I spent most of the last 3 weeks doing 2 things: playing Fallout 4 and driving for Lyft. Both are fun, addictive post-apocalyptic jaunts through semi-realistic 3 dimensional open worlds. In one, you race around a map, engaging both hostile and friendly locals for power-ups, bottlecaps and sweet, sweet XP. The other is Fallout 4.
This isn’t going to be a comprehensive review of either setting. Both are fairly large maps. Fallout 4 weighs in at just over 30 square miles of explorable space, and Denver is roughly 5 times that size. Both feel about the same from a player’s point of view, when you account for traffic.
It is fairly easy to wander in Fallout 4. The map reveals a wide variety of interesting locations and rewards diligent exploration, outside of its quest system. Travel south in Fallout’s “Commonwealth” and you will run into vicious packs of Deathclaws, which drop meat used to make some of the best stat-food in the game. Travel south on Broadway in Denver and you will eventually find El Tejado, which serves up legit Carne Asada and fishbowl sized house Margaritas. So it’s a trade-off.
In Fallout 4 you assume the role of a person, born before the “Great War,” who spent the last 210 years on ice. You cut across the greater Boston Metro like the right hand of god, righting wrongs and bringing justice to an otherwise lawless ruin. The survivors you encounter are earnest, surly and hopelessly addicted to chems. They require beds, shelter, water, food, and security in that order, and it falls to you to make the magic happen. You scrounge your way across the burbs’ gathering scraps of pre-war tech and materials, which you use to build up settlements for your growing tribe. Some of those you rescue become companions, and travel with you, mindlessly standing in front of turrets, charging into just-unlocked spaces, and agro-ing every Ghoul you meet, before you actually meet them. It’s a bit like parenting, except that you can actually lock a companion down when necessary by NOT healing them. Which is a huge plus on the higher difficulty settings.
WAR NEVER CHANGES
If previous Fallout titles have focused on the experience of a Vault Dweller who has never known a pre-war world, Fallout 4 focuses on the aftermath. You will likely spend vast quantities of caps on ammunition and stim-packs to fight the good fight up-front, and EVEN MORE on rebuilding the battleground after you clear it. Survival builders like my son, Zach, love Fallout 4 for the ability to build multistory bunkhouses over the ruins of suburbia, complete with sally-ports, guard turrets and paint sheds for scavenged power armor. Explorer-achievers like me fill in every corner of the map, playing on “Hard” or “Very Hard” for a greater chance to spawn “legendary” Ghoul roamers, rad Scorpions and Super-Mutants who drop legendary armor and weapons.
I started out in “survival” mode and found the game overly punishing. The amount of damage I could dish out versus the damage taken in over the course of every fight was roughly .5 / x2. I dropped the difficulty down to “very hard,” and tried to avoid fights as much as possible. I chose my battles carefully, using a mixture of line-of-sight, and “kiting;” the practice of dragging enemies through previously cleared areas, into carefully laid ambushes and traps. It was a godsend when I discovered that some cars in urban areas are still capable of exploding, for example.
Your character’s health bar now shares space with your radiation counter, and can be modified with found food or dirty water, increasing health while costing rads. This makes the whole process kinda dicey. Crafted food sometimes works like rad-away or raises certain stats like perception, strength, agility or charisma. Crafted drinks also raise stats, but lower others, dropping perception, strength or intelligence, which directly affects the rate by which your character gains XP. Couple this with a restrictive carry limit, based on your strength stat and the whole thing becomes a tight-rope walk through a literal minefield. Careful planning and judicious use of a companion’s carrying capacity keep new areas within fast-travel-distance of vendors, crafting tables and settlements — old and new — clamoring for protection and / or upgrades. This process continues until all possible settlements are unlocked, upgraded and defended, and the surrounding “bads” are cleared, whether you pursue the main story quest or not.
If Fallout 4 has a fault, it’s in the main story. To reach the end, you must either play the role of the earnest good-guy, or the sarcastic good-guy, but there is little opportunity to be truly bad yourself. You are forced into the role of supermom / dad, but you cannot be a shitty one. This is probably a good message, and is the spiritual heart of the game. but it does tend to limit your roleplay options. Fallout 4 is NOT a natural successor to Baldur’s Gate, or even Dragon Age. The constraints of character drive the story forward more than any actual choice you make as a player.
This doesn’t make Fallout 4 a bad game, but it is a shallow RPG. Your entire existence in this open world is dependent upon your heroic rescue of the rest of the cast. You can eschew companionship altogether, if you like, but there are few benefits in doing so. Which is also a lot like real life, or Lyft, when you think about it.
I am a completionist. I must complete every quest, collect every stat boosting bobblehead or magazine, and acquire all the things. Fallout 4 delivers just enough carrot that I happily endure the stick. Still — 400 hours is a huge investment of time, just to scratch that itch. As I wander the wasteland I often think about the rides I could be giving around Denver via Lyft. The balancing act between completing my adventures in post apocalyptic Boston, versus leveling up my cash in the real world is relentless. The people I meet in Fallout 4’s Boston are merely helpless without me, but Lyft passengers sometimes tip. The struggle is real, kids. The struggle is real.