Fallout 4 starts with a bang.
Within 10 minutes of taking control of your character, a nuclear bomb goes off, and you watch the shockwave overtake your city as you’re lowered down into a vault. Then, after being cryogenically frozen against your will, you watch your spouse get murdered and your infant child kidnapped.
It’s also pretty much the only interesting thing you’ll see for a long, long time.
In a more traditional action game, that opening would set off a whirlwind of crazy set pieces as you work to avenge your husband and save your child. You would be able to finish that game in less time than it would take you to get to the more interesting parts of Fallout 4, as you uncover the secrets behind the barren wasteland that once was Boston. That’s because this is an action epic of a different kind. It’s not tightly packed and perfectly paced; it’s the exact opposite. It’s a sprawling mess of a game that grabs onto you and doesn’t let go. It throws everything and the kitchen sink onto a disc and says, “Here, do something with this.” And its grip is everlasting. You can put hundreds of hours into Fallout 4 and still not see everything. Its developer, Bethesda Game Studios, deals exclusively in these sorts of Desert Island games—ones that will last you for the years until their next big release.
As such, every Bethesda launch is an event. They’re one of the most beloved developers in the industry, and they only release a game every three or four years. So when it’s time for a new Bethesda game, hype hits the fan. And though a new Call of Duty is barely out the door, and a new Star Wars game is soon to follow, Fallout 4 has completely overtaken the conversation. It’s infected and infested every form of social media. Everyone with even a passing interest in games is thinking about Fallout 4.
Because of this, Fallout 4 is as much an idea as it is an actual game—a seven-year-old idea that came in the immediate wake of Fallout 3’s release: “Do this again, but make it better.” It’s sort of odd to realize that Fallout 4 has only officially existed since June of this year, when it was announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Its existence was hardly a secret, but until then there was nothing to go on but years of unsubstantiated rumors and pleading wishlists from fans.
The tagline for the Fallout series is “War. War never changes.” You don’t need to be acquainted with earlier games to know this, because you’re hit with it three times in the first five minutes of Fallout 4. It’s the first thing you hear after starting up, and then a brief, live-action introduction to the game’s alternate history concludes with a proclamation of fear and another reminder that: “War, war never changes.” And then the game part begins, and your character is looking in the mirror. “War never changes,” he says, before you decide that you’d really rather play as a woman and cast him aside.
Fallout 4 is a lot of things. Subtle isn’t one of them. The writing bludgeons you over the head with its themes time and time again, and it grates. But it’s hard to be subtle when your script features over 110,000 lines of recorded dialogue as well as a whole bunch of non-recorded writings that can be found strewn across the wasteland. This is a big, complicated game with a big, complicated story. There is a lot of information—necessary and unnecessary—that the game feels you need to know. And so of course it starts off slow. This is a big, open wasteland, and you don’t know why or how anything has happened. And the game doesn’t really start to get interesting until you learn about the vault that you survived in and the other vaults from around the city. But the game takes its sweet time in getting you there, and it’s not as though you don’t have other things to occupy your time.
Some part of you probably wants to find your character’s kid, but you also just found a dog (!) and you definitely want to play with him a whole lot more. So you do that, and then you find out that you can build and control settlements, so you do that. There are all kinds of side missions, too—ones that do little to help you find the kid but serve to fill the game’s enormous world and ensure that you never ever leave. That’s where those 200 hours go—not into a single narrative but into many smaller ones that all add up to this thing that is Fallout 4.
But it takes time to get there. Some people will find it takes 20 hours or more for the game to really click with them, if it ever does. And until then, they’ll have to plod through the tedium and the confusion while hoping that the game won’t decide to simply stop working in the process. Because it does that sometimes, and when it does you’ll wonder how they dare release it in such an unfinished state—something that accompanies each and every Bethesda game launch. YouTube is already littered with these glitches. Sometimes they’re cute—a monster spinning around and then flying through a building—and sometimes they force you to reset your console.
It’s not as though you won’t have fun in those early hours, because you will. There’s something inherently compelling about scavenging the remnants of a destroyed city and obsessively modifying your items and weapons. There’s also the joyful revulsion that comes from watching enemy bodies blow up in slow motion.
But those can wear thin, and you may well get bored of them before reaching the part of the narrative that truly hooks you. So why even bother?
Well, because everyone else is. Unlike most big games these days, Fallout 4 has no multiplayer component. But the game is every bit as community-driven as Call of Duty. Jokes about Bethesda’s last game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, still come up in conversation. For the next several months, people are going to be finding cool things to see and try. Fallout 4 is like a second-hand toy box: it’s kind of ugly and a little bit broken, but it’s got amazing things in it, and given enough time, you can do pretty much anything with it.
Bethesda games are unique in both scope and scale. They become the metric by which other games are judged. And even if those other games are objectively better, it’s the Bethesda game’s legacy that endures. Fallout 4 isn’t the best game of the year—though it will certainly win awards saying that’s the case—nor does it have to be. It just has to be big and full of interesting things. It can be a slog getting those things to reveal themselves to you, and you wouldn’t be wrong to just give up and play something that isn’t always on the verge of melting down, but if it gets its hooks into you, then it’s the only game you need.