Friday, 24 July 2015

Post-Apocalyptic Series (Part One): Fallout 3 Review

I hold post-apocalyptic fiction along the horror genre as some of my favourite ever produced. The end after the end of the world with is an ideal place to explore mankind's vulnerabilities, setting these uncertainties against stark, harrowing backdrops. Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example, is one of the most beautifully savage meditations on environmentalism and the human condition.

But I must confess that, lately, I have somewhat neglected the genre. Perhaps the tumultuous events of the real world have had a hand in this. It's rather a grim prospect to picture desolate hopeless worlds ruled by bands of violent savages when people like ISIS are actually enacting out these barbaric acts; enraged by all the sand getting in their frilly little knickers. And meanwhile the world is like a disinterested parent, nonchalantly claiming their little brat will calm down after it's millionth beheading, ignoring the fact that it's little hands are reaching for the medicine cabinet that stores all the nuclear weapons as we speak.

One could argue that it is because we as a species constantly undergo difficult and chaotic times, that the apocalyptic holds a morbid appeal. From the very moment the progenitors of humanity trudged out of the primordial ooze and acquired a brain cell or two, the end of the self and existence has never been far from thought. And this makes perfect sense. Though we choose to ignore it - subconsciously or otherwise - every single thing which we hold dear is protected by a metaphorical thread as skimpy as the lingerie on the stripper jumping out of the cake at a CEO's birthday party. One day you're having a barbecue with the neighbours, the next they are ON the barbecue. In the words of Jesus Christ: "You must love your neighbour as yourself, and at the end of a high-velocity assault rifle".

You may be wondering just where I am going with this, well, recently a few developments in the post-apocalyptic genre have caught my attention. Firstly, the latest in George Miller's effortlessly anarchic Mad Max series was released a while back. Entitled Fury Road, this fourth film (the series' first new entry in around thirty years) served as a quasi reboot-sequel. Then came the announcement of the fifth instalment of the popular Fallout video game series - confusingly titled Fallout 4. But more recently was the unveiling of the spin-off to the television series The Walking Dead, boringly named Fear of the Walking Dead. This new series is set during the outbreak of the epidemic, which looks set to inject some much-needed life into the franchise. I love all the aforementioned series just like the scamps in Trainspotting love that morish heroin; so I feel inspired to do another series of reviews on some of my favourite post-apocalyptic media.

To take a note from the anal bead common issues manual, let us start with Fallout.

Like most gamers who avoid games that actively hate them, I never played Fallout 1 & 2 and thus any discourse I provided on them would be as reliable as an alarm clock set to the passing of Halley's Comet. What I do know is that those games were developed by Black Isle Studios, who also developed Planescape: Torment and had a hand with the Baldur's Gate series. Making them as synonymous with hardcore PC gaming as fedoras and neckbeards. The original Fallout is considered as a spiritual successor to Interplay Production's 1987 tabletop RPG inspired classic video game, Wasteland. A game which mastered the art-form of having combat commentary resemble the feverish jottings of a murderous clown. This is all made completely irrelevant, of course, by the closure of Black Isle Studios and Bethesda Softworks gaining the rights to the franchise in 2004 - releasing Fallout 3 in 2008. 

Bethesda evidentially examined the gameplay of the Black Isle games. An experience I imagine went something like: "Oh, I see you've created a deep, intricate game experience somewhere between the Lannister family tree and the Whomping fucking Willow. Better throw that shit out." Yes, just like The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and Syndicate, Fallout 3 grew an impressive pair of tits over the summer vacation and subsequently reinvented itself - as a buxom action-shooter RPG. However, unlike the first two examples, this change proved to be for the series' benefit. Despite courting perfectionist Role Playing Game series such as Dark Souls and Monster Hunter, 2D isometric RPGs have never really gripped me. I suppose having a God's eye view detaches one from events, and it's impossible to experience the thrill of exploration from such a drawn out distance on a screen layered with messy HUDs. It's the same reason no one has ever made a war film from the perspective of a drone operator.

Fallout 3 takes place in 2277: thirty-six years after Fallout 2 and, coincidentally, exactly 200 years after the nuclear apocalypse annihilated much of the world. Apparently America and China played a game of Risk that got out of hand, resulting in the desolation of 90% of life on Earth. Possibly. There's a wonderful ambiguity regarding the state of the world, aided by the isolationist approach of restricting the setting solely to the United States. The reason why the location will always be the US becomes immediately clear. This series features a rich lore steeped in fifties Americana; parodying the heteronormative patriarchal attitudes, Golden Age science-fiction views of the future, and corporate insanity, all of which helped to define the era. For someone who has never played a Fallout game before, the incompatibility between fantastically advanced equipment (such as gauss rifles and Tesla armour) and campy Lost in Space style robots can come across as weird. But it's part of the series' charm that players are able to buy into the harrowing destruction of the game's Sino-American war; whilst simultaneously taking sadistic glee in using the V.A.T.S system to pick apart the bodies of their enemies, and produce more misplaced balls than Tunstall Town FC.

