Never let it be said Bethesda hasn’t supported Fallout 3 since it’s release late last year. Demonstrating a dedication to the post apocalyptic behemoth of sandbox gaming the company has consistently released new DLC episodes on such a regular basis it’s clear they thinking about these scenarios and all the possibilities they explore as they developed the main game.
Now that we’ve explored every nook of the wastes, the world beyond and even the past, there was only one more frontier we had yet to venture: The final frontier. I tip my hat once again to Bethesda as I have in past reviews for their willingness to experiment with the DLC and use it to do things they couldn’t try in the main game. Unfortunately however, differen’t hasn’t always been good and the DLC, though mostly positive has had it’s areas of disappoint. In attempting new things the DLC has too often strayed from the core gameplay, that special myriad of mechanics and genres, that makes Fallout 3 work.
Overall the DLC has been a slow positive return to that formula, a gradual rise to near perfection and into outer space. Mothership Zeta is the last DLC Bethesda has currently planned and takes us far beyond the arid desolation of earth into the cold metallic recesses of an alien spaceship. Sadly after the greatness of Broken Steel and Point Lookout, Mothership Zeta is an unfortunate and puzzling reversion to some of the same things that plauged the lesser of these installments. It isn’t a complete disappointment but it has similar problems as Operation Anchorage, the first and worst of the DLC. Whereas Point Lookout finally got it right as a simple continuation of the open ended adventuring that made Fallout 3 so much fun, Mothership Zeta returns to the constrictive “corridor-shooter” style gameplay that frustrated in Operation Anchorage.
With a game that succeeds in the freedom and expanse of an open world it baffles me why the creators have at times aspired to more linear, scripted gameplay in the DLC. Mothership Zeta is not as annoying as I found much of Operation Anchorage to be, you can still scavenge after all, but it still reduces the gameplay to relatively simple, straightforward objectives and mindless run and gun action. As the DLC progressively went from mediocre to great, I didn’t think I would have to go through this routine again. I think I’ve remarked on the flaws of this approach at least to some degree in each of the DLC reviews, thoroughly in my frustrated review of Operation Anchorage.
To those who complain that Fallout 3 is an FPS disguised as an RPG, that it’s merely a shooter and little else, let me assure them: It’s very definitely not. How do I know? Because it’s a great game but when it’s reduced to simple FPS gameplay it isn’t. So there’s definitely something else to it. It’s the sum of it’s parts. When you strip away the exploration, and the dynamic nuance, strategy and variety it’s freedom represents, and you trap it in a narrow hallway with limited options and 5 enemies blitzing you, you’re quickly reminded how much this game is not an FPS. This may be outer space, but Halo it aint. There are a lot of reasons why but, without going in to detail, the controls are stiffer and less fluent in frenetic combat situations, the weapons less accurate or, in some cases, responsive, and the subtleties of an RPG style damage system makes straight firefights harder to assess tactically. It’s just not an FPS. Trust me.
Mothership Zeta begins when you explore the source of a mysterious radio transmission and are promptly abducted. Beamed aboard the alien craft you soon meet others who have been similarly collected for insidious experimentation at the hands of your extraterrestrial captors. after some introductions you’ll find yourself striking a blow for humanity and leading a charge to commandeer the spaceship. The gameplay is simple but well executed, if only Fallout 3 were a better shooter. Meeting a motley crew of abducted humans from various places and time periods, they station themselves behind you at specific locations, throughout the game as you clear sections, complete objectives, and reach new areas. They remain in tow as you press deeper into the alien vessel. Among these characters are a woman who can repair your weapons and a medic who can modify alien substances into healing biogel, as well as a little girl that reminded me of a little sister from Bioshock as she crawled through doors and vents to open them to you.
The game consists of simple forward progression as you make your way through each new section of the ship mowing down stereotypical aliens on your merry rampage to the bridge. A scenario of this kind would have been far better served in a game like Timesplitters, right down to the humor. Each section has objectives to complete along the way although I found 9 times out of 10 this consisted of nothing more interesting than blowing up the same type of generator over and over again. Meanwhile you’re assaulted by the alien crew who wield a variety of fancy laser guns and electric batons. This kind of simplicity works fine for shooters but only draws attention to Fallout 3’s shortcomings as such. With the RPG model, why are we limiting the game to rudimentary, over simplified action with little to no emphasis on story, character development or strategy?
As far as the story goes there’s not much of a driving narrative other than the obvious imperative to escape. It’s true that given the situation I really don’t need a complicated drama to motivate my actions. Fighting for freedom is obvious and so are the reasons. Instead of an overarching story the scenario itself is informed by pop culture and the tongue and cheek references to abduction, alien experimentation, spacemen and flying saucers. Audio sound bytes from human prisoners that fill out the story a-la Bioshock and each member of your team has their own story, however I found myself willing to bypass both since they were basically just standard stage dressing. The story exists in the background. It’s there if you’re interested. I’m a little surprised how little else they attempted, but what’s here works on an indirect level.
Enemy AI is serviceable but not great by any standard. Enemies charge you or shoot depending on what type of weapon they have but other than that they aren’t very creative and the minimal intelligence suffers from the cramped quarters. Often times I found myself surrounded by several enemies as they assaulted me with batons. This annoying scenario was often repeated and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the combat suffers from the slight over durability of certain enemies. Most are fine but the force field protected soldiers are frustratingly resilient.
Abduction is not altogether without benefits though. You find and collect a surplus of foreign substances and items that have advantageous uses such as the Alien epoxy, which can be used to repair weapons and the Adapted Bio-Gel which is good for restoring a whopping 180Hp. You’d think the new weaponry would be the coolest yet but it’s fairly modest in terms of damage and function. There is a pistol, the Alien Atomizer, and a rifle, the Alien Disintegrator. Both are fun to toy around with but ultimately somewhat dismissible, especially compared with some of the cool toys in DLC past. The other notable weapon is the Drone Canon, which sounds cool but is just plain bad. It’s a heavy weapon that launches a ball of energy that explodes after bouncing around a bit. Since it doesn’t explode on contact but deflects against surfaces, accurately placing a shot is a guessing game. I actually had it bounce right off my target only to explode harmlessly off to the side and after only a few shots I put it away.
The best part of scavenging is how little everything weighs and how valuable it is. You will, in the course of the game acquire a ton of equipment, all of which can be traded for large sums of money. I went up fairly light and returned with about 30,000 caps worth of loot. You heard me right. Your money problems are over. Honestly, though it’s a little excessive and unbalances the game slightly but it’s nice to get something for your trouble. You can also return to the ship after the quest is completed but many doors are no longer accessible.
To be fair, Motherhsip Zeta is not a terrible campaign. The design of the alien craft is visually appealing with blinking lights, buttons and screens practically everywhere, though at times the disarray of bells and whistles can be distracting during quests and make knowing exactly which button to push a little confusing. Responses to this DLC seem generally positive but playing it I found myself more often than not underwhelmed by the gameplay. It isn’t badly designed but, like Operation Anchorage it fails to deliver on the potential we know Fallout 3 is capable of and I experienced a similar sense of aggravation in some situations as I did with that first DLC episode. It gravitates to it’s weaker FPS side and given the content, we’ve been there and done that in better shooters. Mothership Zeta gets a very moderate recommendation to only the Fallout 3 die hards like myself. It simply pales in comparison to what was offered in Point Lookout and is an unfortunately mediocre finale to Fallout 3’s DLC.