Review: Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage

Operation Anchorage, the first of three DLC installments for the acclaimed Fallout 3, has a lot to live up; EDG game of the year for instance. When I first heard what Bethesda was planning I was excited but a little confused and skeptical as to why they would choose to explore such a far removed episode as the liberation of Alaska from Chinese communists, an event that took place 200 years prior to those in Fallout 3. The primary source of my curiosity and mild apprehension was the dismissal of the Capital Wasteland in favor of a completely new area. I was excited to see they where putting so much development into the project but wondered how the expansive open ended quality of Fallout 3 would function or even survive in such an exclusive environment and quest. I was confident Bethesda would deliver, however and looked forward with great anticipation.

As the resident Fallout 3 geek here at EDG, I was excited when the opportunity to experience this first of the DLC trio and offer my impressions finally came. I was enthusiastic from the beginning and wanted to like it from the very beginning. Unfortunately some confounding design choices and a flawed decision to take the emphasis off the RPG and sandbox components and instead focus on Fallout 3’s functional but unimpressive FPS attributes make this a surprisingly mediocre endeavor.

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A computer simulation of the liberation of Alaska from Chinese Communists, Operation Anchorage is primarily a combat mission that attempts to encourage strategy with some rudimentary options but largely eschews the open ended freedoms that make the Fallout 3 experience so diverse, dynamic, and compelling. Instead it reduces it to an exercise in linear run and gun action as it confines players within cramped interiors and the conceptually limited scope of the Alaskan military campaign. Employing the idea of a simulation has allowed Bethesda to explore a drastically different scenario than anything seen in Fallout 3, changing the place and even time, in a sense, but at what cost? I applaud the creativity and their willingness to go above and beyond for the DLC, however by effectively discarding the capital wasteland they have also ignored the games quintessential feature and greatest strength in favor of a restrictive shooter that emphasizes the games flawed FPS mechanic by focusing almost entirely on it.

The quest begins within the Capital Wasteland and can be accessed through any new or previously saved game. After a few moments of playing you will pick up a radio distress call from the Brotherhood Outcasts that leads to their main headquarters and an exciting confrontation with super mutants in the downtown area. This battle is actually the most fun I had with the entire quest. Upon repelling the invading freaks and making your way inside the base the Outcasts, as rudely as possible, request your help accessing a vault filled with preserved technology. It seems only by completing a combat simulation of the liberation of Anchorage will clearance to open the vault be granted and apparently your Pip-Boy is required to interface with the simulation (how or why is a little unclear but no matter).

When talking with the gruff Protector McGraw I was tempted to end our discussion prematurely by bragging about how I had wiped out the Outcast contingent at Fort Independence (cold hearted psychopath that I am…what can I say, their armor is worth a lot of caps) but I wanted to liberate Alaska so I resisted the impulse. Instead I satisfied my immature sense of humor and insatiable desire to be a jerk by hacking a computer behind my hosts back as he lead me to his commander. Very soon I was donning a neural interface suit and climbing into the simulation pod, which works the same way as the Tranquility lounger on steroids. Rather than a quaint antique monitor the interior is engulfed in shimmering incandescence and instead of a dinky little tune an sepia Americana, I was greeted on the other side by the crisp blue sky and breathtaking cliff side vista of the Alaskan Wilderness. Nice. But I have just described the best parts of the entire campaign.

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The graphics, while not substantially improved were still a little cleaner and the unique art style and new environments all looked very sharp and inviting after so much time in the depressing monochromatic wasteland. I could almost feel the crisp winter wind in my lungs. Overall there seemed to be a slight yet noticeable visual upgrade but the animation remained still relatively mediocre.

The operation officially begins where you have presumably landed by parachute as you receive instructions from a fellow commando to infiltrate the Chinese strongholds for a sabotage mission. As I began to make my way across the rugged cliff side however I encountered the first of a number of frustrating design choices. The removal of all existing weapons and items makes sense and I had anticipated it, but the inability to scavenge, an integral part of Fallout 3’s gameplay, makes the experience feel unnecessarily sparse. Enemies vaporize upon death along with their weapons and the inability to rummage through traditional item caches such as metal boxes, as well as a general lack of other resources such as gun cabinets, foot lockers, and medical boxes constantly frustrated my efforts to embrace the have-it-your-way mentality Fallout 3 thrives on. Instead weapons, ammunition and health are all dispensed at specific locations by gadgets that glow/flash to make them easy to spot (think, the items in Bioshock). With such formal limitations, the ability to shape your own fate by choosing your own weapons, items, and methods feels lost here and the empowering cavalier spirit of the original, contradicted.

The game is broken into two main segments. The first is extremely linear and finds you making your way through the enemy base to rendezvous with another soldier and do some strategic demolition (Yay blow stuff up!) The second, more open, puts you in the field commanding a squadron of soldiers you select with three objectives to complete. Both scenarios are very combat oriented which is essentially the flaw of both and unfortunately, that of Operation Anchorage as a whole.

