Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Future Imperfect

Writing about apocalypse seems to be all the rage for me at the moment. First, in literary form; then, in the resurgence of the Tory party; now in the shape of (another birthday present) the videogame Fallout 3. Those who don't care for the latter medium can probably stop reading right about now ...

This time around, the devastation takes place in a retro-futurist America in which cultural evolution came to a juddering halt in the 1950s, but where technological evolution continued apace until 2077, at which point global thermonuclear war with an Alaska-invading Red China brought this also to a standstill. The year is now 2277, the location is a devastated Washington D.C., and the player character is a so-called Vault Dweller, an inhabitant of one of the many multi-generational nuclear shelters built before the bombs went flying.

Fallout 3 begins somewhat unusually, with the player character's birth in Vault 101,[1] an event that causes the death of his (or her)[2] scientist mother. This leaves the upbringing of the player in the hands his[3] father, James, who serves in the Vault as its medical doctor. This childhood permits the player a degree of flexibility to craft a personality as they fast-forward through "growing up", but it is brought to a calamitous end when James abruptly departs from Vault 101 leaving a trail of chaos and bodies. Forced by these events to similarly flee, and desperate to know why James is on the run, the player must affect a daring escape out into the Capital Wasteland.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-34-28-54 Emerging from Vault 101 into Washington D.C., and dazzled by the first-ever glimpse of natural sunlight, the player enters a ruined world at once both unrecognisable and familiar. While a distant and scarred Washington Monument makes a connection with our world, the Capital Wasteland, living up to its name, now more closely resembles a blasted and rocky desert, bereft of trees and, at first sight, any living thing. Unfortunately, this appearance of lifelessness quickly evaporates as the player is assaulted by various mutated animals, including giant-sized scorpions, mole rats and ants. Fortunately, the ragtag settlement of Megaton is close to hand, and the player gets an introduction to civilisation, post-apocalypse style. Megaton is one of a handful of sizeable refuges in the Wasteland, and is home to around 20 interactive NPCs (plus a number of "fillers" who greet the player and pad out the place). These include, among many others, Sheriff Simms, the local lawman; Moira, a storekeeping science buff who fancies herself a writer; Moriarty, owner of Megaton's bar-cum-brothel; and Cromwell, the leader of a cult that venerates the unexploded bomb that gives Megaton its name.

Fallout3 2010-04-29 22-20-58-83 Conversations with these and other characters allow the player to gradually uncover James' next destination, but also afford a number of ancillary tasks that the player can undertake to win cash or kudos. In Fallout 3, "cash" means the replacement currency of Nuka-Cola bottle-tops, caps, while the less tangible gains in respect or trust contribute toward a karma rating that affects how NPCs perceive and interact with the player.[3b] These various tasks range from the simple, such as fixing Megaton's leaky water system, to complex, multi-stage endeavours, such as assisting Moira with her Wasteland Survival Guide. Tasks such as the latter one get the player out of Megaton and into surrounding areas where further discoveries can take place.

Fallout3 2010-05-01 07-24-21-91 Chief among such discoveries is that the Wasteland contains other horrors beyond mutated animals. While Megaton's residents might seem gruff and a little unwelcoming to strangers, the Wasteland is also home to gangs of Raiders whose hostility to the player makes visits to Megaton feel like the return of the prodigal son (or daughter!). More organised, but better-armed and just as violent, are the Talon Company mercenaries, who are on a special lookout for do-gooders in the Wasteland that upset their paymasters.[4] But at least they're still fully human. D.C.'s labyrinthine tunnel systems are home to the ghouls, the long-lived victims of radiation poisoning that has driven them feral. More significantly, the main ruins of downtown D.C. are patrolled by the Super Mutants, former humans transformed by a biological weapon into violent, genderless giants. These are searching the city for something, but have a particular taste for human flesh, and are more than a match for anyone but the well-armed.

