Fallout 3: First Impression (Part 4)

Yet another Fallout 3 post. Deal with it! This is the last post of the First Impression cycle. You might still hear about Fallout when I finish the game but that will probably take a while.

Fast Travel is Better than in Oblivion

Fallout 3 uses a fast travel system that works similar to the one in Oblivion. As you explore the wasteland locations of interest are marked on your map. At any time you can instantly “jump” to one of those map markers. An appropriate amount of in-game time passes by, but for you the trip is instantaneous. As in Oblivion you cannot jump from withing a building, when encumbered or while in combat.

There is one significant difference though. When you first start the game you don’t get any map markers. By default Oblivion opened up all the major cities for you allowing you to jump to any of them right from the get-go. A lot of people (including me) thought that this was a bad move as it really cut down on initial exploration and robbed you of the feeling of achievement when you discover these places for the first time.

Fallout 3 avoided this issue, and finding places such as Megaton, Tenpenny Tower or Rivet City is fun and rewarding. In fact, the Fallout 3 map doesn’t really reveal any useful information at first. It does have shapes, and outlines and you can sometimes guess that the lighter areas signify denser ruins – which may or may not contain human settlements (but are also likely to be Raider and/or Supermutant heavens. The map is vague enough to require a bit of guess work when you are just blindly exploring – but detailed enough to navigate properly when you know where you are going.

The Minigames

Apparently all the new Bethesda products are required by law to include mini games. Similarly to Oblivion, Fallout 3 includes two of them. One is for picking locks, and the other one is for hacking terminals.

I previously mentioned that I consider these things to be idiotic. Once you figure out the lock-picking game in Oblivion for example, you can open any door or container even at level 1. This made the skill associated with that activity redundant and unnecessary. It also forced Bethesda to introduce plot driven doors that would open only after certain conditions were met.

It seems that Bethesda understood the error in basing lock picking solely on player skill rather than character skill. Fallout 3 combines the minigame with a simple skill check. This means that some locks and computer terminals are inaccessible until you get better at cracking them. This is a far superior approach. Sadly this didn’t remove plot driven doors – but greatly decreased their number.

I have to admit that the lock picking game is done well. Instead of being a nuisance it actually adds to the game play a bit. It is a great example of a mini-game done right. It’s easy to learn and intuitive – you instantly know what to do. Best of all, it does not feel like a random logical puzzle – actually looks and feels like lock picking. I mean, look at this picture:

Lockpicking

Lockpicking

The hacking mini game on the other hand is endlessly pointless ant tiresome. It’s essentially “guess the password in 4 tries or lose” exercise. If you fail the terminal becomes locked and you never get to use it again. Rising you science skill does not make it easier – it just gives you access to more secure terminals where you get to play this game with a longer list of words to choose from.

The only reliable way to beat it is to exit the terminal after 3 guesses and start over. The word list reshuffles and the password changes so you are sort of back to the square one of course, but at least you get another crack at it. If you are lucky, you will guess it on a first try. If you are not it will take you multiple trials.

Hacking Mini Game

Hacking Mini Game

The worst part is that it is not really a bad representation of “hacking”. It’s almost as if you were searching through the page files or live memory dumps for recently used strings to uncover the password. Still, it’s just a luck based guessing game. There is really no way to get good at it. And if you can’t improve your game over time, why even bother with it and waste your time? Just replace it with a dice roll and have it over with.

I have no clue how could they get one mini game so right, and the other one so wrong.

The Level Cap

Capping your character at level 20 is downright criminal. It means you don’t get to pick over half of the interesting perks. One of the DLC’s raises the cap to level 30 which is still quite low. I mean, I barely started playing this game and I’m already level 14, which means I only have 4 level ups to go.

Fortuntely there is this mod which I plan to apply as soon as I hit the level cap.

The Karma System

Did the old Fallout games have a Karma system? I haven’t played them so I don’t know – but I assume they didn’t. I mean, I always hear people talking about “The Original Fallout” with reverence. Therefore they couldn’t have had a morality system.

Here is the problem: no one has ever implemented a karma system that was not stupid. It’s just that morality can’t really be put on a scale and measured or distilled down to points. If you want to make a game that is morally ambiguous, and which forces the player to make difficult decisions then you can’t hand them out good or evil points each time they make a decision. If you doing so reduces the choices available to the player and dumbs down the moral dilemmas to simple black and white choices.

You either play a knight in shining armor or a homicidal maniac. Fallout 3 is like this too. You see a wounded man bleeding out in some ditch and when you click on him you have two options:

  1. Heal his woulds, give hims some of your supplies, one of your guns and some money
  2. Steal all his stuff and set him on fire

There is nothing in between these two extremes. Sometimes you get a third option which is to just walk away. But you can’t always do that – sometimes the game forces you to make that choice in order to complete a quest objective.

In Morrowind and Oblivion I always used to play a very morally ambiguous characters. I would generally help people out if they seemed to need help. I would defend the poor, rob the rich (and give to myself), and kill the wicked. It was fun – and I was able to set my own boundaries.

