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Sleep, Eat, Die, Repeat: Hands On With Fallout 4's Survival Mode

Insomniacs need not apply

Fallout 4's [official site] Survival Mode entered beta earlier this week and to honour the occasion, we sent Robert Zak back to the future with a pack full of rations and a pocket full of bullets.

It’s been too long since I last slept, which is a problem because it’s the only way I can save my last hour of tentative progress in Fallout 4’s survival mode. I’ve finally completed a routine quest for some man-child ghoul who wanted to wear some superhero uniform, and need to hit the hay somewhere, anywhere, lest some unforeseeable bullet or head trauma insta-kills me. I skirt my way around bandit camps, pick off the occasional super mutant (only when absolutely necessary) with single silenced headshots, and am barely a hundred feet from the safe haven of Goodneighbor.

It’s a cruel, cruel mode, is survival mode, and I’m not yet convinced that I like it.

I allow myself a pinch of elation as I make for the town’s welcoming cathode-tube sign, when suddenly the dreaded ‘danger’ music kicks. I instinctively hit the VATS button, but can’t see where the threat is coming from until it erupts from the ground into my face. Mole Rats. Around eight of them led by two powerful ‘Legendaries’. A slow-mo ‘NOOOO’ moment ensues, as my sleep-deprived adrenaline kicks in (giving me a 40% damage boost). In seconds my screens turns into a firework display of giblets and mole rat heads.

But it’s not enough. Just a couple of irradiated nibbles at the ankles and my leg pops off like a Ken doll’s. I’m dead - a solid hour of progress ripped away from me in seconds. I emit one of those profanity-filled whisper-screams in the back of my throat, cry foul play, and indignantly declare to myself that I’m done with it forever (which is, of course, a lie).

Yes, Survival Mode is cruel.

This was to be my gateway back into a game that I never massively warmed to in the first place. I put around 30 hours into Fallout 4, and loved its densely-packed, engaging world, where walking in any direction promised some kind of impromptu adventure. But the protagonist felt too prescriptive, with the dialogue and story angling him/her too much towards being a bit of a Mr/Mrs Nice Guy/Gal. Narratively it felt on-rails, the ‘do anything, be anyone’ fantasy didn’t really apply, and my interest waned.

But with survival mode, a new fantasy is promised - a post-apocalyptic experience that captures some of the shittiness and misery. Sleep, disease and antibiotics, food and hunger all factor into your overall ‘Wellbeing’, you take much more damage, and ammo now has its own weight. It all sounds tough and gritty and wonderful, but the current reality is that - despite many moments of bum-clenching brilliance - it’s rather fiddly and frustrating.

Instead of starting a new game, I crank my current character up to survival difficulty. While you can’t turn the difficulty back down once you’re survivin’, it automatically treats your lower-difficulty game as another character, so you don’t need to worry about your pre-survival game being overwritten.

I spend my first half-hour offloading equipment at Sanctuary to meet my carrying capacity, seeing as I have enough ammo on me to pour it into a deep vault and dive into it Scrooge McDuck-style (obviously, I’d rather do this with money if I had enough of it, but I imagine ammo is equally jingly). It’s an arduous process, but seeing as I always struggled with clutter in my Fallout 4 inventory I do find it kind of cathartic (see image above to get an idea of how much I dropped).

With that said, I don’t appreciate the fact that for every minute that I spend over-encumbered, I emit a grunt as if I’ve just been kicked in the stomach and lose a chunk of health. Survival mode, it seems, is so tough that even your own inventory is capable of turning on you and pummelling you to death...

Also, for the first time in my life I actually have to learn which ammo fits into which guns: .308mm for sniper rifles, 10mm for pistols, .38mm for revolvers - yep, I’m now a regular survivalist gun nut. Lightly packed and newly knowledgable, I bound out into the wasteland with a spring in my step. Well, actually I’m perma-crouching, parched, and one stimpack away from being encumbered until my legs break, but whatever. I’m ready.

