Monday, November 24, 2008

Duck and Cover!

Ah, I love the fifties, a time when you could apparently survive a nuclear holocaust with nothing more than the grace of god, a happy jingle and quick reflexes.

Seriously folks, it was an awesome era. A world of big bands and artful deco. A world where women did household chores wearing pearls and heels, while men wearing smoking jackets spoke in a faint but ever present vibrato. A world awaiting a bright future filled with flying cars, silver jumpsuits and personal robots that was just beyond a horizon clouded only by the specter of nuclear war.

At least that was theory. Instead we ended up with Vietnam, George W. Bush and Reality TV. Kinda makes you wonder what the hell happened. At least the Fallout Series is here to remind us that things could be worse, by creating a universe where both the fondest hopes and gravest fears of post-war America are realized. The resultant atmosphere could be described as “Nukepunk” (if, like me, you are a proponent of adding ‘punk’ as a suffix to random words in order to form a nomenclature for retro-futuristic/dystopian subgenres), or as the middle ground between Mad Max and Lost in Space. It is a thoroughly interesting fictional landscape, rife with references and the best bad science-fiction tropes.

I was dubious when I heard that Bethesda was handling the third entry in the series: the combat in Morrowind sucked, and I did not come around again for Oblivion despite the promise of virtual taxidermy. But the verdict is in and Fallout 3 is a fantastic game. It is not the same as its predecessors, but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

The bad news is that series’ trademark dark humor has been toned down considerably. While I would have liked to see Bethesda push the envelope more, but it's not really their fault. You just can't pull off things like F02’s ballgag bit nowadays. Ratings boards scrutinize the hell out of these things and retailers don’t want to cause a stir with parents who believe that video games are just toys for children. One thing Bethesda could have worked on is a little more character interaction. There are lots of interesting folk in the wastes of Washington DC, but you spend most of your time alone.

In the good news department, graphics have come a long way from the isometric camera of Fallout 1 & 2, allowing you to actually appreciate all the rich detail of the unique aesthetic. You can switch to third person whenever you want, though for combat, first person is pretty much the only way to go considering it is primarily conducted with guns. You also won’t be distracted by the odd skating-like run animation. The audio is a mixed bag. The sound effects and all the voice acting is spot on, but a little more variety in the song department would be greatly appreciated.

Bethesda’s real triumph is fusing the series’ trademark turn based action point system with first person shooting. Combat occurs in real-time, with controls that feel slightly more cumbersome than a typical FPS. Once you hit your VATS menu though, you can spend action points to target specific parts of the enemy as in the Fallouts of old. Time is stopped while you build a queue of orders, and it is drastically slowed down for enemies as your character carries them out. Usually you can snap off about 3 shots in the time it takes a foe to retaliate or close the distance. Needless to say, this makes the gunplay much more forgiving of slow reflexes.

VATs isn’t really a revolution, since you’re still just using your weapon to shoot, hit, or otherwise maim things to death, but each attack is given a cinematic presentation; the camera may follow your projectiles trajectory into the enemy, or pan around you as you throw a punch. It might sound small, but it makes each random encounter feel meaningful, adding to the atmospheric nature of the game. The only downside is all the pausing and selective slowdown essentially breaks the game for multiplayer.

Speaking of breaks, there are a few bugs here and there. I’m playing on a pretty powerful machine, so I haven’t run into much trouble, but others have run into crashes fairly frequently. When it comes to the consoles I know nothing, but word on the street is it’s more stable on the 360 than the PS3.

Well. I think I’ve gone on for long enough for today. Extremely high chance of movie reviews come Wednesday.

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