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Fallout 3 and New Vegas

Posted by deckard47 on November 9, 2010



Fallout: New Vegas

Raul Tejada. He's a Hispanic ghoul in a game set in the post-apocalyptic Mojave, a Mojave free of brown people! Humor!

I kind of despise Fallout 3. It’s bland, in its level design, its art, and its writing. The actors behind the characters are (like all Bethesda actors) complete villains: their voices are so completely unemotional and uninteresting that they sound like they’re acting from beyond the grave. It takes things from the original Fallout games (games I enjoyed) and updates them in the least imaginative ways possible. Turn based combat? It’s now a shoddy slow-mo combat mode, a poor copy of the kind of tactical brilliance and visual excellence found in Max Payne games, and ultimately the only thing that stops the gunplay from being a broken, unplayable nightmare. Try shooting something out of VATS in Fallout 3. I think this is what people think of when they trollishly mutter about “dice rolls” determining their bullets’ paths. Every gunshot feels wrong. The sounds are off, the animations are all wrong, and the interface can barely keep up with human input. VATS fixes the horrible controls and responsiveness, and reveals new problems: every other shot will hit an invisible barrier, or miss completely, even if there’s no chance of a miss. Combat is a demoralizing, unpleasant kind of busy-work.

Fallout: New Vegas wasn’t developed by Bethesda. It’s been farmed out to Obsidian, who really seem can’t escape from their gun-for-hire roots (unless it’s to produce the awful Alpha Protocol). New Vegas is also a better game than Fallout 3, and it’s certainly a better game than Alpha Protocol. It’s also a bit boring, despite having held my interest for 40 hours. It repeats almost all of the same mechanical and interface issues seen in Fallout 3. The new “true” iron sights mechanic feels better than the previous aiming, but there’s still the same bogus math behind the scenes. Try this out, devs: go play a game like Deus Ex. Hell, go play Singularity or Wolfenstein. Watch how those games have a base spread of fire for each gun, and how upgrades tighten that spread, depending on gun type. There’s never a time when my fire just fucking misses, if I’ve lined up the shot and my skill is high enough. That’s the problem at the core of VATS. Even when firing at point blank range, I can miss, sometimes because VATS glitches (actually, this happens quite often), or because the game’s math decrees it so. If the way you fix your broken shooting system is to introduce a broken slow-mo system, you’re well and truly screwed. The game feels like and action-shooter-RPG in every respect but the act of pulling a trigger. It’s surprising, because Bethesda’s system for To-Hit-Ratio and damage in Oblivion was strait-forward and fun. Here, melee is the best option, because as in Oblivion, assholes can’t dodge a lead pipe, but they can certainly resist its damage (though melee was useless in Fallout 3, so I have to credit Obsidian again for unbreaking it).

Fallout: New Vegas

My evil melee character. I quit playing him, because ED-E, that floating robot (who obviously uses invisible legs to navigate in-game terrain) behind me, broke my save.

But I’ve played a ton of New Vegas. I can certainly censure Obsidian for not removing Fallout 3‘s multitudinous interface issues, completely wretched voice acting, and crappy game engine implementation (that extra half-step-while moving problem is even worse in Vegas), I have to appreciate that they approached this new Wasteland with more than an ounce or two of thought and originality. There are things ingame that aren’t brown anymore. There are also trees and foliage. The world instantly becomes a few times less boring, thanks to these additions. There are more than 3 good guns. You can mod and upgrade guns in a way that’s fun, if limited to a degree I’d prefer it wasn’t. Upgrades are visually evident on every gun (that last should be a requirement for every game, EVER). There are more monsters and character models. Melee isn’t completely broken. Energy weapons aren’t completely broken (by this I mean that a player can set out to master these two tracks and not create a character destined for swift death). Water doesn’t irradiate you instantly. Cars don’t instantly irradiate you. As a result, it’s possible to explore most areas without bringing 50 Radaways.

The writing is also better, by a small measure. Obsidian does not commit the awful sin of having a 3 hour long tutorial that cannot be skipped, as did Fallout 3. They do make you answer a surprisingly annoying set of character-forming “questions,” though. Certainly, Caesar’s Legion are a boring lot (though their acting is what really ruins interactions with them). The game can feel a little small-scale (every Casino has its own loading zone in the strip, because the engine can’t handle more, apparently. It feels nothing like a city and everything like a corridor with glowing doors), and many of the locations feel perfunctorily written and designed (Primm is a complete nonentity, aside from its delightful cowboy robot). The central plot and quest line feel both inspired by and derivative of (awfully) Bioshock.

Fallout: New Vegas

Cass, preparing to harrow my soul with her voice.

