Admit One: An Analysis of Fallout 4: Nuka World

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for the Fallout 4 DLC Nuka World.

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In my article on Fallout 4's main storyline, I mentioned that Fallout mingles hyper-commercial imagery with its post-apocalypse to draw a link between rampant consumerism and the downfall of its America. When you kill some poor waster and find the "Fancy Lad Snack Cakes" in their pockets or when you see a billboard for a fusion-powered car on the side of a factory ruin, that's the game being critical of the role that products play in American life. Fallout 4's final DLC, Nuka World, paints such a thick coat over the base game's plaster that you might not recognise the original thesis of Fallout under it. But you just need to remember that satire of traditional U.S. commercialism, and you can see how the DLC carries on Fallout's spirit. Nuka World is a side story amplifying the consumerist aspect of American history above all others and exploring it using parodies of perhaps the two most American companies ever: Coca-Cola and Disney.

This is a place Bethesda needed to go because Fallout has had us visit many monuments of political and technological power up to this point, but it's taken us to far fewer monuments of commercial power. The Nuka World park has a peeling visage of syrupy cheer. This DLC is partly about stranding us in a Disneyland-style vacation spot that should be inviting and safe, and perverting it into somewhere hostile and dangerous, but it's also about something else. A side story tucked between the pages of the DLC tells us that the Nuka-Cola Corporation cooperated with the U.S. military to develop a radioactive isotope, and in a related endeavour, tried to acquire life-extension technology for their CEO. Stable management of the park ended when they transferred key personnel to these projects. When you have the history down on paper in front of you, the family-friendly rides and mascots of the park feel like a weak attempt to distract from the wolfish business interests at play behind the scenes. This is especially obvious now that the festering park is a hive of raiders and monsters, which itself serves as a commentary on the behemoths of U.S. culture that Nuka World is lampooning. If the connection between white picket fence America and the apocalypse was too subtle for you in previous Fallouts, here's a DLC where they literally tell you that their Disney/Coca-Cola hybrid helped engineer the atomic bombs that ended civilisation.

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At the same time as providing a sense of branded artifice, the amusement park framing of Nuka World lets the artists play with all sorts of locations they wouldn't otherwise get to like a safari zone and a glowing soda river. Bethesda takes this DLC as one last shot to shake up Fallout 4 as it hasn't been before. You don't need to look any further than the entryway to the park to see this. The Gauntlet you must run into Nuka World proper feels like a user-created mod. It's a trap-laden obstacle course using various building blocks from the Fallout 4 engine in ways they weren't designed for. For example, you have rooms of those monkeys with clacking cymbals which activate turrets if you don't tip-toe past and a hallway where armed grenades dangle from the ceiling. Sadly, it's not a very professional design: The branching corridors are claustrophobic and soon converge on each other after splitting away, and there at least two surprises that can immediately kill your character and cost you a pound of progress if you haven't manually saved. The Gauntlet feels cobbled together which makes it cool to admire from afar but arduous to slog through.

It's the boss encounter at the end of The Gauntlet where things start looking up. It's rare to find a Fallout boss that isn't a regular enemy with the dials set to "high"; unique or characterising mechanics don't enter into the equation, except here, with Overboss Colter. Colter's armour is electrically-powered, and the fight is a literal rinse-repeat where you disable Colter's suit with a squirt gun, rain hell on him while he's vulnerable, and then back off as he recovers. It's the kind of quality boss fight you'd find in an action-adventure game. After you defeat him, a hub area opens up which links off to the five zones you must conquer to beat Nuka World.

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Let's take a quick tour. The Safari Adventure zone creates the sense of being hunted by the apex predators of an African plain, having you square off again a subspecies of Deathclaw. The Kiddie Kingdom has a general theme of decay, requiring you to endure throngs of ghouls and clouds of radioactive gas before entering a castle of disorienting hallways. It's not that fun to run mazes or try to fight on rotating platforms, but there's some eye-catching lighting in there, and the M.C. Escher-inspired room about halfway through is delightfully disorienting. What this has to do with kids, however, is unclear. There's Dry Rock Gulch which creates a sense of small-town community by giving you micro-quests to do for each of its members and makes sure you don't forget about its capricious desert by bugging you with plenty of sand-dwelling pests. There's the Galactic Zone where you must collect a certain number of "Star Cores" which gives it this carnival-like quality where you're trying to scrape together enough tickets to win the prize. A particularly knowing touch is that you can journey through its Space Mountain homage with the lights on. Lastly, there's the Nuka Cola Bottling Plant where the automated nature of its setup has you killing off robots, and the chemical soup of its river has given rise to some high-level Mirelurks. As an educational ride, it's also an informative delivery mechanism for the backstory of the Nuka Cola Corporation.

