Friday, July 22, 2016

Fallout retrospective pt 3

Fallout 4 + DLC

So we come to Fallout 4, another divisive Bethesda entry into the series. My comments here are based on only one playthrough, so unlike the other games discussed I can't vouch for its staying power or replayability yet.

If New Vegas was Fallout 3.5, then Fallout 4 might as well be Fallout 3: 2.0. Playing Fallout 4 I get the feeling this is the game they wanted to make with Fallout 3, but that game was kept back by some of its design decisions and the limitation of the 3D engine at the time. The setting is much the same (ruined city on the east coast; the story is much the same; parents looking for child rather than the other way around; and of course an overarching plot for the future of the region - though this hews closer to New Vegas with its different factions).

So what changed this time around? First up, the re-imagined world looks gorgeous. There's nothing like walking through the ruins of civilization in first person with crisp HD textures to really sell you on the idea of the post-apocalyptic world; the first time you glimpse the Prydwen is perhaps the most visually impressive moment in any Fallout game. For the first time the protagonist is fully voiced, which I find helps establish the character much more than a silent one. Consequence of that however is that the amount of dialogue options has been reduced, which limits the potential of roleplaying drastically different characters.

A new settlement building system is introduced, which is hindered by an awful control scheme. Overall I enjoyed the addition, and it does feel like you're actually making a noticeable difference in the world once you start rebuilding outposts of civilization all over the map; but I doubt I would bother with it again in a second playthrough, as it's rather time consuming and doesn't really add much to the game except for some infinitely generating side quests.

The story has its moments, building on a side quest from Fallout 3 to present us with the new villain, the Institute, and the plight of its android servants/slaves, the synths. At times it's a more personal story, but for my liking it never really delved deeply enough into the questions it rather haphazardly asks. In the main quest the themes of cybernetic servitude and the morality thereof in the post-apocalyptic world are routinely sidelined for forced conflict, especially near the end-game. The storytelling mostly shines in the side quests, which are usually well written and worth playing through. I liked the different factions on offer: a good rendition of the BoS (again the BoS, but yeah...), the Railroad, the Minutemen (perhaps a bit underdeveloped) and the Institute. The conflict between the factions makes sense, though you never really get a satisfactory answer why the Institute is doing what it does, which is a wasted opportunity to make them a bit more sympathetic.

I still consider Fallout 4 a roleplaying game, but this current incarnation had shed a lot of the baggage of older games, and feels more like an FPS than a traditional CRPG. The only holdout is the SPECIAL system and perks, though their importance has diminished again. It's quite possible now to max out all your stats, and the difference is rather negligible, not affecting gameplay as much as in previous games. Perks this time around felt a bit on the bland side, with most of them having several ranks to do mundane stuff like crafting, +% damage etc. There's no way about it: it's a far cry from Fallout 1 and 2, but in my opinion by radically cutting out what didn't work it ended up a better game than 3 and New Vegas.

Fallout 4 DLC


Adds a new side quest to the main game where you're tasked with defeating the villainous Mechanist. Main selling point is the ability to create unique robotic companions, and in that it delivers.

Wasteland Workshop

More stuff for building settlements.

Far Harbor

Story expansion which adds a large new island to explore. A bit of a retread of the main plot, once again synths feature prominently. Three factions cohabit the island, where the fragile peace could at any moment turn into bloodshed. The Church of Atom gets a bigger role here for the first time, and their religious shenanigans make for interesting faction quests. The Far Harbor residents themselves are a bit bland, but they're there as the 'normal' faction and get the job done. The synths under leadership of the enigmatic DiMA (who raises some interesting questions in your first conversation) are another great touch, and you can resolve the conflict on the island in multiple ways. Solutions aren't as clean as they usually are, ranging from very dark grey (well, black) to some lighter shades of grey, as it should be. The new island also makes a great location, covered in an atmospheric radioactive fog with some imaginatively designed new monsters lurking about.

Contraptions Workshop

More stuff for building settlements.

Yet to come: Vault-tec Workshop (even more stuff for building settlements) and another location DLC: Nuka-World, which promises a ruined theme park lousy with raiders. Can't wait!

