North To The Future

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
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It was no real surprise that just when I had about explored every nook and cranny of the wasteland, that developer Bethesda Softworks decided it was time to come out with the first downloadable content pack (DLC) for Fallout 3. It’s what they did to me with Oblivion, much to my joy. Called Operation Anchorage, the new content is a computer simulation (yes a simulation within the simulation) that recreates one of the pivotal battles from the Fallout world: the liberation of Alaska from the Red Chinese Communists.

The new content has the same hidden humor and hard-hitting action as the rest of the Fallout 3 universe, but also several problems that will probably keep it from being quite as well received as the main game. But for $10 (which must be spent as 800 Microsoft points) it’s a good value, especially if you have completed the game and are looking for a quick fix without having to play through the entire thing again from scratch.

The main problem with O:A is the main game itself however. I don’t know what the developers at Bethesda were smoking, but they decided to actually make Fallout 3 have a hard ending when the main plot is solved. Unlike Oblivion or Morrowind, once the main plot is complete, the game is over. So to play O:A, or any mod for that matter, you have to go back and load up a previous game before the main plot is complete. Thankfully I had already done this because I had not explored every nook and cranny of the game yet, but it still stings. For me, this ranks up there with one of the top ten greatest computer game design mistakes of all time. There is rumor of a patch for the PC version that will eliminate this silly ending, which is probably going to be necessary with all the player mods coming out to follow the release of the G.E.C.K. creation kit. I hope it comes sooner than later.

The second problem that I had was that to get Operation: Anchorage, you have to sign up and download it from Microsoft’s Live service. I don’t know why Fallout 3 has to be so closely tied to Live, but it was a huge pain in the arse for me, a PC player who has never used Live before, to make things work. The problem for me is that I played the entire Fallout 3 game from my install CD and never joined Live. Why would you? I could care less about "Achievement Points." Is Microsoft going to give me a prize or something from the bottom shelf if I get a high score? I don’t think so.

So after joining the Live service and downloading the game (which costs 800 Microsoft Points – the company’s fake unit of money which is about $10 in the real world) the Live service said it was installed. I loaded up O:A and"nothing.

Apparently you don’t just have to be a member of Live and get the content from them. You have to actually sign into the service each time you play. And your old saved games? The game no longer recognizes them. You need to start a new game and save a file which will create a new Live save folder, then drag your old saves into it. I did this, but O:A still refused to activate even though I was playing while logged into the Live service. I suspect that because I was playing from an old save file (pre-Live) that it would not activate the new content for me. Of course I didn’t want to start out as a kid again and play through the entire game, so it looked like I was out of luck.

In frustration, I asked the Live tech support people if they could help me make the game work. I got a note back from the PC support team saying that they needed more information, asking about my system specs and the like. I gave them all the info they wanted, and waited another day. Finally I got a comical note back saying that for my specific question, that I needed to contact the Xbox Live support team and they would help me. What? I am playing on a PC, as I just told them in great detail. Why would the Xbox team help me if the PC team can’t? I can see why people hate Microsoft.

It turns out there is a solution, though it’s not one that Microsoft likes. You can simply copy the Anchorage.esm file and its two data files from the hidden Live directory into the main Fallout 3 data file. Search for Anchorage.esm, Anchorage – Sounds and Anchorage – Main to find the three files you need. Unless you live in Alaska, they are probably the only files called Anchorage on your computer following the download from Live. Copy them into the Fallout 3 folder called Data. Then when you load, make sure that both the Fallout 3 Main and Operation Anchorage data files are checked in the files menu from the load screen. For me it was automatically recognized and checked at this point, but it’s good to look. Presto, you can now play Operation: Anchorage and kiss Live goodbye. If Microsoft has a problem with that, they can contact my Xbox Support Team to register their complaint.

It’s possible that if you ever do get Live to work, that you could have two versions of the Anchorage .esm running which would mess up your game, but I have not found this to be the case, since the Live version refuses to work anyway.

Once Anchorage is working, if you wander the wastes for a few minutes you will get a distress signal from the Brotherhood Outcasts. This leads you to the Baily’s Crossroads metro stop, a new location in the world that is added near the Red Racer tricycle factory. If you go in there, you will find an Outcast outpost after some combat with mutants.

Eventually you can agree to enter into the Operation Anchorage simulation, which apparently needs solved as a key to opening up a vault of hidden technology. The Outcasts offer to give you a share of the tech in the vault if you help them, but given how mean they were to me, I didn’t trust them one bit. Given that they have a tortured-to-death Gary 23 locked up in a back room (you know, from the cloning vault), who they apparently tried to get to run the sim for them, they were even more suspect. But run the sim you must if you want to play O:A, cause its all inside the computer.

