Merry Merry Merry

Turkey? Mashed potatoes? Stuffing? Corn on the cob? Tea? Pumpkin pie? 6.75 liters of listerine, two packs of floss, and a cute orange tee shirt with a green broccoli on it? Giving the kitties some Christmas treats (Iams wet food) and having one of them offer up a treat (vomit) in return? Yeah, it’s been a fun day. Time to close it out with some Fallout 3 and then some cuddlin’ in bed for a movie. Hope everyone out there is having a good time. 🙂

Update #1: More than anything, the dashboard for my web site informs me that people are coming to look for reviews about the season three finale of Dexter. But no one comments on my review. 🙁 Feel free to comment. 🙂

Update #2: My site’s stats also tell me that people are coming to search for information about “low action points Fallout 3”. Here’s the deal. Combat, in most games, goes in phases. Especially when we’re talking gun fights. You fire, they fire. When you fire, they sit back. When they fire, you sit back. While you’re sitting back, preferably behind cover, feel free to re-load your gun and let your action points build up. If you’re caught out in the middle of an area and you’re out of action points, I tend to whip out a melee weapon and spam the right-trigger button to get some hits in. When you’re not in V.A.T.S. mode, your action points regenerate – even if you’re fighting away. And I go for the melee weapon because it’s tough to aim with a gun using the 360 controller in real time. Especially when bullets are at a premium.

Update #2.5: I haven’t found an everyday (light) weapon better than the Chinese assault rifle. If you repair it to full, it does something like 51 damage. And 5.56mm bullets are somewhat common – so you can always keep it well-stocked. For armor, I’ve been using the armor you get from Reilly’s Rangers.

Update #3: My site also tells me that I’m getting some Ghostland Observatory fans. Whee! I love Ghostland! Welcome. 🙂

Update #4: And, finally, my site tells me that people are looking for info about GTA IV and the Y-Axis. I got nothing for you. I complained about the “camera while driving” issue in my review of the game. I wish it worked more like Vice City and San Andreas. Then again, I wish the physics worked more like those games as well. :\ There’ve been a lot of times I’ve picked up those games just to play around for a few hours – after I’d already beat them. GTA IV? Nope. Not so much. Kind of hard to believe all the “perfect” review scores it received. Good? Yes. Top-three game of the year? Maybe. Perfect? Not even close.

Update #5: Hope everyone is finding what they’re looking for. If you need something, let me know. 🙂

Fallout 3: Now in AbsentcolorTM!

(today’s post: 311 words)

I’m about twenty hours into Fallout 3. I’m loving it. The game is fun and addictive. I like it so much that I’ve been focusing on side quests to drag out the game as much as possible. That said… would it have killed Bethesda to include some color in the game? I’m not talking about the writing or setting per se, I’m talking about actual color. You know – red, yellow, green, etc.? (Maybe it would kill Bethesda. They did the same thing to Morrowind and even Oblivion a bit. Shivering Isle was a lot better, though – so I had hope for the future.) If this post was read by one hundred Fallout fans, I’m sure eighty-five or ninety of those hundred, at least, would now call me queer and then inform me, as if I wasn’t already aware, that Fallout is “post-apocalyptic, dark, and gritty. It’s a mature-gamer’s wasteland, and not some lame Super Mario game.” To cut off that likely response, I’m going to share a few stolen pictures from a couple different websites (it’s OK; they probably stole them, too).

These are shots of real-life abandoned locations and they have an eerie, creepy feel to them – the same feeling you want from a post-apocalyptic Fallout 3. I love the shot of the bumper cars! They could have used that for the game as is. Same for the shot with the car. And give the guy in the mask some muscles, a gun, and a little armor – and you’ve got the perfect raider. Even better, all these shots have color. Imagine! Now I’ll compare the above shots to Fallout’s bleakness – which comes into play as soon as you get the box.

Need more evidence? Here’s a post that shows how close the game comes to matching reality. And while I’d agree it really does – it’s still obvious one thing is missing: color.

Gaming Immersion

(today’s post: 777 words – Jackpot!)

Playing Fallout 3 tonight, I was sent on an exploration mission from Megaton to investigate Minetown. My mission was to reach a playground at the heart of town and then return. I was warned about rumors of ghosts.

I spotted the playground and, as I approached it, heard some gunfire. I scanned the horizon and didn’t see anything, but I did heard a few more shots. It wasn’t until I arrived at the playground that I saw an old man up in a run-down tower. My mission completed, I decided to “get off the lawn” of the crazy sniper.

It doesn’t sound like much but little moments like these suck me into a game. They make me think the world is alive.

Some old man is camped out in this mine-ridden ghost town. He lives there. He’s not a mission. He’s not some major facet of the game. There was no cutscene to highlight his presence and there was no character to drop 200 lines of backstory on me. He was crazy, hidden away, and, as a result, the locals thought the area was haunted. My mission crossed too close to his camp, and he shooed me away. It made me feel, for a moment, that the world did not revolve around me – an enjoyable rarity in role-playing games.

