After the middling Automatron and Wasteland Workshop, Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 4: Far Harbor is a triumphant return to form from the creators of great expansions like Shivering Isles and Point Lookout – a large scale adventure filled with choice, consequence, and the perfect marriage of Fallout and Stephen King horror stories.
It dawns on me, reviewing Far Harbor, that we didn’t actually pen a review of Fallout 4’s second downloadable expansion, Wasteland Workshop. That’s mostly on account of it not really amounting to much to be reviewed – it added no new stories and no new characters, just more objects for building structures. To be fair, it did add a lot of things (cool things! Who doesn’t like making people fight to the death for petty amusement?), but the problem with Wasteland Workshop was never the things it added. No, its problem was the same problem that almost singlehandedly led to me not giving Fallout 4 a perfect score last year; the building mechanic. It just doesn’t work as well as Bethesda believes it does. Wasteland Workshop was a cracked enterprise from the word go, founded on the worst aspects of Fallout 4.
Far Harbor, however, feels like something founded on everything that was right with Fallout 4, but been tooled up and improved upon. What I highlighted in my original review were the clear influences that Fallout: New Vegas had on Fallout 4’s faction and narrative design – factions with contradictory ideas that you can maneuver between but must be constantly wary of crossing a point of no return, and factions whose ideologies reflected a larger world size narrative point. Fallout 4 did not execute this concept as well as New Vegas did (few games do), largely because of limited options, an absence of skill checks, and turning away from traditional “side quests” based on objectives. Fallout 4: Far Harbor evolves this even further by putting the majority of these elements back in – skill checks return, the factions and characters are more dynamic (and in some cases, more compelling) than ever, and real side quests return en force. Is it all executed perfectly? No, but what is there rivals the best of Bethesda’s expansions, and is a promising sign of things to come.
That said, Far Harbor does confirm the apparent M.O. of Fallout 4’s expansion content – remaking and expanding sections of Fallout 3. Rather than borrowing direct elements like Automatron did, Far Harbor re-imagines the premise and structure of Fallout 3’s Point Lookout. Following a call from Valentine’s Detective Agency, you are hired by her family to find Kasumi Nakano, a young girl with an eye for technology and strange questions about her past, who disappeared from her residence following contact with a mysterious individual via homemade radio. Investigation leads you to a town on a coastal island in Maine, called Far Harbor. Upon arrival, as is the nature of detective stories, you are thrust into a situation wildly more complex than simply a single lost girl. The town of Far Harbor is literally on the edge of existence, backed up to a single dock on the coast by a combination of mysterious radioactive fog, terrifying unique mutated creatures, and a rabid faction of the radiation worshiping Children of Atom. All that’s keeping the fog away, and the primary reason for the Children of Atom fielding a grudge against Far Harbor, is a collection of hi-tech fog dispensers built by the secretive synth refuge of Acadia. They are led by a synthetic man named DiMA, with more to his head than it first seems.
If you remember the plot of Point Lookout, you’ll know in advance the structure of Far Harbor’s main narrative. And if you explored Point Lookout’s many dark corners, you know its world is saturated heavily with references to the work of H.P. Lovecraft as a guide to its sense of atmosphere and themes that Far Harbor openly continues. Where Point Lookout was straightforward in terms of story, however, Far Harbor refuses to be. Fallout 4’s main quest tilted at fascinating questions about how counted as a person in America. Far Harbor engages the question of how you create a personal identity, how you get that identity accepted by the world at large, and the role of memory in identity’s creation. While Fallout 4 successfully used the 50s sci-fi aesthetic of Fallout to engage American history, Far Harbor does it one better by finding a new influence that better ties the Lovecraft references to the world and thematic interests.
That influence is Stephen King, and his novella The Mist.
Frankly, I’m shocked Fallout and Stephen King haven’t shacked up together before this. Bethesda and King both have deep roots in the world of H.P. Lovecraft, consistently patterning elements from his work throughout their own over the years, but that isn’t the side of King that Fallout so jives with. Both have a deep fascination with the society and psychology of 1950s America, of this supposedly perfect era of American history. King’s bread and butter, when it comes to engineering horror, is looking at people and societies put under the pressure to justify their identities as right, and what happens when those identities are challenged – at first by external forces, then by the internal forces brought out by the pressure. There’s no greater example of that than The Mist, far and away the Far Harbor’s biggest influence. There, a military experiment covers a Maine town whose people are meant to emulate that 1950s American idealism in a supernatural mist that hides Lovecraftian monsters who quickly demolish the illusion that this town’s vision of 1950s ideals never truly existed, by showing that people destroy themselves just as fast as the monsters do when backed into a corner.
