Review: Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol, the long-delayed espionage action-RPG from Obsidian Entertainment, has finally come out. The game drops you into the shoes of secret agent Michael Thorton, who has just joined a top secret and totally deniable branch of America’s intelligence network, codenamed Alpha Protocol. Tasked with tracking down terrorists who recently shot down an airliner with high-tech surface-to-air missiles, Mike stumbles into a massive and sinister conspiracy that threatens global security. Cut loose and declared a rogue agent, Mike must travel the world to expose the conspiracy, with only a small number of friends, associates and temporary allies to help him.

Originally slated for release in February 2009, AP was pushed back no less than four times before finally being released this month. So how does veteran RPG designer Chris Avellone’s latest effort stack up?

You’ll start by choosing a background for Mike: the Soldier, Operative and Specialist backgrounds provide basic starter builds, with some Advancement (read: skill) Points already invested (Soldiers will have lots of weapon skills, Operatives get stealth, etc). Alternately, Freelancer grants a bunch of AP to distribute as you see fit. Or you can choose to play as a green-ass Rookie with no skills improved. While this does make the early going a bit harder, it also provides some additional dialogue options, mostly in the game’s opening sections.

The skills list is long, but not overwhelmingly so like in Mass Effect 1. Also unlike ME, all skill trees are available regardless of what background you choose. This provides a lot of freedom for how you can build your character, which is nice. You’ll receive Advancement Points when you level up, which can then be invested in various skills to improve them (for example, investing in Pistols makes you a better shot). You’ll also unlock new active and passive skills that make your life easier and your enemies’ lives harder (or shorter). While generally neat, active abilities do sometimes feel poorly balanced (looking at you, Chain Shot).

Where Alpha Protocol really shines is story and character interaction. The plot holds together throughout and is a pretty compelling tale of unbridled greed, political cynicism and betrayal. Furthermore, the actual interactions with NPCs are very well handled and do a great job of drawing you into the story.

When speaking to people, there are three broad ‘stances’ that Mike can adopt, each based loosely on one of the three great “JBs” of spy stories: Suave (James Bond), Aggressive (Jack Bauer) and Professional (Jason Bourne). NPCs respond differently based on your stance: some appreciate a timely joke or respect a no-nonsense approach, while others expect Mike to act with professionalism and integrity. How you deal with people in conversation will increase or decrease your Reputation with them, and there are consequences – both story-related and mechanical – for both high and low Reputations.

Generally speaking, if you want people to like you, then you’ll be leaning on Professional quite a bit … but it bears repeating that having people hate you isn’t doing it wrong – just different. You’ll also have the opportunity to find, steal or buy information on the people you deal with, which allows you to fill out their ‘dossiers’. Uncovering certain information can grant special conversation options, providing an impetus to search high and low for valuable Intel.

This special dialogue option doesn't require extra research

As you advance through the game, you’ll unlock Perks, which are small bonuses conferred in recognition of your various in-game accomplishments and exploits. Perks are awarded for all sorts of things: sticking doggedly to one stance or mixing them up; killing/incapacitating/avoiding large numbers of enemies; making friends / enemies of numerous people; killing boss enemies or letting them live … the list goes on. The actual effect of your perks varies: some provide discounts on gear, give bonus damage or accuracy to your attacks, reduce the cooldowns on your abilities, or grant extra APs to spend on your skills. You’ll be assisted in your missions by a Handler, and having a strong positive or negative relationship with them will confer a Perk as well.

There’s an expansive shop system that allows you to acquire new weapons, gadgets, ammo types and upgrades, but how important that is will ultimately have a lot to do with your play style. If you opt to go loud in every encounter, you’ll want to invest in good guns and solid armour. If you prefer a more subtle approach (as I did), you’ll be able to get by with only minor upgrades to your gear. One thing I did like was the option to buy Intel for your various missions. Intel can provide you with detailed maps, or unlock extra loot that would otherwise be unavailable. As mentioned earlier, you can also buy Intel to help complete your dossiers.

The three mini-games (hacking, lock-picking and disabling electronic devices) are straightforward and pretty fun, though the cursor speed for the hacking game on consoles is absurdly slow. Also at higher difficulty levels and towards the endgame, the disabling starts to get almost unreasonably tough. Fortunately, dropping a few AP into the Sabotage skill will allow you to use EMP grenades to automatically disable any security you encounter.

Player health is handled with a combination of traditional hit points and the increasingly-popular regenerating health mechanic. Thorton (and bosses) has an Endurance bar, which acts as a kind of regenerating shield (you can increase your Endurance with Armour, Perks and Skills). Once your Endurance is exhausted, you’ll start taking damage to your hit points, which will be rapidly depleted by most attacks. Unlike Endurance, hit points can only be restored by using health items.

Sound design is pretty utilitarian, but the voice-acting does deserve special mention because it is really quite good. The writing is also solid, with some very good lines sprinkled throughout the game.

While these are all points in the game’s favour, Alpha Protocol stumbles in a few key areas. The action segments are underwhelming, with dull character models and reused environments. The shooting mechanics, being stat-based, can be a huge pain early on in the game, and a silly system for determining when you get a critical hit means that you can shoot a dude in the eye and he’ll keep on coming. Changing your current gadget or ability is also a hassle, requiring you to drop into a radial menu and pulling you out of the action. Melee combat is a one-button mash, made annoying by the fact that while enemies can block your attacks (taking far less damage), you cannot block theirs.

Hand-in-hand with clunky combat mechanics are clumsy animations: An enemy takes a knee, then slowly pivots as if on wheels until he’s facing the right way. Running enemies bob like chickens. Thorton’s crouch-walking animation is awful, reminiscent of Elmer Fudd tip-toeing up to Bugs Bunny’s rabbit hole.

The AI is also enormously uneven. Sometimes the enemy can see you in a doorway that’s behind them, or will suddenly spot you peeking out of a window from 100 yards away … and other times they’ll fail to notice when a friend standing four feet to their right gets chopped in the throat.

I don’t mind that additional enemies enter the area when an alarm is sounded, but I did resent those times when reinforcements were spawned 8 feet directly behind me. This happened in at least three different spots, and I was never particularly impressed.