Fallout 5 and beyond

So what's next for the franchise? In no particular order some things I think we're likely to see, and some we probably won't.

- The next Bethesda Fallouts will continue down the FPS path. Mechanically the importance of stats and perks will continue to wane.

- We'll make another time jump and once again explore a new region. Rather than one city we might see two or three.

- Fairly certain we'll see more synths and CoA in the next game. 

- More crafting. Every game seems legally mandated to have more crafting crowbarred in.

- Usable vehicles: at some point inspiration will run dry, and someone will say: fuck it, let's just throw in Mad Max style vehicle combat. To be honest: at this point there's no reason there aren't cars in this world, these should be easier to retro-engineer than helicopters!

- I'd love to see some different playable characters and playable non-humans, in a DA: Origins style, but I doubt we'll get it. The single voiced protagonist will reign for the next few games.

- We might see a return of the world map with large, playable zones rather than the one continuous open world, like the first two Fallouts or recently DAIII.

- Multiplayer: fairly certain this in the cards. Instanced dungeons with 2-4 players. Such is the future.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fallout retrospective pt 2

Wherein I continue my rant. New Vegas gets a post all to itself, by virtue of leaving me with more conflicted feelings than any other installment in the franchise!

Fallout New Vegas + DLC

In a sense New Vegas was Fallout 3.5. Released just two years after part 3, using the same engine and systems but in a different setting; similar to the quick succession of Fallout 1 and 2.
In another sense it was entirely its own beast; sadly, it ended up being a mutant, unwholesome beast. New Vegas was developed by a different studio, Obsidian, which among it numbered some former Black Isle employees. A sense of nostalgia hangs over the game, evidenced not just in the location it takes place (the Mojave, adjacent to the core region) and the numerous references to part 2 in particular; but a general nostalgia for a bygone age of deep, sprawling crpgs. Seven years earlier, about five years after the release of Fallout 2, Black Isle was working on their version of Fallout 3, now only known by its project name ‘Van Buren’. Elements of that game were eventually incorporated into New Vegas. Perhaps they would have worked better in Van Buren, and Obsidian didn’t have the time or resources to recreate their vision of Fallout 3 in New Vegas.

Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. The general consensus seems to be that Obsidian did the best it could, given the creative limitations it was placed under by Bethesda and by the constraints of the engine. While I don’t deny that’s part of the game’s flaws, I think it went deeper than that and part of the problem is simply that it’s just not a very compelling story.

Again I can be brief about the underlying mechanics and engine: very much the same as Fallout 3. New Vegas did bring back the wasteland feeling a bit more with a heavier emphasis on crafting items and even a realism mode of sorts. The engine felt awkward in part 3 and it continues to do so here.
New Vegas was the first game to introduce a branching story line, where you eventually have to choose to work exclusively for one of three factions and thus decide the fate of the region.
So what’s my gripe with the story of New Vegas? The plot for once does not revolve around a clear-cut end-of-the-world/destroy-all-humans scenario. What Obsidian tried to achieve is a world with no obvious black/white division. The idea is you can choose for either a) an independent, autocratically ruled Mojave, b) ruled by a brutal regime, but one that will impose law and order, c) go for annexation by a democratic, if ineffectual state, or the megalomaniac d) I’ll rule this place myself option. The final confrontation concerns taking control of Hoover Dam. Perhaps not the most exciting staging ground, but it makes sense in a post-apocalyptic world where a massive, intact power station would be immensely valuable.

So all of this sounds good in theory, where did it go wrong? Basically none of the factions make sense or are sufficiently fleshed out for any of the above to work. The game is still burdened with a good/evil karma system that makes nuance impossible. Caesar’s Legion is meant to represent the rule of the strongest, the harsh justice of the wasteland. Instead they are clearly the villains: crucifying villagers, keeping slaves, eschewing technology. We are told they bring a fair rule to the lands they’ve conquered and keep it safe from raiders, but nowhere in the game do we actually see this. All we’re left with is a laughably themed faction, that’s basically as silly as the hockey mask gang from Fallout 3. The NCR on the other hand is supposedly a well-meaning, but corrupt, bureaucratic, and in a way, equally imperialist modern nation state. How does this translate? Slightly higher taxes in one town and a caravan stuck at a checkpoint. I’ll take that over the crucifixions, please. Other factions are equally one note (Boomers, Vegas families). With the Black Isle crew unfortunately also Fallout 2’s sense of humor resurfaced: this time we get to look for a sex-robot named Fisto. Groan.

