Monday, December 6, 2010

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

I finished playing Fallout: New Vegas last Monday night. As so many have said, it's basically more Fallout. I'd put it on par with Fallout 2, where for me, Fallout and Fallout 3 are just a notch above. No major deviations from expectations, but there were a few things I really liked. And if you've played it, the picture above should be a healthy hint.

Obligatory spoiler warning: Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas revelations of a serious calibre follow.

As a technical gripe and preface, I really hope Bethesda either scuttles or dramatically upgrades Gamebryo for whatever they're doing next. The engine is seriously showing its age. It does fine with the environment, but really falls flat on people. Not only are they, at best, individually unsettling but the engine seems very limited on how many of them can be in a space at once. Hitman: Blood Money had a fantastic scene in New Orleans with some extremely dense crowds. And it's over four years old.

In contrast, you hit the Strip in New Vegas and it feels so empty. It's been talked up by countless NPCs on your way there, but the place itself is terribly sparse. Upon entering the club portion of the tawdriest casino, supposedly the Strip's most popular establishment, there were maybe four patrons and the bartender. Oh, and two dancers awkwardly gyrating on a massive stage that totally dwarfed them. All the spaces in New Vegas feel very cavernous. And without sufficient NPCs to fill them, going to the Strip feels more like you're at a Tuesday night concert waiting for the opening act nobody likes to start.

I can't imagine this is intentional, but an engine limitation. And it's really exacerbated in the game's climax, where Caesar's Legion attacks the Hoover Dam. The entire game you're told Caesar has been massing his army for four years, waiting to overwhelm the New California Republic's defenders. But when the attack comes, how vast is Caesar's Legion? Hundreds? Thousands? Not even close. It's maybe 15 legionnaires. Underwhelming doesn't even begin to cover it. It's not even enough guys to field a professional hockey team.

Now I realize it's absurd to think the game could simulate a battle with hundreds of participants, but it also shouldn't tell me that's what is supposed to be happening! It could have been setup that Caesar sent the bulk of his legion across the river, diverting the NCR's forces and then sent in elite commando units to take the Dam under the cover of darkness. But there's not even an attempt to reconcile the tremendous gulf between what the game says is occurring and what is actually happening for the player. I can't say it's anything but disappointing.

And the worst part is, otherwise Caesar's Legion is fantastic. They're a great antagonist, one of the best I've seen in a game possibly in years. They're strong because Obsidian got two things with the Legion right that greatly contribute to them being designed as a strong antagonist. First, they have a real presence in the world and to its inhabitants. People are talking about the Legion (sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not) well before you ever encounter them. When you finally do, you come across them leaving the town of Nipton (a real place in California) after they've killed or crucified the entire populace. Then they disappear and you don't cross paths with them again for hours. It's simple foreshadowing, but so many games have antagonists appear two minutes before you defeat them and they're never seen again.

Second, Caeser's Legion is well realized. Using the Roman Empire provides a wealth of characterization that requires almost no effort at all. And rather than just slap plumed helmets and leather skirts on some NPCs, Obsidian did a good job drawing upon real Imperial Roman characteristics. The use of proper Latin pronunciation, e.g. "v" as "w" and all c's as hard c's (so it's "Wall-ay" not "vall-e" and "Kai-sar" not "Seeser"). Caesar's Legion doesn't have spies, they have Frumentarii (the actual Roman secret service). Even small details, like the description of how the Legion fought at the first Battle of Hoover Dam exactly matches the maniple system the Romans actually used to defeat the popular phalanx used by other powers in the ancient Mediterranean (at least until Marius reorganized the legions again in 107 BC, which ultimately contributed significantly to the downfall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire). And Caesar fighting against a corrupt, oligarchical New California Republic and its Senate is hardly a coincidence. Using the Roman Empire as a cultural basis for their antagonist is such a good move for Obsidian because it makes the Legion feel distinct and foreign without needing to create an entire believable culture from whole cloth.

