Nine Months of DLC
I haven’t blogged in awhile, so I’m going to keep this one short (if I spend myself, then I won’t be able to get back into the swing of things). This summer I’ve been writing chapters for a book with Ian Bogost and Bobby Schweizer, so much of the pleasure of writing long-ass blog posts that only about four people read had diminished. A new semester begins in a few weeks, and I’m hoping that my blogging will increase. Going to try to keep these at a consumable 1k-word hard cap. I’ve got notes for about ten posts on the games I’ve played throughout the summer, so this probably won’t be one of those things where somebody says they’re going to start blogging again and then peaces out for another month before publishing anything. If I’ve stayed in your blogroll throughout this absence: many thanks, my friend.
In an hour or two I’ll finish Mothership Zeta and clear all the Fallout 3 DLC off of my meagre 20GB hard drive forever–a moment nine months in the making. I’d been meaning to write about the DLC packs as they came along (I played them all within a day of their release), but for some reason I never felt inspired enough to do so. Because they’re so short, mainstream reviewers really had to stretch themselves to write a thorough consumer report; thus, they managed to say most of what I wanted to say, and I don’t like contributing nothing to a conversation. Today I finally realized my angle; I’m going to cover something that doesn’t often come up when talking about what’s good about Fallout 3: its gunplay.
Sometime in the middle of Broken Steel (the third of the DLC releases, upping the level cap to 30 and extending the main storyline ad infinitum), I stopped caring about Fallout 3. At this point I had tens of thousands of caps, enough ammo to run around the virtual world shooting off any gun I cared to constantly, 300 stimpacks, maxed out skills, and a locker full of so many copies of every weapon that I could repair anything to one-hundred percent at any time. To be sure, the game started off difficult–running through labyrinthine decrepit halls disarming booby traps, scrounging for shotgun shells, nearly dying to the assault fire rounds of Raiders and Super Mutants; however, at this time even upping the difficulty to “Very Hard” just means a few more trivially easy headshots to perform and a few more spiked veins to pump my body up with stimpacks.
As far as story and thematic level design go, the DLC for Fallout 3 progress in quality to pitch perfection. The Pitt and Point Lookout added some of the most compelling quests since Oasis and Tenpenny Tower, and I’d be lying to you if I said that I haven’t always wanted to get abducted by aliens so that I could break out of my cell and bludgeon them to death in a sprawling steampunk UFO (Mothership Zeta). But I reached a moment of clarity when the guardian drones started lobbing exploding balls of energy at me, almost killing me for the first time in about 6 hours of playtime in the game world: Fallout 3, a game where (despite everything else that’s lovely about the game) the primary mechanic is shooting, lacks a necessary variety of projectiles.
There are six threats in the game: bullets (including lasers), melee (including flamers), missiles, mines, grenades, and radiation. Usually you’re only confronted by 2-3 of these at a time, because when a fourth is introduced it becomes almost too much for the average player to manage. Combat-with-words was available in a few quests (Tenpenny Tower, for one), but it’s not as extensive as in the Bioware’s KotOR titles. I realized that the only time that I’d been thrilled by the game since I’d hit level 20 was when it hit me with explosives and snipers. Some of the best battles of Point Lookout and Broken Steel come when you accidentally trigger waves of Feral Reavers in the graveyard and Presidential subway (respectively), because the Reavers lob exploding balls of radioactive goo at you. In the main Wastes, I always loved passing by substation towers, because often there were raiders manning the scaffolding with missile launchers and sniper rifles that would end me if I didn’t creep by or pick them off one by one from a distance.
The optimal moments from the DLC took into account the fact that by the endgame you were so decked out in gear that escalating enemy health and damage wouldn’t provide enough of a challenge, so it introduced novel approaches to some of the six threats listed above or restricted your equipment (or both). For this reason I’m going to make a somewhat controversial (not really the word for it) claim: Operation Anchorage is the best DLC for the game.
Admittedly, the greatest weaknesses of OA are its length and its story. That it was the first Bethsoft expansion pack after Oblivion‘s incredible Shivering Isles (it was more engaging than the main quest of the original game, featured varied visuals and memorable characters, and included some nominal alignment choices) didn’t help OA‘s case at all. The limited equipment enforced by the training simulation, which many complained of, was a boon for me: once again it was somewhat difficult to kill, like in the early stages of the game. Crawling through the cliffside tunnel complex with the mortars blasting was the most physically visceral experience provided by Fallout 3, and the crackling erasure of enemies when they died is exactly what you want to see when you’re playing a virtual reality within a virtual world.
The Chinese stealth soldiers, with their swords and sniper rifles, were a formidable opponent, and it was a wonderful payoff when you finally claimed their armor at the end of the simulation. Best of all was the tactical combat section, adding a mechanic unseen throughout the rest of the game: planning out your team was fun and important, because the Chinese snipers and flying droids presented a tangible threat to you as you crawled through the final trenches toward the dampening field generator. The Pitt–featuring moral ambiguity, a Wicker Man, and the same limiting of equipment and slow progression toward more powerful gear–is arguably the second best of the DLC packs from this perspective. Which of the DLC was your favorite?
Morrowind remains the best Bethsoft title, by the way; I’ll argue that one out in the comments section if you like.