Your own patch of wasteland
It's finally happened: Bethesda has gone toe to toe with Minecraft. The publisher has been toying with in-game map editing tools for its core RPG franchises for some time Skyrim's Hearthfire expansion allows you to build and decorate houses, on top of a robust physics system that lets you drag objects around willy-nilly but not til Fallout 4 has it handed us more or less a level designers power over an area's layout and contents.
In certain parts of the new game, you're able to convert objects into component resources such as wood and rubber, then buy and place walls, props and interactive fixtures to form your very own town. What's more, NPCs will come to live in these towns and you'll need to keep them fed, watered, happy, and protected, placing resources such as crops and automated defenses to head off raider attacks. OK, so you can't dig into the very terrain, but everything above ground is yours to meddle with.
There are a fair few games with map-editing features on the shop right now, of course, and certain design trends have emerged, from the obligatory giant penis effigy to those terrifyingly adept works of urban planning I keep bumping into on YouTube. Here are a few varieties of user-created settlement you're all but guaranteed to encounter at least once in the average Fallout 4 savegame.
1. Town-sized calculators
Fallout 4's editing toolset includes switches (terminals) that can be hooked up to components such as power generators and signboards to control their behaviour. You can bodge together quite complex sequences of interactions, calling on more advanced gadgets such as laser tripwires and components that all map to the same terminal. My knowledge of programming is admittedly sketchy, but with enough insight you might even be able to create your own analytical engine inside the simulation, following in the footsteps of this LittleBigPlanet calculator and this utterly terrifying, lava-powered entity from Dwarf Fortress.
Quite why people keep feeling the urge to build computers inside other computers eludes me. True, it's cheaper than buying another laptop, but it's also months of work for a machine that's just about powerful enough to add and subtract. One of these days somebody will build a computer inside a computer inside a computer, and humanity will evaporate in a blaze of meta-textuality.
2. King's Landing
Or Winterhold. Or Whiterun. Or the Starship Enterprise. Or the DisneyLand castle. Or Lordran. Or the set of Carry On Cleo. Probably all of them, in fact, plus the Los Angeles convention centre (complete with NPCs queueing by flickering TV sets), six thousand casino-style billboard animations of Mario doing non-canonical things to Princess Peach, and the meth lab from Breaking Bad. Lengthy trawls of various Reddit boards have taught me that there is nothing committed level editors enjoy more than transplanting pop culture landmarks between or into games, blurring their DNA in a manner calculated to rouse Twitter's shock and admiration, and annoy the hell out of various copyright lawyers.
Fallout 4's aesthetic poses a bit of an obstacle it's hard to believe you're living in the Smurf Village when there are 200-year-old shopping trolleys all over, and everything looks like it's made of rat droppings but I have faith in you, fans of license splicing. And of course, you can eventually look forward to skin and texture mods to help complete the illusion (should Bethesda not hit them with the ban-hammer), which for once will actually make it to the console versions too.
3. Towns made by people who want to make Fallout games
For every 10 half-finished eyesores or giant penis sculptures, there should (we hope) be at least one player who sets out boldly to create something that actually works as a town should. A town in which the arrangement of farms, markets, homesteads and so forth is genuinely reminiscent of the practical and emotional needs of living creatures. A town where morale is always high, where nobody wants for water, a bar to lean on or a place to lay their head. A town that can hold off raiders and sustain itself without the player needing to pop back continually to fix up the barricades and ensure all the guards are pointing in the right direction.
A town, moreover, that feels like a plausible part of the game's storyline. Bethesda's tools allow for fine-grained object placement you might spend half-an-hour moving a single lightbulb around in order to precisely illuminate an arresting tableau. It'll be intriguing to see whether the most ambitious town creators can hint at forgotten backstories as successfully as the game's own designers.
Some will see AI raids on player-owned towns as a nuisance, but look at it this way: you're almost certainly going to kill a lot of people in Fallout 4 regardless. At least in this case they have the courtesy to come to you. And think of the loot! The bottle caps! The unending shrieks of pain and terror from without the walls as you recline on your throne at the centre of a maze of tripwires, turrets, landmines and guard towers a capricious and uncaring despot, growing fat off the suicidal imbecility of scavenger tribes.
The idea of auto-farming enemies in open world games for XP or items has a long, illustrious history in particular, Minecraft players have learned to bump off whole armies of mobs by placing spawn points near natural hazards. With any luck, Fallout 4's crafting system will be sophisticated enough to allow creation of a Minecraft-style mob grinder. Imagine opening a bridge trapdoor below a raiding party to plunge them into a river of nuclear sewage, which then sweeps dropped items beneath a walkway where they can be safely harvested. Every frontier town should have one! Who knows, perhaps one day you'll find the corpse of the game's final boss in there.
5. Cities of permanently lost NPCs
Bethesda-brand NPCs have been traditionally characterised by two things. One, facial animations that put you in mind of The Exorcist. And two, an endearing mixture of independent thinking and rampant bloody stupidity. Yes, the average Skyrim resident might sleep in an actual bed at night, sell armour by day and hunt the game's wildlife for sport, but you can also put a basket over his head to stop him noticing when you nick his stuff. It's not exactly Deus Ex Machina.
For many, these AI foibles are all part of the fun hey, what's not to love about tavern-goers who start fights over dropped cabbages? - but now imagine a Fallout 4 NPC attempting to navigate a town laid out not by a trained designer but some half-arsed teenager. Yes, Fallout 4's characters are much more believable than those in Bethesda games past, but a smashed labyrinth of doorless rooms and winding, free-standing walls is still likely to have a detrimental effect on their day. Through these places, crusty residents may trundle forever, searching in despair for the crops they're supposed to water, stalls they're supposed to run. Truly pitiful.
6. Firing ranges
Let's say you've just gotten hold of a Fat Man, the returning heavy launcher from Fallout 3. You're itching to try it out on something, but the Fat Man is not a weapon you can fire off just anywhere. Put it this way - it's not the kind of weapon that wounds. Were you playing as an utter villain, kicking the legs out from under civilisation as it struggles to its feet, this wouldn't be a problem. But you've resolved to play as a goddamn do-gooder. You're also a stealth specialist. How on Earth are you going to dig yourself a nice, satisfying crater without making a mockery of your ninja pretensions?
Ah but wait. There is that rubbish, mostly deserted village you set up the other week, isn't there? The one you filled with custom shop window mannequins, who you gave individual names and backstories, so as to create a cathartic mini-realm of guilt-free violent oppression. So that you could do all kinds of evil stuff to people, without losing your hero credentials. Because youre possibly a bit mad. Perhaps you should pay a visit. The kind of visit that ends about, oh, let's say a hundred metres outside the city limits. It's just a shame Fallout 4 doesn't support the same level of realistic building destruction you'd get in, say, Red Faction: Guerrilla. Still, those mannequin minions will fly.
7. Laughably functional trading or storage posts
You can build towns on several sites in Fallout 4. Assuming an only-human level of dedication, at least one of the towns you build is probably going to consist of the bare necessities a shack with a workbench, a roof turret, a strongbox, and a lonely-looking trader peering at the horizon.
Because let's face it, with a game containing as much to do as Fallout 4, you might be able to do pretty much anything, but sometimes just enough is enough. Not that you're easily sidetracked or anything, but... oh look, what's that over on the horizon?