I've played about 60 hours of "Fallout 4."
(I don't know for sure, because play time isn't among the many statistics the game keeps for you.)
Anyway, even after 60 hours, I'm not ready to review "Fallout 4." I'm level 30 and about three-quarters of the way through the story, if the trophy list is any indication. But that still leaves dozens of side quests for my Wanderer to complete, several companions to get to know and so, so many pockets of The Commonwealth — a rubbled, irradiated 2277 Boston — to see.
So, with a mind toward spoiling as little as possible, here are my current impressions of Bethesda's latest action RPG:
1. Graphics: Just to be sure, I fired up "Fallout 3" recently — and yes, if you think "4" is some incremental reskin, you need your vision checked. No, it doesn't look as fluid as "Metal Gear Solid V" nor as radiant as "The Witcher 3," but the Commonwealth has more than its share of beautifully ruined scenery. Daytime is especially flattering to the bare, bristled woods, red-tipped electrical towers and disjointed blocks of freeway, and the latter always seem to loom in the background because the draw distance is superb. The Nahant Bay marinas and downtown Boston, from Fenway to the North End, are colorfully congested with relic amenities and historical detail. Red and blue figure prominently into the game's palette, no doubt to help fertilize the region's patriotic soil. Regardless, the sequel to the epitome of "brown" games is nothing of the sort. Now if only Bethesda's rubbery character models could make the same leap.
2. Performance: On PlayStation 4, "Fallout 4" is nowhere near the crippled mess Bethesda's games were on Sony's last console. I experienced one crash in 60 hours. My Wanderer never got "stuck," either physically or narratively. The frame rate can dip quite a bit in the Commonwealth's busier, more urban areas, but it's otherwise a fairly smooth 30 fps. Now then, of course there have been glitches, like characters facing the wrong way or brandishing their guns during conversation. My Wanderer's companions have also disappeared for conspicuously long durations, gone suddenly nonviolent under attack and teleported in and out of elevators while I'm riding them. But these few blips have never been anything but amusing.
3. Controls: The controls are mostly unaltered from "3," aside from rearranging the buttons for crouching, view-switching and V.A.T.S. Speaking of which, the mechanic no longer stops time but slows it, and a new can't-miss critical hit can be earned with several successful shots. I like the tweaks: It's now possible to take damage or even die during V.A.T.S., and once-clear shots can become obscured by other enemies or the environment. Aiming down sights is also introduced (well, not if you count "New Vegas" — see the note at the end). It can be helpful against the hulking Super Mutants, but the erratic movements of the Ghouls and Raiders make the mechanic less so against them. Ultimately, there's not much of a need to craft that reflex sight (see No. 9).
4. Story: Perhaps surprisingly, the story of "Fallout 4" (so far) is the greatest leap ahead of "3." A simple, personal mystery hooks you into a factional balancing act that will have you weighing every next quest you pursue. The ethically fraught presence of synthetic humans and the motif of early American patriotism make the game feel like a mix of "Blade Runner" and "BioShock Infinite." Of course, as with any Bethesda game, its pacing is at the mercy of your play style. It goes steadily if you, like me, prioritize the main quest path (which becomes unclear later in the game, as main quests aren't delineated from side ones). Drop everything to (once again) indulge your messiah complex and help every needy Commonwealth denizen you meet, however, and you'll sometimes stop and ask yourself what you're really doing there.
5. Music/voice acting: Piano plays a big, elegiac part in the returning Inon Zur's score, which otherwise hits many of the same Marine recruitment ad notes as "3's" did. The less, the better: "Fallout 4" is at its atmospheric best when Zur's minor keys curate dark tiptoes through soggy underpasses or along moonlit railroad tracks. The voice acting (more on that in No. 6) isn't quite so affecting. It's less leaden and more varied than previous Bethesda games — no one person obviously voiced 20 people — but companions can be real broken records. One cracked the same tepid joke all 20 or so times we visited a certain quest site. However, the tiny exchanges that happen between the companions when you swap them is an appreciated touch — especially considering the number of permutations, as there's more than a dozen pals to take along.
