Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fallout 3

[Please bear with me as I work out style and format. I think that I'm going to skip detailing basic gameplay and setting, as most of that will have been covered in other venues--it's part of the hype.]

The most enthralling element of Fallout 3 has to be the environment. It's detailed, quirky, imaginative, and ultimately immersive. Aside from a few underground locations (the ant tunnels, some of the subways, the mirelurk nests), I never felt like I was playing through a level. The buildings all feel like they have an architectural plan designed for living or working. One of my favorite touches is that most large buildings will have multiple entrances, relieving you of the tedium of retracing your steps just to leave--and offering that much more verisimilitude, since I've never met a house without a back door. Also interesting is that un-enterable buildings invariably have barricaded or boarded doors instead of simply having non-functional doors. The opposite is true as well, if the door looks like it works, you can go in. Admittedly, the flow of a level can be difficult to determine: it's easy to miss huge sections of the larger buildings unless you make a conscious effort to explore it all.

The public buildings feel correct, which seems to me far more important than being correct. Indeed, I imagine that a slavishly detailed reconstruction of every office and room in the Capitol would grow tedious to play. As it is, there're some locations where room-clearing becomes irritating. For instance, the Statesman Hotel is at least eight or ten stories tall, with a dozen mostly-empty hotel rooms on each one.

My one consistent complaint about the environmental design is the relatively low model count. While each building is filled with appropriate stuff (including trash and rubble on the floor), after you've been to one building of that type, you've seen everything that will be in the others. Every factory has the same bank of glowing dials and knobs; every radio is the same design; every fridge is filled with the same mouldering fruit. Even after I'd explored most of the locations, it was still fun to explore the others. But the stuff in those locations stopped being interesting about halfway through the game.

One other prevalent, though lesser, defect in the environment design is the lack of interactive objects. Most objects, in fact, aren't even simulated in physics. You can shoot an office chair with a rocket, and it sits perfectly still in exactly the same position it was before you started. Contrast that with dead bodies that stick around forever (contributing to save files that grow from 1MB at start to 10MB by the end), and it feels more than a little weird. Basically, though, if an object isn't a terminal, a radio, a safe, a door, or an inventory item, you can't touch it.

Combat is acceptable and cinematic, although repetitive and, at high levels, unchallenging. The VATS system is an excellent effort at merging the turn-based combat of the previous Fallout titles with modern realtime expectations. However, this also means that the tactic from the previous titles of spending every action point on head shot after head shot carries through. I almost never found it worthwhile to target any other part of an enemy, except for their weapon in situations where their head was unhittable.

There are certainly annoyances with combat. The VATS system takes your orders and carries them out regardless of changing circumstances, and without any way to belay your instructions. It frequently happened that I would queue up a magazine's worth of head shots, only to have my target move behind cover just as I started shooting, causing me to waste all of my action points and much scarce ammo on decalling a wall. And, when you're out of action points, the only rational tactic is to run backwards shooting wildly. It also tends to focus for seconds on the flying, dismembered head of your target instead of returning control so that you can deal with his friend.

The skill-based combat system also leads to some bizarre results. Since realtime combat depends not only on where you're aiming, but also on your skill with that weapon, it's possible to miss at point blank range. With a shotgun. As a result, the shots from your weapon will sometimes veer away from the muzzle by 45 degrees.

Long range combat is also broken. A rocket launcher scores more kills (due to splash damage) than a sniper rifle at the same range. I found this ridiculous, and it significantly cheapened the value of the semi-automatic rifles and scoped pistols. However, given that most combat happens inside of fifty meters, I just switched to assault rifles and went on my way.

The selection of weaponry is original and varied. While most wasteland raiders are armed with the same rinky-dink rifles, there tends to be at least one unique weapon in each category that can only be gotten by completing a quest or killing a specific NPC. I especially liked the inclusion of Lincoln's Repeater, a high-damage lever-action rifle you retrieve from the National Archives. I don't know that Lincoln ever owned such a weapon (it seems an anachronism), but it was fun to have a weapon with "historical value".

The one complaint I have about the weapons is that Bethesda saw fit to include weapon deterioration. I fucking hate weapon deterioration. I own firearms. And while most firearms need to be maintained and cleaned regularly, they don't go from new to broken in five hundred rounds. Hell, most of my guns don't even need to be cleaned that often.

It really gets in the way of roleplaying. It becomes impossible to play a character with a signature weapon. You can't name your shotgun Betsy and eschew all other weapons, because Betsy is going to break down halfway through clearing the Capitol. You either have to carry a bevy of otherwise-identical shotguns to keep yours in repair, or accept that you'll be using a different weapon until you can find somebody to repair it.

I do understand why game developers feel they need to include such a mechanic. It would be weird in a game with trade and "economy" for me to only be able to pick up the first assault rifle I ever came across, and only take the ammo from the rest (as in an FPS). And, if I could pick them all up, but they're all equally pristine, then it would become the equivalent of a free money glitch--or, perhaps, weapons would have unrealistically low values.