Further wasted potential: the player character itself. The Courier is the only non-vault Dweller/Vault Dweller descendant protagonist to date. But nothing's done with this conceit. No backgrounds to choose from, nothing to reflect your character is a seasoned wastelander rather than a clueless rookie from the Vaults. This is hand-waved through the most cliché of crpgs plot devices: amnesia. This can be made to work (think Planescape Torment), but in New Vegas it just leaves us with a blank, bland canvas.  The only time the Courier's past really comes into play (though poorly at that) is in the DLC, which I'll expand on when I discuss Lonesome Road. But since it's still Fallout, your character must be given a Pipboy, which is handled offhandedly in the intro: here, have this priceless piece of tech for absolutely no reason! This kicks off an unmotivated, dangerous journey to get back a mystery package from the people who tried to kill you. I suppose post-apocalyptic FedEx pays a hell of a lot better than it does now to inspire such loyalty.

Now it may seem I'm being extra critical of New Vegas, only because it was more ambitious than Fallout 3, but didn't quite achieve its goals. But to do a morally ambiguous, complex story justice, you actually need to deliver in the writing department. The Mojave just feels shallow and self-important at times (and seriously, screw Cazadores). To be clear, I think New Vegas is the superior game. Somehow I find it more frustrating to play, because at times you can catch a glimpse of a great game, but most of the time it's just decent.

OK, from all the whining it's clear I was disappointed by the game, but let's leave on a high note and mention the good bits: consistently high quality DLC; great atmosphere, not necessarily post-apocalyptic but a retrofuturistic wild west sort of vibe. Many of the smaller locations were well designed, the greater emphasis on crafting/collecting helped sell the survival mode; New Vegas itself was a great location and some of its denizens (I like the Kings, Mr House should have had more screen time) were interesting. The companions are the best in any Fallout game, with actual personalities and usually a personal quest of sorts, exploring their background.

Fallout New Vegas DLC

Dead Money

Together with Old World Blues and Lonesome Road, Dead Money is part of three DLCs which are loosely interconnected through certain shared characters/mentioned events. The arc kicked off with Dead Money, an Ocean's Eleven type of heist story. You get abducted, stripped of your gear and forced to work for a fanatical BoS elder who wants to get inside the vault of a creepy abandoned casino. You get some interesting new companions (for the duration of the DLC unfortunately), look for some MacGuffins and then break into the vault. Sadly the DLC ends just as it seems to be getting started. I suppose the ending was aspiring to be meaningful/deep, but I can't say it worked out that way. It also introduced some questionable lore elements (holograms, matter transformers). The more high-tech stuff gets retconned into the setting, the more dubious the claim becomes that this world went to nuclear war over oil reserves.

Honest Hearts

A standalone DLC, perhaps my favorite New Vegas DLC, through virtue of its original location more than through its plot. The story is a ho-hum sort of revenge/redemption plot. We get to meet Joshua Graham aka the Burned Man aka a possible companion from Van Buren-that-never-was. He wants your help to protect a peaceful group of tribals from a hostile group of tribals. You agree of course, get to run through beautiful Zion National Park for a few hours, a nice break from the monotonous desert, collecting various odds and ends and enjoy some of the best examples of environmental story telling in the franchise.

Old World Blues

Again very different in tone and atmosphere than the previous DLC and the main game. Old World Blues is basically a very silly romp through a so-bad-it's-good 50s sci-fi movie. Expect to fight giant mechanical scorpions and such. You find a gun that has a dog's brain in it and sniffs out enemies. The Big Empty is another original location but I think it would have been a more substantial experience if it had been integrated into the plot of the main game. Now it's just a lightweight if fun diversion.

