Friday, October 31, 2008

"I don't want to set the world on fire..."

A day or so before Fallout 3 was released, I took a gander at the copy of the game manual that STEAM provided. It was part of my vetting process, along with watching and re-watching the five gameplay videos, as I decided whether or not I would make a purchase in the end. The introduction to the manual proposes that we find the idea of a nuclear aftermath compelling because history has no analogous situation for us to reflect on. I think that while this may be so, the real reason that we find stories set in the armageddon's aftermath is easy to discern when you observe who the characters are...or rather, what they are: Human (or something like it). With the exception of something like On the Beach, the moment you see a human form wandering the irradiated wastelands you know that no matter how terrifying you find the idea of a nuclear holocaust there is, at least in this fictional universe, hope for the future of our kind. Self-evident in the term “post-apocalypse” is the concept of something after The End of all Things. It's not a perfect analogue to “afterlife” - more like “afterdeath” but we could take that to mean the same thing anyway - nevertheless the idea behind both terms is the same: they exist to comfort us with the hope that after we, and others pass on (whether one by one or en masse), there will be something, more accurately someone to carry on thereafter.

As you have probably surmised by now, I am now a proud Fallout 3 owner. I have yet to finish the game, but I decided to offer a compilation of my first, second, and third impressions (in plain terms, I've played I would guess about 10 hours of the game so far. The time counter seems to be bugged here under Linux, but I will edit this post with the exact information sometime later today EDIT: Steam's time counter is messed up in Windows as well. Fortunately the game keeps count and tells me that as of the time I was writing this my playtime was 15:14:08). I'm not a huge consumer of post-apocalyptic fiction, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the stuff. I have not played either Fallout 1, nor Fallout 2. I think this is a valuable perspective to have when considering a game, as are those of a diehard Fallout fan, and a Mad-Max junkie as well. What I want to address is whether or not Fallout 3 is a good game on its own merits.

The narrative structure of the initial character creation phase (which begins with your birth) is very linear, but also very compelling. I don't want to give away the details, but suffice it to say Bethesda did a very clever job of integrating character creation into the setting, and into the game. From almost the get-go, you can be a sappy, golly-gee-whiz good guy, or a right prick to everyone. There are about three options for any dialogue (sound familiar, anyone?), with the moderate response representing a range from neutral-good to lawful neutral (in D&D terms). While it is nice to have a legitimate alternative to ridiculous altruism (for reference, my play style tends to be “I'll be really nice about doing stuff for you, but I'm not going to say no to payment. Energy cells for my Laser pistol don't grow on trees, dammit!), I think that the game could stand to alter your options as you establish a character to give the player a greater range of options from his or her chosen moral stance. Even while playing a very-good “Ranger of the Wastes”, I still have the option in many dialogues to say what amounts to “time to die, punk!”. While this does help if you like to play schizophrenic characters (see previous posts on gaming), I'm not sure if it helps most gamers. The way I hear it, a lot of gamers tend to play through once as the good guy (to complete the game), and then once they're sick to death of getting missions from every NPC from here to Beijing, they roll up the good 'ol Hitler-Skeletor hybrid and CRUSH THE PUNY PLEBES WHERE THEY STAND. So the utility of an evil response for a player who is being good (or vice versa) isn't really apparent. They could at least replace it with something more polite that wouldn't cost you Karma if slaying someone could be justified, ie. “I am forced to purge the wasteland of your malevolence forever!”. I think that such an approach wouldn't require rewriting much dialogue, and it would be helpful to players who want to feel very heroic when they declare that it is time for a villainous cretin to MEET HIS TIMELY END.

So, once you leave the vault (again, play the game if you want story/details), the game opens up and presents you with a substantial map, your first main quest goal, and a whole lot of autonomy. Sure you can go to the nearby town to make some inquieries, but you don't really have to. I suppose it would be a little hard for a character using primarily ranged weapons to forego the first opportunity to stock up on ammunition, but I digress. Like its sibling Oblivion, Fallout 3 has fast-travel, but with the caveat that you must first “discover” a destination by hoofing it there. I find this an ideal balance, because it makes questing quite painless without removing the need for exploration. It's also awesome when you're low on health, although this is a mixed blessing. It seems that your fast-travelling and even naps in potentially-hostile territory aren't ever interrupted by baddies along the way. While this will prevent a lot of irritating deaths for characters who are low on stimpacks and various irradiated foods, it makes the world feel less dangerous than it should, in a way. If I sleep in the ramshackle base of some bandits I just killed, I almost expect to be dragged awake by some punk or super mutant who wants to bag my carcass. It could be that this is a feature of higher difficulties (I am on the default in this game, I will report back with further information when I have it), but reserving an immersive feature from the default experience of the game I would find a questionable design choice.

