Fallout 3… to the end

My lame product light tent

Yes, I have been using eBay quite a bit lately. How could you tell?

I love Fallout 3. This is essentially a spoiler of the next several thousand words that I wrote about the game for the now deceased previous iteration of the blog. I never quite got round to finishing and polishing it, but have now done so for your edification. Bon appetit.

This is a look at the game, and primarily the DLC expansion packs. As you might expect, here be spoilers, so if you’ve not played it and want to preserve the surprise, look away now.

FALLOUT 3

As it happens, I’d already played Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic FPSRPG to the conclusion of the story, including pretty much all of the side quests, over a slightly worrying seventy plus hours the best part of a year ago. You could make a halfway decent case that, like its roughly contemporaneous buddy Bioshock, it’s a game that’s essential draw is more the ambience and story of its setting rather than the mechanics of the game itself.

While, obviously, as that seventy plus hours would attest, I eventually enjoyed the game an awful lot, there’s a certain degree of clunkiness to the actual playing of the game that’s slightly less polished than the writing, character design, soundtrack selection and atmosphere created by the masterful blend of these elements would perhaps deserve.

There are a few issues I had that prevented me from initially getting behind this game from the outset, although in the main they’re both defensible from a design and consistence perspective, and also largely eliminated by progression of your characters stats. Still, seeing as I brought it up, might as well run through them.

The Gamebryo-based engine used by Bethesda is clearly a close cousin to that used in the similarly enjoyable time sink Oblivion, and so shares many of its… let’s say endearing character flaws. Admittedly, given that versions of the Gamebryo engine have powered everything from Civ 4 to Pirates! to Zoo Tycoon, mentioning the Gamebryo engine is hardly descriptive in and of itself. However, “Gamebryo” is such a dreadful name for an engine I feel like mentioning it frequently. Gamebryo. Gamebryo. Gamebryo.

Anyway, back on track, the point I want to make is that this version of the engine walks like an FPS, talks like an FPS and quacks like an FPS, but it’s actually an RPG. The disconnect became obvious on combat, especially at low experience levels. As your accuracy and damage dealt by, let’s say a 9mm pistol, is determined by your appropriate character abilities. As you would expect from an RPG. But this looks like an FPS, and it’s very easy to think of it as an FPS, so it’s a little odd to point a gun directly at someone’s head, pull the trigger and miss by a mile. It’s just as odd to think that by moving a couple of points around in the character build, the same bullet from the same gun would have dealt more damage. Why? Because I’d be more proficient at pulling the trigger?

Once you put your RPG hat back on, this makes more sense, but it’s a striking early doors disconnect that can be quite frustrating. As your skill with guns (or any other trait, for that matter) improves, the problem, if indeed it is a problem, goes away. Which is nice, and appropriately and expectedly RPG-ish. Which is what we’re playing after all, even if it doesn’t feel like one on occasion.

Annoyance the second – I would contend that there has never been a game with a degrading weapon gameplay mechanic that would not be immediately improved substantially by removing the degrading weapon gameplay mechanic. I see nothing in Fallout 3 to revise this contention. There’s something approaching a storyline justification for it, certainly, with the Capital Wasteland’s scavenged, aged, damaged equipment clearly needing maintenance due to the decades of degradation since the ruinous nuclear war.

Mechanically it’s a awkward, fiddly, pointless bit of gameplay padding in a game that’s hardly short on length in the first place. It means, at best, tooling around in menus to fix things up, and at worst grinding out encounters to gain money to pay someone to fix your kit so you can grind some more. It serves no useful purpose other than to loop a bit of gameplay, and there’s so much more fun to be had either in the quests or simply exploring the wastes that it’s an unnecessary distraction. It also leads to baffling, nonsensical inventory decisions, like having to lug around two inconveniently heavy Gatling Lasers to use one to fix the other. Rather than, say, carrying a few lighter spare parts.

Let’s conclude this gallery of nit-picking, because it’s largely irrelevant. Again, seventy plus hours. Fallout 3 is a massively enjoyable and absorbing game that was a delight to play, in large part to the solid storyline that came to a very definite, satisfying and appropriate conclusion at the end of the final main storyline quest. Which brings us to why we’re here, really.

DAY ONE – BROKEN STEEL

Oh, look. A DLC pack has arrived. In the time between finishing the ‘real’ game and now I’ve picked up a few of the downloadable extensions and it seems sensible to play them through before digging in to Fallout: New Vegas. The obvious starting point would be the expansion pack that allows the game to continue after completion of the main quest, Broken Steel.

