Friday, 13 September 2013

PC Gaming and Me: Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3 and New Vegas

A little bit of history
My first experience of Fallout was a pirated version of the first game. It was bundled with Diablo and something else that I can't recall, and was missing all of the FMV cut-scenes, voice-acting and so on (I feel I should point out that I was living in a country where there was very little access to legitimate copies of PC games, and PC shops would openly sell pirated copies very cheaply).

Right off the bat, despite missing out on some of the background information due to missing content, I knew I was going to love the game. Nothing I had played to that point had built such a fascinating and alien world. Built from the destruction of a nuclear war, the game is set in post-apocalyptic California and incorporates a mixture of 50s sci-fi technology, Mad Max and more. For an RPG, this was new and exciting for me, as the previous RPGs I'd played were almost all in the "high fantasy" category. You play the Vault Dweller, who had lived a sheltered life in a vast underground hi-tech bunker. A malfunction with the water purifier leads you to be chosen to leave the vault (the first for a very long time) and find a replacement water chip. The adventures you have affect more than yourself, and the decisions you make create different outcomes for the various communities you encounter.

The second game follows on from the first, with you taking on the role of a descendant of the first game's protagonist. You begin in a tribal village, and again your actions shape the world. You can decide the fate of the many outposts of civilisation you come across, or you can leave them as you found them. It improved on the first game in several ways, being more expansive with how much influence you could have on an area. This was especially noticeable in the city of New Reno, with the three rival mafia-style families.

Both games allow for a certain amount of freedom of movement, and allow you to influence locations as you see fit. Underlying this there is a narrative structure, and it can feel awkward if you visit places out of the generally intended sequence. The second game expanded on the first in many ways, making it a firm favourite amongst cRPG fans. It was the loss of the previous game's time limit and level cap that made quite a bit of difference though. It allowed for more freedom to explore and accomplish everything you wanted to in a single play-through. Part of me missed that constraint though, especially the time limit. It made every decision a little bit more tense, as you were always mindful of the amount of time you had left, and with the level cap you always felt a bit more vulnerable.

When Bethesda announced that they'd be making the third game in the franchise, I was worried. I had previously been a big fan, I enjoyed many of their games despite the numerous bugs, but then there was Oblivion. I enjoyed it at first, but after a while it's numerous flaws became apparent. What had been an enjoyable experience became a slog, and after a while I decided to rush through to the finish and that would be the end of it. As information about Fallout 3 appeared, and more and more details were apparent, it became obvious that Fallout 3 wouldn't be following in the footsteps of the previous games. Enough has been said about that, but my feelings were clear. Upon playing the game it appeared to be a mash-up of things they got right and things they got wrong, full of enjoyable small parts but a mess as a whole.

You can read about the problems with Fallout 3 at length on a variety of other websites and blogs, so it would be silly of me to reiterate that here. What I would like to do is tell you all to watch the following brilliant video: TUN: The Shandification of Fallout, and then return for me to have a bit of a go at Fallout: New Vegas. Seriously though, watch that video (and indeed everything else that guy has made!).

Fallout New Vegas has been praised as a game which gets everything right about the series. It's the true sequel that fans have been waiting for. It's what Fallout 3 should have been, and it should have managed far higher than the 84 it got on metacritic. But... is it?

A brief look at those positive elements

I'm not going to go into massive detail here, but the positivity from the fans I'd suggest is down to a few things, mostly to do with the way the story is constructed, the choices you can make, and the integration of the New Vegas area into the existing Fallout canon.

The overarching story involves two large warring factions, the mysterious Mr. House and the various factions you meet across the wasteland. All of the factions are well characterised, they have their positive elements (to a certain extent) but they also have plenty of flaws. The sort of bold characterisation here allows the player to form strong opinions about each faction early on, and each faction has a viewpoint on the world which the player may or may not agree with. Some factions seem like natural allies, while others are natural enemies. A fully peaceful resolution is seemingly impossible, and instead the player must decide who should finish in a position of power or authority in the region.

