If there was one fault with Fallout 3 that only became apparent after hundreds of hours in its company - aside from the physics bugs that sometimes saw bears spin off into the horizon upon death, like Team Rocket - it was a certain dryness. Bethesda’s ultraviolent but oddly wistful wasteland felt wholly realised but never dynamic, instead embracing the clunkiness of its combat with VATS.
This year finds Bethesda, by contrast, determined to show off Fallout 4 as a shooter - and little else besides.
Our latest demo, shown in absentia (a staffer told us the monkish developers had stayed home to work on the game, and we struggled to argue) takes us away from the dilapidated pastel grandeur of the Boston proper we’ve seen in screenshots to a sparse factory town named Lexington. It’s the sort of place you’d imagine looked almost as devastated before the apocalypse as after.
The local colour is a sickly off-white, provided by a pack of feral ghouls who prompt the first rattle of our vault dweller’s machine gun. VATS is now complemented by an ability to aim down sights without breaking the flow of a firefight - which Bethesda’s protagonist exploits to finish off a ghoul busy dragging itself through the dirt, having already lost half its body weight in limbs. There’s nothing on show quite like the elaborate monster disassembly seen in new Doom’s executions, but there is a sense that Bethesda might be looking to their stablemates at id for pointers on how to punctuate action without halting it.
The dweller ducks into a supermarket, ignoring the ‘employees only’ sign to reach a terminal and employ the help of a plodding, domed security bot - a sequence that’ll trigger waves of nostalgia for anybody who remembers the Super-Duper Mart of Fallout 3’s campaign. Familiar, too, is the hacking system that finds the player picking from passwords buried amid forward slashes and semicolons, gradually narrowing down a solution. Comforting as it is bathed once again in green light, those terminals won’t surprise the way they did seven years ago.
After engaging in a spot of tumbler-twisting to bypass the lock guarding a back room, our protagonist picks up a scattered laser musket. Its former owner looks oddly relaxed, draped across a desk as if it’s a chaise longue.
The gun is a crowd-pleaser: its hand-cranked mechanism spin with a creak, and its charged shots ground ghouls with a thud. For an encore, our dweller delves into his inventory to retrieve a steampunk miniature flamethrower with a valve visible on its side.
Moments later the player’s clearing out a factory filled with raider psychos, an obedient and command-responsive Dogmeat in tow. The facility feels as if it were designed as a shooter level, for escalating and varied challenge, rather than a previously populated place like the supermarket. The influence of id rears its flaming head again: while Fallout 4's enemies don't appear to weave and dodge like those in Rage, they’re no longer rooted to the spot either.
The scene wipes, finally, to an urban environment reminiscent of Fallout 3’s Washington. There’s a hint of new, vertical combat considerations as a supermutant opens fire from the base of a tall billboard. Then a circling helicopter drops troopers from the Brotherhood of Steel, and the street explodes with plasma fire.
The implication is that there’s potential for broader scale skirmishes than before, with roaming groups of opposing factions clashing out in the open. The sequence climaxes with a marauding behemoth, blown to bits with a rocket launcher. Throughout, the fighting feels weighty and varied, playing to Bethesda’s strengths in emergent string-pulling.
Not all of this is likely to read like Fallout the way you play it. Fallout 3 was led by Thief veteran Emil Pagliarulo, and marked a huge improvement in Bethesda’s accommodation of stealth players. You have to wonder how Lexington holds up in the shadows; what sort of overheard conversations the raiders have when left undisturbed. But as the vault dweller snaffles a comic starring Grognak the Barbarian, we’re reminded that this is Bethesda flexing just one muscle of their sprawling, craft-everything extravaganza. It’ll be November 10th before we’re able to start stretching all of them.