In contrast, The Enclave in Fallout 3 appear almost literally out of nowhere. They're just the Bad Guys that do Bad Things. If you've played (and remember) Fallout 2, you may be a little more aware of The Enclave and what they're about. If you haven't, they just seem like a slightly better equipped version of the Brotherhood of Steel with a tailor that digs the Third Reich. The only foreshadowing at all is the wandering eyebots broadcasting messages from President Malcolm McDowell. And while the final encounter with the President isn't bad, the Enclave really does come out of nowhere and they have little purpose beyond just "Be Evil."

Of course, I've always been into the history of the ancient world and took several years of Latin in undergrad, so I'm probably both an easy sell and more appreciative of the details than others. And I've recently been listening to an excellent podcast that covers the entire history of ancient Rome that I cannot recommend enough.

Aside from the technical shortcomings of the combat interactions with the Legion, the moral ambiguity in their actions is unfortunately torpedoed (yet again) by a heavy-handed, point-based morality metre. These systems make having any kind of grey area impossible. While the Legion's actions are undoubtedly harsh, they are (like the actual Roman Empire) welcoming and fair to those that do not resist Legion/Roman control. And the NCR isn't exactly a paragon of virtue. It's bureaucratic, corrupt and clearly far more interested in Hoover Dam for their own interests than for the Mojave's.

What boggles the mind is New Vegas implemented a faction-specific karma system with surprising nuance. Instead of single good/evil axis, the faction relationships understand the difference between mostly good/a little evil and see you as a "Smiling Trickster" and mostly evil/a little good granting perception as a "Merciful Thug." But the global karma system undermines all of this, especially with regards to Caesar's Legion, where almost every action nets you evil karma. It's unfortunate, because the opportunity to provide some good "ends justify the means" hypothesizing with regard to the Legion could have been very interesting.

One final note: New Vegas does the epilogue right. One of my favourite things about Fallout 1 & 2 is the lengthy epilogue that details the effect the player had on places they visited and people they met. This was jarring absent in Fallout 3 where the epilogue addressed only a few areas and even then, only briefly. The epilogue of New Vegas is remarkably detailed and satisfying.

New Vegas had the ingredients necessary to surpass the excellent experience Fallout 3 provided. Unfortunately, shackled to aging tech and unable or unwilling to scuttle design inertia, things didn't quite bake up right. As far as antagonists go, Caesar's Legion completely outshines The Enclave. I just wish it had improved that much in other aspects. It's still a great time, but is fated to be "Yeah, it's more Fallout" rather than "It's the best Fallout!"

Oh, and I can't believe there wasn't a quest named "Sic Semper Tyrannis." That's either marked restraint or a huge oversight. Not sure which is better.

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Blogger Jason T said...

I agree that the Legion is a great antagonist. Frankly, though, I have a harder time understanding your aversion to granting negative karma to pro-Legion actions.

First, I should concede that the universal karma system isn't handled too adeptly in this game overall. For the most part, the only effect it has (that I know of) is that if you are sufficiently evil, certain companions won't travel with you. This does make sense, as I could see certain characters not wanting to hang out with you if you murdered everyone you met, everywhere. Otherwise, though, karma is entirely in the background of the game, not referenced much in the rules, and only really visible when you get the puzzling little message saying you earned karma for killing feral ghouls and Fiends in self-defense.

That said, the Legion feels like the obvious "Very Evil" allegiance to me, even if it is an interesting and complicated kind of evil. I haven't yet finished playing a Legion-aligned playthrough because I can only do it in small doses. I feel like I need to do it from a professional/academic standpoint, but it makes me feel unhappy to kill innocent people and work in the support of people who enslave women and children as a matter of course. Are there other, more morally ambiguous missions to come?

December 6, 2010 at 11:57 AM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

To be honest i have not yet picked up Fallout: New Vegas. I have been on the fence knowing Bethesda's track record with games. I think they are really amazing at telling a story and making you feel like the character you play. The thing they lack is a smooth free game. Look at Knights of the Old Republic 2 an amazing story but and game littered with bad frame rates.

