Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Re-skinned Oblivion

In 2006, a game came out that reshaped the way I view RPGs. The 4th game in the Elder Scrolls series (to which I confess that I haven't played any other title) known as Oblivion was to me one of the pinnacles in modern gaming. It was really the first game where beauty and met, and while the mechanisms for gameplay had some flaws, it's diversity and scope make for a compelling game time after time. It was a fantasy epic with a captivating story, a spectacular open environment with so many different options for the gamer.

By contrast, Bethesda's latest effort, Fallout 3, is a bleak environment. The developers have outdone themselves in selling the post-apocalyptic setting, the engine capable of the magnificent imagery in their fantasy classic was able to render such a desolate world. The game looks truly fantastic, everything from the design of the ruins to the cartoon displays in the hub. Visually the game looks spectacular.

As for the gameplay mechanics, if you have played Oblivion then you have essentially played this game. The interface is the same, the interaction with objects is the same, the AI behaviour is the same, it's another open-ended world, there are still plenty of places to explore and quests to do on the side. It's Oblivion with guns, though the mechanics of battle suits gun-fighting far better than swordplay. The VATS system is really cool too, the ability to queue up moves is very helpful at times.

As for differences, obviously the levelling system is different. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. approach means that actions do not have to be taken into consideration and it becomes a lot easier to build a customisable character. All that matters is the accumulation of experience points, the fact that I don't need to put on autowalk and sneak or spend hours swimming in order to skill up. The karma system is a really nice addition. Ammunition conservation and weapon degradation also add another level of complexity to the game. When there's a few approaching Mirelurks, having to worry about whether to unload multiple clips of ammunition is one more thing to consider.

Like with Oblivion, the main adventure comes from exploring the lands, and the side-quests keep the game interesting. Lock-picking is far less frustrating than in Oblivion, it's simply a matter of skill level rather than timing. One of the more fun novelty tasks is computer hacking, it's like a game of mastermind but with letters instead of colours. The joke-telling butler from your house in megaton can provide a laugh or two, but not as much as the gullible shopkeeper (and amateur novelist) Moira. Messing with her after she sends you on misguided fieldwork is somewhat cathartic.

The success of Fallout 3 as a game rests on it's ability to immerse the player, and like Oblivion it's the game's strength. Without playing the original games I can't really comment on whether it's successfully captured the franchise, but as a stand-alone product it's thoroughly impressive. In the last 6 weeks or so, about half a dozen top titles have all hit the shelves. Once I got this game, all others have ceased to even be touched. Going back to Far Cry 2 now will feel like a step down. A fantastic game with truly amazing depth, it's a reminder of the quality that Bethesda studios are capable of. It may be little more than a re-skin of Oblivion, but for a game to base in on they could have done a lot worse.

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