The game makes kind of a big deal about stealth – your Handlers will often encourage you to avoid being seen or detected – but in practice true stealth is extremely difficult to achieve. Lighting plays no role whatsoever, only distance from hostiles. Enemies have fox-like hearing and will detect you through walls and closed doors if you walk or run even a few steps. Finally, due to the uneven AI, you can’t even count on using enemy facing to determine whether or not you’ll be detected.

There have also been some technical hiccups, such as an interaction hot spot that wouldn’t trigger, preventing me from advancing and forcing me to reload my save. One mission’s after-action report indicated that I had taken lives even though I had actually been quite careful to do the exact opposite, and the “killings” I committed even came up again in a later conversation. I can’t help but feel that if you’re going to make your game about empowering the player through choice that it’s important to make sure that those choices are properly recognized.

Alpha Protocol features a number of boss battles and while none were particularly difficult, they feel kind of silly in the context of an otherwise fairly realistic setting. Mostly though, they just aren’t very much fun to play, especially the ones that employ infinitely respawning adds to keep you busy/frustrated. There are also a couple of fights that are very difficult for certain character builds. It is worth noting, however, that there are at least a couple of boss battles that can be avoided by talking.

The game also exclusively employs an auto-save feature, which will typically fire after a conversation. The idea is to make your choices matter by preventing you from simlpy quick-loading and trying for an optimal result. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I do feel that it’s kind of childish. It also means that you’re stuck relying on the auto-save during missions, but fortunately they seem to be well-spaced so reloading after dying or screwing up doesn’t usually cost you too much time.

The game has received mixed reviews, which makes sense because it’s something of a mixed bag: there are some genuinely cool moments of role-playing, an impressive matrix of consequences for your actions and a solid story, but Alpha Protocol is marred by lackluster visuals, goofy animations, weak AI and clunky controls.

7 – 7.5/10

PROs:
+ Solid story, good writing and voice-acting.
+ Conversation system that goes beyond Good-Neutral-Evil
+ Feedback for player actions makes your choices feel relevant
+ Loads of Perks
+ Substantial replay value

CONs
– Poor visuals: clipping, screen tearing, texture pop
– Weak animations
– Uneven AI
– Controls are slow and clunky
– Many abilities have serious balance issues
– Dull boss battles
– Technical glitches
– Spawn politics are occasionally unmitigated bullshit

???
= Mike can turn invisible, detect people through walls and make six headshots in less than a second, but he can’t block a left hook.
= It took three missiles to knock out an AFV, but six to bring down a helicopter.

Splinter Cell: ConViction Review

We talked about Splinter Cell: ConViction – and the new direction Ubisoft Montreal was going with it – a few weeks ago. So how does the final product stack up?

ConViction drops you back into the shoes of Sam Fisher, America’s greatest covert operative. Three years ago, Sam left Third Echelon – the shadowy government agency he worked for – to find the people responsible for the death of his beloved daughter, Sarah. As ConViction progresses, Sam will meet friends and enemies old and new as his investigation leads him into the heart of a deadly conspiracy.

At least, that’s what you’re supposed to get out of it. In practice, the plot holds together for about half the game, after which it becomes increasingly convoluted before ending in a confrontation with a villain so two-dimensionally and irredeemably vile that the choice you’re ultimately given regarding their fate makes no sense in the context of the game you’ve just played.

ConViction features the most grizzled and vicious incarnation of Sam yet, a morally reprehensible vigilante who brutalizes and kills without mercy or hesitation. Unlike previous Splinter Cell games, it’s generally not possible to clear an entire mission (much less the whole game) without fighting, and every interaction you have with hostiles is utterly lethal. In some ways, this is good: the new CQC takedowns are visceral and fun to watch, and ConViction is more forgiving than previous SC games with regards to the ranges at which you can perform these moves. There’s also a good selection of upgradeable weapons, and being cleared to use them is nice. It’s clear that you’re up against some awful people, but I still would have liked the option to employ less-than-lethal force.

This is reflected in ConViction’s selection of gadgets –  ie, “explosives”. Non-lethal airfoil and shock rounds, sticky cameras that spray knock-out gas and light-disrupting OCP devices are gone, replaced with frag, flash and EMP grenades, remote detonation mines and explosive sticky cameras. Moving bodies is no longer possible, either.

While Splinter Cell purists might scoff at such changes, it’s not all bad. With the strong emphasis on action, Ubisoft had to implement a shooter-grade cover system, and the result is top-notch. Getting into and out of cover is smooth and intuitive, as is moving from cover to cover. The old light and sound meters have been dispensed with, replaced by a fade to black-and-white when you’re concealed in the shadows (The lack of a sound meter is a bit of pain, but the bottom line is that you shouldn’t run anywhere; skulking around like a hunchback is your best bet).

Perhaps the most talked-about new feature is Mark & Execute. At first glance, it seems like an “I Win” button: Mark enemies with the right bumper, then hit Y to Execute, instantly killing each Marked enemy with a headshot. In practice, the system is more complex: you can’t Execute targets that are out of range or LOS, the number of enemies you can Mark varies from weapon to weapon and – most importantly – you must perform a CQC takedown in order to unlock Execute. Having used it, you must perform another takedown before you can Execute again. There’s no stockpiling, either: if you perform 10 takedowns in a row, you’ll still only have one Execute available.

You can Mark enemies even if Execute isn’t currently available. Not only are Marks a useful tool for keeping track of patrolling enemies, but this also allows you to set up Total Bad-Ass Moments™. In one level, I happened upon a large room with four guards inside; a fifth guard was standing by the open door. Execute wasn’t available, but I had a plan: I quickly Marked the men inside the room, then snuck as close as possible to the door guard. When he glanced away, I charged from cover and took him as a human shield, unlocking Execute. Without missing a beat, I Executed the four guys I’d Marked earlier and finished by cracking my captive’s skull against the wall. End result: I eliminated five armed guards in about six seconds, without any of them getting a shot off or raising the alarm – rad!

As in other Splinter Cell games, Sam can interrogate certain people to get useful information. In ConViction, you maneuver Sam and his prisoner around a small area and Sam will abuse his captive depending on where you’re standing when you hit the Interrogate button – from simple groin kicks to more imaginative methods such as smashing heads through TV screens.

