On ‘Fallout 4: Far Harbor’ and Being Able to Say Goodbye to Bethesda
The studio's impressive world building continues in this DLC adventure, but the excitement I used to feel for these games has faded.
For the past ten years, Bethesda games have sculpted how I think about games. Aged 14, I picked up my first Xbox 360 and a copy of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I still have that same disc today, in its case, the receipt tucked behind the hundred-page manual.
After putting thousands of hours of playtime into Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim, as well as all every expansion released to support those main games, Bethesda has even influenced what I want from other titles – in terms of gameplay features, design ideas, and that inimitable sense of freedom that few other open-world productions master so well.
When Fallout 4 was announced midway through 2015, just six months before it came out, I, unsurprisingly, lost my shit. Not only was a new Bethesda game on its way, guaranteeing a massive world to get invested in, but I only had a short while to wait for it. This so-brief period between announcement and availability was as good as unprecedented in our modern period of games publicity – but it's something I think will influence other developers' future projects and their own release plans, given how well it worked.
And when it came out, I really liked Fallout 4. I went as far as saying, on this site no less, that it was an unmissable open-world experience. Its world is truly magical to explore, and for me it features the best storytelling of any of Bethesda's games so far, even if its ideas, of fractured families and fizzing revolution, are familiar. This is a studio that places its strengths in building a universe rather than fleshing out character development and creating narrative complexity, but nonetheless it felt like a marked improvement on what preceded it. Most notably, though, it played like a proper sequel, something I had never felt with other Bethesda releases. Whereas Oblivion and Skyrim were two very different beasts, Fallout 4 sits comfortably, thematically and aesthetically, beside 2008's Fallout 3.
But the charm faded. It took a while, 60 hours of play and change, but having put over 300 hours into Skyrim I was expecting Fallout 4's amazing early game impressions to develop into a compelling whole, to last for a near-infinite future. And yet, that compulsion disappeared. The urge to explore everywhere, to see everything, just vanished. Which was pretty disappointing, to say the least.
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But now we have the third and final DLC pack for Fallout 4, and it's a massive one, too. Unlike the previous two, Automatron and Wasteland Workshop, Far Harbor (which came out on May the 19th) presents a brand new landmass, a murky, fog-shrouded island, ripe for exploration. It's one of the most atmospheric expansions that Bethesda has ever realised, and a marked improvement upon Skyrim's fairly drab Dragonborn DLC and its island of Solstheim. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say Far Harbor plays and feels most like Fallout 3's Point Lookout, which opened up a huge new area neighbouring the Capital Wasteland.
Far Harbor does more of what Fallout 4 did so well in its opening hours. It introduces you to complex factions, each with their own unique agendas, and asks you to decide how you want to interact with and within each one. The island is home to three distinct groups: the denizens of the titular harbour, and the militia-like Fishermen; a group of runaway synths holed up in a haven called Acadia; and the radiation-obsessed Church of the Children of Atom cult, who've set up shop in an abandoned submarine base they've named The Nucleus and staunchly protect the radioactive fog that smears the island.
As ever, your actions have at least interesting and often major consequences, and it should be appreciated that this is an expansion that focuses more on talking than constant shooting. There are some really intriguing quests, as well as some unexpected twists and turns along the way.
And yet, Far Harbor represents something more than simply some quality DLC for a game that's already really good, but not quite up to the standards that I'd perhaps set for it. Far Harbor is the reassurance that I needed, to be able to say to myself: "Okay, I'm done with Bethesda games for now." I still had to play it, of course, because after 10 years of subliminal conditioning these things are almost completely ingrained within me; but I've not been excited about it. At first, I was convinced that, just by playing more Fallout 4, I'd fall back in love with it – that the thrill of discovering something new, something fresh inside this world of death and pain, would take over me again, and it'd be like the old days where I could sit for hours at a time and just live in that world. But it never came.
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My own buzz for Far Harbor doesn't compare, for example, to the bubbling anticipation that I have for The Witcher 3's Blood and Wine. That's a game that's pushing barriers with both its world building and the stories it tells, and I'm convinced that I'll see every little thing in the almost-upon-us DLC, sucking every tiny morsel of detail out of its world. With Far Harbor, and Fallout 4 in general, I'm shooting guns, upgrading my tools, finding new characters to talk to and learning more about this fascinating world. It's all good – frequently great – but it used to be that Bethesda games were so much more. That greatness was a constant, but I don't think it's ever been that way through this Fallout 4 campaign.
Whatever's next for Bethesda director Todd Howard and his team – presumably a new Elder Scrolls – I hope its rekindles the absolute wonder that, for so many years, more than simply kept me interested. These games influenced my entire outlook on what a video game could be, and now it's time for the studio to once again revolutionise instead of repeating tiring formulas.
Fallout 4: Far Harbor is available now. Find more information at the game's official website.
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