Sadly, I have yet to redeem myself. Just look at the number of hours I’ve logged into Bethesda’s later role-playing games: “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” (2006), 99 hours; “Fallout 3” (2008), 85 hours; “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” (2011), 128 hours. If so many lost hours seems unfathomable to you, realize that 100 hours is about what the average “Skyrim” player invested in that game, and that fact guided the direction of “Fallout 4’s” development.
“Fallout 4,” Bethesda’s latest time-sink, is set in 2287, in a kitschy vision of post-apocalyptic Boston as filtered through 1950s Americana. At the start of the game, you find yourself in a caricature-ish 50s-style house where you select the look and gender of your character. Soon thereafter, pandemonium breaks out when it becomes public that the United States faces imminent nuclear attack. You and your family make your way to an underground shelter where you are placed in cryogenic pods. When you wake up, your family is gone and the world above ground is a wasteland inhabited by ragtag survivors, synthetic humans, marauders, and vicious abominations of nature.
I found the game’s opening transition from a superficial domestic scene to a last-cradle-of-humanity situation to be rushed and ungainly in its execution. Though when you exit Vault 111 and behold the devastated world for the first time, the scene is dazzling enough that it’s easy to imagine to why the developers may have been overeager to get you to that moment. After all, once you get topside there is so much to do. Aside from the usual questing, I’m sure that people will lose days to the game’s crafting systems, which seems to take a page from “Minecraft.”
On the surface, “Fallout 4” looks amazing, particularly on a PC running in 4K resolution. A closer inspection, though, reveals plenty of awkward animations. Characters walk into objects and each other with dismaying frequency, and other visual glitches abound. (During the 50 hours I’ve spent with the game, it has crashed on me more times than I can count.)
Elsewhere, the game doesn’t feel noticeably different from Bethesda’s other creations. Some quests are greatly more interesting than others; “The Witcher 3” this is not. Furthermore, the writing is hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll read something on a computer terminal and wonder why you bothered, but other moments will likely enter your storehouse of gaming memories. I didn’t think I’d be interested in the existential plight of a robot private-eye who carries himself like a low-rent, Bogart impersonator. But the resignation Nick Valentine displays with regards to the moral shortcomings of humankind affected me in spite of myself.
The curious thing about Bethesda games is that people willingly overlook the clichés — not to mention the glitches and crashes that predictably dog these large-scale productions at launch — because the sum of each game’s virtual world is greater than its parts. As others have noted, the true star of a Bethesda game is the world itself. “Fallout 4” is stuffed to the brim with visual details. The tableaux of skeletons and decayed objects strewn about the environment cater to our post- apocalyptic fantasies.
The more you become involved in the game’s political factions whose interests lie in opposing directions, the more compelling it becomes. “Fallout 4” didn’t click for me until close to 30 hours in when the perks I unlocked for my character started to powerfully gel. I began to sink into the cozy logistics of devising micro and macro goals for my character such as thinking about what unexplored area to visit next or speculating on how far I might carry an allegiance before I betray it.
When I asked “Fallout 4” director Todd Howard, what his ideal hour of “Fallout” looked like, his response encapsulated the game’s core strength. “It’s really about a flow that, depending on your mood, you can find….It’s the game rewarding your curiosity at a good pace. If things are too spread out that’s going to be a boring hour. If they’re too packed together, that hour is going to be too intense and you may turn the game off because you need a break. Because if the game isn’t giving you the break that you want, you’ll do it on your own. Whereas if the game is giving you the option to [for example] just stand here and build your house or just wander around this area, or go to town and talk to some people, you are getting downtime emotionally… We try to give the players a lot of tools [so] they can self-direct [the game’s flow] whereas with a lot of linear games you’re along for the ride.”
“Fallout 4” is best appreciated over time. Play it for ten hours and the game will likely feel underwhelming. Play it for fifty then see if you can stop yourself from playing it for fifty more.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
More game reviews:
‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 3’ is a carnival of guns and confusion