Falling In with Fallout

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Over the course of the past year I’ve been working my way through the newer Fallout games specifically Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I finished Fallout 3 a couple of months back and when I say “finished” I mean 95%+ of all the content, I completed every expansion pack except for Mothership Zeta, visited nearly every location in the world maps (184 out of the 200+ excluding Zeta) and generally lost myself in what is in my opinion one of the finest role-playing experiences to be had.

Getting It…:

I didn’t always feel this way about Fallout 3, like many I played it when it first came out and meandered through it for a few hours before losing my way and getting rather bored trawling through endless metro stations. I decided to pick it up and give it another crack several years later and have never looked back since.

I’m not sure whether its myself that changed or not but this time the games magical atmosphere enthralled me and I can say happily I loved every minute of it. The dawning realisation that Fallout 3’s strength is not in it’s rather mediocre storyline but the sandbox and open world game play. This game has that incredibly hard to come-by feeling of authenticity that allows the game through your imagination to create it’s own believably unique stories from your actions with your character and the decisions you make throughout playing.

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An Authentic World:

The authenticity of Fallout 3’s world is achieved from a variety of factors and surprisingly barely any of them from actual talking NPC characters. Most of the atmosphere is created through the futuristic 1950’s themed timeline that emanates charm, naivety and an innocence in stark contrast to the brutal and barbaric post-war world.

The world is also sentimental which on a personal level is quite touching. Imagine if the world had been destroyed and your a generation of survivors who have only known the wasteland of the aftermath, how would the ruins of the past world seem to you? Would the world before Armageddon seem alien to you or comforting? To see the pre-war world frozen in time as the atomic bombs hit, families huddled in their homes, people going to work, people packing their bags in preparation of the nuclear war but clearly too late, you wander the wasteland of the old world and can’t help but be touched by the sentiment created by Bethesda. Pompeii and it’s destruction at the hands of Vesuvius draw eerie parallels, today you can still wander the ruins of the city and see it’s citizens frozen in time by the molten ash flow that covered them.

Untold Stories:

If there were anyone who worked on the Fallout games (both Fallout 3 and Obsidian’s New Vegas) who’s hand I’d like to shake the most it’s those responsible for the creating the myriad of untold stories that litter the wasteland and these people as much as anyone help forge that authenticate world.

Times such as walking into a shack and seeing a skeleton in a bath-tub…with a toaster are moments of genius that will stay with me. It leaves you wondering, who was that person? Why did they resort to suicide? Were they a good person or bad? Your imagination goes into overdrive and it fleshes out the world beautifully.

I wonder what the story behind this guy was?

I wonder what the story behind this guy was?

Just one of many hilarious easter eggs to be found.

Epic.

The Originals:

Now I’m not going to write an article on Fallout without mentioning the original Fallout games. These of course made a lot of what Bethesda built upon when making FO3, and not everyone thinks that they went in the right direction. Fallout 1 and 2 are brutal games and the world is darker and grittier then that portrayed in FO3 that’s for sure. New Vegas goes some way to fixing this, being an all round darker game but since I’m still currently playing New Vegas I’ll not comment much on it until I’ve completed it.

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I can say that I’m a little ashamed at having not finished the original Fallout games and I will be fixing that when time permits, nevertheless having played Fallout 1 upon it’s release I loved it and it’s influence over all post-apocalyptic games since is apparent (as in-turn is the Mad Max influence over the Fallout universe).

Branding:

Much of the character in Fallout stems from the excellent and original branding established mainly in the original games whether it’s Nuka-Cola, Robco or Vault-Tec or the imaginative array of narcotics and drugs such as Mentats, Jet, Pscho and Rad-X. They are so shoved in your face whether through subliminal advertising in game through posters and artwork or constantly seeing their logos on items and in-game memorabilia that sometimes I have to pinch myself to realise Nuka-Cola doesn’t actually exist and that I can’t just go and buy a bottle!

Probably every main brand in Fallout has some part to play in FO3 and that’s one reason I love it. Whether it’s visiting the Nuka-cola plant and hacking into long abandoned employee terminals or collecting rare Nuka-Cola Quantums for a obsessed fan out in the wasteland you learn about the brand and it’s history and what kind of business they really were. It’s infectious and as of right now my phone is proudly sporting a Pip-Boy HUD picture and my desk has a bobble-head on it.

