Dragon Age

I’ve been playing Dragon Age moderately obsessively for the last few days (since I found it selling for $40 at Target just after I finished Liberty City Stories).

Dragon Age is virtually a direct descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, which is a little sad because Bioware has been struggling to escape from the D&D vortex, on and off, for over ten years. Given that they’d prefer not to pay Wizards of the Coast royalties for a D&D license when most gamers buy stuff for their logo first and foremost, they have designed their own game rules — essentially an even more annoying variant of the Mass Effect game rules with a fantasy “skin”.

If you like Mass Effect (I did) you may like Dragon Age (I do) — although Dragon Age is considerably uglier in most respects than Mass Effect (I suspect that, at a low level, the current generation of texture compression schemas available for console programmers is not as sympathetic to gritty detailed “fantasy” textures as it is to the cleaner “Star Warsy” graphics in Mass Effect). Personally, I loved the look of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic and think that when Bioware jumped up to the next level of graphic quality (NWN2, et al) they made the mistake of going for too realistic a look, and have never recovered. So far, of the “current generation” Bioware games, only Mass Effect doesn’t look like ass. At least with Bethesda — their games have always looked like ass.

First of all, Dragon Age is pretty hard (and I’m only playing on “normal”) — in both the “challenging” sense (a lot of the bad guys can do a lot of area effect damage really fast, and there are lots of stunning and immobilization effects) and, unfortunately, the “annoying and tedious sense”. The combat system is very fast paced (it’s exactly the same system as in Mass Effect, and conceptually similar to everything Bioware has done since Baldur’s Gate), and I would frequently find myself pausing every second or two and going through entire fights character by character making sure everything was OK. For one fight — so far — I switched down to “casual” difficulty because it was such a pain to win (I think I made the mistake of attempting a specific side-quest way earlier than the designers intended). A few fights I’ve had to repeat half a dozen times to get through. One fight I’ve been unable to win and set aside for “later”. (Hint: it involves a dragon.) And it doesn’t help that many potentially deadly fights tend to be against humans, and it’s hard to tell whether the four thugs you’re fighting are a nuisance or Death Incarnate. Once you get past the early quests you really can’t afford to treat any fight casually.

Unfortunately, I’d say that much of the time the reason combat is difficult is that the UI is often infuriating (e.g. when you target a lot of spells you drop out of command mode — argh!) you can only control one of your four party members at a time and the Artificial Stupidity is pretty damn strong (e.g. the AIs have absolutely no cognizance of AoE spells, and will cheerfully charge at enemies sitting in the middle of earthquakes and lightning storms; similarly, they will cheerfully walk into marked traps the moment a fight starts — which often means hitting “Load Game” immediately as half your party goes down in a fraction of a second). In essence, the only way I’ve found to win tough fights is to switch to “hold” and micro-manage everyone’s positioning, which slows fights to a crawl (even though in “real time” most fights are over in very short order — very much not like D&D). A micro-managed group is around 2-5x more effective than just letting your idiots fight on their own.

Unlike Mass Effect, money has so far been very tight, which means I can’t afford to deck my characters in cool equipment. That said, there seem to be far fewer gear upgrades than Mass Effect, so the endless shifting around of gear because you found a slightly better assault rifle has been substantially reduced (also, gear is much less interchangeable, so the fact that Bob got a new mace doesn’t tend to have so many ripple effects). And, yes, it’s another case “try to save the world while cobbling together enough cash to buy healing poultices”. At least, in this case, the reason most people are selling you gear is that they don’t know the world needs saving.

One thing I really like is the idea that a character taken out during a fight is “injured” rather than “dead”. Once the fight is over, they get up again — somewhat the worse for wear. (They need special healing to recover — well you need to click an “injury kit”.) This avoids the conceptual morass of the guys who’ve been raised from the dead thirty times in the course of their careers — but would play better if the game really treated them as “injured” rather than dead (not representing them with a skull icon would be a good start). Frankly, I’d have preferred the fights to be a little bit easier, but the consequences of injury to be much worse (e.g. you might have to go to a special healer to get patched up). In one dungeon I ran out of injury kits and each injury became a serious problem (well, at least conceptually — I didn’t really detect any major downside to carrying injuries) — if the entire game felt like that, then fights could be hard without frequent wipes being nature’s way of telling you those guys were pretty tough.

