There is greatness in Fallout 4, but just like the post-apocalyptic Boston the game depicts, that greatness is buried under piles of garbage.
It’s a curious thing even for Bethesda, the kings of #content who seem to only put stories in their games in order to guide the player around the vast worlds they create. Fallout 4 is chock full of things to do that are unrelated to the main plot we’re given—that of a person, frozen in a cryo-pod for 200 years, on a frantic search for their kidnapped child. But rather than just being diversions, as they were in Fallout 3 and the Elder Scrolls games, these side things actually interfere with and sometimes even totally halt this urgent quest.
Irrelevant side activities are a common problem in large games, but this is something else. It’s common for players to decide to abandon the main story of a Bethesda game and do those other things instead, because they’re often more interesting. But Fallout 4 from its very beginning actively guides players to that path, encouraging and even requiring them to ignore its main story—at great expense to that story.
You are a person who was alive before the bombs fell, who fled to a fallout shelter with your spouse and baby son just as hell began raining down. You were tricked into being frozen instead of starting a new life underground, and at some point over the subsequent 210 years some folks from the surface came down into the Vault, killed your spouse and stole your baby, and then refroze you. Later you emerge from the vault in a daze to find your neighborhood destroyed and without a clue as to what happened to your kid.
The next stage of the plot kicks in at Diamond City, a town set up in a dilapidated Fenway Park. But Diamond City is halfway across the world of the game from where you begin, and Bethesda has a bunch of other stuff it wants you to do on the way—stuff that has no immediate bearing on the only thing your character could possibly care about at that point.
A lot happens before you actually get to start looking for your kid. First you encounter the Minutemen, a group of self-appointed wasteland police, and help them fight off random bad guys and then establish a settlement in the neighborhood where you used to live. This happens within minutes of waking up from your 200-year sleep—of witnessing the murder of your spouse and the kidnapping of your infant child. But you do it, throwing on a suit of powerful armor, ripping a chain gun off a crashed helicopter, and mowing down an entire tribe of bandits (plus some kind of mutant reptile thing) all on your own. You have to do it, in fact, to advance the main story (you know, the urgent search for your kidnapped child. Remember?).
Your character never asks how helping them helps you. You don’t tell them that you’ve only been off ice for about 15 minutes and that maybe you shouldn’t be their savior right this second. This isn’t part of the story, even though you have no choice but to participate in this side activity if the story is what you want to do. That’s because this quest and the other activities the game foists on you early on are little more than a clumsy, obtrusive way to introduce you to everything there is to do in Fallout 4 right out of the gate, and screw the actual story.
Once you lead the Minutemen to their new home, you’re asked to make the place livable by building furniture and planting crops and setting up defenses, because no one who has had to fend for themselves their entire lives in this bombed-out hellhole knows how to build beds, apparently. Then they want you to go to other settlements and do the same for them, and solve any other external problems they may have, such as murdering the roving bands of raiders who steal their stuff. Here you also learn how to modify your weapons and upgrade that power armor you got with the Minutemen and do any other busywork games like this love to rely on to waste your time.
When you do decide to head down to Diamond City to start in earnest the search for your son that you’ve been ignoring, you’ll probably next encounter the Brotherhood of Steel, fascist tech hoarders who look down their noses at everyone else through the eyeholes in their thick power armor helmets. Their base of operations, conveniently, is placed nearly on a direct line between Sanctuary and Diamond City, and surprise! they’re also under attack. You can help them, too, and they’ll then try to rope you into their own nonsense, which, surprise! doesn’t help you find your kid. This happens because Boston contains four major factions you can throw in with as you go around doing your thing, and the game must make sure you know that right away instead of when it actually becomes relevant later in the story.
Everything that happens before you make any meaningful attempt to find your lost kid is a completely inscrutable sequence of events, made even worse as you make headway through the story and discover that it contains several plot points that seem like they were actually designed to introduce all this stuff (power armor, Minutemen, settlements, crafting) organically. There’s a part where you have to venture into the still-irradiated ground zero for the bomb that took out Boston—which means you need power armor as protection, and thus you would naturally go to see the Brotherhood about that. One faction helps you with some tech you need cracked later on. And then further on you’ll need bodies behind you (for something I won’t spoil) which would have been a great time to introduce settlements and the Minutemen—if they hadn’t already been shoehorned in hours earlier in the plot.
This all reeks of late-stage reshuffling of the sort that’s so frustratingly common in big budget game development. It feels as if someone important at Bethesda was unhappy with these game features being introduced gradually and so had all of it trotted out haphazardly at the beginning. In the process it breaks the story almost completely for the first several hours of play, kneeling at the altar of #content.
Fallout 4 actually has a great story, and it moved at a solid pace when I was able to start ignoring all the side nonsense. The exploration—the meat of it—is still fun in the way the previous Fallout games were. This wasteland is absolutely worth exploring, and eventually, I was able to enjoy Fallout 4—despite the lack of respect it has for its own strengths.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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