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Wot I Think: Fallout 4: Far Harbor

A showcase of Bethesda's strengths and weaknesses

The Fog comes and goes. Sometimes, on a good year, it hangs thinly around the mountains, or concentrates itself somewhere avoidable. It’s a hassle, but folks manage. Other years, it reaches out and drapes itself thickly across the whole island, swallowing villages and ruins and marinas. Folks manage a lot less. There are things in The Fog, you see. Old things, all twisted up by radiation and ill will. Sometimes The Fog carries poison. Sometimes it just drives you mad. Welcome to Fallout 4's Far Harbour. This is a bad year.

Far Harbour, Bethesda’s first large expansion to Fallout 4 begins simply enough. You pick up a radio signal (because you always pick up a radio signal) which, rather than presenting a new mystery or a strange voice, acts as a sort of pager from detective Nick Valentine’s assistant. “Hey!” she says, in as many words. “There’s a new case! Hey! Get back here!”. A girl has gone missing, vanished in the night, and you’re sent from Nick’s office to the north of the Commonwealth to get the full picture from her parents. This is when a spanner is thrown into the works. The girl wasn’t kidnapped, that’s for sure. She left, shortly after fixing a broken radio and receiving a transmission from an island to the north. It described Acadia, a haven built and run by synths, where they can live apart from the danger and prejudice of the Commonwealth, and Kasumi, our missing person, set sail because she had a strange feeling at the back of her mind.

Some of Fallout 4’s most memorable moments came from its stories about synths, sentient robots that run the gamut from “visibly robotic” to “indistinguishable from humans”. Bethesda spun their most interesting stories around the fact that often it’s impossible to tell whether or not somebody is a human or a synth. Synths have memories of growing up, but they have gaps. Synths often bleed, they breathe, they sleep. As you hear over and over in both the expansion and the main game, “there are no tests for synths that aren’t fatal”. So here’s Kasumi, with gaps in her memory, with a sense of unbelonging, with a fixed radio and a fishing boat. She’s gone. Her parents are distraught.

You arrive on the island in the middle of the night, and are thrown straight away into a battle for the survival of the town. This is an extremely Fallout move; few peaceful settlements are discovered without immediately being threatened, few NPCs are given a direct introduction other than “no time for this! We can talk later!” The night battle, though, illuminated alternately by lightning and molotov cocktails, is the expansion’s first sign that Bethesda have rediscovered something that was present in Skyrim but somewhat lacking in Fallout’s main game: a confident and palpable sense of atmosphere.

The Island is remarkably striking. Drawing as many cues from the province of Skyrim as it does the Glowing Sea, it is a vast landmass broken up by mountains, swamps, inland lakes and horrible, horrible forests. The Fog drowns the trees and filters through their upper branches. When lightning storms happen, the strikes cut through the Fog suddenly and nastily -- what you thought was a cliff is revealed to be a vast submarine dock, what you thought was a broken treetrunk is a creature watching you. An early side location is a bowling alley which, for reasons I couldn’t quite work out, had a gigantic truck crashed through the roof onto the lanes, with a crane outside trying to lift it back out. Far Harbour’s Fog condensers, ramshackle machines meant to hold back the encroachment, hiss and sputter and glow. They have a bright blue electric light on the top, and the Fog whips around them and spirals and disperses.

Early on, I was led up a treacherous mountain path by Old Longfellow, the expansion’s taciturn new companion, when an unearthly whooping noise emerged from the thick Fog just off the path. “That’s a Crawler,” said Longfellow, and rather than heralding the arrival of a miniboss it was a sign that we had better move quickly on. The sound echoed behind us.

In so many ways, though, it’s still the same Fallout. Dialogue, for the most part, moves stiltedly between exposition and [sarcasm], rarely taking a moment to express something surprising or evocative. As usual, Bethesda lets their environments do the talking and their characters do the explaining. NPC pathfinding is still a major issue; in a scene meant to be particularly emotional, Nick Valentine approached his conversational partner and then slowly orbited them like an unsteady satellite before sitting on a chair facing away. Super mutants will tangle themselves up on scenery. Companions will run headlong into traps.

