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Return to the Capital Wastelands

There is something joyous about being back in the Capital Wasteland. The release of Broken Steel has given me another excuse to return to Fallout 3 and although it may be a landscape carved from a nuclear holocaust, after a six month holiday it is the most beautiful gaming world there is.

The only reason that Bethesda’s sprawling RPG was initially put to one side was that after 50 hours playtime and with a building pile of unplayed releases piling up I felt that it would do me good to try something else. In that time the controls disappeared from my memory and so the first half-hour was spent figuring out what was what and sifting through my inventory to see exactly what was what. Vague memories of just where I had plundered certain items from came floating back: Lincoln rifles looted from the very heart of the Capital buildings; bobbleheads pulled from long closed vaults; and trinkets stolen from a thousand defeated foes. It was as if I had found a long lost box of knickknacks in the loft.

A big worry for me had always been whether Fallout would continue to be as good as I had made out. Whether it still deserved to be placed upon a pedestal. Those fears were put to one side only five minutes after leaving the safety of Megaton. Trying to map out those areas of the wasteland I had yet to tread, I headed off into the unknown only to find a children’s playground in the middle of no-where. In the centre of this was a climbing frame shaped like a space rocket, crafted into a seat. Or more exactly, a throne, for on it sat The King of Roaches, surrounded by dozens of his cockroach subjects. In a world thrown into chaos one sane man had decided that the only way he was going to survive was by donning a survival mask and setup a new kingdom in a desolate valley.

Upon approaching him to pay my respects he admittedly did pull out a minigun but that is neither here nor there as it is nuggets like this that keeps the game so interesting. Every inch of the game contains such an attention for detail that I just want to keep exploring. Already in my first play session I have unearthed a hidden military stockpile protected by dozens of barrels of nuclear waste, a slaver camp where they wish me to put explosive collars on new “recruits” and have seen off a mutant invasion from a small homestead. No wonder I’m knackered this morning.

The best games are those that are not only great the first time you play but also the second, third and fourth, too. Fallout was definitely no flash in the pan and with the level cap now pushed up to 30 it has managed to suck me back in.

Birthday Honours

As with The Queen, I feel it my duty to recognise those that have impressed me over the last twelve months and so I welcome you to the second annual BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

For services to music: Rock Band 2

I used to think the solo guitar experience was exhilarating, making you feel like an instant rock star. However, as I have already stated this week there were few experiences last year better than playing in your own plastic band. This iteration on the series builds on its already strong core, whilst the drums and the copious amount of downloadable songs have been a revolution to me, revitalised my interest in this genre.

For services to the Capital Wasteland: Fallout 3

If there was one game in 2008 that I had to force myself to put down as I was in danger of forsaking all others, that game would be Fallout 3. Some may have found the desolate wasteland they were wandering through a chore, I regarded it as a mammoth game of hide and seek. Over each ridge or round the next canyon turn you never knew what you were going to find, from crashed UFOs to museums dedicated to fizzy drinks. The sheer scale of the game was inspiring.

For services against the undead: Left 4 Dead

Despite my original muted response towards Left 4 Dead, the zombie apocalypse has grown on me. It is a game where no story is needed, your goals are obvious and tight teamwork is rewarded. This simplicity is its strength with new players able to delve right in and get just as much from it as grizzled veterans.

For services to engineering: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Not only does it feature one Trophy Thomas, but also the ultimate Lego set. Once you reach a certain point in the game a light bulb flicks on inside your head and all sorts of crazy ideas begin churning out. To add to my trebuchet, Thundertank, Thunderbird 2 and Seaking, I’ve seen ferris wheels, walking robots, space shuttles and a myriad more creations that make you realise what a flexible toolset you have at your disposal.

For services to puzzlement: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

A delightful DS game that takes a different slant on point-and-click adventuring, combining some devious logic puzzles with a colourful brand of animation. The whole game oozes charm, from a village that is populated with those obsessed with testing your brain to Professor Layton’s nemesis who would prefer you out the way so he can presumably have all the puzzles to himself.

Honourable mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year, I do think a few others deserve the nod.

The continued presence of Halo and Rainbow Six: Vegas should be appreciated. Excluding those with zombies, no shooter has come close to dislodging these pair as firm favourites.

In terms of controlling green clad pixies, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for me was second only to Link to the Past in terms of enjoyment. A great debut on the DS for Link.

Mirror’s Edge would be held in far higher esteem if only the combat wasn’t so frustrating. For me this has great parallels with Sands of Time; if only enemies were completely removed from both games then I would champion them to anyone who would listen.

Although there seems a backlash for Fable II, I still really loved it for what it was. There may be no sandbox world on the scale of Oblivion but I liked what it did for it did it really well.

Review: Fallout 3

Last year, Bioshock became the darling of the gaming world because it combined a beautiful but tortured historical aesthetic with an engaging narrative. Whilst comparisons with Fallout 3 may at first seem misguided, they both share very similar themes: a world in ruin, an unlikely hero with a series of moral choices, and an art style set in the recent past. Not wanting to give too much away, but Fallout, like Bioshock, is an exceptional title.

As the opening cinematic fades away, the initial scene reveals a very unique experience: that of your own birth. Part of the quality of Bethesda’s epic RPG is the seamless way it weaves in the character creation stages, and what could be more natural than birth? It continues through childhood with important events shaping the adult who you will become: a toddler’s ABC book will assign characteristics whilst skill points will be gifted through school tests. Even the introduction of your Pitboy 3000 – your inventory manager, guidance system and quest book – is handled in the manner of a birthday present.

