[I completed this review after playing Fallout 4 for a total of 25 hours. I completed the main quest line during my play through.]
Fallout 4 is the latest in Bethesda's revival of Black Isle Studios' beloved post-apocalyptic role playing series, and like its predecessors it has met with much praise and market success. But I find myself unable to quite grasp the popularity of the game, because also like its predecessors, Fallout 4's impressive scale and ambitious design are hamstrung by some major flaws in the execution.
I've really come to dislike the aesthetic of the Fallout series, and I'm disappointed that it hasn't really evolved at all over the years; the D.C. of Fallout 3 is not very distinct from New Vegas, and even less so from Boston in Fallout 4. Does everything have to be so drab and gray and dirty, so dead and devoid of plant life? I get that the world is supposed to be a wasteland shattered by nuclear warfare, but I don't think this design choice was made for the sake of realism (and I don't think it is realistic anyhow). More likely, Bethesda is taking design cues from the original series. But when so much of the game has evolved, the dull environment hardly seems worth hanging onto. Furthermore, I can't help but feel that Bethesda has used this theme of dilapidation as an excuse to cut some corners when designing the world. Little care has been taken to prevent objects from clipping through each other and through the world geometry, and this frequently results in getting stuck on the strewn garbage, or being unable to jump over or crouch under objects that look like they should be navigable.
These are hardly the worst of the bugs you'll encounter, though. About two-thirds of the way through the main quest, I encountered a game-breaking bug where a door didn't unlock as it should have, leaving me stuck in a room I couldn't leave. Luckily, I was able to get around this by turning off clipping, but had I been playing on console I probably would have just been screwed. The PC version isn't without its own problems, though. Performance varies a great deal between different areas, and some scenes—simple indoor scenes, even—can bring relatively powerful hardware to its knees. And, as usual, the menu system was clearly designed for consoles and not changed at all when the game was ported, which makes navigating the menus painfully slow—a big pain point in a game which is so menu-driven.
The plot doesn't fair much better. The game's introduction is boring and clichéd, and things hardly improve from there. The introduction attempts to build emotional attachment and set up the protagonist's motivations, but its rushed nature and predictability make it fall completely flat. Beyond its failure to have the intended emotional effect, the attempt to establish a meaningful backstory for the protagonist is a questionable decision, even in theory, in this sort of game. The appeal of the series is, to a large extent, that it's open ended and non-linear. Some players will follow the main quest line to its conclusion, but many more won't, and for them the one-size-fits-all introduction could hamper immersion by robbing them of the chance to fully construct their own characters.
The tedious introduction is crucial to the plot of the main quest, so I'd be more forgiving if the main quest were really spectacular, but it's not. There are some high points, where mystery and suspense propel the story forward, but the questions raised are always followed by disappointing answers, and the whole thing is constantly hampered by mediocre voice acting. Events that should be heart-wrenching are portrayed with about the level of emotion you'd expect from someone who missed her bus and had to wait 30 minutes for the next one, and life-or-death situations seem to always heed a sort of detached overconfidence, as though the characters all know that it's just a video game. I don't entirely blame the actors, though. Good acting requires a sense of a character's personality and motivations, and most of the characters in Fallout 4 lack both of those aspects. There are a handful of exceptions, such as Nick Valentine, but they can't save the rest of the cast.
It doesn't help that the character models have a very limited set of expressions and animations to visualize their emotions with. Granted, not every game can be The Last of Us, and perhaps it's kind of unfair to even expect that sort of fidelity in an open-world game; it's like complaining that a choose-your-own-adventure book doesn't have the depth of a novel. But Rockstar does a pretty good job with Grand Theft Auto, whereas Bethesda seems to be constantly behind the state-of-the-art, despite everyone always complaining about this in every review of a Bethesda game. At any rate, the combination of shallow, often nonsensical writing and tepid acting result in an uninspiring story, which I expect I'll have forgotten entirely in a matter of months.
On the bright side, combat has improved since Fallout 3. The addition of ironsights is a welcome change; it allows for more precise aiming while also adding a sense of authenticity. It also ties in well with the impressive weapon modification system, which allows you to select from a variety of different sights and scopes, and craft mods that change various characteristics such as fire rate, damage, and accuracy. However, the guns still don't have the feeling of weight and impact that they do in pure FPS games such as Battlefield and Call of Duty. I think this is partly an issue inherent to the RPG-FPS genre—no gun feels powerful when it takes 37 headshots to kill a high-level enemy—but it's also a matter of animation and sound design, and neither are stellar here.
The most significant addition to the game, and in my opinion also the best, is "settlements," which are areas of the map in which you can build your own little oases of safety by placing structures and resources. Once you have set up a settlement, NPCs will travel to it, and you can assign them to produce resources or act as guards, as you see fit. You can scavenge building materials from scrap you find in the settlement area or from junk items found elsewhere in the wasteland, which is a nice touch because it gives these items some real value rather than just having them be "vendor trash" as they are in most RPGs. There are a variety of fixtures that can be constructed with the right components—furniture, water pumps, food crops, generators, turrets, and more. Switches and computer terminals can be used to control the flow of electricity or set behaviors on certain objects, which allows for some interesting creative applications. As your settlement grows, it will attract more friendly NPCs, and you can construct shops and set up trade routes. But prosperous settlements also attract the attention of raiders, necessitating the aforementioned defenses—or, if you're around, you can help defend the settlement yourself.
The settlement system is the most novel aspect of Fallout 4, and also among the most fun. But even so, it feels somewhat aimless and lacks a sense of necessity or challenge. You set up a few beds, plant some food, add turrets for defense, and... then what? My settlements never got raided, or if they did, I didn't notice. There was little incentive for me to build further once I'd established the basics. It's a cool little addition, but if base-building is what you're looking for, there are countless other games that do it better, and nothing unique about Fallout 4's implementation.
Despite my complaints, Fallout 4 isn't a bad game. It has a ton of content‐a whole world to explore, with interesting little surprises all over the place. The many game systems provide numerous ways to play, meaning everyone is likely to find something to like. But folk wisdom about trying to please everyone applies here: it's impossible, and in attempting to do it you typically end up doing many things decently but never doing anything excellently. I'm a bit disappointed in the Fallout series' repeated failure to live up to its potential. These games could be amazing; they have a foot in the door to greatness already. Unfortunately, Bethesda has never quite been able to step across the threshold.