I'm 20 hours into Fallout 4, and I still don't know whether I like it. That's a testament to the game's virtues as well as the game's failings. I have no plans to stop playing. I'd rather be playing Fallout 4 than typing these words. Yet I still haven't forgiven the game for taking so long to hook me.
The official Kotaku review of Fallout 4 will come later, from Fallout enthusiast Patricia Hernandez. In the meantime, here are some early impressions from a Fallout amateur. (Only in Fallout would 20 hours of play feel "early.")
The main quest is terrific. Without spoiling too much, your character's motivation upon exiting the Vault is to find your child. I'm playing as a woman, and the main quest's plot makes me feel like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill, taking down my enemies with single-minded focus. Why would I stop to complete the side quests, unless the game gave me a powerful reason to do so? I'm looking for my child. Do you really think I'm going to recover a superhero cape for you, or join some do-gooder faction to rebuild all of civilisation?
The main quest is so rewarding that I wish I had gotten to it sooner. When your character emerges from the Vault, you encounter Dogmeat (your dog) and you knock out a reasonably brief mandatory quest in Lexington, Mass., not far from the site of the Shot Heard Round the World that began the American Revolutionary War. (There's an option to pick up a Laser Musket.)
Because I'm an experienced video game player, I made the mistake of taking a few hours to do the bidding of the first mission giver you come across. I wish I hadn't. He wants you to craft items for his settlement, and also to come to the aid of a different nearby settlement. I assumed these were tutorial missions. They are, sort of, but I also would have missed nothing by skipping them at this point in the game. Worse, the nearby settlement leads you into a surprisingly difficult shootout at a warehouse that is not the best way to begin learning how to kill people in this game.
Bethesda is excited, I'm told, about this new aspect of Fallout — building settlements and wiring them for power and whatnot. It was a pretty small part of my playthrough during the first 20 hours. After that first major post-Vault mission, when you meet the Minutemen, a citizen organisation trying to resettle the Commonwealth, their leader asks you to go talk to one of his aides. If you follow that advice, the Minutemen will ask you to build a few beds for their settlement, which is easy enough. The next step is to build a water pump, and I thought it seemed like a good idea to build a water pump for these miserable people. Yet when the Minutemen asked me to be their leader, I declined. It didn't feel right to spend so much time rebuilding civilisation when I had a personal mission to fulfil.
Your character's motivation is to go to a place called Diamond City as soon as you hear of its existence. It took me seven and a half hours to get there. I could have arrived in half that time, and had a lot more fun, if I had been thinking like a person instead of a like video game player. (There is, however, a mission worth tackling at the Cambridge Police Station on the way to Diamond City. It's a better introductory shootout, with a better payoff in terms of loot as well as story.)
Boston is great. One of the rewards of heading to Diamond City quickly is that it gets you to Boston, the game's architectural centrepiece. Fallout 4 captures the city wonderfully, down to street names like Newbury and Commonwealth. It's not a block-by-block recreation, but all the major landmarks are there. Neighbourhoods like Back Bay are recognisable, as are major roads like Storrow Drive along the Charles River and notable places like Copley Square, site of the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church. Fenway Park is in the game and is used perfectly as a protected encampment. There's a decent joke in the game about the status of the left-field wall known as the Green Monster. You meet a newspaper reporter named Piper who publishes Publick Occurrences, named for one of the first newspapers in colonial America, and you run into a detective named Nick who has become one of my favourite companions. The most recent quest that I completed in the game took me to Cambridge, to the ruins of "C.I.T.," the game's version of M.I.T. There is an entire quest about following the Freedom Trail and its red bricks. About a third of the way through, the point of the quest begins to emerge, but for some time it's just about looking at historic sites in post-apocalyptic Boston, and it's fantastic
Other things are less great. The V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) shooting from Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas is back, and it's fine, I guess. But whenever I get caught up in an extended shootout in Fallout 4, I find myself growing a little weary. I feel more relief than exhilaration when I kill a particularly challenging enemy. My motivation in the game is to find out what happens next, and to learn more about this world and the characters in it. I don't find the moment to moment shooting rewarding.
The game has lots of interesting characters in it, but their facial animations are still pretty bad, in that Bethesda way, and the dialogue and camerawork during in-game conversations is consistently mediocre. At the same time, I love talking to people in this world and wish that I could do more of it. (Your character is voiced, and responds when you choose options in the game's dialogue trees.) In the open world, when you stop to talk to people, they often stare at you while you repeatedly press A to say "Hey." (I played on an Xbox One.)
There's a pretty large crafting system the game, though I've almost entirely ignored it up to now. I'm curious to see whether I'm forced to start making stuff eventually.
The game didn't feel buggy for the first 15 hours, but over the past few I've had the game crash on me once and, more often, I've encountered moments where several of the buttons on my gamepad stop working. Hitting the glowing Xbox button to go into the Xbox dashboard and then clicking to go back into the game would solve the problem.
I am starting to resent small nuisances, like having to remember to change my clothes to improve my charisma stats before bartering with a shopkeeper. Your companions — whether Dogmeat or others that you meet in the world, whom you can ask to travel with you — seem to frequently get in your way, especially during interior sequences.
Still, this is a game that seems to be getting better as it goes along. If you value largeness, Fallout 4 sure is big and there's plenty more to do. I'm just getting my first perks and have settlements to build. Now excuse me, I'm going to go get lost in it.