By James Hancock November 19th, 2015
Like many moviegoers I was left in a state of awe earlier this year by George Miller’s masterful Mad Max: Fury Road , an experience I repeated several times in IMAX 3D just wanting to remain immersed in that rich, dynamic world a little longer. But as much as I love the film and no matter how many times I watch it, I’ll never know what it feels like to stand side-by-side with Imperator Furiosa going to war with Immortan Joe. Even with the most immersive movies I’ve ever seen, in the end, watching movies is a passive experience, one that I love, but one where I’ll never have the ability to affect the outcome of the story. Not so with Fallout 4 (developed by Bethesda Game Studios), a game that is so compelling that it has taken over my life for the last ten days to the point where the game almost feels more real than my own mundane existence. I jumped on board the franchise back in 2008 with Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360 and continued with Fallout: New Vegas in 2010. I found both open world games to be among my favorite of the last decade. The setting that has been established by this series is as rich and nuanced as any I’ve encountered in film or in fiction, a world that can only be described as an alternate reality similar to our own where a technologically advanced civilization with a taste for the music and fashion of the 1950s suddenly was snuffed out in a nuclear holocaust. Hundreds of years later, those lucky few who were sealed off in vaults gradually emerge to find a world drowning in radiation and populated by horrible mutants where every moment presents a fresh challenge to one’s survival. In Fallout 4, you play a character known as the Sole Survivor with the creative flexibility to craft whatever persona or narrative you wish as you explore the hellish, terrifying, and at times hysterical, world of Boston in the year 2287. There is enough content, depth and detail to create an infinite number of possible storylines. 24 hours into my playthrough I have barely touched the central storyline and my love of Fallout 4 is only intensifying as I gain a deeper understanding of what Bethesda has accomplished with this amazing game. If you have ever enjoyed a video game in your life or have a love for dystopian fictional universes, it would be criminal to deprive yourself of the experience of playing Fallout 4.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fallout, the franchise launched as a computer game back in 1997 and while the games all have a lot of common ground in terms of the music you hear or the creatures one encounters, each game functions as a standalone story with its own gameplay innovations that make them stand apart from those games that preceded it. In Fallout 4, the game begins with fantastic interface for designing the look and gender of your character (I made mine a very alluring but heavily muscled woman, read into that as you will) before it threw me into a pre-apocalypse sequence interacting with my spouse and newborn baby. When nuclear bombs started to fall, I followed the instructions of the local security force and raced to a vault where I was cryogenically frozen to remain in suspended animation until radiation levels on the surface dropped low enough to reemerge. As I woke up, I was confronted with the mystery of a murdered spouse and the revelation that my baby had been kidnapped. From that point forward the story has been totally in my hands. This is one of those games where there so many areas to explore, so many skills to develop, so many towns to rebuild and relationships to form that I can essentially play indefinitely without ever following the central storyline. There are various factions that offer work or sidekicks to help me in combat (or get romantically involved with), but many of these factions have opposing world views, giving each decision I make real world consequences that will affect the rest of my experience in the game. For now I’ve chosen to play the role of a person who flirts allegiance with everyone but never really goes to bed with any of them, so to speak, as I rebuild a network of towns to provide me with gear and income. Everything I do in the game from crafting gear, cooking food, to building shops provides experience and access to new skills (the crafting is the best I’ve encountered in any game ever) not to mention the countless side quests I encounter just by walking into new areas. No matter what I decide to do with my time in the game, my power gradually grows and that freedom is what I love most about the game.
Skeptics might be wondering about my earlier claim of comparing the story favorably to that of a great movie so I should pause to mention some of the dramatic beats that I’ve encountered. Typically games rely on cinematics for these storytelling beats but the genius of Fallout 4 is how the best dramatic moments come about solely through gameplay. I’ll never forget picking my way slowly through the ruins of a bunker where the mayor of Boston committed suicide shortly after the nuclear war began. At the end of my exploration I found a room with an attractive weapon I wanted but as I approached it, a deathclaw casually slid its bulk through a hole in the ceiling, lifted me into the air with one hand and casually disemboweled me with the other. Fallout veterans are familiar with the terifying Deathclaws and typically avoid areas populated by them like the plague until relatively late in the game when one’s power level is a match for their ferocity. I’m not ashamed to admit that I experienced a moment of abject terror before I screamed out loud at the grisly fate I had encountered. But there are humorous beats as well. I experienced a bizarre moment where two robots invited me into a restaurant that had stood empty for 200 years. They showed me to my table and asked me to make a selection from the menu. I either said something I shouldn’t or they simply malfunctioned but suddenly the waiter started blasting me with a flamethrower and the next thing I knew I was at war with an entire town of artificial beings. The humor and genuine strangeness of Fallout is so essential to the success of this world. It would be so easy for a developer to surrender to the impulse of overemphasizing the darkness of this bleak, inhospitable world, but somehow without detracting from the life or death stakes of the game, I find myself howling with laughter at each unpredictable turn.
But like with every Fallout game, it is the accumulation of the countless little details that add up to a unique experience. Through my trusty Pip-Boy on my left hand I constantly listen to eerie haunting music from a bygone era like Billie Holiday’s ‘Crazy He Calls Me’ or ‘The End of the World’ by Skeeter Davis. When I pick up distress signals from local communities, or find a holotape with an important message, I honestly feel as if there are real people out there who are in danger and need my help. For most of my playthrough, I’ve been joined by a dog named Dogmeat and after a few hours of adventuring with him, I started talking out loud to him as if he were my actual pet. This all might sound ridiculous and borderline pathetic but this game has a way of getting its hooks into me that is impossible to resist. If you’re a hardcore gamer, I highly recommend playing the game on the highest difficulty setting, survival. There is so much to do that even if you hit a brick wall with a particular enemy, you can go level up a hundred different ways and come back later to mop the floor with the previously unbeatable opponent. I have no idea how long it is going to take me to work my through the game but I already know that once’s this journey is over, the first thing I’ll do is create a new character and start the game all over again making a completely different set of choices and building a completely different skill set with which to do battle. Much like my experiences with masterpieces like Dark Souls and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this is an addiction that I have no desire to be cured of anytime soon.
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