Or just show them Scanners instead.

You play as an inhabitant of one of the massive underground fallout shelters, built and run by the sinister Vault-tec company as part of their secret social experiments. Events begin in a rather literal fashion: starting with your birth. Any hope of accomplishing a no-kills play through is instantly ruined as your massive head tears apart your mother's insides. The subsequent seventeen years are briefly covered and serve as tutorials and a means to build up your small world. This mostly involves taking tests to define your skill set - featuring questions with hilarious statements such as "I'm going to put my quantum harmonizer in your photonic resonation chamber!" - and talking with your father, who happens to be Liam frigging Neeson. And getting bullied by stereotypical greaser bullies straight out of Stephen King novel; god forbid something as quaint as the apocalypse put an end to their unreasonable aggression. Naturally unfortunate events occur to force you out of the comfort of the shelter and into a search for your father - across the wasteland and through the many, many subway systems. Like a highly dedicated train-spotter.

The decision to set the game's opening section in a claustrophobic, limiting community pays dividends once you leave the vault and take in the panorama of...Oh god, my fucking eyes are burning! A rich landscape of mud and rocks, broken roads, and dilapidated buildings sprawls for miles ahead of you, all initially drowned out by the harsh, blinding sun beating down with its deadly rays. The game world is overwhelmingly large, giving the sensation that travelling in any direction can and will result in the discovery of exciting new locations. For the most part Fallout 3 does indeed deliver: a city on a rusting warship, a settlement run by and named after a tyrant named Dave, the chaotic battleground that was once the Capitol Building, and even a town filled with the deluded worshippers of an atomic bomb. There are also a few iconic locations taken from real-life Washington D.C. (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, The Pentagon, etc.). Not all the locations you visit are particularly gripping - you'll experience more disappointing visits to abandoned campsites than Jason Voorhees during the outbreak of a flesh-eating pathogen.

The same virus responsible for making Ghouls resemble an infected big toe.

Fallout 3 is the type of game which prides itself on merely providing the player with the illusion of choice. It allows for a great degree of character customisation and optimisation, to help craft unique builds: the player chooses three skills to specialise in - perhaps the science related skills (Science, Repair, and Medicine, for example), as well as a different perk each level. Perks grant the player character bonuses, abilities, unique dialogue, and other role-playing enhancements. The problem is that combat is such a large part of the game that focusing on non-combat related skills and perks is only going to get you so far. Specialise in Science and you can become proficient in hacking the various terminals which will grant you access to stored information (usually fluff), locked doors, and occasionally turrets. What the game really wants, however, is for you to pick up that plasma rifle and recreate the mating rituals of the firefly. Even if you haven't put a single point into science -  maybe because you are a deranged creationist - the game provides alternative means of completing quests.

While this isn't necessarily bad game design it lacks the spirit of old school RPGs which, like the world's most spiteful Choose Your Own Adventure book, would aggressively hold you to account over your choices. Games such as System Shock would even going as far as to lock you out of important parts of the game unless you had the right skills - or were able creatively circumvent this restriction. In Wasteland if you lacked to the skill to unlock a locked gate, or even climb it, you could simply take in the inelegant option of blowing it up. The idea was that you couldn't simply ignore an obstacle and carry on as normal. Fallout 3's approach merely provides window dressing - no matter what kind of character you play, you'll still be unable to talk your way out of predetermined combat situations, still be spending most of your time fighting, and you'll still be completing missions in more or less the same way. 

Conversely, this also means that all play styles are equally viable. Some perks are, admittedly, less useful than others ("Child At Heart", anyone?) but the game is flexible enough to allow for experimentation. And unlike late nineties action role-playing games, Deus Ex for example, there are no thoroughly useless ones like training in swimming. I was forced to train in swimming once: I was eight and haven't used it since. Thanks, mother. There are a few perks that mostly add flavour into the experience. "Cannibal" lets you eat the corpses of your fallen enemies to regain health, while "Lawbringer/Contract Killer" provides an incentive to clean up those scoundrels and goody two shoes. My personal favourite, "Bloody Mess", allows the player to deal an extra 5% damage with all weapons and make the target of the attack resemble the prom scene from Carrie. I'm also not too jaded to enjoy learning the unarmed perk "Paralyzing Palm" and one inch punching to death opponents that resemble the Hulk's harder older brother.

"Don't be telling me it's time I cut my nails!"

