Monday, December 15, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love Fallout

Above: VATS-tastic

I can admit when I've been prejudiced. Everything I heard about Fallout 3 made me suspect it wasn't as good as the rapturous reviews would suggest. That's not a fair way to put it: I was pretty sure I wouldn't like this game, despite its virtues. Mostly, that's because I didn't like Oblivion, and nothing I heard about Fallout made me think it was going to be different. Massive game world. Long-ass quests. Karma. Conversations with creepy, dead-eyed characters who have retarded requests. This is not a recipe for the kind of game I'm usually into.

For a while there, I thought I was right. Fallout's first hour is pretty interesting, both for the way it sets the scene and for the way it goes about the usual RPG rigmarole of creating your character. When I played Oblivion, I kid you not, I spent about ten minutes paging through the classes, trying to figure out what I should be. I eventually settled on "Dark Elf" and spent the rest of my (brief) playing time wondering if I'd made a mistake.

That's what happens in these games. You can perform the good action or the bad action, and each one comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. But I can't think of it that way. All I can think is that I chose the wrong one, I blew it, and I've doomed myself to a less-than-ideal experience for the next 100+ hours, all because of that idiotic decision I made before I had even played enough to know better. This first happened in Fallout, by the way, before I'd even left Vault 101. I thought the Overseer was attacking me, you see. I thought it was self-defense! It wasn't until his daughter was yelling at me that I realized I'd messed up. I could have gone back and re-loaded an earlier save, but that's the coward's way out. A man takes responsibility for his actions.

Anyway, I did like the way Fallout went about its character creation. When you're born, your dad says "We're going to name you --" and then you get to fill in your own name. That's the same way you determine your basic attributes, and your appearance. I still am not sure why you get so many ways to customize your physical appearance. You never see yourself except in those slow-motion VATS sequences, and my face has been covered by a mask 90% of the time. Just more things to fret about and, later, regret. (Why, oh why did I pick the guy with the sideburns?)

Later on, you take a Wonderlic-like test that fleshes out your character fully. But again, I agonized over these choices. I was convinced I picked the wrong ones. Even when Levar Burton (that was him, right?) gave me a chance to change my attributes later, I said no. This was my lot in life -- my cross to bear. Off I went, into the wasteland, muttering to myself the whole time, "Why did I stick with melee and science? Why? I should have chosen guns!"

I was committed to playing as a good guy. I only wanted to do that which would earn me positive karma. So when Moira Brown in Megaton asked me to help her research a book, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I was like a brownnosing grad student working for a star professor. Sure, I'll run down to the grocery store and grab some food for you! (I made two attempts to get the medicine, too, but those Raiders were too much for me.) With that accomplished, my next task was to afflict myself with radiation poisoning so she could study its effects. Again, I accepted the job, a little more hesitantly this time.

It was only after I spent five minutes slurping down irradiated water at a nearby well that I first thought to myself, "This is fucking stupid." I felt the same way a little later, when I was circling a pillar opposite a minigun-wielding mutant waiting for my action points to build up so I could VATS his skull in. And when I found out the the world map is basically useless for helping you get to where you want to go, I could feel myself about to get self-congratulatory and preachy.

But somewhere along the way, those bizarre quest goals and gameplay irritations faded as the allure of the wasteland started to take hold. When Ryan was reviewing Fallout for the Phoenix and I asked him how it was, he put it this way: "If you're walking down the street and you see the Lincoln Memorial, you're not going to not go in there." That is exactly what happens. I can't think of a better way to explain it.

Admittedly, even this sometimes has its drawbacks. On my way to Rivet City to talk to Doctor Li, I came across the Jefferson Memorial, and figured I'd take a look. Inside, I found a bunch of records my dad had left in there. Presumably, Dr. Li would have told me to go back to the Memorial to find them, so it was just efficiency on my part. But I generally prefer to be led along a dramatic path in a game, instead of stumbling my way through. I'm given so much agency in Fallout that I can actually play it in a way I'd consider to be wrong.

But the flipside was what happened when I was trekking up to Arefu and discovered Vault 106. It wasn't part of any quest: just another miserable, tucked-away place in the wasteland, home to a few straggling survivors who had all, regrettably, gone batshit insane. Vault 106 was bigger than I thought, and when the lights started turning blue and I saw people appearing and disappearing, I thought my Xbox was on the verge of melting.*

After I realized that, no, this was supposed to happen, that was when everything clicked. There was no reason to go into Vault 106, except that it was there. Inside was an entire chapter of the history Bethesda has built for this game. That was its purpose: to show me this world. I had only to look.

*I've been having serious problems, actually, and I don't know if it's the software or the hardware. Fallout has locked up on me about three times, and once the audio turned ungodly staticky for about a minute before cutting out entirely. Not to mention the Megaton Settler with no head, and a beam of light shooting from her neck into the sky.


Etelmik said...

Only ten minutes deciding a class in Oblivion? I rerolled three hours in after leveling up doing nothing but stealing, lockpicking, talking, and selling.

Then I got to Kvatch and had 5 fire monsters and 2 huge red dudes with axes mow down my entire party in less than a minute.

I spent more than ten minutes after that one.

Oh, and glad to see you're liking it--it seems it's the only game of this seasons that everyone can agree is indisputably awesome.

Sparky said...

It has its issues, but I am much enamored of Fallout 3. It's probably not your XBox, Mitch, as mine also locked up several times in both my playthroughs. I strongly recommend you avoid the Mysterious Stranger perk, as this one seemed to lock up the game in V.A.T.S. on several occasions my first time through. My second play, without that perk, had far fewer freezes. I never had anything like that audio problem or the Highlander-style Megaton settler, though.

Unknown said...

Fallout 3 is definitely buggy. I feel bad for the PC gamers who have even worse freezing issues. The game locked up on me several times during my playthrough, usually after not saving for an hour in a particularly large dungeon or out wandering the wasteland.

Mitch Krpata said...

I'm glad it's not just me, then. I'm also glad it autosaves every time you do anything.

Sparky said...

On a different level, how much do you think your ability to relax into the game resulted from the absence of some of the traditional RPG structure? There are no races, and no classes. Although certain skills can be tagged in the G.O.A.T., this only amounts to a 15-point boost, something that can be easily corrected for if you decide to take the character down a different path. Do you think this kind of fluidity somewhat alleviates the worry that you've done the wrong thing?

Mitch Krpata said...

That could be part of it, although I do have a mild panic attack every time I level up and see all those points I need to allocate. I think it's more that the setting was so appealing that I stayed interested long enough to get comfortable with the many things that were makin' me feel weird. At this point I have fully accepted that my dude is better at bashing in skulls than anything else. I've made my peace with it. Embraced it, even.

Julian said...

It's also not just the 360 version, my PS3 has locked up a couple times. If that makes you feel even better.

I'm having a similar experience with the vast improvement between Oblivion and Fallout. I stopped caring in Oblivion because all the quests and people felt flat, and the basic mechanics (especially your leveling mechanic and the way enemies scale) were borderline broken. Seriously, if I tag the skills I want to use, the game gets HARDER? I don't know how the hell that passed inspection.

But Fallout 3 has gripped me, between a leveling system that makes me look forward to my next level instead of dreading it, combat that I can wrap my hands around, and characters that are actually interesting. I was grinning the whole time Moira was giving her final explanation of why she wants to make to Guide, because that's exactly what I see in Fallout's world, a chance to make a mosiac out of all the broken glass.

I didn't feel too bad about killing the overseer. His ridiculous paranoia (interrogating his own daugher!? You gotta be kidding me), and the way he simply sent his goons - the same dicks that had been harassing you and Amata the whole time - to take out Jonas made me feel like I had done the world a favor, in addition to the self-defense angle. I'm not even certain sparing him would have been the "right" or "good" path anyway. Seems like there should be repercussions down the line for that, and leaving a murdering half-insane tyrant in charge is hardly noble.

