Bethesda's history of mega-expansions has often wavered in terms of quality. Yet whether its Fallout 3's solid Point Lookout, Skyrim's mediocre Dragonborn or Oblivion's excellent Shivering Isles, the thematic trend has become overly familiar – same game, new place.
Unfortunately, where Fallout 4 is concerned, familiarity has become part of its lasting legacy. Despite the numerous awards and record sales, murmurs of discontent still shroud Bethesda's 2015 trip to the Commonwealth. While individual mechanics and design choices received criticism, the greatest sin the Sole Survivor's journey committed was how routine it all felt. Get quest, shoot, loot, repeat.
After the Brahmin-meat and potatoes approach to Fallout 4's smaller Automatron and Wasteland Workshop DLC, Far Harbor has been actively hyped as Bethesda's largest expansion to date by the developer itself and first impressions suggest it could usurp the company's tried-and-true action-RPG formula, as you assume the role of a private detective travelling to the distant shores of a spooky landmass covered in Scooby Doo levels of fog.
The excursion begins with a pained father and seemingly ambivalent mother, who task you with finding their missing daughter. A meant-to-be-emotionally-charged offhand reference to the son I ignored for close to 40 hours and eventually shot in the main game aside, the breadcrumb trail to the expansion's island setting and its slow, gloomy boat-ride reveal is genuinely refreshing.
Things change instantly in Far Harbor itself – a miserable town occupied by self-proclaimed miserable, one-note NPCs. The expansion's new companion Old Longfellow piles on the misery further, eschewing actual character for gruff, gravel-voiced exposition and dull anecdotes. Although the DLC's potentially intriguing Nick Valentine story-arc fails to pay off, it's infinitely preferable to Longfellow's continued company.
The town's opposing faction – the returning nut-case cult the Children of Atom – fare better and the brief supernatural elements complement the island's foggy, ghoulish aesthetic. The religious group's home, a derelict submarine called The Nucleus, houses a few sympathetic residents, casting the band of misfits as more than simple indoctrinated weirdos. It also hints at a more complex and nuanced ' two cultures divided by prejudice' thematic between the Atom-worshippers and the Far Harbor-ites - a narrative theme that the series and Bethesda has previously excelled at, but was notably underwhelming in Fallout 4's main game. It's a pity then that the Children's leader is a stock example of 'video game zealotry for dummies.'
A seemingly duplicitous synth faction caught in the crossfire (where you disappointingly discover the missing girl in the first hour) rounds out the narrative through-line, but it all ends in the usual bloodbath/cautious truce format you expect after seeing the base game's factions rise or fall in a similar fashion. There are moments of New Vegas-type branching revelations and decision-making, as well as painfully vague hints at Blade Runner-ish story beats, but overall, Far Harbor's tale is underdeveloped, uninteresting and acts as a rote placeholder for more lootin' and shootin'.
Which is a shame, because the island's suitably eerie aesthetic doesn't quite fit with the 'kill-things-for-cool-stuff' gameplay. The expansion's aquatic 'gribblies' are beautifully designed – be it the salamander-like Gulpers, the red-eyed Mirelurk variants or the pale mantis-type thingies – and suggest that Bethesda was aiming for a shlocky Harryhausen-esque tone. Unfortunately, Far Harbor sits in an uncomfortable tonal middle ground – too po-faced to revel in its occasional moments of B-movie charm and lacking any possible chilling 'creatures from beneath the sea' mystique due to shoddy AI and your character often being armed to the teeth with an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Aside from a notable excursion into possibly the best Fallout vault ever (no really, it's almost worth the cost price alone) and a few notable loot drops, there really is little to recommend about Far Harbor and that's without even dwelling on the unforgivably bad frame-rate on console when you catch even a slight glimpse of whispy fog, or the aggressively boring 'virtual reality' Minecraft-meets-tower-defence puzzle section at the mid-way point.
It's more Fallout 4 for those in desperate need of further adventures in the wasteland and completing the multitude of fetch-this/kill-that side-quests brings the total run-time to at least the 10 hour mark, but the Far Harbor expansion exists as a disappointing microcosm of the core failings of its parent game, where shallow storytelling, graphical glitches and formulaic design top a list of 'it's good if you can ignore' caveats that's now too lengthy to forgive.
In spite of its expansive intentions and occasional whiffs of Obsidian's bolder narrative design found in Fallout: New Vegas, Far Harbor is a dank, damp squib that sinks under the weight of its own mediocrity.