My first run-in with death comes as a result of naivety, as I happen upon a raider kneeling by a grave, praying for a fallen comrade. I hadn’t seen this before, and take pity on him, thinking that maybe the poor bugger is maybe some unique ‘friendly’ raider who’d show that they’re not all bad. He isn’t, and two shots later I’m dead - a reminder that raiders are indeed the scum of the Earth and should be slaughtered indiscriminately. It was only about 15 minutes since I’d last save-slept, so by no means a disaster.

Suffice to say I get the bastard back, honourably chucking his headless body into the grave he was kneeling by.

As I work my way towards Boston I'm beset by hunger and thirst much quicker than I expected, denting my endurance and intelligence. Cooking stations are now a crucial survival tool, and while I’m generally much more cautious about jumping into combat, I’m prepared to risk it all and take on a whole raider camp just to get to their cooking pot, grill me some radroaches and purify some water.

With food and water essential to my survival rather than just being gamey quick-fix healing items, sitting around a fire at night and cooking takes on a more meditative quality - the cooking pot is a place of rest, reflection, quite a bit of micromanagement, and scouting for any quests to complete in the vicinity. Without fast travel, it’s often a long and dangerous journey to return to a given place, so best settle any important local business sooner rather than later.

Counteracting this perversely pleasurable feeling of vulnerability is my favourite addition to the survival mode - Adrenaline. For every 5 kills you pull off without saving, your damage infliction increases by 5%, all the way up to a maximum of 50. This creates a great little dilemma - if you’ve buffed yourself up to being an adrenaline-fuelled killing machine, do you push on for more adventure with your stat boost, risking everything you’ve achieved since your last save? Or do you cash in, save your game, and become an adrenaline-free mortal again?

I can say that after several rush-of-blood adrenaline frenzies that ended in my death and sizeable slabs of time wasted, the answer to that should be obvious. But I’ll let you find out for yourself, seeing as the fear of being brutally punished for your recklessness is the whole masochistic reasoning behind playing in survival modes in the first place, isn’t it?

Survival mode makes Fallout a more engaging, immediate and gripping experience, though that’s inevitable when saving the game becomes a rare luxury. There are still problems with the mode that prevent it from being the ‘definitive’ Fallout experience for me, most of which relate to the huge level of micromanagement it entails. Even on normal difficulty, I found the inventory way too fiddly, and now that I need to constantly monitor my weight like some Fitbit fanatic, it’s only gotten worse.

Bethesda promised that the survival mode would encourage exploration, ‘slowing down the pace of the game and encouraging players to explore the nooks and crannies of the world’. While it’s certainly slowed me down, it’s done so through a combination of micromanagement and the fact that I’m terrified - neither of which is conducive to exploration. The hell am I going to go sticking my face into ‘nooks and crannies’ when a mole rat might just jump out and one-shot pop my head off like I were a bloody Lego Man.

Survival modes make the peaks and troughs of the gaming experience more extreme. Death is more likely and punishing, making victory and progress more satisfying - it’s like the wingsuiting of video games. Currently, in Fallout 4 the extremes are too pronounced. The need to eat and drink is so frequent that it becomes tiresome, and the save system has you scrambling for a bed after each quest, lest you lose your progress. It’s kind of comparable to bonfires in Dark Souls, but that game offers rigid patterns that you can learn and adapt to on each playthrough. Part of Fallout 4’s charm is the unpredictability of its open world, but in the current rendition of survival mode, that charm can quickly turn into frustration.

Being a beta, this is a work in progress, and gameplay tweaks like Adrenaline and no fast-travelling definitely embellish the experience. I’d like to see the need to eat and drink pared down a bit, to have a tad more leniency with weight, and perhaps an extra way of autosaving - such as by completing a quest or by ‘clearing’ an area of enemies. But maybe these are just the meek words of someone who’s been beaten down and broken by survival mode, and really it’s aimed at gamers made of tougher stuff than myself… not that I’ll ever admit that.

Now, if you excuse me, I need to go find a mattress to lie down on, before something awful happens...

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Fallout 4

PS4, Xbox One, PC

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Robert Zak