I am not entirely sure whether it is due to my age, experience with MMOs, or perhaps a combination of the two, but the naming conventions in these games are becoming increasingly obtuse.
In the beginning, or near abouts anyway, there was HP. Then there was Constitution, which affected HP. Or perhaps Endurance, circa the Fallout series. Then it seemed to be Stamina for a long while. Now it is Vitality, or straight-up Health, or even Grit, or whatever. Strength seems to be pretty consistent over the years, but Dexterity can be all over the place – Nimbleness, Precision, or split into Perception and Agility. I was browsing this fan page for Wildstar and slowly blinked at the attribute names. Here are the main six:
Pop-quiz hotshots: what do any of those mean in-game without looking it up?
Personally, I know what somebody means when they refer to someone “having a lot of moxie,” but I wouldn’t be able to define it off-hand, let alone venture a guess as to what it would do in-game. Hell, the only time I’ve ever heard the term used for anything in a game was during the brief period I played Kingdom of Loathing (which has a Moxie stat). In Wildstar, it will apparently depend on what class you’re playing as to what the stat does: it’s Critical Chance and Critical Severity Rating for everyone aside from ESPers, for whom it increases Assault Power. Meanwhile, Insight raises Deflect and Deflect Critical Rating for most, and Support Power for the heal-y types. And good luck with figuring out Tech, which can be Assault, Support, or Deflect increases depending on class.
I mean, I get it. Maybe the designers want to thematically set their gaming world apart from what came before. Perhaps there is a concern that theorycrafting from one game will carry over too easily to the next. Who knows, maybe game companies have actually trademarked attribute terms and it’s actually illegal to use them.
All that I know is that, to me, stats in these games have become unmoored to any ready understanding of them. Dungeons of Dredmor made a tongue-in-cheek point by including 29 different stats on the character sheet, but I’m no longer going to be surprised if Savvy or Caddishness shows up unironically. I mean, Moxie for god’s sake.
I find this entire scenario a problem for game companies because my ability to care – let’s call it Tolerance Rating – is approaching zero. I enjoy numbers, theorycrafting, and so on. I do not enjoy translating foreign languages, or having to otherwise refer to some sort of cheat sheet just to see if what item I picked up is an upgrade. But maybe attribute names were always goofy and arbitrary, and that I specifically have simply accumulated too much game-lore detritus.
In which case… I’m apparently in for a bad time.
Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion
When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?
By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3’s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.
This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.
Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.
This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.
Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.
It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.
Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.
F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.
Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.
Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.
Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.
There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.
Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.
Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.
Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.
Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.
Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.
Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.
As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.
So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?
Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.
Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.
As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.
There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.
The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.
Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.
And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?
It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.
It occurs to me that we – or more specifically, I – have well and truly crossed the barrier beyond which old, amazing games go to die, unplayed and forgotten.
For example, today you can buy Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II on Steam for $1.24. I have heard many, many great things about this game over the years (and it indeed has a 91 Metacritic score), but I never got around to experiencing it. And so when I saw it up for 75% off, I decided to take a look at the game’s page. What I saw was this:
I just couldn’t do it. Whatever it was that this game could have added to my life experience is gone forever.
Of course, this is not just Dark Force II’s problem. Have you tried booting up Planescape: Torment lately? I wrote an awful, awful review of the game back during the height of my JRPG fandom phase a decade ago, and have always wanted to return to give the game its proper dues. But that is unlikely to ever happen. I tried, I seriously tried. Planescape always had a super zoomed-in camera compared to the Baldur’s Gate titles, and combined with the 640×480 max resolution was simply too much. I could not bring myself to get out of the morgue, the technical/compatibility issues notwithstanding.
To bastardize a phrase: the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.
Who though, in all honesty, is going to go back and play Fallout 1 & 2 after being introduced to the franchise via 3 or New Vegas? There are hundreds of classic games like this. Certain ones, like Chrono Trigger and the like, can survive rerelease after rerelease without changes. But these others? Not going to happen. I talked about the haunting legacy of Deus Ex in regards to its modern-day prequel, but who is going to play the original if they have not already? I understand there are mods that do amazing things to the visuals, but that presupposes a desire to go through the trouble to begin with.
Indeed, I feel the entire gaming industry is entering a bizarre new landscape with the advent of the App/Indie/F2P Age. I wrote over 60 RPG reviews back in the day, and every single one of them had a Replayability score. Now? Who cares about replayability? Story choice is fantastic, but the typical likelihood of my actually going back through New Game+ or its equivalent is somewhere between zero and no way in hell. I’m not looking for something to kill my time anymore – time is the one precious thing I ain’t got anymore. Any game that wants another roll in the hay is competing against an entire library of unplayed Steam titles, indie or no.
And that, sadly, also goes for older titles regardless of their presumed timelessness. So when I see people complain about, say, Syndicate looking like this instead of this, well… that latter game is dead and gone. I just went through an Eeyore routine with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sure, but I would rather some remnant exist in a modern form than nothing at all.
It’s fascinating to me reading this Kotaku article about how BioShock Infinite’s Actors Berated Each Other to the Point of Tears to Get the Scene. Although I would agree with some critics that Bioshock 1 was worlds better than Bioshock 2, I was already pretty excited about Bioshock Infinite from its first trailer (assuming I can actually play it on my PC). Seeing the lengths (depths?) the voice actors go through to paint a scene makes me want it more.
But then… how important is good voice acting to begin with?
Games have had voice acting for decades now, and I am not entirely sure I can even remember particularly good performances. Sure, bad voice acting tends to stand out, if only because it pulls us out of the narrative flow. But is that not the paradox of good or even amazing voice acting? The better the voice acting is, the less we remember it. This lies is stark contrast to amazing soundtracks which you tend to vividly recall.
Perhaps this is some sort of physiological thing insofar as in these games we are not concentrating on how well the actor sounds, but rather what sort of information they are conveying – we remember the words, the story, the way the narrative makes us feel, but we lose their voice in the process. And maybe that in itself, the ability of spoken words to immerse you in the narrative instead of jarring you out of it, is the mark of quality acting. That just seems… cosmically tragic, as opposed to how other forms of art usually work.
Honestly, I am trying to remember any of the voice acting in games I have played.
- “War… war never changes.” Fallout narrator.
- “James!” The wife of the protagonist of Silent Hill 2, but mainly for that one specific (but hidden) exclamation.
- Thrall and Aggra during the Call of the World-Shaman questline. The dialog is pretty bad (aside from Thrall’s Fire speech clips), but the emotion got through. In fact, Thrall’s voice acting and dialog during the Flame segment is the best I have heard in WoW and many other games.
- Well, I thought King Terenas’ acting was rather brilliant in WotLK’s intro and ending segments.
I am starting to wonder if I remember WoW’s actors more simply due to repetition than quality (although they have it too in the above examples); the Fallout narrator is the same from all the Fallouts, and each time he says that catchphrase. In any case do you typically remember quality voice acting in the games you play? Do you have favorites?