The not-so Magical Kingdom
We’ve mused before at Destructoid that Fallout 4 has had one of the worst season passes worth of DLC in recent memory. With a lineup of filler Workshop DLC that mostly focused on the settlement aspect of the game, and the ambitious but ultimately disappointing Far Harbor, the final scheduled piece of Fallout 4 DLC, Nuka-World has a lot resting on its shoulders. Bethesda’s last chance to right the ship and get things back on course.
Nuka-World is a road trip. A sightseeing tour to the far flung reaches of Massachusetts where you’ll meet new (terrible) people, see some hokey attractions, and pick up some novelty tchotchkes and trinkets. Like all road trips, it starts fun, but eventually you wind up exhausted, worn out, and feeling like you probably paid more for admission than you should have.
Fallout 4: Nuka-World (PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Released: August 30, 2016
MSRP: $19.99 standalone / included in the $49.99 season pass
Nuka-World might look like a fun place to hang out with all the cartoon mascots and cheery jingles on loop, but it quickly becomes apparent this is no vacation spot. As soon as you exit from the tram that takes you from the Commonwealth to the park, you’re jumped into the experience through a gauntlet of traps, monsters, and ambushes designed to test your mettle.
The park is occupied by three rival Raider gangs tenuously held together under a shaky truce. Because this is a video game, you come in, kill their leader, and are immediately crowned the new Raider King (or Overboss if you prefer). Because this is a Fallout video game, being the Overboss somehow translates into being the errand boy for each of the three rival gang’s leaders who will endlessly test you to prove you’re fit to lead by, well, following their orders exactly.
You’re chaperoned through the experience by a new Raider companion character, Gage. Gage is quickly established as a Starscream-like perpetual schemer who sets up other people to take the heat of being a figurehead while manipulating things behind the scenes. Sadly, he never quite pulls a Kingslayer moment and his arc kind of peters out. It feels like a missed opportunity to try something different than the typical companion relationship. Still he’s fun to have tagging along if only to hear him run down the other Raider bosses and lame theme park attractions.
Playing Nuka-World, I could really feel Bethesda swinging for the fences with this one, a real attempt to deliver something grand and new before closing the book on Fallout 4. Nuka-World introduces a massive new area, tons of new weapons, clothing, aid items, and characters to muck around with. No one can say they didn’t put the work in on this one.
At the same time though, while there is a ton of stuff to mess with, lots of it feels superfluous or even padded out. Nuka-World is a sprawling park made up of six separate theme areas like a discount Disneyland. Each of those areas features custom made assets, new art, and unique monsters which is a refreshing change if you’ve spent hundreds of hours wandering around the Wastes noticing the same three shack walls used everywhere you go. But while large and new, Nuka-World still manages to wear out its welcome with repeated fetch quests that have you walk from one end of the park to another, or have you pop into and out of a building (or worse, take a quick trip back to the Commonwealth) just to kill or talk to one guy (it can really go either way when you’re acting like a Raider). Expect to stare at a lot of loading screens while establishing yourself as a tyrant of the Wastes.
How much enjoyment you get from Nuka-World will depend on how much you enjoy shooting things in Fallout 4. Personally, I met my limit fairly quickly. While the shooting in Fallout 4 is leagues beyond what was present in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, it never felt particularly engaging to me. Functional sure, but not exceptional.
I was never clamoring for a series of massive areas filled with dozens upon dozens of enemies to mow down in any case, but for better or worse that’s the majority of Nuka-World. Role-playing and plot take a backseat to shooting through robots, mutations, and monsters, so you can stomp over their corpses and literally plant a flag in the dirt. There is approximately ten hours worth of content in Nuka-World – and I spent nearly all of it holding down the trigger.
To its credit, the DLC introduces a number of fresh and interesting faces to plunge bullets into. Mutated crocodile Deathclaws, robotic mascots run amok, and Ghouls wearing neon clown make-up like a bunch of zombified club kids are just a few of the new threats that will incessantly chase you to the ends of the earth. There are some wonderful-terrible surprises and truly imaginative beasties in store for players who explore each and every inch of the park.
On the downside, much like Fallout 3’s Broken Steel DLC, Nuka-World’s enemies tend towards the unfair and the ridiculous. My character was lv 60 when I started the new content, with maxed out weapon perks, an arsenal of ridiculously upgraded machine guns, and a suit of top-of-the-line X-01 power armor – I haven’t had to sweat any of the Wasteland’s typical threats in a long time. Still, I frequently found myself in intractable battles of attrition in Nuka-World, slugging away at enemies with a patently ludicrous amount of health. These encounters were so frequent I eventually stopped caring about ducking behind cover and using V.A.T.S, opting instead to just trade hits and jam stimpaks into my thigh every few seconds while wading through the mountain of meat that is Nuka-World.
I’m sure it’s difficult to design encounters that legitimately challenge long-term characters that have amassed a ton of legendary gear and prestige perks. Still, it’s disappointing that after nearly a decade of making these games (more if you count the Elder Scrolls series) Bethesda still has no better answer for to it than to just crank up the dials on HP and damage.
