Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fallout 3 - 28 minutes

I've finally finished the main quest. There wasn't much left to it. Instead of cooperating with Colonel Autumn, you resist him, and before things can get ugly, a voice on the intercom intervenes - it's President Eden himself!  He invites me to speak with him personally, and I get a chance to scope out the Enclave base.

It's all right. It's pretty much just a bunker. There are some science labs that house mysterious tubes containing biological samples of the various wasteland creatures, but I didn't really learn that much about the Enclave from just wandering around.

So perhaps it was just as well that Colonel Autumn countermanded the president's order and instructed the Enclave troops to shoot me on sight. Their weapons and armor were really valuable, and too good to waste on NPCs. Once I'd loaded myself down with as much loot as I could carry, and executed every living soul I could find, I made my way to the President (by the way Fallout 3's morality system could use some refining, because while I am undoubtedly a war criminal - shooting the fleeing scientists was the only way to be sure they wouldn't start up their twisted experiments elsewhere - the only "bad karma" I got was from killing Anna Holt, who used to work with project Purity until she switched sides - I guess having a name earns you some cosmic protection here).

In a shocking twist of events, it turns out President Eden is an AI. Which, you know, whatever. Like Malcolm McDowell isn't cool enough on his own, so you have to add a sci-fi wrinkle to it. Like most science fiction AIs, "President" Eden is poorly programmed at best. His great idea for advancing the Enclave's goals was to spike project Purity with a variant of the FEV that would target and kill all "mutants." The fact that the end of Fallout 2 revolved around the obvious fact that every single generation of human beings is a mutation of the one before did not seem to make the Enclave reconsider their fanaticism even one bit. Nor was he given pause by the notion that maybe, if all this radiation is causing mutations in an organism as complex as a human being, it will be absolutely devastating to a virus, and thus any countermeasures you might have in place to prevent blowback would be a crapshoot at best.

Even if you were a genocidal maniac, it's a terrible, terrible plan. Luckily, Eden's flawed programming is also vulnerable to being talked into suicide by random strangers (with Speech 100, granted, but still that's a pretty big security loophole). I rushed out of the base before it could self destruct, and once outside I met up with Fawkes, who had somehow tracked me down, acquiring a terrifying gatling laser in the process. Together, we reported back to Elder Lyons at the Citadel (I wound up giving him the virus to destroy, which only recently struck me as kind of a foolish move - the Brotherhood loves pawing through old technology, and historically has been pretty ruthless with outsiders, my only hope is that Fallout 3's characterization of this branch as heroic and honorable outliers remains consistent).

What follows is a sequence that made a very large, very favorable impression on me when I first played it, but now strikes me as shakily executed. The Brotherhood has repaired a giant robot called Liberty Prime, and is sending it to strike at the Enclave occupation of Project Purity. I had to follow along with it in a running battle through the streets of the DC ruins. In theory, it's pretty cool, and there is something awe-inspiring in seeing this giant robot lay waste to the Enclave troops. However, this time through I couldn't help but notice how superfluous I was to the whole mission. Liberty Prime was so strong, I didn't actually have to engage the enemy at all. All I had to do was stroll casually behind the robot and more or less automatically get to the quest objective. I did manage to pick up some pretty sweet armor from one of the corpses. Not only was it stronger than my regular power armor, it offered a strength bonus without an agility penalty. The fire resistance on top of that was simply a bonus.

The best thing about this mission is that Liberty Prime gives some intriguing insight into the mentality of the prewar society. It is, quite frankly, batshit crazy. The way in recites these bloodthirsty propaganda slogans while tossing around miniature atomic bombs like footballs. makes me suspect that perhaps democracy was not the main thing the people of Anchorage would be getting from the US government.

Once inside the Jefferson Memorial, I easily talked my way past Colonel Autumn (I think the big problem with speech is that it often seems to cut out content rather than opening it up), and was faced with a "moral dilemma." Unless someone entered the radiation-filled chamber to activate the purifier, it would explode and wreak terrible havoc on the Capital Wasteland. I could either nobly sacrifice myself to bring pure water to the wasteland or I could selfishly send one of my companions into the chamber and have them flip the switch . . . except that one of my companions is Fawkes the supermutant, who has already been established as completely immune to radiation, so there is no rational, ethical, or practical reason for me to go in instead.

Naturally, the original version of this ending, where not personally going in was treated like some kind of black-hearted betrayal, caused a great deal of distress amongst the fans. It didn't make sense and was also vaguely insulting. Broken Steel changed things up a bit so at least Fawkes acknowledged the basic sensibleness of him going instead of you. However, it did not change the fact that the ending cinematic basically calls you out for "not knowing the meaning of sacrifice," despite the fact that no one actually had to sacrifice anything. Ach!

I probably should have just done the damned thing myself, seeing as how Broken Steel first knocks you out in a purifier explosion and then wakes you up two weeks later none the worse for wear. As much as I love Fallout 3, I swear, this game never met a railroad it didn't like.

The situation now is that the Brotherhood is waging some mop-up operations against the Enclave, Sarah Lyons is in a coma, and I have been promoted to the rank of Knight (despite never formally joining the organization). I'm looking forward to some fun and blasty mission with this DLC, but the first thing I did, as soon as I had the freedom to move, was go and snag some of the more important and easily accessible Bobbleheads.

Mostly this involved going through some story-free dungeons, but I did stop at a place called the Republic of Dave, which felt like it should have had some politics-themed quest associated with it, seeing as how it was a corrupt pro forma democracy where only one person ever won the election. I really would have liked to throw my considerable skills behind elevating one of the ambitious young go-getters to displace the arrogant, delusional polygamist in charge, but there's no real way to sway people's votes or otherwise monitor the votes for fairness.

The other place that seemed like it should have a quest is Evergreen Mills, which didn't have much story, but it was a really long, elaborate dungeon and was home to a named character who had a unique shotgun (which, by the way, hot damn - its attack power when fully repaired was almost as good as a heavy weapon). But no one, not even Smiling Jack, even begun to talk to me, so I don't know, I guess the story is just implied.

I wound up getting four bobbleheads total, which is a significant boost to my power. I'm currently level 22, and I've been playing for almost 30 hours. There are a bunch of sidequests I could do, but I think I will focus purely on the DLC in order to get through it and start on Fallout: New Vegas. So, probably another ten hours at least.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fallout 3 - 27 minutes

It's weird how Fallout 3 can have so much gameplay and so little plot. For example, it took me about four hours to get through the Mothership Zeta expansion, but I can summarize it thusly: an alien spaceship beams me up, I get probed, and then escape. For awhile I thought the little girl Sally was suspiciously knowledgeable about the ship and its workings, and that there would surely be a shocking plot twist involving her, but that was surely just my fevered imagination, because nothing I saw on the ship even remotely hinted at the possibility (again, aside from the fact that there's this ten-year girl who knows how to hack into alien technology).

If I really think about it, I guess the point of Mothership Zeta is that it's sort of an homage to 50s sci-fi, where the aliens are just this incomprehensible malevolent force, and nothing they do makes a lot of sense (for instance, I enjoyed listening to the recordings of my fellow abductees from throughout history, but nothing ever explained exactly what the aliens wanted with them). Sally then, is probably just an archetypal plucky young heroine who assists the daring action hero. She'd probably make a good protagonist to a more interesting stealth-based game.