New Vegas also competently recreates a variety of standard RPG quest tropes and traditions. There’s a Vault full of Thorian Creepers (I mean spore humans), a vault full of radiation, a messianic ghoul leader, betrayal within a small community, and gang allegiances. It’s all competently executed, though the rigid, instantly-boring graphics and animation rob the world of any excitement I might have found in its fictions. Despite all of this, it feels like what Fallout 3 should have been: an inferior first person version of Fallout, with a host of “modern” FPS and RPG innovations thrown in to keep things from getting boring. New Vegas recaptures a bit of the wit and cynicism that Fallout 1 and 2 honestly expressed and Fallout 3 callowly pantomimed. Certain characters were written in such a way that they produce amusing and entertaining dialogue (the aforementioned robot cowboy), while others produce similarly passable dialogue that’s absolutely murdered by the actors (Cass is the worst culprit. Amusing dialogue, horrid acting).

The radio stations are alright, but there aren’t nearly enough songs. There are 27 songs in New Vegas, while Fallout 3 had 37. Somehow, Bethesda managed to make those 37 sound like double that. Obsidian also managed to make it so that the same song would play back-to-back, so that probably has something to do with my hatred for the soundtrack. Likewise, fallout 3 had the outrageously hammy Malcolm McDowell murmuring on about America in a surprisingly (for that game) entertaining way. New Vegas replaces him with a silly, one-note joke station about stupid, stupid mutants.

Fallout: New Vegas

The Strip. Two casinos of it, that is, before you load the next road/set of casinos. You can see the door down there on the left.

New Vegas is also broken in about 20 other ways. I’ve had to download patches, sneak altered .dll’s in, and mod the crap out of this game, just to get it to work. I’ve had to reload countless games, waste hours of play time, and generally cover for a mountain of shit Obsidian, Bethesda, and Microsoft QA left in the game. Really, it’s like they went in and broke a bunch of stuff and then shipped the game. It still crashes my system regularly.

I’m not sorry I’ve played 40 hours of New Vegas. It can be a fun, engrossing game, when it’s not breaking, or the engine, UI, and developers aren’t tarnishing the experience. Apparently it sold 5 million units already. I hope this means Obsidian can make another game, a non-Fallout, non-Alpha Protocol game. One that isn’t Dungeon Siege 3, also (though maybe Square Enix will make these people produce a non-broken game, so…). I’d love to see Obsidian make a game whose play is at least equal to its writing (though they really need to work on never, ever writing Alpha Protocol-quality dialogue again). I can’t say I care what Bethesda does next. probably another Elder Scrolls game with a depressingly bad and broken leveling system and wooden, awful celebrity voice-work. maybe John Carmack and company will teach Bethesda how to make a game with guns and bullets. I can dream.

PS: So Rage looks like Borderlands mixes with Doom mixed with Fallout 3. I think it’s going to better than all three games, because it won’t be hilariously, ironically character-less and toneless like Borderlands was, and it won’t be shit to play, like Fallout 3 was. Maybe if we all believe in faeries…

PPS: The screenshot save/notation system for New Vegas is really very good.

Posted in Analysis, Comparison, Impressions | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Post-Game: Call of Pripyat

Posted by deckard47 on August 20, 2010

Stalker: Call of Pripyat

A bro, sitting on a wooden wheely thing.

Hey Bro! That’s how everyone in Stalker-land greets each other. Or perhaps “Hiddy Ho!.” Oh, Stalkers of the Zone. Never change.

I’m going through one of those stages where I’m out of new games and I’m not inclined to finish games I set aside midway through (Lost Planet 2, because it’s too foreign for my in-house co-op partner, Starcraft 2 because Jim Raynor’s face makes me depressed, and Divinity 2, because, you know…). Of course, my natural response to such a mood is to replay a certain type of game, the kind of game I’ve already played through and through. Thus, a new playthrough of Stalker: Call of Pripyat was born. Now, I’ve finished this game once already. GSC Gameworld added a feature that lets me play on after the credits have rolled. There are a few new quests, or something, to entice me back into the Zone. Of course, I restarted my game instead, partly because I like to restart games and play from the beginning, especially when leveling/upgrading schemes are involved (there’s nothing quite like being at the bottom of that ladder, is there?), and partially because I’m having trouble getting excited about my 2nd Mass Effect 2 run.

Call of Pripyat is by far my favorite Stalker game. Clear Sky had some fun ideas about how to do large, single player armed conflicts (read more about this in my next GSW column), and Shadow of Chernobyl, was the most unforgiving and brutal of the three games (and thus, the game that all Stalker games are compared to on the “super scary, hard, Stalker” Scale of Intensity), but both were badly broken and still are, patches or no patches. SoC has a nonexistent upgrade/barter system, making item collection and weapon upgrades feel haphazard and tacked on (you can’t repair things in the vanilla game!). Clear Sky has a slightly less flimsy upgrade system, but it’s lacking in that trademark Stalker tension. Call of Pripyat blends the best bits of its predecessors, and isn’t broken by bugs and glitches. How novel. As such, instead of flirting with it and then losing interest (as I did with SoC and Clear Sky), I played it through and loved it.

