Beaten by Fallout

I’ve just finished Fallout: New Vegas. Finished as in stopped playing, not finished as in “got to the end”.

As usual, I’m a bit over a year behind with my gaming owing to life, children, work, et al, but I thought I’d discuss my impressions of FNV because it is, to borrow from Alan Kay, worth criticizing. If you’re interested, I also wrote about Fallout 3 after finishing it (for real) some time back. (I might note that none of the failings of Fallout 3 have been addressed in FNV, e.g. combat sucks just as bad as ever.)

The Fallout series, both the old 2d versions and the new Bethesda games, has been marked by the most sophisticated “quest” system ever seen in computer RPGs. From the very first game you had branching quests with real decision points that had real world impacts (if anything, the last part is much less a factor than it was in the earlier games, presumably because of the higher costs of asset production for modern AAA 3d games).

Of course, F3 and FNV are really not AAA games in terms of quality. Both the graphics and the software are actually incredibly shoddy. I’m willing to forgive this because these games have actual stories, good — sometimes even great — writing, a ridiculous amount of content, and often surprise me.

It’s a shame that, despite making bucketloads of money, Bethesda never seems to have managed to figure out how to write decent software.

The Good

Some of the quests are inspired, and left me with genuine moral quandaries. The setting is incredibly rich and sophisticated (the New California Republic, for example, is a basically good but deeply flawed nation, which is an obvious analog for a certain other powerful but often corrupt and stupid country we might be familiar with).

The writing is great, and the voice acting is usually good too. I enjoy a lot of the conversations, including some real laugh out loud moments. (The foul-mouthed cynical caravaneer is a particular favorite, and the entire gang of Elvis impersonators is awesome.)

I try to play Fallout games with a strict “no restore from backup” policy, so that I’m forced to live with my actions which frequently led to my putting off a decision while I tried to find a better alternative or simply get more information. (And, to its credit, there will often be an alternative and/or more information.) There’s no other RPG franchise which consistently achieves this level of immersion for me.

The Bad

Because the quests are so sophisticated and the game is so open, there are lots and lots of bugs. One quest lingered on after I completed it and kept spewing out a message that I needed to do something (even though I’d finished the quest), which led me to go do that thing (and kill a whole bunch of people as a result, which left me feeling a bit guilty).

More annoying, you’ll often find yourself doing a quest out of order which no longer makes sense. Some of these have been explicitly dealt with in a very elegant fashion (as in it’s built into the quest), some are hamfisted (as in you can turn in the quest immediately after being offered it), and some are just broken.

The buddy AI in FNV is horrible, broken, and has an interface that is both confusing and bad. To being with, you get a radial menu of options which toggle between two states (e.g. “Follow Me” vs. “Wait Here”). The problem is that each option goes from displaying its current state when not selected to displaying the state you will obtain by clicking when selected. So if your buddy is in “wait” mode and you select it (with a view to changing it, perhaps) it changes to showing “follow”, which changes to “wait” if you click it. It takes a while to figure this out because, as it turns out, a lot of the modes basically don’t work. The most egregious of these is “passive” (as in “don’t attack stuff randomly”) which appears not to do anything.

The quest mapping and in-game maps in general are terrible. In FNV, your in-game interface is a wrist-mounted “Pip-Boy” (which goes back to the original 2d games, and indeed looks pretty much the same). One of the useful innovations in recent games is that you get a lot more help figuring out where to go (which you really need). I’d have to say, though, that the way the map system works in FNV is infuriating, and I spent a huge amount of time chasing after misleading navigation hints. This is exacerbated by what is truly the single worst feature of FNV…

Loading times in FNV are horribly slow. Seriously, cut down the polygon counts and texture size and load the damn levels faster. This isn’t helped by ridiculous level and quest interaction where to perform a quest you need to “zone” dozens times to talk to five different people — and that’s assuming you don’t get horribly lost and confused. You know the loading is bad when you’re grateful to see a new “hint” or transition slide.

As far as I can tell “karma” has no effect — although it does actually change my behavior. (It seems to be independent of the faction system.) But it’s very odd to me that I can gain karma for killing someone but lose it for picking up his stuff afterwards. Perhaps the funniest bug in the whole karma system is that in some cases you can drop stuff on the floor and then get dinged karma for stealing when you pick it up. In the end, the karma system is probably a Good Thing despite not working and being stupid, for me, since it makes me think about stealing even if there are no real consequences.

But, if I kill a bunch of people with no witnesses why does it ruin my rep? Am I assumed to be drunkenly boasting about it as I travel? The funny thing is, at least the way I play, I gain karma from killing and lose it from picking stuff up. Ah, the moral lessons we learn from computer games.

There are some “quests” in the game that aren’t handled by the quest interface. They’re essentially “missions” that are organic to the game content (dialog, events, etc.) but don’t appear in your quest log. This forces you to manually track and check them, which just makes the game unnecessarily tedious. The chief reason for this appears to be to avoid giving away the location of the thing you need to get rather than for any other reason — I’d prefer they implemented them as quests and not always provide waypoints. (One, in particular, involves finding a lost laser pistol — which I was never able to do.)