Still, it wasn't a total waste of time. I got an alien disintegrator that has become my go-to weapon in the capitol wasteland. There's something indescribably satisfying about scoring a critical hit and then watching your enemy collapse into a pile of blue dust. I think it's the sound that does it for me. It's a weird sort of static-y chime that triggers the part of my brain that says "bonus." I also got to see Fallout's version of Earth from space. Let's just say humanity really did a number on it. It really looked like a total shithole. I think that's actually a limitation of Fallout's vision of the apocalypse. The nuclear winter notwithstanding, if human beings ever did wipe ourselves out, it probably wouldn't take too long for nature to bounce back hard and erase virtually every sign that we ever existed. So things should really be green and lush instead of bleak and brown. I think that'd be an interesting version of the apocalypse to see.

Anyway, once I was off the alien ship, the main quest advanced at a pretty steady clip. I caught up with my father in Vault 112. He was a prisoner in Dr Braun's virtual reality - a black and white suburb with a 50s sitcom vibe called Tranquility Lane. Dr Braun had been using his control over the simulation (and let me take a moment to remark on how hard it is to pin down Fallout's tech level here, because full 3-d VR simulations don't really jibe with the analogue retro-future of the rest of the series - it just feels weird to go into the Matrix while using a computer with a monochrome CRT monitor) to sadistically torture his fellow survivors. Since the man is a genuinely bona-fide scientific genius, this just feels like a pathetically wasteful way to spend eternity. Ordinarily, he makes you jump through some hoops, tormenting the other vault dwellers, before he'll give you information, but it's possible, if you talk to the right person (or, say, have played this level so many times you know exactly where to go) to short circuit the entire quest and shut down the simulation from the inside. This involves unleashing the simulated Chinese army onto the residents so they'll die in real life and condemning Dr Braun to untold centuries of nothing but himself and whatever AI he can drum up for company (it's no more than he deserves, sure, but it makes me wonder what the original plan for Vault 112 was - surely Vault-Tec had a way of getting Dr Braun back, for the value of his intellectual property if nothing else).

Anyway, having rescued Dad, he immediately drops into his self-absorbed old habits, going back to Rivet City to start up Project Purity again, as if he had never left. He makes me clean out the basement and flip some switches (and in some of the game's most obvious padding, dividing this mission into two trips thanks to some "forgotten" fuses). While in the intake pipe, "clearing a blockage" the Enclave attacks Project Purity. Strangely enough, the blockage doesn't clear until after it's too late for me to stop the attack.

You know, I'm thinking I might have been too hard on the Pitt. I didn't like how it railroaded me into impersonating a slave, but actually Fallout 3 seems to do this all the time. In Mothership Zeta, you're beamed directly into a prison cell. At the Jefferson Memorial, you arrive at the Rotunda after your father has gotten into a showdown with the Enclave, and a locked door prevents you from intervening has he activates some kind of radiation bomb as a preemptive suicide strike. Later, after you retrieve the GECK from Vault 87, you're ambushed by the Enclave, who apparently have exactly one copy of the grenade that instantly lays your ass out, regardless of how powerful you are. And, of course, the game's original ending was notorious.

Still, the escape was pretty thrilling. I finally got to take the fight to the Enclave (though, now that I think about it, prior to strong-arming my father, they haven't really done anything to me, and I can't even really blame them for Dad's death because that willful bastard literally brought it upon himself), and scored a whole bunch of nifty new power armor. Aside from having to reload when my itchy trigger finger accidentally took out a Brotherhood of Steel turret (and honestly, you put a turret in a monster-infested sewer and you can't really be surprised when a survivor gets nervous and takes a shot at it), it was a quick and easy trip.

After that, I have to avenge my father's death by bringing his dream to life, so that means a trip west, to Vault 87, in order to retrieve the GECK. I already mentioned how this trip ends, so let me briefly complain about the beginning. Little Lamplight, the town that lies in front of the vault entrance, is without a doubt the worst location in any of the fallout games, and a strong contender for one of gaming's most ill-conceived ideas.

Right away, the town endeavors to make you hate it by it's choice of welcoming party - Mayor McCready is a hostile, paranoid, foulmouthed piece of human garbage, and incidentally a pre-teen kid. In fact, the whole town is kids. My brain ties itself in knots trying to figure out how this could possibly function. It's like, I guess numbers and tradition could probably get people to move out when they turn 18, but there's no way that the people who stay behind could master the skills necessary to keep a community safe and prosperous. And where do the new kids come from? And why don't the residents of Big Town just come back en masse?

It's not worth thinking about. What's worse is that, unless you're like me and lay waste to Paradise Falls as an incidental sidetrip on your way to somewhere else, McCready will force you to go on a tedious fetch-quest before he lets you in. Once you get through, it's not so bad. Vault 87 if a fairly typical sci-fi dungeon. You get to meet a frendly super mutant named Fawkes who will walk through some intense radiation to retrieve the GECK for you (spoiler alert - this is part of what drives people crazy about the original ending). And on your way out, you fall to a bullshit ambush.

Because of course you do. How else will the game get you to the Enclave base, to be interrogated by Colonel Autumn? As a plot turn, it's fairly dramatic, but as an example of Fallout's famed player agency, it stinks. Just to get my revenge on the story, I decide to cooperate with Autumn and tell him the password to Project Purity: 2-1-6 (which would take, I don't know, a long afternoon to guess with manual brute force, so way to go, Dad).

And the bastard shoots me! Which is pretty much the Enclave in a nutshell. They're not just pricks, they're self-destructive, needlessly wasteful pricks.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fallout 3 - 20 minutes part 2

The Pitt and I did not get off to a good start. I am willing to accept a portion of the blame for this. I went into it with the wrong expectations. When Wernher told me that Ashur of the Pitt was buying slaves from all over the capitol wasteland, I assumed that this was going to be a story of me swooping in in full-on John Brown mode and just laying waste to the raider camp. I was mistaken. Apparently, it was intended to be an infiltration mission, where I pose as a slave and aid aid the resistance as a spy.

However, as much as I blundered into the mission unprepared, the Pitt does something unforgivable. After blasting my way through the outer guard, I passed through a gate and found myself confronted by three more guards. Then the game suspended control of my character so the guards could beat me into unconsciousness and steal my equipment. This is despite the fact that I was wearing power armor and I had more than 100 stimpacks, making me more than capable of taking on any number of raiders (a fact that was demonstrated more than decisively at the end of the mission). Whenever video games pull this shit, it fills me with a blinding rage (you should see my notes - I have "cutscene incompetence" underlined twice and followed by three exclamation points - fear my wrath).

This starting setup filled me with resentment for the first half of the DLC. I especially didn't like Midea, my contact, who was trying to get me to accept my role as a slave, and who said, after "reviving" me that she "thought Wernher said I was supposed to be clever." The fucking cheek on this game. My plan to walk in the front door and gun down anyone who stood in the way of freedom was the most intelligent use of my available resources. It worked perfectly in Paradise Falls. Grr. It's making me angry just remembering it.

So let us quickly move on. After I went into a mutant-infested scrapyard to retrieve some steel ingots and fought my way through a trivial arena tournament (though, seriously, what does dropping radioactive barrels into the ring add to the spectator's experience), I finally recovered my gear and basically was able to come down on the raiders like the hammer of god.

Being low on patience, I antagonized and killed Ashur almost as soon as I met him. This got me into a brawl with every single one of his guards . . . who I proceeded to dispatch easily, because it's not like some dipshit raiders with lead pipes are going to bring me down. Within just a couple of minutes, I was ready to breach the laboratory and retrieve the cure to the slaves' mutation . . . only to find that the "cure" was actually a baby with a natural immunity.

From there, things got ugly. When I picked up the baby, it asked if I wanted to "kidnap" her. I didn't, especially since I'd been operating up to that point on the notion that the cure was some kind of formula. I hesitated then, and went to look around and see if I could find any parents locked up. You see, I was still under the illusion that I was a heroic warrior, come to liberate the helpless from under the boot of oppression. Yet I didn't see anyone around who looked like they might be the baby's parents . . . all I saw were dead raiders.