Call of Pripyat is at its best when it surprises players. This probably works best with new players, people who’ve never played a Stalker game. For these lucky souls, every bitter death, rationed bullet, and terrifying night-time excursion will be a new experience, unlike anything else they’ve played before. Nothing comes close, not Fallout 3 (easily Stalker‘s closest relative in the gaming world, which isn’t saying much), and none of the tired horror games we’re used to trudging through. For us seasoned Stalker devotees, the scares and tense battles are familiar, expected delights. Starting the game over, I encounter the same alarming, wonderful Firsts I discovered a year ago. My first confrontation with a pack of mutated dogs, leading to near-death and an empty shotgun. My first encounter with a snork, whose sudden, vaulting attack causes me to shriek. My return to the bloodsucker lair, creeping among tens of sleeping monsters. I’m still weak, at this stage in my playthrough: my guns and armor are upgraded to the first tier only. No high-grade optical sights, auto shotguns, and .50 caliber pistols here.

Stalker: Call of Pripyat 01

Sunrays, bro!

The transition to Call of Pripyat‘s mid-game is graceful. It doesn’t happen when I first travel to Yanov station (the second of CoP‘s three zones), nor does it happen when I get access to tier 2 upgrades. It’s a gradual process. It might be my first encounter with a telepathic, telekinetic dwarf, or a night-time Chimera hunt. I’m definitely into the mid-game when I start to actively seek out anomalies and nests of enemies (outside of quests). I may walk away from these encounters bloodied and short on ammo and supplies, but I always carry artifacts and new items with me. This section of the game isn’t quite as tense as the first section was. My stuff’s better, but so is theirs. Instead of one or two bloodsuckers, I’m asked to destroy a nest of three or four. Everything’s tougher and faster and meaner, just like me.

This exciting, ever-changing (new guns, new armor) portion of the game comes to a close as I cross the border between Yanov and Pripyat, crossing the boundary using the tunnels running from Jupiter Station to the ruined city from which CoP takes its name. Once I cross over into Pripyat, the game starts to lose its edge, for a few reasons. First and foremost, my guns and armor get fully upgraded. I’m a nearly-indestructible engine of death. Bloodsuckers bounce off me and even those zoomy telekinetic guys (they make you drop your guns!) are pretty ineffectual. Perhaps in response to this re-balancing of power, CoP throws tens of Stalkers at me at a time along with hordes of gun-toting (only in Stalker…) zombies. The first two thirds of Stalker are about forcing you to confront frightening, uncomfortable in-game situations, but those two thirds also carefully encourage players to explore and conquer. The final third is a long, hard slog: I’ll often enter an apartment complex or bunker and find the nearest closet or small room. Then I kill the nearest enemy, high-tail it to said closet, and slowly waste everything that pokes its head in the door. I’d rather not do this. CoP is best when I’m carefully bringing the fight to the enemy. In late-game CoP, there are so many enemies (and they cleverly sneak up from every direction) that open combat (or even sneaky combat) isn’t an option. It’s easier to sit in a hole and let my souped up auto-shotgun do the work for me.

Call of Pripyat has no cohesive endgame. Its main plot/mystery (why did a bunch of military helicopters crash in the zone?) is unexciting, and the endgame enemies aren’t as inventive or scary as the early bloodsuckers and snorks. Part of the problem lies in the city of Pripyat itself.  Most of the apartments and stores in Pripyat are massive, non-interactive boxes. It doesn’t feel like a city, it feels like a giant lego set, a cluster of nicely-textured rocks. Every once in a while (mostly when there’s a giant white circle on the PDA’s map), you can enter a building and kill its residents. Chances are, there will be 20 or so of them, an they’ll pour through the halls to get at you, walking into your steady, fully-upgraded fire. It’s boring, and it’s about as far from everything unique and interesting about Stalker as one can get.

This is mostly due to balancing issues. The enemies, missions, and anomalies in Pripyat are no match for a fully upgraded player (and it’s not that tough to get all of the upgrades). Still, the game also loses that signature menace and sense of isolation that make it so affecting during its first two thirds. If Call of Pripyat were to end as convincingly as it opened, it would have to introduce some actually mysterious, frightening new antagonists, and find a way to balance the combat so late-game battles weren’t giant shooting galleries. If Stalker 2 can manage this (and if it can create cities that aren’t full of our old enemies, the ever-locked doors), then it could surpass all of its predecessors.

