I played Fallout 4, beat the main quest, and had a pretty good time doing it. Then I went back and tried the hardcore “Survival Mode” … and had a frustratingly awesome time,.
Like the other games in the franchise, Fallout 4 takes place in a nuclear wasteland centuries after a massive war on an alternate Earth whose design aesthetic is stuck in the Atomic Age. This time around the wasteland is Boston and its environs, and you’re playing a vault dweller who’d been in cryogenic sleep for centuries.
The base game is fun, and I easily logged 80 hours playing it. That said, there weren’t many challenges left for my hero by the end of the game — he was a melee monster who could kill some of the wastelands’ most vicious creatures with a single blow … or maybe two. The Far Harbor expansion ratcheted things up a bit, but still — I was a god among men.
And then I played Survival mode.
The Littlest Things Matter
Survival mode originated as “Hardcore” mode in Fallout: New Vegas. It’s a game I never played, but I’d heard plenty of good things about the challenge of Survival mode and looked forward to its return in Fallout 4.
The mode changes a number of things:
- You can no longer quick save or auto-save; instead you can only save when you rest for the night or when you quit the game (and the “quit game” save is only good until you next load the game).
- You can’t fast travel anymore. You have to walk to your destinations.
- Food and water are now tracked. Your character gets hungry and thirsty, both of which have negative impacts on your character’s performance.
- Sleep matters. In addition to being the only way to save the game, your character becomes less effective with less sleep (though you can cause adrenaline surges that increase damage.)
- Weight matters much more. Bullets have mass. So do mini-nukes.
- Disease is a thing, and you can get infected by animals, monsters, and even drinking water.
Each of these factors adds a lot of fiddly bits that you need to manage, but also greatly increases the number of tactical decisions you get to make in the game.
For example, the fact that weight is such a huge factor means you might only carry two or three rifles or pistols and their accompanying ammunition (but not too much ammunition). You might carry a melee weapon as well, to save on bullets, but combat is deadly in survival mode, and getting in close can kill you faster than almost anything. Really big guns like Fat Boys (the game’s portable nuke launcher), rocket launchers, and mini-guns become mission-specific weapons you almost never use.
In regular mode, my character, Tac, had a veritable golf bag of weapons and wasn’t shy when it came to obliterating super mutants and raider enclaves with nukes. My Survival character, Xena, has four weapons that I’ve lovingly customized to ensure maximum lethality:
- Big Bang Theory: An automatic shotgun with a silencer and an ammo drum. Perfect for close encounters with mirelurks and other tough monsters. This is a custom built weapon.
- Deliverer: One of the game’s named weapons. It’s 10mm pistol with a silencer, extended clip, and the ability to use action points extremely efficiently.
- Death’s Hand: A scoped .308 combat sniper rifle with a high rate of fire. It’s my highest damage-dealing weapon and inspired a number of quests to find additional ammunition. It’s played an essential role in Xena’s survival almost since the beginning of the game. This is a custom built weapon.
- Grognarok’s Axe: This medium-speed axe can knock back opponents, which is crucial when you’re low on bullets, get ambushed by a couple of raiders, and need to run like hell.
I’ve been tweaking armor as well, increasing carrying capacity, strength, and resilience to attacks, but honestly if I’m close enough for armor to come into play I’m probably already dead.
Once a Loner, Now a General
My first time playing Fallout I played the Great Uniter — the guy who went out and rallied the Commonwealth to rebuild their civilization. For Survival, I was going to play an assassin for hire, beholden to no one, freed of the constraints of the past by the nightmare of the future. Her name was Xena, and she hated the world for causing her to sleep through the apocalypse, causing her son to be kidnapped and her husband to be murdered. She needed no one.
And then I realized just how lethal the Commonwealth is in Survival mode.
At the beginning of the game it took me days — and way too many re-loads — just to clear the initial Deathclaw prowling Concord. After establishing a home base at Sanctuary Hills, I started probing the wilderness … and dying a lot. Just getting to Diamond City — the city at the center of post-apocolyptic Boston — was a major effort. I found myself carefully exploring burned out buildings looking not for loot, gear, or guns, but for unguarded sleeping bags and dirty mattresses. Once I made it to Diamond City, I started making notes on the safest routes between it and Sanctuary Hill, with a particular focus on where my character could catch a cat nap.
I quickly realized that Xena couldn’t afford to be a loner. She had to work with others or she wasn’t going to survive long in the Commonwealth. I played through the Minutemen storyline — which focuses on re-establishing communities with a common, well-armed sense of purpose — because I was desperate for both allies and towns where my character could rest her head. Being able to call in artillery strikes on remote location as the General of the Minutemen didn’t hurt either.
I hooked up with the Underground Railroad — a group dedicated to smuggling synthetic humans out of the Commonwealth — because I hadn’t played through that arc the first time around. That dedication to preserving all intelligent life didn’t stop me from taking advantage of the Brotherhood of Steel when they showed up — sure, they are belligerent asshats, but they had vertibird dropships that could be summoned to transport me around the Commonwealth. In a game with no fast travel, the ability to get anywhere quickly gives rise to strange bedfellows.
All of this has led me to play my second character as a deadly, sarcastic gunslinger who isn’t above accepting payment (and demanding still higher payments) for doing the right thing. With Xena I’m also much more likely to seek out the weird little places in the Commonwealth for character-enhancing bobbleheads and perk-granting magazines because I need every … little … edge.
I had a lot of fun with my first character, particularly exploring the extremely dangerous fringes of the game, but eventually I could kill almost anything without much effort. I’ve had more fun with Xena, largely because the game has stayed dangerous. The sense of exploration has stayed with me the entire game, in large part because finding a new sleeping bag tucked away in a cove on the Atlantic coast is still hugely helpful.
High Level Challenges
I’m now entering the later stages of the game. Xena’s now a 71st level badass, but the game remains lethal. It’s as hard as the lower levels, but if I’m not careful I can find myself in a battle that wipes out 30 minutes of game time because I couldn’t find a place to rest my head and save the game.
This is especially true in the expansions, Far Harbor and Nuka-World. Both of them add a massive amount of area to explore, but not much in the way of settlements. Finding clean water is difficult without a settlement and its associated wells; drinking dirty water can lead to infection. Beds and sleeping bags are in short supply. As with the rest of the game, these factors make you cautious and significantly up the challenge rating.
Survival mode has greatly extended the life of Fallout 4 for me, and makes me wish there was a similar mode in Skyrim. That having been said … it’s not for everyone. It requires a level of micromanagement that would drive some folks bonkers and it can lead to exasperation when you die … and realize just how long it’s been since your last save. It’s not to be undertaken lightly, but if you’re looking for a challenge, it’s definitely worth trying.