Level design is pretty good, but there are not many areas that feature more than one way in. Indeed, there are times when the “stealthy” route feels almost like a concession to the Splinter Cell name, something the designer included because Sam is supposed to climb in through the roof vents or whatever, right? Still, there are a few solid areas; the Washington Monument stands out as being particularly good, both design-wise and thematically. By contrast, the Parking Garage, with its old-school insta-fail system, rapidly wears out its welcome. Additionally, as the game progresses the level design suffers, with the climax devolving into a corridor shooter where stealth falls by the wayside.

The AI is passable, if given to fits of remarkably stupidity. Patrol routes are not always the same, which introduces some welcome variability. Once alerted to your presence, enemies will remain alert for quite some time. They also really like to talk.

The game communicates objective and background information by projecting it on nearby walls; it’s kind of like you’re seeing what Sam is thinking. The system is also used to identify important areas and objects, rather than having them flash or putting a big arrow over them. This does get taken too far in one scene, when a variety of emotions (“Mistrust”, “Hope”, “ANGER”) flash around the room, but otherwise it works pretty well.

Another plus is no loading: once you start playing, the only time you’ll see a loading screen is if you die or retry. Loading is hidden behind cutscenes, and you can cut most of those short.

There’s no save game option in ConViction, so you’re at the mercy of the developers as far as keeping your progress goes. Unfortunately, auto-saves are either in short supply, poorly placed, or both. Failure will sometimes force you to replay large chunks or sit through unskippable cutscenes, which is irritating.

You’ll finish the game in about eight hours, less if you’re not a scrub like me, more if you decide to replay certain areas over and over to get them “just right”. In terms of multiplayer, though the much-loved Spies vs Mercenaries adversarial mode is gone, ConViction does feature a short cooperative campaign as well as Deniable Ops, a challenge mode for one or two players that give the game extra legs. Weapon selection and upgrades carry over into the multiplayer mode, providing impetus to go through the single-player at least once.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is a fun game. Although I was frustrated in a few places, I was able to get through with a minimum of fuss, and I’ve greatly enjoyed what I’ve played of Deniable Ops so far; I’m looking forward to trying it with my wife or one of the O514 guys as a partner. Still, as much as I like the game, I feel that it’s Splinter Cell in name only. Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve come to associate SC with the ‘stealth’ half of ‘stealth-action’; ConViction is a pretty fundamental departure from its roots. Still, there’s a good game here – check it out and decide for yourself.

7.5/10

PROS
+ CQC Takedowns look good, feel great!
+ Mark & Execute is the shortest route between you and Feeling Awesome
+ Excellent cover system
+ Projected objectives/goals is a cool touch
+ No loading screens
+ New focus on action keeps everything (including Sam) moving quickly
+ Washington Monument level
+ Deniable Ops is lots of fun, even by yourself.

CONS
– Story kind of falls apart halfway through
– Auto-saves need to be more frequent and better placed
– AI is sometimes dumb as a bag of hammers
– Most “gadgets” are just grenade variants
– New focus on action might leave fans of previous SC games feeling left out
– End-game suffers from dull level design
– No Spies vs Mercs

???
– Sometimes you’ll Execute a guy through an obstruction

Mass Effect 2 Initial Impressions

Mass Effect Harder  

Mass Effect 2 is BioWare‘s hotly-anticipate sequel to 2007’s Mass Effect. The second part of a planned trilogy, Mass Effect 2 makes a number of improvements over its predecessor, and though a few design decisions add little to the experience, it’s an even better ride than the first game.   

Mass Effect 2 picks up almost immediately where Mass Effect ended: player-character Commander Shepard and his (or her) crew of soldiers, mercenaries, scientists and technicians are trying to find a way to prevent a race of ageless god-machines known as the Reapers from returning from Dark Space to devour all sentient life in the galaxy. After an intense and thrilling opening sequence (no spoilers), Shepard ends up on ice for a while, before finally returning two years later. Once back in action, Shepard must assemble a team of skilled and deadly specialists to unravel the mystery of the Collectors – an enigmatic, insectoid race who are kidnapping human colonists by the tens of thousands – and their connection to the Reapers.  

Just Like Old Times  

As part of a truly ongoing narrative, ME2 allows you to import your Mass Effect 1 character, from your appearance and combat class to the many choices and mission outcomes from the first game. The consequences and results of those choices will be revealed throughout ME2; you might bump into someone you saved … or you might hear a news report about a commemorative ceremony for those you didn’t. When you import a character, you also have the option of changing your appearance and class. There’s no good in-game reason for this (characters who know you from ME1 won’t be fooled by a new face), but that doesn’t matter; BioWare realized that players might want to tweak their characters’ appearance, or might want to play through the game with a specific set of decisions from the first game, but as a different class. The face generator is essentially unchanged from the first game, which means that any male Shepard you create will look like an ape compared to the game’s carefully rendered ‘default’ face, and all females will either have the same vaguely pleasing face, or be horrible mutants. The generator does include an alpha-numerical code that allows you to share your face with others or copy good ones.  

But what if you’re new to the Mass Effect universe? Rather than expect you to play through the first game, brand new characters in Mass Effect 2 simply have a series of “canon” choices assigned to them. By and large these seem to be the renegade choice from the first game, which may annoy some people who felt, for example, that the Galactic Council was worth saving. While it would have been nice to be able to go through a checklist of choices, deciding what your ‘new’ Shepard did or did not do in ME1, this would have been a wasted effort: asking someone who hasn’t played the first game whether they saved a character they’ve never heard of makes no sense.    

Shepard's back, baby.

Shepard's back, baby.

I Got (fewer) Mad Skills   

“Trim the fat” seems to have been the mantra of ME2’s design and development, and there are many places where the design has been streamlined. The gigantic and intimidating list of 10+ trainable skills from the first game has been drastically cut down to a leaner, meaner six.  While purists might decry these changes as offering less choice, the reality is that by eliminating many extraneous skills (like weapon and armour training), Mass Effect 2 allows the player to make more meaningful choices about how they build their characters and their squad.  

For example, in ME1 it was critical that you spend skill points on weapon training; if you did not, you would be utterly ineffective in a gunfight. There was no real choice about whether or not to improve your weapon skills. ME2 eliminates this entirely in two ways: first, ME2 uses tighter, more robust 3rd-person shooting mechanics that reward good reflexes and precision. Second, enhancing your weapons’ effectiveness is a matter of finding upgrades, not spending skill points. This allows you to focus on improving the special abilities and powers that make your character unique.   