Second, while Dragon Age is no more conceptually advanced than Bioware’s first RPG (Fallout) the setting is — by fantasy standards — pretty original, the writing good, and the quests interestingly designed. The voice acting is merely OK, though. Long-distance travel in Dragon Age is handled exactly as in Fallout (enter world map, click on destination, dot moves across map — zoom in to small generic location for random encounters).

In terms of quest complexity and moral gray areas, Dragon Age is perhaps the worthiest successor to Fallout that I’ve played (including Fallout 3). For example… Spoiler Alert! (Select to read.) I’m currently less than half-way through (as far as I can tell) and I’m currently trying to get the dwarves to join my alliance, but to do this I need to solve their succession crisis (which appears to have at least two possible outcomes) — and I’ll need to figure out which guy I want to back and then how to back him. (I usually tend to be “goody two shoes” in RPGs, and I’m trying to play selfish and ruthless, but the dwarvish caste system is irking me so I may end up erring on the side of niceness yet again — although, interestingly, the guy most likely to tear down the caste system appears to be more of an asshole.) The point is, this is not a distinction with no difference, and the setting is engaging enough for me to care which path I pick. End Spoiler Alert.

Third, as I have already implied, Bioware have done themselves no favors in the game design department. As in Mass Effect it’s very hard to figure out exactly which skills are useful, and unlike Mass Effect there are way more of them (instead of having one skill with N levels which gives you special benefits at certain levels, you get sets of four distinct abilities which are thematically related, but each completely independent), so you tend to waste a lot of skill points. (And I don’t particularly want to read “guides”, use cheats/walkthroughs, or restore from save constantly.)

There’s a huge amount of repetition and flavorless redundancy in the spells and abilities (e.g. shield pummel vs. shield bash vs. overpower vs. assault — all basically the same thing with different cooldown timers — I might add that the abilities often seem to have effects that make no sense relative to their name, e.g. “riposte” is that another “whack + stun” ability, not a counter-attack following a parry). Often you’ll be motivated to get a new ability not because it adds anything new but simply because it’s just like some other ability you have, but on a different cooldown timer — which is just stupid since you’re already limited by stamina/mana and execution time. (Why is it faster to cast two lightning and two freeze spells than four of one or the other?)

And finally, unlike Mass Effect which had three orthogonal character classes (soldier, tech, and psy) and then three hybrid classes, Dragon Age has ditched the “hybrids” — you just get warrior, rogue, and mage (i.e. the same classes with a fantasy skin) — and you can specialize each class to resemble pretty much any typical fantasy cliche you like — rogues can be bards or assassins, mages can be healers or shapeshifters (no necromancers though), fighters can be paladins, berserkers, etc.. I do like the fact that there’s one caster class that can be anywhere on the dps/buff/heal continuum you want, rather than treating the healer and mage as distinct and then giving them a huge overlap, but I don’t see why fighter and rogue couldn’t be similarly blurred (especially since it’s exactly what I will play in virtually any RPG when given a chance).

On the whole, I’d say that the original Fallout had the best game design (especially for character development) Bioware has done thus far. The problem with the system devised for Dragon Age is that it’s way too complex and non-orthogonal to grok given the time investment. (It’s not like an MMORPG where you’ll be playing the game for six months and (a) have the desire to figure out whether it’s better to spend a point on “slam” or “smash” or “butt-whack”, and (b) you probably have some mechanism for switching your points around if you change you mind, and (c) a bunch of game designers are employed full-time to keep things balanced.) To provide a simple example: you will often have the choice of several different spells which all do single-target damage, but no clue as to which one does more, is harder to resist, has longer range, or stuns as a side-effect (and each opens up a new spell which makes choosing even harder). For a more complex example: you will often have a choice between reducing stamina/mana costs, increasing stamina/mana regeneration, or getting a whole new ability with a different cooldown timer. And then there’s the “mode” system (you can be in one “mode” at a time) which makes everything even harder to analyze.

Contrast this with Fallout et al where you could opt to “be tougher”, “shoot faster”, “shoot more accurately”, etc. (And there’s nothing remotely like Fallout’s “perks” which were one of my favorite features.)

You do get a wide variety of NPCs to play with and can at least sample what’s possible — it seems to me that a lot of the replayability (if there is any) will be out of a desire to create a character with a less fracked up skill tree the second time around. It is also annoying how specialized a character has to be — if you want your fighter to be a tank you’ll need to burn so many skill points in shield skills that you can’t switch to a two handed sword and wreak havoc when the mood takes you. (At least not at level 12.)

