I’ve been playing Fallout 4′s beta Survival difficulty mode. It’s good. The mode certainly meshes with my normal play style, but Survival also improves the feel of the game. How a game feels is paramount. Mechanics have to speak to the genre and the narrative. Survival pumps Fallout 4′s feel up to the right notch, adding a little something I missed without quite knowing it.
See, when I’m not experimenting with a ridiculous, chemmed-up melee fighter or a run-and-gun soldier, I default to careful play style. I use stealth and sniping to avoid “fair” confrontations. (You know, like you would.) When I set up for sniping, I lay mines on predictable approaches to my position. I avoid companions, sometimes even the lovable and helpful Dogmeat, because companions draw enemy attention, attack without tactical cooperation, and sometimes plain get in the way. (The Lone Wanderer perk is all me.) I explore nooks and crannies, and acquire the perks needed to unlock and hack everything. I’m cautious, methodical, and curious.
Survival asks you to be all three of those things. If it asked more of some and less of others, it’d go from being good to being great.
In Survival, the game makes you care about those pesky necessities we humans have to see to, such as drinking, eating, and sleeping. After a while, you get thirsty and hungry, and being thirsty and hungry affects your stats. (1) Hours walking, fighting, and hiding make you tired, and being tired affects your stats. So, you harvest, cook, and carry food. You pack purified water so you don’t have to drink from radioactive puddles. And you care when you run across a sheltered bed in the wastes.
All this might seem bothersome here in black and white, but it adds a tremendous amount of immersion to the game. Do you go ahead and butcher that radroach or bloatfly in case you’re in dire need of a snack later? Or do you turn your nose up and go for higher lifeforms to munch? (I never, ever eat radroach. I’ll starve first.) Do you hunt and gather to make sure your food stores are adequate? Or do you take perks or use gear that make it okay to eat irradiated prewar food and drink from those radioactive puddles? (2)
You might, because water is central to Survival. (You know, like it is.) Having a source of purified water at the various settlements across the wastelands is valuable. Purifying (or just drinking) dirty water is also an option. The element that moved me the most, funny enough, is being able to use the plethora of empty bottles scattered across the ruins. Empty beer, milk, or cola bottles are now your canteens. It’d be perfection if drinking a bottled beverage also gave you the bottle back, weight be damned (3), instead of just the cap as it does in the normal difficulty modes.
Those bottled beverages matter more in Survival, too. Feeling too weak to carry all that extra ammo weight Survival lays on you? Just like in normal modes, have a beer! Tired? Pop a Nuka Cola, and pep up for a while. (4) The caffeine staves off the penalties from fatigue, and the soda gives you a refreshing health boost if you need it. The rarer the cola, the better the boost.
You have access to all the other means of increasing health, as well. Water, food, and Stimpacks (post-apocalyptic healing potions) offer healing as you’d expect. However, recovery from injury is much slower, so Stimpacks aren’t going to win a fight for you. (5) What’s more, using Stimpacks and other drugs, such as RadAway (pee out the radiation) or Buffout (do you even lift?), are diuretic. They’re dehydrating and draining. You need water immediately, and you get hungry and tired faster. All these elements come into consideration from time to time. Do you use a Stimpack even though you don’t have any water? Maybe you strategically dose RadAway and pop a Stimpack, then drink irradiated water while the drugs do their work. You probably come out the other side healed and rad free. But you might also become ill.
Sickness is a risk in Survival. It’s not entirely clear to me (6) what in-world activities increase those risks. I’ve gotten ill after sleeping, after a dog bite, after drinking dirty water, and after a disgusting bloatfly attack. Most of those make intuitive sense, and waking up unwell without knowing exactly why is realistic. However, it is clear taking RadAway and some other drugs can suppress immunity for a time. Antibiotics and doctors cure sickness, while other supplements supposedly increase your resistance to sickness for a period, too. Antiobotics cure any illness, which seems weird sometimes, and effectiveness of preventative supplements is unclear. These sorts of things are where the feel of Survival falters slightly.
