I was 14 years old when I played the original Fallout for the first time. I had just finished Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which I guess was what you’d call my first true RPG experience, and hungered for something like that. I spent hours in forums searching for recommendations and both Fallout and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura were the games that kept popping up, so I had my parents drive me to the closest Best Buy—two hours away—and I plopped down fifty bucks for a CD compilation of the first two Fallout games and Arcanum, both games deeply discounted and hidden behind more recent titles.
I didn’t take to Fallout immediately. By 2003 it was already an old game, it looked ugly and was difficult to play, but I liked the ideas in it: the Mad Max-inspired fantasy of surviving in a Wasteland inhabited by bandits and mutants, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, the Bloody Mess trait that caused enemies to transform into a pile of organs and finger bones upon death. It took me a second attempt years later to fall in love with both those games and I fell hard. The freedom offered to players was astonishing then and still dwarfs pretty much anything released these days, including Fallout 3 and Fallout 4. I spent hours scavenging the desert for a water chip to save my home, Vault 13, only to shoot the leader of the place when he exiled me for being too transformed by my exploration of the surface (proving his point in the end, I guess). In Fallout 2, I went from town to town, helping folks in exchange for ammo and bottle caps to buy shiny new weapons. I partook in a sting that took down a crime boss. I got married. I became a porn star. I saved the world but everyone loathed me because I accidently shot a child in a showdown with a gunthug.
When Fallout 3 was released, I sympathized with the people who hated how simplistic it was in comparison to the depth offered by the previous games. The series had been transformed into an action, shootery type game with elements of RPG. It was louder, dumber and had a slew of problems involving repetitive environments and occasionally awful writing. However, it also had remarkable action set-pieces, like when you team up with the Brotherhood of Steel to fight a giant monster outside of a radio station, and genuinely great side-quests that are far more interesting than the ho-hum main quest about saving the world and solving your character’s daddy issues. I loved the game though. I thought V.A.T.S. in first-person was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen and solving the mystery of Andale and helping Harkness find out about his past are still some of the best sequences I’ve ever played in a game.
Fallout 4 continues the streamlining of the series, dumbing down the dialogue system to ape Mass Effect’s conversation wheel and packing the world with an endless supply of quests that, while repetitive, guarantee you’ll always have something to shoot or hunt. Fallout 4 actually reminded me more of Destiny than anything else while I played except that it was Destiny done right. The combat is a huge improvement over Fallout 3/New Vegas, to the point that it almost actually feels like a first-person shooter rather than a poor imitation of one. In the 60 hours I’ve played of the game, I’ve found myself so absorbed in the game’s core loop of exploring and clearing out locations filled with raiders and ghouls that by the time I actually got to tackling the main quest, I was hilariously overpowered and utterly destroyed everything the questline threw at me with a couple of blasts from a high-powered rifle (including the dreaded Deathclaws).
It’s a bit of a shame that almost nothing outside of that loop is noteworthy or nearly as enjoyable. A lot of my friends keep building massive and impressive looking settlements throughout the Wasteland but I was so put off by the terrible user interface that I’ve rarely bothered with it outside of the missions that force you to build power generators and towers. The main quest in the game, casting you as a parent looking for their child, is particularly terrible because every facet of it is at odds with the gameplay that Fallout actively encourages, pushing you in the direction of ho-hum sidequests and bombed out buildings to explore. The wandering aspect of Fallout just does not work with the emotional urgency that that plot tries to instill in you (or maybe I’d just be a terrible parent, which is probably true).
However, even though Fallout 4 differs radically from every other game in the series, it’s my favorite version of the fantasy of just trying to survive in the Wasteland. My experience has been a quiet one in comparison to other games. I’ve done over 40 sidequests but I’m usually happier just exploring bombed-out Boston, picking through the rubble to find upgrades and getting into tense firefights along the way while my stupid, lovable dog charges into the fray and sinks his teeth into the arms of monsters four times his size. It’s the first Fallout that I’ve been really grateful for the option to say Fuck The Wasteland and Everyone In It and just do my own thing. Every game except the first has given you the option to be a selfish, wandering prick if you wanted to, but the value in those games was usually tied up in the writing and getting involved in the lives of those around you. Instead, Fallout 4 reverses that and is a game that’s best moment by moment and not when you’re looking at the whole thing from afar, trying to critique a game that’s essentially four very different games stuck together with duct tape. But one of those games, the one about shooting everything you come across and looting their corpses for precious duct tape, is so finely tuned, so close to perfection in letting you be the conductor of a symphony of orgiastic violence, that it makes up for nearly everything else.
There’s a habit of mourning or getting really angry about sequels to games that a lot of gamers and critics (including me, hi) have, particularly beloved series like Mass Effect and Fallout. But the fact of the matter is that I’m never going to experience the joy of something like taking on Frank Horrigan or encountering a baffling Monty Python reference in the middle of the desert again. Series should be allowed to deviate from their formulas as they evolve, presenting new experiences instead of just refined versions of the old ones. Fallout 4 is a different beast than any of the games that have come before it. It’s more superficial in a number of ways, but man, there’s nothing like wheeling up and firing your laser musket and watching as a bad dude falls off the roof of a building, burning burning burning into ash before his remains hit the ground.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.