Similarly, ME1’s electronics and decryption skills – needed to open locked containers or access protected computers – have also been dumped. Regardless of class, Shepard can bypass locks and hack computers; all you have to do is complete one of two quick and simple matching mini-games. These games are more fun than the brain-dead Simon Says system from ME1, while not being as obnoxiously time-consuming as the hacking game in Bioshock. With Shepard handling these tasks, there’s now more freedom when selecting your squadmates: you no longer have to worry about missing out because you didn’t bring a hacker/lockpicker.  

Reinventory-ing the Wheel  

The inventory and loot system have also seen a major overhaul. ME1 didn’t handle either particularly well; of the items you scavenged from the battlefield, 95+% were vendor trash, and even the very best weapon you could strip off a dead enemy paled in comparison to the gear available from shops. When you went to sell something, your items weren’t even organized by type; weapons, armour and mods were all mixed together, which made ditching some items but keeping others a pain.  

ME2 addresses these problems with an axe. The inventory has been done away with completely, and little is left of the loot system; you no longer collect dozens of worthless assault rifles or low-end mods. Instead, you will very occasionally happen across a weapon that is sufficiently remarkable that Shepard either immediately equips it, or scans it so that it can be researched later. Research unlocks upgrades (higher damage, larger clips, etc) that make your guns more effective and deadly.   

Also gone is the ability to swap out armour on the fly: you put your armour together at a special workstation on your ship, and that’s how you look when you’re groundside. As you buy new armour pieces (there are slots for helmet, chestpiece, shoulderpads, gauntlets and greaves), you can mix and match different parts to find the best intersection of performance and style. You can also alter the colour, pattern and texture of your armour to make it even more personal. As with weapons, research is available to unlock armour upgrades.  

Putting your armour together is quite a bit of fun, but the decision to put the armour workstation in your personal cabin is a poor one. If you want to alter your armour, you have to go through a loading screen to get to your cabin, make the changes, then go through another loading screen to return to the bridge. Meanwhile, the ship’s armoury is on the same deck as the bridge – if armour could be modified from there, a couple of loading screens could be avoided.   

Mechs: the other random bad guy

Mechs: the other random bad guy

Lock and Load(ing Screens)  

Speaking of which, the much-maligned elevators of Mass Effect 1 are gone, replaced with more honest loading screens. The screens do a good job of communicating the scope of the locations you’re in; seeing the massive hologram of your ship, with the tiny elevator moving within, is an effective indicator of size. The downside is that the banter between your squadmates which would sometimes fire while riding the elevators is also gone, replaced with more situational chatter as you wander around. Additionally, the load times can be a bit long (60 seconds or more).  

Sixteen Tons (of Iridium)  

Finding rare minerals was part of a go-nowhere sidequest in ME1, but BioWare seems to be in love with the idea, because the concept is back. This time however, gathering resources is tied into the research system, which consumes resources instead of money. Prospecting involves scanning an orbited planet to tease out mineral deposits before extracting them with probes. Though scanning a planet is a slow and tedious process (even when your scanner has been upgraded), and despite being able to carry only a small number of probes at a time, there is something relaxing about the exercise, and getting a massive spike on the scanner never gets old.  

Places to Go, People to Meet  

Visually, Mass Effect 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor. Lighting and textures are much better this time around, and the jarring texture pop-in that plagued ME1 is all but gone. Character animations are sometimes choppy or stuttered, but in general are quite good.  

Where ME2 shines is in the locations you visit and the characters you meet there. While some areas feel small (most notably the Citadel), others feature soaring vistas that really drive home the vastness of the game world. Moreover, each area is packed with personality. The quest hubs are particulalrly good, and there are thousands of lines of background dialogue to listen to and enjoy – some of the advertisements on the Citadel are a riot. The writing and voice acting is solid all-around, and even very minor characters are compellingly acted.  

ME2 keeps things moving by throwing un-skippable story missions at you every once in a while. Not only do these missions advance the story, but they help maintain a sense of urgency and purpose.  

Thane (L) and Grunt (R) are on the job.

Mass Effect 1 was a fairly standard sci-fi story, but what set it apart was the depth of the recruitable characters and your interactions with them. Mass Effect 2 continues this tradition with a large cast that features some of the most interesting characters I’ve yet encountered in a game. From the fast-talking Mordin to the secretive Miranda, your squadmates run the gamut from philosophical to psychotic. The ‘story worlds’ of ME1 have been replaced by recruitment missions for most of the NPCs, which tend to be shorter, more focused quests that can be hammered out in an hour or so, leaving plenty of time for sidequests and other recruitments. Eventually, each crew member will come to you with a personal problem and a plea for help. You can elect to ignore them, but completing these missions will solidify their trust and faith in you and improve your odds of surviving the game’s final suicide mission – and unlock a powerful bonus ability for them and for you.  

Love is in the Air  

BioWare has long been a proponent of allowing players to develop romantic relationships with certain NPCs, and Mass Effect 2 is no different. Not only are you likely to encounter your romantic interest (if any) from the first game, but there are now several new romanceable characters for male and female Shepards. Developing these relationships is always up to the player, so if you’d rather not mix business and pleasure, you can elect to keep things professional.    

Will you woo the genetically-enhanced Miranda ... or the sociopathic Jack?

To Boldly Go  

The uncharted worlds from Mass Effect 1 are also back, albeit in a more refined form. In the first game, every system in the galaxy had a planet you could land on and explore by clumsily driving around in the haggardly-implemented Mako APC. Nestled amidst the not-quite impassable mountains would be a mission area, featuring one of three interior environments, where you’d kill bad guys until a text box told you that you’d won.  

In Mass Effect 2, these outings (now called “N7 Missions”) are fewer and further between, but each has been crafted to have a unique story. There are no recycled enviroments here: each N7 mission is different, and some don’t even involve any fighting; in one mission, a lone Shepard must negotiate a simple environment puzzle to retrieve the data core of a crashed freighter that is balanced treacherously on a cliff. Others missions have you working to put an end to the nefarious activities of unscrupulous mercenaries, or stealing caches of illegal goods. The Mako is gone, replaced with an armoured shuttled that drops you at your objective. BioWare plans to release a new driveable vehicle called the Hammerhead as DLC, but there’s no word on a release date yet.  

Bottom Line  

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I’m over 21 hours in, and Mass Effect 2 has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. It’s not perfect, though: I had a bug that completely killed all sound (had to restart the game to fix it). I also encountered an NPC from Mass Effect 1 who said I took a particular course of action when I know for a fact that I did the opposite. There have been issues with the camera clipping into people’s heads during cutscenes, of animations not playing properly, or of characters floating in mid-air. I’ve also been unable to complete a couple of sidequests because required NPCs did appear. Finally, certain sections of the game will just keep throwing enemies at you until you advance. This isn’t the norm, but that just makes the times it does happen more irritating.   

While these issues are annoying, they don’t ruin the experience. Mass Effect 2 is a deeply entertaining game that offers loads of replay value in a slick package. You owe it to yourself to give this game a go.  

PROS:  

+ Excellent writing and voice acting.  

+ Environments and character models improved vs ME1 – no texture pop!  

+ Background dialogue injects additional charm and humour.  

+ Combat is visceral and powers are satisfying to use.  

+ Large cast of interesting characters.  

+ Lots of sidequests.  

+ Recruitment and loyalty missions are varied and fun.  

+ New mini-games are way better than Simon Says.  

+ Streamlined inventory and loot means less time messing with gear and more time being a hero.  

+ Ability to personalize armour is super cool.  

+ Scanning for resources is strangely addictive.  

+ Strong launch-day DLC offers hope for more of the same going forward.  

+ Spam in your personal inbox.  

+ Fish tank.  

+ Space hamster!  

CONS:  

– Occasional bugs affecting everything from character animations to sound.  

– Some “big choices” from ME1 end up being largely irrelevant.  

– Scanning for resources is boring.  

– Limited number of probes is annoying.  

– Refueling is just an inconvenient cash-sink.  

– Some areas feel really small.  

– Loading times are a bit long. Try not to die!  

– Infinitely respawning enemies are irritating in other games, and they’re irritating here.  

– Shepard still feels compelled to help random people with their stupid problems.  

– DLC armour comes in one-piece sets that can’t be mixed and matched. You can’t take the helmets off, either.  

? Character saturation – is the cast too big?  

 

Late to the Party: Borderlands Review

Released on October 20, Borderlands is Gearbox Software‘s post-apocalyptic, wild-west shoot’n’loot FPSRPG. That’s quite a lot to say – but there’s a lot to like about this game.
 
The game is set in an unspecified future on the distant planet Pandora. Huge numbers of colonists were drawn to the planet by the promise of vast mineral wealth … but Pandora turned out to be largely barren. Those who could leave did so, abandoning everyone else to fend for themselves. Some years have passed, and now the rapidly decaying human society is faced with a new problem: Pandora’s long slow orbit around its sun has brought winter to an end, and the hostile (and hungry) indigenous lifeforms are emerging from hibernation. In the midst of all this, people are still drawn to the planet by legends and rumours of a vault somewhere on the planet that contains a vast cache of powerful alien technology. Anyone who could find and access the vault would be wealthy and powerful beyond the dreams of mortals. 

Borderlands borrows heavily in theme from Mad Max and the Fallout games, but differs in tone: where the Wasteland and its inhabitants are deadly serious, Borderlands is wacky and over-the-top. You’ll save dancing robots from shrieking cannibal midgets, melt people’s faces off with electrically-charged shotgun shells or make a guy’s torso explode like a blood sausage with your fists – and all this in a bright and colourful cel-shaded visual style against a backdrop of more traditionally-rendered backgrounds.  

So how does it play? Very well indeed. Borderlands manages to tap into the best aspects of both the FPS and RPG genres to combine the excitement of rapid-fire death and destruction with the powerful, twin allures of levelling and loot.  

The FPS controls are tight and responsive, though the alternate control schemes are not very good; I for one would have liked to swap the buttons for crouching and melee attacking. Weapons perform very differently from type to type, and enemies are kind-of clever, often seeking cover and being perfectly happy to stay back and let you come to them. They don’t really work together very much, though.  

While Borderlands borrows from Mad Max and Fallout for theme, it’s straight up channelling the ghost of Diablo II for design. Looting, levelling and improving via upgradable skills is alive and well on Pandora. Loot-wise, Gearbox President & CEO Randy Pitchford says it best: 

[…][W]e ask questions like, ‘what’s your favourite shotgun? What should our shotgun be?’ and the programmers and designers will debate this. And we were thinking if we care about choice, why can’t we have all the shotguns? 

In order to make this happen, the game procedurally generates weapons and other loot by combining bits from a vast library of parts and accessories for a half-dozen different weapon types, from revolvers to rocket launchers. But the variance isn’t just aesthetic; weapons vary wildly in power, accuracy, rate of fire and magazine size, and there is a dizzying number of additional modifiers that can apply. As if all that wasn’t enough, some weapons are ‘elemental’, inflicting additional damage over time. At last count, the system had generated more than 17.5 million different guns, so there is literally no telling what you might find. Watching a weapons crate slowly pop open is always exciting! 

The levelling system owes a clear debt to Diablo II and World of Warcraft‘s Talent Trees. Each of the four character classes – Hunter, Soldier, Siren and Berserker – has access to a unique Action Skill and three distinct skill trees that enable the character to specialize in certain approaches to combat. For example, Brick’s Action Skill is Berserk; when activated, Brick puts his guns away and flies into a blood-fuelled rage that gives him increased movement speed, health regeneration and damage resistance. Brick’s three talent trees are Brawler (which makes his Berserker rage even more deadly and effective), Tank (which focuses on making Brick fantastically survivable) and Blaster (which focuses on Brick doing damage with guns, especially explosives). Players are free to dabble in more than one skill tree, but the greatest payoff seems to come from committing to a single path over many levels. Action Skills are unlocked at level 5, and players receive a single skill point at each level thereafter. Building a character is a lot of fun and it’s really satisfying to see and feel the differences your skill points make as you progress. 