6. Dialogue: Bethesda overhauled its listed dialogue system in "3" — where your character didn't speak — for a more radial, Bioware-esque one where your character does. Like "3" and the studio's "Elder Scrolls" games, the writing is direct, serviceable. And like Bioware's games, the radial is rigidly formatted: Left for sarcasm, up for more info, right for belligerence and down for agreement. That's actually welcome, though, because the brevity of the displayed options can lead you astray. In one conversation, for instance, the difference between "That's all" and "That's it" was the difference between calm understanding and coming to blows. Still, being able to hear your character's voice (by the terrific Courteney Taylor, in the case of my female Wanderer) humanizes the conversation, and thus the game, in a way Bethesda has never before achieved.
7. Systems: "Fallout 4," to be sure, feels and plays like a Bethesda game to the bone: Massive open world, dozens of winding dungeons, all sorts of insignificant items to grab or steal, a million or so lines of dialogue and even the same stick-turning lockpick minigame. Anyone who loves "Fallout 3" or "The Elder Scrolls" will love this game, too. But, as I'll explain further below, the studio redefines "Fallout 4" with several new systems and tweaks to old ones — some more successful than others. I like that radiation now lessens your max health — sure, it means you have to gulp RadAway every couple hours, but shouldn't nuclear material flooding your bloodstream be a bit high-maintenance? The jury's still out for me on the game's burdensome power armor, which is no longer just gear you carry but also a vehicle you fuel and park. A greatly expanded crafting system girds most of the other changes, so all the hoarding you have to do to create and improve items means you'll run more frequently than ever into another Bethesda hallmark: Encumbrance. Between each dungeon crawl I went through a complicated routine of selling, scrapping and upgrading, my item weight never dropping more than 20 below its ceiling — and that's with my companion serving as an all-too-handy pack mule.
8. Progression: The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and accompanying perk systems return in "4." This time, leveling up gives you a single point you can spend on either, and the more points you allocate to Strength, Perception, etc., the more perks associated with those attributes you can purchase. There's no karma system — thankfully, as such moral spectra feel like they've run their course in open-world games. Instead, your relationships with your companions — and, to a lesser extent, your factions — serve as a subtler moral compass. It's a maturer morality, making a decision not because it's good or bad but because it's beneficial to someone. Also, there's no longer a level cap. And so, at level 30, I'm not the force of nature I was at the same point in "Fallout 3." I still have so many perks to unlock, so many enemies to sharpen myself for. Along with the bigger, denser map and more quests, the level climb is one area where "4" dwarfs its predecessor.
9. Weapons/combat: Like the addition of down-sights aiming, a whole new weapons system makes "Fallout 4" feel like more of a pure shooter than "3." Guns no longer deteriorate, nor upgrade through combination with the same model. Instead, in "4," you strengthen your arsenal by crafting new receivers, barrels, sights and other components from scavenged raw materials. The system extends to enemies, who sometimes manifest as more challenging "legendary" variants. It extends to the guns, too: Not only will you find in the wild submachine guns with muzzles and pistols with glow sights, but some arms pack altogether different, game-changing perks. Finding a shotgun that never requires reloading, for instance, was quite the "Borderlands" moment for me. Rapid firepower has its limits, though: Enemy hit boxes can be spotty. Some, particularly Ghouls, seem to be invincible for a few frames after getting shot, and there's little to no aim assist.
10. Settlements: In 60 hours with "Fallout 4," I haven't done much settlement-building outside of what's been required to finish a few main story and faction side quests. The ability to scrap rubble and junk for crafting components, then use them to build beds, plant crops and stock a marketplace, all in a sort of poor man's "Minecraft" — frankly, it's not what I want out of a "Fallout" game. However, I'm sure some players will fashion cool-looking settlements from the tool set. Maybe I'll give it more of a go at the 100-hour mark — but only out of curiosity and that old romantic notion of restoring civilization (which too few post-apocalyptic games explore, admittedly). For now, though, the benefits of settlement-building to my Wanderer are few. I've been summoned to defend them maybe twice so far.
(NOTE: "What about 'Fallout: New Vegas,' you ask?" Simple: I haven't played it. Also, since "New Vegas" was developed by Obsidian and not Bethesda, it's a less germane point of comparison for "Fallout 4" than the last numbered game in the series. From what I've read, it sounds like Bethesda did in fact take a few cues from Obsidian's 2010 effort by, for instance, introducing down-sights aiming and making factions much more important. But again, I don't know that firsthand, so that's why the game doesn't come up here very much.)