Sleeping is another design area that stumbles. Sleep is essential to avoid fatigue, yet the quality of the mattress limits rest time, thereby limiting the benefit of resting. Repeated short rests seem to trigger bouts of insomnia, but as I said, it’s not clear to me how or why. It’s also perplexing to me, since sleeping can produce problems but is required for saving, why you can’t carry a sleeping bag. (7)
That sleeping in a bed or bedlike object is required to save is a hiccup from a design perspective. One of the stated goals of Survival is that saving isn’t easy. Fine, a quick save right before a risky fight is out. However, another stated goal of Survival is that exploration become more prominent. It seems to me both goals could work in tandem. Sure, you can actively save only by resting. But what if the game autosaved when you discovered a new location or, at least, when you completed a quest? Such a sweet, sweet reward serves to ensure players explore. It also means a lethal random encounter on the way to bed down for the save doesn’t trash ninety minutes of previous quest-completing play. (8) The problem is solvable by making the two design goals meet in the middle.
A smaller but similar issue exists with the fact that Survival disallows fast travel. I like that I have to traverse the stark landscape, which is full of little elements to discover and enemies to outsmart. (9) Disallowing fast travel definitely shores up the exploration design goal. Repeated travel breeds a pleasant familiarity with certain areas of the game world. Preston Garvey’s infamous recurrent requests are much less galling when they happen, maybe, once every few play sessions.
An element of this slow travel, which is nice for two reasons, is that site markers show up on your compass at much shorter distances. On the wider countryside, you’re much more likely to see a site before you see its marker. That’s immersive. Seeing a weird building in the distance always makes me curious, so unless I have a mission, I explore at least enough to find out what the place is and consider it for future inquiry. In denser areas, the site markers don’t pile up the way they do in other modes. You see markers for sites close at hand, which is usually no more than a few, making for a cleaner compass and an easier time of homing in on a site you choose. Also, using the marker on your map becomes very handy for retracing your steps.
However, retracing your steps sometimes conflicts directly with other facets of gameplay that assume fast travel can be used to return to previously discovered sites. Preston’s desire for you to build up the reputation of the Minute Men can be beyond reach. Part of your Minute Men duty is to help protect settlements who’ve allied with you. Good luck with that if you’re more than half the game world away when the call for help comes. That said, you can get to some settlements in time if you go right away, presupposing you notice the on-screen notification that you need to go. My response with the notification and the situation has gone from mild irritation to apathy, even though I usually arrive to help in time if I try. (10)
This aspect of Survival also exacerbates an overall weakness in Fallout 4 (and, one could argue, most Fallout games, with a nod to the Chryslus Highwayman car in Fallout 2). Fallout 4′s post-apocalyptic world lacks any sort of in-world fast travel such as vehicles, mounts, coaches, or the like. A dearth of vehicles might be considered a high crime against a genre rooted in Damnation Alley and Mad Max. To be less dramatic, though, it’d be nice if the game offered something akin to Skyrim’s wagon services. Pay a small fee, and you’re at another major settlement. (11)
In the early game, caravanners such as Trashcan Carla could provide this travel service. Later in the game, supply lines might serve this expanded function. The supply-line functionality would be sweet, because it would expand fast travel to smaller settlements allied with you. That means moving to a settlement in trouble in Survival would be as easy as moving to the closest allied settlement with a supply line to the beleaguered outpost. In turn, this sort of utility would give players more reasons to ally with more settlements and build robust supply lines. (12)
It sure would be easier and more fun to play the Survival game with a little nod toward faster travel. Hoofing it from downtown Boston all the way back to Sanctuary Hills can be tedious. It’d be different if the game expected you to leave the starting areas behind, but it doesn’t. And nothing is quite like being in safe territory for a little while in Survival mode.
That’s because the wasteland is deadly. You’re one infected bloodbug you didn’t see coming away from exsanguination followed by death from blood poisoning. I have no problem with the lethality of Survival. As I said before, the deadliness rewards my natural play style. The high-risk situation also gives you an excuse to be a little nastier than you might otherwise be. Shooting first and asking questions later seems less problematic. Practicality over heroics. If you choose to be a hero, you’re a bigger damn hero than you were in any other mode. Powered armor can’t protect you well enough much of the time.
Survival also has a little risk-reward incentive in the form of Adrenaline. After each kill, even if the target wasn’t hostile to you initially, your Adrenaline increases. Adrenaline grants a damage bonus, but resting (thus saving) resets it to zero. The longer you go without resting, the higher the bonus. Adrenaline has never motivated me, though. It’s not visible enough in play. Consistent damage bonuses from other sources, such as the Gunslinger perk, outweigh it when it comes to fighting.
