Archive for November, 2010


Radioactive Falling Out

Fallout 3 is and was one of my favorite games to come out in the past few years. Taking the open-world sandbox formula of the popular Elder Scrolls series and adapting it to fit an interesting and vibrant universe, Fallout 3 managed to streamline the somewhat clunky gameplay of the Elder Scrolls games and create a flawed, but deeply engrossing and highly addictive First Person Role Playing Game. So, when they announced a sequel, New Vegas, I was understandably pumped. Ready to start another 100+ hour epic journey, I shelled out full price and got my copy. How’s it hold up?

It doesn’t.

In a post-apocalyptic future, pink-eye becomes a serious problem.

In a post-apocalyptic future, pink-eye becomes a serious problem.

New Vegas was brought to us not by the Fallout 3/Elder Scrolls developers, Bethesda, but rather by Obsidian Entertainment, a company made up of numerous employees from Black Isle Studios, the company that made the first two Fallout games. Exciting news for many, especially since a lot of old-school Fallout fans called foul over numerous formula changes in Fallout 3. The game shows its history–the writing and world-building is top-notch, with varied locations, factions and characters to interact with, all of whom just “fit” the Fallout world, bringing it to life easily. The writing and plot is superior to Fallout 3 in every way. With more missions and a more complicated dialogue system and storyline, New Vegas should have been the game Fallout 3 was trying to be. Key word being should of.

Right off the bat I was immediately not blown away when, after making my character and stepping into the sun for the first time, the game chugged and whirred ominously before blinding me with a burst of sunlight and slowly revealing a desolate desert town. Entering a building, I was not impressed by the large quantities of items, set pieces, character models and props that had been taken wholesale from Fallout 3. Indeed, of the many many locations in this game, maybe a handful of them are actually “new” locations, in the sense that they don’t reuse templates from the previous game. The sense of familiarity pervaded every inch of the game.

New Vegas is quite clearly an expansion pack. Yes, it is a BIG expansion pack (easily on par with FO3 in terms of size) but it is still an expansion pack. Not only did it reuse 90% of the original game’s locations and models, it also brought over all of the original games bugs and glitches–and then proceeded to make its own.

This game is buggy as hell. One of the bigger complaints about FO3 was that it glitched out a lot–and it did–but these glitches very rarely made it difficult to progress or complete the game, and with only a few exceptions the quests and missions played out as they were scripted with no problems. Exploration was not hindered by jaggy environments that grasped your character like a hungry octopus and refused to let go, the game froze infrequently and never twice in the same place, and indeed all of the bugs were at least isolated to locations that you never really HAD to go to. It worked–it functioned.

New Vegas does not function. The frame rate chugs like a spastic child shaking a soda can, exploding into a frothy mess at the slightest push. Where it does not freeze, it chugs. Enemies constantly get caught on the environment, A.I. bugs out, NPCs randomly attack you, and on top of all that, there’s a very distinct “unfinished” feeling to most of the game. Many quests, upon completion, simply END, with almost no visible change in NPC dialogue or behavior. Indeed, had I not known that the game had the series’ trademark “epilogue” structure to its ending, I would feel even more cheated of impact and worth than I did in FO3, which at the very least had characters thank or curse me for my actions towards them.

 

Retirement didn't treat Godzilla kindly.

Every aspect of this game seemed to have a %5o chance of failing, and the fun I had exploring the environment and interacting with characters was curtailed by this ominous dread of something going wrong and forcing me to restart. It gets especially bad towards the end, where it seemed the game just gave up completely, constantly dropping random encounters on my head, freezing when I attempted to fast travel, having characters glitch and bug out, and sending any companions I’d managed to recruit running headlong into the nearest landmine to end their tenure in my employ prematurely.

I made the mistake of playing on Hardcore mode, believing myself to be sufficiently “hardcore”. I like the concept of Hardcore mode a lot–it is, essentially, a packaged version of a mod released for the PC version of FO3 that gave your character hunger, sleep and dehydration meters that had to be regulated by eating food, drinking water, and sleeping. It also makes it a lot harder to heal yourself, as beds no longer magically restore your limbs and health, meaning you’d have to trek to a doctor’s office or carry a lot of stimpacks to keep yourself healthy. Additionally, at least in New Vegas, the enemies hit a lot harder, ammo has weight (which limits how much you can carry) and stat growth is greatly limited. In short, New Vegas is far and above more challenging than FO3, which would be great were it not for the constant glitching that I described above. Instead of making exploration a worthy challenge, the game simply became unbearably frustrating, with even basic encounters managing to tear me apart in new and interesting ways.

