Version tested: Xbox 360
As marvellous as Fallout 3 was, there can't be many players who were happy when it closed off the Wasteland once you finished the story. For a game with so many interesting side-quests, and such a vast map, there were plenty of incentives to keep coming back. The recent addition of the Operation: Anchorage and The Pitt DLC merely re-emphasised that.
But the more immediate problem with playing Fallout 3 beyond, say, 50 hours was the level cap, which ensured that you couldn't gain any more experience or upgrade your perks and stats once you hit level 20. For me at least, this took away one of the key reasons I'd spent so many hours meticulously checking out every last nook and cranny. Once you'd hit that ceiling, much of the 'clean-up' process of finishing all the remaining side quests was less exciting than it could have been.
Fortunately Broken Steel goes a long way to fixing all of that. By raising the level cap to 30, and introducing 14 new perks, suddenly there's a greater sense of reward. Better still, Broken Steel changes the game ending to allow players to carry on playing for as long as they like, which is particularly helpful for those who didn't dash through the game when it first came out, and should also tempt a few who got bored when they hit the level cap.
I'll avoid spoilers for those of you who haven't reached the story conclusion, but suffice to say you wake up two weeks later in The Citadel, where the Brotherhood of Steel is looking after you. It turns out that pockets of Enclave resistance are still posing a serious threat, and predictably it's up to you to mop up the remnants. But what seems like a straightforward clearout operation down at a secret southwestern Enclave base hits a major setback, and you're forced back to The Citadel for a rethink.
At this point, Broken Steel already feels more in-keeping with the better moments of the main game, with a trio of missions that take place in distinct and separate parts of the Wasteland, as opposed to keeping the player hemmed in. That said, the first two of the three new missions aren't exactly taxing, and take place in the same kind of environments you've seen hundreds of times before, facing familiar enemies.
A couple of hours in, it's hard not to be bored by more of the same. Exploring the shattered innards of the Old Olney power plant is a distressingly familiar exercise, while the underground exploration in the Presidential Metro under the White House barely feels any different to the dozens of other subterranean journeys you'll have taken under DC. Fighting yet more identical ghouls and sentry bots feels like a cut-and-paste exercise, and this lack of inspiration is disappointing after all the initial promise.
But all is not lost. Towards the end of the Presidential Metro section you finally meet the bastard-hard Ghoul Reavers, who are not only handy with grenades, but evidently resistant to almost anything you can throw at them. Sadly, their appearance is all-too fleeting, but it sets the tone for the rest of the game. Once you've emerged from the Presidential Metro at the Adams Air Force base, you'll grab the super-powerful Tesla Cannon energy weapon, and discover an elite band of Enclave Hellfire Troops laying in wait.
They, and their new Heavy Incinerator weapons, are more than a match for your best efforts. For probably the first time since you first come across the Deathclaws, you're forced back into hiding, frantically reaching for the stimpacks and returning fire whenever the brief opportunity arises. With only one shot per reload - and a long reload time - the shockwave blast of the Tesla Cannon might be your best bet, but it's also a real headache if you can't quite get a bead on your foe.
For the next hour or more, the game never lets up, with wave after wave of Enclave attacks, hunting in packs and flushing you out at every opportunity. If you're willing to crank up the difficulty level, you're in for arguably the toughest section in the entire game, and savegame management is a must. It's tense and it's tough. You'll breathe a sigh of relief almost every time you see these armoured death machines crumple, which is exactly the way it should be at this stage of the proceedings.
On top of all this, Broken Steel also houses six additional side-quests, none of which will be apparent until you talk to specific individuals, and all relating to the newly purified water available to the Wasteland. In trademark Bethesda fashion, there's a fair bit of moral hand-wringing over the right thing to do, but your karmic leanings will inevitably be your guide. As ever, the fun part is working your way through the permutations, and usually the hardest option is the most fun. None are particularly rewarding in terms of loot or XP, but it's always fun to have extra tasks on the go. Sadly, none of them award any Achievements, unlike the three main missions.
Elsewhere, two other notable new enemies add an extra challenge for those doing a bit of exploring. The Super Mutant Overlords are of particular interest, and often come armed with the lovely new Tri-Beam Laser Rifle, while the deadly Albino Rad Scorpion provides another challenge with its recharging health abilities. Cheating sods.
For those of you scouring for new Achievements, Broken Steel's may well be the toughest yet, especially for those of us who start the pack on level 20. By the end of my five-hour runthrough, I'd barely ranked up to level 24, so getting to 30 will likely take hours of patient Wasteland-wandering for the determined player.
With any luck, Broken Steel won't be the last portion of DLC that Bethesda serves up. If it could perhaps combine some of the novelty value of previous DLC packs with the kind of challenge it serves up toward the end of Broken Steel, there's still going to be a healthy audience for continuing expansions. What we don't need, however, are any more lazy cut-and-paste missions, which merely repeat what we've already experienced several times over. While it undoubtedly reinvigorates Fallout 3 overall, the first half of Broken Steel demonstrates a worrying degree of complacency.
Even so, Broken Steel is an essential upgrade to Fallout 3 that any committed fan will want to grab immediately. If you've held out buying any DLC for the game so far, we'd advise you start with this before getting the others, because the process of acquiring new perks and skills will enrich the game no end. Sadly, for those of you who've kept up to date, you might want to consider going back to an old savegame before you played Operation: Anchorage and The Pitt to really make the most of what Bethesda has unlocked with this release.
7 / 10