Westerns are called Westerns for a reason. The genre revels in its environment as much as it does its characters and plot. In some ways, the environment is the main character—often times trying to kill the protagonist with scorching heat. Local award-winning game studio Bethesda Softworks understands the importance of environment. Both of their hit franchises "Elder Scrolls" and "Fallout" are massive, convincing worlds where tens of millions of people love to get lost in.
For me, no other gaming experience has sucked me in more effectively than "Fallout 3." I remember spending hours just roaming the gray wasteland of Washington, D.C., scared of what might lunge at me from behind a ruined monument. "Fallout 3" isn't just a fantastically thrilling game, it is a fully realized post-apocalyptic killing field modeled inside our nation's capital. I was in love.
The game isn't without its hiccups. Bethesda's character modeling leaves a lot to be desired; characters look like mannequins and the lip syncing is puppet-like compared to other big-budget titles. Glitch-y frame rates jumble intense firefights. None of this really matters because the world is so convincing and the game play so incredibly intense that I quickly overlooked those details.
What blew my mind the most is the combat system, which allows you to slow down time and target body parts of your opponents. It transforms a standard first-person RPG into a hybrid turn-based shooter with somewhat unpredictable results. Make a wrong turn into a towering mutant and you can instantly slow down time, aim for its head, and pray your few allotted shots kill it and save you from calamity. This results in limitless heart-racing action. Most games can't come close to that adrenaline thrill.
"Fallout 4," which came out in November, is more of the same, though artfully refined. Set in Boston, the game tasks you with aligning with local factions and clearing out raiders, ghouls, and mutants from ruined breweries (think Sam Adams) and the Boston Harbor (think wicked gross). Early stages have you crawling around Cambridge and a radiated settlement in Concord. I laughed out loud and became oddly sentimental when I walked by an Irish pub sign knowing the interior of the building was decimated. I'm praying I'll stumble into a crumbling Gillette Stadium, infested with half-melted quarterbacks. With Bethesda's ambitions, it's not unlikely.
The game is smart—it capitalizes on the now 20-year-long zombie/survivalist infatuation by putting you behind the shotgun. The new hook is, the game allows you to customize your world. "Fallout 4" lets you build houses and forts from scratch. This was something I never thought I'd be happy to toil over, but once I started, I was addicted. Scavenging resources to put up barriers and create a settlement literally puts you in the shoes of modern cowboy Rick Grimes of "The Walking Dead." Once you have walls up and beds to fill, friendly wanderers will flock to tend your gardens and purify water. The better your settlement is, the more raiders will try to attack. You're living in the wasteland you've always dreamed about. But wait, Rick doesn't have automated gun turrets. You do.
You're further incentivized to create and fortify new settlements because the rewards are great: improved weapons and gear. And a new crafting system allows you to customize your favorite assets. Do you want to extend your combat shotgun's barrel and add a drum magazine and bayonet? You can as long as you're picking up every bit of scrap along your brutal journey.
I don't throw the word brutal around lightly. "Fallout 4" is a mean game. Missions pit you against relentless road agents and armored giants. You have to play smart not to waste ammunition, medical supplies, and money. All of this adds to the lore and further invests you in the narrative you're largely creating for yourself. In games like these, I rarely care about the plot. Bethesda is clever in letting you insert yourself into the medium by giving you a lush world first and foremost. Plot is secondary to the experience. That's where video games greatly differ from music, films, and novels—it's a non-static medium that treats you as an individual, not some onlooker along for the ride. You are the medium.
There's a lot of power in that. It fosters exploration, ingenuity, creativity, and, as the Fallout franchise is proving, a loyal fan base who want to play in the environments Bethesda creates. For that, this new game is a strange marvel that we might be pondering for a while. And it seems that the somewhat antiquated Western genre still has a lot to teach us.
Justin Sirois is the author of "So Say the Waiters" and "Falcons on the Floor." He lives in Baltimore and loves games.