Sunday, April 11, 2010

X360 look - Fallout 3 : Game of the Year Edition

Today I'm feeling a bit courteous so I'll spare everyone the boring intro. Like War the Fallout series is something that never changes and even with Bethesda at the helm the game is all about surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I've always wondered about that "survival" part. To me if a game is going to emphasize survival they could stand to put a bit of effort into it.

I think an explanation is in order. If I live in a world where all of the food and water is irradiated and I have to somehow eke out a living despite the constant threat of Super Mutants, Raiders, and giant animals why would I wander around worrying about the future? Well I guess that's because I'm not an Android. Without the burdens of humanity like food, water, sleep, and emotion I can focus on the important stuff such as killing everyone, upgrading my stats, and playing dress-up. I say this because the main character of Fallout 3 must be an Android.

In the intro the player navigates the implanted memories of their Android. It's the typical tale of "mother doesn't survive childbirth, father decides to run off and save the world". The details aren't important though expect to hear something about Alpha this and Omega that whenever you manage to run into daddy. In these early stages the player learns how to move around and kill things. In this five minute tutorial they learn everything they need to know to survive in the Wasteland.

After leaving the Vault the Android quickly establishes itself as the most dominant life-form in Washington D.C. The townspeople of nearby Megaton immediately recognize this Replicant as somebody to look out for. Everyone the player talks to will say something to the effect of "I've been waiting for someone to do this and this for me." Now I doubt everyone in the wasteland is lazy as it's a dangerous world out there but is it really impossible to give the impression that our playable Android isn't the only person that can handle everything?

Since constantly referring to our main character as "the Android" gets annoying let's start calling her Jenna. The most important aspect of Jenna is that she is truly the beginning and the end. In her adventures she will meet people who have waited their entire lives for Jenna to determine their fate. One day Jenna might happen upon a prisoner. He is bound with his hands tied behind his back and must have been sitting here for eons. Jenna could kill all of the raiders in the vicinity but this prisoner will sit and wait until she decides to let him go or put a bullet into his skull. When Jenna makes this decision is anyone's guess as she could just as likely ignore him and wander away for several years. No worries though because if she returns she will discover the prisoner still alive, still perfectly content, and still waiting for her to pass judgment.

Though days and nights pass they have no effect on the lives of the people Jenna encounters. They are all waiting for things to happen and if Jenna doesn't show up these things will never come to pass. It's convenient for those who prefer exploration over keeping appointments but nobody even tries to say otherwise whenever Jenna tells them she's busy with something else. Nobody dares to question Jenna because not only will she refuse she can also kill them and toss their corpse around for fun.

Jenna might not be invincible but she's more than any human is capable of. She sustains her life via a diet of the occasional stimpack and a one hour nap will recharge her health as well as mend any crippled limbs. Unlike mere humans Jenna does not fight for survival because it comes unnatural to her. When she encounters hostiles or is just bored she can stop time at any moment to switch weapons/equipment, heal, or aim for a particular spot on an enemy. On its own Fallout 3 plays as well as any sub-standard shooter would and it just doesn't work.

The thing to understand about Fallout 3's lousy combat is that it is tied down by limitations. This game uses Oblivion's engine and while it could be a lot worse it's still nothing that could be considered competent when compared to a game that actually focuses on being a first-person shooter. A lot of fights are clunky and one-dimensional as enemies will either rush the player or shoot at them from afar with seemingly infinite ammo. These generic encounters are the basis for every fight in the game and the few variances wouldn't even amount to the level of a demo of an actual shooter.

The other limitation is since this game is a sequel it must use elements from prior games. While the other Fallouts used an interesting system that was part turn-based and part S-RPG this one just takes one of the most memorable elements and attempts to build combat around it. I can't remember what V.A.T.S. is supposed to stand for but in this game all it amounts to is pausing the action in order to get that perfect shot. Upon choosing an enemy and one of their body parts as a target Jenna will attack for the determined number of times or as many as the quickly recharged AP will allow. There are some advantages to fighting in real-time but not nearly enough for V.A.T.S. to become anything other than abusable.

Both of these unfortunate limitations are compounded by the fact that the system for doing and taking damage just doesn't make any sense. While Jenna can cripple any or all body parts of an enemy(all being arms, legs, torso, and head) the actual effect it has to the extent of the enemy accidentally placing their hand on a hot oven burner. They suffer a temporary setback but they shake it off before long and continue like nothing happened...okay maybe they'll limp a bit too. Jenna is a bit sadistic so the idea of rendering enemies helpless before she decides to put them out of their misery sounds so sweet. In practice however Jenna can't get anyone to the point where all they can do is lie in a crumpled but still breathing heap. Every time she is denied the desperate cries of mercy of the helpless she is annoyed and frustrated at the world she's been designed for. Jenna can also become crippled but the only time it actually seems to happen is when rocket-launcher packing enemies start firing. It seems to be several times more effective when Jenna is crippled than when a human is which is odd to say the least.

None of this really matters since outside of the highest difficulty combat is not something to worry about. The simple fact of the matter is that Jenna is just too powerful for her enemies. This is partly due to a scaling system which ties enemy strength to player level but no matter the numbers Jenna has every advantage. Stim-packs are a chief annoyance as they're plentiful, very cheap, and can be used whenever Jenna feels the need. Worries about ammo and weapons are non-existent as there are always far more than need be of both and even in the earliest stages of the game Jenna is packing an arsenal that would put those pretentious knob-heads in the Brotherhood of Steel to shame. Every setback up to and including death is little more than a minor inconvenience as progress can be saved anywhere and it seems like Jenna can't walk five feet without tripping over a discarded mattress that doubles as a life-restoring bed. Even Japanese-RPG heroes need a full night's sleep to recover from mortal wounds. All Jenna has to do is score a nap on a bed covered in corpses with possibly a urine stain or two and she's golden.

