Having just cleared a small plot of land for a group of settlers, I began following a distress signal leading me somewhere vaguely northeast of my location. I crossed a precarious bridge over a set of train tracks and climbed a mountain only to discover a crashed airplane in which a few gargantuan mutants had settled down. Then they noticed me, charging in my direction.
When my underpowered guns barely put a dent in their health, I ran in the absolute opposite direction of the radio signal. And I kept running until I stumbled upon a few molotovs that laid waste to my pursuers (with a little aid from my canine companion).
This was just one of the many unintended encounters of my 20-25 or so hours in the Fallout 4 wasteland so far. It’s been a long strange trip so far, full of close encounters, exciting discoveries, and plenty of aggravated mole rats. While we’re not ready to render a final verdict of Bethesda’s latest open-world behemoth just yet, after spending a couple dozen hours in the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth, the journey so far has been filled with plenty of highlights that suggest even a couple dozen hours in, there’s still plenty more we can’t wait to see.
(ASIDE: Turn back if you’re expecting a comparison of how Fallout 4 does or does improve upon its predecessor. I never played more than a couple of hours of 3 or Fallout New Vegas, and so rather than speaking to that, this is a relative newcomer’s approach to the franchise. END ASIDE)
Customizing my character at the onset of Fallout 4, before the bombs had dropped, I chose to play as a female character who may or may not resemble Black Widow (naming her Natasha didn’t hurt). And then I discovered I was playing a mother, who, after the apocalyptic flashpoint occurs, must venture out on a mission to rescue a lost family member, which made the choice (as opposed to whatever default male character games provides me), all the more resonant.
Of course, the main thread opens up to be about a much larger power struggle besieging the wasteland, but in the immediate moments of being a mother and wife seeking salvation and revenge, I felt compelled to follow whatever meager clues I could discover. The thought of my character permanently losing her family would not stand, and so I set out into a nearly unrecognizable New England landscape in the hopes of finding her son.
But then I joined a group of citizen soldiers called the Minutemen, found a few settlements to claim and build up, and any number of additional side stories that pulled me away from my main cause. Yet I didn’t begrudge them because I often found, even as the still oddly lifeless characters spouted exposition about their plights to me, what was presented offered the ability to not just explore Bethesda’s story but add my personal touch to it.
This feels most true of the game’s new building mechanic, which allows players to turn all the scarps they amass from around the game’s world. A little dash of Minecraft, some influence from the gameplay of Fallout 4’s mobile predecessor Fallout Shelter. Certain settlements offer plenty of space for players to customize the designs of these locations with defenses, resources, furniture, and more. I focused on making one area, located on a former farm, an agrarian utopia while a once-proud Starlight Diner began to take the shape of a heavily fortified concrete battle zone. (This may also be a diversion from the main loop of the game players could completely ignore and still enjoy the experience. But for the Sims fan in me, it feels like a worthwhile investment.)
There’s not necessarily a major story consequence for putting in the effort to build these settlements so far, but it’s a piece, just like Natasha’s determination to find her family, to my overall story that keeps me coming back to Fallout 4. As does the game’s V.A.T.S. system, which slows down action as players can pinpoint different body segments of enemies to maximize damage. It’s a system that has appeared in previous games, but as a newcomer it adds a level of fun and finesse to combat that the familiar and standard first-person shooting doesn’t quite have.
Big, open-world RPGs like this are often intimidating to me. The sheer amount of choice and possibility is enough to make me run straight for the hills of a close-ended game. Instead, I found myself roaming the hills of the Commonwealth for hours at a time, running side by side with in the hopes of finding family, new settlements, or maybe even a raider camp or two to fight. There’s still plenty of the wasteland to discover, but while returning to the wasteland is still imbued with a sense of excitement and intrigue that drives my character and my desire to return to the game, that’s not such a bad prospect to face.
Fallout 4 is one of EW’s most anticipated games of the fall. Stay tuned for more coverage, as there’s much more to Fallout 4‘s story, SPECIAL perk system, and the world itself. Check out the rest of the fall’s biggest titles with EW’s fall games preview.