In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed New Vegas far more if I hadn’t chosen Hardcore mode, and that depresses me to no end. Hardcore mode should have been an amazing, in-depth simulation of the harshness of Wasteland life, but “life” in this wasteland is a 2-D facade. The characters start to lose their depth and vibrancy when they continue to putter about, spouting the same few phrases and enduring no change or impact. The shallowness of FO3’s world remains here stronger than ever, exacerbated by the endless strings of glitches and bugs and made frustrating by the ludicrously strong enemies and the more limited means of stat growth and character development.

 

The guy is you, and Hardcore mode is the hammer about to crush your skull.

There is a patch that’s going to be released that is said to fix a lot of the glitches, but fuck that. I buy a game–a CONSOLE game no less–and I expect it to at least function when I put it in. The truth of the matter is, New Vegas is a 60-dollar expansion pack. It’s a very well-written, more detailed one, and that’s what makes it all the worse, because the potential for an amazing game is there. It just falls apart on the coding level. If you have Fallout 3, just replay it, maybe get the generally excellent DLC for it. If you haven’t, go buy the Game of the Year edition, which has all 5 prepackaged.  It has its flaws, but at least it is playable. That’s more than I can say for New Vegas, and trust me, I really wish that wasn’t the case.

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Ef Pee Ess

Let’s talk about the humble First Person Shooter genre. Boy, there’s an enduring game genre. Ever since Wolfenstein 3-D first handed us a pixellated pistol and had us kill Nazis for fun and profit, gamers have time and time again gotten behind the barrel of their favorite rifle to make a nameless bad guy a little holier than thou.

I like FPSes. There’s a simplicity to them–point, shoot, dodge–that makes just about any given FPS easy to pick up and play, and the fun is right there in the title–shooter. Who doesn’t like shooting things? And what about the novel concept of the first person at all? Beyond the world of literature, the first person perspective has been ignored by most entertainment mediums, for a variety of reasons–in movies, it makes you dizzy, it’s hard to film. In comics you COULD do it, but why would you? It’s far more dramatic to have two superheroes visibly punching each other than to have just one giant fist filling a panel. But games? There’s a different story. It’s instant immersion–you and I see the world through the first person every moment of every day, and it’s a natural transition from the real world to the digital one as soon as you pick up the controller.

An image for the smudgy pixel history books.

But it’s not exactly fresh discourse to say that FPSes have grown just a tad bit…stale. I mean, how many times can you shoot an alien with a plasma rifle, or snipe a sneaky Kraut from atop a clocktower 100 yards away before you start to get a sense of deja vu? The FPS genre is very generational–each gaming generation, a new FPS introduces a fresh, innovative mechanic that captures the hearts and minds of gamers, and then for the next three years every other game studio tries to emulate that mechanic until it has been run into the ground like Mufasa.

It started getting really bad around the Halo years. Now, Halo was a great game–it wasn’t exactly innovative, but it took a variety of different gameplay mechanics from a bunch of other shooters and combined them in a slick package with a fun story and co-op so that you and your friends can do more than just shoot each other. It popularized the shield mechanic, limited weapon inventories, and grenade-heavy combat scenarios against multiple, varied, and deadly intelligent enemies. It was lauded for the ground it broke and heaped with awards and awards. So how did the game’s industry respond?

They ripped it off. Boom! Space Marines everywhere! Limited weapons everywhere! Dodgy vehicle sections everywhere! A female voice in your ear telling you where to go! Bang, boom, and only the World War II shooters–who have been stuck in their own inescapable quagmire since the mists of time were still fresh upon this earth–were spared from the unending rush to be Halo–or to beat Halo. Problem is, everyone wanted to beat Halo at its own game, ignoring completely the reason why Halo was so popular–not because it had space marines or grenades or blue aliens, but because it was something new.

Remember when this was new?

