Nothing is better for forming an opinion than having someone question your assumptions. That's why I was glad when I got into a talk about NMA's Fallout 3 preview with the famous RPG guru Desslock, who formerly ran Desslock's RPG News site at GameSpot and is currently the RPG columnist for PC Gamer. He's a self-proclaimed fan of both the original Fallouts and Bethesda's Oblivion. Desslock raises some very valid issues, questions and answers concerning NMA's Fallout 3 preview.
I mailed Desslock shortly after publishing the preview noting I'd be "really interested in hearing your comments/counterpoints to my impressions and opinions." He obliged, and the following conversation is the result.
- Brother None
A Tale of Two Cities
That is, the City of Lost Children versus Bartertown
Brother None and Desslock
Desslock: O.k., here's some thoughts -- obviously I thought it was a comprehensive summary of the press presentation: essentially a transcript of it, which I'm sure your readers appreciated, since it gave a complete description of the scripted (as you noted) presentation. I also thought you did a great job noting the little details, such as the outfits of the people in the vault, the fact that they were wearing pipboys, etc. You hightlighted a lot of cool details that I would have loved to have had additional space to get into in my preview coverage. Next best thing to being there.
Brother None: Cheers.
NMA preview: The lie didn't show a chance of success percentage as later dialogue options would (see conversation with Mr Burke on page 2), so it's possible this lie always fails.
Desslock: I suspect you're right - this part of the game seems like an interactive tutorial, prior to even establishing the character stats of your character, so it's not a demonstration of the conversation system.
Brother None: Good point, that might be it. I'm not a big fan of showing percentages of failure or success in dialogue options for a number of reasons, so I didn't mind it being gone.
NMA preview: because while I knew that was Liam Neeson, I wouldn't have been able to tell it was from the somewhat bland and indistinct voice of dad
Desslock: I'm not a big fan of celebrity voice acting, and actually devoted a recent column to that topic, but I disagree with you here - Liam Neeson is close to the best choice I can think of for this role, and I loved the fact that he really seems to have thrown himself into the part and isn't condescending towards "video game acting", like so many actors are.
Brother None: Sure, he's good for the part, but that's because the part's pretty nondescript, and so is Liam.
Seriously, Desslock, if you dislike famous voice acting in general, than this is an extreme: any talented voice actor could do a great job of voicing an emotionally trusting voice like Father's. Liam Neeson is actually renowned for being a *really bad* voice actor. Seriously, if one actor doesn't act with his voice (or can't), it's Liam Neeson. The same is true for people like Ron Perlman, but the thing is Ron Perlman's fits the role uniquely, whereas a lot of people could do Liam's role. Compare it to Richard Dean Anderson in Fallout 1, a great voice for the role, but also an unnecessary voice in a role a professional voice actor could've done just as well.
And best choice or not, I couldn't actually hear it was Liam. It was just "nondescript American guy." Stick another guy in there and claim it's Liam and I wouldn't be able to tell. And I have a good ear for voices.
Desslock: I agree that an equally talented, but unknown, actor might be preferable to someone recognizable, but then I don't even like hearing recognizable actors in animated movies, because their voices pull me out of the movie.
But Liam Neeson is actually a great actor, and that fact that you couldn't tell it was Liam is certainly not a "bad thing" from my perspective (especially given his naturally strong accent, yet you felt he sounded American) - disappearing into a role indicative of quality acting. But more importantly, I just hate the way so many "celebrity actors" really treat the gaming market with disdain, and mail in wooden performances -- I think the fact that Liam Neeson was actually one of the bright lights in Phantom Menace indicates that he can elevate even terrible material, and certainly earnestly performs in any role he's given.
NMA preview: labeled anything from innovative to the worst idea of all time, I don't really see either one as being very valid. "Unoriginal" is the name I'd use. If I had to describe V.A.T.S. at gun point, I'd call it a system of RT combat with limited pausing through fatigue (Action Points) and super-attacks (aimed shot), which to most people will sound pretty much like what BioWare started doing in the mid-90s with the Infinity Engine
Desslock: I don't agree with the preceding paragraph. The last sentence is just wrong - BioWare only produced two Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, and the related expansions), and the first game in that series didn't come out until the late 1990s (so your dating is wrong, a minor detail, but you guys are obviously pay great attention to detail, so I thought I'd flag it).
