December 2008 Archives

Left4Dead, Valve's latest release, came out a few weeks ago, and while it's been on my list of things to get, I wasn't ready to pick it up yet, mostly because I was still messing with Fallout 3.  However, the wonderful Deidei bought it for me off Steam a couple weeks ago for Christmas (thank you, Deidei!).  I didn't get it installed until last week, since I didn't have the hard drive space for it.  For the last few days I've been playing the hell out of it, and it is a heck of a lot of fun.

You've probably heard the basic premise of the game -- you are one of four survivors of the zombocalypse, and you need to fight through a series of levels in one of four scenarios, until finally you are rescued.  Opposing you is a horde of more mundane zombies, as well as special types -- the Boomer, which can cause you to be mobbed by the normal zombies, the Smoker, which can lasso you with a ludicrously long tongue and pull you away from your friends, the Hunter, which pounces on you and tries to claw your intestines out, the monstrously huge Tank, and the Witch, which is completely harmless, until you wake her.

The game is made intentionally to evoke the feeling of a classic zombie movie, ala Night of the Living Dead, albeit with the more currently in vogue 28 Days Later-esque "fast zombies" (which, as we all know from The Zombie Survival Guide, are a complete Hollywood fabrication).  They do this in a variety of ways -- each scenario's loading screen is a movie poster, listing the players "as" the character of the game (ie, "[RPGnet]BlackIsis as Zoey"), and during the game the characters exchange quips (like the one in the title of this article).

The best part, however, is how the game uses its mechanics, such as the "AI Director," which controls the zombies and the distribution of weapons, ammunition, and first aid items, as well as the various arenas that tend to host the main battles (especially in the showdowns right before your rescue) to force the players to work together cooperatively.  The special undead are geared towards this -- the Hunter and Smoker especially, which immobilize one of the group and require someone else to rescue them.  Unlike a lot of other FPSes, you're really forced to work together, or you won't succeed.  Unlike, say, Day of Defeat, or even Team Fortress 2, your team cannot succeed with just one or two really good people.

While the AI Director does make every play through somewhat different, it isn't completely unpredictable -- Tanks, especially, tend to show up in the same general places, and there's a few places in every scenario where obstacles are set up that force you to alert the thronging masses of zombified humanity.  While I am pretty happy with the experience so far, despite the fact that it tends to be fairly repetitive, it would be nice to see some new maps or a little more variation in the levels -- like Half-Life, there does tend to really only be one way to go through each level, so you'll get to know the maps pretty quickly.  I'm really getting a little tired of the No Mercy scenario, for instance, which seems to be the default map everyone plays online.

Speaking of the online play, the game seems pretty good about adding players into a game in the middle, and dealing with people who drop out.  This is extremely important in Left4Dead, where cooperation is key and being a man down can seriously screw over your team.  While the bots that take over if a player drops out or goes idle are not as good as a real player, they aren't too bad.  And when a character dies, they can rejoin the game within a short while (a couple minutes usually, not the 20 seconds of a TF2 game) by being rescued from a closet.

Versus mode I haven't played with as much; in this mode, two teams of up to four players switch off between being Survivors and Infected, and play through the stages of one of the scenarios, trying to do better at each one than the other team.  The Infected players spawn as one of the special undead (with the exception of the Witch), and can decide where they appear in the level, as long as it is out of sight of the Survivors.  They can also climb up a few things that the Survivors can't, like drainpipes and such, which gives them more avenues of attack.  Actually, as Infected, it felt very much like Natural Selection, the old Aliens-esque Half-Life mod (albeit with far fewer players).

The game does fall a little short in some areas; while gunning down heaps of undead has a certain appeal, the fact that you blaze through scores of zombies in some places (especially the final showdowns) feels a little...lacking, in a way, especially since a common tactic in those types of fights is to hole up in a closet with two people crouching in front, constantly doing melee attacks, while the people behind blaze away and keep the special undead away, which tends to feel considerably less epic than what Valve is probably aiming for.  I sort of wish the mechanics here worked a little differently, to encourage people not to hide in the tiniest space possible; part of the problem, I think, is that unlike the rest of the game, where you're trying to make progress forward, you're just holing up and waiting for ten or fifteen minutes.

The game is definitely a lot of fun; if Valve does as good a job as they've done with Team Fortress 2 lately of adding maps and new fiddly bits to the game, it can really rise to the level of a great game.  As it is, I don't know if I agree with people trumpeting it as Game of the Year; it has some tough competition, and I think it's a little too early to know if it has the legs to stay fun for the long haul.  However, I certainly recommend it, and I'm looking forward to playing it with people other than random strangers, since I know there's a couple other friends of mine who will be picking it up later.

