Thursday, January 15, 2009

Response to Daniel's Fallout 3 Review

The gameplay is very similar to Oblivion, with some obvious differences. The control scheme is almost identical, both in terms of what the buttons do, and things like sneaking, melee, jumping etc. It's obviously using the same game engine, and the world even sometimes looks a bit like Oblivion. One major similarity is equipment condition, something new to the Fallout universe. Just like in Oblivion, your equipment (including armor) degrades through use and must be repaired. This has major implications because the degrading effects are noticeable and repairing stuff can be very expensive. Moreover, you don't just use a hammer - instead, you have to repair things by cannibalizing similar things. In other words, if you want to repair your favorite 10mm pistol, you need another (presumably more damaged, since you want to keep the one in the best condition) 10mm pistol or very similar item, which is destroyed in the process of repairing the first one. This doesn't matter much for common items, but if you want to repair that nice suit of combat armor you will probably need to find a mechanic in town. It's also a balancing test - do I spend 25 caps to have someone fix my gun, or do I waste a 30 cap value backup pistol to repair my main pistol?

Some key differences with Oblivion - based on historical Fallout precedent:-- Stats do not improve through use or repetition, but only through levelling up.-- Similarly, you gain XP for kills, quests and the like, rather than levelling up only when your skills increase.-- No magic - durr - but the practical consequence is that you have to rely a lot more on Fallout's equivalent of potions, namely things like stimpacks and meds. Stimpacks are, at least so far, the primary form of healing and are worth their weight in gold. HOARD THEM. There are many kinds of food that will restore HP, but nearly all of them will also give you radiation damage. It is minor individually, but will add up over time. So far even with a high Medic stat (discussed below) I haven't found a reuseable way to heal aside from perhaps sleeping a lot. So not only do you want to be careful in fights to avoid, you know, dying - you need to be extremely conservative to conserve stimpacks. You can buy them from traders, but they're not cheap.-- Weapon damage appears keyed to your skill levels (within ranges). I *think* that if you are really good with say Small Guns, a 10mm pistol will do more damage than an identical weapon used by an incompetent person.-- Lockpicking. You aren't allowed to even try to pick a lock unless your skill is a certain level, unlike Oblivion where you can manually pick even a super hard lock if you (the player) are good enough at it.

Some key differences with prior Fallout Games:Fallout 3 was clearly made by guys with at least a surface understanding of the other Fallout games. But it doesn't quite feel like a "real" Fallout game to me, at least yet. First, some game mechanics differences:-- The first person/third person & 3D thing is obviously new, but has a lot of consequential nuances that make the game very different. For example, now there is a lot more cover to use - in the old Fallout games aside from grenades you basically needed line of sight to kill anyone so the games became a challenging battle of Action Points to ensure that you didn't walk around a corner just as your AP ran out and got blasted. Here, you can sort of duck and cover your way up to someone - who knows you are there - and bushwhack them a bit easier. You can also exploit the 3D environment to avoid melee attackers and the like, unlike the other Fallout games where basically if someone wanted to run up to you they were going to find a way.-- Another major departure is in Perks. Unlike, say, Fallout 2, you begin earning perks here immediately, and at every level. When I went up to level 2, I had like 6 perks available to choose from. Some have multiple "ranks" meaning you can pick them more than once - and you get to pick one every new level. New batches also become available every 3-4 levels. So at level 4 you get a bunch of new ones to choose, but can still choose old ones. For example, one of the ones I had available at level 2 was "Swift Learner" - which gives an permanent extra 10% XP bonus to all XP earned for the rest of the game. Better still, it has 3 "ranks" - which have no further conditions of their own. So when I went up to level 3, I picked, guess what...Swift Learner (2). I will do so again at level 4. So basically by level 4 my character will earn +30% XP for the rest of the game. I assume this will make a huge difference. There are lots of Perks to choose from but the Perk overload is a real game changer. For example, another Perk available at level 1 adds 1 point of your choosing to your base stats (Strength, Endurance etc), up to 10 additional points. That's crazy.-- Tagged skills. You can "tag" 3 of your 14 skills. This gives you a starting bonus to that stat. HOWEVER, additional points added to tagged stats go in at a 1:1 ratio, rather than the 1:2 from Fallout 2. In other words, the skills you tag start at a higher level, but from that point forward all skill points you distribute to those or un-tagged skills only increase any skill by 1. So tagging seems less important since after just a few levels you can boost a non-tagged skill to that level as well.

Environment: One thing I loved about the earlier Fallouts was the long slow grind up to appreciable levels of technology and equipment. Fallout 2 got a little crazy towards the end with the bases full of Enclave killbots and the like, but at least for a long time you're in the classic combat armor/shotgun Mad Max mode. As further described below in my newbie starter walkthrough, almost immediately you see much higher tech levels. Within an hour of leaving the Vault, I'd encountered a half dozen working robots, including flying Enclave drones, and found not one but two laser pistols complete with energy pack ammo. That's a little silly. You can also loot almost anything off people you kill, so you will start finding fairly decent armor as soon as you start killing marauders and wasteland raiders. Also, unsurprisingly the landscape is very grey and bleak, but this makes it hard to scavenge since many things are the same color (particularly at night). Lastly, not all cover is created equal - guns will pierce wood and other thin materials.-- In a nod to perhaps GTA, there are various funny radio stations you can listen to on your pip boy.