As an aside, I’d have to say that the obsession with specialization in RPGs — it started in computer RPGs but has bled back into paper– really ticks me off. I’m sorry, but a good fantasy story doesn’t involve a guy who is so specialized in tanking that he can’t use a bow. Gandalf wore chainmail and wielded a sword (as did Turjan of Mir). Conan could sneak and climb walls. Fafhrd could dual wield and the Gray Mouser could cast spells. How did we get from this inspiration to guys who obssess over threat generation, mitigation, avoidance, and hit points? And it’s not even a game balance issue since you can’t use your shield skills when you’re wielding a two-handed sword, and when you’re sneaking or climbing it doesn’t really matter that you’re a kick-ass musician.

If you’re a computer RPG player the chances are you already know you will or won’t buy Dragon Age because you either do or don’t like Bioware’s stuff. So the bottom line is that — relative to other Bioware offerings and adjusting for time and technology — it’s up there with Fallout in terms of back story, writing, and plot, but the game mechanics are annoying and the graphics are meh.

Fallout 3

I’ve just finished Fallout 3, most of it in “easy” mode, and I thought I’d share my impressions.

I was a huge fan of Fallout and Fallout 2, and both were among the few CRPGs I’ve completed more than once (something they encourage by actually allowing you to make decisions that have consequences). Much has been made of the fact that decisions in Fallout 3 have consequences, and the fact that — say — insulting someone in a conversation, or killing an NPC who is also a quest giver, might have actual consequences is not only unusual today, but it was unusual back when its predecessors came out.

The Cost of Consequences

This isn’t innovative though, quite the reverse. When it shipped, Fallout was a 3d tile-based (indeed hexgrid-based) RPG of epic scope with 100% 3D rendered graphics. The amount of work that must have gone into producing all those images is simply mind-boggling. Producing actual 3d models is much easier and more forgiving that building animated pre-rendered figures.

Anyway, the cost of all this graphics production is generally linear game-design. Back when games were text-based or simply re-used a small library of graphics over and over again it was relatively inexpensive for player decisions to have consequences and so it was also relatively common. As the costs of game production have gone up (and most of this has been graphics production — music and audio haven’t become substantially more expensive to produce the way graphics have) the desire of game developers to spend money on stuff most players will never see has gone down.

Graphics

Fallout 3 is graphically very impressive, astonishingly detailed and textured, but also very monotonous. Its color palette is FPS brown and grey, and pretty much every building interior looks identical. You basically spend a lot of time outdoors in largely unvegetated rubble and rock, or in collapsed subway tunnels, ruined office buildings (with huge numbers of toilets), and the occasional house or sewer. That’s it. You see the same metal box, locker, desk, chair, bus, wrecked car, over and over and over. Or so it seems. It doesn’t look like copy-and-paste, but there is a huge overall sameness to most of the world.

It bugs me that even the people who are supposedly living quite well seem to put up with their houses looking like shitholes. (I’m ignoring the final bad guys, who live in near Star Trek utopia, although even they have radioactive cockroaches scuttling around under their floors.) This is all pretty consistent with the original Fallout, but it does get boring after a while.

Let me get this straight: not only can I kill a quest-giver, but the quest might be able to cope with it?

Although I loved Arena and wanted to love Daggerfall, I was not impressed by Morrowind and skipped Oblivion, so I’m not sure how much of Fallout 3 is simply “post-apocalypse-flavored-Oblivion”, but there are some aspects of Fallout 3 that border on genius. To begin with, “quests” are infernally complicated, you often don’t get enough information to really finish them straight away, they “morph” as you do them (e.g. discover that something you intended to do can no longer be done, or never could be done), and they are all pretty intricately woven into the game world.

Here’s a short example with (minor) spoilers. When I first entered the central hub town (“Megaton”) I met the sheriff (it’s hard to avoid). He gives me something of a run-down on things and I learn there’s an unexploded atom bomb in the middle of the town, and suggest I might be able to defuse it. Later (I have no clue how to defuse it) I bump into a “mysterious stranger” who offers to pay me well to set off the bomb (after a suitable delay to get away, one assumes). He seems kind of scary, so I agree, planning not to do it but figuring I’ll play along.