But, couldn't the issues of economy be solved with a non-deteriorating condition system? It doesn't seem at all an unwarranted assumption that all the wasteland raiders and super mutants would have low-quality weapons that went unmaintained in the centuries since their production. Let all of them have crappy weapons that do less damage, and have almost no trade value. Then it becomes a quest to track down a good assault rifle, instead of just paying through the nose to get it repaired--or upping your own repair skill and collecting ten identical weapons to cannibalize.

Mechanical quibbles aside, Fallout 3 has far more going for it than against. The characters are varied and unique. Unique enough that I truly felt that I needed to help some of them, and that I needed to murder others of them. Especially memorable are the proprietor of the general store in Megaton, the radio personality Three Dog, and the duelling super heroes.

Children and main characters are unkillable; the former for the censors' sensibilities, and the latter so that the main quest doesn't stall. But, otherwise, everybody is fair game. And, indeed, I got one of my very best weapons by shooting my unwanted partner in the back after we'd found the loot.

I also especially like the use of radio. Instead of a game score, you can tune in to several different radio stations: from Chinese propaganda to vintage vinyl. The content of these stations can eventually get repetitive (unlike the radio in GTA), but there's something deeply satisfying about blowing away wave after wave of super mutants while listening to The Ink Spots.

The number and variety of quests is also excellent. I can't recall more than a handful of fetch quests. And those tended to be for generic items that I was frequently already carrying. Most of the go-kill-that quests can also be solved non-violently. While the loot guarded by random creatures often seems paltry, the rewards for quests are often unique items or perks that cannot be found anywhere else. The quests also do a good job of leading you in or close to many of the interesting sites in the world, while also leaving plenty of exploration for a motivated player.

And it's that exploration that really gives Fallout 3 its lasting appeal. This is one of the very few games that I've had any desire to explore exhaustively. It never stops feeling like every little house and convenience store could have yet another funny, inscrutable, or horrific tableau inside. At this point, I've put in 150 hours of game time and visited literally every location on the map (I took the Explorer perk). And I have a strong feeling that I'll do it all again next year.


  1. 1. The radio is fun, but only at first. It gets really old, however, once I've heard "Anything Goes" for the 5th time in a game session, followed by Threeeeeee Dooooooog recounting the same stories over and over again. They need more music and more stuff, even if unrelated to my character's actions, to talk about. Beyond that, the other radio stations are little more than short propaganda loops: the Chinese station loops the same minute-long monologue over and over again, while the handful of of minute-long monologues on Voice of America radio (or whatever the other one is called) is entertaining for the first 20min of play.

    2. The economy is also flawed because everything has the same value everywhere. If I'm buying ammo from someone, the price should change according to how much they have. as an example, Brotherhood of Steel fighters should either have more than normal, since they're soldiers, or less than normal, since they use it more often.

    3. The variety of enemies to be found in the wasteland is thin for a game about exploration. If you want us to go out and explore the gigantic map you've made, shouldn't there be something worth finding instead of another fucking radscorpion? The ruined convenience stores and houses, by the way, all started to look the same to me after I'd travelled a bit. DC looks good though.

    4. The color palette, while probably fairly accurate for a post-apocalyptic scenario, is terribly boring and makes trekking through the wasteland monotonous.

    5. The design of DC is aggravating. Why does the rubble block off all but one or two paths through the city? It's like a corridor FPS.

  2. 1) I think you're right about the repetition of the radio, and I should have mentioned it.

    I don't think the problem is just that they didn't get enough licensed content. I think it's more that they didn't think about matching the amount of radio content to the actual length of the game. I've spent 150 hours in game... there's nowhere near 150 hours of radio.

    Now, that would be too much to expect. But, it would be nice to have at least 25-50 hours of content there. GTA manages not to get too repetitious with its radio, so it's obviously possible.

    2) Prices are not identical everywhere. Buying from the Brotherhood of Steel is more expensive than buying the same gear in Rivet City. But, they are similar.

    I don't really consider this a flaw, though, just a simplification.

    3) I found the variety of enemies to be acceptable. Yes, it would have been nice to see a couple more. But, ultimately, I just figured that not much had survived nuclear war. I don't *want* to see a thriving ecosystem; I want Mad Max dessert vistas.

    As for the convenience stores and houses. I guess I feel like most of them should look the same; and it made the unique ones that much more rewarding.

    I think the key thing to keep in mind is how long you're playing the game. If, in a single playthrough, you go and explore absolutely everything, of course it'll get boring. You've been playing a game released on a single DVD for 100+ hours... I don't care how awesome a design studio you are, you can't cram 100 hours worth of totally unique content with totally unique resources onto one DVD.

    4) Yeah, there is that.

    5) The design of DC is aggravating. But, it's also necessary. And, as I think about it, I should have mentioned this when I talked about places feeling like levels.

    But, it really is required, as far as I can tell. Otherwise, you're going to cross all of DC in five minutes. And, on top of that, you're going to constantly wonder why you can't go into 98% of the buildings.

    Think about GTA... how annoying does it get to wander through a whole city, but only have two dozen doors you can actually open.

  3. I'm addicted to Fallout 3, except the radio and the enemies. Yao Guai is available even you are on lower level/XP, its not fair...


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