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!).

A Simple (?) Game Idea

One of the most memorable games I ever played was SPI’s Napoleon at Waterloo. This tiny wargame was created by SPI as an effort to evangelize board wargaming. It was printed as a small magazine (except for the 50 or so cardboard pieces) and the gameboard was the centerfold. In the US it was intended as a giveaway; in Australia it was sold for $2.

SPI's Napoleon at Waterloo (closeup of counters on board)
SPI’s Napoleon at Waterloo (closeup of counters on board)

It’s a very simple “classic” boardgame design. It has “locking zones of control”, combat is by odds ratio and a D6 die roll, and players take turns to move and perform attacks. Artillery can fire from two hexes away, everything else can only attack adjacent units. Each piece is defined by its “combat” factor and its “movement” factor (basically, cavalry is fast, infantry and artillery slow). Terrain can slow you down (or, in the case of roads, speed you up) and/or give you a defensive bonus. Assuming you have any familiarity with board wargaming, those are basically the rules.

I’ve often thought that a really clean implementation of a very simple board wargame would make a truly great little computer game, especially for something like the iPhone. That said, I’ve often railed against the restrictions of board wargames being copied into computer wargames, particularly when they are an artifact of the game being played on a board. For example, the hexagon is simply a means of dividing up maps to make keeping track of movement and position manageable on a game board. Since a computer can keep track of floating point numbers very easily, why not represent unit positions and movement more realistically (e.g. smear units across the landscape to represent stragglers, traffic jams, and so on).

Each of the things that makes a board wargame intrinsically unrealistic would make the same game more complex to play if it were fixed in a board wargame, but not necessarily if it were done on a computer.

So here’s my simple game idea. Produce a ridiculously simple wargame… Not even as complex as Napoleon at Waterloo (which has 50 or so counters) but say a game which would fit without zooming in and out on an iPhone screen while still being finger-controllable. That means a map with a grid roughly 6×8 in terms of resolution (although much more exact positioning is perfectly possible). We’re talking smaller than the size of the grid in Battleship. This means a game with perhaps 10 units on each side as an absolute maximum.

OK, now take every bad board wargame convention and rethink it.

So, first, units do not occupy “hexes”. A unit is a bunch of tiny things below screen resolution whose position is merely depicted in approximate form on the map. (SPI developed a naval wargame called Jutland for Avalon Hill in the early 70s, that used miniatures conventions for tactical movement, and used a refereed system for handling strategic intelligence, so it’s not like board wargame designers were unaware of these problems; the solutions just weren’t commercially practical for paper games.)

Next, you never really know where anything is. The map is simply your “best guess” of what’s going on. This means enemy unit dispositions are merely speculative. This means that friendly unit dispositions are simply what you’ve been told and/or what you believe. (Again, SPI repeatedly attacked this problem with increasingly innovative systems for “fog of war” ultimately producing a streamlined, referee-less system for Taskforce and Cityfight. Taskforce was a big hit. Cityfight a terrible flop.)

Next, you can give orders, but that doesn’t mean they’re received or understood, let alone obeyed. (The closest paper games came to handling this issue was requiring pre-plotted phased movement, e.g. Star Fleet Battles, which was extremely cumbersome.)

Next, you don’t necessarily have an accurate map of the battlefield. Your map may show an open field where there’s a mud flat, a freeway where there’s a cratered mess, or a bridge where there’s a bunch of wreckage. (The “eyes in the sky” problem generally refers to both players being able to see pretty much all units, friendly and enemy, all the time. An equally important but subtler problem was the fact that players could see the same map, and that map was accurate. In very few wars do both sides have the same maps, and in no wars are any maps perfectly accurate. If Montgomery’s staff had been able to read movement rules and terrain costs off their map, Operation Marketgarden would either never have been attempted or far differently planned.)

Next, you don’t know how good your troops or subordinates are, although you can make educated guesses, especially after seeing them perform in action. (SPI often employed the concept of “untried units” in its games, especially contemporary games. The concept of a unit’s quality being uncertain is far clearer when peering into the future — will our tanks actually be resistant to their anti-tank weapons? — than when looking at historical battles, which is I guess why these rules tended to be more prominent in simulations of hypothetical wars — but every general must make decisions based on the assumed future performance of his (or her) troops.)

