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Review: Depth, choice make 'Fallout 4' special

A screenshot from

A screenshot from "Fallout 4", released Nov. 10, 2015, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.

Annual video game franchises tend to dominate autumn. There's always a new edition of that military shooter, a next chapter in that historical sci-fi adventure saga.

And then there's a game like "Fallout 4", which crawls out of its proverbial vault five years after Bethesda Softworks' last release in the franchise, "Fallout: New Vegas".

The latest "Fallout" returns gamers to post-apocalyptic America, this time centralized in the ruins of Boston and its surrounding area. "Fallout 4" may be a sequel in a nearly 20-year-old franchise, but newcomers will have no trouble acclimating to the setting. There's no need to come in knowing convoluted series lore. If you do, though, there's plenty of treats.

There's no set name for your vault dweller -- and he/she is highly customizable -- but the story will play out the same regardless. You'll begin life in 2077 on the day the bombs fell, and within 30 minutes real time you'll emerge 200 years later with one objective: Find those who took your infant son and killed your spouse.

It's that simple at first, but RPGs such as "Fallout 4" quickly branch out into oodles of side quests that are just as fun as the main mission. The area now known as The Commonwealth is fraught with opposing factions and politics, not to mention mutant beasties like the classic, terrifying Deathclaw. Enemy types are more varied than ever, with at least a few unique baddies to encounter.

Past iterations of "Fallout" always have existed in a world chock full of personality, and "Fallout 4" is no different. The ruins of Massachusetts are littered with remnants of the past, both pre- and post-apocalypse, upping the immersion factor to a level few games achieve. You might come across the skeletal remains of a woman who, seemingly, died long ago from abuse of chems (drugs) judging by her surroundings. The scene is meaningless to any quest, but it tells a story and enhances the virtual world.

And that world is stunning. The revolving weather patterns and day-night cycle offer a ton of different lenses through which to observe the world. There are bright sunny days in which a lake will look downright gorgeous and rainy ones that soak the world in the more muddled colors that dominated "Fallout 3". It's a next-gen experience, to be sure, but "Fallout 4" does suffer from clipping issues that plagued past Bethesda games. In other words, visuals aren't perfect but are high-caliber nonetheless.

Gunplay has improved from past titles, but nobody will mistake "Fallout 4" for "Destiny" or "Call of Duty." But while past games allowed for it's VATS combat system, which freezes enemies and allows planning attacks, to be a crutch, this version merely slows time. It puts a greater emphasis on mixing up live shooting -- in either first- or third-person -- and VATS. That, in turn, cranks up the intensity of encounters with enemies, both human and nonhuman.

The trademark power armor makes its return, but it doesn't work the same was as traditional armor -- which itself now offers layers of protection. Think of power armor as a vehicle. It allows for better protection and traversal, and it runs on fuel. It can take damage that requires repair, and it can be outfitted with a jet pack, among other modifications. Oh, and you can use it within the first hour of play, unlike past "Fallout" titles that forced players to wait until later in the main quest. The power armor comes in handy for times when you just know regular protection won't get the job done.

Firefights are just a fraction of what "Fallout 4" has to offer. There's a fully developed crafting system that allows for deep weapon and armor customization -- you can even name your gun. Just about every mod will change the way your weapon looks in-game, paving the way for hundreds of unique-looking tools.

Towns can be revamped and populated as settlements in a mode that feels like a poor man's "Minecraft". Junk collectors can rejoice in the knowledge that every last empty glass bottle and pencil you can scavenge can be broken down for crafting parts, useful for either of the aforementioned activities. Nothing in The Commonwealth is useless.

But crafting and townbuidling are optional. In fact, there's free will in just about every action you'll take in "Fallout 4." Want to be a jerk to everyone you talk to? Go for it -- and for the first time in the franchise your character has full audio dialogue with which to respond. Prefer Preston over Dogmeat as your AI companion? Take him with you on your travels instead of the canine. Prefer to sympathize with the Brotherhood of Steel or treat them as hostile? It's your call. It's an open world with as much open-endedness as you'll find in a game.

"Fallout 4" isn't flawless. The frame rate will drop at odd times. Returning from (sometimes lengthy) load screens often greets you with texture pop-in. A world this massive is bound to produce its fair share of bugs at launch, but the good news is they don't hamper the experience to the degree of other releases in recent years -- including past "Fallout" games.

But any major hiccups seem poised to be fixed long before you've played out "Fallout 4." There's so much to do and so many distractions, one could conceivably sink well over 100 hours into the game without pursuing the endgame. But this time, the experience doesn't stop when the main quest line is complete. You can keep exploring The Commonwealth and leveling up to your hearts content.

And trust me, your heart will be content.

"Fallout 4," from developer Bethesda Game Studios and publisher Bethesda Softworks, is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC

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