Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Fallout 3: Part 2

So when I said that Part 2 was "coming soon," apparently I meant a week later. (edit: if you're hear for tips, scroll to the bottom, this section is editorial)

So, I probably left you with a terrible impression of Fallout 3 after my last post. If so, that means it's time for me to set about the ambitious task of reversing that opinion. Time for Fallout 3: Part 2: The Good Parts.

The Sneaking Game

In Oblivion, I played a roguish character with a bow (and magic). In Fallout 3, I play a sneaky sniper. This largely speaks to my own interests and personality, but the point is that even though the game isn't explicitly about being sneaky, both of these games provided much more satisfying sneaking games than any game I've played that WAS explicitly about sneaking.

Why is that? Let's compare the sneaking experience in a couple different games. In Metal Gear Solid, you are presented with a linear level, with enemies as obstacles. You're supposed to sneak, and the game encourages this by making combat in which your enemy sees you punishing. Of course, since the level is linear and you must sneak, that means that playing through a level devolves into finding the correct path from point A to B that won't involve you getting seen.

In Assassin's Creed, you are also supposed to sneak, although combat against opponents that are aware of your presence is actually pretty easy, while sneaking involves going very slowly and doing nothing interesting (which would draw attention to you). Eventually, every player of Assassin's Creed reaches the limit of their patience with walking around trying to look like a scholar and begins charging guards.

What about Fallout 3? In Fallout 3 you're not "supposed" to sneak - a non-sneaky, heavy duty combat character is a perfectly valid build (I just tried one out for the first time the other day and it was pretty fun). However, sneaking does give you a definite advantage, in both combat and elsewhere. I mean, you get sneak attack criticals, but that's not really the important part, since you could instead invest those skill points from sneak into big guns, and I hear that tactical nuclear warheads also do a lot of damage. The important part is that when you sneak, you can find your opponent before they find you, and then you get to decide how the battle starts. Usually you'll choose to open combat by closing to a good firing range and then saying hello with 4 shots in VATS mode, but you could just as easily open by placing a mine or two conveniently in a path you intend to lure the enemy down, reverse-pick-pocketing a live grenade into your enemy's pocket, sneaking up and turning off a robot (assuming you're really good at science), searching for elements of the environment you can use to your advantage (like gas leaks, slaves you can free, existing traps, etc.), or just avoid the combat altogether. The point here is that sneaking is advantageous because it opens up new possibilities. In other words, sneaking complements the core gameplay philosophy of Bethesda, which is to give the player a high degree of freedom.

Outside of combat, sneaking allows you to get access to areas you're not supposed to be in and allows you to steal things. This might not sound like a big deal, but it means that sneaking around allows you to explore the various mini-narratives the fill the world (which I'll discuss below). This is what initially entranced me about Oblivion - breaking into NPCs houses and stealing their stuff gives you a reason to explore your environment, and a way to interact with it, which is what really brings that environment to life.

Mildly Turn-Based Combat

To avid role-players, one of the features of Fallout 3 that might stand out is that it's also a first person shooter. These have traditionally been antithetical genres: the FPS is all about hand-eye coordination while the RPG is all about resource harvesting and story. We do, however, have a couple precendents now (including one from the big name in American RPGs, Bioware), so what I find interesting is instead the fact that the game is, in fact, lying about being a first person shooter.