This moment of pure-yet-subtle immersion, almost accidental but designed in a way to ensure it will likely happen, which I’ve read is common in Fallout 3 (and a significant improvement that differentiates it from the Oblivion comparisons), got me thinking about similar experiences in some past favorite titles.

In Faery Tale Adventure, I wandered into a dungeon to explore. I got lost. Days passed by and my character was exhausted and running out of food. Things were bleak. I spotted a room with a door. I walked in and closed it behind me, then passed out on the floor. What timing, I thought, though I assumed my character would be killed – as was likely to happen when sleeping in dungeons. Fortunately, a few hours later, I woke up, managed to find the exit, and made it back to town and safety. Sure, maybe it was random luck that no monsters killed me in my sleep – and not that I closed the door and hid. But moments like these create immersion. The world comes alive.

Ultima 5 came with a physical journal excerpt. The journal discussed the series of events that led to the game’s start: adventurers went on a quest to save the world and failed. It seemed like flavor to get you into the game; now it was your job to succeed where they did not. But when you reached the area where they had quested in the journal, the area descriptions took on new meaning. More, little details had been left behind that mirrored the journal – the burnt-out remains of a camp fire, a dagger that had been knocked out of someone’s hand before running, etc. If only more role-playing games would do such things.

But the Ultima universe often felt fully realized. If you watched people long enough, you noticed a real world going on around you. They woke up, traveled to shops, took lunch breaks, and sometimes had covert meetings once a month in the middle of the woods, meetings that gave you clues about new possibilities.

We talked a lot about this level of immersion at BioWare and wanting to tap into it but I don’t think, as a company, we understood it. To be fair, a large part of that is that it conflicts with the BioWare philosophies; that is, we can’t make a shop unavailable to the player because the owner is at home in bed. Instead, the owner is always behind the counter, always has plenty of money and new equipment, and is always waiting for his lone customer – you. But I think if you design your game to complement it, it can really work.

Of course, there is one other point.

Unfortunately, although developers who make these efforts, like Bethesda and the aformentioned Origin, need to be commended for their creations, they don’t always realize that this is step one. The more life-like you make a world, the more the gamer wants to poke-and-pry to see how it responds. When the world doesn’t respond at all, the illusion, no matter how powerful, is broken.

Any thoughts from the gamers out there? Tell me about moments where you achieved immersion, or your thoughts on making games like these, or if you think a company out there will make a game (or has already) that has full-on “choice & consequence” mixed with “sandbox”-style gaming.

This Is Not a Post

I do one post per day. I am not breaking that routine. This is not a post. 🙂 Today’s post is the epic write-up of my first impressions on Fallout 3. What you are reading now is nothing but two comments.

  1. I probably get somewhere around 10-30 hits in a day (mostly from me, I’d guess). Thanks to some epic comments (mostly thanks to Candice, Tsul, myself, and a few different anonymous posters from Edmonton), I’d guess, my December 8th stats show 184 views. Wow!
  2. Click here if you don’t get the significance of the following screenshot I took from Fallout 3. Click the pic to get to the full-sized version (via my photo album) if you want to see the text more clearly. Hm! (for the record, I voted “definitely”)

Fallout 3: First Impressions

(today’s post: 1,416 words)

Fallout 3 arrived in my hands today and I spent a few hours with it.

The short version? It’s a lot like Oblivion, which is a good thing since I spent about 110 or 120 hours playing it and the expansion. Combat is similar. Exploration is similar. Graphics and animations are similar. Questing is similar. There’s a more polished story path, but you can also wander off in random directions to take on more generic content. One difference between the two games is that dialogue and characters are better; people are more unique and memorable, and you have a few more choices and more interactive conversations.

But generally speaking, my first impression is that I’m playing a slightly improved Oblivion with a new story and new areas to explore. And I’m very happy with that.

OK. You’re done. Really. But if you want the (really) long (stream-of-consciousness) version, and don’t mind spoilers, feel free to read on:

  • I was expecting it, but I really appreciate that I can sync my Xbox Live account with the new Windows Live account. I love Live achievements and I’m glad I don’t have to miss out on them by playing the Windows version of a game.
  • I was recently reminded that in role-playing games, kids never have a mother and a father. True to form, in Fallout 3 your mother dies giving birth and you’re raised by your father – who disappears just as the game starts.
  • I liked the tutorial. Too many games either don’t do them at all or have some immersion-killing sequence where people are telling you to “press X to activate the +1 bonus on your utility device.” Fallout lets you play from childhood and the instructions make sense within the story, “Crawl over to Daddy” or “Try on your pip-boy” (kind of like a mini personal computer – used to manage all sorts of things) and the like.
  • Maybe this is unfair because Bethesda has never been about “choice and consequence” in games, but tutorials can be great stages for setting up relationships and story. Fallout 3 rushed their tutorial and didn’t provide much opportunity for role-playing. It’s as if they see it only as a vehicle to instruct the player and want to get the player through it as quickly as possible.
  • On the other, other hand, I like that you create your character by playing through the tutorial. I didn’t realize that my answer to such classroom questions as what I would do if, thanks to radiation exposure, a third arm grew out of my stomach would actually impact the type of character I made. Fun!
  • I had a bit of trouble getting used to the controller layout, but that’s typical of many games. I also had a bit of trouble figuring out how to do basic things, like putting away my gun, before realizing there is a controller map in the settings menu.
  • Like the Elder Scrolls series, the player is inundated with items. Walk into a kitchen and you’re likely to find a coffee maker, silverware, cups, and so on. You get used checking the weight vs. value ratio and ignoring the cheap, heavy garbage. Fallout 3 is no different. Unfortunately, there’s a third factor I missed in the ratio; I made it to Megaton before I realized that all those “caps” (money) and “bobby pins” (lock picks) I passed along the way would have been very helpful. Oops!
  • Occasionally, I tuned the game to “high” or “ultra high” at 800×600 to get a sense of the graphics, but generally I set everything to “medium” so that I could play at 1680×1050 resolution with a smooth frame rate (I’m getting around 40-60 per second) on my nVidia 7800 GT. The game is very pretty at low settings, just like Oblivion. But it’s not at all colorful.

And now we move into the discussion of combat.

  • Combat was a bit frustrating at first but I’m getting the hang of it. The frustration came from playing with the 360 controller and using the V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) system, instead of “WASD” 1st-person style.
  • AP (Action Points), which come into effect only when using V.A.T.S., was the primary problem. When a guy is running at me and smacking me with a club, it’s hard to get why I can’t fight back. “Low AP” makes sense but this guy has been beating on me for three seconds since I last did anything. Do I sit here and take it? Run in circles? Will moving take away AP? I eventually realized that shooting slower was the best solution, but that, yes, you can move and recover AP.
  • Also, V.A.T.S. is a little clunky. You press the right-shoulder. The game pauses and the camera zooms in on your opponent. There’s another pause as the opponent is scanned, and then you’re presented with “chance to hit” percentages. Aim at the head, for example, and you have a 67% to hit. The torso, on the other hand, is 83% likely. So you pick your part and then accept. A short cinematic is played of you attacking, the opponent attacking, and the damage results. Then the game zooms back out. Whew.
  • Since a combat can last more than five rounds, you have to repeat this process that many times – which really drags out those “epic” battles with cockroaches. : On the other hand, I hit a giant ant a dozen times without using V.A.T.S. and barely damaged it so I feel compelled to use V.A.T.S. until my character improves.
  • Damage is grossly out of proportion with the visual effects. I shoot at someone’s head point blank and get a critical hit. Blood is everywhere. I’m told that the guy’s head is out of commission. But he’s still attacking me and it’s another 4 or 5 shots before he’s dead. Meh. One of the mods I used in Oblivion let me do massive damage if I successfully sneak attacked someone. In other words, one shot to the head and that guy was dead; I can’t wait until mods like that are up for Fallout 3.
  • Speaking of blood everywhere, if you hit a guy in the head and that’s the shot that kills him, he’s decapitated. Every time. Ants? Same thing. This is how Fable 2 works but that game is more fantasy and less realism than Fallout 3 so it really stands out as odd behavior.

My favorite aspects of Oblivion were the story and exploration; that’s why I favored quick, lethal combat. Without that in Fallout 3, I’m reminded just how combat-heavy the game is.

After escaping from the Vault I was positively overwhelmed by the immersive excitement of exploring a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC. This game really sets the mood. I found a school and ventured in, feeling on edge. A woman inside spotted me and I ran back. Exciting! But then I was forced into a fire fight with her. And then another with another guy. And another. And another. And then some dogs. And then some ants. And then some more guys. It feels off. It takes away from the mood, the exploration and story. I went out of my way in the tutorial to avoid killing people. I didn’t want to be a serial killer. But a few hours into the game I’m already jaded about killing people.

But right after this, moving back along the main story path and getting away from the random time-waster “dungeons” I have another cool moment.

On my way to Megaton I spotted a mole creature. It charged at me and I pulled out my gun as a blast streaked past me (from behind) and nailed the beast. Dead. I spun around and saw three guys decked out in heavy armor. Now that the mole thing was dead they were ignoring me so I figured they were some kind of police force helping out.

I ran over to check them out just as they started firing on some scary-looking thing around a bend. One of the guys was killed but the other two put it down. That moment pulled me right back into the game.

Shortly after, I ran inside Megaton – the first town you’re supposed to visit while looking for your dad. What an impressive layout! I love how you walk up little catwalks that lead to rooftops which lead to more catwalks. It feels so organic. And, again, made me want to explore everything and keep playing – which I did, eventually bumping into a ghoul, a prostitute, and a guy in a suit. Interesting characters each.