The first problem, really, is that it exists at all. I have no real issues at all with extending games through DLC, especially if it’s a substantial game in the first place. I do have a problem with the DLC pissing all over the story of the game. An ending that most likely, at least if you we’re playing as the goodytwoshoes I always play as, with a fitting poetic, heroic sacrifice that will be told of in tales and legends.

With Broken Steel installed, this noble end becomes a two week coma, which pretty much completely pulls the impact from it. Boo! I can’t help but wish that there was a more elegant way of working this into the plot, although it does at least plug the strange logic holes in the final quest. Why am I sacrificing myself when I may have a companion escorting me who either is not affected by radiation or actively healed by it? Although again, this hardly makes for the climactic finale, but I’m complicit in this. If I didn’t want more Fallout 3, I shouldn’t have bought more Fallout 3, so let’s move on.

Essentially, having kicked the Enclave forces hard in the goolies at the water purifier, the Brotherhood of Steel have spent the last few weeks ‘mopping up’ the remnants of their forces aided by their massive stompy robot. Why don’t we help with that? Why not, indeed. If we discount the two short sidequests dealing with issues on escorting a water supply caravan, the meat of the expansion comes with three Enclave bashing operations, ending with a rampage through an entirely new and pretty extensive airbase, through a massive Star Wars sandcrawler-esque tank ending with calling down a right ol’ missile strike from an orbital platform.

This all sounds far more impressive typed out like this than it does to play it, unfortunately. It’s in no way bad, you understand, but it’s not quite as epic as you might hope for. The behemothian landcrawler in particular looks really cool from the outside, but on the inside is much the same collection of nondescript rooms and familiar enemy models as the rest of the game. It’s not even as though you can feel that you’ve dealt much of a blow to Enclave operations, as despite destroying all of their bases and leaders they still show up around the world map as random encounters.

Unavoidably, given that this is precisely what it is, Broken Steel feels like a tacked-on, minor mission set that lacks spectacle, although I suppose at least it’s trying. If these missions were the extent of what I’d purchased, I’d be heading straight to the nearest flaming torch and pitchfork emporium. However, there’s a few more additions that give this an alternate reason to live.

Perhaps recognising that there’s probably more than a few people who hit the level cap long before the end of the game, after installing the expansion you can now level yourself up to the arbitrary number of 30, rather than 20. Given that by the time you get into the higher levels you can pretty much kill any enemy in the game by looking in their general direction, there’s also a number of new, harder, better armed beasties and soldiers to shoot up, and a few new weapons to shoot them up with.

Admittedly, they’re mainly palette swaps of the existing enemies and weapons, but if that was going to be something that bothered you you would have given up on the main game halfway through and certainly not bought the expansions, so we’ll let that one slide.

Overall, Broken Steel feels less like an addition to the base game as it does a licence to play it some more. If you haven’t finished up the side quests, perhaps because it felt a little pointless if you’re already at the level cap, this may give it some meaning.

More Fallout 3 is not going to be a bad thing. Thus, Broken Steel and indeed all of the expansion packs are not a bad thing. The question here is if Broken Steel is enough more Fallout 3 to be worth the cash. For the missions it provides, it certainly isn’t. As a way to break the level cap and provide a little more challenge at the higher levels, especially going forward with the other expansion packs, then it is. It’s decent value, but don’t expect to be blown away.

DAY TWO – OPERATION ANCHORAGE

Next up in this arbitrarily ordered playthrough, the Alaska themed variation on the Fallout movement. Ignoring the preamble, this expansion ditches the familiar ruins of the Capital Wasteland for the almost as spartan but significantly whiter Anchorage in a pre-war army computer training simulation based on kicking those irascible Red Chinese communists out of America.

Obviously this is a bit of a departure. The selling points of the blurb make it sound like it’s not just the setting that’s substantially different. “Command squads of troops!”, it breathlessly exclaims. “Cobblers!”, I respond, but I suppose we’ll get to that in due course.

Differences to the mechanics are present, though. As it’s a simulation, there’s less ‘realism’, in as much as your guns don’t fall apart after four discharges. There’s no corpses, as it happens, your simulated foes digitally decomposing instantly with no opportunity to loot them. Weapons are picked up at either various pre-programmed points or from your camp quartermaster, and ammo and health rechargers are stumbled upon as you progress through the level.

