At last I pushed through the end of Fallout 3 and I think it’s safe to say I’ve had my fill of that particular title for the time being. Technically there is still another DLC pack (Mothership Zeta) but frankly I need a break. One last note I wanted to bring up about Fallout 3 before I stop talking about it for a good long while is that I’ve been considering the choice to adjust the scaling enemy model from Oblivion into the somewhat-scaled but also genuine pockets-of-danger approach Fallout takes. In Oblivion the whole world scales to your relative strength: As you become stronger the world around you grows stronger as well so you are consistently challenged. In Fallout it seems they do some of this: There seems to be a class type set in various locations (a dungeon containing Ghouls, or an overworld area that spawns mutated creatures for example) and within that class there are relative ranks (Feral Ghouls up through Glowing Ones or Molerats up through Giant Radscorpions for example). As you advance you see fewer of the lower level class instances and more of the stronger which allows the developers to have themes within various locations but still scale based on the player.
However, Fallout also has certain areas which always contain enemies either of a particular strength level or, at the very least, there are a few select locations where a particularly nasty enemy or set of enemies will always be, regardless of player strength (I’m talking mostly about Deathclaws and Super Mutant Behemoths, although even the scaled Super Mutant-heavy downtown area is a reasonable example). In both of my playthroughs I stumbled across these sorts of areas by accident before I was either powerful enough to put up a fight or supply-ready to engage the foe. On one hand I understand this decision: A lot of complaints were leveled at Oblivion for artificially adjusting the challenge level because it led to instances where tough dungeons were better to visit early on since a lot of late-game enemies were more resource-draining than low-level ones (especially in terms of Soul Shards once you started using magical weapons). Which means the scalable challenge level meant combat was fairly consistent with the exception of stronger enemies requiring extra combat overhead (like collecting Souls or performing alchemy/repair to replenish your equipment). Functionally you were always “slaying a dragon” whether it happened to be skinned like an Imp or like a Minotaur Lord.
The downside of the Fallout model is that I felt it actually discouraged me from exploring since there was a point at which you had to weigh risk vs. reward. There are a lot of cool hidden quests in the game, many of which are more interesting than the primary game quests that are almost always found either through the main questline or in populated towns, but finding them is almost exclusively for the bold of heart (and the hotkey-quicksave PC folks) since it requires taking regular risks of death especially in the rarely-autosaving overworld. The downside of the Oblivion model is that there are rarely combat-based triumphs in the game. Even named foes are typically scaled to your level so at no point do you feel accomplished for a Davidian takedown: There are simply no Goliaths.
I’m not sure what the correct balance is: MMOs like World of Warcraft simply allow overpowered characters to visit areas that are beneath them from a challenge perspective but this does limit the intrigue of some of the instance storylines: I can attest that running through Shadowfang Keep at level 40 or whatever with a level 80 Shadow Priest was exceptionally boring. Perhaps a system could be worked out where a simple challenge rating was assigned to each area which was always relative to the player’s level: Level 1 overworld sections and dungeons would consistently provide minimal or basic loot for a minimum level of effort and would never feature named or special foes. Level 5 sections and dungeons might be reserved for questline-specific encounters that always took a huge amount of planning and resources but faced you off with impressive bosses and paid out huge rewards in terms of loot.
Okay, let’s talk about other games for once.
After finishing Fallout I picked up Halo Wars again (since it’s borrowed and I want to give it back sometime before the end of the world in 2012). As I was playing it I started to get this uncomfortable antsy feeling. It took me a while to figure out what it was. In case you don’t know, I work in incident response for a group of engineers at a Major Internet Destination Site. What this means is that I’m given a limited amount of resources and a variety of tools which take up a varying number of those resources. Then all day long I’m presented with a sequence of problem notifications to which I have to determine the severity, take some sort of preliminary action and ultimately determine how to use the resources available to me (time, documentation, escalations, troubleshooting procedures) to put out what I determine to be the hottest fire. Basically, my job is an RTS. But rather than make my job really fun, what it does is make RTS games feel exactly like work. I use all the same mental techniques when playing Halo Wars that I do all week long and I caught myself feeling that oh-so-familiar sense of frustrated exhaustion and I dropped the controller.
No thanks, this is not how I spend leisure time.
I keep coming back to RTS games because I really enjoyed StarCraft and Age of Empires II but once I identified that these games are very similar to my work I was able to figure out that I stopped liking them right around the same time I started doing this type of thing for a living which means I’ve been scratching my head over why these games stopped appealing to me for a long time. At any rate I think I’m content to let the genre go for now.
As a natural response to giving up on Halo Wars—which isn’t a bad game by the way, it’s just not for me—I settled on The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay as my next effort. I played the game for several hours over the weekend and honestly I didn’t really find it to be particularly fun. I wish I could describe my reasoning for more or less disliking the game but I find it to be remarkably difficult considering every complaint I have about the game could also be leveled at another game I’ve played only in those other cases I enjoyed the game in spite of the issue. For example, take the clumsy first-person beat-em-up sections: I played all the way through Condemned: Criminal Origins and it had even more frustrating first-person brawler elements as a core game mechanic and I found a way to finish that game. Then there is the awkward stealth elements which have no game elements to indicate your success or failure at remaining hidden (not to mention the bad guys can just decide to flip on their flashlights if they like) but then again I really enjoyed Call of Duty 4 and it had an even worse section of forced stealth and no real indicator of how well hidden you were. And then there is the frustrating gun combat which is made worse by the fact that the enemy AI is wildly inconsistent (they are dumb as bricks but they all have the most incredible aim and a sort of sixth sense for where you are on the map) but it’s hard to complain when I finished Bullet Witch and thought it was actually kind of fun.
The only thing I can really think is that I just don’t have any sort of connection at all with the character or setting. I watched about 45 minutes of Pitch Black in the background at some social gathering, edited for network television, a few years ago and that’s about it. I don’t actually know why I’m supposed to care about Riddick and maybe that’s part of the problem: The game could simply be written for people already familiar with the franchise and I just don’t fit the target audience. Or maybe it just comes down to a combination of the various elements making for a poor game, I can’t be sure. One way or the other I’m having a hard time feeling like I want to return to the game. On the bright side I swapped Halo Wars with my friend for his copy of Halo: ODST which at the very least sounds like my cup of tea.