Rushing a good meal makes it hard to appreciate the subtle mix of ingredients and textures and flavours that went into creating it. Rushing an all you-can-eat buffet is just going to make you pass out in pool of your own sick.
Which is why I’m only now reviewing Fallout 4, the massive, intricate, post-apocalyptic melding of an action title and a role-playing adventure. While it’s possible to rush through the game in as little as 20-odd hours (if 20 hours can be called a short amount of time to devote to a video game), there are 200-plus hours of content in developer Bethesda’s follow-up to 2008’s Fallout 3. It’s an experience to be slowly savoured, not wolfed down.
And that’s because I don’t want to let go of Fallout 4. Even though it’s possible to keep playing the game after its story has come to a conclusion, I know I won’t do that. Once the tale has ended – once my wasteland wanderer has finally unravelled the mystery of her kidnapped son, and the last plot-based quest has been completed – I’ll be done with Fallout 4. And it’s not time yet.
For those who’ve been living inside an underground blast-proof vault, Fallout 4 was one of the biggest games of last year, selling 12 million copies – about US$ 750 million worth – in just the first 24 hours after its Nov. 10 release.
And yet it’s a uniquely newbie-unfriendly game, one that requires a level of investment and commitment and patience that the likes of Rise of the Tomb Raider or Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 doesn’t. It’s a massive, dense, at times unwieldy construction, jam-packed with amazing moments and an unparalleled sense of freedom and exploration, but also clumsy design decisions, glitches that range from amusing to annoying, and plenty of repetitive filler. Seriously, Preston Garvey, if you tell me about another settlement that needs liberating every time I walk past you, you’re going to eat a mini-nuke from my Fat Man.
As of this scribbling I’ve reached level 50 in the game, and my custom-created character – a bespectacled, brown-haired woman named Sarah, thrust into the nuked-out remains of greater Boston after spending 200 years in cryogenic suspension – is now a lean, mean killing machine, able to decapitate vicious raiders with a single pistol shot and take down Deathclaws and Radscorpions without breaking a sweat. She is a goddess of the irradiated wastes, a scourge to slavers and synths and super mutants.
She also seems to have all but forgotten that she’s looking for her son, Shaun, taken from her in the latter stages of her cryogenic slumber by the same man who murdered her husband. Addicted to side-quests and determined to stretch out the Fallout 4 experience, I resisted visiting Diamond City, the community built inside the remains of a Fenway Park analog, for as long as possible. Ditto for seeking out the Railroad, sworn protectors of synthetic life. Ditto for venturing into the desolate Glowing Sea, one of the scariest yet most hauntingly memorable areas of any Fallout game. And only now am I finally setting foot in the sterile halls of the Institute, closing in (I think?) on the missing Shaun.
That’s a fundamental problem with open-world games, whether they’re from Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises or the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and so on: how do you tell a compelling story in a setting where the player is free to wander at whim, undertaking nearly endless optional missions with no time pressure?
You can’t. Which is why Fallout 4 requires a lot of player investment to really believe in its world and its characters. You need to be willing to role-play, to fill in the blanks, to suspend disbelief when people and the environment frequently act in immersion-breaking ways. It takes some work.
And, weirdly, I really like that about it.
Fallout 4 is far from perfect. Aside from the tons of minor glitches and its less-than-groundbreaking visuals, there are aspects of the game that are frustratingly half-baked, from a horrible inventory system that could have been improved with a few simple tweaks to a Minecraft-like settlement-building mechanic that’s poorly implemented and never fully explained. (And yet I’ve dropped at least 10 hours into that optional aspect of the game alone, expanding my hometown of Sanctuary Hills with farms, apartment buildings and a garage to house my five sets of power armour.)
But for all the ghouls I’ve killed and ruins I’ve explored and rolls of duct tape I’ve picked up – that stuff is like gold in the world of Fallout – I’m not tired of it yet. Even though I know the game inside and out, there’s still more to see and do.
The meal hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been very memorable. The waiter keeps coming by with the dessert cart, and I keep waving him away.