Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Fallout 3: DLC Expansions 1-3

Fallout 3 was an enormous success for Bethesda when it was released last autumn, and Bethesda were quick to confirm they were working on DLC (downloadable content) for the game. Learning from the lukewarm response to DLC for their previous game, Oblivion (shelling out several pounds or dollars to get in-game 'horse armour' was a bit weak), Bethesda decided to make the DLC for Fallout 3 more ambitious, splitting the development team into three to quickly deliver three substantial expansions to the existing game in short order: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt and Broken Steel. This has since expanded to include two further expansions, Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta, which will be released in the coming months.

Operation Anchorage and The Pitt are 'plug-ins' to the existing game and can be played at any time, whether upon emerging from Vault 101 at Level 1 or having completed the original game at Level 20. Broken Steel is a direct sequel to Fallout 3, with new quests expanding the story past the end of the game. It also lifts the experience cap to Level 30. If you finished FO3 and want to carry on earning experience, it makes sense to install Broken Steel before tackling any of the DLC, which makes it a bit odd that they released Broken Steel as third expansion. The two expansions to come are also plug-ins. Assuming you don't do too much random exploring or ruin crawls, the five DLC expansions should just get you to Level 30.

Operation Anchorage (***) opens with a distress signal calling you deep into the Washington, DC ruins, where you find the base of the Brotherhood Outcasts. These individuals were found wandering around the landscape in the original game, but you now get their full story and learn they are trying to get into a vault equipped with some hardcore weaponry and high-level items. The only way to do this is to beat a VR simulation of Operation Anchorage, the US Army's retaking of Alaska after the Chinese invasion in 2077. If you volunteer to undergo the simulation, you enter the battlefield bereft of weapons and have to take the part of a US soldier fighting on the front lines. This is a combat-focused expansion with almost no roleplaying elements at all (save conversations with your commanding officer). Players who liked the VATS-fuelled combat of Fallout 3 will enjoy the battles, the new weapons and in particular the early access to Power Armour (doing Operation Anchorage at Level 1 is eye-opening, as you leave the vault with the best armour in the game). Those who want something more meaty and story-driven may be more disappointed.

The Pitt (***½) also starts with an SOS signal, this time calling you to a train tunnel at the northern edge of the map. Here you meet Wernher, an outcast from 'the Pitt', the enormous rebuilt steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who asks your aid in freeing his people from slavery. You agree and have to go incognito as a slave in the Pitt (any NPC allies return to their home and can be re-hired upon your return to DC). Although illogical (at Level 20+ you could go through the Pitt, kill all the slavers and save everyone in about half an hour), being temporarily bereft of all your weapons and armour does reintroduce an element of challenge to the game, and the only weapon allowed to you, the Autoaxe (a mechanical axe with a spinning blade head), is one of the best melee weapons in the game. The Pitt is small, consisting of only a couple of outdoor areas linked by the steel mills and a dungeon-like area called the Scrapyard, but ingeniously designed with maximum use made of vertical space. The story is also solid, with a very morally ambigious climax. Unlike the Anchorage simulation, you can return to the Pitt any time after completing it, but there is very little reason to do so.

Broken Steel (****) is the main attraction of the DLCs and is the best of the three. Your character wakes up two weeks after the end of Fallout 3 (which you may recalled involved a massive water purification project, a face-off between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave and the unleashing of a demented giant weapon of war) to find all-out war raging. The Brotherhood has pushed the Enclave back to the edge of the DC area, but momentum is faltering as the Enclave strike back with powerful new weapons. At the same time, the Brotherhood's attempts to use the Purifier to decontaminate the tidal basin of the Potomac are complicated by the fact that several self-serving groups in the Capital Wasteland are trying to cash in on the new, inexhaustible source of fresh, safe water. The player's job is to investigate these latter problems and put a stop to them, and help the Brotherhood see off the Enclave once and for all.