More importantly, the reference makes no sense to me - neither Baldur's Gate game had action points or "super-attacks". The system is clearly closer to the "aimed shot" mechanic of the Fallout games - you use perception, get targeting information, and inflict damage based upon targeted shots and your weapon skills -- there's nothing like that in the Baldur's Gate games, and the only thing Fallout 3's combat has in common with the Baldur's Gate games is that it occurs in real-time, and is pausable.
Finally, as you know, I have concerns about the combat as well, and look forward to learning more about it and seeing it in action. But it's clearly unfair and misleading to call it unoriginal, when there's actually never been a similar system utilized by an RPG. It culls aspects of features from other games, but the combat system certainly seems unique. Again, that doesn't necessarily mean we'll like it or that it'll satisfy Fallout veterans, but it's certainly an original, hybrid combat system.
Brother None: Spells, to name just an example, are a form of super-attack. But sure, it wasn't implemented strongly there. It's implemented more strongly in Mass Effect, and I don't see a functional difference between ME's combat system and Fallout 3's. It's real time with pause, where the pause allows you a limited number of powered up attacks.
Desslock: I haven't followed Mass Effect's development since I don't follow the console market, so I can't comment on how similar it is, but Fallout 3's combat certainly didn't look or sound anything like the Infinity Engine games, other than the game is in real time -- I get what you're saying, that Fallout 3 uses a real-time/pausing combat system, but I think that comment is misleading to your readers, even if you generally don't like the way the combat looks.
Compare the games:
- Fallout 1/2 - turn-based combat; targeted shots an option.
- Baldur's Gate 1/2 - combat rounds that continue consecutively unless paused (which is different from a real-time combat system like Oblivion's); no targeted shots
- Fallout 3 - real-time combat which can be stopped in order to enter a special targeted shot system, or to make a "perception roll" to analyze combatants.
They each take distinct approaches to combat, but have some similarities. I also don't think it's fair to characterize Fallout 3's targeted shots as "supermoves", which sounds like there are "superjumps/lightning punches, etc" from an arcade fighting game. There are no "moves", there's just the ability to specifically target areas on an opponent's body using a limited number of action points (as in the original Fallout games).
It may seem like we're arguing over nomenclature, but I believe your description is misleading.
Brother None: It's not "the only thing" they have in common, it's exactly the same mechanic. Ignoring the fact that BioWare's system is just an example (I think you got bogged down on that), the point is that this is just another predictable, uninnovative RTwP system.
Desslock: I disagree - that's like saying Fallout 1's combat is identical to the combat in the Final Fantasy series because they both feature turn-based combat. You're culling out details that make the systems distinct, and in Fallout 3's case, original. Again, there's never been an RPG that featured combat similar to Fallout 3's, so by definition, it's innovative.
Brother None: I think we're asking the wrong question, tho'. Try to make a list of how two combat systems are identical and you'll always end up with a big wad of differences, does that mean every combat system is innovative? I think the key question is (considering the above) what exactly is so innovative about this combat system? A different angle; not what are they doing that's exactly the same, but what are they doing that's significantly different?
Desslock: The combination of features: real-time/stats-based (as opposed to twitch-based) combat which can be stopped in order to initiate targeted shots using action points. Sure, at some level you can point to aspects that you feel are derived from other games, but the overall package is not just "different", it feels original.
Anyway, I think this argument is distracting from the more substantive issues of (a) whether this combat system actually works well in practice, and I think we both agree that we have reservations/questions that need to be addressed as more details are revealed by Bethesda; and (b) whether it feels like Fallout 1/2, and I think we both agree that it's definitely different, so fans hoping for something closer to the turn-based combat of the original games are likely disappointed, while gamers who thought it would be just like Oblivion's combat are probably pleased that it's something different - it's an original, hybrid combat system, which I think looks promising, although I have reservations.
Hell, Bethesda could unveil the melee combat and it'll have "super-smash; spinning lightning attacks", in which case I'll agree with your "supermoves" description, and be disappointed by Bethesda's design decision. But for now, I'm cautiously optimistic about the combat system.
