Monday, November 15, 2010

First Review: Fallout New Vegas

 Fallout: New Vegas

 Presentation Score: 7.2

 For the most part, Fallout: New Vegas looks pretty good for a sandbox game. With a four year old graphics engine, it won't be winning any awards for it's looks, but it doesn't make your eyes bleed either. An idea that was only brushed on lightly in Fallout 3 was light bloom upon exiting your home for the very first time. New Vegas improves on this by increasing the dynamic lighting situations, causing some truly dramatic changes. While there could have definitely been more use of this technique (I don't see any reason to ever bother with the ability you can gain to adapt to these changes in light faster), there is something truly magical about looking across the vast Mojave wasteland and seeing the light bloom of the neon signs on the Strip from anywhere in the outside world.

Yet, there were numerous times I was taken out of the game because I swear I'd heard and seen the exact same character wearing medieval armor in Oblivion, who was now supposedly a refugee two-hundred years after the nuclear apocalypse. The character models are really showing there age now, and with this being the third game to use the same engine, recycling models seems like a new step in laziness. I mean, it's the same engine, can't you at least make all new faces/hair styles?

Worse than that though, character's voice actors seem to be inconsistent with themselves, and certain dialogue trees treat you with a completely different voice responding to you from line to line. What had just been a kindly grandmother who could have been inviting you to tea the last sentence was now a very masculine, hard-assed military woman threatening to gut you and feed you to her dogs.

Gameplay: 7.5

It looks like Fallout 3, sounds like Fallout 3, and glitches like Fallout 3. In short, it's everything Fallout 3 was meant to be, as well as a few things it was afraid we'd notice. To really start analyzing this game, we first have to take a look under the hood at the game's engine. While built upon the extraordinary Havok physics engine, Bethesda's engine is showing it's age. Originally released with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006, it was a huge technological advancement over their previous title, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The increased A.I., dynamic lighting, and rag doll physics brought new graphical realism to the series, effectively forcing thousands of computer gamers to upgrade their systems to be able to even play the game.

With all these new incredible features, players could forgive the occasional system crash, or clipping issues when objects or even enemies would "fall" into the environment, and even the physic glitches that would cause items to float or violently vibrate if you moved something near them. Unfortunately, these little bugs have grown up over the last four years and they've grown fangs.

The first new glitch I came across was maybe an hour or two into the game. I went to quick load the game, and found that it loaded a significantly old quick save. I continued playing despite this problem, but when I later reopened the game after a lunch break and chose to "Continue" from my most recent save, it loaded that old, outdated quick save again. After several frustrating repetitions of this, I was forced to exit the game, find the quick save file in the game's directory, and delete it manually before finally fixing the problem.

Several less game breaking glitches affect the A.I., such as when they lose equipment, flee from enemies instead of fighting them, and even occasionally getting stuck in place, forcing you to load saves to get them mobile again.

Ignoring the glitches (impossible though it may be) the game plays fairly well. The introduction of true Iron Sights and more accurate first person shooting made me realize how much I had missed them in Fallout 3. Truth be told, I only ever used V.A.T.S. (the targeting assisting computer) when I was being mobbed by melee attackers. This alone brought up the quality of game play enough to forgive almost all of the more minor glitches. Sadly, not nearly enough to make me forget the big ones.

What truly saves New Vegas from a bug ridden corpse is Hardcore mode. As a game play mechanic, it creates an unsurpassed sense of realism and role playing to the game. My first game was not in Hardcore mode, but I quickly started a second game in Hardcore mode and refuse to go back. Being forced to think is always a pleasant surprise, especially in the day and age of the Wii, PlayStation Move, and Kinect games.

Story/Immersion: 9.0

New Vegas' story feels like what Fallout 3 wanted to be. The humor strikes just the right cord, and little references to pop-culture like the Rodents of Unusual Side or the free form quest to gain implants being called "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" bring a smile to my face while still feeling natural within the game world. The truly branching narrative with multiple endings depending on which factions you help or hurt is refreshing in a world of false promises that claim "every decision matters".