Fighting leads me to one more aspect of Survival that’s immersive and fun. In the typical game, when you encounter foes, red blips appear on your compass. These blips indicate enemies and their general location. When the blips are gone, no more enemies. Survival lacks these cues, and that feels right. (13) You have to rely on your own senses to find your foes and make sure they’re all done in. Or the right gear can help with the job, furthering the utility of such equipment (and the feel of the game) in Survival. Powered armor and scopes can be fitted with recon capabilities that tag enemies you’ve had in your sights.
To come full circle, in Survival you have to be cautious, methodical, and curious. You have to be prepared.
Survival mode prepares and delivers a finer, deeper Fallout 4 experience. The mode makes the game feel like you’re learning to endure in a harsh environment and eventually becoming good at doing so. You feel like a boss when you have the right tools for the job, or you live through a tough spot on wits and a little luck. (14) Survival mode’s feel is right on target for genre and narrative, despite fixable downsides. When I began to play in Survival mode, I felt like I was playing a richer game, rather than a harder one. Richness of experience is what makes a game worth playing.
1) Being tired, hungry, thirsty, or sick affects you in differing ways. Sometimes your SPECIAL stats lower, and sometimes you have fewer Action Points in the way you have fewer HP while suffering from radiation. A few maladies, such as infection, cause damage over time. All this works to create a cool experience, failing only with the over-encumbered damage. If I’m carrying too much, maybe I just can’t move? Perhaps, like with companions, the game just tells me, “Sorry, you can’t carry anymore.”
2) Survival makes some gear and perks much more attractive. In normal modes, I avoid eating radioactive food and water. In Survival, especially in the early game, you might not have a good alternative. When I was modifying my powered armor, I seriously considered rad scrubbers for my helmet, so I could eat or drink anything in a pinch. Perks such as Lead Belly also seem like reasonable choices. That means Survival’s design has improved other aspects of the game, which is a positive sign.
3) Weight matters more in Survival. Ammo and drugs have weight. (You know, like they do.) Some ammo, such as that for heavy weapons, is particularly hefty, serving to reinforce Strength as a heavy-weapons specialist’s stat. When you’re gearing up for a mission, you consider how much ammo and how many Stimpacks to carry. A few objects, such as quest items, still lack weight that affects the character. I see the reasoning, but with the focus on immersion, it wouldn’t bother me if quest items had weight.
4) The cola effects are real immersion winners. My character carries Nuka Colas all the time. Finding one, especially a Quantum, is a joyous occasion.
5) No, you will die. To survive, you need a Stimpack, water, and a Nuka Cola Quantum, along with decent cover. PsychoJet won’t hurt. Chems and the ability to use them without addiction are more valuable as tools in Survival.
6) I’ve done little research on Survival mode. I’ve read the overview, but I haven’t read the in-game help files (which might be a lot like the overview). Everything in this essay is based on play experience. I’m going to read those help files, but this essay is about impressions.
7) If Bethesda doesn’t do it, I see that mod in Survival’s future.
8) That’s where my personal needs also collide with the design, as I imagine might be similar for others. As a freelancer and father of two small children, I don’t want to spend my limited free time repeating tasks I’ve already done. I could opt out of Survival, I know, but I like many of its other features, I don’t really want to.
9) The design is so nuanced that the landscape (or other area) often has built-in tools for outsmarting your enemies. Cover, high ground, shelter, hiding spots, and so on can almost always be found. Many were clearly placed as they are with intent.
10) [Added 5/20] Too bad, settlers, this is Survival. Survive! Seriously, the notification is poor, and since you have to run there (see 11), the risk of arriving too late is real.
11) [Added 5/20] You can get a mode of fast travel late in the game, such as aircraft pickup. What I’m talking about is a travel system available from the start.
12) I know such implementation might be complicated at this point, but a man can dream can’t he?
13) Could Stealth cues could be done away with in a similar fashion? Sneaking in a D&D game, or the real world, doesn’t come with convenient Hidden (you are the darkness), Caution (someone’s looking for you), and Danger (they know you’re here and where you are) meters. You know you’ve been discovered when someone reacts to your presence. I could imagine a perk, probably based on Perception, that allows you to know how aware your opponents are of you.
14) You also feel exhilarated and chuffed when you survive that legendary radscorpion that burrows up right under your feet and poisons the crap out of you.