That made me very uneasy, and the feeling was only intensified when I got back to the rebels, and suddenly they were acting as if the baby were some kind of burdensome science experiment. I kept hoping for some dialogue option that would let me get out of this plot, but when I spoke to Wernher and he told me that the child's parents were Ashur and his wife, I realized there was no way back. With a heavy heart, I gave the child to the rebels. I had assurances that she would be treated well, but that didn't make me feel any better about it.

In the end, I unleashed the mutants on the slavers' camp (though, once again, the npc operated on the mistaken notion that I could not simply handle all of the enemies single-handedly, which is a major oversight on the game's part) and left the Pitt feeling compromised and kind of rotten.

So, I'm not really sure what my verdict on the DLC is. Aggravating forced incompetence aside, it portrays a pretty clever story arc - I came in with the best of intentions and under the false impression that I was on an idealistic crusade for freedom, but my zealotry for the cause led to me thoughtlessly trampling over my perceived enemies and catching innocents in the crossfire. It is as story of honor tarnished and the way that war can wound even the victors.

A fairly compelling story, to be sure, but I can't help wondering if that's really what I want out of a video game. I like blasting mutants and collecting weird sci-fi gadgets. I do not so much care for feeling crummy about myself or facing the terrible consequences of my video-game violence. Yet Fallout games have always offered the player freedom, and what is freedom if not the ability to own one's mistakes?

I think I'll give the DLC a tentative thumbs up, which means quite a bit considering how much I hated the beginning. But I fear that means I'm going to have to give myself a thumbs down for this episode. I really should have been more careful.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fallout 3 - 20 minutes

My last three hours playing this game have mostly been one distraction after another. I went to Arefu to deliver a letter, only to discover that Lucy West's parents were dead and her brother Ian was missing. The obvious suspects were a group of raiders called The Family, so I tracked them down, only to find that they were innocent. Ian killed his parents, driven by a perverse cannibalistic hunger.

It turns out the Family is like rehab for cannibals, teaching them to control their hunger and act like vampires instead. I am not entirely sold on this plotline. In the world of Fallout, homicidal cannibalism is like a disease that strikes people at random? Drinking blood is somehow preferable? And that doesn't really explain why the Family acted like such assholes to the people of Arefu. I don't know, it just all strikes me as very dubious. It doesn't matter, though. In the end, I was able to broker a peace in which the Family provided protection for Arefu in exchange for blood packs. I guess life finds a way. A disgusting, morally problematic, and nonsensical way.

After that, I swung back to Greyditch to finish off those giant ants. It was pretty quick and straightforward now that I have a combat shotgun. The ant queen grossed me the fuck out, but I left her alive because the mad scientist dude seemed to think he could use her to cure the ants of their giantism. The trickiest part of this quest was finding a new home for Bryan. He mentioned that he had an aunt Vera in Rivet City, but did not give more specific directions, so I had to search practically the whole ship before I found her.

It was during the course of this search that I did something I regret in retrospect. There was this woman named Angela who had the hots for a guy named Diego who wants to become a priest, so I acquired for her some ant queen pheromones to help her seal the deal. It's probably not the big a deal. It's probably just like some crazy sexy perfume. Yet it feels skeevy to me. Ah well, I will probably never see them again.

Once I wrapped up those quests, it was time to head north, to start the Pitt DLC. Unfortunately, it was a long walk, and things kept pulling me off the path. The first was an abandoned vault that was just begging to be explored.

On the balance, I like finding vaults. They usually have an interesting story attached to them. Like Vault 106, the one I found, where the Overseer released some kind of psychoactive gas that made the residents become violently insane, and which inspired in me some pretty trippy hallucinations. They also usually have some pretty sweet loot - I found two skill books, some advanced armor, and a science bobblehead (which I wasn't even looking for, so it came as a very pleasant surprise). However, the downside of exploring vaults is that they are, one and all, dreary mazes, with few easily identified landmarks, spatially unintuitive layouts and nigh-on useless minimaps. The last, especially, is a pain. I know it's a real challenge to create a 2-d map of a 3-d space, but what's wrong with a layered approach, with each level of the building getting a separate map? It works for the Zelda games, it can work for Fallout.

The other big distraction was Paradise Falls. That's the capitol wasteland's headquarters for the slave trade. I'm pretty sure there are quests associated with this place that allow you to peacefully interact with the residents, but I've never seen them because the same thing always happens whenever I stumble across it - the front gate guard says something unforgivably offensive, I tell him he can say it to my gun, and then I wind up slaughtering the whole staff. I do liberate the slaves in the process, but can I really hold myself up as having the moral high ground here? Slavery is vile, but one of the very few things it can be compared favorably to is mass slaughter. Oh well, let's just say that I'm a post-apocalyptic John Brown and leave it at that.

There were a myriad of other, lesser distractions, including at least three trips back to Craterside Supply in Megaton to sell my loot, and an ambush by the Talon Company, who for some reason were contracted out to teach me a lesson about doing good deeds (and this was before I took out Paradise Falls, so you can't even really say it was a vengeance killing, which makes the motive all the more inexplicable, unless someone, somewhere, was making a profit off the giant ants of Greyditch or the chaos in Arefu). These distractions were individually quite short, but they add up. So it is that I only just got to the point where I can start the Pitt.

My first task is to acquire some ratty clothes so I can disguise myself as a slave. There's no way this ends poorly. . .

Fallout 3 - 18 minutes

My real time with this game is somewhere in the ten hour range (I think the counter must register a couple of seconds each time I start up the game), but I don't have a lot to show for it. That's because Fallout 3 has a lot of empty moments, activities which take up a lot of time, but provide little incident. And how many variations of ". . . and I searched through this bombed out ruin or dank sewer, rummaging around in various boxes, desks, and vending machines in order to pick up a variety of junk and stale, 200-year-old food" does anyone need to read.

I will talk about one such variation, however, because it is an important part of the Fallout 3 experience. It's a variant I call the "overburdened loot march." It always crawls up on you unexpectedly, because it's not the sort of thing that happens when you're paying attention. It usually happens when you're traveling from place to place. It has been a long time since you've been back to your house in Megaton, and you have in your inventory the accumulated cruft of a dozen different enemies and goodness knows how many random shelves and boxes. Every single one of those possessions has significant value - whether it be resale price, as spare parts for repairs, food to heal you, or crafting ingredients. Then, unexpectedly, you stumble upon a motherload, a cache of weapons in good repair, or something heavy, yet useful like a rocket launcher or power armor, and you have to make a choice.

Do you abandon most of your inventory to take it? Do you leave it behind and make a note of the location, so as to come back at a more convenient time? Or do you pick it up and begin the loot march, confident that your time is of so little value that it will prove to be worth it? Because there's no actual limit to what you can carry (that I've discovered), if you're willing to move at reduced speed, you can bring back just about anything.

That's what happened to me after I finished Operation: Anchorage. The story of that mission is fairly forgettable - you stumble across an outcast faction of the Brotherhood of Steel trying to loot this underground bunker. Unfortunately, they are stymied by a huge door. For some odd reason, the door's lock is tied to a virtual reality pod. Only if someone goes into the simulation and completes it will the door open. And by sheerest coincidence the virtual reality pod requires a Pip-boy computer to interface with, so the Brotherhood outcasts offer to share the loot with me if I complete the simulation for them.