The missions are reasonably interesting, albeit somewhat brief and slightly hamstrung by having the most interesting by far mission on the front end, leading to the same kind of ‘petering out’ feeling that was present throughout Broken Steel.

The hook for the last mission appears to have been based on the touted squad mechanics, and while it’s admirable to bend the engine into doing things it typically does not, it’s pretty much fallen flat on its arse. Squad command with a decent level of granularity and varied orders is hardly new technology. It’s been a mainstay of series such as Rainbow Six going back to days before the launch of the original Xbox.

This is not squad command with a decent level of granularity and varied orders by a long chalk. Before heading out you can pick the composition of a three/four man squad who will accompany you. You can tell them all to attack the main mission objective, or to hold their position. If you tell them to hold their position, they’re quite prone to just running in anyway, blasting away randomly and generally ineffectively.

Basically the squad, and the whole gameplay mechanic, is utterly useless.

That said, if you’re playing this at higher levels, it’s easy enough to single handedly take down the entire Chinese army. This is a problem across the entire game, as even with the odd beefed up enemy and the regular enemies that I believe are supposed to scale in level along with you by the time you’ve reached level 20+ you are massively powerful, armed to the teeth and have an effectively infinite amount of health. Without particularly trying, I finished this article with something like 200 stimpaks and an amount of ammo that might as well be endless.

Operation Anchorage turns out to be an odd fruit. My common complaint across all of these expansion packs is that none of them feel like an organic, intrinsically connected part of the main game. Here that’s entirely intentional, but that in no way makes it any more satisfying.

Again, it’s perfectly enjoyable to play through, and the reward at the end of it is a particularly nice bit of equipment. It’s a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours, and the variance in the game mechanics gives it a unique if not completely successful twist. If you can pick this up cheap, or if you own it as part of the Game of the Year edition, it’s well worth playing through. As an 800 point, standalone expansion I have to question whether it’s worth the dough, and the answer to that question has to be no.

DAY THREE – POINT LOOKOUT

Point Lookout makes a particularly poor case for playing itself. The quest pops up prompting you to head off and meet the captain of a paddle steamer offering passage to the titular swamplands. Seek your fortune! Although by this point I have more money than I know what to do with, and an armoury of loot that I could sell off for another five to six times more than I know what to do with.

The main impetus for heading out of the Capital Wastelands in this instance appears to be that it’d be a waste of 800 MS Points if you didn’t, which is fiscally sensible if not narratively compelling. Having done so, you’ll find a map that looks far more worthy of being an expansion pack.

While the additional grounds covered in all we have spoken of so far are fairly compact, Point Lookout offers a sizeable sprawl that would be a decent enough size for most full games. This seems promising.

As one of my favourite elements of Fallout 3 was simply wandering around looking at stuff, this would seem to be the expansion pack for me. If you want to get much enjoyment from the game, then I think your mindset will have to be somewhat similar. The main questline of the expansion starts off with helping a ghoul defend his stately home from an onslaught of wild tribal attackers, then infiltrating the tribe to work out why they’ve got it in for him. You’ll discover an unlikely source of the problem, and seeing as you are the only competent person in this timeframe, I guess you’ll have to sort it out. It’s a little underwhelming, and seems somewhat quaintly parochial compared to the impact you’ve had in the Capital by this point.

The side quests are more compelling than the main one, discovering the trail of a now long-dead Chinese spy for… well, no reason other than it being diverting.

The world of Point Lookout feels big, but it also feels empty. There’s only a few people to talk to over the expanse, and while by nature the world of Fallout 3 isn’t exactly bustling, Point Lookout is a complete ghost town by comparison.

There may not be many people to talk to, but it does rather crawl with sub-human, Hills Have Eyes-esque hillbilly mutants, which is kinda fun. Certainly it’s more original than most of the added enemy character models. It’s slightly odd inasmuch as due to the aforementioned levelling, some skinny little freak with a lead pipe can smack you for as much damage as a hulking great supermutant can, but I’d be complaining more if they didn’t.

Regardless, there’s no massively challenging situations for the fully power-armoured and well-armed explorer, and unless I’ve missed something groovy no particularly neat unique loot to be had, so while Point Lookout is an interesting enough diversion I can’t give you a particularly cogent reason for splashing the cash on it.

