Monday, February 2, 2009

The 9.0 Disappointment

Caution: minor spoilers throughout.

The Game Of The Year awards were divided between GTAIV and Fallout 3, though with all the bile surrounding Rockstar’s arthouse opus, it’s easy to say Fallout 3 was the critic’s favorite. It’s been described in superlative terms: Best RPG/overall game, best post-apocalyptic game, Bethesda’s best game, best game with a levitating dog that also materializes out of thin air and really creeps you out – you get the picture. Quibbles, including but not limited to multiple allegations of “Oblivion With Guns,” a perfunctory main quest, and a buffet of glitches didn’t stop America’s Favorite Post-Nuclear Simulator from getting nine-oh’s across the board.

I can’t decide whether or not I like Fallout 3, which is damning in itself. The reboot of one of gaming’s most hallowed franchises by one of the industry’s most talented studios should inspire nothing less than awe. Instead of having the air of a masterpiece, Fallout 3 feels like a rush job, uninspired and token.

Perhaps that’s a bit strong. When I waffle to the sunny side, I love Fallout 3. Even when I’m pissed at the game, I’m struck by the fidelity with which the post-nuclear DC-Metro area is rendered. The Capital Wasteland is expansive, varied, and bleakly beautiful – it alone is better than three-fourths of the games released in 2008. Mutant dogs, bears, and people roam the landscape. Raiders snipe at you from their shanties, and slaver gangs of super mutants shack up in abandoned churches, human captives in chains. Rubble-clogged downtown DC is crossable only via zombie-infested metro tunnels, and the surface is overrun with mutants engaged in constant warfare with the power-armored Brotherhood of Steel. Anyone who’s spent time in DC can testify to the unnerving realism – while recently in the Columbia Heights metro stop, I was overwhelmed by déjà vu for a place I’d only ever been on my TV. This, if nothing else, is a testament to a job well done.

Before I tear down Fallout 3’s main act, the side quests deserve praise. Notable detours include an interview with a vampire (who has a neat flaming sword), a slave camp bust-out, a Blade Runner-esque hunt for a rogue android, and a return to Vault 101. These mini-narratives paint the pain, struggle and barbarity of life in the Capital Wasteland. They contain the soul of Fallout’s Brave New World.

And yes, the V.A.T.S system is cool. Bethesda wisely recognized that they could make an okay shooter, at best; so they slowed it down, made it tactical, and made it good-looking. It’s immensely satisfying to see a .308 round cleave an opponent’s head in half.

The chief criticism of Fallout 3 is its ending – or rather, the fact that it ends. Oblivion let the player stick around after the main quest wrapped, and gamers understandably expected something similar from Fallout 3. Instead, beating the main quest rolled the credits and dumped you back to the menu. There are two ways to beat the game: one kills you, and one doesn’t. I would respect a decision to end the game with death, but if I chose the coward’s way, shouldn’t I expect to live out my shame in the wasteland? In a post-mortem interview, Lead Designer Emil Pagliarulo said it kept in spirit with the franchise:

“But with each of these, even if the player character doesn't die, the game ends. We'd discussed this, and were like, "You know what? Fallout and Fallout 2 ended. We should end our game, too." What we didn't realize is that, largely because of Oblivion, people really expected Fallout 3 not to end!”

Golly, Emil! People expect things to improve, options to expand!

Granted, Bethesda realized its mistake, and with the upcoming Broken Steel downloadable content, they give the player their game back. Players are pissed about having to pay for the privilege, and while I generally frown upon such bellyaching, I have to agree. If Bethesda made the decision to end their game deliberately, for reasons of narrative and story, I would gladly spend money on an epilogue/continuation. However, the main quest is so paltry, so tepid and underdeveloped and unbecoming of a vividly imagined universe, that I want Bethesda to give it to me for free. An apology would be nice, too – they let us, themselves, and the franchise down with such light fare.

Things start out promisingly – your father left Vault 101, and you strike out to find him. It smacks of the classics. You discover that dad (superbly, albeit briefly, voiced by Liam Neeson) is questing to purify the tidal basin via a huge-ass Brita installed in the Jefferson Memorial. Post-apocalyptic science fiction with a dash of environmentalist zeitgeist – great in concept, painfully disappointing in implementation. Beginning to end, the quest will take about five to six hours, which isn’t enough time to unpack the narrative with any attention to character, nuance or moral ambiguity. In a landscape replete with wrong right choices and right wrong choices, the main quest is painted in such broad black and white strokes as to appear comical. Seriously, what the hell are these do-gooders doing in the Wasteland? My character had a pocket full of severed fingers. He nuked Megaton, but he also wiped out a camp of slavers. He resisted pigeonholing in a way that James, my noble, boring father, did not.

Perhaps a more developed main quest would have teased some nuance out of the plot. For instance, dad and I would have had that sit-down about how I nuked Megaton. Overwhelmed by rage and disappointment, he could disown me. I could join up with the Enclave. I could destroy both father and Brotherhood of Steel, and bring the Wasteland under President Eden’s boot (so to speak). Or not! The choice would be nice. But instead of choice, Bethesda delivers a one-way ticket on good guy railroad, full of forgettable faces and forgettable choices. Not even a giant robot could make the endgame exciting. I felt cheated. I felt smarter than the game.

After completion – if that’s the word – Bethesda treats you to a plug-and-play slideshow with a voiceover. For me, it went like this: Rob left the vault to find his father (sepia-tone photo of vault opening). Rob succumbed to the temptations and evil of the wastelands (view of Megaton exploding from Tenpenny Tower; mugshots of leering Paradise Falls slavers). Rob sacrificed himself for the good of all, so we guess Rob is okay (photo of self walking with dear creepy Dogmeat). What the tacked-on ending forgot was that I killed Tenpenny and his lackey Burke, and I slaughtered the bastard slavers at Paradise Falls to the man. In a landscape rich with contradictions, Fallout 3 only saw good and bad. With all due respect to its heap of GOTY awards, I can’t forgive it for not being better.