Lonesome Road

The last of the DLC which wraps up the arc and finally provided us with more info on the character Ulysses, mentioned in the main game as the person who got us into the whole mess in the first place. You get to trek through the Divide, a more-than-usually radiated place (Fallout sure does have a lot of those), filled with bullet sponge enemies. At the end of it all waits Ulysses, with the rather disappointing conclusion to the story. Apparently he wanted revenge for something the protagonist did in the past, that as a player you a) had no choice in or b) even knew about. Again this is not great storytelling. (A better example: The Walking Dead season 1 and your decision to rob the car or not). I found it impossible to sympathize with Ulysses’ plight, especially as we are never shown why we should care about the destruction of the Divide in the first place. Instead of character drama we get unconvincing histrionics. A lackluster ending to the tale.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Fallout retrospective

While it has been quiet on the pen & paper role playing front (still have not managed to get a new group together to continue the SW game), luckily I've been able to get my fix from Fallout 4 and its DLC. I've just finished Far Harbor and it inspired me to do a short retrospective, and since I can't help myself, to look ahead where the series may be headed. All of this is my opinion of course, feel free to comment and disagree. :) Naturally, spoilers ahead!

Fallout 1

First and still the best Fallout game. Sure, the graphics are dated by today's standards (and already were in 97 when it came out), which may turn off people new to the series, but I find the isometric view and sprite art have an enduring charm about them; that is partially nostalgia speaking, to be sure, but now, 20 years later, the retro graphics fit perfectly with the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the setting, however unintentionally. 

Turn-based combat was a staple of crpgs at the time and is in full swing in this game and its sequel. It works fine, I think, and again it holds up to the test of time. It's there to serve a purpose, to have enjoyable combat within the limitations of the game engine. I'm however not a purist who believes the new games should mimic this ancient system just for the sake of it. It's not realistic to expect this from a triple A game these days. Many of the design choices which are now 'vintage Fallout' were often less deliberate decision than necessity. Combat being one of them; the lack of any pilotable vehicles another, quite unusual for a post-apocalyptic setting (the engine couldn't handle it). Again this is something that usually puts newcomers off. I have to admit it takes getting used to, and if I'm overall happy with the system, that's in part since I've replayed these first games so often. The inventory system was quite poor, but since you didn’t yet have to worry about picking up a billion items, it was still manageable.

So what makes the first installment the best one? It introduced of course the setting, a post-apocalyptic America which diverges from our history around the 1950s, where robots, nuclear fission and advanced weapons abound, but computers are big and clunky and wireless is something unheard of. It's a future as envisioned by the optimistic 50s, a Jetsons-light, bombed to smithereens and left to accumulate dust for a hundred years.

All the classic Fallout elements are here: the iconic enemies (Deathclaws, Ghouls, Super Mutants), the power armor, factions like the BoS, Followers and NCR, Vaults (before the rest of the series ruined them). Little of the story and dialogue was voiced, but this did mean you have more dialogue options to choose from, and you can actually play widely different characters based on Intelligence scores, something that has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent installments. You could also have multiple companions rather than being arbitrarily limited to one, though in truth the companions had little dialogue or personality (except maybe gung-ho Ian. Screw you Ian.)

Now Fallout 1 was the shortest game by far, but that works to its benefit. You don't get a plethora of side quests that are just filler; most of them work to enhance the main story. You have a creepy, believable antagonist in the Children of the Cathedral and the Master, and a final boss fight where you can talk the boss to death and it actually makes sense (I'm looking at you, Lanius).

Fallout 1 for me was also the only game to really nail the right level of humor in the series. Pop culture references and generally juvenile content got out of control in the next game, which brings me to…

Fallout 2

The favorite of many, Fallout 2 always leaves me with mixed feelings. It introduced some great concepts, and it featured the dumbest stuff of any of the games.

Regarding the mechanics, I can be brief, since almost nothing changed from the first game. Fallout 2 was released just a year later, and does feel like a giant expansion pack at times.

