Monday, February 15, 2010

Game Review: Fallout 3

Edited for clarity - 3/7/2011

Fallout 3 is big, really big. However, size does not equal greatness. Having a dozen bad tasting cupcakes is not as satisfying as one deliciously sprinkled cupcake. In the same way, Fallout 3 certainly gets the notion of quantity right, but fails to engage the player in the aforementioned quantity of content. If Fallout 3 focused more on how to get the player to engage its world and gameplay, then Fallout 3 would be a better, albeit smaller game.

1. Story - Lack of Conflict
First, the player's narrative motivation in Fallout 3 could be improved by the earlier introduction of narrative conflict.

The beginning of the story is marked by the disappearance of your father from your hometown, the Vault, prompting you to leave the vault to find him once again. But this then leaves the questions: why do you want to find your father when he disappears? What's the motivating force?

In Monkey Island, your goal is to rescue Elaine, but you are always faced with the looming threat of LeChuck after you leave the SCUMM bar, creating a reason for you to hurry up and become a pirate. In Knights of the Old Republic, your goal is to find star maps, but you are constantly in battle with the Sith, forging a race for each consecutive star map. In BioShock, even though you must escape Rapture, there is the ever-imposing figure of Andrew Ryan, a nemesis whom you must overcome to escape.

So what is there motivating you--conflicting you--to find your father in Fallout 3?

Nothing, really. Your goal has no direct opposing force (there are Mutants who fight you, but their goal is to kill everyone--not specifically you) until about nearly two thirds of the way into the story. Once that happens, you realize who your enemies are and who you have to stop in order to find your father. Before that point, however, no one is trying to stop you from finding your father; no one is battling against your progress.

A lack of conflict breeds a lack of tension, urgency, and challenge to overcome any obstacle in order to reach your goal, in this case, your father. Instead, the majority of your journey to find your father stems from town-hopping, interrogating by-standers for answers, and then performing fetch quests to gather more clues--not fighting your adversary for dear life as s/he battles against your every progression and accomplishment.

Guess who's trying to stop you? Nobody!

An alternative way to begin Fallout 3 would be this: make it so that your father is kidnapped from the Vault. This sets up a mystery (who kidnapped my father?), an opposing force (the kidnappers), yet still creates the same narrative goal as before (find your father); except now you have a conflict to engage in which you must overcome in order to rescue your father. Fallout 3 eventually does this by introducing the Enclave two thirds into the game, but that is much too long to wait for this sense of a larger conflict. Before this, you are allowed to just meander around the wasteland, with no real excuse for finding your father, no sense of urgency. Introducing an opposing force earlier would have made the story much more instigating for you to find your father.

2. Gameplay - Guns vs. Swords
Fallout 3 also boasts the unique inclusion of FPS elements within its RPG table set, yet this doesn't come without some drawbacks. With FPS elements comes the fear of labeling Fallout 3 a "First-Person-Shooter with RPG elements" rather than"Role-Playing Game." So, what the developers do to alleviate this is include the VATs targeting system which essentially pauses the game, lets you choose limbs and areas of enemies to shoot at, and then the game executes those orders based on a percentage of impact. This system, while appreciative, is much less fun than the combat system in Oblivion, because it's just a simple probability roll.

VATs: A series of percentage signs.

Contrast this to an adaptive combat sequence which is more of what Oblivion had with its melee combat. What made these encounters much more fun than the ones in Fallout 3 is that you were always involved in each battle. You had to swap between a series of block/attack moves in each encounter and always had to adapt to your enemies' movements in each situation. This put a constant life or death struggle onto each enemy encounter--you had to keep your guard up in order to not fall susceptible to your enemies' blows. Also, just hearing your blade slice into your enemies' flesh was much more satisfying than the click of a bullet piercing your enemy's skin. (Moroseness! Hooray!)

Fallout 3's VATs system doesn't have this strategic balance, this level of required thinking or involvement in each battle. Instead, you can just run up to an enemy, point a gun in their face, and then let VATs calculate that you will get a 95% hit without the need for you to retaliate or adapt to the enemy's next action. It's just a simple roll of the dice, a playing of the odds.

Gameplay mechanics should be fun, challenging, and thoughtful, forcing you to adapt to each situation by requiring you to improve your current level of skill--not just a viewing of the odds and then a decision based off of a percentage point.

3. Exploration Motivation
Lastly, Fallout 3 suffers from exploration motivation--in other words, why explore this world? Why traverse through this gigantic, uninviting, mono-chromatic wasteland? This is because of three main reasons: lack of novelty, ambiguous atmosphere, and lack of challenge.

First, every location is just a copy and paste rendition of the other, so there's no real reward for exploration. You can enter any number of buildings that you want, but you're still going to find the same 2 stimpaks, 3 ammunition crates, 8 Super Mutants, and the generic toolboxes with wonderglue and hammers that come with it. Locations or quests have the same, generic items associated with them so that it becomes tedious, rather than exciting, to advance through your journey. Even though games such as Final Fantasy or KoTOR offer fewer more compact worlds, each discovery in these worlds is made all the more important because of that. You know that every treasure chest you open and every new weapon you find can be unique and different from all the others in the game. However, Fallout 3 removes this novelty of discovery by generically copying its items and environments, and because of that, the game lessens the value of its discoveries for the player.