To me it felt like it set the tone for not fully black or white choices in the game, which makes the karma system kind of a letdown. In a world as grey as the Capitol Wasteland, what is the usefulness of a black-and-white morality system? I'd be happier with a system of reputation for how much different factions like you and a series of titles or tags for major decisions. That would fit much more nicely with the world, IMO.

Nels Anderson said...

"(Why, oh why did I pick the guy with the sideburns?)"

If you're thorough, you can find a couple of barbers in the Capital Wasteland that will give you a haircut. This is one decision you don't have to live with ;)

I noted this over on Iroquois' blog, but I've got the game choice anxiety playing Fallout 3. Fortunately, I've got an extra week off after Xmas and that's going to be largely allocated to play-through #2.

Mitch Krpata said...

Ha ha, actually when I got the robot servant in Megaton, he offered to cut my hair, but I really feel like I have to live with the consequences of my decisions. Therefore, I look like a 1950s greaser, and will for all time.

Travis Megill said...

It looks like Groping the Elephant, Insult Swordfighting, and the Autumnal City all put up similar posts about Fallout 3 at about the same time. Is this synchronicity?

I usually don't have too much trouble with choice anxiety, but I've had a little in every Bethesda game I've played. I think my biggest problem is that no matter how hard I try, my character never looks that great.

In Mass Effect I could whip out an awesome looking character in no time, but flipping through poorly randomized heads or tweaking the width of my jaw in Bethesda's games makes me a little queasy.

I wonder if the copious amounts of helmets in Fallout 3 is partially to make up for the fact that the character generator is a little bit lacking.

Anonymous said...

"There was no reason to go into Vault 106, except that it was there. Inside was an entire chapter of the history Bethesda has built for this game"

Sorry to nitpick, but Vault 106's premise was a scrap of lore originally written by the Black Isle team, the original creators of Fallout. I'd hesitate to credit Bethesda with "building the history" here; instead, I'd praise them for respecting the original material and creatively implementing it into the Fallout 3 game world.

Mitch Krpata said...

Fair enough. I've never played a Fallout game before.

Let's call it building that lore "into" the game.

Mitch Krpata said...

Raises the question: How much of Fallout 3 is totally new, and how much of it is just a reworking of things from the first two?

Etelmik said...

A lot, apparently. I mentioned Harold is my favorite character in Fallout 3 and people who have played the earlier ones just said "well, he's in the first two and he was great in those."

I basically came off like one of those people who are like "OMG, have you heard of ____ ? They're this new band!"

Sparky said...

I actually kind of wish the character appearance generator had been excised. Actually designing your look can take rather a long time, which feels like a waste once you realize you'll see that face only a couple of times every hour. Besides, it's hard to swallow the idea that all these people see such a striking resemblance between you and your father when you're an albino woman with vaguely Asian features.

gcacho said...

I had the same sort of experience with Fallout 3. My brother actually bought the guide and I sort of used it but as I got further into the game, I weaned myself off of it.

Other than character creation, the Fallout 3 guide defeats the purpose of the game: Exploration and discovery.

Anonymous said...

Actually Bethesda managed to incorporate quite a few nods to the universe as created by Black Isle. Unfortunately some of the re-used material, like the Enclave-as-the-bad-guys which was taken from Fallout 2, could have been ditched in favor of some newly built menace...

Anonymous said...

Just finished playthrough #1 and I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. The high points you mentioned are great, like stumbling into a town or vault randomly and uncovering its story, and some really fun conversations with NPCs.

But on top of the constant feeling like I've made choices I'll regret, or that there's a whole lot of this game I'm missing out on by not exploring every inch of the map, am I crazy in thinking there was a whole lot of walking through dull wasteland to get to the great parts? Or that the ending was a major let down?

I think I would have preferred a map half the size and a more condensed experience. I don't have another 40 hours to dedicate to making sure I saw all the good stuff; Bethesda could have been a little nicer and made sure I saw it the first time through.