Apocalypse #9: Fallout FROST

Here’s that fucking nuclear winter you wished for

What triggered the survival sim genre’s popularity? Was it Minecraft, with its blocky, accessible aesthetic and need to eat regularly to keep your health up? Was it DayZ, with its post-apocalypse vibes and punishing gameplay? Or maybe it was S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with its wonky survival sim elements and post-Soviet gloom. Whatever it is, we can trace the line of survival elements in the Fallout games as far back as Fallout 3, specifically the popular overhaul mod Fallout 3 Wanderer’s Edition, which added the need to sleep, eat, and drink water to a game that was not designed with those features in mind but elevated what was a decent but incoherent game into a genuinely compelling survival sim. When Fallout New Vegas implemented a similar system out of the box, “Survival mode” was a permanent fixture, returning in Fallout 4 and — for a while — Fallout 76.

But for some, it’s not enough, and so they go back to the well of modding, looking to make their game harder and more demanding still. And what’s more demanding than a brutal simulation of nuclear winter with a realistic damage model? Welcome to Fallout FROST.

Conceived as the thematic and spiritual successor to DUST, a similarly brutal (and some might argue mean-spirited) total conversion mod for Fallout New Vegas, FROST places you in the role of… just some rando. You’re not a Vault dweller. You’re not a badass. You’re just a survivor, trying to eke out a living in the wintry hell of the former Boston Commonwealth a mere five years after the Great War (which would set the game well before the entire series, including Fallout 76.) In the canon starting area, you wake up with amnesia, trapped in a cage somewhere deep in the bowels of the Boston metro. There’s a dead man in a smiley mask at your feet, and another laying on a gurney just outside the cage. A few clues are written down around the room, but you’re otherwise left to your own devices. There are no quests. There are no destination markers. FROST does not give a shit about your need for direction. Rather, it puts the onus on you to decide what to do and where to go. All there is, is you, and a sinister mystery involving human traffickers, the US military, and Parsons Insane Asylum, all while you are taunted by a mysterious figure named Janus who repeatedly exhorts you to LET GO.

You learn right away that FROST doesn’t fuck around. The damage model has been completely altered; shots to the head and body will now often down even an overleveled enemy, but you are equally vulnerable, enforcing a reliance on stealth and keeping away from large groups whenever possible. Aside from the enforcement of Fallout 4’s base survival mode rules, a new stat measuring the player character’s sanity has been introduced; every human you kill lowers your sanity a little bit. Eating uncooked or spoiled food, doing most drugs, and some other things will lower it. Eating prepared food, taking mentats or drinking alcohol will raise it (alcohol also helps lower rads slightly.) As your sanity inevitably drops you’ll eventually begin to see hallucinations, your aim goes to shit, and your melee attacks hit harder.

The game economy has also been turned completely on its head. Radiation damage will be your number one enemy, as anti-rad meds are extremely rare, and getting your rads flushed by the scant few doctors who exist in the game is expensive. Making matters worse is that if you’re on the surface without a gas mask you will be taking a constant low-level drip of rads — to say nothing of the nearly-constant radstorms blowing in from the Glowing Sea. Ammo is rare and worth its weight in gold; FROST insists on melee specialization, though if you can get yourself a firearm or two and stockpile ammo for it they can come in handy. While most guides suggest relying on quicker one-handed weapons such as knives, there’s nothing particularly wrong with going two-handed, especially if you take the new Fenway Swinger perk that’s included in the FROST Official Updates patch, a crucial addon that serves to make FROST a more complete experience — indeed, this review is based on a playthrough that makes use of an extensive mod list that includes the Official Updates.

The canon start is extremely brutal — you’re basically left alone, naked and nearly defenseless, trapped in subway tunnels with no real direction. Feral ghouls are everywhere, and all the humans (and non-feral ghouls) you meet are hostile. But if you can persevere, you can eventually earn your way into the Metro Federation, a small network of towns built into abandoned subway stations populated by survivors taking shelter from the brutal nuclear winter going on outside. (This sounds familiar…) The Federation are the only non-hostile faction; their hated enemies, the Alliance, don’t really want you around. There’s also the Church of Themis, a hardline quasi-Christian cult of ghouls operating out of Salem, and their hated enemies, the insane cannibalistic Maldenmen. In addition there’s hostile survivors everywhere, most of whom will try to kill you on sight. And then there’s the Remnants, what’s left of the United States military, who have their own agenda — an agenda seemingly set by the Enclave. Very little of the original game remains, though you will occasionally run into characters who were alive in those terrible days following the war, such as Nick Valentine (at least, his original human counterpart) and the otherwise mentioned-only Soup Can Harry.

Aside from all these human enemies, the other threats around the Commonwealth are surprisingly not very diverse. Most of the wildlife are described as ancestors to what would eventually be Mirelurks, Radstags, and the like (though they often use the same models.) Your most persistent non-human threat will be feral ghouls; the world of FROST is borderline a zombie apocalypse with the sheer number of the bastards, and in large groups they are very dangerous indeed. On the surface they regenerate health almost immediately; only a headshot will down them. They lurk in most interiors, and all of them have a radioactive aura, unlike the base game where radiation damage is limited to the Glowing Ones. They hit hard and in even small groups can be lethal, especially if one of them manages to poison you.

FROST is brutal. There’s just no getting around that. Even if you take one of the easier starts, you are doomed to die, over and over and over again. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s as if Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had a baby and threw it into a radioactive Dark Souls bonfire. (Honestly, the extreme difficulty and demand that players rethink how they approach the game is reminiscent of the (in)famous Misery mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.) Even if you manage to follow the main story all the way to its end, you won’t have solved anything, or saved anything. Instead, you’ll just wind up naked in Far Harbor, having to rebuild everything all over again, but this time in an even more hostile environment. This is actually about where I finally realized FROST had beaten me — the Island is just so brutally uncompromising even compared to the Commonwealth. Do not attempt to tackle it under level 50 — my level 22 ass was nowhere near ready, and I was forced to just… let go.

FROST is not for everyone. Aside from an overall sense of jank — dialogue is often stitched together from existing voice lines, which often sounds very weird — the high difficulty and lack of any real direction for the player outside of the very basic, stated goal of being a hardcore survival sim means that there isn’t going to be much for the average player to sink their teeth into. But if you’re fucking weird like me and love shit like this, it’s well worth taking a deep dive into one of the most brutal and scary experiences on offer.

There’s a lot of ways to play FROST these days. Setting it up doesn’t have to be a hassle — you can do a manual setup using the Below Zero guide, or you can install the Stay FROSTy modlist automatically using the Wabbajack tool. And if you want more mods than that, this seems to be a comprehensive list.

I’ve often complained about Fallout 76 gradually moving away from its roots as an atmospheric softcore survival sim with a depressing world; FROST, while not quite as forgiving or welcoming as post-war Appalachia, does manage to recapture some of that desolate vibe, and for that I adore it.

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/they]