Version tested: Xbox 360
Lavishing a game's community with an unprecedented amount of post-release content can be taken one of two ways: either you're cannily responding to an irrepressible demand with memorable experiences, or just being brazenly cynical by churning out filler that wasn't really good enough for the main game. Now onto its fifth episode downloadable expansion, even Bethesda's staunchest supporters must be wondering whether Fallout 3 really warrants this many extra episodes. After all, the main game was hardly lacking.
The law of diminishing returns had to kick in at some stage, and so it has proven with Mothership Zeta. Regardless of whether you view it in isolation, or in the context of the wider Fallout 3 experience, it struggles to justify its existence. It's a shame, because the alien abduction premise offered rich promise for something interesting that operated out of the game's post-apocalyptic comfort zone.
As usual, the DLC kicks off after you respond to a radio distress beacon in the wasteland. Approaching the crash site of a wrecked flying saucer, you, as the Lone Wanderer, find yourself beamed aboard an alien mothership orbiting the planet. With blurred vision, and the sight of alien creatures (probably) performing unspeakable experiments upon your person, you come around to find yourself imprisoned in a white room alongside an unimpressed woman called Somah. Quickly hatching a cunning escape plan, you find yourself aided by Sally, a chirpy young girl with an intimate knowledge of the craft's innards and its crawl spaces.
Stripped of all your hard-earned equipment (again), your initial encounters with the bug-eyed fiends nevertheless pass without incident - apart from proving a reminder of the game's hilariously poor melee combat. Within minutes, you're reunited with your (by now) ridiculous inventory and can tool up and take the fight to the alien menace in earnest.
The first sign of Mothership Zeta's limitations appear rather too early on for comfort. Exploration offers only a modicum of interest, with little in the way of intriguing back-story aside from a clutch of occasionally noteworthy audio logs retrieved from terminals. Probing the craft's sprawling innards, mysterious equipment and abandoned experiments only hint at a broader menace, with extended exploration of the game's periphery locations offering precious little detail on what these extraterrestrial visitors were up to. Perhaps the most disappointing factor about Mothership Zeta is how little subtlety is afforded to the details, and the absence of choice in how you go about completing the game's three missions.
More than in possibly any other portion of Fallout, the gameplay is extremely linear. Although certain tasks can be completed in a different order, this apparent freedom is rendered redundant once it dawns on you that the tasks are identical on each occasion. Reduced to a series of trivial button-pressing quests, getting to your objective involves nothing more than trudging from one inconsequential area to the next, wading through the drudge of utterly perfunctory corridor shoot-outs with the same three new enemy types.
For completists, there's an initial intrigue about Mothership Zeta. The stark, polished alien spaceship interiors, for a start, are so completely at odds with the wretched destruction of the wasteland that it's impossible not to be initially seduced by the welcome contrast. Sadly it soon wears off, and, if anything, you feel trapped by the tight corridors and inability to roam.
The same applies to how you feel about the new enemies. You'll want to believe that Bethesda will do something interesting with this race of alien invaders, but it does nothing more than stick to the most obvious archetypes possible. They cannot communicate with humans, so react with ill-advised and unsophisticated aggression. Disappointingly, almost all of these little fiends are felled by a single shot, and any hope of tense firefights with intelligent foes soon fades. On occasion, the game throws up resilient variants, armed with shields and cloaking devices, but even these prove to be incapable of doing anything other than charging headlong into your line of fire. Often flanked by robot drones, and assisted by turrets, things can get hectic once they start to throw everything at you, but the outcome is never seriously in doubt.
If you decide to extend the experience beyond the basic four or so hours by exploring the otherwise unimportant areas of the ship, then you really are asking to be bored witless. Akin to endlessly trawling a narrower version of the wasteland's subterranean rail network, the feeling persists that we're merely being served up cut-and-paste Fallout at this stage. After some excellent Fallout 3 campaigns recently, to bow out with something so limp is hugely disappointing.
It doesn't help, either, that the new loot in the game isn't particularly inspiring. The Alien Disintegrator energy weapon certain packs a punch, but as a result it renders the Alien Atomizer and Alien Pulverizer rather redundant with its vast clip size and superior damage. As with a lot of loot in the DLC packs to date, you're generally so ridiculously powerful by this point that few weapons can better what you have. To be fair to Bethesda, there's not a great deal it can do but offer slightly intriguing variations on what's already on offer - but minor, often pointless variations after 120 or so hours of gameplay doesn't really cut it.
Where Mothership Zeta really falls down is the complete lack of inspiration in the mission design. Generally you can rely on Bethesda to intelligently weave complex scenarios around practically anything, with the key characters each having their own specific agenda. Once you've taken in the situation, it's entirely down to your own moral leanings as to which direction you decide to take any given mission. Never quite knowing who is really the good guy, or the least bad guy has made for some thrilling missions in past Bethesda games (and past DLC), but none of that applies here. At best, you can rope in some characters to help kick arse, but for the most part you're reduced to the most soulless of gameplay tasks - breaking machines by pressing buttons.
With repetitive, largely uninspired corridor combat, and boring, linear and samey mission design, the least you'd hope is that there would be some supplementary side quests to extend the lifespan - but not so. Having delivered five main quests, five side-quests and three unmarked quests in the vast Point Lookout expansion, to follow that up with such a limited DLC pack is curious. Throughout its programme of downloadable releases, it felt like Bethesda was learning and improving its output. But having started poorly with Operation: Anchorage, it concludes Fallout 3 in equally disappointing fashion.
5 / 10