The Game-altering madness of VATS
VATS, or V.A.T.S. if you want to get technical, is Fallout 3's nod to the awesome turn-based combat system from the old school games. More specifically, it also includes the ability to pause combat and target individual body parts just like old school (complete with percentage hit tables, i.e., 45% to hit the arm, 65% to hit the leg etc). I'm sure there are lots more nuances to the system than I've discovered so far and its application will vary wildly depending on your level and the opponents you have, but so far it is INSANELY, ALMOST COMICALLY UNBALANCED. First of all, the system pauses combat and lets you select among your various opponents, and then what part of them you want to hit. After you decide, you will try to hit/shoot that part in a truly awesome sort of Matrix-y slow motion. Time doesn't really stop - for example, if someone is about to hit you in the head with a bat, once you trigger VATS and shoot them they will slowly continue to swing and hit you. However, you can severely skew the odds in your favor by shooting people directly in the face.In the old Fallout games unless you were insane or in very confined space you usually wanted to stay away from your opponents and gun them down at range. This meant you needed high gun skills (to get accuracy %s you could reasonably hit), good Perception etc. Here, VATS lets you ignore all that. While at some point I'm sure I will want to use VATS from very far away to kill, say, a guy in power armor holding a chaingun, in the early game you are going to be using VATS at close range because all the raiders, ants, radroaches etc charge right up to you. Thus you almost always have 90%-95% chance to shoot them directly in the face. Even with a Luck stat of only 5, my character gets a critical - and almost always fatal - shot out of this about 25% of the time. If you don't critical but "only" cripple someone's head, they almost always sheathe their weapons and try to run away. And even if they don't, you've just chopped a huge chunk out of their HP. A typical "fight" for me goes like this:1) Raider charges with pistol/bat etc.2) Juke around a bit using cover against any gunfire until Raider is nearly upon you.3) Activate VATS.4) Select Raider's head - which will have 90-95% chance of getting hit (even though my Small Guns stat is horrible).5) Fire a single round directly into Raider's head.6) If Raider somehow survives and keeps fighting, back up a bit for a second so AP builds back up and then re-activate VATS.7) Goto 4.I experimented a bit with this. With VATS, I was able to clear a building of 10 Raiders (sometimes 3-4 at the same time) with only 2-3 bullets per Raider and only a few stimpacks for any fire I took running from room to room. Without VATS, it took me over 20 bullets to kill ONE Raider, because in real-time it is basically Oblivion - line up the crosshairs at center mass and just keep shooting. While you can get critical hits that way, they are much more rare and you almost never hit the head because it's such a small target.You can use VATS for melee fighting as well of course, although I prefer guns. With melee sometimes it's easier to go old-school Oblivion and just dance around while swinging, because you get in more hits/DPS that way. VATS only gets funnier with automatic weapons. Using a 10mm SMG means you get a 4-5 bullet burst for a single VATS attack - in other words, you press your SMG against your opponent's head and hold down the trigger until their head disintegrates. It's like a execution move that you can do over and over whenever anyone gets close to you. It's not perfect - if your weapon doesn't do much damage VATS won't save you even with the criticals - but it makes you almost unkillable against opponents you are otherwise evenly matched with. The computer has no VATS to use against you, and I don't think I've been critical hit even once yet.

Quick walkthrough/tips
You start off being born (seriously) and get to pick your gender/features. Then you got through a series of "I'm growing up" vignettes where you get to interact with people in the Vault. As a toddler, you can read a book on the floor of your room that lets you set your base stats (which, along with everything else, you can edit before you leave the Vault a la leaving the initial sewers in Oblivion). I went with:STR 5 - gives 200 weight capacity which is plenty (plus I assume power armor at some point)END 6 - started with 220 HP and 10% radiation resistance, CHA 5 Luck 5, Perception 5, Agility - 6 (for VATS AP, which doesn't seem to actually matter that much) - might also help movement speed which does matter, Intelligence - 8 - Intelligence matters A LOT. It governs skill points gained per level, which are more important since tagged skills increase at the same rate as regular ones, so you need more basic skill points than you would in Fallout 2. For skills, I tagged:Repair - for equipment maintenace, also gave me a SWEET quest reward in Megaton where you get 10 caps per 1 point of scrap metal you bring to a water plant worker. Speech - Gives you tons more options in dialogue, lets you convince people (often with an XP reward), and opens up hidden quests. Medic - Directly governs how many HP you heal with stimpacks. With a 50 Medic, my character heals almost 60 hp a stimpack, which makes a big difference