Oh, and there's just one more caveat - if you die in the simulation, you die in real life. Which, you know, seems to defeat the purpose of a training simulation, but what are you going to do, it's a huge genre convention.

The actual simulation itself is interesting because I feel like the game engine tried to stretch its legs a bit and become something closer to a pure shooter. It doesn't really work, and the whole Operation: Anchorage sequence lacks the openness and exploration that make the main game such a hoot, but as a temporary diversion, it was kind of fun not to have to worry about scavenging for a little while (throughout the simulation there are periodic health and ammo stations that top off your reserves).

All you have to do in the sim is follow orders, which are more or less all of the "go to this place and kill every motherfucker you see" variety. At one point, you get a squad to back you up, but since you can't really interact with them or give them specific orders, they wind up being expendable canon-fodder. In the end, I talked the enemy general into killing himself, which is apparently a thing that happens in the Fallout universe.

Anyway, I was talking about the loot march. I had just about enough room in my inventory for the mission's "official" reward. I was over by about 20 pounds, which would have easily been covered by a dose of Buffout. Then something unexpected happened - a rift in the ranks of the outcasts. Some of them highly disapproved of sharing technology with an outsider (even an outsider who risked her life to get them the tech in the first place) and made their displeasure known - with lasers. After dispatching them like the dogs they were, I found myself in possession of four suits of power armor and a similar number of high-end weapons. Since the only way I was getting back anyway happened to be through drug abuse, I figured I should just go for it.

I think it was worth it. The armor I got from the mission is strictly better than the Outcast power armor, but it will eventually fall into disrepair, and the parts to fix it will be in short supply. Having a couple extra suits back at my house will help immensely.

My next short term goal is to go to Arefu to deliver a letter for Lucy West, because there is a bobblehead in one of the houses. Due to my weird sense of noblesse oblige, I will probably finish the mission there. After that, I'll wrap up business in Greyditch, because it bugs me to have that loose end dangling. Then it is on to the Pitt, which I know absolutely nothing about (not even a plot synopsis).

My father will just have to enjoy hanging out at Vault 112 until I can get around to picking him up. I'm sure doctor Stanislaw Braun's hospitality will be more than enough to keep him entertained in the interim. . .

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fallout 3 - 17 minutes part 3

If Fallout 3 were a meal, it would be one of those ridiculous eating challenges from Man Versus Food. The sheer size of the thing forces you to approach it strategically. It forces you to ask yourself "how can I wrangle with this massive beast of a game so as to get the most possible enjoyment out of playing it?"

There are a variety of different approaches, and I can't say that I've ever pursued any one consistently. There's the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off method, where you just run around randomly and do whatever seems like the most urgent and/or convenient thing at any particular moment. I'm guilty of that more than I'd like to admit. Then there's the methodical geographic grid approach, where you go to a location, sweep it thoroughly, and then move on to the next location based on physical proximity. I always tell myself that I'm going to do that, in order to see absolutely everything the game has to offer, but I always space out long before I get the chance. What I do more frequently is the serial hyperfocus approach, where I get a bug up my ass about some particular quest, and then focus on that quest to the exclusion of all other concerns. Often, any given playthrough of the game will incorporate all three strategies.

This time, however, I intend to try something different. What I'm going to do now is beeline for the unknown. Large portions of this game I've already seen, due to the hundreds of hours I've played it on the console. However, with the PC version, I am getting some genuinely new content - the DLC missions. I've always been a bit diffident about digital purchases, and while my Steam addiction has more or less cured me of my reticence, in 2009, I was not nearly so comfortable about the idea (hell, I'm still not thrilled, but what am I going to do, rest contented with the games I already own and the uncountable years of entertainment that they can provide, I think not).

My plan, then, is to go after the DLC as soon as possible. According to a guide I found online, the order I want to do things in is probably

Operation: Anchorage
The Pitt
Mothership Zeta
Finish Main Quest
Broken Steel
Point Lookout

Combined with the inevitable distractions, loot hunts, and bobblehead-centered side-trips, this should take me well beyond 17 minutes* of game time.

That, at least, is the plan going forward. Since my last post, I've been mostly focused on achieving two particular main quest milestones. First, I wanted to restore Galaxy News Radio. Until you go into the DC ruins and fix the transmitting tower, the radio station only has a limited range. That can make the outlying regions feel excessively desolate and isolated (which maybe is a thing you're into, but I personally prefer my post-apocalypse to be a bit cheerier).

But even aside from having noise to keep me company, I genuinely like the game's soundtrack. It's all old-time jazz and rock-and-roll of varying cheesiness and sometimes questionable politics, but the contrast between the up-tempo and "innocent" music and the bleakness of the setting is really quite a striking effect. Plus, some of the songs are genuine classics in their own right, and well worth a listen for no reason other than musical appreciation (though I'm pretty sure "Way Back Home" was pure pap even in its decade of origin).

Restoring the radio station is a pretty fun quest. You get to go to the bombed-out ruins of the National Mall and dig through the Museum of Technology to find a radio receiver dish to replace the one shot down by Super Mutants. While there, you learn some nifty bits of Fallout lore, like the fact that right up until the war, the US was sending nuclear-powered rockets into space. I also learned that the Fallout universe diverged with our own no later than 1969. Where NASA sent the Apollo mission to land on the moon, Fallout's USSA sent the Virgo mission in the same year. Is this an easter egg for the mythologically literate? I don't think so, but perhaps someone more knowledgeable can say for sure.

After fixing the radio, I was then directed towards Rivet City, where my father once lived and worked as a scientist, attempting to purify the waters of the wasteland so everyone could drink without getting irradiated. A noble goal to be sure, though the real reason I went there was to collect the Vault-Tec Bobblehead that raised my Intelligence by a single point. I mean, advancing the plot and reuniting with my missing father is fine and all, but let's not lose sight of our priorities here.

Actually, speaking of the plot, I'm not sure how I feel about James. Like, he's voiced by Liam Neeson, so that automatically makes him cool, but then the more you learn about his life and behavior, the more you realize that he treats everyone around him (including yourself) like shit. At the beginning of the game, he abandons you to the tender mercies of the Overseer, but then, after getting to Rivet City, you learn that this is just part of a pattern.

Nineteen years ago, at around the time you were born, he abandoned Project Purity to move to Vault 101. Without him, the project fell apart, and all the time and resources spent pursuing it was wasted. Frankly, if I were Madison Li and he breezed back in after all that time, I'd punch him in his damned inconsiderate face. His excuse is that he wanted me to be safe after my mother died, but I've seen children in the halls of Rivet City. He could have raised a family while keeping up with his work (and, frankly, if he'd stuck with it and activated Purity 20 years ago, it's likely that all the future trouble I'm going to have with the Enclave could have been averted). Maybe the Overseer was right about him after all.

When I last left off, I'd played the game for about six hours, and I was in the middle of searching the Jefferson Monument for signs of my father. That's probably my favorite part of the game - visiting famous landmarks and having sci-fi action adventure all over them. There's a pretty good quest with the Lincoln memorial too. I think I should also put the White House and the Capitol building on my agenda. I've never actually been to the latter (in either the game or real life) and the only time I visited the former, I didn't have the radiation protection to survive it (in the game - in real life I've never been). But that is far in the future, because those are high level areas. My immediate goal is to get through the memorial. If I remember correctly, what follows is a lull in the main quest. I'll use that to start Operation Anchorage, and from there . . . it's not too good to plan, because this game has a way of knocking you off the rails.


