Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fallout 3

Post-Launch Review
Fallout 3 (PC)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Released: October 28, 2008

As an advance warning, this is a very long review. I guess it's fitting — Fallout 3 is a very long game.

Fallout 3 is an FPSRPG (first person shooter role playing game) set in the year 2277, 200 years after the nuclear apocalypse (and 36 years after Fallout 2, which is not required to understand the story/setting). You are an inhabitant of Vault 101: a nuclear fallout survival shelter. When the war hit, Vault 101 sealed itself and never reopened. You live in the vault, you die in the vault. That is, until your father disappears. You escape the Vault into the Capital Wasteland of the Washington D.C. area in search of your father, exploring and fighting your way through the communities, raiders, and mutants of the wastes.

At Launch
Reviews were very positive, averaging around 90%. Critics loved the expansive open world, flexible levelling system, and minimalist sound design. It did take some criticism for a slightly clunky interface and some bugs and physics crashes only fixable by loading the game, especially on the PlayStation 3 version. Fallout 3 received awards at its showings at E3 2007 and 2008, as well as Game of the Year from several gaming magazines.

Post Launch
Fallout 3 has received five paid DLC packs: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel, Point Lookout, and Mothership Zeta, including new locations, missions, and items, as well as raising the level cap to 30 in Broken Steel. All five DLC's are included in the Game of the Year Edition.
Updates have fixed many bugs. Some fairly major ones still remain, even in the most up-to-date Game of the Year editions.

The Good
Intro and Character Creation
Character creation takes place in-universe. After a pair of cutscenes establishing the setting, you're born! Your parents determine your gender, decide on a name, and run a simulation of what you'll look like when you're all grown up. You then quickly walk through some of the landmarks in your character's life: one year old, reading a book; tenth birthday where you get your Pip-Boy armband; sixteen years old when you take your G.O.A.T. (Generalized Occupation Aptitude Test), and nineteen when your dad disappears. Each stage of life gives you another customization option: physical attributes, skills, etc.
The best part, though, is the sly acknowledgement of the speedy aging: at your tenth birthday an old woman remarks on how quickly you're growing up.

The level up system is very extensive while still being simple. Your physical stats (like strength, perception, etc) give you bonuses to skills and certain abilities (carrying capacity, hit point total, etc) your skills determine how good you are at various activities (small firearms, lockpicking, repair, etc); and perks give you significant bonuses to specific situations (conversation skill with children, range and accuracy with thrown objects, greater experience gain, etc). There's a lot of customizability without getting confusing, which is the goal of most RPG's.

Sound Design
The sound design is minimalist indeed, but that's far from a bad thing. It's realistic and helps establish the setting. When exploring the wastes, the only sounds you might hear are wind and your footsteps, and maybe the occasional rustling of skeletal vegetation. When you're in town the audio comes alive: you can hear conversations, music, and movement.
Especially noteworthy are the in-game radio stations you can pick up on your Pip-Boy. Once you select a station, the radio will continue to play whether you're walking around, in a menu, or even loading the next area, and will only stop so you can hear dialogue. The stations themselves are fun to listen to, with DJ's providing news of the world and your adventures along with classic music from the early 1900's.

Massive Open World
The Capital Wasteland is huge and dotted with landmarks to discover. Many of them don't have anything to do with plot or quests, and simply exist as an exploration option. Thankfully, the game has a fast travel option to move between discovered locations instantly — a great alternative to spending half an hour walking back to town.
There's a lot of history to uncover. Through dialogue and research, you can often find out how a town started or what happened to a landmark since the war. Some history is told through visuals in the environment: a now-abandoned building might have cages with skeletons inside, indicating that the building was once used by slavers or cannibals. Other times you find computer files or personal logs written pre-war or by a survivor.