In the next scene, you are age 10 and at a birthday party in the Vault (no, I'm not kidding). Talk to everybody. Some people will give you presents, make sure to read/use them all before the scene ends. For example, reading someone's Conan comic knockoff gives you +1 Melee Weapons. After the party, you get to go with your Father to practice some BB gun shooting. Nothing exciting. I think you lose all your collected goodies when you go to the next scene, so explore everything.Next scene, you are age 16 I think. Your father wants you to go take the GOAT exam to see what your talents are. Talk to him a lot before you leave his medical office. On his desk is a Fallout Boy bobblehead - take it! It gave me a permanent +10 to medical skill. Steal anything else you can. In the next room there is a stimpack on a medical tray, and a bunch of repair stuff in some of the boxes/toolboxes along the walls. In the hallway outside you will see some punks harassing Amata, the daughter of the Overseer (most of the people were also at your birthday party years ago). You can pick a fight with the leader and he and his cronies will attack you for a while. If you survive long enough, they give up and run off, netting you some Karma. Alternately, you can talk to one of his minions and start questioning his manhood. He and his friends will abandon the leader, netting you karma without a fight. After that, you go into the testing room and take the GOAT exam. It is stupid and has no real bearing on your tagged skills since you get to reset them after the exam, AND once more before you leave the vault for good. Next scene is the leaving the Vault quest. Your father's friend gets killed and he flees the vault. The overseer sics his guards on you. But first Amata comes and tries to convince you to flee. With my character build I was able to convince her to loan me a pistol. She suggests fleeing out the overseer's tunnel from his office. The vault guards are looking for you. I took the pistol, went out in the hallway and, using VATS, killed the HELL out of the first guard I met. Critical to the face never really gets old. Doing so nets you HIS pistol, more ammo, body armor, a combat helmet, and his combat stick. Not all guards are hostile, so only fight those who attack you - but loot them good. There are also lots of rad roaches for some basic melee practice and XP. You can heal yourself by drinking from various water fountains in the hallways and bathrooms. There are some mini-quests too, you can rescue the mother of one of the "vault punks" you harrassed earlier, which nets you his fairly worthless (since you have combat armor) leather jacket. Clear out the entire vault of anything useful. I actually tracked down and killed the Overseer himself, which got Amata pissed at me but whatever. Before you leave the Vault make sure you have looked in all the boxes, desks, wall-hanging medical kits, crates etc in all the levels. I found extra stimpacks, hairpins (lockpicks), purified water, and lots of other good stuff. There are also some places I couldn't get to because my lockpicking wasn't good enough (like the stash behind the poem in your father's office).You get a good XP bonus when you finally leave the vault.

At this point you can do anything, but my advice is to head right for Megaton (following the quest marker on your map). I didn't do that at first and wasted ammo and stimpacks fighting random raiders in the wasteland. If you go to Megaton you can start doing some easy quests both in the town and in the nearby areas. Many of the burnt out houses in the area have hidden lockboxes etc in them as well - always check the ruins. I found ammo, weapons, and even stat-boosting magazines scattered all over the place. The woman at the Craterside store has some good quests - clearing out a nearby market store for her was what let me get the two laser pistols, as well as a bunch of grenades, landmines, shotgun, SMG, and a bunch of other stuff. Eventually my understanding is if you disarm the nuke in the center of town for free, they give you a house which would be a great place to stash loot.

Bugs: Can't end without mentioning this. Fallout 3 is surprisingly buggy. Nothing fatal or quest-breaking yet, but for example the first time I tried to take the GOAT exam in the Vault, the instructor froze and my character just sat there, trapped in a chair, until I reloaded the game. I've also seen a raider that was spawned sideways directly into a concrete pillar - something I also occasionally saw in Oblivion. Characters also often talk over each other or ignore one another - particularly when many are in a single room together. One will be saying something to someone, who in turn is ignoring them and talking to someone else, etc etc. It feels very unpolished when that happens, particularly when some are triggered events (for example, in the "birthday party" scene one of the kids who later becomes a vault punk tries to steal a present, and you can sic a guard on him. When I did it, the guard starts lecturing the kid, who sort of reacts but then starts doing something else - but the guard keeps talking and pausing as if the script were still running. Similarly, in a conversation with your father as a toddler you can just walk away (and even leave the room and close the door) and he'll keep talking as if you're still there. Also, the value system is messed up. Is a bottle of vodka really worth more than a full suit of Vault combat armor? Really? Anyway, so far I'd give Fallout 3 an 8 out of 10. It is a lot of fun and no doubt has a million things to explore, but seems a little unpolished and loot/perk-heavy to me. I have no doubt I'll lose the next few months to its seductive wiles, but so far it feels like a parallel game rather than a successor to Fallout 2. And if you're still reading at this point, I salute you you brave sonofabitch.

Playlist: Um...Fallout 3!

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