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Fallout 4 could do with a proper Hardcore Mode

What Bethesda's DLC designers could learn from Fallout: New Vegas.

Video game heroes and heroines don't die - they're forgotten. For every conquering protagonist there's a handful of leads who never made it to the credits roll, never weighed a civilisation's fate in the scales. Instead, these characters are left to languish on a save file for months and years as feckless players drift to other releases, their skill trees mere sprouts in the dirt, unfinished plot arcs jutting over a wilderness of backstory. Like ghosts in need of exorcism, they haunt the dreams of their owners. No, Shepard, no! I never meant to abandon you on the Moon. It was Cerberus, I swear. Cerberus put that complete Dawn of War collection in my hands. Cerberus hid the controller charger under the sofa.

One of the restless souls I feel guiltiest about is the Courier from Fallout: New Vegas. As far as I can recall, when I last quit out a couple of years ago I left her staring into a dishevelled toilet in a collapsed shack somewhere near Boulder City - this being one of the quintessential dilemmas of a New Vegas playthrough on Hardcore Mode, with its additional hunger, thirst and fatigue modifiers. On the one hand, that toilet water looks delicious and I'm a few points down on Endurance and Perception thanks to dehydration. On the other, that water is swimming with ions who would just love to get acquainted with my red blood cells, and I'm all out of RadAway. A mucky, ignoble quandary, to be sure, but also rawer, tougher, more "real" than any choice I've wrestled with in last year's Fallout 4. Yes, that's it. That's why I left you all alone, Courier - the pressure was too much for me. It certainly had nothing to do with The Wire boxset my flatmates got for Christmas. Nothing whatsoever.

Fallout: New Vegas lets you disable Hardcore Mode at any time. It'll cost you an Achievement, though. And possibly your pride.

Hardcore Mode isn't quite the Cormac McCarthy-type nightmare it's cracked up to be. Obsidian's biggest concession to human frailty is that you can still fast-travel, which means you can generally warp back to a doctor's laboratory or a safe-house whenever your romantic rovings lead you into difficulties. Sleeping in a bed you own also restores you to full health and limb functionality, though you'll have to worry about your hunger and thirst metres going up in the process. But the pall of gentle despair the mode casts is, nonetheless, without compare in most other big-ticket role-playing games and, indeed, most other Fallouts.

Do without drink and victuals or at least a few hours' rest and you'll get dumber, feebler, slower, less charismatic and less perceptive - easy pickings for a raider, assuming you don't keel over from starvation or exhaustion before that raider can pull the trigger. Traversing the world becomes an exercise in knowing when to head home and recuperate, rather than the stream of dalliances and diversions that is any given "oh, just another 15 minutes" session in Fallout 4. Stimpaks are no longer magic health coupons that can be instantaneously exchanged for a non-punctured body on the inventory screen - they take time to kick in, so working out when a battle is about to go south rather than waiting until you're on the brink of death is vital.

Perhaps the unkindest cut is that ammunition now has weight, so lugging around a brace of missiles and landmines on the off-chance that you'll run into a Fatman-wielding Supermutant isn't really feasible. Packing a gun for every situation isn't that practical, either, so you'll need to get properly good with a small selection of weapons, and learn to wield them in a variety of situations (needless to say, melee implements and the handful of ranged varieties that don't require ammo are worth their weight in, well, ammo). You can still, of course, offload to an AI companion, but companions can also die permanently in Hardcore mode, and Bethesda's AI has always had a bit of trouble with the esoteric concept of "running away".

The Junkjet turns all your garbage into ammunition, but you'll have so much ammunition on anything below Very Hard difficulty that it isn't worth the trouble.

The result is an experience that, even amid today's absolute bounty of pure survival sims on Steam, grabs you by the scruff of the neck, as your forebrain juggles the demands of a particular scenario against your on-going deterioration. It's not a patch on the utterly ruthless sociopathic decision-making of a Day-Z, or even the hastily dug boltholes of early-game Minecraft at sundown, but it takes a little of the complacency out of vanilla Fallout, with its enemies who can be easily gamed and its rather slapdash reimagining of mishaps like drug addiction or broken bones.

It also represents a side of Fallout that's actually in synch with its own supporting fiction. Fallout 4, though an undeniably great game, is also a model for that slightly suspect brand of escapism that delights in the bleak mood and texture of a post-war landscape, but represents it in practical terms as a fat pile of loot and XP. It's a narrative universe that wails continually about how tough we all have it while burying you in guns, armour, food and meds. The geography, as Alex Wiltshire has explored at length over at RPS, is jammed weirdly between "200 years post-Fall" and "immediate aftermath" - houses are stuffed full of goodies from before the war in a manner that doesn't exactly chime with the prospect of a rabid scavenger population who'll shed blood over boxes of toxic snacky-cakes. There is, lest we forget, a suit of actual Power Armor propped atop one of the first few buildings you're likely to visit in the game.

It wasn't until I'd reached the Glowing Sea that Fallout 4's post-apocalyptic world began to feel vaguely threatening. Sometimes, ambience is worth an army of hostile NPCs.

Fallout 4 does, in fairness, have a "Survival mode", but it's misnamed. Where Hardcore Mode introduced modifiers that reshaped and rejuvenated New Vegas, Fallout 4's notion of "Survival" is enemies who do twice the damage and take much less in return. You can also expect more in the way of Legendary foes, those tricked-out goons with exciting nicknames who wield the tastiest firearms. There are, of course, long-term ramifications to these tweaks - more resistant enemies means fewer rounds to spare, so you'll have to think hard about whether the material toll of an engagement is worth what you'll collect from the ensuing corpses - and Fallout 4 on Survival does carry over the idea of Stimpaks that take time to work. But it's still basically just an artificial difficulty hike. It doesn't alter the tempo and sensibility of the game like Hardcore Mode did. Bulletsponge enemies also make it more tempting to exploit the AI's failings, e.g. by going bonkers on stealth, or by luring imbecilic juggernauts into explosives, which naturally saps the authenticity of it all. A more productive strategy might have been to imitate Metro 2033 and Last Light's knuckle-whitening approach, whereby shots become more deadly for both you and your opponents on higher difficulties.

Fallout 4 players on PC will, naturally, already know the answer to all this whining and carping: mods. Every Fallout and Elder Scrolls title has been treated to an absolute embarrassment of them, and Fallout 4's Nexus page is already ablaze with custom props for settlements, risqué skins, alternative dialogue systems, eye shaders and, it goes without saying, the option to replace all the Vertybirds in the game with Thomas the Tank Engine. I don't doubt that a full-scale overhaul of the fundamentals in the vein of the DUST Survival Simulator for New Vegas is quietly coming together somewhere, assuming it doesn't exist already.

But I am, alas, a humble PS4 player, and as such must currently rely on the developer's own DLC and updates programme for such additions and changes. So go on, Bethesda. Make a proper Hardcore Mode for Fallout 4. In return, I promise to load up the Mojave Wasteland and pluck the Courier from her long thankless vigil by that radioactive toilet. One of these days, anyway. Just as soon as I've rescued Shepard from the Moon.