Late game Enclave incinerator troops are pretty tough, nothing the Alien Blaster can't handle though!

Late game Enclave incinerator troops are pretty tough. Nothing the Alien Blaster can’t handle though!

V.A.T.S:

One thing Bethesda really “hit the nail on the head” with is the remarkable V.A.T.S system which integrates first-person real-time combat with a turn-based location targeting system.   Quite simply, it works and works marvellously. With V.A.T.S combat plays out   cinematically akin to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves famous arrow view camera. It never ceases to be entertaining to watch limbs and heads explode and even eyes pop out! The violence of the originals was left in place because the Fallout universe is brutal and quite rightly doesn’t shy away from adult themes. It’s no kids game and as such emphasises the brutality of a world in a post-apocalyptic environment rife with slavery, raiders, cannibalism and mutated horrors.

Your typical bloody aftermath from a VATS combat.

Your typical bloody aftermath from V.A.T.S combat.

Conclusion:

I could likely go on far more about the Fallout games and quite possibly will later on when I complete New Vegas. Fallout 3 is a hidden gem in my eyes, it received wide acclaim but perhaps unjustly less so then the Elderscrolls games like Oblivion and Skyrim. It’s likely a topic for a whole new blog but Fallout 3 surpasses the post Morrowind Elderscrolls games in doing what any good RPG should do, creating a believable authentic and original world that you can escape into, and more so Fallout does it with a dry wit which doesn’t take itself too seriously, something Skyrim most certainly did do.

To end on, below are some of my end game character stats from FO3, Garviel the wasteland wanderer was godlike by the end but this certainly didn’t detract from the fun, “one-shotting” heads off with a scoped magnum never did get tiresome!

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Diablo 3: My thoughts on the series

My Collection: Remember when game boxes were massive?

So it’s 1996 and my dad rushed out and bought Diablo. At the time, it was praised for it’s re-playability factor due to randomised loot, mobs and dungeons and also it’s great story narration and eerie atmosphere. Although marketed as an RPG at the time (something that has long since been dropped), it wasn’t in the traditional sense and really it was simply an action game with an inventory and some  NPC dialogue. I remember it’s sales slogan to this day, “Diablo, one Hell of a role-playing game”. Anyway, It was indeed awesomely addictive and fun and did manage to scare the shit out of me as a kid. 16 years later Diablo 3 is finally released, and boy does 16 years fly-by!

The idea that Diablo was originally based on is derived from the old-style MUD games (Multi User Dungeons) which were technically the worlds first MMO games and on the whole contained no graphics, simply a command based chat room with multiple players venturing co-operatively through a text adventure game. Single-player games spun-off from these with basic ASCII graphics such as Angband and Nethack and these games really ironed in the concepts that the Diablo series has always lived by: procedural level generation, randomised mobs/items, and of course item identification and lots of stats and inventory management. Even the Diablo hardcore mode where if your character dies, it’s permanent  heralds back from these games which were and still are brutal, challenging and mercilessly unforgiving to play. The best article I ever read on them can be found here: http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/zangbandtkconfessions-of-a-dungeon-hack/ , a very entertaining read if you have the time.

Diablo 1

The best thing about Diablo to me was always the atmosphere. The first game and to some extent the second always had this impending sense of dread hanging over you when you were playing. A lot of this is thanks to brilliant music and sound, Diablo’s famous Tristram theme to this day, one of the best original pieces of game music ever created: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2evIg-aYw8

Like the old 70’s horror classics, Diablo seemed to be able to do more with less and today of all the games in the series, it has in my opinion the darkest feel and most original atmosphere. I still remember the meat cleaver wielding Butcher, the first demon boss you come across that in comparison makes Diablo 3’s first few bosses on normal difficulty look like wet paper bags. The levels were strewn with dismembered and impaled bodies that added to the feeling you really shouldn’t be here and in every unexplored corner there could be lurking something sinister. You’d then inevitably be required to return to the village of Tristram to offload your inventory and buy supplies, in utter contrast to the depth of the cathedral you were descending you’d be back in relative safety chatting to the NPC who were scared out of their minds due to things dragging them from their beds at night and unearthly things being seen in the graveyard. You’d then pluck up the courage to return back into the depths where death invariably awaited you due to the fiendishly hard difficulty.

