‘Fallout 4’ amazing, but requires the patience of a scholar
I had been killed by giant cockroaches, reckless thieves and a super mutant when I realized my mistake. It was my 10th hour into "Fallout 4," and I had overlooked a leveling-up component critical to advancing in the game. This created a dilemma: Start over, power through or forgo it altogether?
Half a day should be enough time to devote to any pop-culture artifact and render some sort of verdict, but not with "Fallout 4." It still feels as if I've opened a board game for the first time, and before me lies the virtual equivalent of hundreds of tiny plastic pieces and the overwhelming dread that mastery won't come easy.
Then there's the nagging voice: Is mastery worth it?
Ten hours may equate to nearly five nights' worth of gaming, but in the world of "Fallout 4" it's a fraction of a fraction toward completion of the primary story. I've only recently, for instance, reached the game's first major city, which was the first moment I started to warm to "Fallout 4."
Achieving this milestone happened purely by accident. The two-headed deer was one of the only creatures who spared me as I suffered dozens of deaths.
"Fallout 4" is brutally difficult. I think I will always be bad at it.
Yet "Fallout 4" is admirable in its sheer scope and attention to detail. The post-apocalyptic game is designed to last forever. Tonally, it walks a noteworthy line somewhere between a 1950s sitcom and a ghoulishly violent television series, and the more time that's spent with it, the more oddball and offbeat characters become.
There's the elderly woman who has nearly everyone persuaded she can see into the future but simply may be addicted to psychedelic drugs. She talks and moves like a magician. Also striking is the bold young journalist, whose rag has the city nervous that humans are being replaced with synthetic beings. Her pen is mighty, but so is her way with a weapon. Give her an interview, and she'll kill a few people with you.
A robotic tour guide found along Boston's Freedom Trail is charmingly broken, and it's clever how Fenway Park was turned into a makeshift city, its fabled "green monster" now a "green guardian" that protects the enclave from outsiders. Hats off, too, to the cheesy bar owners, who want my character to participate in a mock bar fight to boost the confidence of one of their pals. I'm on the fence about completing the latter.
In fact, I'm on the fence about much of "Fallout," so much so that I'm leaning toward hanging it up all together.
I say this knowing that there are treasures yet to discover in the game. It is set in an absurd wasteland of a post-nuclear Boston, and nearly every nook has something worth uncovering. When you're told that an old hardware store has been overrun with raiders, you don't just take out the ruffians. You can also wander the town and discover its underground network and the bodies of the innocents. Play detective, and "Fallout 4" will indeed reward you.
But I'm not so sure all this inspires passion.
Though the game will be hailed as the year's best by many critics, I already miss my time with "Rise of the Tomb Raider," which I started, played and completed during my week with "Fallout 4." I miss the ease with which Lara Croft traversed ruins, and I miss the relative svelte nature of its story.
Exploring "Fallout 4" isn't just difficult; it's cumbersome. To merely step outside Diamond City — the safe confines of the old Fenway Park — means my character will perish in minutes. All that attention to detail, all that care to craft, then a zombie-like creature can erase it because switching among guns, health-packs and other weapons is "Fallout" is a chore.
I still haven't made complete sense of the game's inventory screen. My character is carrying a dozen-plus guns, a few odd lamps, some bottle caps, a subway token, a plastic spoon and a dozen or so wardrobe changes.
And then there's that mistake I caught at hour 10: I hadn't been leveling-up my character properly, stupidly failing to notice that character traits could be applied vertically as well as horizontally.
Would it have made a difference against that pack of ghouls, which are "Fallout 4's" versions of zombies? Probably not. But I've been incorrectly molding my character, and progress was lost.
So I'm at a crossroads.
I like the characters and the universe but am tired of being mauled by a Deathclaw. I'm tired, too, of trying to learn the game's systems.
And yet there is an underlying story, and it is a good one, if you can find it. The character you create — male or female — has been cryogenically frozen. Your spouse? Murdered. Your baby boy? Stolen.
There's a mystery, but you can spend dozens, if not hundreds, of hours exploring other aspects of the game and completely ignore it. While a child is missing, such a tragedy never feels urgent. You can even spend your time building a house, if you so desire. Characters will ask you to build beds. I did that for almost an hour before I remembered my character's son was stolen and my time, perhaps, wasn't being well spent.
Games can be anything, or so supporters of such open-ended tales tell me. They can be your story — you create the path, you decide how to play. "Fallout 4," its champions say, is your narrative. The secrets one discovers are unlikely to be the same as anyone else's. No two paths will be the same.
Still, there's something exclusionary at play here.
To excel at "Fallout 4" requires the patience of a scholar, and considering it took nearly 10 hours to reach the game's first great revelation, maybe I should cut my losses. There are easier ways to acquire a plastic spoon.