Chungking Espresso

Nine Months of DLC

Posted in Game Analysis, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on August 3, 2009

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.

ZetaShip

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.

OpAnchorage

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.

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23 Responses

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  1. qrter said, on August 3, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Yep, have to disagree with you on Operation: Anchorage being the best. I’ve never really been all that interested in the shooty parts of Fallout 3, personally (eventhough I do rather enjoy a good result in VATS), so OA becomes sort of a bore because of this. Even the ‘planning your team’ idea fell flat – it could’ve been interesting, but in the end it didn’t really seem to matter who I picked, it was quicker to do most of the fighting myself.

    To me, the fun of Fallout 3 is in exploration and therefore I might actually pick The Pitt as being the best – but it has nothing to do with limiting equipment or anything like that. What impressed me about The Pitt was the verticality of the gameworld design – especially in the steelyards (or whatever they’re called), where you’re looking for the ingots. I must’ve spent hours there.. wait, can I get higher than this? And can I get behind there, how would I achieve that?

    (I haven’t played Mothership Zeta yet, so maybe it’ll all change!)

  2. Simon Ferrari said, on August 3, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I can totally get behind that. At the time I played The Pitt, I vastly preferred it to Anchorage (my appreciation of which didn’t set in until just today). I likened the ingot search to Mirror’s Edge in my head, with all the thrilling leaps and girder-running. Definitely an alternate play-style that really wasn’t explored in the rest of the game; the only reason I don’t think it’s the best is that the engine really didn’t exploit the level design as well as it could. For that kind of exploration, I like to be able to sprint, bound off walls, and grab ledges… you know? A respectable and supported opinion, though, definitely! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    • qrter said, on August 3, 2009 at 6:32 pm

      This is what Bethesda does with most of their games – they build an engine that can sort of do a lot of things.. it can’t do it really well, but it’s passable.

      You see this in Morrowind, in Oblivion and now in Fallout 3, I think.

      And in a way I kind of enjoy it, seeing them trying to bend their game almost to the snapping point.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on August 3, 2009 at 6:48 pm

        I’ll never forgive them for removing flying after how awesome it made Morrowind. Talk about vertical design, some of those caves and cities were incredible when you got a powerful enough flying spell.

      • qrter said, on August 4, 2009 at 10:07 am

        (Weird, I can’t reply to your comment, mr. Ferrari, so it’ll have to go here..)

        Agree thoroughly on flying. LOVED that in Morrowind. You also more or less needed it, without something like fast travel (don’t talk to me about Silt Striders and pylons..!).

        I love it when devs trust their own engine enough to give the player a bunch of tools to tackle it in every direction. Same goes for Thief I & II, with the rope arrow.

  3. Krystian Majewski said, on August 3, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Yeah, I totally disagree with you. Point Lookout is the best of them, no doubt.

    Reason: The best aspect of Fallout 3 is free exploration. Point Lookout is the only DLC which captures that spirit in a bottle. The others feature a much more linear level and focus on those aspects of the game that frankly suck (as you noticed yourself): the shooting.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on August 3, 2009 at 6:10 pm

      Yeah, Lookout is a good counterpoint for The Pitt, because the latter has vertical exploration while the former has horizontal. But still, the immediate pleasure of exploring the boardwalk and doing the (arguably most compelling DLC mission) Chinese spy quest immediately gave way to slogging through the swamp shooting crabs, hillbillies, and cultists. For me, they haven’t gotten guided open world exploration down right since Morrowind. Just my two cents! Definitely prefer Pitt and Lookout to Broken Steel and Zeta, though.

      • qrter said, on August 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm

        Point Lookout was rather disappointing, I thought. I just hit the point (ha ha, point!) of thinking “oh wait, I’ve seen everything” much too quickly.

        In The Pitt I had to puzzle a bit to explore further, that’s a more interesting form of exploration, I think.