Then Halo 2 came along, changed the formula even more (regenerating health! Smarter enemies! Not shit level design! Bigger storyline!) and shit went bananas. I’d argue that we’re STILL ripping off Halo 2, almost unavoidable at this point when you start making a game about space marines.  Everything was basically “Halo with X Gimmick” and very few of them were particularly good. Now, though, we stopped ripping off Halo because a new kid came to town and kicked Halo in the balls, took his lunch money, and then shock-tortured him with a car battery.

Of course, I’m talking about COD.

It's starting to look...

No, wait, wrong one. I meant Call of Duty–specifically, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the Call of Duty franchise has always been a somewhat above-average World War 2 shooter franchise (never seen that one before) doomed to the comfortable quiet mediocrity that has afflicted the World War II shooter genre (and by Christ, am I the only one who is bothered that that is an actual genre?) and it would have remained as such if not for the fact that, in a stroke of utter brilliance, Treyarch decided to hand development over to a studio called Infinity Ward, who promptly dropped the played out WWII trappings, set the game in present day, and created a tense, powerfully cinematic, poignant and topical first person experience. So good was Modern Warfare that its sequel, cementing it as an official spin-off series, Modern Warfare 2 was like a nuclear bomb made out of money, exploding into millions and millions of dollars and leaving the poor bastards stuck in ground zero a slow and painful death of ten thousand papercuts.

And thus…you may have guessed it…everyone ripped it off. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, isn’t it? A camo-clad, alien Ouroburos, the genre continues to churn out derivative and samey shooters, each one like a fat man at a buffet, desperate to get all the fresh chicken wings before they all go cold, heedless of the flecks of hot sauce staining his shirt, dribbling down his triple chins, splashing everywhere. Let’s keep pumping this shit out, because people buy them. And they will. And you have. Remember the idea of an economic vote? Y’know, where the games you decide to buy determine what games will be made? Yeah, well, you fuckers love shooting things and apparantly you love shooting things the exact same way. We’ve had Call of Duty with Vehicles, Call of Duty with Dust, Call of Duty with Vehicles and Dust, Call of Duty in a Jungle, Call of Duty in my Pants–it’s unending!

...so very very...

And when it isn’t Call of Duty, it’s Halo! Still! Halo evolved combat in 2001–almost ten years ago, and we are still playing it. I understand why of course–there’s many reasons, chief amongst them I would say is the accessibility as well as the emphasis on multiplayer over single-player. FPS games basically thrive off their competitive (or occasionally cooperative) play, and when a formula works, folks don’t seem to want to change it. Half the people who contributed to the 55  million Modern Warfare 2 units sold are the kinds of gamers who only play first person shooters anyway. They’re the ones who want a simple, familiar, pick-up and play experience so they can shoot people online for hours on end. It’s a kind of sad reality, especially considering just how innovative FPS games can be.

Look at Metroid Prime. Or Half Life 2. Mirror’s Edge, Vampire: The Masquerade, Fallout 3–also first person, mostly shooters. But each is radically different from each other, and from the mainstays of the genre–Metroid focuses on platforming and exploration, Half-Life on story and physics, Mirror’s Edge on falling off tall buildings a lot, Fallout on the 1950’s. The first person perspective opens up as of yet untouched, fertile avenues for storytelling and gameplay. The idea, the concept of not just experiencing events through an avatar, but through your own literal two eyes is incredibly alluring, and there’s still so much to be done. The shooter genre has fallen behind even the most conservative gaming genres, and while the smart developers have taken the FP part of FPS to new and exciting places, the S remains stuck in 1944, still trying to liberate France.

...familiar.

So what can we do? Simple. Stop it. Stop buying this shit. Stop accepting the bare minimum–you have Modern Warfare, you have it. Don’t pretend like you don’t, everybody does. If you want it, you have it–why buy the same game again and again and again? Wake up and smell the ashes! We live in a world of easy information, where we can compare and contrast anything and everything, where we can be as informed about what we buy and consume as we care to. Does nobody care? Does nobody care that one of gaming’s cornerstones–one of the most enduring and historic gaming genre in the history of the medium–is also one of the most stagnant, most bereft of creativity, thought or innovation? Who is going to be the first person to shoot these lazy games in the kneecaps and shake them until they give you something new and unique? Will it be you?

Or do you just not care?