Finesse isn't even an important consideration make when creating a character. You can act like Surtr and run around waving about a massive sword so flaming it has its own place in the pride parade. Or, alternatively, you brandish an overly large gun and simply let loose; bullets spraying like a male cat in a territory marking contest. At no point does the game force the player to resort to creating a spreadsheet and tracking the fine details of their character's statistics. It certainly makes the game more immersive and better paced, but also rather lightweight. As a fan of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder I rather enjoy going over my character as though I'm the Witch-finder General feverishly checking a potential witch for moles. And being able to simply exit a terminal you are failing to hack and go back into it to avoid being locked out of the system, is rather lame.

Still, the shallowness of the role playing elements is overshadowed by just how fun the game is to play. It handles a lot like the Elder Scrolls series if the head-god thing from Zardoz had gone around spewing guns everywhere. Naturally this makes combat feel like a genuine fight for survival; fighting three to four enemies, especially those who are well equipped, can prove tricky. That is until you pull a Bernard's Watch and use the V.A.T. system to pause time to stack a series of attacks on specific body parts. Now I liked Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, but I always find that the combat in those games eventually stagnates as you, the stalwart hero of the land, are forced to do battle with droves of highwaymen with all the survival instinct of a Lemming marching band. Best of all, the game is packed with enough exotic murder facilitators to give Eichmann a raging stiffy. Everything from nuke-launchers to hand-canons, to alien blasters and flame-throwers.

The duality of the combat system - real-time and turn based - reflects Bethesda's dedication to marry together series tradition and modernity. In theory it creates a combat system deeper than the average shooter. However, being able to pause during a fight is, in practice, like suddenly deciding you have a jet pack moments before losing a game of the floor is lava. V.A.T.S is to the player what the Magna Carta was to the Kings of England: something to whip out when the angry mobs are coming for your head. Certain perks can augment the effectiveness of V.A.T.S. Such as additional damage, or lessening the cost of use. Then there's also the Mysterious Stranger, a rather helpful NPC who resembles Chrome's in-incognito bloke after he's become tired of aiding your filthy little endeavours.

"Go ahead, look up bukkaki again. I dare you."

The side quests are where the game truly shines however, filtering post-apocalyptic tropes through the Fallout series' unique perspective. For example, one quest has you investigate a group terrorising a small community - only these raiders are in actuality a clan of vampire wannabes. One quest embroils you in an enthralling tug-of-war over the fate of what remains little remains of the wasteland's pastoral side. Only the paradise in question has a put upon mutated tree-man at the heart of it. Another quest sees the player caught up in an intense rivalry - between two discount superheroes. Each scenario brings something new, and manages to make the same old objectives compelling and worthwhile. Most video games are content to simply force the player to undergo the same monotonous motions, like the world's most fastidious instructor of the robot dance. Fortunately, Fallout 3 isn't most games, and resultantly even the most inconsequential quest can be more entertaining than being a groper in a bubble-wrap factory.   

Unfortunately, the main storyline is what lets Fallout 3 down. Ostensibly you're forced into a search for your missing father, and, by extension, struggle to bring drinkable water to the desolate wasteland. From the beginning of the game we are forced to identify with a recklessly idealistic father figure, whose entire dialogue base consists merely of exposition and rhetoric. The first thing James does after the tutorial section is escape the vault and leave his only son (and sole reminder of his deceased wife) at the mercy of its tyrannical ruler. Jeez, thanks pop. In the words of the desperate operator of a power plant powered by a merry-go-round to his lazy employees: “spin on it.” The only investment I felt towards James was because he’s voiced by the man who also played Oskar Schindler. However flimsy, the initial set up nevertheless compliments the game’s bildungsromanesque tone – as an inexperienced, young protagonist you are forced to come of age in an alien, hostile world.

"That'll teach you to get me socks for yet another father's day."

Picking a direction and heading off to see what secrets it holds is one thing, but the plot begins to rapidly seem more like On the Road: With Super Mutants. You're whisked from one exciting scene to another, meeting a variety of characters - all of whom happen to represent every single faction. You even meet the god-damn radio host Three Dog (Erik Todd Dellums) at one point, and his entire role is to provide an in-universe reason for the music and rip on the main plot like the narrator of Come Dine with Me. Akin to the black businessman in a PR photo, it all feels a little token. Designed to offer the player with an ideal experience through the world of Fallout 3, but nothing more. I can imagine the developers were worried that the players wouldn't have enough incentive to explore the highly noticeable Washington Monument, so naturally you have to go there during the main quest. For a reason unrelated to the main plot. It's like having a girlfriend who just has to go clothes shopping when you've only really gone to get some beans.