But, you object, the game is all first-person, and you shoot things, so how can it not be a first person shooter?! Like I said above, first person shooters are about hand-eye coordination, and Fallout 3 is not. Firstly, the effects of pointing a gun at any enemy and pulling the trigger vary dramatically based on your character's ability with a gun, but what's more significant here is that the dominant mode of combat is VATS mode. The way VATS mode works is that 1) Time pauses. 2) You select a series of attacks you want your character to make, which can be against different body parts of a single enemy or against multiple enemies. 3) Once you've spent your action points queuing up attacks, you accept and then watch your character attempt the various attacks. Hmm...is it just me or does this sound suspiciously like we're not playing a FPS shooter anymore? (hint: it's not just me)

Of course, you don't have to use VATS mode - you can aim manually and fire, although the effect and accuracy still depend on your character's skill. It's also true that after exiting VATS mode you have to wait for your AP to recharge before using it again, during which time you can manually aim, or run, hide, and otherwise stall until your AP is back. The point is, you can go through the entire game without ever taking a shot outside of VATS mode. This means that Fallout 3 gets to have the immersiveness of a first person shooter without requiring any extraordinary hand-eye coordination from the player, and it makes the game much more about what you want to do then about the player's reflexes.

Real Game Narrative

This is what I consider the meat of my argument for Fallout 3 being a good game - it presents stories to the player through gameplay, rather than having story occur between bits of gameplay. I'm not referring to the fact that you are always playing during story sequences, although that is true and valuable - you have dialogue, and events that occur while you're playing, but no cutscenes beyond the opening movie. What I'm referring to is the fact that there are stories in Fallout 3 that aren't part of the main story line (or any explicit storyline). For example:

I reload my pistol and give the area one more sweep with my eyes. All the raiders are down, so I holster my weapon and start to investigate my surroundings more thoroughly. I came here looking for food, but with all the years that have passed, it shouldn't surprise me that the raiders have eaten every can off the shelves, and turned the aisles into miniature fortifications. As I come around behind a desk, I find some stashed supplies. I suppose the raiders could have used this as a nice defensive position, if I hadn't slipped into the midsts and isolated each of them between the grocery aisles. There's an intercom here, and I'm tempted to say something silly into it, until I realize that any lingering raiders would be able to hear me, if there were any. I continue exploring until I find a locked door in the back of the place - here's where they keep their good stuff, I'm sure. Fortunately I've been keeping up on my computer hacking skills and there's a terminal nearby that unlocks the door. As soon as it's open I hear the intercom startle to life, "Ok, guys, we're back. Can someone open the back...wait a minute." Oh shit. I slide into the backroom and close the door I just managed to get open. Now what am I going to do? There are some nice supplies in this room, but I might not survive taking 5 or 6 more raiders at once. Then I notice a large tube in the room with a robot inside. The old grocery store security robot is still intact, apparently, and if I can get it running again...I may have a shot at this afterall.

This isn't elaboration - this is exactly what I was thinking as I was playing through this area. This also wasn't part of the main storyline, and though a quest did point me toward this grocery store, the only requirements to complete the quest were to "find some food." In other words, the quest was just an incentive to get me to explore - nothing dictated that I see things in a certain order, notice the details I did, or use the strategies I did to defeat the raiders: I was simply presented with an interesting environment to explore. Nonetheless, there was a story here, and it was because the environment had a sense of character to it.

This is what Fallout 3 does that's really interesting. This is where true game narrative takes form. It's not in the grandiose battles in DC, or in the moral choices your character makes, or in the story that unfolds about why your father left the vault. It's in the little moments that result from having a rich environment. It's when you kill a machine-gun toting super mutant, only to find that they had an unusually large collection of toy cars and teddy bears; or when you murder someone in their sleep and hear their lover's heartfelt stories about them after the fact; or when you explore a seemingly normal office building where every desk has ammunition for military grade weapons stashed in it, and eventually find a computer containing email correspondence along the lines of "OH GOD, THE FEDS ARE HERE." These stories are simply layered into the environment, and they make the world seem alive. When items feel like they were placed there by the characters, and not by the level designer, that's when exploring an environment becomes a story.

I'll take that over an hour long sequence of Solid Snake getting lectured to by a dying man any day of the week.

Final Note

In summary, Fallout 3 is chock-full of problems, great and small, but it's also probably the most interesting game I've played this year. The core gameplay is so fun and the environment so full of interesting stuff that I, for one, have no choice about liking the game. It also allows for a variety of play styles, and they result in very different experiences - if you made a strong heroic character and steamrolled through the main storyline, then you haven't played the same game I have.