        I liked the “infiltrate the cult” idea quite a lot in Lookout and in fact, I feel it would’ve been more interesting to make the whole of Lookout about the ghoul vs. brain plot, lots of little missions to further that story. Exploration only really works if you give me a lot to explore (the original game), or present the exploration in a new, engaging way (The Pitt). Just plunking down a bit of new land doesn’t do the trick, for me.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on August 5, 2009 at 8:54 am

        @Brian – Very cool to hear somebody’s opinion, who actually lives there. I can imagine how those few courtyards fail at portraying an entire city.

        On the other hand, that DLC made me actually reasearch the real Pittsburgh online for a while …

        I feel the same about the moral decision. It was pretty staged and exclusive. As most moral dilemmas in games are. But at least this one wasn’t the usual “stroke the puppy vs. kick the puppy”.

        @qrter Hm, I initially brought the book back but then changed my mind after he went downstairs for his ritual. So I killed him, stole the book again and destroyed it. But yeah, a lot of the Fallout 3 quests fizzle out. Actually the entire Mothership Zeta fizzles out. It’s like “Yay, we did! OkThanksBye!”. They never plan for a coda. ;-(

    • Krystian Majewski said, on August 4, 2009 at 4:53 am

      “Vertical exploration”? As in you climb things instead of moving on a plane? Weird terminology. I heard it before in recent times. Who coined that term?

      To me it’s either The Pitt or Point Lookout. I understand how the swamp doesn’t offer enough variation. I agree that more cult missions would have been better.

      But I thought there was of plenty cool hidden things. Digging for treasure, the Pint-sized Slasher room in the Motel, repairing the Lighthouse, the Teddybear boy…

      My problem with The Pitt is that the scale just doesn’t work. At no point during The Pitt did I have the impression I was in a town any bigger than Megaton… or even Big Town. Visually and thematically, there is a scale implied that the game itself just doesn’t provide (Maybe it can’t?). Neither trough the size of the levels nor trough the amount of characters nor through the richness of the environment. The culmination of that is the laughable “inspirational speech” by the slaver boss. It’s embarrassing. It’s just two or three courtyards with a handful of guards and slaves.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on August 4, 2009 at 5:12 am

        Good question on the origin of the term. I can’t remember the first time I heard it… maybe in a discussion of Ico and SotC? As for the Pitt, I’ll defend it by saying the ingot playground was a great space (as we stated), the bridge explosion at the beginning a good set piece, the idea of relinquishing your gear and going in as a slave was somewhat titillating, and finally traversing the city on the slaver girded walkway was a good counterpoint to your beginning on the ground. Would have done better with, as you say, a bigger city and a more extended section dealing with suffering through slave labor. And an arena pit fight that didn’t totally suck ass (Oblivion’s was pretty great, and I know that shit isn’t hard to churn out once you’ve programmed the basic encounter).

        I forgot the booby trap boy completely… that was just weird because as far as I could tell the mine shaft he was guarding just dropped into some crab eggs and a slow climb back to where you started with nothing cool inside. Did I miss something? The Ghoul Safari was good mindless fun, too. Also… where do you get the quest to dig for treasure?

      • qrter said, on August 4, 2009 at 10:11 am

        The mine is a permanent location – you can keep equipment there, it won’t disappear etc, you know, like your place in Megaton or Tenpenny Tower. Sort of unnecessary, I felt, but there you go..

        There isn’t a dig for treasure quest, I think, you sort of have to.. guess it. Which I didn’t. I thought I was perhaps slowly destroying the Delta, so I stopped digging (thinking it might be part of some quest).

      • Krystian Majewski said, on August 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm

        I agree with you on the ingot playground. Visually quite stunning as well, especially when you climb to the top.

        Giving up your gear was awesome. Too bad you got armed to the teeth so soon again… and I found it odd that the guards allowed me to waltz around with Power Armor and Laser Blasers. WTF, I’m supposed to be a Slave, shouldn’t they take this stuff away?

        The walkway was very cool. I would have loved some more opportunities to interact with the characters living there. They are there and tell you stuff but it leads nowhere.

        As for the boy – you are supposed to bring him a Teddy or something. Nothing big. Not even a real quest. But a nice detail. I missed a lot of such details in The Pitt.