If you've seen any reviews of Fallout 3 thus far, you've probably heard two constants: 1) V.A.T.S. Is the S.H.I.T., and there are some animation/AI glitches. Both are true. The Vaultec-Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) is not only the coolest, but the most excellent solution I have ever seen to the whole stats-versus-twitch accuracy problem in RPG shooters. Too much reliance on stats will make good shooter players feel like something isn't right in the engine as their perfectly-aimed shots fly wide due to behind the scenes dice rolls, and too much reliance on a player's FPS sk1llz will alienate less-dextrous folk who want to roleplay a straight-shootin' badass. Fallout 3 in its real-time mode is a little too stat-based for my tastes, I think (although it could just be that my utterly wrecked post-apocalyptic 10mm sidearm or laser pistol isn't all that precise). V.A.T.S. Does two important things: it pauses the game, and it tells you what % chance you have of hitting your intended body part/ target (you can shoot their weapon, if you like, and once you deal it enough damage it flies out of their hands!). You queue up attacks based on your Action Points (AP), which regenerate at a decent pace in real-time combat. Once you've set up all your attacks, you tap the use key, and watch as they are carried out in slow-motion from the obligatory DRAMATIC CAMERA ANGLES. While the game occasionally shows you a nonsensical view for watching what you just did (ie, missed), it's pretty awesome about letting you see just how incredibly dead you shot that guy when you score that critical hit. Squeamish? DO NOT PLAY FALLOUT 3. I must confess that I'm one of those weird dudes who takes it kind of personally when things (even AI-controlled ones) are trying to kill me in games, so it's pretty incredibly gratifying to watch in slow-mo as they are blasted asunder (often literally so) by my laser beams, bullets, or whatever. I've just taken the “Bloody Mess” perk at level 8 which increases the intensity of carnage you cause (AND grants you +5% damage with EVERYTHING), so I'll report back on just how brutal it gets. As for the AI and animation glitches, I'm hoping that Bethesda can patch these, as it tends to detract from immersion when that badass super mutant with the chaingun can't or won't turn to face you when you strafe him, allowing you to blast him repeatedly without reprisal, or when characters try to walk into walls before the game helpfully shunts them free of the obstacle. For a company that brags about having the most lifelike AI engine out there, they have a bit of 'splainin' to do.

There is a lot more that I want to say about Fallout 3, but since I really have to get some sleep or risk dozing through morning class will leave for tomorrow or a final review. If you want a recommendation, it's a qualified yes. It's a pretty fantastic experience so far, but if you've got a problem with contemporary RPGs, it won't change your mind. Despite its unique flavour and setting, there's something about the way Fallout 3 feels that makes it not so different from, say, Mass Effect. The dialogue is less cinematic, the combat moreso, and Fallout is on the whole better-executed, but pausable combat? The same “Yes-Maybe-No” dialogue options? Excruciatingly pretty graphics? A less-than-stellar inventory management system as a console-ation to those people playing with an utterly WRONG input device (although at least Fallout 3 doesn't force you to reduce surplus stock into useless omni-gel, and it organizes your items alphabetically)? It's all there! This isn't so much to say that Fallout 3 = a better Mass Effect*, so much as to impress upon people that you're still a glorified errand boy or girl (or mass murderer[ess], if that's how you roll) with some real kickass toys and a whole lot of terrain to explore. The wheel remains steadfastly un-re-invented (while this particular phrasing of the old idiom is clunky to be sure, keep the idea in mind, it will be relevant to an impending post when I tackle some non-videogame-related material. Stay tuned!)


*although it's definitely true that Fallout 3 is just better than Mass Effect.


Etarran said...

Just a quick thought: Remember Freelancer, when your travel sequences were interrupted? Remember how that didn't help with immersion at all, but did frequently make you quit the game in disgust at how long it took to get anywhere?

Much as I approve in general of immersive features and the idea that things keep happening even while I sleep or walk, being attacked while moving or sleeping mostly just serves to force unnecessary load screens on players, without giving them anything worthwhile. It's one thing to make the characters walk, and encounter stuff along the way. But the whole point of fast travel is that it's fast.

Loud said...

Well, I would be slamming the game if it interrupted me *every time* I used rapid travel or slept somewhere maybe hostile. Your point about Freelancer is well-taken, though; man was it ever impossible to go anywhere fast in that game!

Simon said...

I think the idea is that instead of sleeping in the wilderness, you are merely resting a la Oblivion. I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure you don't regenerate health unless you are in a bed.

Having worked my way through the main quest, I can tell you that Bethesda did a pretty solid job with the story-telling as well.

Daydream Believer said...

This game seems very similar to the geneforge series... but probably a lot prettier.

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