By the game's conclusion, you'll essentially be alongside futuristic knights fighting the evil, elitist government. As is to be expected, the evil government (The Enclave) are evil for a stupid reason: attempting to genetically purify humanity. I guess no one told them that the entire human race's collective DNA now resembles The Blob's toilet bowl after eating a few dicey-looking Indians. The technocratic knights-errant (The Brotherhood of Steel), meanwhile, are apparently "just so cool guys," with their badass power armour and traditional codes of conduct. Personally I preferred The Enclave's sleeker black armour, equipment inspired by the sketches in the back of Nikola Tesla's maths book, and awareness of the importance of Darwinism. Come on, this is a Bethesda game - it's practically a mandate for eugenics. Bob Geldof could organise a concert to help make the NPCs aware that they're stood next to a pool of drinkable water, and the stupid bastards would still die of thirst.

The Enclave, raising America's IQ one flamethrower at a time

For a game about an atominised American wasteland rife with giant green men, bi-pedal reptilians, and corporate insanity, the ultimate conflict comes across as a bit too cartoonish. The good guys, for example, demonstrate hipster levels of zealotry about antiquated technology. All The Enclave need to do to the win the war is make their armour and jets out of colecovisions. Not that they come across any better: a neo-nazi group dedicated to putting a Hitler style moustache on everyone would be more reasonable than the antagonists. On its own the silliness adds a certain flavour to the game's universe, the original games belonged to a school of thought not to dissimilar to A Boy and His Dog, or even Mad Max, after all.

However, it is transparent that the story of Fallout 3 aims to be taken more seriously - a certain dramatic scene that takes place in the Jefferson Memorial attests to this. Throughout we are told of how hopeless and distraught life in the wasteland is, but we never see this. Where are the failing farms, futilely attempting to raise crops on what little arable land remains? How are people struggling when there’s a near limitless supply of canned food that was magically preserved 200 years ago? Why do all my questions sound like propaganda from a Conservative plan to eradicate the welfare state?

Consider the final mission. The game's crowning moment of glory comes as you take back the water purifying facility from The Enclave; alongside the Brotherhood and Liberty Prime – a communist-killing robot that’s like The Iron Giant on meth. Such a spectacle evokes the Fallout universe’s inherent insanity, but Bethesda’s desire to add emotional weight to proceedings leaves the entire experience feeling rather flat. The player’s only real input in the last battle is one easy boss fight with a Southern dandy, and making a ludicrously pointless sacrifice. The storyline ends with either yourself or the Brotherhood’s resident hero Sarah Lyons being subjected to death by radiation - in order to active the water purifier. So desperate are Bethesda to have an all-so-sad ending, that they are willing to lock the player out of any alternative: despite possessing innumerable anti-radiation supplies the player is not allowed to avoid their death. Certain companions who follow you are immune to radiation but refuse your pleas to activate the machine themselves; and you thought the double-jointed man with an arse eating fetish was up himself.

As I typed those last few paragraphs, I was left wondering just why I actually claim to enjoy Fallout 3. The writing is pretty sloppy to say the least, and any notion of freedom or choice is purely ceremonious and illusionary. I suppose as with any rocky relationship, one is willing to overlook being slapped in the face a few times if the other 90% of the experience is enjoyable. And Fallout 3 is as enjoyable as a cat in a Hawaiian shirt. The numerous DLC add-ons, such as Point Lookout, take the creativity found in game’s side quests and run with it. One sees you on board a UFO, and another takes place in a crumbling seaside resort inhabited by creatures resembling the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. And of course, you can buy the Broken Steel DLC to get the proper ending. A dubious business practice we must accept like a fungal infected limb of a national treasure, which we aren't allowed to cut off even though mushrooms are sprouting through the flesh.

It also helps that Fallout 3 is relatively well-paced for a Bethesda game. Unlike most console RPGs which usually clock in at least 100 hours, so that it becomes difficult to remember who you are supposed to be giving the enchanted loaf of bread to. Obviously you can waste hours drifting from place to place, but completing the side quests and main stories of the game and DLC will likely take around 40 – 80 hours. So, Fallout 3 is a well-structured, atmospheric survival experience; a game which makes up for its shortcomings with an engaging universe and open-ended gameplay. Ron Perlman's husky voiced narrator reminds us that "war, war never changes." And he is right, unless you count; graphics, gameplay, tone, setting, story, genre. But who am I to argue with Hellboy? One last musing before I finish: morality.

The morality system is of the type that takes the concept of being a sum of your actions all too literally. Commit a bad deed (such as murder or theft) and you'll receive negative karma, and vice versa for good deeds (altruism, mostly). This leads to a situation where you can have killed more people than industrialisation, but complete the game as the saviour of mankind simply by exploiting the encounters with people dying of thirst. For every bottle of water you hand over you are rewarded with a point of positive karma. A rather mercenary approach to morality if you think about it. The worst aspect of this lazy approach to good and evil is that it's a major theme in post-apocalyptic fiction. For example, The Road was about remaining human when everyone else around you resorted to savagery. Fallout 3's approach to morality is as flexible as one of those bendy school rulers I used to hit girls I liked with.

Iron Criterion: The Mr Grey of primary school.

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