The style of the forthcoming adventure is molded through these handouts and there is plenty of scope to create a wide array of characters. From hackers to brawlers, marksmen to scientists, the world can be tackled in a variety of ways, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

This period of growth does a wonderful job of rolling out the Fallout universe, too. It is a world in a post-apocalyptic state where the denizens of the US have sought shelter in giant underground vaults. However, with the stage set in your cozy subterranean home, everything is turned upside down as your father decides to leave the safety of Vault 101. Keen to find out just why he abandoned his only child, you follow in his footsteps and set off in pursuit across the dangerous Capital Wasteland.

It is here where the game starts to shine. With the shackles of the vault cast aside, you stand on a hillside surveying a scene of utter devastation: buildings torn asunder, bleak landscapes and nothing but a gray palette for miles. Coming from the colour-rich Fable some may feel subdued by this depressing panorama, but the sense of freedom is immense.

Whereas Oblivion’s landscape was usually curtailed by hills, forests and city walls, Fallout hides nothing of its desolation. More often than not you can see far, far into the distance. Glimpses of strange buildings and settlements lurk in the distance, pulling you from your goal with the sheer intrigue of what they might hide.

As soon as I emerged blinking into the light, I took one look at my primary objective and promptly marched off in the opposite direction. Nearly a dozen hours passed before I took my first steps towards seeking out my father. Whether that makes me a bad son I do not know, but in the meantime I discovered abandoned towns, happened upon hidden weapon caches and had run away from more than one giant scorpion.

For those focusing solely and millitantly on the main storyline they’ll be able to polish off Fallout 3 in roughly ten hours. Kudos. They’ll also be depriving themselves of exploring a rich world populated with colourful characters. Wandering the barrens introduces many communities hidden away. Scared slaves living in ruins, an undercity full of mutants and towers housing the pre-war upperclass. Many have a tale to tell, some may even partner up with you, and searching for these groups often opens up quest chains that tells the story of the Wasteland yet further.

The sheer variety and detail of these quests is impressive. Players will rarely feel like they are facing the same challenge twice, aided and abetted by the narrative and their branching nature. Case in point, when asked to remove a troublesome ghoul, said ghoul also has a story to tell. Do you then continue with your orders to off him or is it now far more lucrative to keep him alive? Whose word do you value most? Should you follow the path of greed or righteousness? Choices, choices.

Although your early stat distribution will have shaped your character in one of many fashions, a good majority of quests are ultimately resolved by gunfights. Whilst it may be feasible to stealth around hordes at night and hack your way through security doors for sneaky shortcuts, lead will eventually fly. There are situations that can be resolved through diplomacy or cold hard cash and they are refreshing when they crop up, however, it is always worth dropping a few skill points into firearms not matter what the chosen character build.

What saves this adventure from turning into a sprawling shooter is a system called VATS. Entering VATS will freeze time and combat will change to an almost turn-based system where individual body parts can be targeted. Each will show the percentage chance of hitting and so the trade-off must be made between the high-risk, high-damage head and the relatively easy but more durable torso.

To maintain balance, using VATS costs action points, which take time to recharge. Once all are spent then combat reverts to a more traditional shooting mechanic. The basic FPS controls are not the game’s finest moment and so the mix works well. Players can choose between holding back for their recharging action points or charging in ala Quake, each giving their own experience.

Whilst combat may still be a work in progress (although a step up from Oblivion), Fallout 3 is ultimately an immersive world where it is possible to lose yourself for hours upon hours. Drawn in by tales of survival and the vast map just begging for exploration, the goodies that lie at the bottom of long abandoned vaults and the search for your missing father, there is so much to do it is hard to see a better value game this year.

For those of you who lost your lives to Oblivion, then prepare to do so again. Those who did not, and I was amongst your number, I would still consider putting Fallout 3 at the top of your Christmas list; it will keep you going long after the last of the mince pies have been eaten.

10/10

“Please release me, let me go”

Looking at the release schedule, which has steadily been growing week upon week until the current “What’s Out” listing looks comparable to the north face of K2, this Friday’s has to be the most demanding of the year for me. These last seven days will have brought Gears, Banjo, Left 4 Dead, Guitar Hero World Tour, Mirror’s Edge and End War to the shelves, and this is on top of my pre-existing love affair with Fallout 3. What is a boy to do?

The one release that passed my silently by was Wrath of the Lich King, a World of Warcraft expansion. Quite strangely it was only brought to my attention by BBC Radio 5live covering its midnight launch. They were interviewing someone who had camped out since Tuesday in order to be first in line and were quite reasonably discussing its addictive properties.

Part of me is quite disappointed that I am no longer interested in World of Warcraft enough to be excited by or even to notice a new chapter working its way out to the masses. Having played two serious stints before, the second triggered by the release of the previous expansion, I definitely count myself as a fan but I believe my time has been and gone is Azeroth.

World of Warcraft still can claim home to some very memorable gaming moments due to the team work and social engagement it brought with other players in the world. A core four from within Rare formed our party but in the end it required so much planning to get the whole quartet together at the same time on the same night that the feasibility of playing just dropped away. At higher levels, its scale is hardly something you can dabble in at lunchtimes.

Currently I wander the plains of a different world, Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland, and until that has been put to bed I can only see a certain rhythm action game being played in parallel. Everything else will just have to wait.