Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fallout 3: Overall Impressions

The best overall look at what I think of Fallout 3 you’ll find in my Gameshark review. I think it’s a pretty fair look at the game that removes as much personal bias as you can expect from something that is totally subjective. For the blog, as I’m sure you’d expect, I’m totally running with personal bias. What I’ll probably do is take ideas discussed briefly in the review and expand on them in more detail here. There will be some overlap with the review in this post. Also, for this post I’ll avoid spoilers –for the most part- but after this I’m going to be less careful about it. You've been warned.

First thing’s first, this is a good game. I suspect I’m going to spend a lot of time tearing it to shreds in these posts (I do it out of love, I swear), but don’t let that dissuade you from playing it. I’m not disappointed in Fallout 3 because it’s a bad game. I’m disappointed in it because it could’ve been, should’ve been, a great game. It has all the elements and falls short because of a series of bad plotting and design decisions that didn’t have to be made.

One thing that should be absolutely clear before I make like the McCain campaign and go 100% negative, Bethesda has absolutely nailed the art direction in Fallout 3. The game is a beautiful representation of the Fallout world and it’s very, very faithful to the first two games. Venturing out into the wasteland for the first time is an instant feast for the eye. Walking around the ruined outskirts of DC is just gravy. Tasty Thanksgiving Day gravy. I love it and it doesn’t get old. Unfortunately, getting the look right is only half the battle. I can dress myself up like Elvis, but that doesn’t mean I can sing and Fallout 3’s singing voice –while not as bad as mine- could use a good vocal coach; maybe the one who coached Dr. Horrible on his laugh.

When I was talking to fellow Gameshark hack and frequent blog commenter Brandon about my thoughts on the game he took to the exact same comparison that I was thinking of. Bethesda is to Fallout what Neversoft is to Guitar Hero. Neversoft was able to replicate the overall look and feel of Guitar Hero when they took over the reigns of that franchise for GH3. But if you were a fan of the first two games it was obvious they just didn’t have the knack for it that the franchise creator, Harmonix, had. It’s much the same here as Bethesda has replicated the Fallout look, but it’s missing the wit and smarts that really made the franchise sing under the stewardship of Black Isle Studios. The difference is Harmonix went on to bring us Rock Band (a superior game in every way) and Black Isle/Interplay went on to nothing.

Right from the beginning Bethesda starts making the plot bend illogically to meet the needs of their play mechanics. I touch on this in the review, but I want to get into it here since it’s a perfect example from the very beginning of the game and isn’t nearly as spoilery as other stuff that I’ll probably get into in future posts. (It is a little spoilery, though.) The Overseer of Vault 101 is in no way, shape or form believable. They set him up as a heavy-handed, but nonetheless benevolent dictator. Fine. But we’re also to believe he’s been leading people, relatively successfully through the years and then, in one completely unexplained turn of events, he morphs into Mussolini and the rest of the people in authority just go right along with it, as they gun down and assault anyone who doesn’t heed a call to stay in their quarters during a lockdown. (By anyone I mean my character, two nameless vault dwellers and an NPC you get to know a little during character building.)

These people have spent their whole lives sharing the same relative space. The Vault is their home and there’s no need or desire to leave. Their credo is, “You’re born here, you die here.” And just because my character’s daddy escapes and some radiated bugs overrun the facility, putting it in lockdown, the Overseer and his henchmen are now okay with acting like Chinese troops at Tiananmen Square? I don’t buy it. And where the irradiated bugs come from or how they managed to inhabit and wreck every corner of Vault 101 is never explained.

This is Bethesda being far too lazy with crafting their story and your character’s place in it. They did a fine job of establishing your character’s father and giving you a decent, if pat, introduction to the vault world in which you reside. As you play into the game the reason your dad leaves the vault is also made perfectly believable. But at no point does what happens when dad leaves, and the game really begins, make sense. And it could have. Given that you see various moments of your character’s life growing up, they could have established the Overseer as someone capable but who succumbed to paranoia and madness. They could’ve plausibly made the lockdown more believable by putting robots in place of the human security forces that would’ve enforced the Overseer’s will without conscience or remorse. If they wanted to go the extra mile, they could’ve shown the vault’s human security people fighting back against the Overseer’s unjust actions, successfully or no. Or they could’ve gone in a completely different direction. The point is, your exit from the vault didn’t have to be so utterly clumsy and unbelievable. (One thing I’ve neglected to do, but plan to eventually, is return to Vault 101. I suspect you can’t get back in, but so much is left hanging there when you leave that it would be incredibly cool if the story there progressed while you’re gone. I’m not holding my breath.)

If this were the only instance of the plot breaking down like this, I wouldn’t give it much more than a second thought. The problem is that this sort of thing happens a lot as you follow the main plotline. It’s not so glaring with the side quests, which are plentiful and well worth your time to do, but there are moments when following the main plot that just make me want to tear my hair out. There are times where it feels like someone at Bethesda came up with a scenario in the game over their lunch break and never bothered to sit down and actually refine it. It’s just so goddammed frustrating that Bethesda was so close to nailing this game and just couldn’t be bothered to think through their plotting.

Now, if you’re in the, “this game looks like Oblivion with guns,” crowd, I’m going to disappoint you. The changes made to how the game plays, relative to Fallout 1 or 2, are not bad. If you simply have to have a Fallout 1 or 2 isometric experience you will be disappointed. Hey, I wanted the isometric perspective brought back as much as anybody. I still prefer it. But there’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with playing a Fallout game in the first person. (The over-the-should third-person camera I did not like at all. Don’t expect playing the game that way to approximate an isometric view.) As an RPG shooter, this game is immediately reminiscent of a Deus Ex or a System Shock 2, which are two pretty good games. It works. So, as much as I’d of preferred an interface more like what we got with The Witcher, I’m happy to live with what Bethesda has produced.

And VATS? I didn’t like it at first, but it’s grown on me. I found it to be a very necessary tool because enemies in combat jitter around the screen too much for me to really target them. I haven’t decided if that’s because I suck at shooters or if Bethesda rigged enemies so that it was too tough to hit them consistently without using VATS. I suspect it’s a bit of both because there are times enemies seem to shift to the left and right based solely on how I’m aiming at that moment. It was frustrating, but VATS came to the rescue.

Is this game for you? As I note at the end of the review, I think the answer to that is yes, despite its many flaws. Some people will hate it no matter what because it’s so different from the first two games. You can’t make everybody happy. I will say that if you doggedly pursue only the main quest, you’re really going to miss out. The first third of the main quest storyline is probably the least fun part of the game, because it can feel like you’re progressing on rails. It’s not long before you have to go to downtown DC, a place that Bethesda –to a fault, I think- made too difficult to navigate (conveniently collapsed buildings blocking roads and such). But if you focus more on the side quests early on, you’ll see that outside of downtown DC the game world is really open to exploration. Also, if you only pursue the main quest you’ll only encounter a fraction of the places on the World map. So do yourself a favor and take your time. It’s a big detailed world and it’s worth seeing.

The bottom line is that Fallout 3 is a good game. It helps me to think, say and write that as often as possible, because it’s easy to get caught up in the avalanche of ways in which it came up short. Just how much you will like it is tough to say. I think there’s a parallel here with the world of comic books. In comics all fans have some appreciation of the art and the writing and how they’re used together to tell a story. But some fans are more art/imagery oriented and some people are more writing/story oriented. I think gamers can be much the same and I think that gamers who like good graphics will adore Fallout 3 (by good I mean exemplary attention to detail in world building, not flash over substance). I think gamers who focus more on writing and plot will be irritated by the same sorts of issues that I’ve gotten stuck on.