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Far Harbor pulled me right back into Fallout 4

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A radioactive island has never been so welcoming

Fallout 4 Far Harbor

I had grand plans after I wrapped up the main story of Fallout 4 back in November. I was going to work on my settlements, building them up into places people would actually want to live, while wandering the Commonwealth wrapping up all of the quests I had left unfinished. That never happened. Other games came along, and I found myself drifting away from the post-apocalyptic world. I dabbled in the game’s first add-on, the killer robot-filled “Automatron” in March, but I didn’t stick around much beyond that.

Last week Fallout 4 developer Bethesda released the game’s first major expansion called “Far Harbor,” which adds a huge new area to the game. It’s filled with new characters, quests, weapons, and enemies. I figured I might jump in for a bit, get a feel for the island, and then move on. That was last Thursday — and I’ve played the game for hours every night since then.

“Far Harbor” starts out as a simple missing person's case you get from Nick Valentine’s secretary. A family hires the synthetic detective to find their young daughter Kasumi, and you’re along for the ride. Kasumi has been chatting with a stranger over a CB radio, and eventually decided to meet that stranger on the island of Far Harbor. Her dad thinks she was kidnapped, her mom thinks she just wanted to get away, but, as always, the truth is a lot more complicated.

Fallout 4 Far Harbor

The expansion is the first area of Fallout 4 to take place outside the Commonwealth, Fallout’s take on a post-apocalyptic Boston. You ride a boat to the island — though you can fast-travel back to the mainland at any point — and, at least initially, it feels like a completely different place. It starts with the mist. Far Harbor is shrouded in a radioactive fog, one that gives it a spooky horror movie-like feel. When it’s night you can barely see a few feet in front of you. (It also wreaks havoc with the game’s framerate, at least on PS4, and requires you to take a regular dose of expensive Rad-X pills to avoid being poisoned.)

Despite its looks, though, the island is much like any other location in Fallout, filled with warring factions who aren’t so good at sharing their tiny slice of irradiated land. There are the residents of Far Harbor, fiercely independent descendants of fishermen, who cling to a shrinking small town on the docks, the only oasis from the radiated fog. They’re joined by the Children of Atom, a religious group that literally worships radiation, and sees the fog as a beautiful omen. Rounding out the trio of factions is Acadia, a refuge for synths — synthetic humans created by a mysterious group known as The Institute — where they can live away from the humans who are so scared of them.

This creates an interesting power dynamic on the island. The Children and the residents of Far Harbor essentially want to destroy each other, as one wants to clear out the fog while the other embraces it. The synths, meanwhile, play the middle, helping both sides at times in an attempt to create peace. In typical Fallout fashion, you’ll have to work with all sides in your quest to solve Kasumi’s case, but how you align yourself will determine the way events unfold.

Fallout 4 Far Harbor

The story is probably the strongest element of “Far Harbor.” In addition to the power dynamics of the island, you’ll also learn a lot more about the synths, in particular Nick Valentine’s history. (Curiously, you can play the expansion without Nick as your companion, but you’ll miss out on many of the best narrative moments if you do.) Valentine was one of the highlights of the main game, and having an entire new story built in-part around him is great. Outside of the main story, “Far Harbor” also has some creative new side quests and locations to explore. In fact, one such mission — a melodramatic murder mystery starring a bunch of robots — might just be my favorite in all of Fallout 4. It’s one of those goofy side-stories that’s a welcome respite from the otherwise grim, post-apocalyptic world.

While “Far Harbor” is mechanically the same as Fallout 4, it isn’t afraid to use that foundation to try new things. While many of the missions are straightforward — go here, kill all the feral ghouls; go there, collect an item (and then kill some feral ghouls) — others play around with the formula in strange and surprising ways. You’ll go on an unsettling radioactive vision quest, and there’s a memory hacking scene that feels like a cross between Lawnmower Man and Minecraft. In fact, the best part of the expansion might just be how it deftly jumps back and forth between the rather heavy themes of the main story — early on you’ll be asked a question that might change how you see the whole game — and some of the more playful side diversions. This is a game where you can wield a harpoon gun to fight a hermit crab so big it uses a truck as a shell, all while contemplating the nature of artificial life.

If you’ve been away from Fallout 4 for a few months, “Far Harbor” feels like the perfect way to get back into things. It’s big enough that you can get lost in it for hours, but not so huge that it feels daunting. It’s like a condensed version of the main game. It has everything you’d want — from inventive new quests to an engaging story to horrifying new monstrosities to fight — but fits it all into a much tighter package. Far Harbor may be a horribly radiated island, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inviting.

The “Far Harbor” expansion is available now for all versions of Fallout 4 for $24.99.