*Read: 20 hours

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fallout 3 - 17 minutes part 2

Man, I am just grinning ear to ear playing this game. You'd think, given how many times I've worked my way through these opening hours, that I would be sick of it by now, but there's just something about creeping through Springvale Elementary School, beating raiders to death with a baseball bat, while listening to Malcolm McDowell's virtuoso voice performance on the Enclave propaganda station that is like gaming comfort food to me. I would vote for John Henry Eden, even though I know the truth about the Enclave's genocidal agenda.

So far, I've mostly been on this sort of nostalgic autopilot. My general goal is to travel in my father's footsteps at least until I can get the Galaxy New Radio antenna fixed, but I've done these early quests so often that it's easy to let myself get sidetracked "for just a few minutes." That's how I disarmed the nuke at the center of Megaton, raided the Super-Duper Mart for the certifiably insane, but delightfully adorable Moira Brown, and worked briefly as an assistant plumber.

The only real snag I've faced is the situation at Greyditch. Maybe it's the longer draw distance possible on the PC, but it seemed like the kid accosted me about the quest from much farther away than usual. And it was kind of hard to say no to a helpless young boy who runs up to you, tells you that his father is missing and possibly dead, and that giant, monstrous ants have overrun his town.

Unfortunately, the game's level scaling kind of hates me here. I was able to take down a few of the ants, but at an unacceptably high cost in ammo and medicine. I eventually wound up abandoning the kid in a single-occupant fallout shelter. He should be safe enough for the six hours or so (probably in-game months) that I wander around building up levels and exploring various random ruins. Assuming, of course, that I don't get distracted and let this quest completely slip my mind.

This game does that to you. It's just a big, vibrant (if completely destroyed) world that has something to engage your interest and waste your time at basically every turn. I've played it for three hours already, and I haven't even begun to get to the point where I can conceivably talk about starting to make a dent in its total content. I'm maybe 1-2% done (spending 300 hours on Fallout 3 does seem a little excessive, but I don't think it's a bad assessment, because the pace accelerates as you become more powerful and unlock more fast travel locations), and I could not be more thrilled.

Fallout 3 - 17 minutes

Only something you love can break your heart. Like, suppose you had a game, and, when you attempted to start playing, it didn't work. It would start up just fine, then crash whenever you attempted to create a new save file. And let us further posit that you searched online for a solution, only to find a recommendation that  you fiddle around with .ini files, an activity you found uncomfortable because you don't really understand what you're doing, and thus have no way of knowing whether you could inadvertently harm something. And then suppose that the proposed fix doesn't actually solve the problem, so you spend another hour reinstalling the game and a further two searching more detailed explanations of the problem.

It might occur to you, at some point, to throw in the towel, to write off this five-dollar game as not worth the time, effort, and aggravation you've been forced  to endure. It would be a rational course of action, and you'd avoid succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy. But if you did the smart thing here, you would not be me, and the game would not be Fallout 3.

This game is absolutely HUGE. Fallout 2 may have been more of an influence, and I may actually prefer Fallout: New Vegas, but Fallout 3 is . . . Well, it's Fallout 3. It is a game that helped me inaugurate my Xbox 360. It is a game I waited outside in the cold to buy on opening day. I played it for so long and so often that the Capitol Wasteland has come to feel like a second home.

There's no way in hell I was just going to let it drop, but getting this game to work was a nightmare of an experience. The worst part was right after I tried a new solution. There'd be a brief moment when I'd allow myself to feel hope. This time it was going to work. Everything would fall into place and I'd be able to play Fallout 3 again. To have those hopes dashed over and over again was beyond frustrating. It actually inspired in me no small amount of despair.

I did, however, eventually get it to work. It took me four hours, and I  haven't really had time to play since, but I did manage to get through the entirety of the opening and out of Vault 101.

Not in 17 minutes, obviously. Sadly, what I wound up having to do is disable the Steam overlay, so my time in-game is no longer tracked. On the one hand, it shouldn't bother me, because the game appears to play perfectly fine without it, and I'll know if I've played it for 20 hours. On the other hand, it does bother me, because now the symmetry will be all messed up. Who is this hypothetical audience who is going to notice that I will forever have a gap in my time-played counter? Do I imagine that my readers are going into my Steam profile and double-checking that I actually played the games for as long as I said I did? And what do I think that these notional busybodies think I'm doing to gather material for the blog if not actually playing these games? Could there be a more pointless hoax? Would faking all these posts not take more time and effort than actually doing them honestly?

Of course I'm going to play this game for 20 hours. I would be surprised if I get it done in less than 50 (the Steam version is the Game of the Year Edition, which has a bunch of DLC I missed out on for the Xbox 360 version). This neurotic little compulsion to have things neat and tidy is not going to matter one bit once I start digging in to the world of Fallout 3.

And I have to say, this game has one of the all-time great openings. It's not as whiz-wow as some of the more action-oriented titles out there (Saints Row the Third, in particular, has not one, but two awesomely over-the-top action set pieces in the first hour of the game), but it succeeds at laying out, from the very first moment, the scope of this game's ambition.

You start as a newborn baby. You are literally just out of the womb when you must come up with your character's name. That, right there, is the philosophy of the game in a nutshell. You are not going to passively witness a story. The plot isn't the thing that will drive you (much in the same way that it is entirely redundant to say of a protagonist "at some point in the past, she was born"). Your motivation will come from the fact that you are this character. Everything notable that happens to her, happens to you. Sidequests (and sitting through a spectacularly lame tenth birthday party or taking a meaningless aptitude test are activities most sidequests would think of as "too pointless to bother with.") are in fact the main point. The path is not straight.

Which is a hard thing to pull of when, in fact, the path is very straight. My character was born. I decided she would be an Asian woman named Lilith. I got to listen to the soothing voice of Liam Neeson guide me through my first steps (and explain a passage from the Book of Revelation that is being taken severely out of context). Then I went to the aforementioned lame birthday party to deal with some punk bully and the obligatory Bethesda sweet roll cameo. And then I flashed forward six years to see a group called the "Tunnel Snakes" (gee, real subtle guys) harass my friend Amata. After beating the crap out of them, I took the G.O.A.T., an "aptitude test" consisting of ten of the most surreally absurd questions imaginable. For some reason, I got to be the vault chaplain. I'd have thought they'd go with someone who believed in god.

After all that's over, you suddenly wake up in bed. You're nineteen years old, and your father has escaped the Vault (according to the intro movie "no one ever enters and no one ever leaves"). The whole place is in complete disarray. The Overseer, a prickly person at the best of times, has gone completely off the deep end, even going so far as to torture his own daughter, Amata (that gal can just not catch a break) for information. You have to fight, sneak, or talk your way out of danger, at one point even saving the life of the bully's mother, until you pass through the Overseer's office and into the Vault entrance. Then, some security guards try and gun you down, chasing you out the door. There, in the cave leading down to Vault 101, the door slams shut, sealing you out. There's only one way to go, so you emerge, blinking, into the light,

And then the rails come off. Up until now, you've been inexorably pushed forward. Now, without warning, the entire world is open to you. You've got a vague goal (find your father) and a map marker (Megaton, in the southwest), but you don't have to follow them. You can go north or east or wherever. Even though you haven't had much choice thus far, everything in the opening hour has been building up to this point. You are your character. Her situation is your situation. You have this huge, unfamiliar world spread out in front of you. What do you do?

It is so good to back at this point, you have no idea. I know the area around Vault 101 like I know my own backyard. It's a crummy world, but the ruins can have a kind of stark beauty. I don't have any particular agenda at the moment. Maybe I'll rush through the main quest. Maybe I'll dick around poking my nose into garbage cans for six hours. It's all up to me, and I love it.