Bethesda also continues to get how the personality of a location can be expressed through the character of the people within it and vice-versa. Take Cito, a pseudo-neanderthal who lives with the animals of Safari Adventure; Oswald, the theatrical ghoul hiding in the castle in Kiddie Kingdom; or the gleeful voice-over in the Bottling Plant. Fittingly, you leave each area with a souvenir: a reward tied to the styles of the zones like the Cowboy Outfit from Dry-Rock Gulch or the Nuka Girl Rocketsuit from the Galactic Zone. It's fascinating to see the developers tackling how an amusement park might be translated through the mechanics of an RPG shooter. Still, the difficulty is inconsistent between areas, and that translation happens through a reorganisation of existing mechanics in Fallout 4 rather than the injection of any new ones. If you've already exhausted the base game and its DLC, Nuka World can offer only permutations on known enemy types that you've learned to beat with your eyes closed. It doesn't mean that scuffles with enemies don't require your attention, most of them hit quite hard actually, but you've seen their whole act before. It doesn't help that three out of five of the zones reuse the familiar "Kill all the bad guys" objective.

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If you want to see originality in Nuka World, then you have to shift your attention away from the clearing of each zone and look at the way it unfolds at the macro-level. The political power in Nuka World is locked up in three gangs: The Disciples, The Operators, and The Pack. As the new Overboss of the park, you are fumigating the five zones and dividing the freshly cleansed land among these gangs. When there are no more zones left to plant a flag in, your right-hand man, Gage, will implore you to start creeping into the Commonwealth, snatching settlements from the main game away from the honest, hard-working folks who live there. If you do this then Preston, the companion associated with The Minutemen, permanently severs ties with you, and whichever of the three gangs you awarded the least land to will revolt, forcing you to go to war with them. Alternately, you can kill off any of the three mobs before then, and murdering all of them lets you free the slaves that they're using to staff the local market.

The DLC sweeps the faction system from New Vegas and 4 off the table and in its place slams down a structure that gives you more freedom. In Nuka World, the way any one player will interact with its organisations is less pre-determined. The factions in the base game and in Obsidian's take on the series were hellbent on ripping each other to shreds, but the neighbours of Nuka World are willing to tolerate each other as long as you rule over them in an agreeable fashion. This means that you no longer have to side exclusively with one of the groups in the game; you can finish the DLC allied with two different factions and spend most of it in good graces with all three. By the same token, you're not forced to eliminate all opposing factions simply based on the ideological outlook of one that you're trying to buddy up with. At worst, you're forced to destroy the gang you value least, and you trigger that conflict in an organic way. Never do you fill out a form which asks "Which gang do you want to fight?"; the civil war is a twist that arises naturally from the politics you cook up in Nuka World.

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The way in which the game works out which faction you like the least is an elegant gesture of mathematics. There are eight territories to distribute but three gangs. Nine would divide into three perfectly, but if you try to divide eight into three, you're left one territory shy and need to decide who gets the short straw. Alternatively, you can split the pot evenly by wiping out one of the groups of raiders or choose not to solve the equation by getting rid of them all. This opportunity to destroy the gangs is highly similar to one afforded by New Vegas but not replicated in the Fallout 4 base game. While 4 makes you pick a faction's politics to adopt as your own, New Vegas let you abandon the factions as a way to opt for anarchism, and it's the same in Nuka World. By becoming a radical individualist, you can abolish the overarching power structure of this micro-nation and that frees its oppressed people. It wouldn't be unwarranted to say that Nuka World advocates for anarchism.

From a more product-focused perspective, the game plays with our expectations for downloadable content. As a rule, if an expansion comes with a pack-in setting then actions you take within that location will only result in consequences for that location. If you play Minerva's Den for Bioshock 2, there's no choice you can make within it which will change how Rapture looks in the base game. If you play any of the Alan Wake DLC, it won't retroactively change the original story. However, Nuka World allows you to parcel out assets in the park, thinking there won't be consequences for it in the adjacent Commonwealth, and then shows you in the harshest possible terms what happens when you hand power to tyrants. You unexpectedly end up the villain and your decisions in the DLC spill over to corrode your main game.

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Once the gangs have The Commonwealth in their crosshairs, you then need to decide whether you care more about your empire or the innocent communities on the ground. It may be another good vs. evil decision, but it emerges from a more thought-provoking place than most of the series' other ethical choices, and you not only have to make a sacrifice to support or oppose the gangs, but you also have to make it with your own hands. It's not clicking A or B on a menu; it's either unloading clips into the raiders you've been helping for a few hours or ransacking the hometowns of screaming wastelanders and betraying Preston. This is normally the part where I'd say "And I wish more games would do this", but while I love that Nuka World has you create this territory-gobbling monster and then wrestle with it, it pays a hefty penalty to make it possible.

Allying with one faction doesn't mean slitting the throats of other factions, but only because the organisations don't have any conflicting worldviews. Unlike in other Fallouts, the factions are not a way to explore or adhere to a political blueprint; they perform no political dance with the outside world beyond "We'll take as much as we want when we want". Instead, the dividing factors between the organisations are their fashion and lifestyles. The Operators are upmarket, pompous, and seeking to line their pockets; The Pack have adopted social structures found in animal kingdoms and are just looking for a good time; The Disciples are disciplined rogues who live for the thrill of the kill. None of these groups are taking a stand for anything beyond their profit, so they're hard to get passionate about, and whoever you pick to rule over the territories, the consequences are the same. Other Fallouts ask the illuminating question "How should a post-armageddon America be governed?" but as long as you're allying with the gangs, Nuka World asks the much flatter question "Which league of bad guys looks coolest?".

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It's not even that clear what assuming control of zones achieves for the gangs. Are there resources inside? Are they going to use the space for storage? We don't know, which creates a plot hole, and even worse, the lack of briefing on assigning the zones means you don't go in aware of the rules behind it. After that one gang mutinies, you can look back and see that handing out the territories was a pure numbers game; that's the benefit of hindsight. At the time though, I wondered if I was meant to be matching gangs' styles to the places I was liberating for them or if there was meant to be an immediate effect of connecting bands of raiders to zones that I wasn't seeing. The big new system for Nuka World whirrs into motion without you being given any instruction on how to operate it or feedback on your work within it.

You can avoid the uncertainty and the shedding of innocent blood that comes with trying to appease the gangs by putting on your murder face and throwing down with them, but it gets messy. Most games have a final boss and a linear section leading up to them at the end of the experience. It makes sure that the grand finale has a suitably sinister aesthetic, that the difficulty curve ends at a peak, and that your adventure culminates in defeating an established primary antagonist. There can be no argument that Bowser's Castle belongs at the end of Mario or that Giygas goes at the end of Earthbound. By not following this formula, Nuka World ends up anticlimactic.

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There is no primary antagonist to depose, and there can't be because the idea is that you can defeat the gangs in any order. One of the bands of raiders will be the one you end up beating last, but they won't be any harder or more of an adversary than any of the others. If you take this radical political branch, the DLC ends not with you overcoming its greatest challenge and dramatically destroying your arch-nemesis but by doing to one gang precisely what you did to the last two. It's not even that hard to accidentally skip most of the content in Nuka World by going straight to murdering the gangs. They obviously have no qualms about morality as they enslave people for profit, and Fallout 4 has trained you to murder raiders wherever you find them. Maybe, like me, you worked out that you wanted to explore the park, fill your sack with loot and XP, and wipe out the gangs. In which case, you have to plan to nonsensically liberate all the zones for the gangs' benefit and then turn around and shotgun them in the face so they can't use them.

However you swing it, once the gangs are gone, you have an abandoned Nuka World that's no use to anyone. It's deflating that completing your objectives sucks all the life out of the park and there's no solid reason given for why other groups won't hermit crab their way into the holiday destination. The Nuka World gangs will take land in The Commonwealth but a Massachusetts full of raiders and starving, helpless citizens won't flow the other way, into an empty Nuka World full of traders and defensible shelter.

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So what do we make of Nuka World? I'd say as an image of American consumer propaganda scanned through Fallout's critical lens, it's as sharp as anything else in the series, and as an amusement park explained through feral RPG encounters, it surpasses expectations. While game designers can often end up running on fumes by the third story DLC, Bethesda show no sign of fatigue when it comes to painting new settings. However, by Nuka World, the base mechanics of Fallout 4 have worn out their welcome but keep imposing themselves on us regardless, and while the developer shows a lot of ambition for overhauling the faction system, they look confused about how to make an anti-faction approach as workable as any other. Nuka World showcases Bethesda as the giants of world-realisation that they are, but I can't help thinking that if there's a Fallout 5, the company are going to need to have a good, long think about the future of both the faction system and the combat. Thanks for reading.

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