The original Fallout, released what feels like eons ago in 1997, was one of the first games that encouraged you to really believe in its world. It was the ending that sealed the deal. When you finish the game, your choices large and small are catalogued via a series of slides that depict how its sprawling, post-apocalyptic wasteland was changed by your passing. It made it seem like what happened mattered, that the dilemmas you reckoned with had impact. Last year's Fallout 4 was the first game in the series to ditch that sort of epilogue for its ending, and Nuka World, its final DLC released last week, doubles-down on the approach – and it's the worse for it.
In Nuka World, you take over a Disneyesque theme park on behalf of warring raiders. The individual parks are densely packed, condensed around their themes. But the surrounding areas may as well be blank – there are few areas even in 2008's Fallout 3, the first game in the series to feature a 3D world, that are as sparse and featureless. The wasteland itself seems forsaken, given up for tightly choreographed thrills in designated areas. My favorite moments in Nuka World were on the outside, looking in: the silhouettes of the shattered park against the morning sun, viewed from a nearby overpass. It was beautiful, sure. But better from far away, and best with your back turned to what came before.
Fallout 4 is a game built with undeniable craft and artistry. But it doesn't feel real with so much procedurally generated content, with so little definitive closure. It feels like a frivolous thing in a vacuum, like the Nuka World setting itself, surrounded by its empty parking lots and distant sheds. The intent is to amuse, and it does, but it doesn't surprise and it doesn't connect. The Far Harbor DLC was a much-needed return to form for players who wanted the kind of meaningful choice and mysterious frontiers the franchise is known for. It wasn't foolish to hope that Nuka World would follow in its footsteps, but it doesn’t. The result is more appropriate for Fallout 4 anyway.
Both Fallout 3 and its 2010 successor Fallout: New Vegas had a tonal focus that defined them. For Fallout 3, it was the exhilaration of exploration, alternating between the grey and bleak downtown environments and the washed-out Capital Wasteland. New Vegas was a game about new frontiers, about new powers colliding in the vacuum left by the Great War, in the vibrant reds and browns of the Western palette. All of their respective DLCs tied into their design personality. It's that way for Fallout 4 as well, but Fallout 4 is trickier because it has no tonal focus. It tries to be everything to everyone. Fallout 4 is about the awkward triumph of customization over characterization in a role-playing game. Its design personality is gimmicky chaos, and in Nuka World, those gimmicks are given full creative attention and a ticker-tape parade.
'Nuka World' presents evil as a theme park, a playground to do whatever you like, however you like.
Nuka World is a perfect encapsulation of what's unbalanced in the Fallout 4 role-playing experience. When Fallout 4 came out, I was frustrated that the Minutemen were the default group. I usually play a good character, but even I felt railroaded into being a goody two-shoes, like there was no point in evil role-playing. This time it's morally flipped but with the same skewed mix: if you're playing a good character, you'll end up killing close to everyone, thereby closing yourself off to most of the DLC's content. But you're not expected to really role-play. You're supposed to roll with the gimmick, and the gimmick is "Let the player be the big bad for once!" When you step off the monorail, you're forced into a cheap knockoff of Thunderdome, and when you come out victorious, you're the new boss. Why not? Doesn't that sound fun?
Nuka World presents evil as a theme park, a playground to do whatever you like, however you like. That's always been Bethesda's approach. Evil is the path for the player who's just trying to screw around and not bothering to pretend they're part of the world. Evil is the path that acknowledges the artificiality of the game and doesn't make a big deal out of it. Be evil if you want to pass the controller around at parties. So it follows that the biggest mechanical addition in the DLC is the option to raid your own settlements.
It's SimCity syndrome: when your sandbox creation is in its final form, all you want to do is save the game and pick a disaster to befall it from the menu. Where New Vegas had an actual ending followed by an epilogue, Fallout 4 doesn't even treat you to a slideshow. Instead, it offers customizable settlements in every flavor, with toys and furniture of every imaginable variety. You've built your own vault, crafted Rube Goldberg devices winding through your settlements, and laid Deathclaw traps in the wilderness. Meanwhile, levelling goes up forever, and randomly-generated Radiant quests will make content to last a theoretical eternity. There is no end to Fallout 4 beyond the tipping point of terminal boredom.
Enter Nuka World. All these things you've wrought, you can destroy. You can finally offend the famously sanctimonious Minuteman Preston Garvey to the point where he says he'll never be your friend again, which may be the hidden high point of the DLC. Becoming the Overboss of Nuka World is a final push against the waning attention span of a player who has spent too much time with Fallout 4, too much time with crafting and customization. Reigning terror down on the Commonwealth feels breezy. If Fallout 4 had done a better job of world-building, I think it would've been harder to lay it all to ruin. I felt nothing but relief at the arrival of what amounts to an endgame for Fallout 4. I'd helped everyone there was to help. All that's left is to gun them all down and uninstall the game.