Broken Steel is an excellent addition to the game, with the raising of the level limit allowing your character to become more skilled and powerful and the addition of some impressive new weapons, such as the Tesla Coil, the only weapon in the game which can shoot down Enclave aircraft. There also seems a lot more to do, with some decent side-quests and a major new area (Edwards Air Force Base) to explore. Also, since Broken Steel takes place on the existing DC map, you can also finish off any random missions you were previously pursuing or explore any buildings you missed the first time around. Finally, unlike FO3 itself, Broken Steel ends with the game world still fully explorable, so you can carry on adventuring or hold out for the next DLC episodes as you please.

The Fallout 3 foray into DLC is mostly a success, adding a decent amount of content to the game for a reasonable price in a reasonable timescale (to have twelve hours or so of content added to the game within six months of its original release is highly impressive). There are some issues, however. Buying the expansions from Games for Windows Live is frustrating experience, notably because the expansions cost 800 points each but you can only buy points in batches of either 500 or 1,000. No matter which way you swing it, you're going to have points left over which you may never use, and thus wasted money. Holding out for the boxed copies is an option, but the fifth one, Mothership Zeta, will only be available online or in the Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition, which isn't due until October. PS3 players have also missed out, with Operation Anchorage not due until next month and the other four at irregular intervals after that. All three DLCs also had some bugs and download issues when they were first released, although these have all now been fixed.

Operation Anchorage, The Pitt and Broken Steel are available to download from Games for Windows for PC and X-Box 360 now, and will hit PS3's Sony Marketplace over the next few months. Boxed omnibus copies of Operation Anchorage/The Pitt and Broken Steel/Point Lookout will be released in the summer on all three formats. Point Lookout will be released on Games for Windows in late June and Mothership Zeta in August. According to strong rumours, Bethesda are not working on a large-scale Fallout 3 expansion and will instead be focusing on The Elder Scrolls V for 2010/2011 release, with Obsidian's Fallout: New Vegas (due in mid-2010) instead filling the gap.


Longasc said...

You were quite kind to Operation Anchorage. 3 Stars? And 4 for the really better Broken Steel? Hmm.

I think one has to add that they experimented a lot with their DLCs. OA is a linear shootout, not really much more than pretty snow levels with a lackluster story, basically a pseudo-FPS. The Pitt has a more interesting scenario but not so much content either, its over after 4 hours, even if you search for the hidden steel bars maybe 5 hours at max.

Broken Steel blends into the game and really does something, while most perks are rather crappy or totally imbalanced, enemies now at least can scratch your char. They raised difficulty a bit and fine tuned the dreaded mob scaling a lot.

I also appreciated that the focus was more on story expansion than just the much better gear carrots that the previous DLCs offered.

Adam Whitehead said...

I quite liked Fallout's 3 take on combat. A decent first-person RPG combat system has been a bit of a holy grail for developers for years and FO3 did seem to come close to nailing it, although it's far from perfect. For that reason, I rated Anchorage for its shooter side whilst noting its RP elements were lacking, and if you preferred the RP elements Anchorage probably isn't worth it.

On the length of these things, £7 (roughly) for 4 hours entertainment isn't bad value at all (you might pay that for a years-old film on DVD, or twice that for a new one) and they did get the DLCs out quite quickly (if not quite as quickly as they'd hoped). I was pretty certain we'd be getting one every four months if we were lucky, and the fact that all three are now out and two more are on the way is impressive.

It did leave me asking what the hell Valve are doing. These DLCs aren't much shorter than the HL2 episodes and, whilst not as polished, they must be rather more complex to programme (with the scaling monsters, quest items, NPCs, reactive AI etc). Having seen the FO3 DLCs Valve really haven't got much excuse for taking three times as long for each episode as Bethesda spent on all five of its expansions. At this point, unless Episode 3 is as big as HL2 itself, they're going to have a fair few cheesed off fans.