hacking mini-games are more challenging, for instance, and the designers have incorporated a clever new game mechanic for radiation poisoning.
“Fallout 4” is a hugely ambitious game and it delivers the goods on multiple fronts. The main story line plays out like a twisty sci-fi novel, and the designers have populated the huge open world setting with what amounts to hundreds of little short stories. Improved combat and crafting only make this mighty franchise even mightier.
Unlike movies, video game series tend to get better with each sequel, and “Fallout 4” is maybe the best example of this to date. If anyone needs me for the next several months, I’ll be in Boston, circa 2277.
“Fallout 4” is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.