Maybe the pain of getting this game to run was worth it after all.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fallout Tactics - 20/20 hours

Seven hours ago, I made a fateful decision regarding this game - I decided I would treat it as a hostile challenge. Instead of playing it for its own sake, I would grit my teeth and power through until I reached my quota. It's a reaction all out of proportion with Fallout Tactics quality as a game, but I am physically relieved that I don't have to play it any more.

It's a tough feeling to explain, because as far as I can tell, there was nothing concrete that I disliked about this game. I think what happened is that I could not stop playing it wrong. Some mental block, possibly caused by the fact that I just got done playing the first two Fallout games, led to me viewing it as a casual rpg, where combat optimization is not quite so important. This being in spite of the fact that the game is called Fallout Tactics. So I'd do things like move my squad as if it were an adventuring party and pop into abandoned buildings just to explore, and the result would be the ignominious deaths of my characters because what I should have been doing is individually positioning my squad members based on what weapons they used and line of sight considerations while treating the environment as a hostile deathtrap where every bit of unknown scenery is a potential ambush.

It's just that playing the game the "right" way is sooo slooow. You move your character across an insignificant portion of the map, hit the next turn button, and then wait while the computer resolves the actions of one npc after another until it finally gets back to your turn, and if you're lucky, the enemies are finally close enough that you can plink away at them two shots at a time. I was fortunate to get a level every two hours out of this game.

Switching it to continuous mode sped things up considerably, but then you have to split your attention six ways and basically treat the game as the world's most complicated RTS. Or at least you should. I didn't. I just moved my guys as a blob and completely neglected you use any particular "tactics."

Now that I see this written out, I realize it would be pretty cheeky of me to complain about a game I stubbornly refused to engage with. So I won't.

Instead I'll talk about the plot, which at hour 20 was just starting to take shape. As the Brotherhood of Steel continued to expand, it encountered a strange group of telepathic "beastlords" who could control all manner of wasteland creatures, including the fearsome deathclaws. I later discovered that the reason they could control such formidable creatures is because they captured a deathclaw matriarch. Liberating her, I gained the ability (if not the opportunity) to recruit deathclaws into my squad. Nifty.

From there, I was subsequently deployed to the front of a new battle between the Brotherhood of Steel and a contingent of super mutants, whose goals and origin are unknown, but who are apparently kicking the Brotherhood's ass. My elite squadron was sent in to rescue some of my comrades who were in over their heads and find out the fate of the general who was leading the charge.

That mission was fairly easy, due to the fact that they provided me with a pretty beefy vehicle, so I didn't have to worry much about enemy damage. After that, I could finally take the fight to the enemy . . .

In theory. In practice, I died. A lot. And now I'm at 20 hours playtime, and I think this is where I take my bow. I'm actually pretty interested in where the story is going, but not so much that I'm willing to go back to playing the game.

I have to assume, in the end, the Brotherhood triumphs against their enemies and transforms the post-apocalyptic American mid-west into a fascist hell-hole, dominated by an elitist technologically advanced aristocracy that keeps the "primitives" in place with their unstoppable weapons. The mutants are probably related to Vault 0, somehow, but I can't imagine they escape extermination.

What I know for certain is that none of this matters when it comes to one's enjoyment of Fallout 3, which I get to play next. I'm hugely looking forward to it, which could not at all have helped with my ability to enjoy Fallout Tactics on its own merits.

My bad. I never really gave the game a proper chance. It's just so awkward, placed as it is between the two rpg eras. It doesn't really serve as a bridge, its heavy combat emphasis being a disappointment after the freedom of Fallout 2 and its shallow world-building being completely eclipsed by the epic accomplishment that is Fallout 3. As much as I wanted to enjoy this game, due to my natural tendency to sympathize with underdogs and the forgotten, it never became more to me than a speedbump in the middle of the "real" Fallouts.

That is so transparently unfair that I kind of hate admitting it. But what am I going to do? Continuing playing a game I don't enjoy as a form of intellectual penance for the fact that I didn't give it its proper due as a true member of one of my all-time favorite game series? That is too bizarrely sentimental even for me.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Fallout Tactics - 13/20 hours

I think I can with confidence that I hate the Brotherhood of Steel. It seems like whenever I finish a mission the general pops up to tell me about the terribly shitty things the Brotherhood has done in the wake of my victory. One minute I'm riding high, tooling around in my cool new vehicle, the next I'm hearing how the Brotherhood swept in after me with an "extermination squad" and plans to put any survivors into forced labor camps. Even when I manage to reach a diplomatic accord with a tribal chieftain and receive an extra fusion battery as a gift, they still cop this incredibly condescending imperialistic attitude.

The non-story portion of the game is getting stronger. I think. When I got the vehicle, it led to a running battle through some city ruins, where I would have to periodically exit the vehicle, kill some bandits, open closed gates and tear down barricades. When I was sent to retrieve fusion batteries from a primitive tribe, I had to dash past some unbeatable turrets, slaughter cockroaches by the dozen, and make a moral decision about whether it was worth disarming an ancient facility's defenses if it meant the destruction of the town (although, perhaps my strategy of refusing to engage the turrets was more a product of me being under-leveled and under-equipped than it was a reasonable military decision - it's hard to tell with these level-based games).

So, there's some nice diversity in the mission goals and circumstances. That is mark in the game's favor. It really forces me to stretch my tactical muscles and not just take for granted that the combat is a solved problem. And the different types of weapons and ammunition are interesting, adding a logistical wrinkle to the strategy that many other similar games lack.

Yet if I'm being perfectly honest, Fallout Tactics still feels like work to me. It's not something that makes a lot of sense. It has all the ingredients of a game I should like - I enjoy turn-based tactical combat, inventory management, rpg-mechanics, exploration, and the Fallout universe. I'm not thrilled about my role in the story, but it seems interesting enough (the Brotherhood is looking for Vault 0, the prototype Vault meant to house all of the pre-war society's greatest geniuses). But for whatever reason, it is not gelling. I face the prospect of starting the game up with no small amount of dread.

In a way, I'm finding finishing harder than an objectively worse game, like Secret of the Magic Crystals. Because it is so close to something I like. Because it feels like something I should like. Because I can't figure out why I don't like it. It's vexing.

I guess it just goes to show the myth of objectivity. As much as I like to think of myself as an enlightened, open-minded person who judges games on their merits, rather than rank prejudice and whimsy, the truth is that it's not like I have some internal list of criteria that I compare to the observed traits of the game and then calibrate my enjoyment accordingly. Chemistry counts for something. As does timing. I played Gat out of Hell at right around the time I started this game. And my Exalted pnp game has recently started heating up. And the wife and I have been watching The Simpsons on DVD. So, when I look at my computer, I can't help but think of all the super-fun things I could be doing instead, and while that hasn't stopped me from playing the game, it has made it seem worse by comparison.

That's obviously not fair to Fallout Tactics. It's not even a reasonable way to feel. But it's what's in my heart. I feel guilty that I don't love this game. It is better than my impression of it. So much better, in fact, that I don't understand why I'm not obsessed. It's tough, sure, but it's not more punishing than Fire Emblem, and I played the hell out of that.

Yet maybe it is absurd to feel guilty about not falling in love. Sometimes things just don't work out, and what can seem on paper, to be the perfect match between player and game, can simply fail to light a spark. I still have, on a gut level, an aversion to thinking of video games as a disposable form of entertainment (growing up, they were so coveted, and so scarce), but empirically speaking, my actual behavior says otherwise. I have the luxury of not having to settle. I have a long line of games just waiting to be played, and so I need not entangle myself with Fallout Tactics for any longer than strictly necessary.

