Wandering The Wasteland

We’ve all been playing a lot of Fallout 3 lately. I had not decided to write anything about until now for a couple of reasons. First, I am lazy. Second, I think that if I like a game, I should give it a chance to become hateful before I write down how much I like it. Hating a game is different. If a game sucks in the first few hours, it hardly ever gets better.

So, Fallout 3 is good. Here are a couple of reasons why.

First, a short digression. One of my favorite games of all time is the first 2/3rds of Half-Life. Before you go to the psycho alien parallel universe disco, it was as pure a wonderful shooty experience as could be had before the year 2000. Of course, then it got hateful.

One of my favorite things to do in Half-Life was to sneak around with the crossbow. The trick was to creep carefully around a level and stay just outside the trigger radius of the creatures so they would not attack. Then I’d zoom in with the scope and thunk; one shot kill. This never got old.

Fallout 3 is the first game in memory to bring back this wonderful mechanic. Let me explain. The regular combat system in Fallout is much like Obvlivion where you can run up to the creatures and beat on them in real time. Happily, for those of use who are old, slow and uncoordinated, they have also implemented a system they call V.A.T.S. which is “turn based”.

What you get to do in V.A.T.S. is methodically target your weapon on whatever part of the enemy you wish to cripple. You can queue up a limited number of shots based on yoru character’s abilities. Time stands still while you do this, so you don’t have to worry about any embarrassing death while you think. Then you hit a button and your character unleashes hot lead in a perfectly choreographed slow motion bad-ass bullet time mini-cut scene, and your enemies die in horribly graphic ways.

It’s great.

More importantly, you can sneak up on enemies and do this to them. Therefore, Bethesda has inadvertently built a system that does an uncanny simulation of my favorite activity from Half-Life. Bravo. I could, and have, spend dozens of hours doing this.

There is a lot more to like about this game though. They have streamlined and fixed the leveling systems from Oblivion and made them much less min-maxy. The art and environmental design is for the most part spectacular. Although the endless subway stations sometimes seem too much the same. As is usual in Bethesda games, the world is full of delicious bite sized quests which you can do or leave alone at your whim.

Some may accuse Bethsoft of “merely” creating “Oblivion with guns”, a charge that always confused me because it assumes that such a thing would be a bad deal. I think a more accurate statement would be that they have created a much improved and polished version of something like Oblivion, but in a more interesting setting and with better game mechanics. Not a bad thing at all.

And yet, many of the standard Bethesda problems remain:

1. Main quest is not as interesting as the rest of the world: CHECK.

2. Dramatic cut scenes populated by animatronic robots: CHECK.

3. Creepy, almost inhuman face animation during dialog: CHECK.

4. Dialog trees full of the same expository text over and over again: CHECK.

5. Tedious and boring inventory management: CHECK.

Overall the NPC interactions have not improved a lot since Oblivion or, for that matter, since the last Fallout. But that should surprise no one. We still don’t know how to simulate people.

The quality of the dialog and character development is something of a mixed bag, varying from great to completely pedestrian. Bethesda seems to be at their best when they set up a short and sweet sidequest that is narratively contained and doesn’t require a lot of back story. My observation has been that the longer the quest goes, the more likely I am to feel bored near the end.

But overall I can’t complain too much. I have played more than two dozen hours and only a small amount of that time has felt perfunctory or tedious. I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the internet boards this week that can be summed up as:

“Man, this game starts to get old after you plow sixty hours into it, Bethesda really don’t know what they are doing.”

There seems to be a strange mental disease that infects the hard core gamer set that allows them to convince themselves that they have hated a game even though they played it for more time than they spend working in a week. These people are, of course, insane. If you play any game for multiple tens of hours, you have no right to claim you didn’t like it. Any rational being would give up on something they don’t like before the ten hour mark.

Happily, you will not have this problem with Fallout 3. The game is filled with a ton of content and will reward you if you wander around and seek it out. I say go ahead. You’ve got nothing to lose.