One more thing: this obviously isn't an exhaustive list of good or bad qualities. These are just the aspects of the game that I decided to talk about.



So since I posted this, I've been checking sitemeter and apparently a LOT of people are getting here searching for tips on playing Fallout 3. Because I'm just such a nice guy, I've decided to add a couple.

First: How to sneak. It's actually pretty simple - you just crouch and you're in sneak mode. On the PS3, you do this by hitting L3 (which means push in on the left analog stick - you don't need to hold it, just press it to start or stop sneaking). While you're sneaking, you'll get an indicator telling you whether or not you've been noticed.

If you see [Hidden] it means no one sees you.
If you see [Detected] it means a friendly character sees you (so don't try stealing that abraxo cleaner).
If you see [Caution] it means a hostile character is aware you're there, but not sure where you are.
If you see [Danger] it means that a hostile character sees you (and is attacking you - good time to hit L2 and go into VATS mode).

To determine whether or not you're hidden, there are a couple factors that come into play. First, your sneak skill - get it pretty high quickly if you want to play stealth (that means at least 50). Second is visibility - if you're in a dark area and/or the enemy does not have line of sight to you, you're more likely not to be noticed. If you run, you are more likely to be noticed than if you walk or stand still, and if you shoot at an enemy (even if you miss), it will almost certainly give away your position. The keys to stealth playing are patience and the ability to gauge how close you can get without being seen (to maximize your chance of hitting with a sneak attack).

While sneaking, you can pickpocket someone by activating them (walk up behind them and hit X). In my opinion, though, pickpocketing isn't worthwhile in most cases, because it carries an inherent risk of getting caught, whereas stealing objects lying about is much less risky (as long as you're [Hidden] you're A-OK). If you have the Sandman perk, and you attempt to pickpocket a sleeping NPC, you will also have the option of killing them in their sleep, which is actually pretty effective (as long as no one else sees the act), because then you can take their stuff at your leisure...I mean, not like you would ever do something like that, being the model citizen that you are.

The second thing I'll cover is hacking computers. First things first - each time you bring up the computer hacking screen, it randomly generates a puzzle, which means you CANNOT go online to find the password for each terminal in the game. You just have to figure it out from scratch. Sorry.

That said, I can give you some tips for how to figure out the passwords. The basic mechanic here is that when you guess a word, you're told how many of the letters from that word were correct. Note, that means letters in the correct position, so if the password is "Ellipsis" and you guess "Epicfail," you'll see "2/8", meaning that 2 of the letters were correct (the initial E and the second-to-final letter, i). One thing to keep in mind is that only full words are eligible input - all of the #$% and such you see is just filler - ignore it and find the next full world.

So knowing this, a good strategy is to rule out as many choices as possible with each guess, by picking words with common elements. For example, if there are multiple words among your options ending in "-ing," then it's a good candidate to guess, because if the game replies that less than 3 characters were correct, then the password can't possibly end in "-ing", which rules out all of the other words ending in "-ing". So pick words with suffixes or prefixes in common with other options, such as "-ent," "-ed", "de-," "re-," or "con-". After you have some feedback from the system, you should only ever guess words that match that feedback, so check each word. I do this by imagining spelling out the word I'm guessing next to the word I guessed before, and seeing how many of the letters are the same (it should be exactly the same as the number the game told you were correct, or there's no point in guessing that word).

Aside from that, you just need luck (and to save before attempting the terminal, since it will permanently lock if you fail). Also, this might have just been a coincidence, but I noticed an unusual number of times that the correct answer was the second option. Worth keeping in mind.

I hope that's helpful, and I'll keep an eye out for any other questions people are implicitly asking by searching for them on Google...

1 comment:

Sam said...

Have you played Thief: the Dark Project?