Crippled Head

To recap, for Christmas I got Assassin’s Creed II and the Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition for the 360. The former is one of this Christmas’ big releases, an epic entirely new to me. The latter is a game I’ve already played through on the PS3, albeit without the option of all the extra bits bundled in the GOTY version.

So, which has swallowed up hours of my time over the last three days, the shiny new game or the one I’d already played through once?

No contest.

Fallout 3 remains a bewitching timesink of monumental, terrifying, addictive and occasionally tear-inducingly frustrating proportions. Once more I find myself in the early hours of the morning, stuck dungeon-crawling through a dismal sewer filled with radioactive zombies and horrible mutant crab things, and after another hour of deaths and reloads and running out of health items, I find I’m in the wrong bloody tunnel to cut under the ruins and get to my destination.

So I have to stab my way back out, escape with my life and two bullets left, go to a trader, trade my booty for more health items and ammo, patch myself up, head back out and enter a completely different bleak tunnel for another depressing near-death trudge through waves of remorseless enemies.

Or, you can do as I did – go back to the person who sent you there, lie about having reached your destination, and if your Speech stats are suitably high you get away with it, reaping the mission XP along with a dose of bad karma for being such a lying two-faced bastard.

It’s that flexibility that makes Fallout 3 an easy game to love for me – that you can cheat at missions, or just ignore them. That you can, should you wish (and one bold Eurogamer writer did just that), go around shooting everyone in the face, including all the plot relevant characters. It’s a big RPG playground, where, within certain mechanical confines, you can do what you want with the toys available.


And what a playground. The Capitol Wasteland, comprising the ruins of Washington DC and the desolate wastes that surround it, is far from a proper open world – those sewers and metro stations are necessary to carry you beneath the impassible barricades of rubble that divide the city into discreet areas, and although the wastes outside the city are largely open, doors and gates create a break as you enter towns and communities – but the geography works enough to give you the illusion of a large, persistent world, even if you can’t do a Grand Theft Auto and fly over the whole thing in a helicopter. The whole game has a strong sense of place, diverse but coherent.

It’s all variations on a theme, that of the western world torn down and ruined, the modern city aged, weathered and neglected. Communities are built from scrap metal, tourist attractions are infested with monsters, tower blocks become fortresses. Sometimes, a view will be just a view – look out from the top of Rivet City, and on one side of the river there’s a vista of ruined, smoking buildings that can never be reached in-games – while others, delightfully, can be reached and scaled, as in one notable mission that takes you to a very high place.

It all adds up to a wonderful series of discoveries, of virtual tourism, albeit of a kind where the most beautifully ruined spots are likely to be those where Super Mutants run around pumping lead from a mini-gun, or just trying to decapitate you with a sledgehammer, resulting in a rapid retreat, firing wildly while your action points recharge before letting off a series of precision shots. Super Mutant has crippled head. Get in.

It’s not for everyone. The central narrative is, a couple of classy set-pieces aside, just a breadcrumb trail to lead you through the main locations in order. Writing and acting are solid, but also vaguely irritating, from Liam Neeson doing his usual ‘any acting style, as long as it’s stoic’ mentor routine through to the interchangeable potato heads of the characters. The combination of VATS (an action-points based targeting system of the kind used in RPGs) and slightly clunky free shooting can seem indecisive, downright frustrating if you want to be nailing your targets entirely manually.

Where it excels is in that sense of place, and your isolated journey within it. For all the chatty, twatty characters in their little outposts, Fallout 3 is predominantly about your player character and their journey through a remorseless, beautiful landscape, discovering new things and surviving against the odds. It’s modern Washington thrown through nuclear hell and transformed into an SF vision of the wild west, where a man survives by his wits (and a wide variety of exotic weaponry) alone.

Some find this lone, long adventuring too depressing, too lonely, or just too boring, but personally Fallout 3 represents a lot of what I look for in games – the chance to really explore an imaginary place that has enough elements of the real world to be relatable. It’s what I like about Bioshock and Resident Evil: Nemesis, two other titles that draw me back again and again as much for the atmosphere and sense of location as for any game mechanic. They’re places I like to visit, to stand on their street corners and enjoy their background music and ambient sound effects.

It’s the atmosphere that brings me back, that creates both the oppressive, claustrophobic dread you feel when playing alone in the early hours, stuck in some wretched hole where howling monsters come screaming out of the dark at you, but also creates the satisfaction when you come out the other side, victorious.

My last playthrough of Fallout 3 left me with a desire to go back, explore a little more thoroughly, neglect the main storyline and, most of all, cut loose and be a bit more of an asshole (I was quite the goody-two-shoes last time). So far I’ve been coasting through on neutral, mixing nice gestures with the occasional bit of meaningless dickery.

Tonight, however, is the big one. Having started off in the small town of Megaton as usual, I’ve now gained contacts in Rivet City and elsewhere, so I have other places to go for meds and supplies. I’m determined to complete the Wasteland Survival Guide quest, and that has taken me to lots more stupid places, but also resulted in the painful crawls I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Well, once the quest is done, payback will be mine. The least I can do is plug the widget that nice gangster man gave me into the unexploded nuclear bomb at the centre of town, and leave the residents something to remember me by, albeit for half a second.

What can I say. It’s a very good game. That doesn’t mean I have to be very good while playing it.

Mark

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December 29, 2009. Tags: , . Uncategorized.

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