Brother None: Is my description 100% accurate? Probably not, but I made a clear judgment call, and I feel it's at least as fair as calling it "innovative".
Again, there was never a game that featured exactly the same combat as its predecessors. Every combat system is different in some way, and it's odd to put down arbitrary lines at which something is "innovative" or not.
However, when I remember what I saw play out, and when I then look at this Mass Effect combat video, they're functionally the same. You can argue that the details are different, but the difference between the two is the interface and the replacement of biotic attacks with aimed shots. The biotics are stat-based, not twitch-based, and depend on the amount of energy you have for it, i.e. action points. That's functionally identical, right there.
I'll gladly accept the fact that you can differentiate Mass Effect and Fallout 3's RTwP from Infinity Engine's RTwP because the underlying mechanics are different, but that doesn't go for differentiating Mass Effect from Fallout 3.
I'm not going to accept that anything that isn't done before is innovative per definition. Innovation should be more meaningful than that (even if it is currently as useless as meaningless terms like "next-gen"), it shouldn't just be taking RTwP and including Fallout's aiming system.
Supermutants and Brotherhood of Steel
Brother None: By the way, no comments on the Brotherhood of Steel or Supermutants?
Desslock: Not really - neither really bother me right now because I don't really have a sense for how they're featured in the actual game yet (and their relation to their West Coast counterparts, etc.).
Some additional observations:
(a) I agree with your observation that in the demo the Brotherhood of Steel guys seemed to just act like typical AI soldier-types, like the kind you'd see in a contemporary shooter -- but in fairness to Bethesda, we only saw them when the combat was demonstrated, and obviously a big part of the BoS is their backstory/philosophy and role in society, so I'm more concerned with their role as NPCs in the game's story than how they look/act in combat.
(b) I loved seeing the BoS armor "brought to life" on 3D characters (particularly the helmets, as you noted, of which people can get an impression of just from the trailer); and
(c) I have no problem with how the super-mutants look (and actually think they're a big improvement over Fallout Tactics' gigantic cartoon figures). I thought the sledgehammer looked like a placeholder warhammer from Oblivion, however, so I hope that's improved prior to release. It also seems less logical for the super-mutants to have spread from the west coast given their origins, so I'm interested in Bethesda's explanation for that migration or concurrent appearance on the East coast.
Humour and violence
NMA preview: It's not that the franchise doesn't have its humour or violence, it's just that these weren't pivotal selling or drawing points in anything other than how unique they were. From this demo, it seems these two points are treated differently than in the original and actually two of the biggest selling points Fallout 3 has, a worrying prospect we can only hope turns out false"
Desslock: I disagree on the violence, which I think is fairly consistent with the approach of the originals, but am similarly concerned with the humour evidenced in the demo. Yet having spoken at great length with Bethsda's team on this point, I know it's a real "hot button" point for guys like Todd Howard that the humour doesn't "pull you out of the game", by nodding to our reality -- there was some of that in the original Fallout ("they killed Kenny!"), but I think Fallout 2 went too far in that direction, and I actually think it's a good thing that the developers of Fallout 3 want to reign in that sort of humour.
But that all said, that wasn't evidenced in the demo, which had a lot of cheap laughs, which seemed inconsistent with the setting, as you highlighted -- I suspect that they were included solely to keep the presentation lively, but I share your concerns in this area.
Brother None: I think the visceral nature of first person means the approach to violence is different from the originals per definition. So that's not Bethesda's fault per se, but it's a consequence of their choice to go with first person. There are certain 3rd person experiences you can't duplicate in first person, especially not by trying to emulate it with a slow motion action camera (a big mistake, if you ask me).
As for humour, I don't go for that explanation. The team can promise what they will, but I've read extensive lists of promises they made on Oblivion that didn't make it into that game. I don't care to call those promises "lies" or anything, but it sets a precedent: Bethesda's promises about a game are not guaranteed to be in the final product. Of course, that's true for all gaming companies, but Bethesda surely has set a bad record for itself.
I can take their statements into account, but push come to shove I trust my eyes over my ears, so to speak. I'll trust what I saw in the demo more than what Pete Hines would tell me. If they're contradictory, then I can't really assume either is true. It's wait and see, with the footnote that what the demo showed was horrid.