Down these mean streets a man must go--
but oh well, they're all the same.

Second, Fallout 3 suffers from atmospheric ambiguity in its environment. Part of the fun in exploring any environment is to be immersed in it--to truly feel as if you are there. For post-apocalyptic environments, this is most often a feeling of solitude and isolation--the lonely realization of humanity's self-demise. However, in Fallout 3, this feeling is consistently destroyed by lonely robots, mutant zombies, or an annoying, chattering voice screaming "Free dawg! Owwooooooot!" Before the player has a chance to become immersed in any one specific feeling (isolation, humor, danger), the game consistently flips itself upside down. This changes the game's experience from a lonely, post-apocalyptic world, into a awkwardly heterogeneous world.

Think of a game like STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl--this game lets you run along vacant roads and hills for what seems like miles, encountering few or no enemies; and when you do finally encounter another living being, the impact is made all the more forceful, thanks to the amount of solitude you just experienced. In Fallout 3, this feeling of solitude is constantly destroyed by haphazardly trotting mutants, brain-bots, zombies, rabid dogs, and scavenging wastelanders, decimating the atmosphere and discouraging exploration in the process.

Thirdly, and lastly, a lack of challenge in Fallout 3 removes any need to further explore new environments. Fallout 3 is too easy, which is the exact opposite problem that Oblivion had. This is because Fallout 3 does not contained scaled enemies (in contrast to Oblivion), meaning that when you level up in Fallout 3, your enemies do not level up with your progress. Non-scaled enemies make sense, because if they leveled up with your progress, it would reduce all cause to improve your character, as your enemies would increase in strength at the same rate, which was one of the core problems of Oblivion. However, because Fallout 3 removes scaling-enemies, the game becomes ridiculously easy during the latter half.

The second half of Fallout 3: Hi-tech power-armored Gatling-gun wielding super soldiers vs. defenseless Zombies

Because players can already destroy most every enemy opposing them, this removes rationale to keep exploring because there is no reason to obtain better weapons and items since enemies are not difficult enough to make obtaining those items necessary. Enemies start to drop without any real challenge, and health never becomes a concern for the player, thanks to the endless amount of Stimpaks found scattered throughout the world. Since enemies are easily defeated, there is no reason to gather more weapons, items, or health packs via exploration, thus removing a whole purpose for exploration. Even though having non-scaled enemies is a good thing, there should have been some kind balancing factor or reason for players to continue to exploring the world, gathering more items.

Players need reasons to do things--goals to achieve. Goals drive players--they give them a reason, a motivating factor to guide themselves through a meaningful experience.
If the player doesn't need ammo, there's no reason to scavenge new areas for crates of ammo. If the player doesn't need to upgrade his weapon and can defeat every enemy he faces, there is no reason to try and gather new weapons. If the player already owns all the best items in the local shops, there is no reason to gather or look for any more gold in each dungeon.
Fallout 3 contains a massive, very-well constructed world, yet lacks the incentive to drive players to explore it. Why should players explore open-ended worlds? For the reward? For the story? Games can have the most inviting, detailed, and rich worlds, but unless there is a reason to explore these worlds, then the players will never do so.

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At 7/29/2010 6:57 PM, Blogger AdeptusAnonymoose said...

... Did you just look at a different review of the game, take out random words, open up a thesaurus and replace the words with bigger words? Seriously? Nobody cares about the length of your words. Sorry.

At 1/25/2011 12:57 AM, Blogger Ice-Only said...

good points all of them yo, F3 turned into one of those games you just wanted to play so you could say "yeah I've played it", but like you say there's nothing in the story to make you take it further than that once any distraction in your life pulls you away from the game.

I stopped playing it somewhere in the middle of the waste-land, and now that you write about your father kidnapped I honestly didn't even remember that was the story! I remember the story was that I exited the vault and now I could walk around a huge landscape full of annoying enemies, I totaily forgot my father was kidnapped hehe.

I think you should call this a game analysis instead of review tho, it's interesting analysis but unfairly harsh as a review considering that there are good aspects of the game as well.

At 1/25/2011 11:25 AM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

Thanks, but yeah, it is more an analysis than a review. All my reviews are analysii (is that a word!?) in retrospect.

At 1/31/2011 3:14 PM, Blogger Peter said...

I also thought STALKER was a more immersive experience. And while I enjoyed Fallout 3, I agree with all of your criticisms. I guess you could say I enjoyed it passively the way one would enjoy a B-movie. Admittedly I never finished it: I stopped after I reached the level cap. It was a strange feeling; I was pretty sure I still *liked* the game, but for some reason it lost all reason to exist on my hard drive.

The best part of the story was the VR sequence. Other than it was a step down from the earlier games.

At 1/31/2011 3:27 PM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

@Peter I really want to play the earlier Fallout games but never got a chance. I heard they were a lot better!

At 2/22/2011 4:56 AM, Blogger GuyR said...

Good analysis!
I'd love to hear what you have to say about New Vegas.
It's much better than Fallout 3.
Oh, and you should definitely play the first ones! There are unofficial patches to make them work on current hardware.

At 3/04/2011 11:37 PM, Blogger NiklasBergstrom said...

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