Posted in Analysis, Post Game | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Articles: A Rules of the Game Roundup!

Posted by deckard47 on May 7, 2010

Before I get down to business, I wanted to make a quick note of something I’ll (hopefully) be writing about soon: tragically irony-free, unselfconscious use of retro-chic/”art deco” styles in games to fill in gaping world holes and failings. I’m looking at the Bioshock series and Fallout 3 here. Mostly Bioshock 2 and Fallout 3, but Bioshock muscles it’s way onto the list, somehow. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, since I just beat Bioshock 2, and I’m playing Fallout and Fallout 3 simultaneously (all for Popmatters, actually). Anyway, it’s just impossible to escape the sense that these stylings are approaching unpleasant, completely meaningless levels of recursive, unselfconscious self-referencing and cultural “meaning.” But that’s for another post.

For now, I bring you a trifecta (yes!) of pieces from Rules of the Game. First, there’s Simon’s Section 8 (PS3) review. He feels much the same as I felt about it, especially that awful, nonexistent shooting/feedback issue. Check it out:

Unfortunately, one vital aspect of feedback is lacking from Section 8: the joy of the kill. You don’t notice how important this is in a space marine game until it’s taken away from you: the death scream of a UNSC Spartan flying through the air after getting stuck with a plasma grenade. In Section 8, enemies simply crumple to the ground when they die. Many times, I didn’t even know that I’d scored a kill, or how I’d done it, until I looked at the kill list. This is coupled t0 somewhat vague feedback from gunfire. With weapons that fire slowly, it’s easy to tell whether you’ve scored a hit or not: a significant amount of enemy health decreases, and you’ll notice a tiny radiating color coming off your targeting reticle. But in the case of rapid-firing weapons it can get aggravatingly tough to figure out how many of your shots are making contact.

Absolutely spot-on. Read the rest here, at RotG.

Next, we have Mariam Asad’s excellent piece on Heavy Rain, its camera, and the player. Here’s a bit to entice you:

My reading of the effect of camera angles is grounded in apparatus theory, specifically Jean-Louis Baudry’s essay “The Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus.” Baudry argues that the cinema embeds meaning through the camera’s very method of representation. It transforms discrete images (frames) into movement and continuity; the viewer forgets that the apparatus is present. By contrast, the camera in Heavy Rain is jarring and disruptive, which is especially evident through the use of quick cuts during fight sequences. While this is a standard cinematic technique, Heavy Rain takes this to another level by dedicating the L1 button almost entirely to changing the camera angle. This speaks to the significance of camera angles in the narrative design of Heavy Rain, not only as a heavy cinematic influence, but also to the way in which it impacts agency.

There’s a lot of stuff to be said and read about Heavy Rain, but this is definitely one of the more interesting ones. Here’s the link to the full article.

Finally, here’s my review of Zombie Driver. It’s not bad, though I neglect to mention the game’s interesting quest/regard/time passage mechanic, which is quite similar to that used in Dead Rising. It’s basically GTA 2 with hostile zombie hordes, and it’s way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, those timed quests really are interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many ways to wreak havoc: hit the turbo button, then throw your car into a power slide, and watch it cut a perfect arc of bloody death through the already dead. Maybe guns are too ostentatious; maybe you’d rather drive as close as possible to the exploding zombies. As you drive by each one, they’ll go off, destroying all zombies nearby, possibly setting off a chain reaction with other exploders. Exor Studios made sure each of these possibilities is as visually violent and tactile as possible. Different zombies make different noises when they attack you and when you run them over. Each gun has a distinctive sound and look, and (of course!) each weapon kills zombies in a childishly pleasing and different way.

So yeah. Go read it, maybe? Here!

Finally, in non-RotG article related news, I’ve a Metro 2033-centric piece up at Game Set Watch. It focuses on the things I wish Metro 2033 had really been about (something I touched on in my review). Here’s a bit of it:

In a game that looks like a scary corridor shooter,  a game whose most common enemies are hard to kill and take an inordinate number of bullets to fell, scavenge-centric survival horror gameplay can be incredibly frustrating. Of course, this scarcity of resources, when combined with an almost overpowering enemy force, creates a powerful atmosphere of danger. Yet Metro 2033 isn’t just content to communicate the horrible conditions everyone in Moscow lives in. They do one better and make combat in the game a pretty horrible experience.

Here’s the rest of it!

That’s it. I apologize for this giant link-dump/article roundup. It’s a bit lazy, but since I’ve been writing so much for these places, I haven’t had time to throw something up on the blog, which seemed unfair. So there they all are, the fruits of my and my comrades’ toil. Until later.

Posted in Analysis, Articles, Reviews | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »