- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2015

The seven-year odyssey to bring gamers back into the original groundbreaking, post-apocalyptic universe they love finally arrives in Fallout 4 (Bethesda Softworks & Bethesda Game Studios, reviewed with PlayStation 4, Rated Mature, $59.99).

The massive, open-world, free-roaming, first- and third-person, role-playing epic continues to overload a single player with liberal amounts of violence, black humor, character interaction, resource management and item crafting, all a staple of its mega-successful predecessors.

The only problem is that a lot has changed in the video game realms in the past seven years. Considering the steady stream of new or evolved choices such as “The Witcher,” “Destiny,” “The Elder Scrolls,” “Dragon Age” and “Dark Souls” having further cemented rabid fan bases, “Fallout” had a steep technology curve to climb to re-establish and build upon its audience.

Well, although not so innovative, I’m pleased to report life is pretty familiar, consistent and as complex as ever for a survivor existing in the latest iteration. A player assumes the customized role of a male or female Bostonian in 2077. He hides in a bunker with his family while a world fueled by atomic energy destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust.

He emerges 200 years later from Vault 111’s cryogenic chamber, alone and attempting to locate his son Shaun, taken during his deep, frosty sleep. His seemingly endless journey into a wasteland of despair and hope now begins.

The player finds an exhausting and packed schedule of main missions, side quests, faction expeditions and random challenges to complete as he carefully explores the entire devastated city of Boston and its outskirts. He spends hours upon hours scavenging for materials, ransacking bodies and avoiding, or embracing, danger.

Throughout the action, the crumbling 1950s nostalgic design plays out in muted color pallets within a wasteland filled with battered buildings and structures, rusting machinery and cars, quirky antiquated computer terminals and robots and plenty of bottle caps (the game’s currency).

The survivor visits locations such as Boston’ famed theater district, its harbor, airport, Diamond City (aka Fenway Park) and towns such as Concord, Lexington and the city of Cambridge.

The experience becomes tedious or action-packed depending on a player’s patience and appreciation of the more mundane moments of his new life.

However, isn’t that what a role-playing video game is all about? An open-world experience of this magnitude shines when the player can feel so immersed in his avatar’s life that he is consumed with the faux-existence at most levels.

Well, Bethesda Softworks has crafted a wondrous playground to give the survivor a way to rebuild his life. Take for example (no spoilers), a typical couple of days early on in the action.

My life involved hanging out with a new friend, a loyal German shepherd named Dogmeat, finding an LED computer terminal to play a round of “Red Menace” (a 16-bit video game), taking a peak at a comic book “Grognak the Barbarian,” changing into drifter clothes I acquired from a corpse, upgrading the 10mm pistol I found using a workbench, fending off an attack of mole rats outside of the Red Rocket Truck Stop and eventually stumbling onto the Abernathy farm.

There, I heard from Ted and Connie about the death of their daughter Mary at the hands of raiders. I also negotiated with other daughter Lucy on how many bottle caps she would pay me for picking melons from her field.

I had a tidy price (5 caps per melon) and completed the deal when I was nearly run over by a stag on their porch. The startled beast broke my leg, but before I could even use a Stimpak (a needle full of medicine) to restore my health, I was attacked and brutally killed by the creature chasing it, a mutated bear called a Yao Guai.

Well, not having saved my game (that’s a big hint, folks), I lost the negotiated price on my caps when I came back to life and found myself back on the Abernathy farm. I instead bartered with Connie. I traded cartons of cigarettes to get a leather cover for one shoulder. I hoped to get some real armor eventually.

The Abernathys also asked that I get back their deceased daughter’s locket stolen by a band of raiders.

On the way to the bad guys hideout at the USAF Satellite Station, I used the famed Pip-Boy computer system on my wrist to plot a course (a modern miracle for resource management).

I checked out a nuclear waste transport facility; swam in a man-made lake to fix a pump (getting myself a bad case of radiation poisoning); fought off a quartet of feral ghouls (nasty, quick-footed zombies that pounce in close range); and turned on a robot sentry called a Protectron.

I did eventually assault the USAF underground compound and went in wearing a woefully underpowered exoskeleton I found in the forest. It worked well enough as I brutally slaughtered the raiders, picking up a dropped mini-gun at one point to finish the job. I also did retrieve Mary’s locket and returned it to the grateful Abernathys who welcomed me as a member of their settlement.

Now realize, I had invested only 12 hours or so into the game to slowly understand the world, and these are not really primary story missions yet (finding Shaun, figuring out the Institute, saving Minutemen and fixing a broken America, to name a few).

It took nearly another 30 hours or more to really appreciate the depth of the adventure that also involves the helpful yet sometimes frustrating team-ups with new-found companions. With almost a dozen to eventually work with, the hard-boiled robotic detective Nick Valentine was a clear favorite.

As chronicled above, a player really has many options in his virtual life, and he gets help through a variety of perks (over 300) and mods to enhance powers and his equipment.

Specifically, as he levels up, points increase his S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck) during the game play. Balancing out or overloading each attribute as points become available will lead to an entirely different evolution for the survivor.

Furthermore, it did not hurt to eventually have access to over 80 weapons ranging from firearms (double-barrel shotguns to laser muskets and the Fatman Mini Nukes launcher), melee objects (baseball bats to sledgehammers), punch objects (deathclaws to brass knuckles) and explosives (Molotov cocktails to plasma mines).

He can also craft a variety of items when finding the proper work benches tied to cooking food, upgrading weapons, synthesizing medicines and poisons, modifying Power Armor and building structures.

That structure building will absorb hours more of a player’s time as he methodically assembles productive, defended and active settlements for survivors using scrap to construct everything from metal walls to beds, guard towers and gun turrets. It’s a daunting task but a key highlight to the latest game.

The player will also talk to many survivors during his journey using a communication system consisting of a multiple-choice wheel of answers’ tied to over thousands of lines of dialogue.

Additionally, combat lovers see a return of the precise attacks of V.A.S.T. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System). It’s “Matrix” bullet time speed slows down the action and allows the player to target multiple parts of multiple enemies for some visually spectacular kills.

Finally, I’ll mention a little more about the junk. If you carry too much, you can’t fast travel or run. But if you don’t grab near everything — such as duct tape, pencils, fuses, coffee pots, bobby pins, light bulbs and radiated cockroach meat — then life can be much more difficult when crafting, bartering and surviving. So collect and store in those workbenches early and often for maximum efficiency.

Clearly, “Fallout 4” demands a player methodically appreciate its entire universe. Fans of the last game will feel right at home in this apocalypse, although they might be a bit miffed at not seeing enough of a substantial upgrade to visuals (especially character models) and innovative game mechanics.

Having not been a “Fallout” fanatic in the past, I found the latest entry a delight as long as I devoted a painstaking obsession to appreciating its wonders.

I was never disappointed with the payoffs during any session, even if the game drove me nuts with its occasional glitchy moments. “Fallout 4” might not be a “game of the year” contender, but living in a Boston wasteland was quite a nuclear blast.

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