The good thing about the old style large game boxes as pictured above were that they also used to include nice thick instruction books. There’s a whole section of the Diablo 1 booklet outlining the lore and back-story of the game and to this day it’s still a damn good read, much better then anything that was actually in the game and It’s really quite sad that games don’t do this anymore…

Diablo 2

Diablo 2 was incredibly hyped upon release because by this time in 2000, Diablo had already developed a large cult following and Blizzard mania was beginning to ignite off the back of the successful Warcraft and Starcraft RTS franchises. Diablo 2 is arguably the best Diablo game to many people and will likely remain so, for the very simple reason that the game-play was polished to the Nth degree and had a military mirror shine to it. It was as perfect in terms of balance, complexity/simplicity as the series was going to get, with skill trees, manual stat allocation (not automated like D3) and nice archetypal classes such as the Paladin, Necromancer, Barbarian, Amazon and Sorceress. It was also very challenging straight out the box like it’s predecessor.

Instead of everything in the game being based around the village of Tristram, it introduced multiple geographical locations to the series and I remember it being the first time Blizzard took the effort to produce it’s now trademark stunning cinematics to help the story telling. Again, the atmosphere was there and although certainly having a different feel to the first game mainly due to much less claustrophobic environments, it retained the ambiance and interesting story of the first.

Diablo 2 had a great selection of character classes…

Diablo 2’s longevity was largely owed to it’s huge multiplayer following. Even 16 years after it’s release it still has a huge player base by many PC game standards. Game matchmaking in Battle net was setup in a social/chat room style interface and encouraged a large community to develop. Logging into Battle net for Diablo 2, the chat screen would be flooded by players trading rare items and arranging co-operative games with friends and strangers alike.

Which brings me to Diablo 3. D3’s implementation of Battle net in contrast introduces the item auction house akin to WOW and removes the game selection ability, instead opting for the now fashionable auto-matchmaking. The result in my opinion is a much reduced social and community experience. The good thing about the new system is that it means casual players who don’t want to farm for rares have a much easier time getting better items and the interface is clean and simple. In general, as with the whole games industry trend, D3 is more friendly, less hardcore and yes “dumbed down” is probably the most appropriate phrase to use.

Diablo 3: My Barbarian

The auction house also has I think unexpected consequences for the game-play. The whole carrot-stick approach to Diablo’s gameplay over the years has been about getting that next awesome item that will make you stronger. By giving players an easy option to simply go on the auction house and buy awesome items, you find that after a while everything that drops in the game is always going to be inferior to what you have 98% of the time. The games randomised loot mechanic cannot compete with giving the player the ability to go and cherry pick the very perfect item they want for their character at relatively little cost. As a result, the excitement of seeing items fall to the ground from killing mobs is greatly diminished. Yes you may choose stoically to abstain from using the Auction House but then you will soon become irritated by other players being so much better equipped then yourself.

This brings me next to the difficulty issues of Diablo 3. With each completion of the game, a new difficulty mode is unlocked, sequentially this goes from Normal, Nightmare, Hell and Inferno. Additionally, items that drop at the start of Act 1 Nightmare will be as good as at the end of Act IV Normal and new and increasingly powerful items come into the game as the difficulties progress allowing you to carry on developing your character with each play-through.

Normal is quite simply a walk in the park and offers no challenge to the extent it is almost a pure story-telling experience with little consideration required to kitting out your character correctly. Nightmare fairs little better and is still easier then both Diablo and Diablo 2 on their default difficulties. Things begin to get interesting on Hell but not because the average mob appears any tougher, only down to the fact that Champion mobs are buffed to an insane extent. So on Hell the game is very easy until you come across champions and then it gets hard as hell. Insane is apparently just literally that, with normal mobs able to one shot your character.

This is obviously bad difficulty design and the whole experience curve in my opinion needs fixing. You should not have to play through a game THREE times to get to a point where a game is at the same level of it’s predecessors’ and then on the fourth difficulty be one shot by everything. I think clearly Blizzard will be looking to address this issue.