Fallout 3 sort of forces your hand. If you want to get good karma you need to do things certain way. Your own moral compass be damned. Sometimes it’s not even clear what is the “good” choice. Case in point, the infamous Tenpenny Tower quest. It offers you 3 alternate resolutions: and as Shamus demonstrated in the linked article, the lest reprehensible one yields bad karma, while the morally correct (according to the game system) one has very disturbing repercussions.

I will give you another example where this system breaks down. You can try this if you want and I promise there are no spoilers in this little experiment. Simply visit the Tenpenny Towers and go to the balcony where the owner of the establishment (Alister Tenpenny) usually hangs out. When I first met him I decided to have some fun and jump off the balcony. So I saved my game and then decided to really go out in style and shot Mr. Tenpenny in the face with my combat shotgun before I jumped. To my surprise the game awarded me positive karma for this action.

Now, in most societies shooting an unarmed man in the face in cold blood would be considered amoral and downright evil thing to do. I mean, if the guy is a vile criminal such an action may be justified. If he is unpredictable and dangerous it could be argued that killing him is a benefit to society as a whole. But I wouldn’t describe it as “good”.

In the Fallout 3 universe though, Allister Tenpenny is flagged as an evil character and murdering him gives you no the same type of good karma as healing a dying man, saving Supermutant captive and refusing the reward or sending an orphaned kitten to college.

Some quests are so one sided that it is hard to imagine why anyone would even want to choose the evil alternative. The Power of Atom quest is a prime example. You get hired to destroy a prominent town killing all of it’s inhabitants. Why? Because some dude wants it gone. It’s obstructing the view from his balcony or something.

Can you see Megaton from here?

Can you see Megaton from here?

I mean, it’s awesome that I can set off a dormant nuke and destroy a whole fucking town in this game. Seriously, it’s great. But why? Motivate me to do it! Make it worth while. On one hand I have a really good town with lots of shops and bunch of quests associated with it. That in itself is an incentive not to blow it up. What is my incentive to destroy it? I don’t know… Explosions are cool? Dude, I accidentally the whole town? Really? That’s it?

That’s not even evil! That’s is Chaotic Lazy! I mean yes – I sometimes like to destroy things or kill important NPC’s just for the shits and giggles. But I usually reload the game after I get that stuff out of my system. It’s nice to have that option, but it just doesn’t seem like a valid game choice. There is just no reason to do this. I mean, Fallout 3 is supposed to be an RPG. That means we are at least in some way role playing our character. Both good and evil characters need motivations. No one is evil for the sake of being evil, save for cartoon villains – and even those usually have their own reasons for doing what they do.

I accidentally the whole A-bomb

I accidentally the whole A-bomb

Not all quests are this bad. Quite a few of them start with an interesting investigation/information gathering process. But whenever the writers try to make you a moral choice the whole built up intrigue falls on it’s face and turns into a shallow nice guy/evil jerk choice. But I can’t just blame the karma system itself.

Bad Writing

The Tenpenny Towers and Megaton quests I mentioned above are just examples of bad writing. They are both good ideas that were doomed by poor execution. One They could have worked – if someone sat down and really fleshed them out taking stuff like character motivations into account. Perhaps if Mr. Tenpenny had a real reason to want to blow up Megation his quest would make more sense.

The Roy Philips quest would probably work better if it was happening in a karma free system. Then the choice between aiding a dangerous terrorist vs working for rich capitalist would be just that – you’d pick sides based on your moral compass. But the game insists on handing out karma points for these choices and they can be immersion breaking disappointments.

What ticked me off the most however were some the dialog choices. Out of all Bethesda games I played Morrowind had the best dialog system. Instead of putting words in my mouth it simply gave me a list of topics to choose from. You would pick one (eg. The Fighters Guild) and the NPC would give you a longer or shorter monologue about it. IMHO it worked well. It was more like reading a book than playing a game – you could skim though the conversations or read them slowly at your own pace.

Oblivion traded the long winded, descriptive conversations for short deeply nested dialog trees. To sweeten the pot a little bit they introduced the voice acting. The system was mostly serviceable – sadly most of the lines were read by the same 3-4 actors making it a bit surreal expereience.

Fallout 3 reintroduces the same type trees and introduces more voice actors. Sadly the lines they read mostly insufferable. It is not even about bad voice acting. It’s just that the lines themselves are bad. You know who is the worst offender though? You! The worst lines in the game are the ones that show up as options in your dialog trees.

Half the time your lines are rude, crude and unrefined. The other half they are just plain insulting. And it’s not like I was playing a speech impaired warrior type. I’d expect that. But my character was rather refined. I was consistently pumping points into my speech skill at each level up hoping to unlock better dialog options. But alas, that was not what this skill offered. Even after my speech was over 70 I sounded like a halfwit most of the time. The high skill level did unlock new dialog options but they were not any better.

Fallout is Oblivion with Guns

Time to wrap up this overly long review. I know I haven’t said anything about the ending – that’s because I didn’t get there yet. This means that I have more to say about the game in the future.

