Cold but Good
The open-ended adventure to be found in the post-apocalyptic wastes of Fallout 3 offers a lengthy experience on it’s own that’s uniquely different depending on the choices you make and objectives you pursue in the game. Even though it’s possible to sink far more than 60 hours into the game and still not wrap-up the main storyline, it’s refreshing to know Bethesda is keen on providing even more reasons for hardcore Fallout enthusiasts to continue roaming the scorched, irradiated landscape. Operation Anchorage, the first in a trilogy of downloadable Fallout 3 expansions, provides a distinctly different experience from the main game, but is the in-game payoff commensurate to the 800 MS point price tag?
Once the expansion is downloaded and the game boots up, you’ll soon receive a mysterious radio broadcast transition that will lead you to a new location on the map. Travel there and you’ll run into a fortified group of Brotherhood of Steel outcasts in need of some assistance. They’ve located a sealed cache that can only be accessed by someone wielding the proper technology, which just so happens to be your Pip-Boy. The problem is the chamber will only unlock once you’ve successfully completed (and survived) a virtual reality military training session. Signing up for the job, you’ll suit up, hop into a weird metal egg, and be whisked away to the virtual windy cliffs and snowy landscape of Anchorage, Alaska.
Operation Anchorage takes place well before the catastrophic Great War leading up to the start of Fallout 3. As a member of the U.S. military forces seeking to liberate Anchorage from occupation by the communist Chinese Red Army, you must infiltrate and destroy a series of artillery installations before rejoining the American base camp and leading a strategic assault into the fortified enemy stronghold. The beautiful blue skies and snow-covered slopes of this wintry setting provide a stark contrast to the desolate, arid wastelands in the main game that should appeal to players who crave a visual change of pace. For better or worse, the gameplay itself sheds much of the RPG and scavenging elements that make Fallout 3 so interesting in favor of more straightforward run and gun action.
The first half of the expansion is a fast-paced shooting fest that follows a mostly linear path across rocky heights and through underground enemy bunkers. At the start of the VR mission, you’re only given a crappy knife and a silenced pistol, but you’ll have the opportunity to pick up other standard weapons along the way. In line with the expansion’s simulation theme, fallen enemies simply evaporate. They can’t be searched for goodies and you also can’t scavenge items from the environment – a highly enjoyable pursuit in Fallout 3. While this makes sense (remember, you’re in a virtual setting), it’s no less disappointing. Instead, you’ll reload ammo and recoup health at dispensers placed strategically throughout the campaign. Without the fun of scrounging for your own survival, the main thing left to focus on is blowing the crap out of commies. This makes the gameplay in Anchorage feel more like a traditional first-person shooter (though the V.A.T.S. system is intact).
Later on, the campaign begins to branch out slightly, and you’ll be able to hand-pick squad members to accompany you on excursions behind enemy lines. You can also select from different weapons load-outs for each sub-mission. At this point the adventure opens up a bit, letting players pick the order in which they want to progress through the remaining objectives. Storming into enemy surface fortifications and diving through barbed wire trenches with incoming ordinance shaking the screen, kicking up snow, and exploding all around hearkens back to more traditional FPS war games.
Operation Anchorage definitely feels far more populated, and it’s actually kind of pleasant to have more humans around. You’ll be slightly less lonely with a full squad at your side – at least until someone lights them ablaze or sends them flying in a spray of random body parts. A handful of new adversaries throw some additional variety into the action-oriented gameplay. You’ll encounter a massive, laser-spewing hover tank, small spiderbot mines that clatter towards you across the snowy terrain, and awesome stealth-suit-wearing sniper ninjas that appear out of thin air, among other opponents. It’s also not uncommon to turn a corner only to find a Red Army soldier ramming a rocket launcher or flamethrower in your face. Good stuff.
For the most part, the visual differences found in Alaska’s chilly setting are like night and day in comparison to the locales in the scorched wastes. Instead of being viewed through a dismal filter of browns and tans, the softer blues and grays in Anchorage’s mountains and plains are a little softer on the eyes.
The same immaculate level of detail carries over, and many additional little touches of sound and visual effects round out the experience nicely. The screen shakes and the controller rumbles with every blast of the massive artillery cannons you’re seeking to take out, and the far-reaching fiery explosions accompanying their destruction is impressive. As previously mentioned, the latter portion of the game evokes a World War II-like vibe with whizzing artillery shells exploding close by and the sounds of battle not far off from the trenches.
Bethesda didn’t need to mess with the good thing it has going with Fallout 3’s core gameplay. Thankfully, the more action-oriented changes in Operation Anchorage are temporary. They do indeed provide a different style of pacing and a refreshing change of scenery to complement the solid gameplay in Fallout 3. While the more linear, FPS-style gameplay isn’t an improvement over the slower, exploratory pace in the main game, it shakes things up a bit.
Operation Anchorage clocks in at about three hours. Players who’ve held off from brushing up against the level 20 cap or are only a short-way into the main campaign will find the goodies earned in this first expansion particularly bountiful. Succeeding in your virtual mission and cracking open the sealed stash translates directly into a big payoff of extra firepower, cool armor, and helpful gizmos to use in the rest of the game. Electrified ninja swords, stealth armor, and a new gauss rifle are only a few of the goodies awaiting players. The vignette is an entertaining diversion, but the rewards for completing it are what make it truly worthwhile.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
The visuals have a few nice extra touches and the settings are a good change of pace. 3.7 Control
Without V.A.T.S., this FPS-style expansion would suffer substantially. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Lots of explosions and some entertaining “kill the commies” dialogue. 3.5 Play Value
It’s a tad on the short side with no replay value, but the goodies obtained from blasting things for a few hours help boost this expansion’s value. 3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.