Ok...for anyone that doesn't know, I'm in a band called Driveby Sonata in the Tulsa, OK area. Here's a quick and dirty history. My good friend Jocelyn used to be in a metal group called Rook here in Oklahoma. Rook was on hiatus and she was looking to start something new. Enter the alt/rock band Copious, who had also been on hiatus for several years. Jocelyn decided to bring me into the new group as a bass player along with Brent Ober, a guitarist who did the songwriting and arrangements, and Sean Miller, a drums guru with a good ear for production. After a few practices, Brent and I realized that we wanted a big two-guitar sound, so I transitioned to playing rhythm geetar. This prompted Jocelyn to bring on board an old friend, Erik Dabrowsky of the metal group SolRaven to take my place on bass guitar. We practiced fairly regularly and got a nice 30 minute set ready for our debut at the Freaker's Ball, an annual Halloween music-fest here in town. We got a crappy timeslot, but we played it and had a blast. However, a few weeks afterwards as we were thinking about doing some recording work, Brent came to the decision to leave Driveby Sonata and take his music in another direction. We bid each other adieu and good luck, and set about the work of composing new songs as a four-piece alternative rock group.
It's been an absolute thrill to work as a four-piece. It's really rewarding for me, since I've been able to take a lot of original compositions I've had "in the bag" for a long time - and by the time Erik, Sean, and Jocelyn put their input on them, the finished product is something so much better than my original visions of the song. All of these months of preparation culminated last week as Driveby Sonata hit the studio to lay the groundwork on a three-song EP that will eventually grace the MySpace site, our official .com, and be sold at any future gigs we come across. We've had the good fortune to work with a fantastic recording engineer. If you're an old school punk fan you probably know who he is. Stephen Egerton, formerly of the Descendents recorded us over a period of three days at Armstrong Studios in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
He's meticulous and has one hell of an ear for sublety and songcraft. I actually came to think of him as more of a producer as well. He gave us a lot of good feedback on the construction of our songs and suggested subtle changes to open the whole thing up and make it far more balanced and ear-friendly. Anyway, there's still quite a ways to go on the recording...we still need to track Jocelyn's violin, vocals, and mixing but what we have so far is really damn impressive and man, am I ever proud of it.
So...it looks like in April we'll be able to unleashed our twisted baby on the intertubes. We've gotten some early feedback which has pegged our sound as Smashing Pumpkins-Perfect Circle-meets 70's and 80's AOR for lack of any sort of real description. It's been months and months of hard work...but the end result is a musical concoction unlike anything the four of us have ever heard. Hopefully you'll like it too.
"War. War never changes."
I remember booting up the first iteration of the Fallout series on my PC back in 1997 and hearing Ron Perlman speak these words. I'd never seen anything like what would follow. There had been isometric-perspective RPG's prior to it, like Syndicate for example. But nothing had the damned-near perfect mix Black Isle Studios managed to pull off. The campy retro-futuristic, ultra-violent romp through a nuke-scorched wasteland of southern California brings back fond memories even today. When I heard that the series was coming back, with Bethesda Softworks at the helm...I counted the days awaiting the release like a kid awaiting Christmas. Bethesda's other swan song, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was an enormous world to explore but it was riddled with nagging gameplay issues that dampened the experience. As much as I anticipated Fallout 3's release, I tempered it knowing that I may very well be disappointed with the end product.
Would Bethesda hold true to Black Isle's original vision? Would they take lessons learned from Oblivion to the project?
The answer: Stunned silence. This game is nothing less than the most ambitious and stunning gameplay experience I have ever had in a 15-plus year history of gaming.
You play as the Vault Dweller, and your experience begins at birth. The first face you see in the world is that of your father (brilliantly voiced by veteran actor Liam Neeson.) You then progress through a fairly detailed character editor where you sculpt your wasteland avatar to your liking. Once you are done, your father removes his surgical mask to reveal a face remarkably similar to the one you just designed. It's a nice touch. After a few minutes of hand-holding, you're thrust into a power struggle for control of the Vault. The Overseer has gone power-mad, your father has unexpectedly left the Vault, and a full-scale riot/giant cockroach infestation is breaking out. Here you really begin to get the jist of what this game is really all about: choices and their consequences for the world at large. Do you kill the Overseer? Do you sneak into his office and hack his terminal, giving you access to the outside? You can do all of this, and a lot more. What you choose will have repercussions down the road. Every major event and NPC encounter in the game gives you a chance to define what your character is all about. Saint or scoundrel? Thief or drunken good-hearted brawler? It's all up to you. Just be prepared to be surprised. The Law of Unintended Consequences is fully in play here, and a well-intentioned deed may come back to haunt you in a horrible way later on.