There are plenty of other terrible concepts from board wargaming that should be omitted from computer versions. The abstraction of logistics. (In Avalon Hill’s The Longest Day, supplies were actually units you had to move around. In Victory Games’s Pacific War fleets load up specific amounts of supplies and fuel. In pretty much every other game I know of, no matter how detailed, supply is completely abstracted.)

The best computer wargame I ever played was the original Harpoon (on the Amiga, although I believe it was available for both Mac and DOS). It was real time. Movement was completely freeform. The only information you got on enemy disposition was “sightings” which expanded as they got older (i.e. if you “saw” an enemy jet capable of flying at 600mph at a specific point at a specific time, it was represented by a red rectangle expanding at 600mph). I think that Naval simulations seem to handle limited intelligence better than most other games because (a) locating and identifying the enemy is so frequently a key element of the narrative description of naval battles, and (b) naval warfare generally involves relatively small number of actual units, and even smaller numbers of formations, than any other form of warfare. I’ve yet to see any kind of computer wargame that successfully applies similar concepts to other forms of warfare.

Arguably, there’s a huge amount of work to do implementing this “simple” game, especially if you try to dress it up in realistic trappings (e.g. imagine the map is a representation of one of those map tables you see in war movies, with WACs speaking to someone on the phone and then moving little figures around on the map table with croupiers’ sticks). But if you abstract all the uncertainty, it’s not necessarily going to be terribly complex (except perhaps when it comes time to implement an AI). It seems to me that such a game would be very interesting to play; much more interesting than a bigger, more detailed, and more “complex” game implemented with conventional assumptions.

Spore

I didn’t get Spore Creature Creator when it came out, and I don’t own Spore. I possibly will buy a copy one day just to mess around with it, but I’m in no hurry. You see, I played this “game” back in 1990 or so. It sucked.

The fact that no-one in the media can remember anything should have stopped surprising and annoying me by now. Even Yahtzee seems to have missed the fact that before Spore and The Sims, but after Sim City, Will Wright did a game called Sim Earth. Aside from being technologically more primitive than Spore (it was 2d, for starters) it was essentially an attempt to do the same thing (evolution from single cell to interplanetary civilization) and while an interesting effort, it was an abysmal failure (both commercially and in every other way).

In all the hype leading up to the release of Spore I never saw anything to suggest that Wright had learned from the failure of Sim Earth. In essence, he’d added a whole bunch of eye candy to the same broken concept. Yes, everything is prettier now. And no, it still isn’t a game.

GTA IV Revisited, MGS IV Avoided

Metal Gear Solid IV is starting to get the kind of hype (see if you can guess the reviewer’s conclusions from the title of the review) that Grand Theft Auto IV just got, and will probably give the PS3 a huge shot in the arm. Although I will probably end up buying a PS3, it won’t be for some time, since I just bought an XBox 360. (And I’m still annoyed about backwards compatibility with PS2, or lack thereof.)

When I picked the XBox 360 over the PS3, I considered several factors:

First, I wanted a current generation console now in order to play GTA IV.

Second, I considered the expenditure to be significant, and planned to buy either the PS3 or XBox 360 and ignore the other platform for at least a year.

Third, I was well aware of the game pipelines for both platforms, including the not-quite-released Haze, the soon-to-be-released MGS IV, and at least one PS3 exclusive Final Fantasy title.

Fourth, I was also aware of the existing games for the two platforms, including Ratchet & Clank on the PS3 (the first Ratchet & Clank is one of my all-time favorite games and for a long time the new Ratchet & Clank has been the only current generation game I’ve found even slightly tempting) and a bunch of PC/XBox 360 titles that weren’t ported to the PS3, such as Bioshock and Mass Effect. (It didn’t hurt that every “me too” title on the PS3 appears to be inferior to its XBox 360 equivalent, e.g. Resistance: Fall Of Man vs. Gears of War. Or Halo vs. … Haze?)

In the end, PC/XBox 360 won over Sony lock-in. While I will one day get a PS3 and enjoy the latest Ratchet & Clank, the best games are generally targeted at computers still, and I venture that this has led and will lead to the XBox 360 having a better games library than the PS3.

As you may recall, I was withholding judgement on whether I think GTA IV deserves “10/10”.