More interesting are the new raiding mechanics that allow the player to storm the Commonwealth and subjugate the masses. Settlements can now be sacked or enslaved so your gang members can live the high-life of sitting around in impractical clothes and listening to the radio without having to dig for crops themselves.
Through a slightly clunky dialog menu, you can select which settlement you want to attack and how you want to go about it. You can try to intimidate settlers off their land, bribe them to give it up, or just roll in like Kull the Conqueror and split some heads open. I’ll give you a hint, one of these options is much more entertaining than the others.
The ability to raid settlements is interesting, but also casts a strange tone on the proceedings. This is particularly the case if you’re doing this content with a late-game character that has basically established and nurtured all of these settlements like I did. The Lone Survivor takes shockingly little convincing to just turn around and lay waste to everything he or she has built, and with the exception of Preston Garvey (who will chew you out for being an asshole), few other characters seem to notice or care when you turn into a psychopath overnight. It feels flimsy and thin.
I can easily see this as Bethesda trying to respond to criticism of the base game, that there were not enough opportunities to play a “bad” or “ruthless” character. But it feels like too much, too late. A ham-fisted attempt at offering a badguy experience with the least nuance and style possible. Other Fallout games let you play an insidious villain, someone who would seem like a decent person before sinking a knife in their friend’s back. Nuka-World just lets you snuff people en masse the same way you might kill everybody in Sanctuary out of boredom before reloading from an earlier save. Even if you made a new character specifically to play with this content, it doesn’t open up until you reach a lofty level 30, meaning you would have to spend a real chunk of time playing around as a normal run-of-the-mill Lone Survivor before making your heel turn.
Disappointingly, there is no real alternative to playing this content as anything but a badguy. You can of course choose to kill all the Raider bosses (and likely most of the random Raiders populating the park once the shooting starts) and that will end the other questlines and “liberate” the park. But outside of a free-for-all bloodbath, there is no way to say tip the Minutemen or Brotherhood of Steel to the GIANT RAIDER HAVEN perched out front of their stoop. Even Far Harbor had options to dime out the Synths of Arcadia and clean house if that was your preferred flavor, it would have been nice to have a quest option that at least acknowledged the player’s affiliation with the Minutemen or other good Commonwealth factions.
The issues with tone don’t end there. While Fallout 4 has always tended closer towards the “wacky wasteland” end of the Fallout aesthetic than previous games, there is some shit in Nuka-World that is just flat-out dumb. A lot of winking at the camera and comical accounts of pre-war American dystopia that grow wearisome as the quests drag on. Why would an amusement park be staffed with robots with plasma bomb launchers and a security system of laser turrets? Cause it’s waaaaacky, yuk-yuk. And not to be all Comic Book Guy about it, but seeing Institute designed lasers on pre-war mascot robots and Enclave-made power armor in a 200 year old display case betray a real lack of care towards the established continuity and canon of the Fallout world. Whether that kind of thing will irk you will depend on your personal taste, but it stuck out to my Fallout-nerdlinger eye (I imagine the guys over at No Mutants Allowed would be shitting themselves in rage).
All the raiding and bloodshed culminates in an impressive final confrontation that tasks the player with storming a well fortified facility with a small posse of your fellow gang leaders. Looking at in in isolation, it’s kind of a cool moment. There are few other opportunities in Fallout 4 to participate in a battle of that kind of size and scope and I have to admit I actually felt like a badass Raider warlord as I charged up the hill with a pack of killers following my lead. But of course, even with an impressive veneer, Fallout 4 is still Fallout 4 and all that momentary gravitas eventually unraveled in a messy pile of bad AI scripting.
Maybe setting a scenario where you can have up to four AI partners following you in a maze of catwalks and stairwells wasn’t the best idea. My pack of killers spent a disproportionate amount of time walking into walls and bumbling into each other instead of burning down the weak and insolent. During the chaos, Gage must have clipped one of the other Raider bosses tagging along because the two of them got into a passive-aggressive wandering gun fight mid-way through. With both of them being essential and therefore unkillable characters at that point, they basically took turns tripping each other with bullets, trailing behind me and taking shots at each other like a pair of squabbling kids. Like any frustrated parent, I tuned them out after a few minutes and just let them go at it.
Every road trip goes like this, lots of anticipation and excitement that eventually gives way to exhaustion and bickering. If you two don’t knock it off, I’m gonna turn this raid around and we can just spend the night in the motel.
Nuka-World is certainly a huge chunk of content. If you were starving for more Fallout 4, this piece of DLC will give you plenty to chew on. Personally though, this wasn’t the type of Fallout I was hungry for. I wanted a deep dish of role-playing and nuanced character interaction, a send off that captured what was great about previous DLC packs like Point Lookout and Old World Blues. What I got was a bullet-buffet, a trough of ammunition and guts I could have got from any other first-person shooter.
Nuka-World is big and impressive and flashy, but just like any theme park, it’s all a facade. Peek behind the curtain and you can see the struts and wires that animate the mascots. In Nuka-World’s case, that’s a scaffolding made of bones and spent magazines. It’s up to you if that’s a park you feel like visiting.
[This review is based on a retail version of the game, purchased by the reviewer.]