L to R: Roland, Lilith, Mordecai and Brick

Borderlands uses a combination of NPC quest-givers and local bounty boards to keep players busy, and to dole out experience points, new gear and money. No chances are taken with quest-types, and everything you do will fall under the category of killing someone or something, finding/collecting something, or fetching something and bringing it to someone. It would be easy to crticize Borderlands for a lack of variety here … except that this is the case for pretty much every RPG ever. On the other hand, the flavour of the different quests can be quite different, which keeps things fresh and interesting. Quests do seem to be given almost entirely via text bboxes, which is a shame because it deprives NPCs of an opportunity to develop any character. To be fair, one gets the feeling that NPC interaction was not a major priority for Gearbox when they were putting Borderlands together. Still, when you consider how much personality Saint’s Row 2 managed to inject into a game where essentially every mission is “go kill some people”, Borderlands’ quest-giving mannequins come across as being inadequate.  

Vehicles also have a role to play in Borderlands, though not an especially large one. They are handy for quickly traversing the game world and for running over troublesome enemies. Unfortunately, vehicular combat appears to be limited to simply mashing the rocket launcher button until the other guy blows up and taking on more than one enemy vehicle in single-player can get frustrating.

By far one of the biggest factors in your enjoyment of Borderlands is whether or not you have any company. The game is quite enjoyable as a single-player experience, but it’s in playing cooperatively with other people that the game really shines. Network play allows up to four people to work together, and there are no class limits. If you want to play an all-Soldier group, go right ahead. Xbox 360/PS3 owners can also run two-player coop via split-screen (if you have an HD TV, try changing your aspect ratio from 16:9 to 4:3; that should allow you to split the screen horizontally instead of vertically). The game scales to the number of players, increasing how many enemies you face, and how tough they are. As one of the loading screens explains: More players = tougher enemies. Tougher enemies = better loot!  

I think that one of the reasons that Borderlands works so well is that Gearbox opted to layer the RPG elements on top of the FPS, rather than the other way around. Consider Fallout 3: although it had a strong shooting aspect, it was layered on top of the classic RPG elements like dialogue trees and lengthy bits of story. Borderlands’ plot is paper-thin – and it knows that. But in the end, it’s not so much about the story as it is about the experience. Gearbox have taken the view that getting into deep into elements like NPC interaction and dialogue trees would ultimately create a barrier between their players and what the game is good at. By focusing on the action and applying a tasty RPG icing, Gearbox have created something pretty different.  

For accesibility, presentation, performance and fun, Borderlands is an 8.5-9/10.  Thanks to Rusty for lending it to me for a few days! 

 Bonus: Claptrap channels Christian Bale in a couple of videos!

  

Dragon Age: Origins: Initial Impressions (colon)

Dragon Age
BioWare’s latest RPG, Dragon Age: Origins has hit store shelves, and your tireless gamer pal Tanith secured a Day 1 copy so he could provide his initial impressions of the Xbox 360 version of the game. After 12+ hours of gameplay, here’s what he thinks:

Story: The game sticks pretty closely to well-established RPG tropes. There are three playable races in DA: Humans, Elves and Dwarves. Humans fill their familiar niche as a numerous and adaptable people who are the dominant race in the world. The mighty Elven kingdoms are long-lost, and those that remain either scrape out a living in ghettos among humans or survive as elusive nomads in the wilds. The dwarves are an endangered species, bled white by centuries of unending conflict against monsters beneath the surface and reduced to a single remaining city.

Early in the game the player is recruited into the Grey Wardens, an ancient order of warriors sworn to defend the world from the threat of the Darkspawn – savage mutants who are occassionally united by a powerful Archdemon and boil up from their subterranean lairs to invade the surface in what is known as a Blight. The player must rally disparate factions to counter the latest Darkspawn invasion before all is lost. In this, the game follows the now-familiar BioWare RPG structure: after an initial warm-up period, Something Important happens and the player must subsequently travel to several locations in order to prepare themselves for the Final Confrontation. As in earlier titles, the order in which you tackle story quests is up to you.

He isn't messing around

Duncan is Leader of the Grey Wardens

BioWare aren’t taking many chances with their plot, but the story itself is told well enough to keep the player engaged. Part of this stems from the tremendous depth that exists in the world – entire histories and mythologies have been developed to breathe life into the world of Thedas. The game also draws you in through your chosen Origin story. There are six different Origins, though by the time you’ve selected your race and class you’ll only have one or two choices; regardless of race, Mages must play the Mage Origin, for example. An Origin story is a prologue that lasts just long enough to situate you in the world, establish initial contact with the Grey Wardens, and give you the motivation to move on. The Origins are generally well put-together (some are better than others) and to their credit not every Origin is equal in terms of what it teaches you about the world: the Human Noble Origin provides lots of information about your family and the politics of Ferelden, for example, while the Mage Origin goes into detail about the relationship of magic-users with the rest of the world. By contrast, the City Elf Origin highlights the challenges that elves face as second-class citizens in human society.

Naturally, the Origins also act as a tutorial, introducing basic gameplay elements such as combat and NPC interaction. We’re a far cry from Trask Ulgo, though – your immersion into the world is quite smooth, and your Origin doesn’t end when the prologue is over; the things you see and do during your first hours will continue to come up throughout the game, mostly in conversation with NPCs, party members and otherwise.

Gameplay: Character creation is handled very similarly to Mass Effect, and the facial construction system is nearly identical. Fortunately, the presets are much better in Dragon Age, and provide a stronger starting point for modification; this is especially true of the male faces (which were pretty bad in ME).

There are three classes in Dragon Age: Mage, Warrior and Rogue. While this may sound limited, it is important to note that within each class are 5 or more Talent trees that enable you to customize your character. For example, within the Warrior class there are Talent trees for fighting with a sword and shield, fighting with a two-handed weapon,  two-weapon fighting, and archery – not to mention a Tree of general Warrior talents. It’s probably best to focus on a couple of Talent lines rather than spread yourself thin, but the depth means that two players who make the same race/class selection could nonetheless create very different characters. New Talent points are awarded every level. As you progress through the game, it is also possible to unlock two specializations within your class which grant additional powers. There are four specializations available to each class, including Berserker and Champion for Warriors, Spirit Healer and Shapeshifter for Mages or Bard and Assassin for Rogues.

