Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Ten Megaton Triumph! Break out the Fancy Lad snack cakes!

Another year, another attempt to resurrect my neglected blog. I have buried myself in all of the excellent game titles that crop up come year's end to say nothing of the momentous news events of 2009. I've been absorbing all and not letting a drop out, reading rather than writing, playing rather than pontificating. Now I've come up for air and will do my best to provide some reviews...

Video game enthusiasts can be a particularly demanding breed of customer. These days every industry makes use of the Internet to connect with their base to a certain degree but game players were pioneers in this regard and they have taken the outlet further than most. To that end they are not only opinionated but determined to project their views in a public forum. As a result huge groundswells of public sentiment are not uncommon.

There are advantages to this phenomenon. Game developers can receive as much feedback on their work as they are capable of processing. One hopes this constructive criticism assists in creating a better product down the line. There is a dark side to this feedback as well however, when enthusiasts erupt into rabid howls of protestation when one of their sacred cows switches owners and moves into another dairy farm. Such was the dilemma Bethesda Softworks found themselves in when they had the audacity to secure the rights to the formidable Fallout franchise from Interplay Entertainment. Despite the hail of outcry from such highbrow institutions as the fan site ‘No Mutant Allowed’ Bethesda persevered to release Fallout 3.

The story begins with brief, character building scenes of your birth, infancy, childhood, and approach to adulthood. All of this takes place in a hermetically sealed Vault that protects your community from the ravages of a nuclear holocaust that occurred some two hundred years ago. Play truly begins with a tragedy that forces you to leave the Vault and enter the irradiated wasteland where Washington D.C. barely stands. There you will find mutated life forms, pitiless raiders, and the last remnants of human civilization in all their motley factions. You will arm up, pick a direction, and scavenge your way towards adventure!

Those familiar with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games will feel at home here. Their signature open world in the first person perspective is on display. To say however that this game is merely ‘Oblivion with guns’ is grossly unfair. It’s obvious that Bethesda has learned much from each game they have made and Fallout 3 in my opinion is their finest effort yet.

There are few games one will spend more time with than a roleplaying game. In Fallout 3’s case it was around sixty hours from beginning to end, making sure to take my time and see what the world offered. I was delighted to discover that nothing got old in this time, nothing felt repetitive. The combat, a combination of real time and turn based style remained satisfying throughout. The many computers to be hacked and locks to be picked presented some well thought out mini-games that broke up the fighting scenes nicely. The conversations with non-player characters along with your dialogue options were not as advanced as what we have seen in similar games such as Mass Effect, but they were to the point and got you back into the action with minimal fuss.

Given all that must be done to create an open world game I was impressed by how expertly all aspects of this title was crafted. This was especially true with the character development system, the statistics that tell you who your character is. The system is better than what Bethesda has used in their Elder Scrolls games, it is not nearly as exploitable and each of the twenty levels the players advance through adds something interesting to the character. This information is conveyed to you with a simple yet stylish menu system that I found pleasant to navigate and manage. The point of all these disparate components in a roleplaying game is to immerse you in your character, to let you know who that person is so that you may better become them while you play. In this regard Fallout 3 did an excellent job. While playing I became my character and acted as I thought she would rather than what I might do. This is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the game designers and I feel what must be at the heart of a successful roleplaying game.

The second part of that immersing equation is the world itself, is it worth exploring and interacting with? Again Bethesda did fine work in this regard. It was a brilliant idea to have the game take place in Washington D.C. after the bombs fell. Seeing America’s greatest monuments, scarred but still standing is a surprisingly emotional experience. To discover the regal throne of Lincoln, all but the Great Emancipator’s head, is to experience not only the awe of standing before the real thing but also to feel a great injustice at its defacing. I had no reason, or quest if you will, to fight my way into the Capitol Building but I did, as any tourist of the age would. Despite its ruin it still felt sacred. Though my character was heavily armed I still performed the cautious tread of one who walks on hallowed ground. The game abounds in such history and the dread of what may come if humanity’s Final Solution comes in the form of a nuclear holocaust.

If all this sounds too sombre and dreary for your tastes then worry not, for Interplay’s original vision of camp 50’s Americana clutched in the cold war mentality remains. A retrospective on the Duck and Cover era continues to be perversely humourous. Bethesda has made sure to mine the material and provides a light hearted counterpoint to the horrors of the waste. When hiding in the dark, eating mole rat meat and drinking toilet water just to survive, the anecdotes of President John Henry Eden on the radio will always cause you to crack a smile.

I found the various missions or quests throughout the game to be enjoyable and their rewards interesting. Many have been unsatisfied with the game’s ending and in truth Bethesda could have thought it through a little better. This is not uncommon however; ending a game seems to vex developers of all calibers. In games however the final ten minutes does not have the impact it would on a movie. Sixty hours of play over the course of a month is a true journey after all. You do it to get there and if the game is good then you don’t want to end at all.

Bringing the Fallout franchise out of the 90’s and into the new millennium required significant changes to the formula. When Bethesda did this they were the objects of an inordinate amount of disdain. This is regrettable, made even more so by the fact that Fallout 3 is a terrific game. Thankfully the final product seems to have silenced most detractors and even the most nostalgic of players must grudgingly admit that the franchise is in able hands. While not the most polished or refined video game I’ve played this year it is still one of the best and surely the most ambitious. It should not be missed and given the level of overall improvement I’ve seen, I’d wager Bethesda’s next offering will also be a must-play.

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