My only complaint story wise after my time in New Vegas is that certain key factions of the Fallout universe are heavily underplayed. The Brotherhood of Steel and Enclave take the back seats of the school bus next to the NCR and Caesar's Legion. And while the stories of the Vaults are subtly woven in their cold steel corridors, the lack of any real faction belonging to them feels like a gaping void in a world that has been built upon these supposed havens.

Final Score: 7.9

Enjoyment: Medium to High

I quickly found myself losing entire days (or nights) lost in the Mojave Wasteland, which is quite a feat. Most games will take up an afternoon, or maybe four or five hours before I turn them off and find something else to do, but New Vegas had my full attention and kept it. The Hardcore mode mechanic probably added to that, as I found myself remembering to feed or give my character sleep while simultaneously depriving myself of the same. There was always another quest to complete or another location to explore, but instead of feeling like a chore I felt like a child in a candy store. And with the multiple endings and specializations a character can take, there's definitely replay value, but I personally need a break before delving back into the Vaults of New Vegas. Because of this delayed replay value, I give it a medium to a high Enjoyment factor, and recommend Fallout:New Vegas to anyone who has a lot of free time and who takes a lot of pleasure and role playing games.

The Game Shrink

How I'll Diagnose

Before I start off the very first review, I'll give you a general idea as to how, exactly, I'll be rating games. While I acknowledge that some sort of quantitative mechanism is extremely important, I really feel that numbers alone can't accurately describe a game's worth. To illustrate, let's take a look at Tetris. The graphics don't matter beyond simply being intelligible, there's no story or justification for why you're dropping blocks and creating walls, and every level is identical, with a slight increase in difficulty. Scoring this quantitatively would result in a low score at best, and something barely derivative of the game's actual worth at worst. However, twenty-six years have not diminished the incredible amount of fun Tetris provides.

There's more to a game than it's looks and narrative, otherwise they'd just be movies. Video games are games, and games, by definition, require interaction from the participant to be experienced. This participation can't be calculated easily, and is different for each and every person.

To this end, I will attempt to score games on a ten point scale based on the fairly standard categories of: Presentation, Game play, and Story/Immersion. I'll average these together to give the game a numeric score, but I will also be adding a separate qualitative category for Enjoyment. In this final category I'll explain precisely why I enjoyed or didn't enjoy a game, but it will ultimately but up to you to rate this factor for yourself.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An Introduction to The Game Shrink

Many of you probably know me already, but for those of you who don't (or those that need a refresher) I'd like to start with a simple introduction.

Video games, for me, are more than a mere hobby. I was around three or four years old when I first picked up a controller and led Mario on his topsy-turvy quest for Princess Peach on the NES. Over two decades and six generations of consoles haven’t brought any lessening of the joy I find with those joysticks. I’m not sure what it is exactly that continually draws me to video games. My best guess is a mix of the psychological rewards for completing objectives coupled with the constant input from the user in order to progress the stories. I’ve always been a fan of books,and this interaction of user and content just feels like the logical next step in storytelling. Regardless of the rationale behind the madness, video games will always be a huge part of my life.

And yet, it wasn't until relatively recently that I discovered this fascination to be better described as a life-long passion. All my life I have been on the outside, playing and consuming video games with rabid enthusiasm. My relationship with the MMO City of Heroes brought me into the development side of the industry. The unique dialogue the developers of COH have with their player base brought me onto the forums to talk with them, and it completely rocked my point of view. I decided after graduating from Virginia Tech to take my Bachelor’s in Psychology and minor in Creative Writing and use them to break my way into the gaming world.

I want to create characters that people fall in love with and want to play with again and again. I want my stories to be told and retold by gamers for generations to come. And I want to use my knowledge of people to create ever more believable heroes, villains, and everything in between, until gaming is elevated to an art form on par with film and literature. If all of that proves to be beyond my reach, then I simply want to be professionally involved in video games any way I can. In short, I want to devote my life to the industry and culture that gave me so much joy growing up in the hopes that I can return that joy to the world.

To that end, I have created this blog to share my theories and views on video games, both in specific cases and in general as a medium.