Thursday, May 21, 2009

Byte: The parabolic arc of a severed head

Now that my PC is starting to show its age, I've started to buy quite a few cross-plaform games on my Xbox 360, rather than the PC, because at least then I can be sure that they're going to bloody work. At the weekend I paid a ten pound premium (versus the PC version) to pick up Fallout 3 on the 360 and overall, I think it was money well-spent.

Due to other commitments on my time right now, I've only had the chance to play around the opening few areas around Vault 101 and Megaton (no, I've not blown it up yet, though I suspect I will once I've exhausted all the other quests there), and I'm fairly impressed. I never played the original Fallout, but did attempt to play Fallout 2, before I got so frustrated with the turn-based combat system that I uninstalled it and never looked back.

That was probably a bit naughty of me, so I reinstalled it last night and started a new game on it. I found that the best way of getting through the rather tortuous temple of trials at the start was to put some points into melee weapons and then wait until the ants or scorpions got within range and hit them with a targeted thrust from my polearm, using my spare action points to run away bravely so that they'd use their action points to close up to within striking distance for my next turn. That makes combat a whole lot less painful (even if it still takes ages) but my main, overriding impression from playing it last night was just how awful the quest journal was, compared to what you get in modern RPGs nowadays. You get a one-liner for each quest and that's it. No other help than that. It just shows you how much RPGs have come on in the last 10 years. Anyway, I digress...

Combat in Fallout 3 is much better than I found its predecessor. Various people have described it as "Oblivion with guns", and that's a relatively fair assessment. Fallout 3 does play a lot like Oblivion, but the VATS combat system allows you to be much more efficient in the way you use your ammunition, compared to playing it in real time, like another FPS-RTS hybrid, such as Deus Ex or Vampire Bloodlines. Which is just as well, because ammo is relatively scarce and you can't afford to hose down weak enemies with an assault rifle when a .32 calibre pistol could do the same job, albeit just not so quickly. I'm quite proud to say that I have managed to take down a rocket launcher-wielding Super Mutant outside Big Town with just a 10mm pistol (at only level 4), though it's not an experience I intend to repeat in a hurry. I'm certainly dreading the point at which I run out of ammunition, too. But I'm not at this point yet, leaving me free to enjoy the way using VATS allows me to take the heads off raiders and mutant ants and see them fly through the air with a complete disregard for the laws of physics. One of my favourite kills so far was a sneak headshot on a raider with my trusty 10mm pistol in the Super-Duper Mart, which crit'ed him for a one shot kill, sending him catapulting off the top of the supermarket shelf he was walking on, somersaulting and cartwheeling ludicrously through the air in slow motion, like an over-enthusiastic stuntman in a John Woo film. That might get old. Sometime next year. Maybe.

So it's hard to fault the combat right now, and the openness of the game world is very enticing, even if they've gone a little bit too far in the "wasteland" stakes. I know realism in games is the done thing these days, but crikey, is all that wasteland dull or what? Couldn't they have raided the local B&Q and painted up Megaton a little? Where's a post-apocalyptic Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen when you really need one? The sheer sameyness of the town really makes it hard to navigate initially, particularly at night. Surely they could have found a few tins of paint from somewhere to brighten things up a little. There are certainly enough paint guns lying around the place...

That's not my only gripe, either. Bethesda have done the same thing they did with Oblivion and blown their entire voiceover budget on a single character you only see for about ten minutes at the beginning of the game. The consequence of this is that after you've talked to a person twice, they've run out of things to say and all you get from that point on are repeated lines and throwaway comments like "Nice to see you're back". And there's the Oblivion thing where characters all say the same lines, but at least there's a wider variety of voices now. It's also a little disappointing that Bethesda have done away with another one of Fallout's standout features - being able to get married or otherwise basically slut your merry way around the wasteland.

I've always found it odd that developers will be quite happy for you to decapitate and maim your way around the game world, but the merest mention of sex is totally off limits. The closest I've seen so far in Fallout 3 is being able to spend the night with Nova, the redheaded working girl in Megaton, but even that's mostly implied and you don't even get to see so much as her underwear, let alone have her comment on you spending the night together if you rent the bed at Moriarty's. Even something as archaic as Baldur's Gate II had a much more mature treatment of romance (and even casual sex, should you choose to sleep with Phaere in the Underdark). That the subject seems to be totally off verboten in modern games is a tad disappointing.

But overall, I am enjoying the openness of the game world, which is well-realised, if a tad on the dull side (something the post-apocalyptic Auto Assault had trouble with as well). I don't have any followers as yet (not even Dogmeat - hell, I don't even like dogs) and I'm not very far into the main quest, so I'm reserving judgment for a while yet, but I'm enjoying it so far. That I played it well into the early hours of Sunday morning the day I bought it, when I only intended to muck about with the character creation system (which is really nicely done, incidentally - a lot more better than Oblivion's, I'd say) is a good sign. I even picked up the Broken Steel expansion off Xbox Live, since I've heard it fixes a lot of the problems with the way the main quest ends in the unexpanded game. And a raised level cap is always good...
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