Friday, June 26, 2009

Nitpicking Fallout 3 & DLC

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

Fallout 3

I’m a big fan of Bethesda Softworks and their Elder Scrolls series. So when they released Fallout 3 in 2008, I was excited to say the least. Upon playing the game, I was not disappointed. The well fleshed-out characters, immersive storylines, novel environment, and interesting combat system all provided me with a very enjoyable experience. Two aspects of the game, however, stood out in my mind more than others. One was the masterful quest system, and the other was the rewarding open-world exploration.

In remarking upon the quest system, I am not referring to the main quest. All role-playing games have main storylines that the player can follow through, and Fallout 3’s was engaging and fulfilling. However, what really sets this game apart from other role-playing games are the side-quests.

Traditional role-playing games typically incorporate side-quests as a means for the player to grind his or her statistics. Such side-quests can be of the form “kill x number of creatures” or “deliver this item.” Regardless of the form, the tasks are almost always repetitive and/or menial. No motivation exists to perform them, other than to prepare the player for the next stage of the main storyline.

Even those role-playing games that do not incorporate such side-quests can include some sort of grind. The Final Fantasy series of games generally forces players to repetitively face monsters for long periods of time, as attempting to simply follow the main storyline does not provide enough experience to progress from stage to stage.

Outside of a select few tasks, Fallout 3 is devoid of any menial or repetitive side-quests. Grinding is absolutely unnecessary, and can even be difficult to perform in the wasteland, should one choose to do so. Instead, Bethesda’s role-playing game provides engaging stories, characters, and tasks for almost all of its side-quests.

When first coming upon Moriarty’s Saloon in Megaton, Lucy West asked me to deliver a letter to her family in Arefu. Thinking this would be a simple “deliver this item” quest, I agreed and set it out of my mind. After some further exploration of the wasteland, I finally decided to deliver the letter.

Upon arrival at Arefu I discovered that the town was regularly terrorized by a gang known as The Family. I soon also discovered Lucy West’s parents to be dead, with human bite marks on their necks. After discussing the situation with the town’s protector, Evan King, we came to the conclusion that The Family had killed Lucy West’s parents and kidnapped her younger brother, Ian West. Determined to save the poor Ian West and exterminate all aspirant vampires, I set out to find The Family’s hideout, armed with possible locations from Evan King.

After finally discovering and gaining entrance to The Family’s lair, I was surprised when none of the pseudo-vampires attacked me. I was doubly surprised when I found they were all willing to talk. I was triply surprised to find The Family’s leader, Vance, to be a very reasonable and charismatic man.

Vance and I engaged in a lengthy discussion, during which I learned that The Family was a type of support group for those who craved human flesh and blood. I also learned that The Family had not killed Lucy’s parents, nor had they kidnapped Ian. In fact, Ian had killed his own parents during an uncontrollable craving, and decided to join The Family voluntarily, in order to better understand himself and his cravings.

Without continuing along my storyline, suffice it to say that throughout this one side-quest I was completely immersed and engaged. I met a multitude of well developed characters, aided a boy in dealing with his inner turmoil, and forged an alliance between two groups previously in conflict. Most amazing of all was that I could have completely missed out on this entire experience had I chosen not to deliver the letter.

This brings me to my second point, the rewarding open-world exploration. Previously I have written that I do not like open-world games. To be more precise, “I don’t like sandbox action/adventure games.” There are of course a number of reasons for this. “In terms of goals and story, so much time and effort is seemingly spent in developing an open world that quality [plots and goals] are not created for the player. Stagnation through repetition is achieved. The end-user, in order to progress the main storyline, is forced to complete the same actions over and over again.” I enjoy quoting myself.

Fallout 3 addresses these and other problems by providing a pseudo-dynamic open-world. More importantly, however, the game provides varying and engaging motivations for exploration, in the form of new characters and plotlines. Whereas exploration in other open-world games can sometimes be a repetitive task with menial incentives such as basic loot, Fallout 3’s exploration provides for very unique encounters.

