I’m getting a PS4 for Christmas. Lovely news, but it means one of the boxes under the TV needs to go away to make space. As it’s been threatening to red ring for most of the year, I decided to mothball the 360. While this is actually my third 360 – I’ve had one new one, an ancient second hand one given to me by Family Gamer TV maestro Andy, and another second hand one I got to replace THAT when it keeled over – the platform has been my main gaming format for well over half a decade. So it’s kind of a big deal to move on to all-Sony consoles.
First I had to wrap up some unplayed games. I played LA Noire, and fell through the bottom of the universe one time:
I also played Dishonored, tried Far Cry 2 but gave up after a bit, similarly played various review copies I’d given up on midway through until I got bored and gave up for good. Then I threw myself into Fallout New Vegas, where amongst many of the virulent bugs that survived countless patches, a corpse floated to the ceiling:
I enjoyed New Vegas, but it wasn’t Fallout 3. It lacked the devastated urban splendour of that game, even though it was technically bigger – seeing a desert turned into a wasteland isn’t as much of a transformation as Washington DC laid low. So before the 360 got boxed up for good, I decided to do a quick tour of the Mall and some other fondly remembered locations, meet some people and shoot some Super Mutants.
Oh, and I found a floating hammer:
Goodbye Capital Wasteland, you charmingly desolate hellhole, and goodbye buggy old 360.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, here are the badly formatted, uncropped and oversized pics.
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?
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.
… twice, in this case.
Today I got Assassin’s Creed II and Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition, and I played a bit of both. The former is entirely new to me, the latter I played through on PS3, but I’m now heading back to it on 360, with all the DLC chapters included in the GOTY version.
Anyway, while very different games, they do have one thing in common – you have an extended tutorial where you live through your character’s birth, and get to control them as a baby. Which is an odd thing to do in a game at all, but twice, back-to-back, on Christmas?
While Assassin’s Creed II just gets you to waggle the baby’s limbs as he fights for life and breath, then skips forward to you (well, Ezio de Whateverzi) as a young man jumping the rooftops (though not yet an armed assassin) but dulls the impact by having to work around all the near-future material with Desmond McGuffin, even if it kind of justifies such an extended time in Ezio’s youth with all the ‘bleeding effect’ malarkey.
Fallout 3 spends longer on your childhood, spreading your tutorial phase through babyhood (where you learn to move around, and pressing the talk button causes a burst of babyish burbling), to your tenth birthday party where you get a PIPboy and learn to shoot, then exams at sixteen before you reach age nineteen and the plot shunts you out into a larger adventure.
What’s fun with Fallout 3 is that, as well as letting you learn the interface ropes before you’re under serious threat, through various questions, items and tasks you shape your character’s attributes as they grow. It’s actually a rather droll summary of how games compact real life into simple decision trees, two decades of nature and nurture boiled down into half an hour of conversation trees and simple yes/no, on/off, interactions. I’m not sure it’s intentionally funny, though.
Although asking a gamer to work through their character’s childhood may seem like a big ask, it’s an interesting tactic for deepening the narrative and providing some novelty to what could be dry tutorials for what are, in both cases, atypical control schemes beyond the demands of your average FPS or platformer. It’s certainly more interesting than a straight tutorial or another run around Croft Manor, anyway.
I’m going to lend my copy of Arkham Asylum to a friend, partly to be nice, partly to alleviate the burden on groaning game shelves, but mainly just to get the bloody thing out of my house. Completing the story mode was a joy, tracking down all the secrets was a bit of a grind but deeply rewarding, but the challenges… oh, the challenges! I’ve got a few, but eventually hit the limit of what I could physically do. One trophy short of the Bronze Achievement for combat challenges, I found that last trophy an unattainable goal, but nonetheless spent an age trying to somehow push myself to manage it. Essentially, I was throwing myself against a wall repeatedly, rather than turning around, opening the door on the other side of the room and just walking away.
I’ve walked away now. The game is in my suitcase, ready to be handed over. I’m comfortable on being at 89% completion of the game forevermore.
Since then, two games have stepped forward to alleviate my urge for another round of batmasochism: Mirror’s Edge and Borderlands. One is open, another closed, but not in that order.
Closed first: Mirror’s Edge is a bleached-out sorbet of a game compared to the immersive world of secrets, characters, treasures and upgrades that was Arkham. It’s essentially an obstacle course – run, jump, grab your way across rooftops, through warehouses etc, following a set route and try, try, trying again whenever you mistime a jump or are sufficiently tardy to catch one too many bullets from those pesky future cops. The sense of scale and the super-clean futuristic aesthetic is, at its best, breathtaking.
But Mirror’s Edge is a great engine in search of a better game. Its big innovation, first-person platforming, works like a dream, with a real sense of motion and agility. But there’s no exploration, just following set paths, and the story and combat built around it are at best unappealing and at worst downright annoying.
The plot (spoilers ahead) sees you as tastefully black-tattooed ‘runner’ Faith, one of a group of anarchistic parkour couriers developing messages of freedom (or something) in the face of opposition from The Man (or something). About two thirds of the way through, it’s revealed that the big secret plot involves wiping out the runners, and seemingly replacing them with evil Ninja Cops.
Given the choice between being a counterculture cliche and glorified bicycle messenger defending my charmless peers, or a fucking Ninja Cop who gets to run around kicking the runners off roof tops, I want to switch sides right now. The Devil may have the best tunes, but The Corporate Man has the best career choices.
Also, while the mechanics for movement work like a charm, the combat controls work like a three-wheeled shopping trolley. Slow-motion disarms are fun when you can use them, but direct confrontations when required by the plot are an absolute arsepain of cranky, three button punch-ups where the controls seem to be context sensitive in some deeply unclear way.
Mirror’s Edge is fun when you’re running free in your free running, and after putting serious effort put into being Batman it’s a fun change to play a game where you just repeat the same twitches until you get them right. It’s also a fairly short game, not taking too many play sessions to get to the last couple of chapters (if I don’t complete it in the next two days, it’s because I’ve given up out of frustration). But such fun platforming deserves a better game around it, and a less po-faced and charmless IP.
After that little distraction, I’m in the market for a deeper experience, and I’ve just started one. So far I’ve only played a few hours of Borderlands, and only in single player, but it’s living up to its ‘Role Playing Shooter’ tag so far. If you hadn’t guessed, this is the ‘open’ of the two games: you’re thrown out into the world and, while there are barriers to be overcome, the way you get around to taking missions, gathering XP and opening up the gameworld is largely left to you.
First impressions are, loosely, of a cartoon Fallout3 with less depth but proper first-person-shooting. The cel-shaded graphics don’t take a drop of atmosphere away from the brooding expanses and crumbling shanty towns of Pandora, and there’s a mischievous, childish sense of humour at work for anyone who found Fallout3 too bloody grim. I’m only a few levels up, I’ve ground some skags (the game’s alien equivalent of all those giant rats in fantasy RPGs), taken out the first major baddie and have yet to go online for some co-op. If the co-op is all it has been promised – and the initial reviews are good – then Borderlands should prove to be good immersive fun for the next few months.
Except for when we have to abandon it to pile into Left4Dead2, of course. But that’s another story…