The thing I like best about Fallout 4’s first DLC pack is that it lets you decide precisely how pissed off you want to feel about Bethesda’s companion AI. Automatron’s customisable robot buddies come in all shapes and sizes and so, of course, do Fallout’s environments – it’s therefore wise, before entering a derelict building, to make adjustments not just to your droid’s arsenal, but the width of its stride.
The vanilla Protectron biped setup? Well, you’re probably safe with stairs as long as you’re not expecting a huge turn of speed. But the Sentrybot’s towering tripod, with its generous inventory and additional hardpoints for armour pieces? That’s going to snag on something eventually – one of mine wrapped itself around another robot while leaving the construction pad. Imagine it filling the corridor behind you as you back away from a kamikaze Supermutant.
After much tinkering I’ve found that the flimsy Mr Handy thruster-pack delivers consistent performance in the field, because it’s hard to trip over the level geometry when you have no feet, but there was, admittedly, that time when I closed a hangar door and my patented Edwinator V6 swooped down triumphantly and got stuck in the mechanism. Oh Edwinator V6, you’re such a prankster. Let’s see if we can’t exchange that silly jump-jet of yours for a set of caterpillar treads.
The other thing I like about the Automatron DLC is that it’s another of Fallout’s stories about the difference, or lack thereof, between artificial and organic life. Fallout’s tottering assemblages of lightbulbs and hosepipe call to mind Forbidden Planet, and the writing is certainly dipped in cliche, but characters like Goodneighbor’s KL-E-0 and sequences like the Miss Nanny training regimen in General Atomics are trips off the beaten path.
At three or four hours in length, Automatron is too slight a tale to contribute much to the saga, but it does have Ada, a new companion who regards her own personality programming as a terrible inconvenience, and Jezebel, who takes a somewhat, shall we say, mathematical view of the concept of safety. It also has a small army of flying buzzsaws and kamikaze laser turrets crafted by Automatron’s nemesis, the Mechanist, but I was too busy filling them with buckshot to ask for their thoughts on the fate of selfhood in an age of biomechanical reproduction.
Unlocked in full when you reach character level 15, the DLC includes two dungeons and three boss encounters, the option to build a robot construction pad in towns, a few not-overpoweringly exotic weapons and a fancy suit of Tesla Power Armour, which had me spinning off into wistful reveries about Command & Conquer: Red Alert. Robot customisation is the major draw, as long as you have aluminium to spare – this is the same stuff we need for Power Suits, remember, so keep your eyes peeled for TV trays and alarm clocks as you tour those forgotten basements.
In addition to modding Ada and our old comrade Codsworth, you can assemble a ‘bot from scratch, choosing from various torsos, arms, legs, heads, weapons and armour pieces, right down to the paintjob and mods that let it hack or unlock things on your behalf. These robots can be dispatched to settlements, allowing you to populate grubby wasteland allotments with bright pink Daleks that talk like hotel elevators. Given how players have taken to town-building itself, I’m sure the bizarre screenshot galleries we’re already seeing on Reddit are the tip of the iceberg.
The two dungeons are pretty pedestrian by contrast. The first is an underground hangar infested by Rust Devils, a new raider faction who fight much like the rest, save a penchant for laser tripwires and wearing bits of Sentrybot chassis. They own bots aplenty, so you’ll have plenty of scrap and spare parts for your own creations after shutting them down. The second is the Mechanist’s lair, and the site of yet another unscrupulous science experiment run hideously amok.
As in the rest of the game, poking through old terminals in search of a ruined installation’s secrets is engrossing – there are some sinister (and worryingly funny) pieces of corporatese chucked in amongst the gruesome B-movie conceits. Sadly, the Mechanist’s story fizzles out after a promising build-up, despite a full-on robot house party of a final encounter. I polished it off the old Navy way – by overdosing on Buffjet and dropping landmines while legging it for the high ground. You might prefer to call on the new lightning rifle, whose arcs chain between targets, or the Assaultron head-on-a-stick, which can be charged up by hitting the reload button, but blankets the user in radiation when you fire.
While we’re talking technical drawbacks, Automatron marks the first time a Bethesda bug has ever enraged me. Bugs in Bethesda games are like bullets in Battlefield, but those I’ve had the pleasure of encountering have always been either cosmetic or funny – Dogmeat glitching off a gantry and landed on a Legendary Raider, for example. Not so the moment when I left a building and Ada somehow reverted to her default design, erasing several resource-intensive components in the process. As anybody who has ever burrowed through an entire military base in hopes of finding one – just bloody one – hotplate or telephone will appreciate, this is basically a crime against civilisation. It doesn’t help that the base game’s workshop interface is so awful at telling you how much you have of which material. I’m told there are a few other serious progression bugs that stop missions being completed, though I’ve yet to experience them myself, so you might want to wait for the next patch if you’re fastidious about such matters.
Glitches aside – does all this constitute a fair return on its standalone price, and does it bode well for the rest of Fallout 4’s Season Pass content? Well, Fallout 4 as it stands is an absolute embarrassment of areas and missions, and the Automatron’s offerings aren’t that unusual, expansive or elegantly made, but hammering together a cutting edge robo-army for your settlements has the potential to soak up another dozen hours or so.
And of course, these are creations you’ll be able to take with you on future DLC adventures, such as the vaguely Shivering-Isle-esque Far Harbor, which is said to be the largest downloadable area Bethesda has ever coded. I look forward to scouring it with Edwinator V6 hovering faithfully at my side, or at least hovering faithfully inside a nearby object.