Holy. Crap.

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Some people have way too much time on their hands.

The first time I went to GenCon, back in 2003, I went to a presentation by a game designer from Interplay who talked about how to break into the game design industry and what he did; during the question and answer period, he was bombarded by questions about Van Buren, the not-so-secret codename for Fallout 3 in development at the time.  He couldn't talk much about it (even though you could tell he sort of wanted to), but it was easy to see the enthusiasm in the room.

Not long after, Interplay abandoned development of Van Buren and sold the rights to Bethesda.  For a lot of people, including me, this was followed by a sense of dread; Bethesda's games, to that point, had a reputation for being very wide open, but pretty shallow in many parts.  Now they were taking over what was one of the most beloved franchises in computer RPGs, something with a reputation not only for having a huge world, but one with an incredible amount of depth.  Trying to fill the late, lamented Black Isle's shoes would have been a tough job for anyone, but Bethesda's games had been very different -- first-person instead of isometric, focused on world-building instead of depth of writing.

Still, as the years wore on, things began to leak out that gave me some hope -- the first panoramas of the crumbling Capitol Building and the aircraft carrier that is Rivet City, the first trailers, Prepare For The Future, and other bits that made me think "hey...these guys might just get it."  I allowed myself to be cautiously optimistic.  I wanted to see what they finally made.

The game came out shortly before I left for Iceland, and so I had to sit through my brother and friends talking about it on IRC while I was busy elsewhere.  Knowing that the game was sitting on my kitchen table did not help relieve the anticipation.  When I finally got home, I didn't waste any time installing the game and jumping into it.  And for the last two weeks, I have poured dozens of hours into the game.  In short, the game is nearly everything I had hoped it would be.  It is not perfect, and the ending falls incredibly flat, but up until that last minute or two, the game fires on all cylinders and it is just that good.  I'm going to take a look at the nonspoiler pros and cons here; I will put spoilers for the plotline behind the cut, so if you want to be surprised by some of the story's twists and turns, just read this front part.

What stands out as good?