Bugs aside from what you have said this still seems like a must play in my book.

December 6, 2010 at 3:39 PM  
Blogger Sparky said...

I thought the karma system was very unsatisfying here (even more so than in Fallout 3), and the game would probably have been better off clipping it out entirely. The karma reward for shooting feral ghouls was merely strange -- why not offer karma for killing cazadores or deathclaws in that case? The karma reward for killing Powder Gangers was more of a problem, as it actively undermined the moral ambiguity of NCR's actions with them.

Of course, moral ambiguity didn't work out well for the Legion either, as they were just too repugnant to take seriously. I actually thought they were fairly cartoonish, although I agree they were better antagonists than Fallout 3's surprise Enclave. Caesar especially was something of a basket case, with his decisions and attitudes often having much more to do with what was convenient for the writers than what would be consistent for the character.

December 7, 2010 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jason What I don't like is good/evil as proscribed by the game itself is that it takes away the player's ability to morally reason about decisions in the game. It makes the grey area impossible, because the game tells you what is black and what is white.

With the Legion, there's definitely a lot of things that certainly extreme, but one might approach it from a perspective of "the ends justify the means." If you talk to anyone that's lived in lands conquered by the Legion, they are free of raiders, taxed lightly, have reliable infrastructure, etc. Anyone who embraces the Legion is treated fairly. It's only those that resist who get the lash.

Does that make the actions of the Legion justified? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be an interesting hypothetical, except the game takes that away by saying, "Nope, it's actually just evil."

Unlike so many other "moral choice" games there the decisions are absurdly extreme ("Adopt this puppy or set fire to that orphanage?"), as a fiction, Fallout actually has the right tone for asking people to make a decision where there is no good or right answer. It's always irked me that the Karma system totally short circuits that, but it seems the most egregious in New Vegas.

Heh, /ramble

December 9, 2010 at 9:20 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gaming in Public It's Obsidian not Bethesda, but yeah, there's some weirdness. I didn't hit me much, and since I was playing on PC, it's easy to fix weirdness in the console. But yeah, if one doesn't have it yet, there would be no harm in waiting for the big ol' patch that's coming down the pike soon.

@Sparky Yeah, that was really strange. It feels like, coincidentally enough Fallout 2, where design wasn't really centralized and didn't have someone watching over it for consistency. I can't imagine any other way it takes sense to get good karma for killing Powder Gangers, Fiends and ghouls (but only sometimes). I don't remember anything like that in Fallout 3, at least nothing so weirdly granular. And of course you still get bad karma for stealing people's literal garbage. =(

And maybe Caesar's tumor was causing his erratic behaviour? Hmmmmm?? ... No, it was just a bit inconsistent. Matthew "The Wasteland" Burns said the same and I can see that perspective. I think the Legion kind of fits with Fallout's black absurdity (almost in a Lord of the Flies way), but I totally get thinking it was a bit much. I'm also a sucker for the ancient world, so I'm aware of the big ol' blinders I got on.

December 9, 2010 at 9:32 AM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

It is sad though that games can use the excuse of patches "coming soon!" What ever happened to the game is done we have tested it, lets ship it. I am not saying there are idiots mistakes are bound to be made but it just feels like now games are allowed to make more because patches can be made later.

December 9, 2010 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gaming in Public Having recently shipped a game with a pretty serious bug, for us at least, it wasn't intentional. Games a just way more complex than they were in the days of yore. Even with literally thousands of man-hours spent testing our game, not all the bugs were found (our ugliest one involved a random number generator that wasn't completely random). Doing a console patch is actually a tremendous hassle and nobody wants to do that unless it's absolutely necessary (at least for a smaller studio).

So yeah, it sucks, but god, I'm glad the ability to patch non-PC games exists. Far better than the alternative of never patching at all.

December 9, 2010 at 7:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

i love bats! that is such a sweet story! let us know how your feng shui bedroom is the house pigsty (i wonder what that means?)
Adorable german shepherd

July 2, 2013 at 9:12 PM  

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