I spent 12 hours playing "Far Harbor," the new downloadable coda to November's "Fallout 4."
I spent six of those hours playing "Far Harbor's" most infuriating sequence.
Or at least that's how long it felt. A stealth sales pitch for "Fallout 4's" most innovative but ignored system, settlement-building, the sequence Trons you into the memory banks of a synth. You have to scavenge for blocks to build a road on which little green digital mites can reach the synth's lost memories, and also place turrets to defend them. Clearing the way for the road, however, also requires you to place another kind of block that redirects a laser into red firewalls and thus dissolves them.
The whole thing is "Portal" in design but "Minecraft" in slow, painstaking play. Any intellectually stimulating "a ha!" moments are burned away by the rigors of reaching the next one. By the time you uncover the synth's most revelatory memory at the end of the fourth of these wireframe puzzles, you're too worn down to register the shock it deserves — and too hurried to move along and slog through the fifth and final of them.
(Warning: Significant spoilers below. If you'd like to read my general, spoiler-free impress…
That synth, the tube-headed DiMA, is at the center of another factional balancing act in "Far Harbor" — another rendering of deadly judgments based on whether you think religion is stupid or robots are people. Sometimes the dilemmas are compelling, and sometimes they feel like more rungs on the same philosophical hamster wheel.
"Far Harbor," to Bethesda's credit, shows some signs that the "Fallout" and "Elder Scrolls" studio realizes how tired and absurd the messianic trope of its open-world RPGs has become. A few conversations felt only a step or two removed from my Wanderer being asked, "What is wrong with you? Who just shows up somewhere new and kills hundreds of people in the name of 'helping others'?"
Cyberspace puzzles aside, the routine quests of "Far Harbor" are staged on a whole new island map bathed in radioactive fog and overrun with a few new enemies. The map is nothing special — its gray-brown palette and stuttering framerate suffocate any Stephen King-esque charm in its Maine setting and all the lobster catching that comes with it.
The enemies, meanwhile, achieve some novelty in the beastly sea creatures (giant hermit crabs!) but only brutal unfairness in the new Assaultron Dominator. The latter word is right — the thing one-hit killed my level-45 Wanderer about 15 times before I save-scummed my way to victory. Then I immediately had to fight another one.
I almost never notched those incremental kills, though. The first time I stepped off the boat at Far Harbor, I couldn't speak with Capt. Avery, the settlement leader who gives you the DLC's first main quest. It seems a bug from late in my "Fallout 4" play-through disabled that and other, similarly significant conversation options.
I'd find a save, from five hours and three levels earlier, that let me talk to Avery. But I almost wish I hadn't. "Far Harbor" may glimpse its core game's crests and even flood you with precious adhesive for crafting, but it's otherwise a weak voyage for a strong vessel.