Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fallout 3 Mini-Review

Overall, I'm really enjoying Fallout 3. I think I can best sum up my reaction by noting that I look forward to getting home so that I can return to wandering through the devastation of the Capital Wasteland.

I've got some other games lined up after Fallout 3 that I'm looking forward to playing. But I already know I'm going to feel a sense of loss (probably mixed with a little relief) when I've finished poking my current character's nose into every single ruined office building, Metro tunnel and cave complex in this game.

It's just that absorbing to me.

That's not to say I've found it to be a perfect game. Right now I've got two major complaints and one minor peeve.

Major complaints:

* Crash to desktop errors after VATS slowdown when encountering multiple raiders. Completely turning off antialiasing is a workaround for this particular bug, but after what I paid for my gaming rig I'm not happy about accepting jaggies in my gameworld just to be able to play it without crashing.

* Only halfway through exploring the world (and halfway, I think, through the main quest), I hit the level cap. This just stuns me. The gameworld is still interesting to explore, but I miss getting a little XP and the occasional fun perk. The thing is, if this bothers me, how must other, more leveling-oriented gamers be feeling about it? Months from now, when I start a new game with a new character, I can change this overly-rapid progression through the game using player-created mods to reduce some kinds of earned XP... but why in the world should Bethesda have balanced normal progression so that I'd need to apply a mod?

Minor gripe:

* The patriotism and anti-Communist concerns of 1950s USA are persistently lampooned as mere mindless jingoism. I don't mind poking some fun at this, and it's not inconsistent with the vibe of previous Fallout games, but the constant "oh, weren't they so silly" is getting on my nerves.

Those things noted, there are some things that I find I'm particularly enjoying:

* Large world with massive amounts of content. Bethedsa said they'd make the world of Fallout 3 smaller than that in Oblivion, but with more content per unit area, and that this would keep the action going more consistently. I think they succeeded.

* Generally interesting locations. I lived near DC for ten years, so perhaps more than some other players I found it a real hoot to visit locations I knew personally and see how Bethesda had twisted them. Other, made-up locations were (with a few standout exceptions like Rivet City) considerably less interesting -- why, for example, is nearly every house that's still standing built to almost exactly the same plan? And the office/tunnel/cave "dungeon construction kit" for F3 is obviously congruent with the tomb/mine/cave dungeon texture-map system used in Oblivion. Even so, the overall design of locations was good, and occasionally rose to excellence.

* Consistent aesthetic vision. The Capital Wasteland is grim, which is exactly as it should be, both for any post-nuclear-apocalypse game and for one that's inspired by the two previous Fallout games. The occasional bit of dark humor (check out the logs of the hotel next to the hospital, for example) only emphasizes how much has been lost. The few NPCs who are optimists seem crazy. The "tone" is just really well done.

* Much more satisfying voice acting than in Oblivion. The quality of the voice acting isn't that much better; it's that F3 used a lot more actors than the four (other than Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean) they used in Oblivion. It's surprising how much this variety in voices makes interacting with F3's NPCs more enjoyable.

* Dialog (quest and otherwise) is generally well-written. I can't think of any NPC interactions that I'd call badly done, and there are a couple that I thought were absolutely brilliant. (Go talk to Cerberus in Underworld, for example -- great stuff!)

* Many different weapons with perceptibly different charactersistics. This creates interesting choices: should I try to one-shot that giant radscorpion from afar with one of my precious .308 rounds, or would it be better to risk injury by getting up-close and personal with the Chinese assault rifle for which I have lots of ammo? That's fun gameplay, that is. (There's also lots of different armor, but I didn't find it to be as distinctive. I've basically only worn two types through the entire game so far.)

* As in most games, there's not really enough variety of enemy types for my taste (I count only eleven basic types), and group AI among enemies is not outstanding. But VATS is a hoot! As other reviewers have noted, you might think that using VATS to make someone explode in slow motion would get old fast, but it never does.

* Integration of character attributes, skills, and perks with dynamic gameplay is generally good. Pretty much all of them matter, if only in a few NPC dialog options. But some of them (such as charisma) would have benefited from being amped up and more uses found for them.

* The use of "karma" to define one's character as "good" or "evil" is handled pretty well... as far as I can tell, having played only a "good" character. There do seem to be some consequences, but they're minor. I'll have a better idea of whether karma really matters once I've played through F3 again, only next time as the most vicious, hard-bitten scum imaginable.

* The hacking and lockpicking minigames are competently implemented. They're both too simple and too frequently encountered to be enjoyable for long, but they're not so complex or so frequent that they get too annoying.

* There are companion NPCs, which is a really nice touch. Not only does this also echo previous Fallout games, one NPC in particular creates an astonishingly compelling "Mad Max"-like experience.

* There's even a minor crafting subgame!

On balance, I'm definitely getting my money's worth from this game (unlike other games, such as the brilliant but far too short COD4). Fallout 3 is not the greatest game I've ever played -- Deus Ex still owns that title.

But it's darned close. With mods and eventual expansions, it might come even closer.

All I really have to complain about is that Bethesda has decided to make their official downloadable content available only through Microsoft's Games for Windows Live client. Grrrrrrrrr....

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