Crispy Gamer

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage

If I had to guess, I'd say that Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, the first downloadable expansion for Fallout 3, was created to prove two points. First, that Bethesda knows how to use colors other than brown and green -- now it can use blue and white, too! Second, to show off how well the game can work when it is pushed determinately towards the first-person shooter end of the spectrum. In both cases, mission accomplished. Mostly.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
It's so ... blue.

There's also a statement here. Bethesda's last major title was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the first DLC for which was -- infamously -- horse armor. Operation Anchorage is the first of three planned Fallout 3 expansions to hit before summer. As such, it's a great start, and far better than horse armor, but it also feels like a teaser.

Players of any level can tackle the expansion, so long as their character has left Vault 101. A new radio station will appear that guides the listener towards an area near the Nuka Cola plant west of downtown D.C. Following the signal, I found a band of Outcasts from the Brotherhood of Steel. They were trying to open a cache of killer weapons, but had to pass through a simulation to do so. A Pip-Boy was just the interface they needed to access the program, so into the sim pod I went.

The simulation transported me back to the Chinese occupation of Anchorage. Appearing on a treacherously windswept cliffside, I was tasked first with taking out three massive guns, then leading a strike team against other targets within Chinese-held territory.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
Yep, looks a lot like Alaska.

A few things are very obviously different. The new setting comes first. If it's a bit monotonous, it is at least meant to be a snowy near-wasteland, and in that respect looks great. Small details stand out: a few snowmen the Chinese soldiers have made inside one camp; the way your strike team members shuffle around trying to stay warm, blowing into their cupped hands; the edges of the map, where the sim flickers in and out of pixilated reality.

New enemies are out in force: The Chinese Army has rapid-fire snipers and cloaked Crimson Dragoons to bar any progress. Some snipers also wear the cloaked stealth armor; those equipped can be seen slightly by the naked eye, but not targeted within V.A.T.S. before you knock down the cloaking mechanism with a V.A.T.S.-unassisted blow or two.

Your weapon loadout is limited -- initially, a silenced pistol and knife. Soon enough the arsenal expands with assault and sniper rifles, and a few more pieces of gear. You won't be able to steal weapons or gear from downed enemies, as they dissolve into bits and bytes after death.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
Screw-turning treads, a cool pulse cannon and no way to steal it. Boo, unless you're the owner.

Oddly, almost every ammo dump you come across looks exactly the same. There will be an ammo dispenser to magically fill your clips, a health dispenser to similarly restore life, a few grenades and mines, two missiles and some energy cells. These items will all be glowing red; almost nothing else in the expansion can be picked up. And currently, these items can only be collected only if your reticule is directly on them.

From a gameplay perspective, Anchorage does more to play into criticisms of Fallout 3 than to prove them wrong. The quest -- little more than a dash from one checkpoint to the next, in expectation of the weapon cache waiting at the end -- feels terribly bare, with no sidelines to explore. The uniform ammo dumps, whether motivated by the "simulation" aspect of the story, feel like placeholders.

Ten pieces of hidden intel will yield a new Perk if collected. Strangely, however, completing an objective magically transports you from one part of the sim to another, and if you've missed a piece of intel you might suspect it's because you weren't given the chance to find it.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
That's the new Power Armor. White. Pretty.

Granted, the rewards are pretty good: a new variety of Power Armor, a Chinese stealth suit and the highlight: the Gauss Rifle, a bad-ass, high-powered, energy-based rifle that can snipe with the best of 'em. You'll face a new vehicle called the Chimera that has a cool design, though there is no opportunity to drive one. Blowing 'em up will have to do.

During half the expansion you're given the (optional) opportunity to command a strike team. You can choose the team's makeup, which is a nice trick. With five "markers" to spend, you can choose from infantry and grenadiers (one marker each), missile troops and snipers (two), Mr. Gutsy (three) and a Sentry Bot (four). Reinforcements can be called in when one trooper falls, and you have a few basic options for giving orders. I used two grenadiers and missile soldier, and they made a couple objectives easier.

From a story perspective, Anchorage feels like a missed opportunity. It's played very straight and safe, in ugly contrast to the wild and weird exploits that are such an integral part of Fallout 3. There is very little surprise here, and almost no intrigue. Those with high Speech skills may be able to add a little twist to the ending, but otherwise there's only a slight wrinkle to look forward to once you're out of the sim pod.

Those who poke around the Outcast Outpost after exiting the pod will find a terminal that suggests the sim experience could have been far stranger than it is. Doing that intensified my sense that Operation Anchorage wasn't really going all out.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage
General Chase points out the many ways in which he is rather lame.

This is very evidently an action enterprise, but what kept my attention in Fallout 3 were the unexpected sights and bizarre characters. The people in Operation Anchorage are unmemorable to the extreme. Take the tough but fair General Chase and the "stock black dude" Lieutenant Morgan. The latter is ripped out of a hundred movies -- he's quippy and helpful, and so, so bland.

For much of the game you'll work alongside Lieutenant Morgan, a sleepy-eyed '50s banker type. He might deliver a rousing little pep talk, but that's it. Late in the game I proceeded without him, and went 30 minutes without noticing. If Fawkes wandered off for a minute in Fallout 3, I scrambled like a dad whose kid just disappeared in the hardware store. He's a guy you wanted around, because he made the game more interesting. Morgan needs to go back to selling mortgages.

Players who haven't come close to the current level 20 cap might get more out of Anchorage than I did. Going in at level 20, it was a fairly easy walk. The new weapons were fun but did little to change how I play my current character. Less experienced players will face a more stiff challenge and might therefore get a genuine shooter from the DLC, rather than a thin simulation of one.

The Verdict: Try It

This feature is based on final downloadable code provided by the
publisher over Xbox Live.