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The Punch God's Lament: Some thoughts on Fallout 4

In my time I've been a vault dweller, a Wasteland wanderer, a thief, and a murderer. And now I am a lonely Punch God, exploding heads around the greater Boston area.

Like a lot of you I have seriously dug the entire Fallout series. Hell, I even kind of liked Brotherhood of Steel, the lazy console-only Gauntlet clone. Going back all the way to the beginning, the original Fallout had the same basic plot and protagonist as the mainline games from the series (you are an inhabitant of a fallout shelter, known as a "Vault," being forced to exit out into the irradiated wasteland after some 200 years underground) with one major difference: you had to hurry the hell up and get going. The device that kept you and the generations prior to you alive has malfunctioned, and you must go out among the mutants to find a replacement before your fellow vault dwellers run out of water.

It turns out exploring a huge environment full of things to dig through with the clock ticking was less than fun. The latest entry by Bethesda, Fallout 4, leans as hard as possible in the other direction. It wants you to exist in the world they’ve created forever.

Make yourself at home

One of the key ways Fallout 4 welcomes you in is that it allows you to make your own personal giant mess in their carefully constructed world. The crafting system which was introduced in Fallout 3 (which up until this point been just another way to deal with your constantly degrading equipment) was expanded in an unexpected way. The character you control this time around can alter and build on the landscape. The clumsy Minecraft-inspired creation system requires a good bit of time fiddling and poking around to make any use out of it, but you are eventually able to build filthy ramshackle structures with ease (and some people can accomplish much more).

I can imagine that there was a lot of grousing about this addition from the usual crowd that doesn’t like it when a thing becomes different, but who cares what those chumps have to say?  The ability for your character to create structures, which is something that apparently almost no one living in the Wasteland has been able to do on any scale in centuries, is consistent with his or her origins. Unlike prior protagonists your character has come out of the apocalypse relatively unscathed.

In the world of Fallout the 1950s never ended and everything (EVERYTHING) is powered by nuclear energy. This means that even prior to the bombs dropping the world was still pretty radioactive in daily life. That being said, your character has been sealed away since the moment civilization ended. Since the rest of the survivors slowly made their way out of the vaults and lived through the generations, it has to be assumed the ambient radiation melted their brains a bit. So they are content to live in the filthy bombed out ruins of wherever they end up.

You, however, have been in a lead-lined tube since before everything became a mess. You have the ability to shape the world around you, rendering you a god. The way the settlers start to refer to you when you have reached the endgame reminded me of being called the Nerevarine wherever I went in Morrowind, the best game in the Elder Scrolls series.

Talking and killing

The other key distinction between the person you inhabit in this title as opposed to the prior Wasteland wanderers is that this time your character is voiced. This changed how I felt about the person I played and how I went about in the world. In Fallout 4 you spend you time exploring, gathering garbage to take home to your hovel/castle, and building. More than anything though, you spend your time killing. And the action and process of killing feels much more satisfying than in the prior first-person titles.

Your character's voice, in contrast to the massacres you commit, is chipper and cheerful. The disconnect between your apparent can-do happy attitude and the sheer number of dead bodies you end up creating rubbed me the wrong way at first, but it fits. A war hero comes home to his family briefly before sleeping for hundreds of years. When he wakes up everything he knows has been destroyed and everyone he comes into contact with is either trying to kill him, fried by radiation, or an idiot. And so he snaps, and becomes a bit of a sociopath.

That's how I rationalized it anyway.

Every one of the thousands of amphetamine addicted bandits that infest the nuclear mud pit of Boston is essentially a highly pressurized (but also somehow slack) bag full of meat chunks, blood, and bone fragments. In ever other Fallout adventure I have chosen to play as a “shoot the other guy in the eyeball until he leaves you alone and you can take his things” type of player. In Fallout 4 the added responsiveness of the action, as well as the endless visceral splatter of bodily explosions, led me to try a melee/fisticuffs playthrough for the first time. It was tremendously satisfying activating the V.A.T.S. interface (a holdover from the turn-based battle system of prior years) and suddenly appearing in front of a mohawked jerk and punching him in the face with a hydraulic fist.

Seeing an enemy's head pop like a balloon and watching the shattered remnants of their skull hang in the air for a moment before clattering to the ground is something special. The Super Mutants' testicular gore nuggets that they wrap in chains and suspend from the ceiling wherever they like to hang out have gotten a juicy upgrade as well. They're genuinely nauseating when you take a close look at them.


It's peaceful here

The world sounds quiet and still despite all this, even with the addition of echoing gunfire from blocks away and other new auditory details they’ve layered in. It feels like a dead world, as it should. There are a handful of radio stations you can dial into on your wrist computer, but they have a limited playlist and become just noise after not too long. When you decide to switch them off you are left with an ambient piano score (another detail cribbed from Minecraft?) that builds on that isolation. Companions that you recruit to travel along with you only seem to be good for getting in the way and spouting the same bits of dialogue over and over. The settlements you build up are full of hollow-eyed quest dispensers.

I’m not necessarily complaining. The game is half a quiet walk through an awful world full of people with bad ideas and good intentions, half a slow-motion dinosaur-punching blood and guts tornado. Initially it seemed like an odd direction to take, but after living in it for a span of time it feels close to an ideal Fallout.

Fallout 4 is faithful to the bleakly funny world that has been built upon for decades while also slotting in some really interesting and unexpected mechanics. Now if you will excuse me, there is a man with a burlap sack on his head whom I need to punch to death so I can steal his irradiated mac and cheese.