Later, I’m talking to the sheriff about something else and notice a new conversation option “hey this weird guy offered to pay me to blow up the town, and he gave me this”. I pick it and the sheriff decides he wants to talk to the guy. So we go to the saloon and the guy basically denies everything and gets up to leave. The sheriff tries to arrest him and the guy pulls a gun and kills the sheriff. I had been standing back a ways because as the conversation progressed it sounded like the guy was going to accuse me of being the terrorist (or whatever) and figured I might end up in a fight, so I pull a gun on the guy who suggests to me that I’d be better off getting out of his way. I kill him.

I then get notified by the game engine that I can no longer collect on the “blow up the town” quest (since I killed the turn-in NPC, I guess). Personally, I think I could have figured that out for myself, but maybe they didn’t want people to complain there was a bug in the quest (after all World of Warcraft players will not be able to cope with the concept of quest-givers being killable and/or not respawning). I loot both corpses (no-one in the town seems to mind, but note that they will get mad if you kill someone they like or steal their stuff) and find the sheriff’s key. Figuring he doesn’t need (or own) his stuff any more and I’m desperate (I barely have ammo for my half-broken pistol) I let myself in his house. Everything is still flagged “property of” someone or other (which I assume is a bug, but turns out not to be…), so if I take anything it will be bad karma (literally, the game tracks your karma, which is neat).

So I figure I’ll only steal guns or ammo. After I pocket a couple of choice items, a kid’s voice asks me something (I don’t remember what), but it’s the sheriff’s kid and he just found out his dad died. (And here I am with pockets full of his dad’s stuff and, heck, I got him killed.) D’oh! At the end of the conversation the kid mentions his dad left him a bunch of stuff for me in the event I ever defused the bomb…

I won’t go on, but this is literally a “tech level above” World or Warcraft or Knights of the Old Republic in terms of quest construction, even if it’s still traditional, “static scripted” content. Now, the world itself does not change dynamically the way the worlds of Fallout and Fallout 2 did (you could literally overthrow governments and come back to a different society) but it’s a far more interesting world than any I’ve seen in any kind of RPG for a long time. Bravo.

Fallout 3 is not without its flaws, of course. You’ll spend a lot of time in combat, and combat kind of sucks.

Combat

The combat system is a hybrid of Fallout’s action-point-based tactical game (where you could opt to shoot at a target in general or a specific body part) and a first person shooter, but the weird thing is you have action points that you use to fire at specific body parts which are entirely separate from the FPS. Thus, shooting at someone’s head using the “VATS” (targeting system) costs you action points while just pointing your crosshairs at someone’s head and pulling the trigger doesn’t. I think I’d been playing the game for about twenty hours before I even tried to shoot someone while NOT using the VATS. Sadly, the chief reason to do so is that you often run out of “action points” to use the VATS, but VATS saves you a lot of ammo. Typically (and this is really stupid) I’d use VATS to headshot a target initially, but free fire to finish off near dead targets (to save action points). The idea of shooting someone in the head three times with a sniper rifle and then having to finish them off is both really stupid and a betrayal of Fallout’s legacy. (The main reason I switched to “easy” mode was I got into a fight with “super mutants” on hard which I simply couldn’t win… super mutant leaders can take two or three headshots in “very easy” mode and not die.)

Enemy AIs are horrible. On the one hand, enemies don’t tend to do anything very interesting, and on the other, they have perfect reflexes (e.g. if you shoot someone in the back of the head while concealed they instantly turn around and shoot you).

As alluded to in the preceding paragraph, the way wounds work is stupid. While the game keeps track of where you get hit, and tells you if you’re crippled in a limb (if your legs are crippled, you can’t move quite as fast, if your arms are crippled you can’t shoot quite as accurately) wounds have almost no visible effect on enemies. Many many times I would shoot someone in the head, get a critical, and they would continue to fire at me without even a pause. (Crippling a target’s head seems to cause them to rub their head for about 2s.)

Finally, the way cover works (or, rather, doesn’t) is incredibly annoying. You can’t “lean around” corners, and there’s no explicit cover support. Sometimes you’ll be able to see a target’s head but the engine will tell you it’s impossible to hit. Worse, sometimes you’ll take a bead with a 95% hit probability and then the engine will shoot a rock or girder for you. Some weapons consistently hit low objects (e.g. the minigun simply won’t fire past anything more than knee-high, making it virtually useless).

Humor

The Fallout games are probably funnier in retrospect than they were in actual play, but Fallout 3 is pretty dour compared to either of its predecessors. Probably the funniest thing in the game is the Enclave’s presidential radio broadcasts which are a mixture of insane right-wing bullshit and social commentary that seems a little bit more about our world than Fallout’s. A lot of the humor in the original games concerned the various oddball societies you encountered, but in Fallout 3 you don’t really encounter many different societies until close to the end (when you encounter two fairly colorless high-tech civilizations).