On to the meat:
GRAPHICS: This is arguably the most important part of the experience. This game is an absolute joy to play. The first time your character emerges from the shelter of Vault 101 after a short introductory experience, your character is blinded temporarily by the sun your eyes have never before seen up to that point. Once your vision returns to normal you find yourself staring at a vast wasteland of the Washington D.C. area. Far off in the distance you see the ruins of the Washington Monument. Go a little further down the road and you'll see the wreckage of a once-proud society arrayed around you as far as the eye can see. It's relatively easy to design nice pristine environments where a house is a house and everything is in its place. It takes some real skill and attention to detail to realistically depict the chaos and general trashiness of a world years after the bomb. Simply walking from point A to B in this game is a pleasure. Fallout 3 uses the Gamebryo engine, also showcased in Bethesda's other offerings. It pushes modern game consoles and PCs to their limit. Textures are detailed, pop-in is negligible which is impressive given the distances involved. There are only two real negatives to speak of in this category. There's not a lot of variety to NPC facial design, and their animations are atrocious. Oblivion had this problem as well. There's no body language to be seen, and it's hard to appreciate just how big a role it plays in human communication until it's gone completely. The immersion of the narrative suffers as a result, but not enough for the player to be unmoved by the scope of the storytelling. They really should have taken a page from the stellar Mass Effect for how to do character interaction right. The other down-check has more to do with design than anything else. Everything is a drab shade of grey - as could be expected in a post-nuclear situation. It does make a lot of the landscape look the same without foliage there to differentiate it.
SOUND: Musically, it's a sublime treat. Your character is equipped with a PDA of sorts that allows him/her to listen to adjacent radio signals. You can listen to broadcast propaganda from the pseudo-governmental entity "The Enclave" which is amusing for the first ten minutes or so, but if you're like me you'll have that Pip-Boy tuned to Galaxy News Radio. GNR's the closest thing to a news and music station post apocalyptic DC has. A really nice feature is that the announcer will broadcast news of your latest heroic action - or dastardly deed. Nothing like being called a bastard over the radio after you nuke a small ramshackle settlement for monetary gain. GNR's got a nice little library of music as well. This game introduced me to some toe-tapping ditties from the 1940's that I most likely wouldn't have been exposed to unless I got a sudden Danny Kaye movie jones. You don't know the meaning of ironic fun until you smash a Super Mutant's head into a million pieces while listening to the jump blues tune "Butcher Pete" by rock n' roll pioneer Roy Brown. Speaking of crunching mutant heads, the sound effects generated by in-game actions are pretty satisfying. The first time the Vault 101 blast door opened with a sickening metallic squeal, I grit my teeth. It hurt my fillings a little bit.
GAMEPLAY: It's been called "Oblivion with guns." That's pretty accurate. Targeting is pretty standard first-person shooter fare, though of the old school variety. No "iron sights" mode to be found here. What sets it apart, is the brilliantly executed revival of the V.A.T.S. - Vault Assisted Targeting System. Even though your battles take place in real-time, you can pause the action at any point in a battle and bring up a computer targeting assessment of your soon-to-be victim. You'll be able to focus on specific parts of the assailant's body and are given a percentage estimate that you'll hit what you're aiming at. If you're having trouble getting that headshot from the hip with that Scoped .44 Magnum you found out there, you'll need to avail yourself of the great RPG advancement system. SPECIAL is the Fallout world's answer to traditional RPG mechanics and it works pretty well - it's better and more concise than most. Your leveling up is accomplished through Skills and Perks. Skills translate to how good you are with the equipment and techniques you use - and even how well your "gift of gab" works. You can make a pacifist diplomat-type character that can be surprisingly effective when maxed out in Charisma points and Speech skill. Or go the other way, and do your negotiating with melee weapons and flamethrowers - use Strength/Endurance points and Big Guns skill. The freedom in character development is positively staggering. Rather than pigeonhole you into one of several character classes - you make your own from scratch. You'll have difficulties at different points in the game based on how you build your wastelander - the sneaky sniper ninja that loves to pop mutant heads from 300 yards out will have to think quickly when his perfect sniping spot gets an unexpected visit from a Giant Radscorpion, and your silver-tongued PR shark will have to get creative when cornered by enemies that don't understand the subtleties of language and are only interested in tearing you to pieces. In that regard, the challenge level of the game is constantly in flux. Your morality comes into play as well. It's a little bit harder to play as a conscience-less roving murderer. Not only will wasteland beasts and mutants want to kill you, but townsfolk will have heard of you and are likely to shoot you on sight.
LASTING APPEAL: Off the charts. You can play this game start-to-finish multiple times through and not come even close to seeing everything. The world of the DC wasteland is absolutely enormous, and is chock full of rewards for the patient explorer. There's a good bit of downloadable content expansion for this game with more on the way. You'll still be getting enjoyment out of this game months after buying it.
FINAL ANALYSIS: This game doesn't really revolutionize anything. There are better first-person shooters out there. There are also better pure RPG's as well. But no game to this date has a world this big, an experience this poignant, a story this huge. This is a game that is exponentially better than the sum of its parts. The overall experience is beautiful, haunting, and will keep you coming back. This game is not 100 percent perfect, but you'll have a hard time finding gameplay this immersive anywhere else. For that reason, it's going to be a little intimidating to the casual gamer - the option to save progress anywhere alleviates this somewhat.
This is also NOT a game for young children. The gore factor and mature subject matter make it suitable for older teens at the youngest.
SCORE: 5 out of 5 Donuts. Perfect Score!