Obviously, The Mist influenced Far Harbor’s fog, which almost all of The Island’s residents believe holds some form of special power beyond just being radioactive. Functionally much like a less dangerous version of the Cloud from Fallout: New Vegas’ Dead Money expansion, the fog almost constantly raises your radiation level, with thicker fog banks indicating higher radiation levels. The primary human enemies, the Trappers, believe the fog whispers instructions to them, the Children of Atom believe it is a manifestation of Atom’s will and a sign from their god, and the people of Far Harbor speak of it as being alive and purposefully leading Harbormen and Harborwomen to their deaths by getting them lost. That sort of concept is usually rather difficult to sell in games (especially when you have access to a map at all times), but the size and art design of The Island and the fog make it credible. The Island is truly massive, and the variation in terrain and environmental factors (constant radiation and thunder storms) allow for a consistently fresh sense of exploration. The design of the fog, then, takes advantage of that wonderfully, as its thick wisps and rolling banks can make surprise combat a nightmare.
The Mist alternately must have influenced the unique creatures of Far Harbor, which all feel like things that H.P. Lovecraft would’ve giggled at happily. More hostile versions of the base game Radstags and Yao Guai wander the island alongside other mutated hostile wildlife like wolves and Mirelurks that come after you, and new systems applied to ghouls mean that their more creative ways of attacking you only add to the feeling that The Island itself is out to harm you. The more heavily mutated creatures unique to Far Harbor are the true standouts, however. Giant salamanders known as Gulpers, mutated, amphibious Angler fish, and mysterious Fog Crawlers are the most common and frightening encounters, and their designs are wonderfully monstrous. The latter especially will make you very glad for the minor boon of new weapons and equipment Far Harbor has to find, especially for melee characters, for whom this DLC is a boon.
But the place where The Mist’s influence on Fallout 4: Far Harbor is best seen is not in any monster, but in the factions themselves. The people of Far Harbor, synths of Acadia, and followers of the Children of Atom all have their societies put under pressure by the fog, and your role in the story is uncovering what internal things are driving these people to almost go to war with each other, and bring them to light. What is ultimately so intriguing about the plot of Far Harbor is that there really isn’t a central mystery to be solved or antagonist that must be stopped – not unless you view one of the factions as an antagonist that must be stopped. The whole thing, a rare feat for games, is based on disagreement between individuals on the way life should be under the threat of the fog. The plot of Far Harbor is largely concerned with the complicated questions of who people believe that they are, and if there is an overarching story its deciding the fate of the island’s inhabitants.
How you decide that fate is perhaps the greatest trick that Far Harbor pulls. Bethesda brings back skill checks and big, legitimate sidequests in Far Harbor after largely being absent from the base game, and their presence is immediately put to use to add dynamism to the factions. Each of the three factions, the town of Far Harbor in particular, has a litany of side quests that can be completed, and they all feed into the identities of the characters and the factions at large. Their culture, ideologies, and beliefs are all extrapolated for you if you’re willing to put in the leg work, and the decisions you make within those side quests can drastically alter the shape of events in the main quest – with the addition of a few quests that are there just for fun. In those side quests and in the world, skill checks make their welcome return as a way to influence the shape of events and people’s opinions of you, as your stats and perks can open new doors for you. In particular, Charisma checks now have far more bearing on the plot now, allowing you to bypass large sections of the DLC and influence characters on a broad scale.
What that does not mean, however, is that you can mold Far Harbor’s story into anything you like at will. The identities of these groups are not easily swayed things, and these characters do genuinely have minds and agendas and moralities of their own. The things that stick with me, after completing Far Harbor, are the moral quandaries it presents to you, and the absence of easy answers that it offers. Perhaps the best thing about Far Harbor is how, if you want to get the best ending, you have to do some things that others may call morally dubious. You may have to work against your own identity. And you have to weigh whether or not the “best ending” is worth what you have to do in order to achieve it.
I applaud Bethesda’s attempt to expand the types of gameplay they offer
Far Harbor does not nail everything it attempts to do. Ultimately, one of the three factions, the Children of Atom, is sold short by narrative options in a way that doesn’t quite feel organic enough to the story. It is also far more unstable on a technical level – certain situations are boons for game breaking glitches that can require significant time loss to undue, severe enough that they are sort of unforgivable. And in one section, one you’ll know instantly when you see it, Bethesda’s insistence on involving the crafting system rears its head. I applaud Bethesda’s attempt to expand the types of gameplay they offer, as this is truly something they’ve never attempted, but insisting on involving the lumbering, difficult to control crafting system feels more like a punch to the face than a change of pace.
However, like the base game, the rewards of taking the case of Kasumi Nakano and traveling to Far Harbor are more than worth the difficulties within. Fallout 4: Far Harbor is a welcome righting of the ship for Fallout 4 expansions going forward, and can stand tall alongside the best Bethesda has ever offered. If this is a sign of the direction Bethesda is moving towards, the future could be very bright indeed.
(P.S. Bring Nick Valentine. This story is as much his as it is yours.)