D3’s cinematics are awesome in usual Blizzard fashion…

The atmosphere and artistic direction that Diablo 3 has used has caused a lot of controversy. Upon the release of the first screenshots there was an outcry at the apparent colourfulness and almost WOW style to the lighting in the game. Diablo 1 & 2 were characteristically known for being gloomy and dark and D3’s sudden art direction shift angered a lot of fans. Already there is a mod called Dark D3 that allows you to use a custom shader to change the graphics of D3 to something similar to that of the previous games: http://darkd3.com/ . I must say I prefer grittier and gloomier graphics, I just fits the depressing tale of the Diablo series better, however where D3 has excelled is with the ability effects and animations.

Atmosphere has unfortunately been lost in the transition from D2 to D3 and the music is also not on par with the previous games (The composer of the original games is apparently been working on Torchlight 2 instead!) though the soundtrack is still certainly good. Related to the atmosphere is a rather weak storyline. I’m a big fan of the Diablo lore and was disappointed with some events that transpire with key characters. Without making spoilers I’ll just mention Tyrael, Cain and Adria who were amongst the most interesting and iconic characters in the series are treated rather poorly by the story line in D3. Additionally the ending is far too happy-ever-after and worst of all, the game has lost probably all of it’s eeriness or sense of foreboding mainly because the bad guys in the game go out of their way to laugh manically like bond villains and continuously feel they need to taunt you with cheesy B-movie style threats. In my opinion you shouldn’t hear from certainly the prime evils until the finales and even then actions speak louder then words, cut the childish dialogue please, it’s not in the least bit scary. Amusingly I found some written orders by Asmodan on the body of a demon and when reading them Asmodan actually reads the dialogue… It’s just ridiculous, demons would not scribble down orders, I don’t know why I know that but I just know they wouldn’t, they’d use telepathy or some dark magic to communicate their malign intent but they wouldn’t write a journal of their plans!

I’ve grumbled a lot about Diablo 3 here but in reality I love the game to death. I’m currently at lvl 59 with my barbarian on Act 3 of Hell difficulty and have really enjoyed playing the game. I’m not usually the kind of person to be able to just sit and play a game start to end repeatedly yet with D3 I have done just that. Yes it’s Diablo and I think I do have a particular love for this game type but even though I have finished the game 3 times now with my Barbarian I’m already looking forward to trying it through with the Demon Hunter class.

I think this is testament to why Blizzard are amongst the best game developers out there. They may not innovate the industry but my god do they know how to make a good game with addictive gameplay and achingly satisfying aesthetic feedback. I doubt I’ll ever get bored of bull-rushing my barbarian into a pack of critters whirling and dicing with my axe, the crackling of electricity, splitting skulls, limbs soring into the air and mists of crimson puffing from amongst the carnage, followed by a buzz of excitement from expectedly waiting for rare items to drop in the aftermath. No one does it better.

Yes the story line is a let down, the difficulty is not right and there’s a few itemisation issues that need addressing but on the whole it’s still a damn good game and very fun co-operatively or in single-player. People have moaned about the online-only issues relating to needing to be connected to Blizzards servers to play, yes it’s constricting but it’s not going to change and although it is very annoying when servers are down or full, when their up and open it’s a really quite transparent experience to the player. Given the choice, I’d likely be playing online anyway so I can play with other people, so personally I’m not too bothered about it.

The Diablo series as a whole is iconic and hopefully will be around a long time to come, Blizzard know when a formula just works and that’s why at a high level, game-play has remained very similar throughout the series. It’s an awesome series and I’d strongly recommend people who haven’t played either Diablo 1 or 2 to give them a go along with their expansions at some point.

Mass Effect 3: It’s art, oh yes

So for a while now I’ve been wanting to put some games stuff on here and so what better game to start with then Mass Effect 3, now I’ve finished it…well until I replay the end again to get the one I want!

Over the years there have been very few games that I have been able to emotionally invest myself in, all of them are RPG’s of course. Baulder’s Gate 1 & 2, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex (original and HR) and finally the Mass Effect games. Nearly 50% of those are Bioware games and to me they have been the masters of game storytelling for years now.