First, let me say that it’s the first GTA game I’ve completely “unlocked”. (I’m about 50% “complete”, but I can go anywhere, have all the weapons, and am about five missions from completing the main arc.) Second let me say that I stand by my annoyance with the controls — almost every failed mission comes down to getting stuck on terrain or not being able to see incoming adversaries owing to the new “cover” interface. Third, everything Yahtzee complained about in his review of GTAIV is absolutely true. “Man Dates” in particular are the worst thing ever. (Woman dates are pretty bad too for that matter.)

So, I’ve played a lot of GTA IV, mainly in the wee hours after feeding babies and not being able to get back to sleep. The driving controls (once I got over the urge to use X to accelerate) are wonderful, and the person-to-person combat is generally great, although the “cover” stuff is still kind of annoying (and gets me killed once in a while). Once I realized how autosave worked (and stopped going back to my Safe House so much) I became much less annoyed at the save interface.

The game is a huge improvement over its predecessors in several ways:

  • First, the missions feel more organic to the world — it’s hard to pin down. For one thing, the really dumb missions (such as taxi, ambulance, and firetruck runs) are gone, while the cop missions are actually fun. For another, you seem to be able to pick your approach to a lot of them — whether it’s circling a target to pick a line of attack (or climbing an adjacent building to use your sniper rifle) or deliberately paralleling someone you’re supposed to be chasing to use easier streets. I’ve looked at walk-throughs to see how they recommend you do missions I’ve already completed and often found I did the mission in a way that isn’t mentioned (and not by using a “sploit”).
  • Second, the faux sat nav eliminates the constant navigation problems I had with every earlier game. I wish you could set multiple waypoints (e.g. I generally want to visit a gun store on my way to most missions, or a good place to steal cars on my way to a date).
  • Third, getting away from the cops is much more interesting (doing sensible things like zig-zagging through side-streets actually works, you can outrun a three star wanted rating on foot, cops don’t materialize around you the way they did in earlier games, and so on).
  • Fourth, you can shoot forwards from moving vehicles. (It’s quite difficult, as it should be, but a lot less annoying than the drive-bys in earlier games.
  • Fifth, as in San Andreas, gun combat is a lot of fun — the cover UI is flaky but generally more useful than not. (It gets me killed less often than it keeps me alive.) Before San Andreas, if a mission involved significant gunplay, it generally meant completing it was completely a matter of luck. With San Andreas and IV, I look forward to gunplay, and generally expect to win and turn a profit (i.e. collect more ammo than I use).

The thing that really stands out about GTA IV is the writing and acting. Even though the storyline is basically static (you can do quests in different order by visiting NPCs in different order, and you can sometimes make a binary choice that appears to have little impact) it’s so well written that I find myself watching cut scenes carefully and going back to them if I miss something. (You can skip cut scenes without even watching them once and still complete your missions, and many of the most entertaining dialog occurs in-game as you drive around, somewhat reminiscent of Interstate ’76. Aside: would someone please do a great ripoff of Interstate ’76 for the 360?)

As with GTA: San Andreas the acting is very good (simply unparalleled by other video games). E.g. Michelle, the first woman you date, always seems to be forcing her enthusiasm in the (tastefully discrete) bedroom scenes — I concluded she was an undercover cop or something, since the acting everywhere else in the game was so good I couldn’t believe it wasn’t deliberate.

I was right.

This marks the first time for me in a video game — that I can recall — where assuming the acting was goodturned out to be correct. Of course, knowing she was some kind of undercover cop made absolutely no difference, because your decisions have no effect on the plot.

Let me pause for a moment to consider GTA IV as a morality play. Much has been made of the series’s amorality. You invariably play a guy who steals cars, kills people for money, and kills random innocent bystanders in order to perform relatively trivial missions (in earlier games, this included delivering taxi passengers to their destinations and, even more ironically, picking up patients in an ambulance). While this trend continues in GTA IV, it is a remarkably moralistic game.

Niko Bellic — unlike almost everyone he works with — doesn’t do illegal drugs (he does drink himself stupid, and the drunkenness implementation is hilariously good) and constantly counsels his friends to perhaps cut down while in turn listening to them bemoan the costs (physical, personal, financial, and spiritual) of their habits both to him and one another. In one mission you help a gay “friend” by killing a gay bashing “hater” who has been stalking him and tries to beat him up on his jogging run in Middle Park.