Which I guess is seven more hours, because if it is not a game to make me fall in love, it is also not going to be the game to defeat me. My impression of it is mildly positive. I took a quick peek at the wiki to see how many more missions there are, and I'm certain I won't finish it, but banging out three more of the remaining 17 shouldn't be too much of a problem.

And who knows, maybe something in one of those missions will get me hooked. Though I kind of feel like I've been with the game long enough to take its measure, stranger things have happened.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fallout Tactics - 9/20 hours

I think I realize now my problem with this game. I have not gotten into the hardcore mindset. I started playing it just after I finished Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell, and thus came to with a "bust down the front door and kill every mothafucker in the room" sort of attitude, and that only rarely works in a strategy game and is especially ill-considered in an old-school strategy-rpg. I needed to learn to take pleasure in the methodical, to cover all the angles, to fiddle with my inventory, to conserve my ammunition, and to save often.

This last one was especially important. I've played Fallout Tactics for five hours since my last post. Two of those hours were lost to an inopportune death. I have no one to blame but myself, of course, though that doesn't mean I'm mature enough to accept this with good grace.


Ahem. Okay, so I've only actually finished one mission in the last five hours. I managed, at least, to learn a bit of information about the Brotherhood's mysterious rival. They are apparently technologically advanced enough to build cybernetic replacement limbs. So the odds of them being Caesar's Legion are basically nil. I always knew that was the most probable outcome, due to the franchise's long hiatus and change of ownership, but I was kind of hoping to get more backstory on the series most despicable villains.

Although, come to think of it, the Brotherhood of Steel might itself qualify for that honor. Ever since the beginning of the game, they've been condescending to me, but I wrote off their obvious ethnic chauvinism as just a part of their militaristic hazing of new recruits. However, at the end of my most recent mission, I learned that they're planning on crucifying the raiders I defeated as a lesson to any other troublemakers out there. I think once you start breaking out the crucifixions, that's when you cross the line from anti-hero to villain. It was a little ambiguous, though. Seeing as how I only left two or three survivors, it's possible that they meant that they would arrange the corpses of my enemies into crucifixion poses.

That's a little gross and macabre, but it's probably no worse than my killing them in the first place.

. . . And that's pretty much all the plot I have to summarize, because as I said, it took me five hours to beat one level (it is embarrassing how many people I lost to land mines). Fallout Tactics so far has been really stingy with the plot and setting details, informing me of what's going on only during mission briefings and end-of-level summaries. I'm starting to think that the story is only a thin frame to go around the game's missions, and that the real enjoyment comes from being a total tactics nerd inside the Fallout universe (I know, it's almost as if the name of the game was Fallout Tactics).

Ordinarily that wouldn't bother me. I like turn-based strategy games, and one thing I especially like about something like Civilization V is the purity of the board-game like experience. It's less that these things I'm giving orders to are characters in the world whose actions I'm controlling and more like they're game pieces I'm moving around to maximize my chances of victory. That's an approach I normally enjoy.

It's just the feel of things is not quite right. Each member of my squad has their own character sheet and name. They aren't just troopers #1-6, they are Kyle and Farsight and Stitch and Jo and Trevor and Brian. It makes me nervous when they get attacked and just a little sad when they die. Yet I don't really know a lot about them. They are not true rpg companions. I should perhaps view them a little more pragmatically than I do. It's not a totally comfortable dissonance.

On the other hand, it's not a huge deal either. I think as I play this game more and more, my expectations are starting to scale back. I'm starting to view each mission less as a barrier between me and the story (though if I'm being honest, playing Fallout Tactics right after the first two Fallouts and right before the last two does in fact feel like hitting a huge speedbump) and more as a major operation whose points of interest are intrinsic to the activity itself. Moving through the maps, doing house to house searches, and adapting to various tactical situations is in fact the point of the game.

I think when I learn to slow down and really savor what's in front of me is when I'll finally start enjoying the game on its own terms, instead of loading it down with baggage I brought with me from the rest of the series.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fallout Tactics - 4/20 hours

Fallout Tactics has yet to set fire to my imagination. In fact, I kind of dread playing it. To be fair, that's not entirely the game's fault. I've been dealing with some unrelated stress that has dampened my enthusiasm for gaming.

However, I don't want to entirely let Fallout Tactics off the hook here. It is an odd game that is not quite one thing or another, and I'm not sure its split identity works to its benefit. A good example is the continuous battle mode, which speeds up combat significantly by turning it into a psuedo-RTS. Yet I discovered, to my dismay, that if you set you posture to aggressive and move your team as a group, it is inevitable that at least one of my squad will be shot by their own teammates because the game simulates line of sight, but does not have a sophisticated enough AI to realize that I probably don't want to hurt my own people just because one of them spotted an enemy.

But you know what, that would be fine, except the game also lacks some basic RTS functionality. There's no way to quickly pause the game to assess the situation and give your squad orders. And despite the importance of positioning, there's also no easy way to move your squad in formation, and without micromanaging, they all tend to clump together. So (at least when it comes to my one-track attention span), the only real way to play the game is in turn based mode, which is fine except that the levels are usually pretty large, and the characterization of your enemies is virtually nonexistent, and you don't really get a clear view of your objectives or enemies. As a result, the game seems to drag on excessively.

I'm probably being too harsh on the game, though. Like I said earlier, I've been kind of distracted recently, so Fallout Tactics' deliberate, detail-oriented gameplay is putting too much of a cognitive load on my already strained mind. I have a feeling if I'd started playing this game a week earlier or a week later, I'd probably be celebrating its depth rather than cursing the fact that it's not a mindless killfest. I guess I'm just going to have to power through it and throw myself at the game until I start to like it.

It's happened before, so I'm not entirely cynical about this plan. Besides, there are parts of the game I like. My commanding officer has told me of rumors of some major force to the west (i.e. between me and the Brotherhood's California HQ - they must have flown over them before the blimps crashed) who is suppressing bandits and may be either a threat or an ally to the Brotherhood. My interest is piqued. From Fallout: New Vegas the obvious candidate is Caesar's Legion, which I would definitely be keen to learn more about, though considering the canon shadow zone occupied by Fallout Tactics my guess is that it's some other force not mentioned in subsequent games. This expansion of the Fallout universe may be the most exciting part of the game so far.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Fallout Tactics - 2/20 hours

I had an embarrassing revelation while playing the first level of Fallout Tactics. I've never before finished the first level of Fallout Tactics. It's especially embarrassing because this is one of my first PC games. A decade ago, I bought a two disc set with Fallout and Fallout 2, played them, loved them, and wanted more. So when I saw Fallout Tactics, it was like "score! more Fallout! yoink!" But then I got it home, installed it, and apparently only played the first level.

It's funny the tricks memory plays on you. I knew, going in, that I had not finished the game, but I think I assumed that I'd gotten farther than I had. If I were inclined to search for deeper meaning in this anecdote (and I think, by now, my regular readers will realize that I am), I might speculate that this is part of a larger overall pattern. Clearly, my buying video games for flimsy reasons and then not playing them habit was not, in fact, the novel innovation I thought it was, but in fact something that was part of my gaming makeup from the very beginning. So maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself (or perhaps I should be harder on my younger self).

However, an alternate explanation presents itself. It could be that Fallout Tactics simply does not put its best foot forward when presenting a new player with the opening level. The story of the game, as told in the intro cinematic, is that the Brotherhood of Steel recently had an ideological dispute between those who wanted to recruit new blood from outside the order and those who wanted to keep the order pure. The purists won, and sent the dissenters out on a shit assignment to the American mid-west to chase down the remnants of the Master's army (though one would think that after a factional dispute regarding the Brotherhood's limited number, the conservative side would be less than eager to sacrifice personnel its own policies made irreplaceable). During the expedition, disaster struck (because of course it did) and the renegades were cut off from communication with the main order, forced to survive on their own, but free to pursue their own vision for the Brotherhood's future.