During one particular romp through the wasteland, I encountered a lone hostile sniper in a dilapidated chapel. After easily dispatching him, I searched his corpse to find an Oasis Druid Hood and the coordinates to a place called Oasis. Intrigued by the unique headgear I immediately set out towards this place, in order to learn more about the inhabitants.

Without delving into the details of my time in Oasis, I can say that I was astounded by the environment, the people, and the storyline. Never would I have thought to find a full-grown healthy forest when I was searching for Oasis. And given the stark and depressing landscape of the wasteland, the sight of that forest and the individual trees simply amazed me. I can safely say that no digitally rendered tree has ever provided me with as much wonder as the first one I saw in Oasis. Finding that secluded haven would not have been possible without adequate exploration, and actually discovering it provided even more incentive for me to continue exploring the wasteland.

To this point I’ve presented two aspects of Fallout 3, the side-quests and rewarding exploration, separately. They are however, of course intertwined. Through exploration the player is able to find new immersive side-quests. Given how engaging the characters, tasks, and storylines are, the player is motivated to continue his exploration of the wasteland, in the hopes of finding more side-quests. These side-quests, the gratifying exploration, and their intertwining, are what really set Fallout 3 apart from other role-playing games. I can only hope for more of the same in the future.

Downloadable Content

The future is here. Bethesda has released four instances of downloadable content for Fallout 3 in the forms of Operation: Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel, and Point Lookout.

Operation: Anchorage is very specific in its intent, and that intent is combat. There exists no notable story and no open-world. The player is thrust into a simulated environment in which he or she must follow a mostly linear path during wartime, and simply eradicate the enemy, albeit with various new weapons and armor.

The most notable aspect of this downloadable content is that simulated environment. After the bleak browns and grays of the wasteland, Operation: Anchorage provides a refreshing palette of blue and white in the Alaskan tundra.

The scope of Fallout 3’s downloadable content is increased with The Pitt. A new environment is again provided in the form of an industrial complex rampant with slavery. More importantly however, are the new well-developed characters and the engaging storyline. Towards the end of the content, the player is given one of the more interesting moral decisions seen in a videogame. However, those aspects that set Fallout 3 apart from other role-playing games are still missing.

Broken Steel is similar to The Pitt in its scope. Like its predecessor, this downloadable content provides an engaging storyline, albeit enhanced by the fact that it is a continuation of Fallout 3’s main plot. Its contribution does move beyond game design simply by increasing the level-cap set by the original, a level-cap that I encountered much too early during my first play-through of the post-apocalyptic role-playing game.

In the fourth instance of downloadable content, Bethesda delivers an experience that fulfills all of Fallout 3’s promise. Point Lookout provides not only a new environment, but an entire new world for the player to explore, along with more interesting side-quests.

Upon arriving at Point Lookout, the ferry-boat captain recommended the Pilgrim’s Landing motel as a place of interest. After some initial exploration I arrived at the motel and entered the only accessible room. To my chagrin I found a mostly decomposed corpse in the bed, along with a computer on the nightstand. While accessing the still working PC, I discovered that the skeleton belonged to a former Chinese spy who had come to the United States masquerading as a defector.

The terminal provided me with instructions to go to a locker, which could be opened with a key located in the spy’s briefcase. Inside the locker I found another set of instructions left by a second Chinese spy.

As I continued to follow the quest I discovered the spies’ ultimate purpose and followed decades-old intrigue. Most significant about this one side-quest is perhaps the fact that a story is told and tasks are carried out without any non-playable character involvement. The player follows in the footsteps of long dead Chinese spies simply by reading information from terminals and listening to voice recordings.

In addition to other side-quests and a similarly engaging main storyline, Point Lookout is a perfect microcosm of Fallout 3. I can only hope for more of the same in the future…

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