Fallout3 2010-05-02 07-40-42-77 However, not everyone in the Wasteland is an enemy (at least, not at first). The remains of the US government, the Enclave, appears not to be, and has roving Sputnik-styled robots which can help the player fight Wasteland wildlife. The Enclave is led by President Eden, a charismatic presence on the airwaves of the Wasteland, fond of using fireside chats to bolster the spirits of survivors. More evident on the ground are the Brotherhood of Steel, a remnant of the US Army now tasked with the search for pre-war technology in order that civilisation can be rebuilt. Fortunately for the player, on reaching D.C. the Brotherhood put its quest for technology onto the back-burner, and instead has prioritised the safety of the desperate Wastelanders there. And some of the people, and not-people, that you encounter on your travels will even accompany you for some of your journey.

Fallout3 2010-04-29 22-20-36-91 Dealing with, or combating, all of these factions and enemies is inevitable in the player's quest to track down James. Deals are done via conversation trees that allow the player to variously uncover information, forge alliances or insult and cajole NPCs. The player's skill at bartering, as well as knowledge of science, medicine or weapons, can open up otherwise unavailable response options in conversations, with the result that interactions with NPCs can be extremely valuable. Given the range of characters that dwell in Fallout 3, conversations range similarly widely, with some business-like, others amusing and others poignant. A particularly memorable encounter is with the pint-sized Mayor MacCready, the leader of a colony of children, for whom no sentence (or clause of a sentence) is complete without profanity.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-22-24-29 On the other hand, should conversation fail (assuming that it's an option at all - most Wasteland denizens shoot first), there are a large number of more violent ways to handle aggressive NPCs. An unequipped player can begin with fists, with brass knuckles an advisable upgrade; melee weapons are the first proper rung up the ladder; then there are conventional weapons, such as pistols, shotguns and automatic machine guns; more lethal military hardware, such as RPGs, flamethrowers and gattling miniguns; a diverse array of science fiction technologies, including lasers, plasma cannons and alien ray guns; and there are even weapons that the player can manufacture from odds and ends found in the ruins. My favourite among the latter is the so-called railway rifle, a nice combo made from a steam gauge and pressure cooker, that fires railway spikes and toots like a steam train. These, and other weapons, are crucial if the player is to successfully negotiate the Wasteland in one piece. Use is typically point-and-shoot, though less dexterous players can get a leg-up by using an in-game system called VATS. This is part of the wrist-mounted computer that the player carries, and it gives one or two opportunities to exploit computer-enhanced targeting of particular portions of a foe's anatomy. It is dependent on player skill with weapons but, if successful, rewards with a slow-motion replay of tactical hits. Gruesome, but amusing.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-39-39-67 Anyway, returning to the storyline ... As the events of Fallout 3 gradually unfurl, it's clear that there's a lot more at stake than the disappearance of the player's "Dear Old Dad". A long-mothballed plan for the future of the Wasteland is awake again, but competing factions want it to either achieve radically different ends, or to fail completely. The life of a single Vault Dweller is not necessarily all that important set against these grand schemes but, as remarked by another famous NPC, "the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world". And by following the path of James and his plans to their ultimate fruition, the player can very much take on this role.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-24-43-93 Whew! That was a lot to write, and it still only barely scratches the surface of this game - I didn't even get around to saying that Fallout 3 is a FPS[5] with an eminently tolerable garnish of RPG elements. Anyway, by way of an early summary, Fallout 3 is quite simply the best game that I've played in years. Now, admittedly, I only play about 4 or 5 games each year (so there has been some improvement from my teenage years), but I like to think that I don't pick them up at random, such that those I do play are already drawn from the upper quartile. But, even given this, I'd still comfortably place Fallout 3 among the best I've ever played; easily up with the likes of Damocles, Half-Life 2 and GTA: San Andreas (the Crème de la Crème de la Crème).