You, the player, control a squad of new recruits, tribal conscripts straight out of basic training with no particularly special equipment. Your first mission is to take down a bandit leader who has taken over a small village. The hope is that by liberating the villagers, they will come to see the benefits of the Brotherhood's protection, and supply the order with resources and recruits.

However, the village you have to protect is just this huge, mostly empty map. None of the villagers say anything particularly fun or memorable, and the actual combat is slow, yet unpredictable. I was mostly able to cut through the enemy troops with little difficulty, but like the other Fallout games, a single critical hit was enough to ruin my day. So, you have Fallout with none of its characteristic humor or freedom to explore, with a group of blandly generic characters, taking on a deep but swingy combat system that is not exactly newb-friendly. Not an auspicious start to the game.

Yet I'm not willing to simply write off the game after one level. It is possible that after some time customizing my squat (which is modeled with a truncated, by still quite detailed version of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system) and acquiring high-tech brotherhood weapons that I may come to view them with a proprietary fondness. It's also possible that future missions will be less generic, and that the game's story may have twists and turns that will come to captivate me (the first boss, Horus, seemed to view the Brotherhood as just another wasteland gang, so maybe the game will be a deeply ambiguous meditation on the morality of war, and the useful lies we tell ourselves to be able to countenance the most inhuman violence - or maybe it was just one of those bullshit lines that rpg villains occasionally spew out - only time will tell).

Though I'm a bit miffed at this game (seriously, that opening level was distressingly long), I also feel a kind of sympathy with it. It's the forgotten middle child of the Fallout series. Not as brilliantly ambitious as its predecessors, nor as polished and charismatic as the games to follow. It's just a weird little turn-based strategy game that tries to explore the limits of the Fallout engine (I'm still undecided on the merits of its continuous turn mode - I'll comment more about it in a later post) without (apparently) the same world-building and storytelling as its rpg siblings.  Its unfair of me to view it as a roadblock standing in the way of Fallout 3. It is its own thing, and I should treat it accordingly.

(I just worry that I may not like this thing very much).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fallout 2 - Wrap Up

I'm finding it difficult to get a handle on the Fallout 2 experience. It is a game that looms large in my personal history, and there's always the danger that instead of talking about the game, I will wind up talking about the reputation of the game.

Even though I haven't played it in more than ten years, and thus experienced it with ostensibly fresh eyes, I can't help viewing Fallout 2 as an artifact out of its time. There is greatness there, undeniably so, but that greatness comes at you from a remove. You have to appreciate the game for its context in the history of the genre, because so many of its individual choices are dictated by the technological limitations, prejudices, and peculiar obsessions of the era in which it was created.

I would liken it to reading an ancient epic. You know that situation where the text is clearly setting up for a massive battle scene, and you're like "this is going to be awesome," and then it just swerves off to the side and starts describing everyone's shields for ten pages. Or some character says something utterly inexplicable, and only years later do you learn that it was in fact a somewhat funny and violently racist joke that slandered a culture which has been extinct for three thousand years.

From the perspective of a contemporary audience, these are flaws, but you can't really say "get this thing an editor and update it for modern times," because that would be a desecration. You have to take the bad with the good, because it's the work's status as an original that makes it important, but when the rubber hits the road, you'd probably get more pure enjoyment out of something a bit more polished (breathtaking originality only counts if you haven't already experienced the myriad of inevitable copycats).

Which is to say that Fallout 2 hasn't aged especially well. I'm old enough to know who Monica Lewinsky is, and so the obvious parody in the Enclave President's secretary makes sense to me, but it was definitely a joke that's confined to a particular historical moment. And I'm pretty sure that even in 1998, referring to your Asian characters as "wearing funny pajamas" and having them call the player "round-eyes" was probably not acceptable behavior.

Yet the part of the game that has aged the least well is arguably its best feature - Fallout 2 is insanely ambitious. There's an item, the Super Stimpack, that heals you for a massive amount, but then does a smaller amount of damage to you after a set amount of time. It is possible, if you are not careful, to kill yourself this way, by stacking up too much of a hit point deficit. It is also possible to use this method to assassinate the president of the Enclave. Somebody thought of that loophole and then included it in the game.

They also thought of allowing you to infiltrate Enclave facilities by wearing power armor. This benefit even extends to your companions. As long as they are wearing the armor, no one will bother them. It's some great attention to detail that makes the world feel more vital and real. Yet that also leads into the game's downside. Though every human character is fooled by your companion's disguise, Enclave robots are not. And if you're thinking "oh wow, so robots are harder to fool, neat,"  you're probably wrong. The robots are fooled by your disguise, and will let you pass unmolested so long as you're alone. The fact that they attack your companions is almost certainly an oversight. (An oversight, by the way, that I discovered only after I'd gotten deep into the Enclave Oil Rig and was unable to retreat without facing more than a dozen power-armored troops, who also become hostile when the robots start attacking you).

Now, open-world game = bugs, obviously, but I feel like we've gotten to a point where our big games are a bit more functional. When it was released, Fallout 2 could coast on the jubilant sense of freedom it provided, because there was nothing else like it out there (the original Baldur's Gate wouldn't come out for another three months - early 1999 must have been a great time to be a PC roleplaying fan). Yet coming at it a decade and a half too late, I was somewhat underwhelmed by my ability to choose between the Hubologists and the Shi. I feel like, in a world where Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas exist, I'd have gotten the option to somehow acquire fuel for the tanker without having to engage in political assassination for people whose motives I don't really understand.

(Slight Tangent - when I first played this game, I had no idea what Scientology even was, so the Hubologists came off to me as just a kooky sci-fi religion, not particularly out of place in this wacky post-apocalyptic world where aliens were, in fact, a verifiable reality infesting an oil tanker not three screens away, and thus I had no idea why the game was so down on them, particularly since all of their shady actions happen off-screen and are relayed to you by their mortal enemies, and made especially cruel by the fact that going along with their weirdness can potentially boost your Luck by as much as 3 points)

I don't really want to complain about the game, though. Because it really is fantastic. There is just so much to do packed into this tiny little package. I think the original Fallout probably aged better as a pure gameplay experience, primarily because it is a tighter story with a more straightforward critical path, and fewer goofy pop-culture references (though nothing beats finding the Bride of Death from Monty Python's Holy Grail while wandering randomly through the desert). However, Fallout 2 is arguably the greater achievement. It is animated by an incredible sense of fun, and it rewards poking your nose into random corners of the map, creating this beautifully weird world that you just want to explore and inhabit.

I'm aware of the fact that I'm probably too keen to attribute great influence and innovation to this game. It is undoubtedly a branch of the rpg tree, and that if later games seem inspired by its formula, it's probably because both derived from a common source. However, in my personal canon, Fallout 2 holds an immensely important place. It was my first (okay, if you want to get technical, second) open world rpg. Due to the bundle I bought it in, Fallout came before, but it was in many ways a more conventional narrative. This game gave you a wide open map and then dared you to find the story. I now view this as a flaw, but at the time it blew my mind. You could just wander off and have adventures in areas completely unrelated to the main story! Why would it let you do that? You could join the evil factions! You could get gay-married (if, unlike my current character, you have the Charisma for it)! It changed my perspective on gaming, and what was possible to expect from the roleplaying genre.

So, if I come back to the game a bit more jaded, I am the way I am due in no small part to Fallout 2. If I want more, it's because this game gave me the audacity to demand it. That, I think, is worth remembering.