Perhaps the worst piece of writing I’ve encountered is this:

Spoiler Alert

At one point in the game you’re working for a successful gangster and his long-time associate and mentor who recently got out of prison. Although very close friends, the former has tried to become legit while the older man remains an old school gangster, determined to regain his former crime empire. (Incidentally, this plot appears to be lifted directly from one of The Wire’s story arcs.) At the younger man’s behest, you start helping out the older man, but eventually and inevitably the two come into conflict. It has been established through cut scenes that Niko likes the older man, but he also reflects (accurately) that the younger man has never done him wrong. Eventually, after the older man has you kill the staff of a strip joint that (he neglects to tell you) happens to be run by the younger man, you’re forced to pick a side and kill the other. The younger man offers you a lot of money while the older basically asks it as a favor.

I killed the older man — not for the money, but because he had just screwed me (and betrayed his protege). But the game treated it as if I had been motivated by the money. (I looked for walkthroughs to find out what would have happenedt had I picked the other option — turns out I’d have gotten the younger man’s very nice penthouse apartment.) I found this very annoying… which is a sign of just how well-written everything else is. It’s also an example of the game’s moralistic subtext.

OK, so 10/10?

I realize that giving games a numerical rating is in a sense stupid, after all the New Yorker doesn’t give scores out of ten in its movie reviews (the New Yorker has lately begun reviewing popular music, which I guess means it should be discussing computer games by 2030 or so), but while I love the New Yorker’s reviews for their wit and insight, I’m often left wondering whether the critic enjoyed the film or might recommend it to a friend. (Yahtzee complains about numerical ratings, but often spews vitriol at games he pretty clearly enjoyed for the most part. His criticisms are on point, but was the game actually fun? And how much fun was it?) Numerical ratings are, in the end, a useful way of making the overall impression left on a reviewer by a game or movie unambiguous.

Thus, if you consider 10/10 to mean “any reviewer would recommend this game to a friend” then GTA IV deserves 10/10. If you consider 10/10 to mean “flawless”, GTA IV does not deserve it — it clearly has flaws and I’ve pointed a few out. If you consider 10/10 in the light of other games, such as Bioshock or Mass Effect which have received reviews in the 9.0 to 9.6 range, GTA IV unquestionably deserves a 10. In other words, GTA IV deserves a 10 the way Nadia Comaneci did in 1976 — if you’ve given high 9s out for a certain level of work, then something clearly superior deserves a 10.

Of course, the result of 10s becoming common in gymnastics was a revision of the scoring system to (no doubt temporarily) ameliorate grade inflation. If we recalibrate game scores so that an essentially decent game such as Bioshock gets 8/10, and a well-made game with stupid flaws that should have been fixed in QA such as Mass Effect gets 7/10, GTA IV would still easily rate at least 9.5/10. The problem isn’t that GTA IV has gotten too high a score so much as a bunch of mediocre or merely decent games have been getting 9/10 or more.

Bioshock is very pretty, and the artistic style and Ayn Rand references impress and amuse, respectively, but it’s an FPS with zany weapons game. It’s also a “shooter where shooting is remarkably ineffective” game. (I’m playing it on easy, and I it seems like I need to empty a clip into even the early mobs just to get them to notice me. And given that it’s a game where you scrabble for ammunition, this is not a recipe for fun.) This is not a worthy successor to System Shock or Thief or Ultima Underground or Fallout — and supposedly it’s something of a spiritual descendant of the first and has a clear aesthetic similarity to the last (By the way, in a Universe where Bioshock deserves 9.5/10, those four games deserve 11/10.)

Meanwhile, what of the other IV, Metal Gear Solid?

I loved the original Metal Gear Solid despite its glaring flaw — incredibly long-winded expository dialog that laid out a typical Japanese RPG back story… i.e. everyone was related to each other and had been betrayed, and powerful forces with unlimited budgets and no business plan were at work. (It’s possible that these back stories lose something in translation, but I’ve seen Japanese movies and comics with unquestionably solid plots, so I just think Japanese RPGs are badly written.) But, at the time, it was an incredibly innovative stealth shooter, and its understated features, such as that first moment when you use cigarette smoke to detect a security system, gave it an imaginative flair unmatched by games of its time.

Since the original MGS, as far as I can tell, all the progress that’s been made comprises saddling the gameplay with more of the latter. (The fawning review I linked above does say very positive things about the latest installment’s interface. If what they say is true, I will no doubt be very impressed when I finally succumb.)