Such decisions are the meat of the game, and something that Fallout 3 did haphazardly. Fallout 3 gave the player a series of choices which were often in complete isolation, a series of interesting events that were disconnected from the greater whole. Such things are par for the course in Bethesda developed titles of recent years, which the criticism that they create a "theme park" for the player to run around in and explore, something that can be very fun and enjoyable but undermines the grander scope of the main questline.

New Vegas seeks to correct this by having a lot of those factions and groups be involved in the main storyline. Whichever main faction you assist will give you the task of getting those groups as allies - or removing them from your path. It tries to make the main storyline the driving force of the game, you can wander about and have adventures, but you are often reminded that there are two great armies in a staring contest, and you are just the person to make one of them blink...

I'm not talking about the DLC because...

Generally I haven't played much of the DLC for either Fallout 3 or New Vegas. I'm sure there are some great bits I've missed out on, but much of the additional content is more of the same. The quality varies a lot, so I'm told, and each DLC tends to aim towards a different experience. The short answer is I really don't feel like I want to spend the time going through them all. I've done a couple, and on top of what are already expansive games it's just not worth it for me.

I just didn't enjoy the base game experience enough to play more than one and a bit expansions per game. For reasons that I'll go into in the next section.

Negativity, because there's almost always something about a game that doesn't work

While I applaud Obsidian for creating a well crafted world and a series of (sometimes over-the-top) factions to interact with, a lot of the issues with the game stem from Fallout 3, and it's not something that could be fixed simply. It's really down to that engine again, isn't it. It began with Oblivion, continued with Fallout 3 and then with New Vegas.

First up, Combat. Long ago with Oblivion, Bethesda suggested they had "fixed" the combat from Morrowind. People had complained that when you swing your sword in Morrowind, sometimes it passes right through the enemy without hitting! How unrealistic. People seemed to dislike something which had been commonplace for years, that the act of "hitting" in an RPG was governed by your character's statistics rather than just the players actions. Every time you swing your sword, the game calculated if you would hit, and then for how much damage.

With Oblivion that changed, with every attack able to hit, but the character stats reduced to calculating damage instead. The defending became more action-based than statistic-based with a block button. What had been a stat-heavy RPG became far more of an action-based RPG. This provides a context for the direction they took Fallout into. What had been a slow, turn-based RPG that relied heavily on stats became much more action-focused to gain a larger audience.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas are attempts to move the series towards first-person shooters, but they end up at an odd middle ground. The default shooting mechanics are really poor. The guns are often either woefully underpowered, or massively overpowered. The relative difficulty of the hostile creatures is dependant largely on their reservoir of hit-points or armour rating. The default setting for a hostile target is to charge you whilst firing, paying no attention to cover or any sort of tactics. As with Oblivion, often the best tactic for the player is merely to move backwards whilst firing. Or to use VATS.

VATS (or Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) was already fairly useless in the original games. Designed as a way to add variety to a combat encounter, the intention was that you could fire at specific body parts to hinder or cripple an enemy combatant in order to gain a tactical advantage. However, it was generally advisable (as Minsc would agree) to go for the eyes every time. A successful hit to the eyes on most creatures would provide a massive critical hit and blind your enemy. Much better than the alternatives.

Fallout 3 changed VATS to become part of it's real-time system. It still used Action Points, but this time those points were solely a reserve for VATS and you could continue firing in real time once they were used up. With the "Bloody Mess" perk, VATS becomes a slightly more powerful way of dealing with enemies, but again you are generally best going for the head (the option for eyes was removed). While for some the sight of supermutants exploding into various body parts provided endless enjoyment, for me it quickly became tiresome. There's only so many times I can be bothered to watch repetitive sequences of dull animations and a hyperactive physics engine in slow motion.