The Ugly

Because FNV has some really good writing and your decisions have consequences it’s very tempting to play it through and accept setbacks as organic to the story. (It’s also possible to get sucked into the story when things are running smoothly and forget to save.) The problem is that the biggest source of setbacks in Fallout is bugs, and the worst form of bug is the “faction glitch” whereby you get attacked by the wrong people for the wrong reason upon entering a new area (“zoning”). Here’s how it works:

  1. You don’t explicitly save a game for some time because you’re enjoying yourself.
  2. You go through a door or use long-distance travel or sleep.
  3. The game auto-saves.
  4. You suddenly get attacked by members of some faction you had no strong feelings about or perhaps it’s the NCR Army or maybe even New Vegas robot security.
  5. Your buddy or buddies immediately kill a bunch of people / ghouls / mutants / robots destroying your carefully won relationship with at least two major factions (my particular favorite is the sniper, who is generally awesome, who throws grenades around like candy and loves to pull out melee weapons and go to town despite (a) being a sniper, (b) claiming to suck at melee, and (c) being told to stand back, be passive, and stick to ranged weapons).
  6. This is pretty bad, but you could restore your auto-save if you didn’t, say, reflexively back out of the room (and fire off autosave again).

This sequence of events happens with sufficient frequency that it’s pretty much bound to bite you in the ass several times. (And it’s not like turning off auto-save would improve matters — at least auto-save stops you getting bitten in the ass most of the time.) By the time I got to the end-game, I was pretty thoroughly screwed almost entirely by problems inflicted on me by bugs in the game engine. For example (spoiler alert):

My relationship with the NCR (which was very good at the time) was destroyed because they saw me walking around with a mutant (minding our own business). They shot at me. OK, I returned fire (I basically decided, at that moment, that if the NCR were that racist then I wasn’t going to help them any more) except that the Vegas Strip security robots (which were supposed to be under my control at the time) opened fire on me because I was returning fire.

Earlier than that, I tried to visit Caesar* while carrying his safe conduct. One of his Praetorians actually explained to me that I was under his protection while launching an unprovoked attack at me. I was in the middle of his territory at the time (apparently his other people had gotten the message, or were fooled by the Centurion uniform I was wearing (its former owner not having much use for it any more). But then, I’d wiped out an entire town of his earlier that day because apparently my safe conduct didn’t work there either.

Let me add that the quest system apparently knew that the safe conduct was gone because it had closed off the relevant quest (to go meet Caesar) after I killed a few legionnaires during a random skirmish that, again, I did not initiate. I could easily have restored from backup at that point but I decided that it was stupid to even pretend that I would ever side with Caesar and to go with it.

* If you haven’t played FNV, there’s a seethingly bad guy who calls himself Caesar and has assembled Roman-style legions and — somehow — threatens the NCR’s hold on Hoover Dam, despite most of his soldiers being armed with spears and pissing off almost everyone they meet. There’s an interesting bit of dialog with one of your companions who argues some of the attractions of Caesar’s rule (basically, he makes the trains run on time), but it’s pretty hard to see someone like this having any shot against an organized, numerous, and technologically superior enemy.

What Ended the Game For Me

Having completed almost every quest I could find, I was down to recruiting a sexbot for a low-end casino (which I could never figure out how to do because of the broken map system), updating the codebooks for remote ranger stations (perhaps the single most stupid and time-consuming quest in the game, involving walking around mountains trying to find the way up — surely if they really wanted you to take codebooks to remote outposts they would tell you how to get there), and fixing an Elvis Impersonator’s robot dog.

I decided to fix the dog (one of the most memorable companions in the original Fallout was a dog, so the cyborg dog is a nice homage). This involved walking a long way and doing very little (except killing some very weak enemies, an indication that I was expected to have done this earlier) whereupon I reached a new “quest hub”. I only found a couple of simple things to do, did them, got a new companion (a cross-dressing somewhat insane super mutant), and headed back to New Vegas whereupon everything went pear-shaped. My faction standings were damaged (by the NCR firing on my mutant buddy) and I realized that the only way to fix it was to load a three hour old backup.

So I decided to give up on the NCR but keep relations as good as possible. But that turns out not to be viable, so I started having to kill a lot of NCR people. Because, despite my still being on pretty good terms with them (“smiling troublemaker”), they appeared to prefer shooting me to Caesar’s soldiers. (Caesar’s soldiers were inexplicably continuing to attack the NCR despite my having wiped out their main city and two of their biggest settlements and killed all their commanders including Caesar, and despite various NPCs acknowledging the fact I had done this.)

Oh, and did I mention that FNV simply crashes a lot? It’s hard to tell because sometimes it just takes a ridiculous amount of time to load a new area. Anyway, then FNV started crashing. A lot.

Bethesda: you suck. Again.

I thought you’d gotten over the period when you wrote the barely playable Daggerfall, followed by the broken Redguard, and the utterly broken Battlespire. You seemed to have at least figured out how to ship a working app. Sure, Fallout 3 had some rough edges, but this is ridiculous.