It’s a mystery, then, why a central section of the expansion is essentially a game of platforming tower defense in which NPC pathfinding is crucial. That’s not meant metaphorically - about halfway through the main storyline, the game transforms dramatically for a segment. It becomes an outright puzzle game for five levels, and while it’s mechanically interesting, it is completely and entirely let down by the engine. All of Fallout’s movement and tool systems are built for gigantic open worlds, not individual puzzle chambers, and it shows. In settlement mode, I often found myself coming up against issues as my settlers would fail to use a door, or get caught in a corridor. The puzzle section of Far Harbour conjures this exact feeling, but on the critical path of the game.

It’s a shame. The expansion is so large, so full of stuff, that the puzzle sequence forms a very small part of it. It’s just a very, very frustrating part. Grit your teeth. Take deep breaths. Hope that the pathfinding behaves. You will be able to get back to what you enjoy about Fallout, I promise.

I’ve said that Far Harbour’s dialogue largely maintains Fallout’s tradition of conversations that sound more like inexpert forgeries of speech, but for the first time in a long while I was genuinely surprised and invested in the wider story. Brilliantly, the enclosed setting of the island allows the developers to play out the sort of interfactional conflict seen in the main game on a much smaller, more personal scale; what begins as a missing persons case rapidly becomes a story about three distinct groups of people, and their attempts to work out how to live in this place, at this time. Far Harbour itself is a small town trying desperately to hold off the fog until a good year rolls around again, under the command of Mayor Avery, a brisk, friendly woman whose main concerns are making sure that people have enough fresh water and don’t get eaten. The Children of Atom, the radiation worshipping religion from the main game, have set up a base in a disused nuclear submarine under the leadership of High Confessor Tektus. Tektus is a man so glowingly zealous that his cavernous base takes on the feel of a cathedral, all hanging banners and candles and hushed, echoey whispers. And then, in the Acadia Observatory, high above the fog under spinning wind turbines, is the Acadia Synth community. The sky is blue up there. The synths are led by the frankly terrifying DiMA, an ancient robot covered in extra valves and storage units and processors. The exact manner in which DiMA is frightening changes several times over the course of the expansion, and it is in the player’s interactions with him that Far Harbour really plays its cards as far as its narrative ambitions are concerned. At several points, I believed I had got him sussed only for the game to twist itself again, to reveal something new about him. Don’t get me wrong, in so many ways DiMA still talks like every Fallout character, but… he goes somewhere, and it is consistently interesting to watch how he gets there.

Fallout’s side stories have always thrived when they’ve been self contained stories of people doing brave or stupid things. An island-wide background story about the struggling Vim Corporation, a rival to Nuka Cola, goes places so quietly weird and varied that there are subplots that I haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet. Elsewhere, two co-workers hear of their colleague’s terrible war wound and decide that since he won’t be able to bowl anymore, they might as well make him a gun that fires bowling balls. Nobody can quite work out exactly how campy they’re supposed to be; the owner of the bar in Far Harbour plays the role of the portentous “you shouldn’t be here, mainlander” type to perfection, while my player character often completely misjudged the seriousness of a situation and delivered her lines as though she was in a far sillier situation. A radio signal operated by a long dead (and spectacularly bored) cinema receptionist rivals Diamond City Radio’s Travis for brilliantly incompetent broadcasting.

It’s so much. There’s so much. Near the start, I set out to try and circumnavigate the island to try and get a sense of its scale, but I was distracted almost immediately and veered off inland towards lights flickering in the trees. In the way that Fallout can be, it has the capacity to be an incredibly tiring game; faced with another looming factory on the horizon, I sighed, steeled myself. Bethesda still doesn’t really know how to design complex interior spaces without them being muddled and twisty. But also, in the way that Fallout can be, it has the capacity to be remarkably quiet and beautiful; the lights I saw through the trees revealed themselves to be a tiny ruined house, bonfire burning inside, upturned boats hoisted high on the roof.

Turn off the radio. The island’s music breathes with flutes and whistles, cellos, a fiddle. Way back before all this, people danced in the bar in Far Harbour. Called out to fishing ships returning at the end of the day.

Fallout 4: Far Harbor is out now.

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