New Vegas changes nothing with this system, except for the addition of iron sights. Iron sights are something which has become quite popular recently, allowing for more accurate aimed shots in real time with the player character looking down the actual gun sights (the futuristic weaponry is often a little lacking on this front). It certainly made the combat feel a little better at first, and indeed allowed me to avoid VATS even more than I had with Fallout 3. But it wasn't enough to rescue the system as a whole. Oddly enough, despite my preference for stats in my RPGs, if they continue with first-person perspective for future Fallout games (and they almost certainly will), they should really consider making the FPS mechanics far more solid, since it's something that the player spends a lot of time with.

Next up, Population. This is a mixture of the engine's faults and the restrictions of the current console hardware. The city of New Vegas was a sparse and uninhabited place, with mostly empty casinos constructed from a large series of small environments. The sense of scale was way off, with this large desert region home to very few people. Fallout 3 was much the same, with supposedly bustling cities home to a handful of people. It's hard to be overly critical here, they did the best they could but perhaps they made a few poor choices.

Upon reflection in New Vegas, it would have made much more sense to me to have the main game centred entirely around the New Vegas strip and Freeside. The tighter focus on the main city could have freed up enough resources to provide a much better experience and given real weight to the importance of the city in the region. Expansions could have been made to showcase the wider wasteland, as well as continue the story with the NCR vs. Legion around the Hoover Dam.

The final battle itself highlights these issues. The Hoover Dam is a massive, sprawling series of chambers (that far too often look confusingly similar, it can really be difficult to find your way around). NCR and Legion troops spawn and fight, but always in small skirmishes. A great attempt is made to make the battles seem grand and important, but in the end I powered right through and destroyed the Legion almost single-handed.

Finally, Interface. New Vegas (and Fallout 3, for it's the same system), doesn't have the worst interface, but it's so very obviously designed for consoles. It appears that little effort gets made into producing a proper PC interface, and it's usually one of the first things modders deal with (although it's not always possible to create an entirely different interface, so some of the issues remain). I feel like the topic of user interfaces requires a post of it's own, so I'll stop here on this bit.

So in summary, this was supposed to be a short post about New Vegas and somehow it's turned into a massive rant

I enjoyed New Vegas, I really did. However there came a point where the interesting stories, the myriad factions, the big story and all the rest just wasn't enough any more. I couldn't take yet more combat, I couldn't take having to trudge through the desert to find the various locations I would otherwise miss out on (and all too often would be mostly empty, or have very minor points of interest).

The same thing happened in both Oblivion and Fallout 3, I reached a point of overload with the game, where I just wanted to get it finished and done with. There just wasn't a compelling enough reason to continue with it.

It comes back full circle to that point I made about the original Fallout way back at the beginning of this post. I actually liked the constraints the plot and storyline put on you in that game. It provided a certain amount of focus that the latter games lack. I have no appetite to ever re-install or replay Oblivion, Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Even though they have plenty that I have missed out on, I don't feel like I'd get a different experience, and indeed the very idea of repeating certain sections would fill me with dread.

So what does the future hold?

Before Fallout, there was Wasteland, which I haven't played but apparently was the prevailing inspiration for Fallout. Certainly there seem to be many similarities, and you could no doubt attach the "spiritual successor" tag there.

Based on this link, I backed the Wasteland 2 kickstarter, and production for that is in full swing. It's a party-based RPG, has a top-down view and turn-based combat. It has a similar setting in many ways to Fallout, with post-apocalyptic deserts and crazy factions scattered across the map. I do hope it will be good, and I look forward to playing it.

Fallout 4 on the other hand, is a different proposition. The recent Skyrim seems to have continued right where Oblivion ended just with a better engine, so that would seem to indicate that Fallout 4 will continue where Fallout 3 left off. I've no idea if Obsidian will be retained to either work on Fallout 4 or another spin-off, but even if they were I'm not so sure I would be rushing to buy it.

As it stands I was gifted Skyrim many months ago, but it has yet to grace my hard disk. I apologise to the person who gifted it to me, but I'm really not sure I can face up to another Bethesda game.

I'll also apologise for the lack of pictures, but I uninstalled New Vegas before I wrote this, and foolishly hadn't taken any screenshots (nor do I have any of the other Fallout games).

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