Post-apocalyptic fiction is often hit or miss, but the desolate world where the Fallout series from Bethesda takes place is something of an exception. Perhaps it's the richly detailed wastelands of Las Vegas or Boston that draw players in, or the customizable characters that let us build our own special survivor. Or maybe it's the fact that these games paint a somewhat believable portrait of life after nuclear Armageddon — you know, aside from the terrifying ghouls and mutated creatures.
It's this groundbreaking vision of the post-apocalypse that Bethesda has embraced in the latest installment of the company's beloved Fallout franchise. Fallout 4 offer players the chance to explore a desolate landscape in the aftermath of nuclear attacks on Boston circa 2077, a town now stuck at a social and technological level somewhere between the 1950s and the present day. Like war itself, it can be ugly, stark, and frustrating. But like the people left to rebuild their lives after the bombs drop, it's also a beautiful, intriguing spectacle to behold.
The game kicks off with a literal and figurative bang. After you've styled your avatar appropriately, you're sent to enjoy the delights of suburban life. You've got a wife (or husband) and a baby to take care of, modern conveniences, and everything you need to live a happy, comfortable life...until the bomb hits. When you and your family scurry into Vault-Tec's Vault 111 to safety, things start to get crazy, your avatar subjected to a special "procedure" that'll get you ready for your new, post-apocalyptic life. Upon your release, you discover you've been cryogenically frozen, with your child stolen and your spouse murdered. Where's your child been taken to and why? What's going on in the new world outside? Fallout 4 is a journey to answer these questions.
Here's the thing about Fallout 4 return to the apocalypse: It's not actually that new at all. Despite changing things up from previous installments of the series on the narrative front and looking into what happened to families before the blast, Bethesda didn't seem to have much innovation in mind when designing the world ofFallout 4. From the start, you'll notice (if you've played the rest of the series) just how familiar things really are: minor graphical improvements are just noticeable enough to be acceptable, but not totally revolutionary, and even parts of the landscape look the same, despite some augments designed to up the danger level for survivors roaming the countryside.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Despite a fairly familiar environment, there's an expansive and greatly enjoyable game waiting for you ahead. Taking in what's happened to the world after decades of radiation ravaging the country is still just as fascinating and engaging, with players kept on high alert to avoid thieving Raiders to disgusting Radroaches. The world is slightly familiar (of course, because you lived here), but it's also just as alien as distant planet. Setting off toward your next quest marker always holds a sort of thrill: Are you going to meet up with other humans? What wreckage will you salvage? Is your son waiting for you somewhere out there? The Commonwealth (a territory that encompasses Boston and part of Massachusetts) is a vast expanse, and there are hundreds of things to do even in the game's earliest hours. It's up to you to find them all, which is all part of the magic.
Of course, most of the quests do involve you gearing up to go target a certain enemy, felling targets who happen to be in the way (enemies the quasi-religious militia group Brotherhood of Steel tasks you with taking out) or getting into shootouts. This is where the real fun of Fallout 4 becomes apparent: despite the familiar landscape, your character is as customizeable as ever. The beloved VATS combat system that Fallout fans love is still in play, but with several improvements. The guns look and feel great, and there are plenty of them to go around. A surprisingly complex system allows you to craft modifications for the armaments you can find, and that alone takes up more time than many of us may even have to devote to the game.
Collecting items and figuring out the best uses for what's out there is an essential part of the game, but the brand new Workshop mode, which allows for a startling amount of creation and customization with entire towns at your disposal, is a real treat. Want to "delete" a dilapidated house and distil it into parts to be used elsewhere? You can do that! Want to erect an area that's completely and totally yours? You can do that too. You can spend hours on these side endeavors separate from the main quest. Though the core Fallout experience is very similar to the last few iterations of the franchise, it's the inclusion of these systems that gives you your biggest reasons to head back in, again and again.
Fallout 4 is an amalgam of games past, the desire to push forward, and familiar territory you've explored before. It doesn't look as absolutely mind-blowing as it "should" given its four-year incubation, relying on the same systems of play we're used to in ways that are often downright frustrating. But it's also a damn good crack at bringing the horror of nuclear war to a broader audience — and a damn good use of hours of your time for a relatively low entry price. Bethesda didn't have to reinvent the wheel to create a great game this time around, even though future installments will warrant some progressive thinking if Fallout fans are to remain loyal.
War never changes, but maybe that's a good thing this time around.