Jokes about psychotic little girls aside (a reference you can make to the other VR quest in the game) you enter the sim and find yourself in snowy Alaska. Sarah Palin is nowhere to be found, but there is an even bigger threat.

When you arrive the Chinese have already taken over the place, and it’s your job to take it back. This is done in a series of missions leading up to a big main one. But your first mission is to destroy the big guns that are pounding the heck out of the troops far below a mountain pass. This is straight out of "The Guns of the Navarone" movie and has been featured in several games, including the Call of Duty series. It’s fun, but has a "been there, done that" feel to it.

In fact, this DLC kind of shows the limits of the Fallout 3 engine. It doesn’t run quite as smoothly as say, Quake or even Call of Duty, yet here Fallout 3 is treated as a pure shooter. The levels are all linear and there is no way to "think around" problems like with the core game. You pretty much just have to slug it out with the enemy soldiers. Consider A:O to be a shooter mini-game within the overall RPG.

And O:A also seems pretty clumsy compared to the main game. Enemies spawn, sometimes right in front of you, or behind you in cleared out areas. You will be walking down a trench and a guy with a flamethrower will just "pop" into existence. Granted that some of them are wearing stealth suits, but even then you can see them if you are careful. I am talking about some blatant enemy spawning that just looks bad, as in Turning Point: Fall of Liberty bad. This might be done to simulate the fact that you are inside a computer simulation, but it just makes the game feel clunky.

Also, the damage tables within O:A are totally messed up. A normal Chinese solder would step out in front of me and I would go into VATS and hit them at point blank range with a sniper rifle and they would lose one point off their health bar. What? This happened all the time. What kind of fur hat are they wearing that can stop a .308 bullet fired from two feet away? Outside in the main game that would kill almost anyone, even if you don’t get a surprise shot. If you are going to force us to play a straight shooter, at least get the gun damage correct.

Finally, a big problem in the main game is very evident here. If you can see an enemy with your sniper rifle, and zoom in on them, you still might not be able to hit them because they are out of range. You will even see your bullet travel right at the target, but it will disappear before hitting them because they are about five or ten feet out of range, so the bullet disappears. I hate when this happens in the main game and consider it one of the biggest flaws of the entire game, but inside O:A, it happens a lot more.

Thankfully, O:A does get better in time. One of the coolest things about the new pack is that you get to command a squad of troops and can build that squad however you like. You have five points and three slots, and more powerful troops cost more. So if you want a missile trooper it will cost you two points and one of your slots while a Mr. Gutsy will cost three points. I normally went with a four point sentry robot and then a one point grenadier. Sure that meant I had an empty slot in my squad that I couldn’t afford to fill, but the punch of the sentry robot more than made up for this with its minigun and missiles.

Your two side missions before you get the main one are to destroy a tank repair yard and kill everyone inside a listening post. Inside the listening post you will encounter troops in stealth suits that have that predator type effect that makes them very hard to see. When they attack however, they can be viewed normally. They are very tough opponents, especially with the wacky damage tables, but can be beaten. The tank depot is the best mission of the game, and actually has you taking on tanks. Adding working ground vehicles to the Fallout game was great to see. I almost wish you could drive them.

Of course the final fight in the game is more or less a boss combat. Here the real Fallout 3 RPG spirit comes through because you can avoid the final shootout with a smart speech role.

Once complete, you can raid the armory in the real world, though be ready for anything.

Inside the simulation you can use a Gauss Rifle and finally get one in the real world too. This was really missing from the main game if you ask me, since it was my favorite weapon from Fallout 2. However, the gun is significantly changed. For some reason the new weapon fires energy from Micro Fusion cells and is single shot only. After it fires, you have to load a new MF. The fact that it uses all energy means it’s not a true Gauss Rifle, which uses energy to accelerate a small pellet at awesome speeds. The old M72 from Fallout 2 fired 2mm rounds, which was realistic. It was also a small arms weapon in terms of skill. The new Gauss rifle is an energy weapon. The one good thing is that it has the best scope in the game, though in my experience firing it, the shots seem to go a little high. If you line up a head shot and are not in VATS, you will probably shoot over your target. So aim a bit lower than you think.

In the end, Operation: Anchorage is worth the money. At only $10, or 800 Microsoft duckets, the DLC can add a nice amount of mostly combat oriented play to your game. And being able to roundup some sharp weapons and armor which can be used in the main world is a cool bonus. In fact, if O:A was made by anyone but Bethesda, it would probably have been more well received, at least by me. It’s a good game, just not great, and not up to the level of quality that we have come to expect from one of the world’s premiere development houses. Operation: Anchorage is no Horse Armor, but it’s not exactly Knights of the Nine either.

Still, I doubt anyone will be disappointed, unless of course they don’t really like the combat aspects of Fallout 3. And its nice to get out of the scorching heat of the Washington desert wasteland for a bit and into the cool snowy wasteland of Alaska.

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