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-29-51-71 Much like these earlier titles, Fallout 3's success can largely be traced to the effort that its developers have put into world-building. By this I include the surface detail of the game world (graphics, sound), but Fallout 3's lie most with the varied NPCs, the meticulously imagined future and a satisfyingly convoluted plot (the latter of which is helped, for this particular player, by its science fiction trappings). Some of these aspects are doubtless inherited from earlier entries in the Fallout series, but as far as I can judge from a not-played-them perspective, this most recent incarnation seems a genuine quantum leap both technically and in loving-attention-to-detail.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-44-19-63 Furthermore, Fallout 3 is simply a vast, vast game. The playing area is city-sized and, though largely destroyed, is still chock full of buildings, tunnels and other structures to explore (of which, the copy-and-paste tool has been used much more sparingly than in certain other titles). There are a huge number of distinct characters to meet, many of whom have unique tasks they'd like the player to help them with (including some that the player is liable to object to).[6] Fusing so many places with so many people, and mixing in a wide range of weapons, skills and enemies, creates an ocean of possibilities which feels fresh far past the point when other games would be exhausted and wilting. What's more, since players can either focus on the fairly linear central plot, or go native and completely explore the Wasteland (as I did), it should appeal both to those who like their games short and contained and those who like full body immersion.

Fallout3 2010-05-02 07-21-54-53 It's also, frankly, a lot of fun to play. While I've previously noted that combat isn't quite up to the standard of Half-Life 2, this is made up for by clever non-violent solutions and a great stealth mechanic that even allows you to slip live grenades into the trouser pockets of oblivious foes. These alternative strategies, coupled to a range of weapons that permit, among other permutations, swordplay, incineration, poisoning, mine-laying, the use of teddy bears as projectile weapons, and even battlefield-nuking, make for an extremely diverse problem-solving portfolio, one that offsets all of my early qualms.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-35-52-79 The styling of the game deserves a definite mention as well. Much as with seafloor-set BioShock, the game makes great use of 1950s-era iconography. In spite of their nuclear engines, the cars are lifted straight from the tailfin era; city buildings are decorated with clean, art deco lines and metallic figureheads; meanwhile, out in the suburbs, clapperboard houses sit in neat lines, separated by white picket fences. This aesthetic is also woven through the retro-futurist history that underpins Fallout 3. Though functioning up until 2077, the pre-war society is portrayed as an unchanged carbon copy of 1950s Americana, with anti-communist paranoia, apple pie and nuclear family stereotypes very much in place, just with more (atomic-powered) mod-cons. Of particular note is Fallout 3's soundtrack of jazz, swing and big band songs. At first, these seemed a somewhat fitting but odd accompaniment to the 1950s feel, but I quickly came to find them integral to the whole experience. It's a sentence that I never thought I'd write, but it's hard to overestimate the joys of engaging Super Mutants to the sound of a big band's encouraging trumpeting. But the soundtrack is equally effective with more mournful love songs that, appropriately, evoke a lost, past world.[7]

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-32-36-44 On this latter note, although I'm describing a game, something that would conventionally be viewed as a simple, fun diversion, Fallout 3 does occasionally strike more profound notes. While its future irradiated world does contain staples of 1950s B-movies, such as the giant arthropods, it is also woven through with small human stories that speak of loss, anguish and desperation, but also hope, perseverance and love. Some of these are told to the player directly by characters encountered along the way, some are picked up from the various audio recordings and written notes scattered across the Wasteland, and some are presented more subtly in the traces left behind by the long-dead. My favourite of these was from a holotape that I picked up early on from a ruined hotel. It was from a father to his daughter and told of a deal gone wrong that left him mortally wounded and bereft at leaving her to the horrors of the Wasteland. Much later, when working with a treasure hunter called Sydney, I heard about her abandonment as a child by her good-for-nothing father, only to realise that the tape that I had heard was recorded for her, and that her bitterness towards him was completely misplaced. I can't think of any other games I've played that even try to strike these sort of chords.