I feel that Fallout 3 is to Oblivion what Oblivion was to Morrowind. A little smaller, shallower game that nevertheless has some improvements over the original. You have probably noticed that throughout this review I treated it an Oblivion sequel. That’s because it’s exactly that in my mind.

It is a flawed game with many shortcomings – like the silly karma system, particularly bad writing in several spots and a long list of game breaking bugs. It does have some great improvements over Oblivion though. The inventory interface and fast travel are done right, the lock picking game is huge improvement over the the previous annoyance. The radio stations add incredible amount of flavor to the game world – even if they keep looping the same content over and over again. The combat is bloodier and more visceral than before and the ability to blow off people’s limbs with particularly well aimed shots makes for much more cinematic battles than the simple rag doll physics of Oblivion. The V.A.T.S. system brings the much needed serenity and strategy back into real time combat situations. The setting is great too – the unique mix of humor, seriousness, overexerted violence and the retro atmosphere make this game an incredible experience.

Not only that but Fallout 3 is a sandbox game first and foremost. The world you will be exploring is huge and there are hundreds of interesting locations to see and visit – and most of them are tied to some sort of a quest line. If you take your time to explore and do the side missions you will get hours upon hours out of this game. As the previous Bethesda games it contains an incredible amount of original playable content that can be unlocked and experienced in any order or skipped altogether. This makes it an incredibly attractive offer compared to the torrent of disappointingly short video games hitting the market these days. You will definitely get your money’s worth here.

All these things help to balance out the flaws, creating a game that is at least as good and as enjoyable as Oblivion was (and one that crashes just as often). I really liked Oblivion and really like Fallout 3. I’ve been playing it for several weeks now, and I’m nowhere near being done with it – and nowhere near being bored. If I didn’t enjoy it so much, I wouldn’t spend 4 long posts complaining about it. Fallout 3 gets my thumbs up, with one caveat: if you played the original Fallout you should simply consider it a “Fallout Flavored Oblivion” – rather than fully fledged sequel. From what I heard Fallout 3 is to Fallout 1 and 2 as Planet of the Apes remake with Mark Whallberg is to the original movie with Charlton Heston. Some people went to see that movie and like it. Some people hated it with a passion. Others went “WTF, that’s not even Planet of the Apes“.

Fallout 3 is the same way – it is not exactly a spiritual successor of the original, but it does have a good deal of an entertainment value in and off itself.

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4 Responses to Fallout 3: First Impression (Part 4)

  1. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Fast travel is a nice feature, but it takes away what partially makes the game interesting : the actual traveling. I really enjoyed taking my time through the trips around the wasteland, stopping to look at the scenery, ponder how I’ll cross a heavily guarded area, investigate a nearby suspicious looking building or follow a weird radio signal back to an alien ship! I tried to use it as little as possible but it’s hard to resist the temptation of laziness, which is why I’d rather not have been able to, just to prevent that nagging “You’re wasting your time, just fast-travel” feeling.

    Karma was in the original Fallout games, at least in the second, but it was much less important. It was sitting in a tab in the already quite loaded character sheet. You never had any in-game prompt telling you you had gained or lost karma. You can do whatever you want, and as long as you don’t check it explicitly never be aware of your karma level/evolution. Beside, it doesn’t have much use (or any?).

    I think F3 went wrong in that it informs the player every time he/she earns karma, proclaiming the morality of the action just as it’s been done. It’s like the game is constantly nagging you with moral judgments. This is not fun, especially when you disagree with the designer’s point of view (it happened often to me).

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  2. as Zel allready said.. karma-system was allready in both previous Fallout-Games, but i still think it was done a lot better. Its not that the choices for each and every action became better. The only thing that is more anoying than you are marked “evil” because you did steal massive ammounts of property (while noone ever saw you) and saving the whole planet, is that the people give you choices based on your carma.

    “You are not evil enough that i would join you, go pick up some of my stuff, then i might!”

    I find it pretty amusing that there is a lot of Farms and similar stuff in F1&2 while F3 just ignores this. There is even a Slaughterhouse, a brewery for Booze in F2 and someone keeps Deathclaws to eat the eggs of them. (a pretty secured chicken^^)
    Whole Parts about Fallout 2 care about Geckos and Trappers, you should think there would be someone hunting different/easier things then mirelurks.

    What i really liked about F3 whas the idea to build you own weapons. Its just what seams apropreate in a post-nuclear world.
    (at least i liked it until i got the second schematics for something… we all know that if i got 2 cooking-books, i automaticly produce twice as many food.)

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  3. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    “rob the rich (and give to myself)”

    :D Rofl’ed on that.

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  4. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    About moral choices (and I think Jacob made a comment along these lines some months ago on your blog), The Witcher has a great approach to these. They are never apparent (no moral slider) and never easy. Motivations are everything and they are not simple. I wrote a review on the game today. Maybe you will want to have a look at it or ask your brother if I am totally off before you try it: http://marelles.blogspot.com/2009/07/witcher-review.html

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