Desslock: I completely agree that you should only judge what you've actually seen, not the intentions of the developers (although you can also recite those intentions if you want to provide additional information, as long as they are suitably qualified as exactly that - i.e., "the developers intend"). I think the example you gave later in your response concerning the revised RadiantAI is a prime example -- it's worth noting, I think, that the developers intend to refine/modify the AI system (I think the intention is to incorporate more scripting, rather than freeform behaviour using motivations, by the way), but those previews that just wrote "the AI is improved" are inaccurate, misleading, and lazy.
Desslock: Heh, I did get a chuckle out of your conclusions when (SuAside, in particular) commented on how he was trying to be "objective" - that's absurd. You're not objective - and there's not wrong with that, because you're obviously strongly influenced by your passion for the original Fallout games, and all of your observations are affected by that subjective bias. Frankly, I think that's actually an appealing trait, because rather than just describe the features, characters, graphics, background lore, etc., you saw in the demo, you constantly (in almost every paragraph!) provide a relative comparison to how those aspects were treated in the original games.
Embrace your subjectivity - it's a perspective that I suspect your readers want, and it allows you to provide insights that other previewers are incapable of, or disinterested in, providing - it seems like you stated you were trying to be objective in order to increase your credibility, which is just absurd, because that's the sort of statement that readers immediately know to be false, and probably would be less interested in reading your commentary if it were otherwise.
Brother None: I don't think that's exactly what SuA meant. We don't pretend to be objective in the musings part, but realize that we do consider ourselves more objective than those previewers who start their articles with "the future game of the year 2008" or "one of the best RPGs of all time".
I think the claim that the professional media is more objective than we are is ludicrous. Or rather, we're all very biased and have little more than subjective opinions, because the gaming media simply hasn't evolved to a point where they're professional enough not to, but what NMA's preview does separates it from the pack: it provides all info we could find, and clearly denotes the difference between what was seen, what was said and what the reviewer thinks. Especially that separation of facts and impressions into categories sets it apart in objectivity and in how informed readers come out of having read it.
Key example: when reading Fallout 3 previews, you'll find a lot of assertions that "the old RAI is out, as Bethesda vastly improved it for Fallout 3!" With such a clear assertion, I would assume the previewer saw this with his own eyes. But unless some guys saw something I didn't, I'd say "no", all events in the demo were obviously scripted, so there was no visible difference in AI. So why represent something the developers promised as if you've seen it yourself rather than just saying "they promise to..."?
Desslock: Ah, but that just means you're more informed, and/or more analytical, than those other previewers -- not that you're necessarily more objective. I think you're clearly subjectively biased, for the reasons I said in my earlier response, and again, I don't think that's a bad thing (the contrary, in fact), and I don't think it means you're not informed or analytical in your approach, so don't take that comment as a criticism.
Brother None: Sure, that sounds about right. I think this is the reason journalists have standards to begin with, to ensure objectivity no matter what the journalists' own viewpoint. Which is why I think NMA's effort to be informative and more analytical overlaps with being objective.
But it's no skin off my back to admit we're obviously biased towards the older games. That's kind of a non-issue, you have to work on the basis of comparison to something. Other previewers choose to compare it to Oblivion, which they love and are biased in favour of, we go with the Fallouts, which we love and are biased in favour of. Depending on your bias, Fallout 3 looks better/worse.
Awards - Best of Show
Desslock: One final comment - I do think the fact that you guys probably haven't seen a lot of demos relating to games this far away from release is telling when you makes statements such as "I cannot see how this 45 minute demonstration won Bethesda so many E3 awards" -- the reality is that most game demos are pretty terrible and superficial, and often just demonstrate rudimentary aspects of the technology being utilized. Take, for example, the "demo" BioWare provided at the E3 a couple of years ago for Dragon's Age, which really provided nothing of substance to evaluate or consider -- by comparison, Fallout 3's demo was extremely well polished and gave a good, broad overview of some of the design goals and technology that's going to be used, and the overall package felt unique and promising to most observers for that reason.
Brother None: So it's a "least bad" award? You're drawing the wrong conclusion here. The conclusion shouldn't be "you don't understand how these awards work, because...", the conclusion to the above paragraph should be "there really shouldn't be awards for these kind of previews".
