I remember the first time I saw Power Armor, back in Fallout 2. Frank Horrigan, the game’s villain, mowed down a group of innocents right in front of my eyes. It was horrifying, but the message was clear: you don’t mess with Frank.
Frank is a badass. And if you cross him? He WILL fuck you up. A lot of that menacing aura came from Frank’s combat abilities, sure. Honestly, though, most of my fear of Frank Horrigan stemmed from his Power Armor. You never actually saw Frank’s face during Fallout 2. You only saw his armor, metallic and unfeeling. Fallout 2, which was my introduction to the series, cemented Power Armor as this symbol of strength, something which you could only get once you were strong enough. True to form, in most Fallout titles, Power Armor is something you get well into the games. You had to earn Power Armor, and once you did, Power Armor turned you into an unstoppable force, capable of changing the entire world around you.
Fallout 4 changes all that. Power Armor is still a force to be reckoned with, don’t get me wrong, but the game gives you a suit really early—maybe a couple of hours into your wasteland adventure, if that. At first, this design decision disgusted me. Wasn’t it kind of overindulgent to just give the player Power Armor and a mini gun so quickly? Why spoil the juicy build-up to the armor that prior games had established already? Travesty!
Still, I took the armor back with me to Red Rocket. I docked it into its crafting tower. I left it there, unsure of what to do with something so tremendous. I went off into the wasteland, and gathered supplies: a few pieces of my armor were broken, and more importantly, I didn’t have enough Fusion Cores to power the suit in the first place. Once I was stocked up, I came back and started fixing the thing, here and there.
I altered the build. I added features. I made the whole thing better, stronger, more durable.
And then I took it with me on a mission into one of Fallout 4’s most dangerous territories: the Glowing Sea. A place so irradiated and terrifying, there was no real way to get through it without the Power Armor.
I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of that story mission, which took me beyond the bounds of the main map. I’ll just say this: lumbering through that desolate wasteland in my Power Armor was something unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a Fallout game before.
It now actually feels like you’re in Power Armor, because the suit is heavy, and every step has some heft to it. You’re not so much wearing the armor, as you are driving it. The fancy HUD you get while in the armor really reinforces that idea, too:
Anyway...that Glowing Sea mission made me feel like I was walking through a hostile alien planet, full of monsters that could easily destroy me. The only thing keeping me alive through that whole thing, the only thing stopping the radiation from killing me in my tracks, was my trusty suit of Power Armor. Looking back on how I survived that ordeal, I still feel feel awe at the whole thing—I can’t help but wonder if astronauts feel the same way about their suits, too. Every so often I’ll even go back to Red Rocket, just to stare at my suit. I’ll think to myself: hey, I made this thing. This hunk of metal is mine; I built it like this.
In a way, Fallout 4 makes Power Armor feel more like a vintage car than a piece of armor. I’m reminded of an uncle I grew up with, who had this rare BMW that he’d constantly tweak and modify in his garage. He loved that thing to death, but would only take it out on weekends and special occasions. The car was too precious to risk ruining it through constant usage. In the same way, I don’t take my Power Armor out with me on every mission. I also have to look far and wide in special shops, hoping to find the right parts for it. And I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking over my Power Suit’s paint job.
What I didn’t understand at the start of Fallout 4 was this: there were only so many times Fallout could position Power Armor as exotic reward that players got near the end of the game. By now, many of us have suited up in Power Armor, and used it to become a threat that would make even Frank Horrigan himself feel like a pansy. The only way Bethesda could keep things interesting with Power Armor was to reinvent it, to change our relationship to it. And that’s exactly what they’ve done in Fallout 4.