Fallout 4's largest expansion to date is more soggy B&B holiday than a hair-raising voyage to parts unknown, but I can't fault its opening sections. Dispatched to a mysterious island in search of a teenage runaway, I've barely set foot in the town of Far Harbor itself when I'm asked to chase off a mob of hungry fishmen, spawned by the radioactive fog that rolls across the surrounding country like a designer's wayward imagination.
It's a marvellously eerie tussle, like playing Horde Mode on the docks of Dishonored's Kirkwall. Townsfolk cluster in the otherwordly glow of the condensers that keep the mists at bay, firing down into a sea of bulging eyes and serrated fins. Fortunately I've packed for the occasion, with a Fatman in one hand and a sack of pulse grenades in the other. Did somebody order the catch of the day? Because I like my seafood extra-crispy.
15 hours, a few score fetch quests and no end of splattery VATS executions later, I'm not feeling quite as enthused. Far Harbor offers an enormous landmass that's awash with secrets, loot and narrative threads to pull at, be it a mislaid shipment of sturdy marine armour or an ancient, miraculously functional drive-in cinema with an audience of ghouls. Its main story arc sees you balancing, or undermining, the agendas of three factions - the ornery folk of Far Harbor itself, a tribe of synthetic refugees who are building a new home in an observatory, and a wayward chapter of the Children of Atom, holed up in a rusty nuclear submarine. In the course of the adventure - which can end in either peace, a massacre or a little from both columns - you'll also recruit a new companion, the grouchy and unlovable Longfellow, throw together a couple of settlements and collect a faction-specific weapon or two for the pile.
There are more of Fallout's dependably convoluted monuments to the fall of America - sunken factories where fossilised email chains sketch out sad little tales of bureaucracy and corruption, clapboard churches listing like broken ships amid the fog. What there isn't is enough basic charisma or interest to make exploration feel worthwhile. Set somewhere off the coast of Maine, Far Harbor owes obvious debts to Lovecraft's Arkham mythos and squelchier B-movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon, but what it reminds me of most, strangely, is my own dearly beloved England. Not the boisterous, apple-cheeked Albion of Fable, of course, or the pokey yet soft-hearted England of Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, but the England where it drizzles all the time, everybody's out to get their neighbours and travelling literally anywhere is an absolute bloody chore.
Bethesda has brought the landscape to life with the all care you'd expect from a developer that actually has a database entry for unused ashtrays, but there's only so much you can do to diversify a gigantic swamp level. The choice of setting also has technical drawbacks, on PS4 at least - the performance dips and surges as the engine struggles to gulp down a toxic soup of particle, gas and lighting effects, with the southwestern portion of the island particularly slowdown-prone once the radiation storms kick in.
Still, if Fallout has taught us anything it's that even the most woebegone of environments is worth a tour if only for the plunder, and to Bethesda's credit, Far Harbor tries its hand at some unusual quest concepts. One is a mission that, without giving too much away, sees you trawling the landscape for fragments of a character's past - moments of unbearable trauma and turpitude, which must be reconciled with the messianic do-gooder that character has become.
It's a great opportunity for the writers but as with many a gripping Fallout sidestory, it's over too soon, and many of the individual scenes fall flat, with dialogue that's annoyingly intent on scuffing away all ambiguity. At one point I was asked to eavesdrop on a conversation in a sideroom, and the participants proceeded to "remind" each other of their top-secret plans as though giving a Powerpoint presentation.
This quest is also notable for throwing you into a clutch of virtual reality levels that mix block puzzling with tower defence using the game's settlement building menu. The idea is to construct bridges and disable firewalls by refracting energy beams through nodes, so that scurrying hacker programs can retrieve bits of data from a storage drive. Having laid out the route, you'll need to defend the programs from security counter-measures (read: angry red balls) using turrets. It's a fairly hackneyed set of visual metaphors and Bethesda's construction interface remains a pain to work with, but I found it a soothing if superfluous pace-changer.
I also enjoyed getting to know the Children of Atom, worshippers of the death-god who lurks in missile silos and the Commonwealth's rivers. There are the makings here of a spicy religious satire, particularly when you're called upon to deal with a fugitive heretic who practices much the same creed in a more ridiculous guise, and the question of whether to fulfil the faction's ultimate desires by exposing them to the wrath of their deity is nicely handled.
Atom's lure is dampened, however, by some over-forgiving NPC behaviour. The chapter's leader is an oily tyrant who lives in continual fear of usurpation, but he's almost pathetically ready to accept you as an acolyte. At one point he actually caught me lying to his face about somebody's intentions, but the only consequence was that I missed out on the XP from a successful Charisma roll. It's not exactly the Spanish Inquisition.
There are new, nautical beasties to fight, as noted, all pleasantly hideous of aspect. The pick of the litter are the titans, like the Giant Limpet Crab that makes its home in an abandoned schoolbus (which schoolbus? That'd be telling). I also developed a fondness for the Anglers, a mutation of the deepsea anglerfish whose dangling forehead lures are easily confused with the glowing flora that signpost routes through the undergrowth. And let's not forget the Fog Dweller, a prowling threat that resembles a crustacean version of Silent Hill's Pyramid Head. If these scabrous, chitinous horrors hold the eye, however, fighting them doesn't feel much different from battling the existing line-up of beasts - mostly, you just backpedal and wait for VATS to fill up, or drop a few kilos of Psychojet and rush in swinging.
The eternal charm of new trinkets aside, the appeal of Bethesda's add-on environments is that they're potted epics - all the variety and freedom of the main game, that joy of plunging your fingers into the wreckage of civilisations, packed into a mere couple dozen hours and with a distinct regional flavour. Sadly, Far Harbor feels a little too watered-down to stand alongside the likes of Oblivion's celebrated Shivering Isles, or even Skyrim's relatively by-the-numbers Dragonborn DLC. There's plenty to do on the island and much of it is worth doing, but none of it is unmissable, and the setting itself is a bore. The Commonwealth remains a dangerous place with its share of nonsense, but I'm glad to be heading back.