Extended review: Fallout 4 survival mode (PS4)

Having played on all the difficulty levels besides the easiest, I can safely say I know Fallout 4 inside and out. The previous survival mode wasn’t quite the challenge I’d been hoping for, so when talk of a new harder mode came out, it had my attention. As more details leaked, I only became more intrigued. Ammo and crafting supplies would have weight. Food and beds would be much more important, and there were new challenges in the form of management of fatigue and even diseases. Yes, this all sounded much more challenging.

And for the most part, it is, but not in the ways that I’d hoped. The added challenge of only saving when I can find a place to sleep was certainly interesting, or at times frustrating when I couldn’t find a bed and ran into major trouble. But that was a rare occurrence because it often seemed like I could find beds and sleeping bags every hundred yards or so. They were even scattered out in the open in places that were highly unlikely to say the least. But for a large chunk of the game, there was an added difficulty because my character was tissue paper weak, and could usually be killed with one shot. In this way, even a single stray bullet could send me back a half an hour or more.

Another part of the challenge had to do with carrying enough food and clean water to keep myself in fighting shape, and having all those supplies severely limited what I could pick up. It also limited how long I could travel without restocking, and most of the caps I earned early on in the game had to be spent on food, water, and bullets. I’d say a great deal of my time in the first 18 levels was spent micromanaging my supplies and that kept pulling me out of the game to worry about my inventory more than the enemies I was facing.

Then there’s the diseases, an intriguing idea hampered by the random way in which infections and afflictions are tossed at me. In theory, the idea is that using RadAway would lead to a lowered immune system, thus inviting trouble that would require use of the very rare and very expensive antibiotics. The problem is, it’s possible to contract disease at any time, even when it shouldn’t be possible. I could have a green pill on the UI, indicating good health, go to sleep in the sanitized beds at the institute, and wake up with a bacterial infection. Not because I’d done anything wrong, but because the game randomly decided to give me more busywork with my inventory.

The other problem with this is, taking any helping medication has an added cost that quite frankly makes no sense whatsoever. Stimpacks will require drinking water, and using RadAway will make you voraciously hungry, usually taking up two or even four meals to stop you from being “peckish.”

All of these status messages are constantly popping up about how I’m peckish for food, or parched for water, even in the middle of cut scenes, and it’s not immersive. No, it’s the exact opposite, constantly reminding me that I’m playing a really petty game. I can just imagine some mountain climber who can’t travel more than five minutes before whining that he’s too fatigued to climb and will need a nap, a snack, and a full canteen of water before he goes on.

I think there could have been an easy solution to this problem. The day/night cycle needs to be slowed down so that it feels more appropriate when fatigue or hunger or thirst set in. As it is, it feels like your candy assed character can’t go five minutes without whining about needing something. It’s like taking a road trip with an obnoxious child.

In the later levels, I started having problems with side missions that were more expensive to undertake than the actual story missions. In one instance, a settler begged me to free her sister from some unnamed kidnappers, and these turned out to be a clan of mini-boss super mutants, not a one of whom wasn’t a bullet sponge. I want to make clear, by this point, my primary weapon was a combat rifle ported to use .308 rounds, and I had the rifleman perk maxed out. I’d had to kill a lot of enemies to reach that camp, and so in theory the adrenaline perk should have brought with it additional damage as well. And yet, I had to spend around 4,000 caps worth of bullets and another 4,000 in food, water, and stimpacks to defeat all these mini-bosses. I get back to the settler, and my reward for all of this is 92 caps and 120 XP. It took me forever to recover my supplies from that run, so you can be sure I started avoiding settlers so I wouldn’t lose more stuff on a worthless mission.

The other change of the game was the removal of fast travel, but if this was intended to encourage exploration, it backfired in the worst way possible. Having already explored the entire map on earlier modes, I had little desire to go wasting food and bullets by wandering off the roads. When I’d established safe routes to my most common destinations, I stuck to those routes and only deviated from them slightly when I needed to hunt for meat. It wasn’t until I was well past level 50 and sporting the full set of Lone Wanderer perks that I could risk longer excursions, and again, this was done only to look for food. The added pettiness of the game resulted in making me more wary of exploration, so wherever possible, I stuck to the safest paths.

Removing fast travel also meant that even streamlining my paths to each destination and skipping out on optional side quests, the game takes much longer to complete. With fast travel, I could probably do a run in a little under fifty hours, and that’s taking on side jobs for multiple factions. This time around, I opted not to help the Minutemen or the Brotherhood of Steel, and I still ended up playing for around 200 hours. Sure, that might sound fun until you realize 60% percent of that time is spent walking with nothing to do but stop and suck down more supplies.

I’ll also say that the game wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d hoped. It was just more tedious and distracting. It wasn’t so much the weight management I had to adjust to because my previous runs at the higher difficulty levels had already trained me to travel light. So it wasn’t so difficult to adjust to carrying only one or two weapons and just enough ammo to carry out my missions, and I could easily ignore extra weapons and scrap if it wasn’t better than my current stuff or vital to a project I needed to complete on my settlements. No, instead, almost all of the challenge was in weight management and inventory tracking. Do I have enough supplies to do this mission? If not, what can I do as a side quest to earn more supplies without incurring more reductions in my food, water, and ammo?

With every run, I’ve experimented with different builds, and this time I started with maxed out Charisma and Luck at the expense of every other stat. This helped me avoid some fights by talking my way out of them, and the added luck mean that when I did need to fight, I was able to pull off more critical damage shots. But I somehow expected that more luck would equal better loot, and this was easily the worst run I’ve ever had in terms of loot drops. Despite having a higher number of legendary enemies, I received no special guns at all, and no armor with stat boosts. Instead, every drop was like “instigating rolling pin,” “Radiated switchblade,” or my personal favorite, “lucky boxing glove.” The longer I went picking up crap gear from legendaries, the angrier I got because on all my previous runs, the loot had been so much better. This time around, it was just one long wallow in shit from start to finish.

And speaking of which, this was also hands down the most buggy run I’ve ever done, and that’s really saying something. It was not uncommon to find myself walking into some invisible object for ten or twenty seconds before a truck or building suddenly popped in. I was unable to run through open doorways without completely backing out of the building entirely, and these are passages I’d already walked through without problems. I’ve had enemies just pop up in front of me already set in an attack animation even though they were nowhere near me a second before that. I’ve had the game completely ignore my choices and play out cut scenes based on a completely different faction choice. Most locations couldn’t reset, so additional missions in the same building were dull without anything to shoot or sneak past. In a few random cases, though, I could clear an area, walk a block, and double back to find the exact same enemies in the exact same locations. I lost count of how often the game crashed back to the OS. Despite receiving many patches these last few months, the game feels more broken than it did on day one.

So, taking this as a separate review from my original run, I have to give Fallout 4 survival mode 3 stars. I can’t see making further runs with the game on this mode, though I might try the DLC adventures once they’re more stable (Far Harbor in particular has been reported to chug at a dismal 15 frames a second on the PS4, and that’s not something I want to watch for more than a minute, much less a few hours or days.) In short, I wouldn’t recommend playing this mode unless you just like being needled with petty prompts every five minutes.