Bethesda's RPGs will always be controversial. Their detractors will point to the bugs, the sometimes unbalanced combat, and unsatisfying choices they offer and ask, "Why does Bethesda always get a free pass?" Then everyone will go out and buy them anyway, because Bethesda's RPGs are compelling in a way that other games have never really been able to manage, and Fallout 4 is no exception.
With today's release of Fallout 76, I've been thinking a lot about my own journey through the Commonwealth. I reviewed Fallout 4 for USgamer, and my headline was, "Brilliant, maddening, and wholly memorable." I think it's a good summation of a series that demands an opinion no matter what, even if you hate it.
For what it's worth, I ended up really enjoying Fallout 4, and I still have fond memories of my time with it. Even after my review was finished, I lost many hours to exploring every tiny corner of the Commonwealth—every vault, every mysterious house, every piece of DLC. I built no fewer than four major settlements, and I agonized over the upgrades for my weapons.
If not for my review, I might never have finished Fallout 4, which I would actually call a good thing. In a way, Bethesda's RPGs aren't there to be "finished." You might roll up new characters and start new journeys, but otherwise the joy is in living in the world that they've created. It's one of the few open worlds that truly feels like an open world—one in which quest markers and endless collectibles matter less than the moment to moment beauty of walking the open road.
Fallout 4 as an Anthology of Short Stories
The main story, what there is of it, follows many of Bethesda's familiar beats. Instead of trying to track down your father like in Fallout 3, you're trying to track down your son, who you see being taken away while you're trapped in a cryo-tube (a creepy and effective moment that is successful in making you feel trapped and helpless). Once you're out in the world, you slowly piece together the clues regarding the identity and whereabouts of The Institute: a mysterious organization apparently bent on replacing humans with robots (or "Synths") for unknown reasons.
The story is mainly there to form the backdrop against which the rest of the world operates. Racism is a major theme in all of Bethesda's RPGs, from the dunmer enslavement of other races in Morrowind, to the dismissive treatment afforded ghouls in Fallout. In Fallout 4, everyone has an opinion on synths. The Brotherhood of Steel sees synths as an abomination. The Railroad sees them as a persecuted underclass and wants to free them (I sided with the Railroad). The Institute... well, you see what they think eventually.
It works because it encourages you to take a firm stance one way or another, thus grounding you in the world that Bethesda wants you to explore. If you abhor the futuristic racism directed at the synths, you will naturally become more invested in the individual interactions that comprise Fallout 4's narrative, and the same is true the other way. You will like some characters and hate others, like the fanatical Elder Maxson (a contentious figure in the Fallout fandom).
These threads end up being key elements of many of Fallout 4's sidequests, which deliver the majority of its most memorable moments. It's a game that rewards straying off the beaten path with sights like the U.S.S. Constitution, which in Fallout 4 is equipped with rocket engines and crewed by robots. You can be a 1930s serial radio hero; learn the dark secret of Vault 81 (every vault in Fallout has a dark secret, which is why it's great), and uncover the fate of a team of unlucky scientists trapped by a sadistic project manager.
They feel like an anthology of interactive short stories, almost like something out of the Twilight Zone. Some, like a murder mystery featuring household robots, are only dimly connected to the Fallout universe at large, but nevertheless make for a funny interlude. Otherwise are somewhat weightier. The best of them is undoubtedly the quest introduced in the Far Harbor DLC, which embroils you in a conflict between a harbor town, synths, and a nuclear cult—a Fallout situation if I've ever seen one. It ended with me convincing the cult that the final days had come so that they would nuke themselves and end the threat to Far Harbor, but not before getting the synth leader DiMa to confess and atone for his crimes. I tend to position myself as something of a moral force when I'm playing Bethesda RPGs, and sometimes that means getting an entire society to wipe itself out. I wouldn't recommend putting me in charge of a nuclear arsenal.