Before getting into the game, I’ll mention a thought of mine on design that’s relevant to this topic:

What specifically is it about a game compared to another that enables me to A) Have the desire to get drawn into the game? B) Keep me there when I do?

After thinking on this, I feel I can pin-point it exactly down to two aspects which are more or less two sides of the same coin. A fascinating storyline for one and secondly, a world filled with believable and interesting characters that you care about. Anything else when it to comes RPG’s is really quite irrelevant when considering immersion, but that doesn’t mean the rest isn’t important; on the contrary this is the core difference between games and other forms of art medium, an extra facet that says you must not use just visual art and aesthetics, not just music and sound, not just cinema and story telling. The true greats and games I view as art are those that combine all these disciplines perfectly and create in my opinion the most rewarding form of art and entertainment. The key differences between movies and games are blurring as the years go on but the pivotal difference is obviously human interaction, and its this interaction in my opinion that makes the potential of games infinitely greater then movies. We are now at a point where games have the ability to rival the story-telling AND visual might that has always been firmly dominated by cinema, and in the last 5 years that gap has narrowed.

ME3 Story: 

I’ll start on the best aspect of the Mass Effect games, the story. The core storyline itself is excellent but not a masterpiece by any stretch, and anyone who has read their fair share of sci-fi novels will likely agree with this. The thing that Mass Effect does so right is the world or more appropriately the galaxy, which is easily one of the most detailed and believable science fiction settings outside of Star Wars, Star Trek and Dune and certainly when it comes to games, takes the crown.

The colourful arrays of alien species and their designs, the politics and relations between them and the myriads of intertwined histories and lore that have been created by Bioware are an absolute triumph and the games strongest asset. Does this alone make the game great? Not at all, but it’s what makes the series stand out, it’s what draws you into the game and keeps you craving for more and it’s also what makes the rabid fans judge ME3 so harshly when they don’t get the ending they envisioned.

I mentioned that the characters in the game are some of the best assets of the game and non other then the main protagonist herself “Shepard”. Yes, I write herself because I’m firmly in the “femshep” player category. A little on that point, Its the first time I’ve played a female in an RPG, and I did so because of the laughably bad voice acting on the male Shephard, and to be honest if it wasn’t for Jennifer Hale’s mind-blowing voice acting, I doubt I’d be into Mass Effect as much as I am, if you haven’t tried a renegade femshep yet, just do it, seriously!

I’ve grown quite attached to my character over the years and with probably 100-200+ hours of game play spent in such an engrossing series of games, making the right (and sometimes wrong) decisions, killing villains, liberating innocents, romancing blue aliens (read on), knocking out journalists not once but three times, stopping immoral scientific experiments,  discovering lost technology, exploring the depth of space, curing plagues, saving entire races from extinction, and of course not forgetting saving the entire frickin galaxy from the clutches of synthetic gods…not bad for a few hours of game play eh?

The unique aspect of Mass Effect and one of the best design decisions they ever decided to make was the feature of importing your character from the previous games and remembering your past actions. This has given the whole journey from ME to ME3 a feeling of grandeur that I had only experienced in Baldur’s Gate 2 prior, and of course books. Thanks to clever writing from Bioware, you do get the sense that Shepard has experienced more shit then any human ever should (untold billions of lives in your hand) and the character does seem to progress as the series moves on, highlighted extremely poignantly by the death of a child in the first part of ME3 and whom clearly leaves a scar on Shepard.

Even with all that lore and history Mass Effect would feel pretty dull if the NPC’s were generic and dull (Skyrim’s undoing) but thankfully the characters that join Shepard and even a few who don’t (The illusive Man) are full of depth, emotion and intrigue and quite a bit of humour. My characters lesbian romance with Liara, an Asari (all female blue alien species…yes I know)  which continued from ME1 just goes to show how amazing this game is if the sentence I’ve just written doesn’t equate in-game to something as ridiculous as it sounds on here, but in fact after completing it in ME3, it is amazingly executed with maturity, depth and is really quite touching *sniff*, by all accounts it’s one of the better ones available in the game and ends with a cool spock-esque mind-meld scene.