        The digging is also not really a quest but in the south-west corner there are some heaps you can try digging into with a shovel. You can also stumble across some hints on where the treasure is.

        Oh and I liked how you can get that occult book and bring it back to the Dunwich Building in the Wasteland to destroy it. Thought that was a neat tie-in.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on August 4, 2009 at 12:24 pm

        I was just wondering – Isn’t every item location in the game permanent? I remember that I stashed my stuff in a box in a truck just before the Bridge to The Pitt. I did all The Pitt quests and got it back afterwards without anything substantial missing.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on August 4, 2009 at 12:25 pm

        Yeah, I really enjoyed the Dunwich thing, too. I would have appreciated it ever more if the Ghoul Mask didn’t exist and if I hadn’t already gone there for the Bobblehead doll. Should have been more of such tie-ins to allow players who eschewed reading wikis to come across the Bobbleheads in the course of an ancillary quest.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on August 4, 2009 at 12:27 pm

        If you wait long enough, many of the rooms and containers in the game reset. This may have been something they changed in a patch, though. For instance, both Dogmeat and my Mutant companion got refreshed and deleted forever when I left them in my Megaton home.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on August 4, 2009 at 12:39 pm

        Oh, I did the OCD thing and just visited EVERY location I could find… err… it was an accident. 😉
        Still had to look up the Bobbleheads tho. They are just too inconspicuous.

        Every character should wait for you at a certain spot when they get lost. Dogmeat should be waiting in front of 101. The Mutant should be waiting in front of The Underworld.

      • Brian said, on August 4, 2009 at 5:49 pm

        I was really disappointed with the Pitt (I currently live in Pittsburgh). Maybe the monument-strewn constructed nature of DC makes it easier to recreate post-apocalyptically, providing enough landmarks that line up very well with our mental maps of the city.

        This is a city with bridges and topography – neighborhoods built on hillsides where sidewalks (and some streets) turn into stairways. There’s no sense of place in the Pitt (at least not one created through the use of real-world landmarks).

        I do like how the aesthetic of the slave factories lifts heavily from historical imagery of the area’s steel mills, and the slavery story is interesting given the kinds of incidents between labor and management that happened in Pittsburgh at the turn of the century.

        I downloaded the expansion from Live as soon as it was fixed, made my way to the area, stashed all my gear in a box, played about thirty more minutes, then lost interest. When I came back to it a few months later, I couldn’t find my gear after I’d finished the storyline, so I ended up reloading the old save.

        I’m thinking about revisiting it in light of the discussion here and doing some more exploration; my initial impression of the two areas (downtown and uptown) was that there were differences between them, but within each area there wasn’t much variety. This homogeneity removed any visual reward for exploration, the lack of interesting NPC conversations (hell, the lack of NPCs in general) removed narrative reward, and the lack of quests (and, yes, equipment-loot) removed any gameplay reward.

        One last note: when it came time in the story to deal with the big moral issue at hand, I felt like I had just been asked an Intro to Philosophy essay question, only instead of writing an argument I was supposed to choose and how the game played out would explain the argument supporting that choice to me.

        Is choosing for reason A, only to have the game assume I chose for reason B, more jarring than not having any choice at all?

      • qrter said, on August 5, 2009 at 7:17 am

        I really liked the Dunwich connection with Lookout too. Especially as I hadn’t visited Dunwich with that character (just my 2nd!) yet.

        It was quite disappointing to see that storyline fizzle out completely afterwards, though. Went back to the guy, he just says something like “you shouldn’t have done that” and that’s it.

  4. Ryan said, on August 3, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    I thoroughly agree with anyone who thought “Morrowind” was the best Bethesda game to date.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on August 3, 2009 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks for stopping by and reading, man! Now we just need an interloper to come disagree with us, so we can bring the light of reason and the Neravarine to their life!

      • Ben Abraham said, on August 4, 2009 at 6:50 am

        Oblivion Rules! Morrowind drools! =P

      • Simon Ferrari said, on August 4, 2009 at 6:57 am

        I had prepared no defense for this argument. The rule/drool construct is the Maginot Line of Bethsoft world design considerations 🙂


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