In addition to Talents, there are also a series of Skills that can be developed over the course of play. Broadly speaking, Talents impact a character’s performace in combat, while Skills often have uses outside of combat. Any character can train up any Skill, but caution must be exercised: Skill points are awarded only once every three levels (or every other level for Rogues), so it’s important to determine roles for each member of your party and to ensure a complimentary composition. There are a number of Skills, including Herbalism (for brewing potions), Coercion (which unlocks new conversation options) and Combat Training (which allows the character to use higher quality weapons and armour).

There’s an abundance of side-quests to keep you occupied if you decide to take a break from the main sotry (or to level up if you’re finding a particular section too challenging). While they are largely of the “Kill X rats” variety, there are some exceptions that keep things interesting.

One thing that you won’t find is any kind of alignment or morality meter. There’s no Light Side/Dark Side or Renegade/Paragon dynamic in Dragon Age. You simply make decisions and deal with the consequences. Your companions have their own alignments and will let you know if they approve of your actions or not (it’s possible to infuriate a follower to the point that they abandon or even attack you), but otherwise there’s no system in place to tell you when you do the “right” or “wrong” thing. Frankly, it’s a refreshing change.

Controls: You’ll control the action from an over-the-shoulder perspective that will be familiar to veterans of BioWare’s other console games like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect or Jade Empire. The player leads a party of up to four characters against all manner of foes in mostly-real-time combat. As in KotOR, the player is free to switch between party members on the fly, and issue specific orders to each. Managing your characters’ large repertoire of spells and special combat moves is handled through a radial menu similar to Mass Effect, as well as six quick-use commands mapped to the X, Y and B buttons. Holding the right trigger brings up a second list of quick-buttons, for a total of six hot buttons for each character. This is quite clever, but as the game progresses, players may find that this simply isn’t enough to manage the many abilities and spells they have, and have to spend more time with the radial menu, which is called up by pulling and holding the left trigger, pausing the game. Unfortunately, the radial menu has a couple of layers that can be a pain to negotiate, and it is only possible to give one order to a given party member at a time; once you’ve issued your command, the game automatically unpauses. Thus, issuing orders to several party members requires a tedious process of pausing, issuing an order, unpausing, switching characters, pausing again, issuing an order, unpausing, and so on. Mass Effect‘s ability to issue commands to the whole squad from the radial is keenly missed, as is KotOR’s ability to queue up several actions per character.

This could potentially be a deal breaker, if not for the Tactics system. Similar to the Gambits in Final Fantasy 12, the Tactics system is a series of If/Then conditionals that you can set up for each character to help govern their behaviour in combat. While the system looks complicated at first glance, it is actually quite intuitive and very flexible. Initially you can only set up one or two Tactics per character, but you can open up additional Tactic ‘slots’ as you level up. Using Tactics, it’s possible to develop fairly complex strategies that mitigate the need to micromanage your party. For example, it’s possible to tell your Healer to heal your Warrior if his health falls below 75%, and to heal anyone who is below 50% health. Your Rogue can be told to attack anyone who threatens the Healer; otherwise, he attacks whichever enemy has the fewest hit points. Your War Hound can be given standing orders to charge any ranged attackers, and to use its Growl ability against any Elite foes. Your Mage can be ordered to save powerful area of effect spells until a certain number of enemies are clustered together, and to heal himself with the most powerful potion if his health drops below 25%. The depth of the Tactics system is impressive, having presets for almost any eventuality. Tactics do not automate combat, however – the character you are controlling always ignores its preset Tactics and does only what you command.

Combat: Paced similarly to Mass Effect, combat is fast and furious, and you’ll frequently face large numbers of enemies. Initial battles are quite easy, and you’ll likely win simply by letting your party auto-attack their way to victory. Use these early battles to get the hang of your abilities, however, because the difficulty ramps up fairly quickly and careless or brash play can be brutally punished. While it’s nice to be challenged, the occassional spikes in difficulty can make for confusing or frustrating battles. Fortunately, the difficulty can be adjusted on-the-fly, so if a battle is giving you fits it’s a simple matter to drop the game down a notch or two so you can get through. There are no difficulty-related Achievements, so those of you who live to hear that little “bloop!” can rest easy. You also don’t need to obsess about keeping your avatar alive: characters are KO’d when their health is depleted, but as long as at least one member of your party survives a battle, the others will get back up, and health recovers quickly outside of combat. Beware however that characters who recover from a KO suffer injuries, which impose a variety of penalties. Injuries stack, and imprudent play can soon lead to you reaching the boss of an area with your party reduced to a battered band of ragged adventurers coughing blood and nursing open wounds, cracked skulls and broken bones. You’ll want to keep a steady supply of Injury Kits handy to treat these afflictions before they get out of control. 

Seriously, they'll fuck you up

Ogres can mess you up.

Graphics: Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t look terrible by any means, but there are definately better-looking games on the Xbox 360. Some of the textures are flat, apparently compressed in order to improve performance. There has also been some minor slow-down during cutscenes, which clears up after a few seconds. Everything else has been quite smooth. Load times are a bit long, but the loading screen displays information on your current quest or on various abilities and game mechanics, so the wait isn’t that bad (apparently, installing the game to your Xbox HDD significantly reduces load times). Weapon and armor models are nice – I’m a big fan of the look of the heavy and massive(!) armour sets, and having weapons that actually look different is a nice change after Fallout 3 and (especially) Mass Effect. There’s not a Borderlands-level of variety, but the slection of kit is good. Combat animations are also solid: spells provide dazzling particle effects, special abilities look cool when you execute them and combatants get splattered with gore. Killing certain important foes will even give you a special “killing blow” animation. In conversation, the character models are comparable to Mass Effect, and there’s none of the irritating texture “pop” that plagued ME on the 360. Conversations are preceeded by a couple of seconds pause as they load, however – installing the game to your HDD apparently eliminates this. Animations in conversation are also on-par with Mass Effect – which is to say that they can look a bit stiff, but facial animation remains a strong point; the characters in Dragon Age have expressive faces, unlike the dead-eyed inhabitants of the Wasteland. One slightly silly thing is that people stay splattered with blood for a while, which means that you can enter into a casual conversation still covered in the gore of your freshly-slain foes. Doesn’t anyone have a hanky? Also, any combat results in a literal blood bath … even if you’re just smacking rats in the pantry.