Perhaps I am simply rationalizing my decision, but the MGS IV trailer thoughtfully provided at the end of the review I linked makes me completely uninterested in playing the game. It’s everything I hate about the original MGS and nothing I love about it wrapped into a long, boring, grey-brown video. (For a start, it looks like a cut scene featuring zero gameplay. And everything in the cut scene is stupid, badly written, and badly acted.)

At minimum, I’ll wait for Yahtzee’s review before I even consider trying to rationalize buying a PS3 to supplement my XBox 360…

Update: Yahtzee has posted his review of MGS4 and appears to have exactly the kinds of issues with itI would have expected him to, along with expressing considerable annoyance at his gameplay. Meanwhile, I’ve “finished” GTAIV (64.5% completed according to the in-game stats — WTF? I’ve completed all the plot quests and a ton of side quests. I guess I have to kill all the pigeons…).

Grand Theft Auto IV

It’s hard to read in the middle of the night between feedings of newborn twins, but playing video games works. It keeps me up (which is a good thing, since if I fall asleep by the time the screaming wakes me I have two very angry daughters) so I use various tricks to stay away during the “graveyard shift”.

When it comes to video game consoles, since the Sega Megadrive (a.k.a. “Genesis”) came out, I’ve been keeping more-or-less up-to-date, although I avoid the insane early rush to pay extra for buggy consoles with mediocre launch titles (which generally receive gushing reviews because the reviewers are bamboozled by the graphics). We’ve had a Wii since about six months after it came out, and I just succumbed and bought an X-Box 360, despite my hatred of Microsoft, because the only games on the PS3 that I would find compelling are the new Ratchet & Clank and the upcoming Metal Gear Solid (and I don’t really need to be reminded how annoying MGS games are).

In a vain attempt to stave off the next generation, I bought a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and played it for a while. I’ve never finished the main storyline in any of the GTA3 games (I’ve played them all) despite having logged more than enough hours in each to finish in theory. In fact, I’ve never even unlocked all the content. Usually, I tend to advance plot in RPGish games and ignore sidelines that are obviously off-arc (relentlessly goal-oriented, that’s me), but the GTA games aren’t quite RPGish enough (well, San Andreas kind of is) and the so-called sandbox (tooling around cities at high speed, doing insane stunts, and killing random people) is pretty seductive while the missions tend to be repetitive and often annoyingly hard. (And if you can’t do them, they’re even more repetitive.)

It’s particularly interesting to play GTAIV immediately after playing San Andreas, and here’s why: ignoring the multiplayer aspects of GTAIV (which don’t sound terribly compelling to me, but I’ve yet to try them), GTAIV is in every respect a smaller, less ambitious, and more restrictive game than San Andreas. The controls (at least on the XBox 360) are gratuitously and annoyingly different from those on the PS2 (despite the XBox controller being an obvious attempt to clone the PS2 controller without being sued), but there is a “classic” mode which is more similar (I found it even more confusing), and I found them more likely to hose you in tight spots. (I think almost every time I’ve died and most of the times I’ve failed a mission it could be ascribed to poor controls.) The one new piece of core game play is the ability to explicitly take and use cover, which is a Good Thing, but not so brilliantly implemented. (And in San Andreas you could use cover by crouching behind it, which while not as “cute” worked better.) Perhaps a GTAIV follow-up will refine the cover controls to make them less likely to glue you to a pillar in front of shotgun-wielding enemies.

Aside: both games have a very ambitious, well-written, and well-acted storyline. If anything, I think that San Andreas’s storyline is more coherent and has less heavy-handed silliness (or maybe not, while GTAIV has Brucie — the juicer stolen car dealer, and Manny — the ex-gang-member-turned-wannabe-celebrity, San Andreas has a succession of ridiculous girlfriends).

Yes, in GTAIV you can play pool, go bowling, visit a strip club — but this is either lame, tedious, or simply canned content. The equivalent “mini-games” in San Andreas involved taking over neighborhoods, burgling apartments, the “usual” taxi, fire, police, and ambulance driving challenges — i.e. they leveraged the core gameplay (driving around a city at ridiculous speeds and killing people) to make the world deeper and more interesting rather than being gratuitous and pointless add-ons. While GTAIV ditches San Andreas’s (mildly annoying) character development system), it extends and deepens its even more annoying relationship system to cover your “guy” friends.