DAY FOUR – THE PITT

While it’s less expansive in scope than Point Lookout, at least The Pitt gives me a reason to care about it. Approached by a representative telling you of their struggle against a group of Slavers who have taken over the ruins of old Pittsburgh, now simply The Pitt, it’s time to free the people or take the place over, depending on your alignment.

There’s certainly a lot less to do in The Pitt, certainly if you compare it to Point Lookout, but it does seem that your actions are having a far greater impact on the world and the people in it, which becomes at least part of the point of Fallout 3.

As part of infiltrating the Slaver organisation you’re going to be disguising yourself as a slave, which means ditching your hard-earned gear for a while. While this verges on being a cheap trick, it gives more of a twist and bit of a challenge than the rest of the expansion packs.

The missions themselves don’t seem to make the most of the set up, to be honest. It seems that there ought to be a lot more sneaking around and duplicity, and so when the second mission of the quest is a mere fetch quest, hunting round an area killing more raiders and sub-humans and collecting steel ingots, it’s something of a disappointment.

Still, on reflection it’s no different to how most of the rest of the quests in the game are handled, and on balance no less entertaining than the rest of them.

Arguably, you’re doing more of absolute in-world importance in Broken Steel than you are here, but the clean break of theme makes this feel like a story with a start, middle and end rather than a continuation of something that was supposed to have ended, but hasn’t, and still hasn’t by the end of the missions.

The Pitt isn’t the largest of the expansions, but it’s probably the one that hangs together best and yields the most satisfying outcome. Again, I can’t really comment on the notable loot, as it had long since ceased to be an issue to the invulnerable walking deathtank that was my character by this point, but I do have a soft spot for the unique Auto Axe called the “Man Opener”. Purely because of the name.

Again, and not to sound like a broken record, I have to question the worth. In comparative terms if nothing else, the twenty odd quid I wound up buying the full game for yielded seventy odd hours of compelling, satisfying gameplay. Even in what I consider to be the best of the bunch so far, this will last about five hours if you wring everything from it, and far less if you do the minimum possible to get through the missions. The value isn’t quite the same.

DAY NOT HAPPENING – MOTHERSHIP ZETA

If I want to fight aliens in a FPS/RPG style, I’ll wait for XCOM to appear. Based on the experiences above, I’m not seeing 800 points worth of value in what’s promised, so that fiver or so went towards Fallout: New Vegas instead. So with that, it’s all over bar the finger pointing.

FINGER POINTING

The enjoyment to be gleaned from these expansions is rather like the secret to great comedy. By which I do not mean talking about garlic bread, but rather the timing. If you think of these missions, Broken Steel aside, as being additional optional sub-quests to be undertaken for fun while still working through the main plotline, then they are a massively worthwhile addition to the game that’s highly recommended.

If you’ve already played and beaten the game, the arguments are less clear. Sure, as mentioned previously, it’s more Fallout 3, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. However it’s none of the best parts of Fallout 3, so these do feel rather like trying to recapture a former glory and falling somewhat short.

If there’s one area where it’s unarguable that the expansions provide value for money, it’s in the sheer number of enemies. Before starting the expansions I hadn’t unlocked the “kill 300 people” achievement, by the end I’d butchered closer to double that number. Which is impressive in simple volumetric terms, although it did rather feel like a last ditch attempt to inject difficulty and extend content rather than anything particularly well thought out.

Getting a handle on what these expansions really cost is, thanks to the smoke and mirrors approach of Microsoft’s pointlessly arcane Points system, a little obtuse. If you’re buying in bulk, 4200 Points will cost around £35, so for the four expansions we’ve spoken of that’s equating to about £27. That’s actually more than I would consider spending on a full game these days, and the expansions certainly do not deliver twenty seven quids worth of entertainment by any metric at all.

However, if you are coming to the franchise fresh buying the “Game of the Year” edition, which includes all of the expansions for ~£25 is an absolute no-brainer, compared to the £10-15 quid for the plain vanilla Fallout 3. Alert readers will have noticed that now, admittedly very far from the release of all of the above, the digital downloads prove to be ludicrously terrible value compared to the physical item.

It would be entirely wrong of me to suggest that the best thing to do, on the 360 at least, would be to rent the two disks that contain the expansions we spoke of, install them to the hard drive and play them at your leisure, and certainly would not be the route I chose. Oh no. Not I.