It takes no more than two minutes of wandering the wasteland before you bump into Codsworth, your old friend and servant from before the war… which come to think of it was only a few minutes ago. Not long after inviting Codsworth to join you, you’ll stumble into Dogmeat, immediately forcing you to abandon your charming robot butler for a loyal pooch. Journey down the road a bit further and you’ll meet Preston Garvey - who, in turn, will point you towards Piper Wright. Another few minutes and you’re wandering the wasteland with a wisecracking synth called Nick Valentine.
For more Fallout 4 opinion pieces, check out Jeremy’s thoughts on the problematic intro.
Exploring the Commonwealth on your own comprises of emerging from Vault 111 and running down a hill. Everything thereafter is done in the company of your fellow man/robot/dog/mutant, which sort of spoils the whole ‘end-of-the-world’ vibe Bethesda work so hard to cultivate elsewhere in the game.
The game’s 13 potential companions all have stories to uncover and uses that go far beyond lugging around all the crap you’ve accumulated on your travels. They’re fully-fledged characters, not just NPCs you can order around, which is why exposing players to five of them within the first hour of gameplay is nothing short of overkill.
It’s impossible to glean the sense of solitude and isolation that Fallout 4’s setting should entail when you’re constantly having to to acquaint yourself with new characters in order to progress through the game’s main quest. The noise of that first hour ensures you’ve been exposed to so many potential companions that the notion of exploring the game solo seems totally counterintuitive.
After a while, when the constant presence of an NPC nattering away in your ear grows tiresome, you realise that it’s not going to be easy getting rid of them. Because of their outrageous list of likes and dislikes, you’ve practically built your entire character around appeasing your wasteland chums: you’ve stopped killing innocents, ceased all drug use and started lockpicking everything in sight because it makes Piper go all gooey-eyed for you - which is pretty weird come to think of it; I mean, they’re just locks Piper. Oh, and don’t even think about getting naked in front of X6-88, it disgusts him.
In return for this bizarre level of commitment, you get someone who’ll gladly run through a minefield to save you, carry all your spare junk and gives you a unique perk if you behave yourself around them. So why would you even consider venturing out into the wastes without one of them by your side?
While it’s not easy to sell, loneliness is a key part of what makes the Fallout universe so compelling. Making your first foray into Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland is about as suffocating as gaming gets, ejecting you unceremoniously from the safety of Vault 101 into a dank, grey world where everything in sight is either demolished, lifeless or inhabited by Raiders. Even friendly faces aren’t to be trusted, as a trip to cannibal-infested Andale quickly confirms.
If you manage to miss Megaton on your way out of Vault 101, you’ll spend hours simply looking for another non-hostile NPC. Every town is a miniscule fortification, separated from potential aid by miles of nothingness: empty homes, dead forests and crumbling freeways are all you’ll have for guidance. Fallout 3 is a game about wandering and loneliness, which is fitting given the player character’s name: Lone Wanderer.
While not particularly fun, loneliness is gripping. Expelled from the only people your character has ever known, you enter a cold, unforgiving world - there’s nobody by your side, and few that will welcome you into their community. It’s an emotional connection that few other games provide, offering a glimmer of hopelessness and misery that helps make the game’s world that bit more believable.
Fallout 3 doesn’t hand the player a companion until they meet Fawkes towards the end of the game’s main quest; others are available from the start, but finding and acquiring them is entirely player-driven. You can’t romance them either, and their preferences adhere to the game’s straightforward Karma system, which makes keeping a companion on your side easy. They’re glorified, combat-ready pack mules: any additional characterisation is the player’s prerogative.
A few hours into Fallout 4 and Preston Garvey - apparently delighted by my virtue in such a hostile world - is madly in love with me. Curious to see what new paths this romance might unlock for me, I sleep with him, and now he won’t stop calling me “babe”. If this was a regular NPC confined to some tavern in a far-flung corner of the Commonwealth then I might be able to put up with it, but this man never leaves my side. Never. Even if I order him away he’ll end up at one of my settlements and continue to harass me whenever I return. I’d kill him… if the game would let me.
Of course there is a choice to all of this, you could opt out of companions altogether and enjoy the eerie peace of the Commonwealth on your lonesome. You’ll find combat a little tougher, inventory management frustrating, and dialogue with the Commonwealth’s other denizens a little less dynamic, which, collectively, is quite a high price to pay for a little peace and quiet.
Because of how quickly and forcefully Bethesda introduce companions in Fallout 4, playing the game without them feels like an enormous handicap. You can’t go mad collecting bits of circuitry, aluminium cans and bags of precious cement in order to develop your settlements, can’t rely on your ally to distract an Alpha Deathclaw while you scramble into cover, and you always feel like you’re missing out on some scripted quip or access to one of their unique quests.
Companions are much more than sidekicks in Fallout 4, they’re… well, they’re proper companions, and while that’s worth celebrating, it also marks a tonal shift in the franchise. Fallout 4 ensures there’s always someone by your side, an essential, utilitarian presence that shapes the way you experience the world around you, proffering an opinion on pretty much everything you do.
Previous Fallout games tethered the player directly to the world, letting them make it their own, perceive it through their own moral compass and shape it by their decisions. Fallout 4 never lets the player have that one-to-one connection to its world, everything is lensed through a faction or companion, and as a result it never feels personal or believable.
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