  • Character creation.  Character creation is done in a way that is a bit like an evolved version of the questionaire you fill out in Jagged Alliance 2 -- in other words, it's integrated into the actual tutorial and gameplay.  You start out designing how you look, as a "DNA projection," and then move on through time to being an infant, where you pick your attributes, then you have your 10th birthday party where you get your Pip-Boy, then your 16th birthday, where you take a very JA2-like test to determine your tag skills.  During each of these stages, you also interact with the other inhabitants of Vault 101, and the way in which you do so can impact events much further into the game.  Then the game fast forwards to when you are 19, and the game really begins.  However, just before you leave the Vault, you have the option to go back and change everything but your appearance, just in case you changed your mind about something.  The game also autosaves at this point, so if you want to start over, you don't have to go through the entire character creation process (unless you want handle some of the stuff in Vault 101 differently).
  • The art direction.  Fallout 3 feels like a Fallout game.  The Capital Wasteland feels like a barren wasteland.  Yes, it's mostly brown and dirty colors, but that's how Fallout has been from the start.  Irradiated craters are scattered about the wastes, and crumbling buildings (including a battered Washington Monument) are everywhere, many with the retrofuturistic art deco style that is a hallmark of the Fallout franchise.  The ads you run into in the game, for everything from Nuka-Cola, to Vault-Tec, to Captain Cosmos serials, evoke that style perfectly as well.  And Washington DC locations, while they might not be placed quite right (the world is somewhat compressed), for the most part look like their real-life analogues, down to the ceiling tiles in the Metro stations.  It's not really a surprise, I suppose, when you remember that Bethesda is based, well, in Bethesda, so most of these locations aren't more than 20-30 miles away from their offices -- but it is still good to see.
  • The music and sound design.  The ambient music for the game is very similar to the music used in the earlier Fallout games (a bit less guitar than in Fallout 2, though), and the noises for the monsters and other inhabitants of the wastes are good as well (the ant noise is particularly memorable, for some reason), when you can hear them (a bit more on that later).  The in-game radio stations, including the two "big" stations, Enclave Radio and Galaxy News Radio, and the various other beacons and minor stations, are well-done and era-appropriate (GNR, for instance, includes a variety of 40s and 50s tunes, such as The Ink Spots).  The only complaint I can register about them is that they do get a bit repetitive after a while -- even the "news" that GNR talks about, which gives you feedback on how your reputation is going and plot hooks, repeats a bit much after you've been playing the game for hours and hours (but it hardly seems fair to criticize them for not providing dozens of hours of radio content).
  • World-building.  Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland feels like a living, breathing world.  It's not just the art and sound design, but the open form of the game world that makes this a strength.  In the previous Fallout games, the world was subdivided into zones; you traveled between them using a separate interface, and if you ran into something along the way, it was basically a random chance and spawned a special randomly-selected "zone" that was basically there for a one-time event (with a few exceptions, where the event would remain there in the game world).  In Fallout 3, the whole game world is continuous, so there's much less of a feeling that everything is on hold until you arrived there.  People come and go during the day and night, and you can watch them through their daily routine.  Trade caravans move between towns on routes that you can wait on and have them run into you (or follow, if you'd like).  People have their own (albeit short and generally shallow) conversations that you can overhear when you're near.  When you run across a super mutant fighting a radscorpion, it doesn't feel like a randomly generated encounter -- it feels like you happened to run into two independent entities that also chanced into each other.  There are tons of little scenes that tell a story, even though it's just a collection of objects.  A wrecked Nuka-Cola truck, overturned outside a town.  A long-abandoned relief camp outside a decrepit police station.  A bathtub with a skeleton and a toaster.  Each one tells you something about what once happened, even if there's no written record (and when you do find written records, it's often heartbreaking to read).  They all feel unique, for the most part -- it doesn't feel like someone said "okay, we have to put something here -- let's spin the wheel and throw down a random shack."  It's very well done, and gives you tons of stuff to explore that has absolutely nothing to do with the main storyline.
  • VATS.  When I found out Fallout 3 was going to be first-person, I was very apprehensive.  My previous foray into first-person RPGs (Deus Ex) succeeded in frustrating me immensely because it felt like the RPG skills element was making me much worse at the shooter elements than I was used to.  Fallout 3 strikes a much better balance; in non-VATS mode, I don't feel completely ineffective, and my FPS skills seem to translate fairly well, while in VATS mode, my characters skills are an advantage, rather than a detriment.  I never felt like I'd be better off not using VATS.  The things it lets you do -- snipe, destroy weapons, cripple limbs -- are very cool to watch yourself pull off (blowing the grenade up in someone's hand is especially fun).  It's a perfect way to integrate the original Fallout aimed shot system into shooter-style combat.
  • Set pieces.  There are a few action sequences (not cinematics) that I really liked.  I'll give more info in the spoiler section of the review, but there are two sequences (probably largely scripted, I'm sure) where you really feel like you're in an epic action movie.
  • Kitbashed items.  The weapons that you can build in the game, like the Rock-It Launcher and Railway Rifle, are pretty cool contraptions that are a lot of fun to make and use.  Assembling them out of the junk you find on the road seems very fitting for a post-apocalyptic game where people are just scraping by, and I hope that in the upcoming downloadable content they add more things you can build to the game.
Where does the game fall short?

  • Well, by far the most disappointing part is the ending -- even more than the ending of KotOR2, it feels like it was tacked on and railroady in the extreme.  It's only the last two minutes of the game at most, and the sequence up until that point is hilariously awesome -- but the end of the game makes it very hard to really feel happy with how things turned out.  You also don't get the ability, as in previous Fallout games, to keep playing and further explore the world, and the hallmark of the Fallout ending sequence, Ron Perlman's voiceovers telling you what happened in the various locales of the game, is only there in a vague and somewhat unsatisfying form.  However, the fact that there is downloadable content being released which apparently continues the story makes me wonder if that is going to be changed.  We'll see, I guess.  The ending also comes up very quickly; I finished the game without really realizing I was that close.  Vault 87 marks the beginning of the end, and you don't get much of a chance to deviate from the main plot after that point.
  • The game seems to need some work in balancing the pace of advancement.  The level cap is easily attainable well before getting close to the end, assuming you do even the smallest bit of exploring.  It seems like it would have been better to adjust this so that you don't hit the level cap unless you do more exploring; that would encourage people to have a look around the world a little more, instead of going headlong down the main quest and missing most of the rich world that they've developed, like some people seem to have done (and then complained about how short the game is).
  • If you're playing a good karma character, it's rather difficult to get a companion until quite late in the game.  There's one character you can get towards the middle (at a hefty price), but after that there's no way to get one until the last third of the game.  This is in contrast to evil characters, who can pick up an ally in the very first town you visit.  It'd be nice if there was a bit more parity -- after all, in the first two games it was fairly easy to pick up a friend early on, and it's very nice to have one watching your back, though at times they can run off to engage an enemy upstairs or somewhere "close" but not easily accessible.  This can result in them being trapped and killed while you hunt frantically for them.
  • I'm not sure I liked the escalation of equipment in the game.  In Fallout 1 and 2, you had to suffer with your 10mm pistol or a double-barrelled shotgun for a while in the game, and getting better armor took even longer.  In Fallout 3, I managed to get a hunting rifle or an assault rifle pretty early on, and didn't have to wait too long to upgrade to combat armor either (thanks to the mercenaries coming after me).  It almost seemed a bit too easy, and once you are running into super mutants you rarely have trouble keeping your weapons in good shape.  Ammunition can be tight -- assuming you don't do much exploring.  Once you find a couple bandit camps or hidden stashes, you won't have too much trouble finding ammo for small guns (assuming you have a couple different kinds on hand, just in case).  I would have liked to feel like I was in trouble a bit more, stuck with pistols and sawed-off shotguns instead of assault rifles and combat shotguns.
  • Some of the quests can get a little bugged if you do them out of sequence; for instance, early on you are told about Rivet City, which is in the downtown DC area.  However, if you go there before completing part of the main quest in the middle, you end up breaking one of the set-pieces, forcing you to fight a super-mutant horde all by yourself, among other things!  You can also pick up some quest items before actually getting said quest, and then get dialogue options to ask characters about the quest even before you know to ask them about it, which is a little weird.  These are a relatively minor issue, but can be annoying; my advice would be to not delve into downtown DC until the main quest actually sends you somewhere in there, since that is where most of the problematic quests come up.  There's plenty to explore outside the city anyway.  The worst part about this problem is that you can end up missing out on a ton of good content without even knowing!  I suspect for some people who've played the game and thought it was too short or unfulfilling, this may be their problem.
  • Some of the extra dialogue options you get from having high attributes or skills don't seem to make much sense, and while it's nice that you're rewarded for having a high Speech skill in many places, the fact that you can bypass entire parts of the game simply from making a Speech check or having certain perks is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, you can progress along the quest faster -- on the other hand, you're missing out on some pretty fun game content that way.  This could use a little work later -- Speech checks should give you an advantage, or a new way to finish the quest (a la the final showdown with The Master in Fallout 1), but I don't know how I feel about it basically cutting out an hour of the game.
  • Your situational awareness at times is not the best.  While your Perception stat determines how far away enemies (and locations) will pop up on your radar, if they aren't in front of you, you won't see them.  Some of creatures don't seem to make any noise until they are right on top of you (notably Yao-Guai, Giant Radscorpions, and Deathclaws, some of the most dangerous creatures in the game).  This means that you can be charged from behind and not know it until you're getting battered across the ground by giant paws.  At times, I ended up sneaking everywhere, because at least then you get a "[CAUTION]" or "[DANGER]" warning when someone is shooting or coming after you, even if you can't see them.  It'd be nice if you could hear the 700 pound mutant bear running through the grass behind you.  This is one of the reasons I liked having a companion, because Dogmeat will growl or your other friends will say they hear something when there's hostiles near, giving you a chance to look around.
There's some continuity issues with the rest of the Fallout series too, but I was so absorbed into the game I didn't really care that much.  It does, as someone on RPGnet pointed out, feel like the Great War was much less than 200 years ago; on the other hand, I liked Fallout's setting much more than Fallout 2's setting, largely because it was much more bleak -- for that reason, Fallout 3's tone sits right with me even if it might not be completely in line with what you might expect after 200 years.

For all its flaws, Fallout 3 is probably one of the best games I have played this year -- it is an impressive feat of world-building and its plot, while it may not be the best ever, is strong enough to carry the weight of the expectations that have been placed on this title.  You will feel like you have been dropped in a post-apocalyptic wasteland when you play and leave the real world behind -- it's one of those titles where you will look up at the clock and wonder where the time went.  And really, that is all you can ask for from a game like this.  Just do yourself a favor and don't rush through the main plot; take your time and explore, as the game is meant to be played; once you enter Vault 87, you sort of hit the point of no return -- so keep that in mind.

My spoiler-inclusive review of the plot is behind the cut, so if you want to know more about that, keep reading. 

Boston in Pictures

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So here's the second part of my trip from earlier this month, the week Marc and I spent in Boston.  There's probably not going to be as much text in this one, but there should be a fair number more pictures than the Iceland entry.  Unlike my trip to Reykjavik, this was really a tourist thing only; I've been to Boston before, but Marc hadn't, so we spent a lot of time seeing things in the city as opposed to me spending all my time in Iceland at the convention.

I'll start off with this view of the Boston skyline from one of the sightseeing ferries, to contrast with the Reykjavik skyline; everything else I'll stick behind the cut so I don't clutter the front page.

Boston Skyline from Ferry.jpg
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about other stuff I want to write about either.  Look for a Fallout 3 review later this week.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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