Final Thoughts

Don’t expect a feel-good ending. Like its predecessors, Fallout ends on a downer. (I haven’t played through the different possible endings, but as far as I can tell I ended the game about as positively as possible and it was pretty downbeat.) That said, I really liked the ending and it was satisfying. I’m not even sure I’m going to backtrack and play through more bits I missed or play the game through again, but then it took a pretty substantial chunk of time (it took me 54h according to the machine — probably including about 24h of pausing). While Fallout 3 feels like a smaller and less ambitious game than either of its predecessors, it still stands as a good story in its own right.

Fallout 3 is, in terms of its “30s cycle”* a shooter, and as a shooter it’s pretty broken. I think Grand Theft Auto IV’s combat, which explicitly supports cover, is far superior to Fallout 3’s, which is sad because GTA IV is a driving game with a shooter component, while Fallout is shooter with no other components (well, unless you count scrounging for ammo and inventory management). Add VATS to GTA IV’s shooter component and you’d have a pretty nice game. (I’ve yet to play Gears of War, but from what I’ve seen and read this is the “FPS” Bethesda should have ripped off when they tried to turn Oblivion into a shooter.) That aside, AIs which have perfect aim and instant reactions is pretty lame for a modern game; it doesn’t make a game hard, it makes a game stupid. Similarly, having to shoot people three times in the head before they even slow down is ridiculous; more ridiculous when it’s on “easy” level. I don’t know if my nostalgia for Fallout and Fallout 2 is clouding my memories, but I seem to recall it actually had NPC morale. In Fallout 3 you can be attacked by four guys, and blow the heads of three of them with three shots and the fourth will still run towards you like an idiot.

So, in a nutshell: loved the story, loved the quest system, but the look of the game and the combat system eventually got old.

* Quoting the designer of Gears of War in a recent New Yorker article.

Quick Guide to Fallout 3

You play your character — literally — from birth. Nice idea but REALLY annoying for repeat play. The childhood bits are tedious, you can’t “click through” them, and they have no real effect; I’d much rather have the option to just create a character how I wanted it (which you get to do at the end of your childhood anyway).

“SPECIAL” (Strength, Perception, Endurance…) attributes. Some folks say “pick strength because it lets you carry more stuff”. They have a point but Strength 1 = 160lbs, 10 = 250lbs. It’s not a huge deal — you’ll constantly be fast-traveling to merchants regardless. Typically you “need” about 80-120lbs of stuff. I carried a lot more because I never knew what would be useful. Turns out nothing much was useful and I could have gotten by with much less. Perception’s main effect is determining the range of your “radar” (how far out your red dots show up). The red dots aren’t that useful, but having really low perception probably sucks. Endurance affects hit points. Again, having really low endurance probably sucks since you can avoid wasting stim packs if you get get to a (free) bed to recover health. Charisma is important — some dialog choices won’t be available if you’re ugly. Intelligence gives you skill points, but the effect isn’t that marked. Agility drives APs for your VATS (targeting system). Luck affects everything and especially criticals. I had Luck 5 and can’t really tell how important it is (I did get a LOT of criticals, but I took any perk that helped with crits).

Edit: I checked and INT does not affect skill points received nearly as much as I thought so my advice was garbage. So…

Here’s my recommendation for allocating attributes: Agility gives you more points in VATS, so if you like blowing peoples’ heads off, get lots. You might not want 10 points because when/if you find the Agility bobblehead (which gives you +1) you won’t benefit if you have 10. So you might do something subtle like everything 5 except agility 10, or maybe agility 9 and perception 6. On the whole, stats don’t make a huge difference.

Repair skill is interesting. Essentially it represents cannibalizing parts. This allows you to take two pistols in lousy condition and turn them into one pistol in pretty good condition that is also worth more, and as such it is like having the ability to “carry more” since you can concentrate value in a smaller number of items.