Desslock: First off, I completely agree that there shouldn't be awards for unfinished games, at least beyond identifying which games were generating the most positive buzz, or were viewed as "most promising". I think readers do like knowing what people were most excited about after a show like the E3, but I disapprove of the practice of giving unfinished games awards like "best RPG", or "best of show". But to the extent those awards exist, I don't think it's surprising that Fallout 3 won quite a few of them based upon how it looks to date.
But I certainly wasn't saying that Fallout 3 was the "least bad" (not even sure how you extrapolated to that jump just because I said historically other demos have been less revealing). I just meant that if you've seen a lot of demos for incomplete games, you wouldn't think Fallout 3's demo was skeletal or didn't provide a lot of substance - what it provided was pretty normal, or actually fairly detailed and polished, for a game at Fallout 3's development stage. What was shown understandably impressed a lot of people, including me -- while I have some reservations, and disagree with some design decisions (as I've stated here and in my own preview coverage), but my overall impressions are that the game is looking really, really good, and I can't wait to get my hands on it. Even though you're personally less optimistic, you really shouldn't be surprised that people coming from a variety of different perspectives were impressed by this game and felt it was one of the most promising upcoming games, and that Fallout 3 therefore won a bunch of E3 accolades.
Awards - Best RPG
Desslock: I'm currently writing a piece that has some discussion on upcoming single player RPGs, and the only ones I'm really interested in aside from Fallout 3 are the Aliens RPG from Obsidian and BioWare's Dragon's Age (and, to a lesser extent, Mass Effect) -- there really aren't a lot of other RPGs in the works for 2008, and compared to the state of those other projects, and how unpromising any of the "console" RPGs are to true RPG fans, it shouldn't be at all surprising to you that Fallout 3 easily walked away with so many E3 RPG awards.
Brother None: See above. Besides, to me as a consumer, your statements above mean little more than "nothing good is coming". I'm not about to lower my standards, though, which makes your awards meaningless (as if they aren't regularly, let's be honest).
I don't need to know who the best student is in a class for the mentally handicapped, it's just not that interesting to me.
Desslock: Heh, again, that's not what I meant and certainly not what I meant to imply. I accept your point that you shouldn't necessarily give awards just because something is the best of a limited selection of games if you don't think that the game is actually deserving of a "best of" title. I remember in the mid-1990s when one of the computer gaming magazines refused to give an RPG of the Year Award because they felt the best game of the bunch (which I believe was Anvil of Dawn, or perhaps Stonekeep, that year), just wasn't good enough to deserve that accolade.
Don't call them "my awards", as I certainly didn't vote on anything and am against awards for unfinished games, as I mentioned above, since I think they just help marketers, not consumers. I was just identifying some potential competitors for promising upcoming RPGs, and giving my opinion that Fallout 3 certainly looked at least as promising as any of the games I mentioned, so I'm not surprised it won those awards (particularly since its most viable competitors weren't on display). But I misunderstood your position - I thought you were saying that you didn't see why Fallout 3 deserved those awards (instead of Game X); but you were instead saying that you just didn't feel Fallout 3, judged on its own terms and not relative to other games, looked good enough to merit its accolades. Fair enough - I like that stance, as I did when that magazine in the 1990s refused to give RPG of the Year to Anvil of Dawn - we just have a different opinion how Fallout 3 is looking, as I'm more optimistic about than you are.
I definitely would have preferred a Troika version of Fallout 3 (with Obsidian naturally being my second choice as developer), and I greatly miss isometric perspective RPGs, but I really like what I've seen of Fallout 3. I've played virtually every RPG since Temple of Apshai, and there have been very few RPGs that I've been more excited about.
That said, one of the RPGs that I was most excited about was the initial design of Ultima IX, after the debacle of Ultima VIII-Pagan, and by the time Ultima IX limped to release, it bore little resemblance to its initial design and was almost as big a disaster as Pagan (damn you, Ed Del Castillo for derailing the initial design, and EA for destroying all that was great about the Ultima games). So the bottom line is, I think it's still far too early for anyone to fairly judge how good Fallout 3 will be, and we should constantly challenge and revise our preconceptions and opinions as more information becomes available about the game.