So what’s my beef with Fallout 2? Let’s start with the good things: some of my favorite locations are introduced here (Vault City, The Den, NCR). The game introduced great new villains in the Enclave (who unfortunately stuck around too long). A greatly improved assortment of armor and weaponry provided more options for different playstyles. Companions have a bit more personality (notably Sulik, who gets his own talking head) and use, since you can order them around and outfit them properly.

So where did they go wrong? They made a game at least twice to thrice the size of the first, and boy does it feel padded at times. Sure the first game had some dungeon/shooting galleries as well (Necropolis, Mariposa come to mind) but they overstay their welcome in part 2. Raider caves, gecko sewers, the military base again, Vault 15 again; sometimes less is more. The lower levels of the tanker are filled with wanamingos for no other reason than to have something there. The result of the increased size of the game is that the quality varies dramatically in places. While the Hubologists are an obvious reference to Scientology, they have been given enough background and attention to actually work as a believable faction, and not just a one note joke. The same I cannot say for the Shi, pretty much all of Reno and some of the horrendous stuff in Broken Hills. Talking plants and chess playing scorpions? Keeping Deathclaws like chickens? No thanks. Finding a sex doll for a lecherous Ghoul in the old Ghouls home? Great stuff. Oh, you can act in a porno now. (Reno feels like it was designed by a horny 15-year old who just binge-watched 90s gangster movies). Fallout 2 is also guilty of coming up with Project Safehouse, which, while it didn’t feature prominently in part 2 itself, would ruins the Vaults in all following games.

Oh, and after the morally gray, cerebral Master we get bullet sponge Frank Horrigan as our adversary. I think it stops being a reference if you literally copy/paste.

So while Fallout 2 in places expanded on what made Fallout 1 great, it brought with it too much chaff for me to consider it the best entry in the series. If they had cut 50% of the game, spend the available time and money on polishing what remained and released it as an expansion for Fallout 1, it could have been so much more.

Fallout 3 + DLC

We had to wait 10 years for the next game, and you immediately feel (and see) that much had changed in the intervening years. As I said before, a major studio in 2008 would not have released a turn-based, isometric game. Fallout 3 was the first 3D Fallout game for PC and set us on the path to Fallout 4, a scenic, slightly regressive detour through New Vegas not withstanding.

Fallout 3 is easily the least favorably received by die hard fans, and while I don't agree with their assessments on all accounts, it's easy to see why it's often reviled. the TLDR version is: Bethesda tried to do something (partially) new, thereby getting rid of mechanics people liked and generally following a (depending on who you ask) simplified/dumbed down design philosophy. I say partially new, because at the same time it kept (too) many things from the first games, which didn't make a whole lot of sense in the new setting (East vs West Coast, the 'core region' of Fallout).

Fallout 3's graphics by now fall in that unfortunate uncanny valley area, not good enough to convincingly portray the game world as realistically as it would like, and thus ending up looking worse than the more 'abstracted' graphics of the 2D era. Combat is real time, with VATS picking up the slack of the turn-based mechanics; though the gunplay is rather subpar. Inventory management took a turn for the abysmal. Hope you enjoy hours of sorting through lists to drop random junk because you've once again hit your encumbrance limit.

Fallout 3 and following games wouldn't feature a world map anymore, instead having one big open world, for the most part taken up by a big city (DC, Las Vegas, Boston). This put a greater emphasis on exploration, but also forced the designers to put something interesting on the map every few minutes. As a result the world feels packed to the gills with loot and untouched marvels for a world which by now has gone two centuries since the apocalypse. The advancing timeline is a weak point of Fallout 3. At which point does the post-apocalypse setting become unsustainable? Personally, I very much doubt there would still be food to be found in every supermarket and vending machine. Nitpicks, perhaps, but in an RPG this matters.

Another lore rant: I complained earlier about the implications of Project Safehouse: in Fallout 3 it really kicked in. Sorry, but I find it impossible to believe that in wartime the government would have spent hundreds of  trillions of dollars to basically run a bunch of social experiments not fit for a junior science fair. Six hundred billion to study the effects of a white-noise machine? Perhaps information that would have a) been more relevant during the actual war rather than after it and b) easily tested with a few subjects for a fraction of the cost in some military site? If there's one thing in the Fallout universe that I'd like to see changed, it's this. Just make the Vaults normal fallout shelters again, I'll close my eyes to the retcon, I swear.