Initially you want one weapon skill only, and that weapon skill is small guns. Do not waste skill points on more than one weapon skill. The choices are unarmed, melee, small weapons (pistols, rifles, shotguns, SMGs), energy weapons (lasers and plasma weapons but not the gatling laser), and big guns (missile launchers, miniguns, etc.). I haven’t tried unarmed and melee — they may work really well, but given the number of opponents with ranged weapons expect to spend a LOT of time hiding around corners or sneaking up close to enemies. Given that you spend quite a bit of time being attacked by multiple, spread-out enemies with guns, being a melee specialist seems like a world of hurt to me. Get your main weapon skill to 95 fairly quickly (not 100, since you’ll find books to increase it for “free” and they won’t work if you’re at 100 already). Eventually you’ll want big guns (for the missile launcher, flamer, and gatling laser), but there’s a perk you can take three times that gives you 15 points of big guns and missiles don’t really need to be aimed.

Why I recommend small weapons

First, you’ll have almost no choice in the early game.

Second, they’re ranged, which means you can often take out targets from a distance while sneaking (a huge benefit).

Third, until you get big guns (the missile launcher in particular) you won’t find anything more effective than the Chinese Assault Rifle or Sniper Rifle (I haven’t experimented with the home-made weapons yet, maybe some of them are ridiculously effective) until practically the end of the game.

I might add that I am a pack rat in every RPG I play. I didn’t sell a single round of ammo in my first play-through and I think I found a total of less than 30 missiles in total. The minigun is terrible (it doesn’t work from behind any kind of cover and takes ages to fire, during which you’re getting pounded), and other big guns have ammo even rarer than missiles.

Also note that the missile launcher and flamer don’t seem to require any real skill to use (you don’t tend to aim them using VATS) and the energy weapons (laser- and plasma- weapons) seem to be ridiculously accurate even with low skill but to do no real damage. Many a time I’ve blown off the head of an Enclave Soldier in power armor while he ineffectively plinked at me with a plasma rifle.

Weapon DMG ratings are highly deceptive. The damage is “per shot” so the weapons that fire bursts effectively (a) have a much higher chance of scoring a hit in the VATS system and (b) do a ton more damage. That said, the minigun is slow to spin up and down and won’t fire over knee-high obstacles, so it still sucks. The assault rifle and SMG are your friends (but use VATS or you will run out of ammo very fast). Eventually I got a special (better) SMG but only because I screwed up and let an NPC I liked die. (And I was not restoring from backup unless I died.) Later on, the flamer is a very, very effective weapon (but only at close quarters).

You need to be good at one of science and lockpick. Science is used pretty much exclusively to hack computers. Usually anything you need to get into can be hacked or lockpicked into. Also note that you get quite nice XP awards for picking a lock or hacking a computer. The hacking subgame is very cute, reminiscent of “Mastermind”. The lockpicking subgame requires a small amount of dexterity (a light touch, mainly) and bobby pins, but is quicker. If you’re easily bored or frustrated but dextrous, take lockpicking.

That’s about it. You need Repair, Small Guns, and Science or Lockpicking as your “tag” skills, and when they’re maxed you can experiment with others.

Of the other skills, medicine is not as useful as I hoped. It makes stim-packs and other “healing potions” more effective, but I ended the game with a huge stockpile of both money and stim packs. I might have needed more on a higher difficulty level, but I also never “restored from backup” unless I died (which happened in two places). Speech is amazingly useful — it gives you more dialog options which often allow very interesting plot options / bypasses. You also get XP for using your Speaking skill.

Sneak may be very useful, but I haven’t really tried. I wasn’t interested in picking pockets, and despite spending almost no skill points on sneak I had little trouble sneaking into sniper rifle range in open areas, while indoor fights were mostly “corner-jutsu”. I had a ton of “Stealthboys” in my inventory (among other things they give you +100 sneak, sort of like an “invisibility potion”), but the one time I used one I found it almost useless, so I’m inclined to think sneak is not very useful for combat, so for thieves only.

Barter will make you richer, if you care. But repair will make you more money and is useful for other things.

So the upshot is small guns, lockpick / science, repair are you most important skills, with speech next in line, and barter and medicine bringing up the rear. You can raise big guns in a hurry late in the game when you start actually getting some big guns, and energy weapons, melee, and unarmed are all skippable.

Fallout: New Vegas note: small guns is now just guns and is still the skill of choice in my opinion, although sneak seems more useful and is apparently fun in combination with melee / unarmed; lockpick and science are not as interchangeable as they were in F3. Science is quite useful on its own (and in many quests it lets you bypass or simplify a medicine or repair task), but lockpick is indispensable (unless you plan to simply force locks).

I think it would be very interesting to play either game with a character who tags speech, sneak, and medicine and try to finish the game without killing anyone (directly!).