In addition to the main conflict, Far Harbor further expounds upon the murky backstory of Nick Valentine, the shabby synth detective who has become Fallout 4's de facto mascot. Indeed, many of Fallout 4's best moments feature Valentine. He embodies Fallout 4's central conflict, often suffering great abuse at the hands of organizations like the Brotherhood of Steel. He's also its singular moral voice. I wrote back in 2015, "Bethesda's world-weary synth detective is Fallout 4's best character, brought wonderfully to life by Stephen Russell, who lends him a noir-ish inflection that fits the character without feeling cliché. A tattered prototype with glowing yellow eyes, he nevertheless manages to come off as soulful and sympathetic as he gently encourages you to stay on the good path. He also has one of the game's better backstories, one that plays with the nature of memory and personality in a fashion reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, and he is a living representation of the conflict that lies at the heart of Fallout 4's story. In what has been a hit or miss history for Bethesda companions, Nick Valentine ranks among the very best."
Exploring Nick Valentine's dense and tragic history represents Fallout at its very best, especially once you get to his sidequest, in which he confronts the questions of his identity head on. Fallout 4's other companions are enjoyable as well: the noble minuteman Preston Garvey, who has become a perverse fan-favorite over the years (fans love to torment him in various ways). Codsworth, the C3PO-like robot butler that you can turn into a murderbot with the right DLC, and Hancock, a ghoul with an affinity for Revolutionary War-era garb, are also standouts. But Nick Valentine is the most interesting of them, and he's destined to be the character that everyone goes back to when thinking about Fallout 4.
Fallout 4 Nails Settlements in a Way That Fallout 76 Doesn't
These elements form the crucial backdrop against which to engage with my personal favorite element of Fallout 4: the settlement building. Though cumbersome and lacking in options at the outset, constructing multiple bases throughout the Commonwealth can quickly become addictive. I converted a gas station into a rest area for Nick Valentine and the rest of the gang. I had a water farm that generated a huge number of caps. I even turned one of the lighthouses into a full-blown fortress, constructing walls and posting NPCs in Power Armor around the ramparts.
Bethesda eventually made it possible to join the Raiders and become the scourge of the Commonwealth's settlements, but that always felt like anathema to me. I'm a builder at heart, not a destroyer, and I hate to see orderly settlements reduced to rubble. One of my overarching goals in Fallout 4 was to find a house in relatively good condition so that I could build around it—no easy thing in the Wasteland. I eventually settled for taking over Covenant, though it afforded relatively little space, and had the slight drawback of forcing me to step over the corpses of its inhabitants.
Building a fucking castle in Fallout 4 now. Help me. pic.twitter.com/JbeVBN3QBp— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) May 28, 2016
More than everything else, Fallout 4's settlements got me invested in the world. Toward the end I spent almost all of my time building additions to my settlements, getting items for my inhabitants, and constructing new weapons. I got even more hooked once the Automatron DLC came out, which allowed me to construct my own robots in the course of completing one of my all-time favorite sidequests: a multi-part quest line in which you uncover the identity of a comic book-like villain called The Mechanist.
These are the memories of Fallout 4 that stick with me much more than the main story, which mostly serves to kick you into the world and provide a little structure if you need it. It's Fallout 4's story that tends to get maligned above everything else, with many fans complaining about slimmed down dialogue options and the rigid choices that form the final act. But even the story, which is admittedly weaker than either Morrowind or Fallout New Vegas, can have its moments. I still remember the thrill of excitement and fear as I geared up to teleport into the Institute at last, uncertain of what I would find.
What matters to me is that, more than other Bethesda RPGs before it, Fallout 4 got me to suspend my disbelief and wholeheartedly live in its world. It was one of the reasons that I was initially really excited for Fallout 76—more settlement building sounded excellent to me. But as I've played it, I've been disappointed to find that much of the magic has been stripped away. Without the context provided by Fallout 4's story, it all feels empty to me. What do I care that I can build a settlement if I don't have memorable characters like Nick Valentine to populate it? If I'm not roleplaying, what's the point? It's all strictly utilitarian.
Fallout 4 is what I actually want to see in Fallout 76: a world where I can create my own identity and get lost in the steady progress of building up my settlements brick by brick. I'm not there to go on raids and collect loot; I'm there because I want to rebuild the Commonwealth while plumbing its secrets.
For a solid 200 hours or so in Fallout 4, that's exactly what I did. I built settlements, nuked obstinate cults, and made friends across the Commonwealth. In ways that I've rarely experienced in other RPGs, I became the Sole Survivor. And that's why, for all its flaws, Fallout 4 remains one of my favorite RPGs of this generation.