10/10

Graphics:

Graphically despite the game looking and running beautifully, I have some issues here, some that took me a fair few hours to get over. Animations. For some unfathomable reason they decided to make run animations utterly ludicrous and I have spent nigh-on 50 hours watching Shephard run like a gorilla. It’s obvious they also used the same run animations for the male Shepard as the female, so yeah, she runs like a butch heffer who’s just given birth. It’s not too noticeable in the missions in full combat gear but in casual clothing in-between combat sequences it’s pretty awful. I wouldn’t complain, but it was absolutely fine in ME 1 and 2, so why ruin in now?

The cinematography in the game is fantastic, with some incredible set pieces involving colossal Reaper’s raining destruction down on worlds and the most epic fleet battle I’ve ever seen (the whole galaxies fleets coming to Earth’s defence), quite literally jaw dropping.

8/10

Music and Audio:

Another high point of the series, the music previously done by Jack Wall in ME and ME2, didn’t have him this time around but quite honestly, the music is even better. Music in games for me is an entirely separate subject for a blog post which I’ll do at some point, but  one thing I strongly believe is the soundtrack should never be underestimated. Even people who are not audiophiles can often be emotionally or otherwise benefit even subconsciously having more fun from a good soundtrack. Looking back, just about ALL of my favourite games had great scores. Game scores really should get more credit and attention in the industry but that’s just an irrelevant point to this post. ME3 music rest assured adds a perfect blend of tension, adrenaline and melancholy and is quite appropriately epic.

The games audio has noticeably  improved as well and you can tell they have really gone to town on the weapon sound effects, it’s certainly a game I’d unquestionably recommend use of good headphones with and there’s few games I’ve played with as satisfying “pew-pews” as this. Sniping a Cerberus trooper in the head with a Black Widow V rifle is as good as it gets I think.

10/10

Game-play:

I won’t spend much time on this since ME3 plays more or less as the others. You know what it says on the tin and you get what you expect. It’s a little more “shooty” this time around but that’s no bad thing if it’s still fun but I do have some niggles. Firstly, the journal and quest log update mechanic is just useless if not nearly absent entirely. The first time you get a task it makes a note in your journal as you’d expect but some tasks have multiple progressions to them involving finding different people or objects but the journal is NEVER updated, ever. So if you missed the audio prompt from an NPC, its pretty much time to google it since the on screen nav points seemingly appear at random and very rarely on the citadel. It’s not a show stopper, if anything it gives you more time to explore and soak up the great atmosphere of the game but there’s only so long your going to look for an NPC without getting a little frustrated, that’s a nice way of putting it.

Reaper’s chasing you if you scan too much on the map screen is the other annoyance, but then again ME have always had these annoying meta game issues. ME1 had exploring planets in the vehicle (which I liked but most appear not to), ME2 had the most annoying one I think with the mineral harvesting, it really was less fun then Mine Sweeper. ME3’s meta game is annoying but can easily be exploited by leaving the system and endlessly re-entering the system until you have everything…just seems a little crappy and not very well thought out, but again it’s not serious and it’s picking at what is otherwise great game play

9/10

Summary:

All in all I had an absurd amount of fun playing Mass Effect 3 and all the others in the series.The end is a little bitter-sweet. It’s great that I’ve experienced it all and not for the last time I’m sure, but it’s that finishing a good book feeling that you rarely get in games that leaves you a little sad and that I won’t experience the Mass Effect galaxy like it was with unknowing eyes via my feisty/slightly unstable Shepard that I’ve grown rather fond of. That sentence there is likely the cause of the fury over the endings, it’s peoples unwillingness to let go of what they have known and loved and to make way for change in the storyline as per Bioware’s wishes. Personally, if that’s how the story was designed, who am I to change it? And if they do alter the ending as it is rumoured, it’ll never have the same impact.

It’d probably keep me awake at night trying to decide if any Mass Effect game tops Baldur’s Gate 2 or even Deus Ex 1, but when the ME series is taken as a whole they are perhaps greater then the sum of their parts and are certainly up there amongst the gods of gaming. A real achievement in gaming, this ones for you Shepard…

9/10

Mass Effect in a word? Masterpiece.