Addendum: one thing I should mention is that GTAIV has a new and significantly improved system for handling being “wanted”. Now, when you’re wanted, a search area is shown on your radar/map along with indications of where the police are (I think they omit the ones on foot). The more wanted you are, the larger the search radius. Each time you’re seen, the search area recenters on you. So getting away from the police involves a judicious combination of speed and stealth, making it a much better sub-game.

And I should mention: San Andreas feels a lot bigger than the Liberty City of GTAIV. For a start, San Andreas featured some very well-designed countryside (which felt much bigger than it actually was).

There’s much to love about GTAIV. It is incredibly beautiful to look at, and it’s nice to get out of “period” and back to the current day, because it affords much more opportunity for social commentary (and there’s a lot of it in the game) and also because we are in (in my opinion) something of a golden age of car design right now, and it’s nice to see doubles of cars like the Honda S2000, the Nissan Rogue, the Chrysler 300, Hummer H2*, and so on, filling the streets (along with a variety of classic finned cars from the 50s and muscle cars from the 70s of course). In my opinion, the cars in GTAIV are the most beautiful (and not just because of the graphic resolution) we’ve ever seen.

* Yes, the Hummer is a sin against nature, but it does look kickass. In the game it’s called the patriot and often comes with a huge billowing flag painted on it. I’ve not driven one much in game but it would be pretty funny if it were the only vehicle in the game that runs out of gas.

The city feels more “alive” than San Andreas. Food and newspaper vendors appear during business hours, and disappear or close shop at night, pedestrians exhibit wider varieties of behavior, including chatting on cell phones and holding conversations.

Social Commentary, in the form of constant, unrelenting, sarcastic, and — methinks too — cynical wit is embedded throughout the game, whether it’s on your car radio, the TV in your apartment, the faux web you surf in internet cafes (you receive spam in your email, of course), the comments the clerks in fast food outlets make about the food they serve, or the conversations you overhear on the street. Pretty much anything from terrorism as an excuse for political repression to those annoying ads for scooters on late night TV to political smear tactics to Fox (“Weasel”) News gets a thorough head-kicking. And of course they make fun of the media while imitating it. It’s all a bit Sophomoric but there’s so much of it, it’s so dense, and it’s aimed in so many directions that some of it will make almost anyone laugh out loud at some point.

The underlying morality of GTAIV is pretty interesting too. As with Bully, it seems the designers want to at least allow (if not encourage) the player down a kind of path of redemption. (I haven’t finished the game, and may never, but this is how it seems so far.) The fact that the player will almost unavoidably kill hundreds of people*, mainly innocent bystanders, in the course of attaining redemption is, as in the Matrix movies, silently ignored. Who knows, maybe there’s some kind of special ending for anyone who manages to avoid all innocent deaths while completing the main story?

* The game does keep track of your victims, albeit without categorizing them as, say, road kills versus deliberate shots. I’ve found myself killing pedestrians just trying to get to a date’s house on time, so the low value of virtual human life is pretty astonishing.

One obvious difference between GTAIV and its predecessors is that it has a new story to tell, that of a central European military veteran with a dubious past joining his cousin, a ne’er-do-well taxi operator, in Liberty City and trying to make his way in America by doing anything that pays well and makes good use of his talents (he’s very good at killing people — although, annoyingly, much better at it in cut scenes than when you’re in control — and pretty good at breaking into cars).

As Zero Punctuation has pointed out in his excellent review of GTAIV (no, I haven’t mentioned the man-dates, but thanks to Zero Punctuation, I don’t need to), numerical ratings for games (or books, or movies) are kind of nutty, but if you’re forced to give one, implying GTAIV is perfect is just ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned above, in terms of gameplay it’s in some ways a step down from GTA San Andreas, and it’s really quite disingenuous (golly, I use that term a lot lately: I use it to mean “feigned ignorance” and not mere dishonesty or insincerity — I think there’s a lot of it around) for reviewers who obviously played the latter not to even so much as mention this glaring fact. In terms of graphics it represents a radical improvement, but one that is no more than is to be expected for the new generation of game platforms. And since GTAIV is at heart a single-player game, even if the multi-player component is amazing this can’t drag it from a solid 8.5 to a ridiculous 10.0.

So now that I’ve finally succumbed, I need to try out Bioshock and Mass Effect.