Fallout3 2010-04-29 22-15-26-04 One criticism I could make is that the game's vastness drew me away from the central plot for many (many) hours. As I've already noted this is a huge plus point, but it did have the result that, when I finally returned to searching for my Dear Old Dad, I was then sufficiently experienced (both in character stats and in personal skills) that I made mincemeat of enemies who should probably have been returning the favour. While some of the nastier foes (you know who you are Deathclaws) still caused havoc, especially if they caught me off-guard, most of the Wasteland inhabitants that routinely hammered me early on proved little match for my new shotgun-'n'-sniping skills. Worse, when the true villains of the piece finally played their hand,[8] they struggled to put a dent in my now-estimable armoured hide. Through steady upgrading of my verbal skills, I was even sufficiently silver-tongued to be able to persuade their leaders, at two crucial moments, that violence was not the answer.

Fallout3 2010-04-28 22-19-50-74 In passing, a curious omission from Fallout 3 is any kind of romantic subplot for the player character. Other titles, notably GTA IV and Mass Effect, involve the player in entanglements that flow "naturally" from the adult situations that those games present. While similar situations abound in Fallout 3, the game doesn't allow for any attachments beyond the professional. There were a few NPCs along the way who seemed to like my player character for more than my Wasteland survival skills, and I was even able to precipitate a marriage in my travels (of which I even attended the wedding!), but the game "keeps it clean" on this count. I can't exactly say that I minded, but it seems a odd thing to skip in a game that otherwise maintains a consistently adult tone.

Fallout3 2010-05-02 07-47-10-49 Anyway, time to wrap this monstrously long post up. By way of summary: if you like complex and detailed games that stretch your trigger finger, your moral judgement and your desire to see just what's over the next blasted hill, no game is finer. The only downside is that I'm now going to be judging all future titles against this high watermark. However, I do still have to play through all of Fallout 3's extra downloadable content before then ...

[1] This is a pretty jarring start to the game. I'm usually attendant at the many deaths of my player characters, but being present for their births as well is fairly unusual. The last time it happened, I had to bite my way through the chest wall of an unfortunate NPC.

[2] One of Fallout 3's (many) nice touches is that the player can shape their player character in a number of different ways, including gender. Although this can impact on later interactions with other characters (though only along heterosexual "norms"), the choice of the Lone Wanderer's gender is fairly marginal, since Fallout 3 operates a praise-worthy equality programme in which male and female characters are equal before the Game Engine.

[3] While I could keep writing "his (or her)" or even "her (or his)" in this post, I'm going to stick to "his" here both to keep the text straightforward (if chauvinist), and because I actually played as an ugly male character. I looked so much better in Mass Effect.

[3b] By the end of my travels, I had amassed a veritable fortune of 25,000 caps which, jangling in my pockets, one would expect to have seriously decreased my stealth score. Fortunately, like ammunition and stimpacks, Fallout 3 permits the collection of unlimited quantities of caps with no consequences. Regarding karma, and similarly to Mass Effect, my actions in Fallout 3 left me a Messiah by the end. But while I sometimes felt that I was consciously buffing my public persona in Mass Effect by coldly choosing the "best" option, here things felt a lot more organic, and that I got my rating from doing what came naturally to me. Certainly, Fallout 3 provides so many opportunities to change karma that one's rating is an aggregate of a large number of events, so better reflects one's (virtual) actions. Anyway, can I help it that I'm practically a saint?

[4] Should the player instead behave immorally, a posse of enforcers hired by Wastelanders plays a similar role. Being a good boy, the only time that I've seen these was after I shot a Wasteland trader by accident (mistook him for a Raider m'lord), only to find the posse waiting outside his shop for me to appear.

[5] Though you can play it in third-person if you're insane you prefer.

[6] Of which a prime example is the player's interactions with the slavers who operate across the Wasteland. Not that I needed even a moment's thought to know whose side I was on.

[7] Courtesy of The Vault website, I've downloaded the best of these to my trusty iPod.

[8] I say "villains", but the player is perfectly free to side with them, so who's to say that they're the bad guys? I mean, would it really be such a bad thing to use a biological weapon to cleanse the Wasteland of all but the purest of human stock?

More pictures from my "holiday" in the Wasteland available here.

No comments: