Unfair Review: Oblivion

While discussing Fallout 3 with the staff at my local EB games recently , one of them mentioned that I ought to try Oblivion. Same style, same developer, and he knew at least one customer who bought it and then disappeared for 15 months… time spent putting over 1000 hours into the game.

 Time investment like that is unheard of in offline games, and the most I’ve ever put into one – outside the context of some kind of multiplayer mode – is around 120 hours. I ended up walking out of the store with a used copy of Eternal Sonata, which eventually presented its own set of problems. The parade of games I’ve been playing in the recent release drought (Dead Space, H.A.W.X., and Eternal Sonata) have gone from good to pedestrian to occasionally infuriating. I needed a winner.

Dak doesn't deserve this crap.

 After a recent LAN destroyed Dakalos’ 360, he lent me his copy of Oblivion. He recognized that the game had its flaws, but had sold him enough to level his character to 20 without ever digging into the main quest.

 That sounded refreshingly like the experience I had playing Bethesda’s excellent Fallout 3. Surely I would be able to get over my nagging case of fantasy burnout if it meant more freeform roaming in an engaging game world.

 Dakalos is a good man. He played this game for quite a while. Metacritic compiled an almost impossibly high 94 for it – a higher rating than even my beloved Fallout 3. I lasted about two hours.

 Things started off with a bang; I read a lot of race descriptions, and scrolled through some very ugly character customization screens. I would harp on this, but both Fallout 3 and (to a lesser extent) Mass Effect suffered from the same problem. Not being well versed in the Elder Scrolls back-story, a lot of the fluff didn’t make any sense to me.

Probably not chosen for his looks.

Probably not chosen for his looks.

I then sat around in a prison for a bit. Soon afterwards, the king showed up and told me that I might just be the chosen one, and then abandoned me. I followed him because that was what I was supposed to do, and watched his bodyguards have all the fun beating off a horde of black-armored assassins. Too bad for the hitters, I thought, their fly gear will soon be mine! Then… Poof! Their heavy armor and battle swords magically disappeared the instant they died. I (the player “I”) became mildly displeased.

The game then separated me from the king and had me run in a huge circle, grinding some basic enemies until I met the king again. Picard then told me a bunch of shit I didn’t understand, which culminated in choosing the “sign” under which I was born. Each sign conferred different spell abilities or stat modifiers, but since the game hadn’t explained how any of this worked yet, I was shooting in the dark. I chose “warrior,” because I figured that would help me stab people with my rusty knife.

 The king was soon killed and, after grinding some more simple monsters, I was turned loose in Oblivion’s vaunted open province, Cyrodiil. The draw distance in this game was reputed to be excellent, but the opening area looked nice for two loads and then got very foggy. I walked along a 70 degree incline for a few minutes, occasionally killing giant crabs.

She looks nice, but she basically f*cking assr*ped me.

She looks nice, but she basically fucking assraped me.

My next encounter was a peasant tiger woman. She told me that things were bad since the emperor died. Being so well informed – the emperor had died only five minute before, at the bottom of a well – I assumed that she was some kind of spy and tried to kill her. She quickly proved me right by effortlessly murdering me with her fists.

 I reloaded and tried again. This time I escaped the peasant spy tiger lady and jaunted further along the slope until I was attacked by a pack of invisible dogs. I don’t think they had magic powers; they were just some glitchy, barking, invisible dogs who were slowly killing me in the fog, on an implausibly steep hill. My next move was to quit the game, put Fallout 3 back in and wonder how a Shishkebab build would treat me.

 So my unreasonable, ill-informed review of Oblivion is that it sucks. The story is incomprehensible fantasy gibberish and the graphics are lost in (what might be natural) fog (that probably would have cleared up). The gameplay was circular and repetitive. I hated it.

 I hated it enough, actually, to visit metacritic to find out which all-time classics were apparently worse than this piece of fluff, whose defining characteristics were incomprehensible dialog, stupid enemy leveling, and a tendency to put too many vowels in its place names.

 Here is a list of games that this massive shitpile is allegedly superior to:

  • Mercenaries (86)
  • Beyond Good & Evil (87)
  • Deus Ex (90)
  • Portal (90)
  • The Longest Journey (91)
  • Chrono Trigger (92)
  • Final Fantasy VI (92)

Moral: a lot of people really, really like fantasy games.

Moral number 2: do not to let Rusty review D&D games, he’s shit at it.

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Back for More: Sea-quels and Spin-Offs

Gamers can look forward to some pretty big-name sequels in the next 12 months or so.

First  up and expected out before the end of 2009 is a sequel to 2007’s Bioshock, a game which is always good for a lively debate at O514. Dakalos thinks its pretty great, I like it but acknowledge its weaknesses, and Rusty thought the plot twist was 100% pure bullshit. Nevertheless, we can all agree that the game had a lot of potential and we’ve been looking forward to seeing what 2K will bring out for the sequel.

Apparently, about ten years have passed since the first game, and recently some strange things have begun to happen. Players will return to Rapture, but will be playing a slightly different role than the last time. The game apparently assumes that you chose the somewhat satisfying “good” ending to Bioshock, as opposed to the entirely lame “evil” one.

While I’m anxious to get back into the water, I do hope that some changes have been made. The gameplay video suggests that combat is pretty much the same, but I do hope that there is now a reason to use plasmids. Beyond a couple of exceedingly simple environmental puzzles, the only other impetus to use your “powers” is the fact that they are kinda neat. In all cases, guns will get the job done just as well. Let’s also hope for fewer broken plasmids, and a final boss that isn’t boring as hell.

A game that has garnered our universal praise is Bethesda’s Fallout 3. Although the story did get pretty weak towards the end, the sheer amount of stuff to see and do in the Wasteland made up for any narrative shortcomings. Now comes word that Bethesda has essentially loaned the license to Obsidian Entertainment, makers of Neverwinter Nights 2 and the terminally flawed Knights of the Old Republic 2. What makes this interesting is that Obsidian is helmed by a number of people who were responsibe for Fallout and Fallout 2 back in the late 1990s.  Chris Avellone, Chris Jones and Feargus Urquhart were all members of the original Black Isle Studios team that first brought gamers to the Wasteland. It should be interesting to see what they do with the franchise in Fallout: New Vegas, scheduled for release in 2010.

Fallout 3: First Impressions

Fallout 3 is the story of you, from the very beginning to whatever end you choose for yourself. Bethesda’s latest game begins in the operating room where you are born. You make character decisions even as your father (voiced by Liam Neeson) welcomes you into the world. You’ll choose your gender and name and then you’ll have a chance to decide what you’ll look like as an adult, thanks to the handy-dandy Gene Projector. The face modeling and modification is comparable to what BioWare offered in Mass Effect, but the actual presentation is lacking. The image of your adult face is not particularly large or well-lit, which makes it difficult to see the changes you’re making. Also, different races are not particularly well done. Caucasians look fine, but Hispanics look like they’ve been rolling in the dirt and Asians appear jaundiced. I suspect that some fiddling with the actual skin tone sliders could correct this, but the initial impression is not good. The system is capable, but ME and the Saints Row games handled this aspect of character creation better.

With those decisions made, the game flashes forward a year for the first part of the tutorial. As a toddler (press A to babble) living in Vault 101, you’ll learn the basics of movement and object manipulation. You’ll also get to set your starting attributes, with a little help from a children’s book called “You’re S.P.E.C.I.A.L! which allows you to set your seven attributes: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. You have five points to allot, and each attribute starts at 5. You’re also free to reduce an attribute to add more points to your pool. If you intend to play a sneaky sniper, you can probably afford to drop your Strength and Endurance a bit to get extra points for Agility or Perception. 

Next we jump ahead 9 years. It’s your tenth birthday and it looks like Dad and your best friend have thrown you a party – hooray! In this part of the tutorial you receive your Pip Boy 3000 PDA, mess with inventory items, engage in some NPC interactions, and make a few decisions about the sort of person you want to be. Thanks to a surprise from Dad, you’ll even get a chance to try shooting and test out the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.). Best birthday ever?

Things then flash forward another six years. It’s time for you to take the Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test. The exam uses your responses to multiple choice questions to determine appropriate starting skills for you. Fortunately, there are no wrong answers. You will have a chance to alter your results if you wish. This part of the tutorial also involves some NPC interaction and possibly a bit of rough-housing.

Flash ahead once more to 3 years later. You’re awakened by your best friend who has some terrible news. Your father has left the Vault, and it looks like your time there is almost up as well. You set off after your father, escape Vault 101 and emerge into the Wasteland. Right before you leave, you’re given one last chance to make changes to your character – from gender to appearance to attributes and skills. After that, there’s no going back.

The Fallout series draws heavily from the 1950s Atomic Age optimism of a nuclear-powered future, though gone terribly awry by the time the events of the games take place; it’s The World of Tomorrow after the Bomb. The technology is retro-futuristic, with various Raygun Gothic machines such as laser weaponry and boxy Forbidden Planet-style robots. Computers use vacuum tubes instead of transistors, ruined buildings feature Art Deco designs, energy weapons resemble those used by Flash Gordon, and vehicles are ‘50s-styled.

Your first steps into the ruins of DC (or the Capital Wasteland, as it’s called in-game) are visually stunning. Sand and loose rock crunches underfoot as a dry wind whistles by. Approaching a lookout near the Vault exit, you can gaze at the desolation that stretches for miles in every direction. The husks of shattered highways and the skeletons of blasted buildings dot the landscape. The excellent draw distance conjures a kind of terrible beauty. From here, you can go anywhere you wish. Follow in your father’s footsteps, or forget all about him for a while. The Wasteland is yours to explore, and at no point will you hit an invisible wall or impassable barrier put in place simply to keep you from going to spots that are beyond your level. If you are somewhere you aren’t supposed to be yet, you’ll know – because the enemies you encounter will kick your ass. If you manage to escape, you’ll be wiser for the experience.  

The post-apocalypse is a rough place, and you will encounter creatures that mean you harm. Whether it’s aggressive Mole Rats, voracious feral Ghouls, disgusting Bloatflies, savage Raiders or something worse, the Wasteland is full of things that just want to kill you and take your stuff (or eat you. Or both). You’ll find it very difficult to find your Dad if your bones are bleaching in the sun, so you will eventually have to fight. You’re free to battle it out in first- or third-person view (I find that first-person works better; third-person feels be a bit clumsy for combat). It is important to remember that even though the view may be reminiscent of shooters like Halo or GTA IV, Fallout 3 is an RPG, which means that whether or not you hit usually has more to do with your in-game skills than your twitch reflexes. This means that you will miss even when you have an enemy perfectly lined up; sometimes the math just goes against you.  

You will often find it tough to handle more than one enemy at a time. At those moments, you’ll be grateful for V.A.T.S.: with a quick tap of the right bumper, the action freezes and the camera zooms in on the nearest foe. From here you can take all the time you need to select different body parts to shoot at (your percent chance to hit is displayed), queue up several attacks (the only limit is how many Action Points you have) and even set attacks on more than one enemy. When you’re happy with your choices, hit A and watch as the V.A.T.S. cinematic camera takes over and tries to make you look cool. This can be hit-and-miss: sometimes the camera chooses a lousy angle that makes it difficult to see what’s happening. Other times, it will perfectly track your rifle round as it slams into a Raider’s head and detonates his skull like a cantaloupe. The first time I used V.A.T.S. I got to watch my target’s head pop off like a clipped flower, tumble through the air and roll into a corner. While it’s possible that V.A.T.S. might get old at some point, I can’t really see that happening now.  

 

Also worthy of praise is the freedom to do almost anything you want in the Wasteland. While the game would not permit the murder my best friend (repeated blows with a baseball bat, followed up with several 10mm rounds to the head merely rendered her “unconscious”), I was impressed that when I killed a shopkeeper, I was able to loot the key to his storage locker and help myself to all the desirable items I could carry. While that may sound completely logical, the vast majority of RPGs don’t allow that kind of thing. Having carried out a particularly loathsome act on behalf of some sinister individuals, I decided (after receiving my reward, of course) that they were simply to evil to live and proceeded to wipe them out – all of them. Rather than break the game, I actually inadvertently completed a mission that I didn’t even know existed yet!

 

Inventory management is handled well – a relief after the disastrous “pile o’ stuff” system used in Mass Effect. Using your PipBoy, you can scroll through items divided into categories like Weapons, Apparel, Aid items, etc. My only complaint here would be that the “Aid” category can get pretty bloated with all the stimpaks, food, booze and drugs you pick up along the way. The same categories are used when trading and it’s a simple matter to cycle through a merchant’s various wares to get to the stuff you want. 

The inventory is also where you use the game’s Repair mechanic. Every weapon and piece of apparel (from bonnets and business suits to riot helmets and power armour) has a Condition meter. The better an item’s condition, the longer it can be used and the more effective it is – weapons do more damage and armour offers greater protection. As weapons are used or as your armour absorbs damage, the condition deteriorates. When an item’s condition bar runs out, it is broken and cannot be used until it’s been patched up. Making repairs requires items of a similar kind to salvage for parts, and the item used in this way is consumed. So if you have two 10mm pistols, you can use one to repair the other. You’ll be left with one pistol in better condition. Repairing is a good way to clear inventory space when you’re far from town; why carry 6 suits of beaten-up Raider armour when you can combine them into two or three suits in much better condition (and thus worth more money). Most players will be able to carry out at least rudimentary repairs, even if they don’t put any points into the Repair skill – there are items that offer bonuses to Repair, such as certain items of clothing or powerful drugs. It’s also possible to get your items repaired by merchants. Overall, I feel that the Repair mechanic works well.

Character interaction is also good. After Mass Effect and GTA IV, it’s weird to not hear your character’s lines being spoken, but everyone else in the Wasteland is fully voiced. Conversation options are varied and trees often have decent depth. As in ME, increasing certain skills can provide special dialogue options. You will frequently encounter Speech challenges; these are opportunities to get extra information or improved rewards from NPCs. If you succeed, the NPC cooperates. If you fail, the NPC refuses and you can’t try that challenge again. The game provides your percentage chance to succeed, so if you don’t like the odds, it’s often worth it to choose another dialogue option and come back later when your skills improve. You can also gain special dialogue options based on the level of certain skills, attributes or Perks. Dialogue options granted because of special circumstance are always clearly indicated and unlike Speech challenges cannot fail (using them may not have the result you expect, however!)

Side-quests are many and varied, and offer occasional surprises. The ones I’ve played so far have been fairly short, but there’s still hope for longer and more involved ones. Time will tell.

So far, Bethesda seems to have gotten the atmosphere right. The scorched, ruined landscape, the left-over 50’s chic, the people tenaciously holding on in the face of oblivion – it all feels just about right. The view may be different, but War Never Changes.

But everything is not well in the Wasteland. There are issues which, while not game breaking, do break the sense of immersion. Most egregious are the character models. While they are well rendered, the animations seem rough. Walking is fine, but when jogging it looks as though the player is skating or floating over the ground; it’s especially bad when going downhill. Jumping and strafing look weird. With all the time and effort put into the game, the lack of motion-capture is odd. As cool as it is, V.A.T.S. can only be used to make called shots with ranged weapons; if you’re carrying a melee weapon or using your bare hands, attacks are “full body” with the game deciding where you hit. This means that while you can whack a guy’s gun out of his hand or chop off his head, whether or not that actually happens is entirely up to chance. At least with ranged weapons you know that if your attack hits, it will affect the body part you chose. The AI is also uneven. When I went on the afore-mentioned rampage, the penthouse guard was blithely unaware that his employer was engaged in a desperate gun battle in the next room – despite the repeated, thunderous reports of my doomed victim’s sniper rifle. I stepped into the hallway expecting a fight and instead was able to calmly (and spectacularly) shoot the guard through the head while he sat in his chair, thinking about nothing. When I emerged from the elevator into the lobby ten floors below, however, all the guards there knew what I’d done and attacked me immediately.

There are still a great many questions that remain unanswered: will the main story prove to be any good? Will the ending be satisfying? Will there be long, cool side quests? When do I get power armour? That my Xbox 360 RROD’d out on me only days after I got the game is utterly galling; knowing that there’s still plenty to see and do in the Wasteland will make the wait for my repaired unit difficult. I guess that’s the best thing I can say about the game right now: that I can’t wait to play some more.

 

For another preview, check out the October 28th entry at Dubious Quality. The writer’s perspective is interesting and he also sums up quite nicely the appeal of the first game (for me, his comments apply to the second game, as well).

War Never Changes

Welcome to the Brotherhood of Steel

Bethesda’s Fallout 3 is coming! The long-anticipated third instalment (following Black Isle’s 1997 hit Fallout and 1998 sequel Fallout 2) in the venerable post-apocalyptic RPG is slated for release later this year. Thanks to the recently wrapped-up Electronic Entertainment Expo, there’s some new info out.

Let’s get caught up, shall we?

Here is the original teaser trailer from an E3 or two ago. Black Isle used a song called “Maybe” as the theme for the original Fallout, but wanted to use the song in this trailer, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” They were stymied by copyright issues, but Bethesday has secured the rights to the song for Fallout 3.

Here’s a new trailer from this year’s E3

And here is a short gameplay demo that shows off the game’s advanced targeting system and the Bloody Mess perk. Brutal!

Finally, click here for a much longer gameplay demo. Advance to about 9:30 for the begining of a very funny sequence.

F3 is also appearing on quite a few Best of E3 lists.

Meanwhile, Penny-Arcade is getting in on the action.

We’ll all have a chance to enter the Wasteland this Fall. Urge to kill [Super Mutants] rising!