"You've got something on your face..."

This kind of thing happens all the time

Sound: Sound design is very good. The music is great and ambient effects are classy; the quiet echo of voices in a church, or the layered, out-of-synch whispers and growls when a demon speaks. Spells sizzle and weapons clash in a satisfying fashion. Voice acting is excellent. KotOR and Mass Effect spoiled us, and BioWare has wisely continued to invest in top-notch voice talent. Returning to classic RPG roots, the main character does not speak, but everyone else has been very good so far. The trope of almost everyone speaking with a British accent is present as well, though not as bad as in other examples of the fantasy genre: humans from the kingdom of Ferelden speak in the Queen’s English, but humans from other lands have French or Spanish accents. Elves do not seem to have accents, and the dwarves appear to have been spared the usual Scottish / Ale / Axes treatment.

GUI: Dragon Age: Origins is an RPG in the spirit of BioWare’s hugely popular and successful Baldur’s Gate series, which means that there’s alot to do and keep track of. A game as robust as this can be very hard to manage on a console, but the GUI designers at BioWare (with the help of Edge of Reality) have done as good job of bringing it all together as could be expected. There are a few areas where having a keyboard and mouse would be vastly better, but overall the controls are solid. Menus are negotiated by using the triggers, the bumpers and the control sticks. Generally speaking, the triggers cycle through menu headers (Map, Inventory, Quest Log, etc…), the bumpers switch between characters, and the control stick manipulates items on a given screen (equipping or using items, for example). The menus are quite deep, but sometimes feel a bit unwieldy. The Quest Log is divided into collapsible sections based on where you found a quest, which keeps things neat … but the actual log entries do not always provide adequate guidance. There is a “Set as current quest” function, but it does not appear to actually do anything. The Codex is similarly organized, with new entries highlighted for your convenience. A nice touch is that not all Codex entries are static. For example, when you first meet a party member, their Codex entry might simply say, “Alistair is a Grey Warden who once trained to be a Templar.” As you speak to Alistair and learn more about him, his Codex entry expands to cover more of his background. Sadly, the Codex is not narrated, and reading entries on an SDTV is a real pain – play in HD if you can!

On the main screen, information is presented with fair efficiency and clearity: The character portraits with current health and stamina/mana are displayed in the upper left. The mini-map is in its familiar place in the upper right, and in the lower right is a display showing your hot button layout. Under that are the health and mana bars of the character you are currently controlling. This puts a good deal of information at your disposal, without cluttering the middle of the screen where the action’s at.

Summary: Dragon Age: Origins on the Xbox 360 is not without problems: so-so graphics, unwieldy menus, uneven difficulty, combat that is sometimes clunky, and somewhat predictable plot progression are all factors that cannot be ignored. However, the abundance of side-quests, the richness of the game world, the excellent writing and voice acting, solid design of the main story arc and the moments when everything just clicks all manage to overcome the game’s shortcomings and provide a compelling experience that I’ve been hard-pressed to put down. If things keep up at this pace, I can definately seem myself playing through the game a second time. I’ll reserve final judgement until I finish the game, but at this point I give it a solid 8/10.

Resident Evil 5 – First Impressions

 The Resident Evil series – specifically RE4 – has been the cause of some divisiveness here at OBJ514. On the one had you have Dakalos slagging the aforementioned actioner’s loopy controls, on the other Iron Weasel’s carefully considered approval, and on the third my own obsessive “has memorized the location of every item” 100+ hour obsession.

 Opinion is likely to be similarly split on the recently released Resident Evil 5, reviewed here in it’s Xbox 360 incarnation. After a three hours of gameplay the title seems destined to appeal immensely to those who loved RE4, and completely fail to convert those who didn’t.

 Controls are of the “stop-and-pop” variety, complete with the familiar RE inability to shoot on the move. This creates a fair bit of tension as the player takes a stance, police officer-style, and tries to shoot down waves of incoming enemies, occasionally frantically switching positions to avoid one of the games numerous monsters. A notable change is the total absence of a sub-screen; inventory management, healing and weapon switching must all be handled in real time. Players of RE4 likely remember switching to the subscreen as a respite from the unyielding horror of the Ganados, with the result that many of us who loved the game became totally obsessive about inventory layout. So far this change is working well – time will tell whether I get so stressed out that I want the subscreen back, or find the highly simplified 9-box, “cardinal points linked to D-pad” system limiting. Another notable control change is the ability to strafe in a limited fashion while your avatar is walking – it’s now a little easier to peek around corners!

 

The first two pythons you meet in Africa

The first two pythons you meet in Africa

Speaking of Avatars, RE5 continues the tradition of shifting point of view from game to game. Gone is the agile and likeable Leon S. Kennedy, replaced with a gruff and massively bulked up Chris Redfield; one of the stars (pun intended) of RE, RE2, Code Veronica and The Umbrella Chronicles. You play as Redfield’s utterly massive biceps, aiming to protect the fictional African country of Kijuju from a bio-terror outbreak eerily similar to the Las Plagas infection that occurred in RE4. Along for the ride is Chris’ new partner and local guide Sheva Alomar, who either trails along with the player as a computer controlled teammate, or serves as Player 2’s avatar in co-op mode.

 The inclusion of a partner has been a mixed bag for me so far – Sheva is pretty competent, but occasionally gets herself killed in agonizingly stupid ways, ending the game for both of us. I imagine things will improve enormously when another human plays her (LAN, Live or split-screen!), though I’m not sure how tense things will remain with a second shooter to help with the infected. Given that I basically played my first 20 hours of RE4 cooperatively (with a few friends in a dark antipodean basement) however, I’m hoping that the terror will multiply as the opportunities for co-op danger are exploited. I’ve already run into one boss whose death would have been far easier to precipitate with another human to help me incinerate him!

 It’s hard to judge a game after playing just a few-

 No. Actually it isn’t. RE5 is probably going to be a lot of fun. Whether I get as much time out of it as I did RE4 remains to be seen, but this sequel has all the makings of a great time. The visuals are stunning, the cut-scenes are intense, and the atmosphere a familiar but refreshing update of RE4. Now… who wants to try some co-op?

 

 

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).