Real Observation
This is just a little thing, but I thought it was cool. Finding useful items and loot in Fallout 3 requires good observation skills — but not your character's. You can pick up just about any item. If you picked up everything you found, you'd be loaded down with junk in thirty seconds flat. You have to actually look around through the plates and boxes and bottles and scraps to find stimpacks or ammo. Mousing over objects does bring up the name of the thing, but you have to be very close, and precision is required — if you were to sweep your cursor over a shelf in a dark room, there might be tons of drugs, but you can still miss them easily.

The DLC is pretty cool. The main game's level cap is 20, but Broken Steel adds another 10 levels on top of that with new perks and gear as well, allowing you to go up to 30. Each of the DLC missions adds to the story and expands the world and narrative without feeling like tacked-on afterthoughts — it's like the game is saying, “your character's done his/her big adventure, and here's some of what he/she did afterwards”. Nothing really critical happens in the DLC, since it's post-plot and after the most important events of your character's life, so you could skip it if you wanted to; but it's some pretty neat stuff. Not to mention that it adds a significant chunk of playtime — I finished the main game in a little over 30 hours, and the DLC got me playing for 20 more. To be fair, not all of those extra hours were the DLC missions — I explored a bit on the way to those missions. But it's cool stuff, and worth playing.
It seems Bethesda put an effort into making the DLC seem different from the main game. The first ties up some plot threads, while the others are more adventurous. Point Lookout is a trip to the southern swamps; Operation Anchorage is a virtual reality simulation of a US/China conflict in Alaska; The Pitt is a trip to the slaver-infested ruins of Pittsburgh, and Mothership Zeta is an alien abduction and escape from the mothership. Each of the settings was a nice change from the grey wastes of the Capital Wasteland and provided some of the most attractive screenshots I took. However, the DLC missions sometimes feel too long — Mothership Zeta especially, where you just wander about the ship shooting and destroying with no real plot or developments.

The Neutral
The Vault-Assisted Targeting System is a neat mechanic where you can pause and target specific areas on an enemy's body. For example, crippling a raider's arm can cause him to drop his gun. When you fire, it goes into third-person and slow motion to give you a “more cinematic experience”. Problem is, it's often so effective that there's no reason not to use it — but pausing, targeting, and firing in slow motion slows down combat a lot. Even worse, at early levels your weapon skills are low, making you pretty inaccurate, so you have to choose between using more ammo than you need to, or taking out every enemy in slow-motion. The most irritating aspect is that when selecting a body part, you have a chance to hit determined by your gun skills and perks — but if you don't roll a hit, you miss entirely. This can even happen if you're standing right next to your target, where if you were aiming manually you would hit every shot. I guess it's a trade-off: targeted strikes at the risk of missing entirely.

The Bad
The vast majority of the game is gray. It's very monochromatic. It's almost like you're playing in black and white — but that would almost have been better. There are a few locations seemingly intended to be scenic viewpoints, but there's not much to enjoy when everything looks the same. I guess it emphasizes the bleakness of living in a post-apocalyptic world, but it's awfully dreary to look at.

Massive Open World
The Capital Wasteland is huge... and mostly empty. It often takes a long time to walk to a quest marker. If you're lucky you might stumble across an interesting landmark worth exploring — like the long-abandoned Vault 106 — or you might simply wander across rocks and dirt until you find your destination.

Poor Characters
Not in the sense of badly written, but pretty much everything else. The character animations are kind of terrible. Everyone seems stiff and wooden — this is especially obvious when someone gets out of bed, or almost all the time if you switch to third-person view. During dialogue, the person you're talking to moves their mouth and their eyes, and nothing else at all ever. That combined with a fixed, head-on camera angle made me want to skip the recorded dialogue after reading the text version. The voice acting is good at best, but mostly passable to awful.