I think this was Bethesda's attempt at making the game "open-ended" in that while casual players can indulge in stim-packs and enjoy the world with constant saves the hardcore will relish every living moment and delete all of their saves if they die. Though if you ask me I'd say that the people who try to play this game the hardcore way are chumps. There are other ways to heal aside from stim-packs but they involve consuming food and drink. It's not so much that nearly everything contains radiation but the HP they actually restore is so pitiful I don't see the point. To heal even the most minor of wounds would require an ice-box of food and that isn't exactly convenient due to weight limits. The radiation might be useful if it could be converted to give superpowers but then I remembered this is a videogame and not a comic book as there it would be believable.

In keeping with the Game of the Year tradition this release of Fallout 3 contains every piece of major DLC on a single disc. It's certainly a nice addition though I gotta say there's a lot of disappointment to match all of the good qualities. To start with Operation Anchorage adds a Virtual Reality mission that drops the RPG elements which means nothing but shooting people. Yeah it's not one of the better packages but it does reward some nice stuff which is pretty game-breaking if gotten towards the beginning of a new game. The Pitt is a definite improvement though it quickly ruins the idea of being a slave trapped in a completely hostile land. This is more of a tour guide through the hell that has become of Pittsburgh and fresh corpses in every house has become so old-fashioned. Broken Steel tacks on a conclusion to the main story but you have to get through that which probably isn't happening for me anytime soon. Point Lookout is a pretty massive area and provides a very memorable moment in its main quest line, I'm only annoyed by the lack of good weapons and equipment. Mothership Zeta is probably the last quest anyone should do as the rewards include some pretty insane weaponry and at times I wonder if its even worth suffering through when it's nothing but hallways of aliens to zap. All in all it's better to go with this set than without.

With all of that out of the way let's talk about what I love about this game. First let's get back to Jenna. What makes Jenna such a great character is her complete lack of empathy for those around her. This game judges Jenna's actions via karma. As we all know karma is meaningless nonsense that we tend to confuse with coincidence or even irony. Whatever happens happens and the actions we make in life are not guided by mystical forces. In Fallout 3 nobody really cares about your karma. You blow up a town, shoot through dozens of innocent people, you'll still hear "welcome!" and "enjoy your stay!" whenever you visit a new place. So in Jenna's case she just killed the town sheriff and nobody bats an eye. Jenna just removed the sheriff's head and is parading around town holding it and everyone is still talking to her like nothing is happening. You might chalk this up as faults with the A.I. but I see it as recognition as Jenna's status as a divine being. Oh no she's not just any Replicant she's a Goddess and whenever she passes judgment upon someone aside from some exceptions nobody will dare to cross her.

It could be that Jenna's lack of compassion is a direct response to this game failing to provide any characters worth caring about. I'm not an emotion-less person. In fact I'd say that I can be brought to tears fairly easily. I cried through Terms of Endearment, I teared up at Wall-E, I was moved by books like East of Eden, hell I was even touched by some of the scenes in freaking Tales of Vesperia. I am not a robot but since Fallout 3's cast is so mundane and under-developed I don't feel anything when they meet their bitter end, especially when it's by Jenna's hands. see I like doing a little Replicant test. It's sort of like how in Blade Runner Decker would ask possible Replicants whether or not they'd eat a dead baby while checking their pupils or something. Actually nevermind all that Jenna just shoots someone until either they die or they fall unconscious. This is a pretty solid test when you consider that the guy who guards the bridge to Rivet City is actually a Replicant. Okay sure without him you might not be able to cross the bridge to progress the story but that's a minor detail. Off the top of my head I believe Jenna's father and even a couple of his associates are also Replicants.

I'll admit that at first I was a little bugged out by this. At one point Jenna got sick of her father's inane babbling and put an unheard of number of bullets into his body. While this did not have the effect she desired it was amusing hearing James say "Well aren't we clumsy today." in response. While knocked out Jenna is free to pick up their bodies and toss them off ledges which is always nice. Unfortunately for plot reasons some of the mecha decide to become real boys or girls so they can be effectively killed off.

For all that James likes to quote Revelations I wonder why he never bothered to quote Gigolo Joe from the movie A.I. : "They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us." When you think about it it kind of makes sense cause after all the reason Fallout's world is the mess that it is is due to humans and Jenna, James, and all of their mecha-friends are stuck with clean-up duty. While the real explanation is that Bethesda didn't want any ways for the player to screw themselves out of completing the main story I think my "they're all Replicants" version is just a bit more imaginative and a lot more fun.

Then again maybe it just ties in with my ideal Fallout 3 play-through because I will not stop until Jenna has ended the lives of every human she meets. The children? Well I don't know what to do about them. I'm not sure the game does either as they're scared to admit where babies come from let alone admit that at one time children were just as vulnerable to the effects of murder as adults.

So maybe what I love about the game isn't quite what the developers intended. The combat which is such a big part of the game just makes me want to write nasty things about it and the cast of characters are more interesting when they're dead rather than alive but hey who cares about all that? I can carry dismembered corpses around while on-lookers make completely inappropriate comments. I also completely forgot to mention that I can do all this while Jenna is wearing a nightie.


  1. I beat this game twice and loved every aspect of it.

  2. Yeah I'm actually trying to juggle 3 playthroughs at once. Despite what I think of this game I doubt I'll be able to quit playing it for quite awhile.