The first sequence is a dry “corridor shooter” (similar to something you’d find in a typical FPS) in the sense that it requires the player to simply and without deviation, navigate hallways gunning down enemies until they reach the end. Practically devoid of inventory or character customization, the ability to approach situations at the player’s discretion, or other similar freedoms, I found myself frustrated by my lack of options and the sudden inflexibility of the experience. Exterior areas are equally restrictive and invariable as you make your way up narrow pathways that meander precariously across the cliff face. They still present several long distance skirmishes, however, as remote enemies try to gun you down from across the rocky chasms. Unfortunately these altercations are seldom very enjoyable since the sporadic accuracy of Fallout’s automatic weapons make them somewhat ineffective at range and the distance likewise nullifies the percentages of V.A.T.S. The inability to rely on stimpacks or scavenge aid or ammo may have been meant to increase the tension but I just felt slighted out the very fundamentals I had become accustomed to.

The second portion of the game affords the player greater freedoms in how they approach their objectives as well as a larger environment to explore. You take command of a small hand picked platoon to accomplish specific missions. It is still obviously objective based, combat centric and to spite interchangeable weapon sets and squad members, suffers from the same lack of variety as the first. The idea is that you select specific soldier types based on intel for each specific objective, which was a great idea and one I was excited about at first. It’s enjoyable, but the “strategy” element is negligible and between my indestructible AI buddy and the Sentry Bot I chose as a team member I found that “rush in like an idiot, guns blazing” was an effective strategy no matter what the specific conditions of the objective. To be fair though this concept has great potential and demonstrates the designers interest in developing interesting ideas. I just think it would have benefited from a more extensive development period.

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Both sections work on the basic level of Fallout 3 combat, but really don’t bring anything new to the formula or do anything to enliven it. Instead they simply reduce it to it’s rudimentary form, which by itself is not particularly engaging, and introduced arbitrary restrictions that seem contrary to the nature of the established formula. The gameplay relies too much on combat alone and makes you forget your playing an RPG. When I leveled up during the mission it actually seemed out of place and irrelevant. Since I was engaged in a straightforward combat scenario, broader strategies and character enhancement seemed pointless.

One of the things observed in most reviews as well as anyone who has spent some time with the game is that Fallout 3 “is not a first person shooter.” Even with the dynamic of V.A.T.S. it’s combat is only a small fragment of the greater whole. Fallout 3 is comprised of a multitude of choices and the freedom and environmental expanse in which to exercise them. It’s strategy and depth lies not in it’s individual mechanics or the strength of a single part but the versatility they afford together and the ability to overcome adversity with the skillful application of a variety of tools and methods. To be able to approach a situation your way, or avoid it completely lends it it’s engaging realism and satisfying sense of accomplishment. It is the sum of it’s parts, a synthesis of gameplay mechanics that could be criticized on their own but together harmonize as an amazing experience. Only through the coalescence of it’s FPS, RPG and Sandbox elements does it transcend the individual flaws of each. Operation Anchorage falters by relying far too much on just one component.

Obviously this is only a side quest and not the entire Fallout 3 experience but the difference between this and the other side quests is it exists in its own enclosed world. The Capital Wasteland is gone and with it most of the flexible gameplay that makes Fallout 3 so enjoyable. It is distinguished by this isolation, ostracized from the fundamental freedom upon which the main game is built, and therefore has too be judged on it’s own and not it’s relation to Fallout 3 as a whole. It has to stand on it’s own merits. Unfortunately it’s merits are combat and as we’ve already established the FPS mechanics at work here are not on par with Halo or CoD4. Essentially Operation Anchorage shoots itself in the foot by straying from it’s foundations and identifying itself as more of a shooter at the same time not allowing the player enough room to experience it with the sense of self reliance and ingenuity that define the Fallout 3 experience.

I don’t mind Bathesda creating something completely new and unique but since they so clearly distinguished it from it’s origins why couldn’t they have invented more in terms of gameplay as well. Since they fabricated a completely new environment, why not use the opportunity to get creative with the play mechanics, tweak the RPG system, or do something innovative with V.A.T.S. They could have introduced some new features that would have complimented and enhanced the basic combat system instead of just leaving it out to dry. Since it’s a simulation the new rules wouldn’t have had to apply to the rest of the game but could be discarded at the mission’s conclusion.

Closing Thoughts

Operation Anchorage is not absolutely terrible to spite my critical appraisal. The change of scenery is nice, the combat, while over relied upon, still works, and it introduces some new weapons and armor that are made available upon completion. In particular, there is a stealth suit with cloaking capabilities that’s a lot of fun to play around with in the wasteland when OA is over. I just think certain design choices hold it back and as big fan of Fallout 3 I can’t help but be a little disappointed with it’s disregard for what I feel are some of title’s best features.

At around 3 and a half hours I also feel that 800pts ($9.99) is a little steep. It would offer more value if it was a more open ended experience but the cut and dried, A to B objectives, restrictive map design, and lack of player choices leave little room for anything but running and gunning commies (don’t get me wrong I love sticking it to the Reds as much as the next guy.) If you’re a big fan of Fallout 3, as I am, check it out. However if you played Fallout 3, thought it was great, but have since moved on this isn’t enough incentive to justify a returning to the good fight. That being said I’m still excited about the next two DLC installments; The Pitt coming in February and Broken Steel, in March. Stay tuned for our coverage as more details surface. Here’s hoping Bathesda renews the sense of freedom and choice that makes Fallout 3 so great.

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