Why So Barren?
There's a major logic flaw in the game's setup. It won't bother you unless you notice it, so if you don't want to know, skip this section.
Why is the world so completely lifeless? Yes, there was a nuclear apocalypse — but it was two hundred years ago. As far as I know, global nuclear war is pretty devastating, but it shouldn't have so utterly and thoroughly wiped away all forms of life. It's pointed out that the radiation levels have either dropped or were never that high in the first place, which is how humans manage to survive in the wasteland. But if radiation levels are low enough that it's safe for entire communities to survive for generations, then where is the plant life? Where are the animals? The only life I could find was some grass and moss — there are skeletons of trees and shrubs that have been standing for two hundred years, as well as wooden structures and debris. Why didn't they rot? Did the nukes wipe out every single microorganism? Furthermore, if the nukes were that thorough, then disease should be all but eliminated as well — but there are plenty of sick people.
Here's an example: Chernobyl. The disaster happened in 1986, or twenty-five years ago. It's remembered as the worst nuclear disaster in history — and yet, if you find pictures of Chernobyl today, it looks abandoned rather than destroyed: there's plenty of vegetation. And Fallout 3 is trying to convince me that after 200 years, the only survivors are grass, humans, dogs, and some mutants?
The thing is, even if I am to believe that the nuclear strikes were so terrible as to utterly wipe everything off the map right down to all microscopic life, then how am I expected to believe that humans survived? Not with radiation suits or medecine — there are enough ghouls and rad-sick people around that there clearly aren't enough meds to go around. They used the Vaults, you might say — but most of the Vaults have been empty for generations. It just doesn't add up.

Gun Skill
This one might be a bit contentious, but I'm putting it here because I personally did not like it. I understand that in an RPG the point is to inhabit your character and play as if you were that character, and if your character is bad with guns then you'll be bad with guns. However, one problem I have with that mentality is that the game artificially makes you bad with firearms by tying bullet spread to your gun skills. In other words, if my rifle skill is low and I aim right between a mutant's eyes, the bullet could hit a suitcase thirty feet away. I would much prefer if gun skills only improved things like reload speed or damage, rather than accuracy. I wouldn't have this problem in a more turn-based RPG (Final Fantasy or KOTOR style) but it seems out of place in an FPS. I can't really think of a better way to deal with this, but I just instinctively don't like that the game artificially hobbles my skill in favour of “realism”.
The slap in the face is that finding good loot depends on YOUR observation skills, not your character's. So why is my firearm accuracy forcibly tied to my character and not my skill with a mouse?

This is the big one. Even the most up-to-date version of Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition on Steam is terribly buggy. First of all there's a killer bug that crashes the game completely. Some users report it happening as frequently as every ten or twenty minutes. There are a couple of possible fixes that aren't too hard, but even so, I still had the game crash on me once or twice. And after the fix I find that the game often crashes when I quit. If it's going to crash that's just about the best time for it, but I still have to Ctrl+Alt+Del and get rid of the locked application. The game saves automatically whenever you enter a new area, but if you've been exploring for a while it's probably a good idea to manually save anyway.
Second, there are some pathfinding issues for companion characters. I find that I often have to go back and walk my follower around some little rock or convince him to go the right way down the stairs. For the most part this could easily be solved by allowing followers to jump down from ledges which wouldn't damage them anyway.
Third, a problem that isn't a bug but is not immediately intuitive: you have to manually activate the DLC from the launcher by selecting the Data Files option and enabling each DLC pack. I discovered this when the game simply ended and credits rolled, instead of moving to any of the five post-game DLC's.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
I realize I listed a lot of negatives, but they weren't too bad overall. To use a crappy analogy, it'd be like buying a cheeseburger and finding that it doesn't look as nice as the one on the menu — but it tastes fantastic (although keep in mind this is AFTER a registry tweak to fix the major crash bug). My nitpicking doesn't have much to do with the gameplay, which is pretty top-notch. There's a lot of history and character to the world, and it's a lot of fun to explore and discover all the secrets. The DLC is fun and well-written and provides some actual new content, and not just more quests. And if you play all the way through you will definitely get your money's worth: to finish the main game, the DLC, and with a decent chunk of exploration, my play time was 52 hours. I would call it good, not great. After so much time in the same game world, it makes me want to play something else before I start on Fallout New Vegas.

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