Game Diary - January 5, 2009: "Fallout 3" Needs Repairs

'Fallout 3'I finished no games during this holiday break but finally went on a major "Fallout 3" binge, from which I got both joy and frustration.

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Thanks to a weekend spent home sick with a cold, I've now logged 16 hours in "Fallout 3," a game I knew I needed to play through before publicly declaring my 2008 Game of the Year. I don't think Bethesda's role-playing game will take top honors from me, but this thing isn't over yet.

I like my virtual apocalypses as much as the next guy, but I was not loving every minute in the radioactive Wasteland of "Fallout 3" that so many people have praised.

My biggest frustration with the game is all the busywork it requires. The player must spend more time in the game's menus than I find enjoyable. You've got to manage health items, weapons and the clutter of pots, pans and other accumulated junk you acquire throughout the adventure. That's too bad. I just want to talk to humans and shoot super mutants. I don't want to also balance my personal budget.

The game could also have done a much better job teaching its mechanics. I shouldn't have to use the Internet to learn how to play a game. Yet only in hour 15 did I discover, through the help of Google, that I can combine two similar weapons to "repair" them into one better version of themselves. Eureka! With that discovery I could finally stop feeling grossly underpowered in this game. That discovery freed me from a frustrating cycle of having to wield badly damaged weapons, then spending too much in-game money to get them repaired by a hard-bargaining shopkeeper, then taking those guns into combat only to struggle and barely get enough cash off corpses to buy better weapons.

Once I learned that I could repair my own weapons I started picking up duplicate guns off the corpses of enemies I defeated (I had avoided taking them, for fear of further cluttering my inventory). I stopped wasting my money having someone else repair my stuff (more cash for me!). My newly repaired weapons made combat a lot easier (My character is finally not a wimp!). Thanks, Google!

What I do like very much about the game is the richness of the world and the unpredictability of the quests. I never thought a request to fight giant ants would result in me search for a new home for a homeless boy as well as the addition of ant-based powers to a major character in the game. Few of the quests unfold quite as I expect. Plus, Bethesda was canny in designing one quest that specifically appeals to reporters like me. How can I, a journalist, resist the request to do field research for a woman writing a book about the exotic aspects of the game's diverse terrain and creatures?

So, yes, I'll be playing a lot more of "Fallout 3," but I do feel like I'm playing a game that's flawed enough to not wind up being my favorite of 2008. Maybe the next 10, 20, 30 hours will further impress me?

Over the break I also hit the six or seven hour mark in "Chrono Trigger" DS, a game that has surprisingly artfully designed enemy encounters. Few of the battles in that game feel random or lazily set up. Each one feels specific and fun. This keeps the flow of the action interesting and makes the game feel less mathematical than some of its RPG peers. Oh, and that song for the robot really does sound like that Rick Astley tune.

I didn't play much else during the holidays, aside from brief bouts with "ArtStyle Cubello" through WiiWare and "Crash Commando" through PSN. I didn't play enough of either to form an opinion. Lastly, I can attest to the coloring book part of the DS' "Duck Amuck" being a great hit with at least one three-year-old nephew.

Next: More "Fallout 3" awaits. Only then can I get back to "Far Cry 2," the other massive 2008 game delaying my GOTY pick.