In a way, Fallout 3 stuck too close to the original game's template. You are again a Vault Dweller, forced to leave your home. Raiders, Ghouls and Super Mutants abound. The Brotherhood are there, and so are the Enclave. The game contributed little original material to the series. I liked the Children of Atom, who featured more prominently in Fallout 4 (and who would make a great main villain I believe). Liberty Prime was visually impressive and felt right at home, a nice The Iron Man/Giant homage. Running through DC was impressive, though it was broken up into too many isolated sections, separated by (annoying) loading screens and (horrible) Ghoul infested subways. Some inspiring moments on the Mall, Washington Monument and Science Museum could in the end not save the grey and dreary city from becoming too repetitive. Rivet City, while an interesting locale in theory, lacked scale to really sell me on the idea. This is my main complaint about the game: it all feels a bit samey. There's only so many ruined factories, supermarkets, disposal sites, etc. you can explore before you get the been-there-done-that feeling. The lack in enemy variety made itself felt acutely. The game also had its dumb moments (the fighting superheroes anyone?), but nothing stooped as low as Fallout 2.

Fallout 3 uncomfortably straddled its past as an RPG and its future as a FPS/action adventure. New Vegas would suffer from this problem even more, trying to reconnect with its roots but constrained by the Gamebryo engine. Fallout 4 resolutely chose the latter option and in the end became a better game for it.

Fallout 3 DLC

Operation Anchorage

Squandered opportunity. You take part in a simulation of the reclamation of Alaska, an important event in the setting's divergent history. Unfortunately it's a 2 hour underwhelming slog, involving little more than shooting a steady trickle of Chinese troops. If it had the sense of scale and visceral gameplay of your  triple A FPS game, your CoDs, MoHs or whatnot, it may have worked, but now when it's over, you'll just feel disappointed. I guess its main selling point is that you got a T51b out of it. Neat.

The Pitt

You get to go to Pittsburgh, which is a hellhole, but not as bad as it used to be (kidding). You are taken prisoner and all your gear is confiscated, an old, annoying trick of FPS games, but it works as for the first time in a long while you're actually somewhat vulnerable again (Fallout notoriously suffers from reversed difficulty curves). The setting feels properly post apocalyptic, some fun new weapons and enemies, but it's over in a few hours and you have no reason to go back. Could have been more.

Broken Steel

Continues the main story, addressing some of the inanity of the original ending (why not send the impervious mutant into the reactor, huh?). I remember little of this DLC, which I guess is not a good sign. You blow up more Enclave, then some more, look for some MacGuffins, then make the Enclaves base, a giant crawler, which was cool I guess, 'splode. Little more than some action set pieces which Fallout 4 would go on to do better.

Point Lookout

You take a boat to a faraway location, work for different factions, fight some unique local monsters and go on a psychedelic trip. Perhaps the best DLC for Fallout 3; Bethesda must have thought so too because the same synopsis can be used verbatim for Fallout 4's most recent DLC, Far Harbor. Anyhow. The desolate coastal town was atmospheric, the swamp provided some variety. However it also continued the annoying habit of substituting intelligent AI for enemies with more hit points. I don't mind if a mutant monstrosity survives a rocket barrage. But unarmored swamp folk shouldn't take ten shotgun blasts to the face to bring down. Bullet sponges do not equal challenge, they just pad the game's running time artificially.

Mothership Zeta

Like Operation Anchorage, but on a UFO. Many didn't like the 'official' addition of the aliens to the setting, as they had before always been limited to hidden encounters. Personally I don't mind, the flying saucers and bug eyed aliens fit in with the 50s theme. Unfortunately this DLC did little with the fact that you're in space or an a strange, technologically advanced ship. You shoot your way through a few new enemy types with a few new weapons, have an uneventful spacewalk and you get to shoot a deathray at Earth. Hasn't she suffered enough? 

As this is turning out to be a longer rant than I thought, I'll finish up the remainder at a later time!