We all learn lessons in life. Three years ago, the lesson was that when you release highly anticipated downloadable content for your blockbuster RPG, it should never, never ever, be an Oblivion horse wrapped in foil. Bethesda has learned this lesson, and that's why Operation Anchorage is a holographic encounter detailing the Chinese occupation of Alaska. So good, so far. Now let's saunter off to Anchorage to blow the heads off oriental futuro-gentlemen in slow-motion and glorious technicolour.
Following your download (and if you're playing on PC bear in mind that you'll be dealing with Microsoft's ever slack-jawed Games for Windows Live system), while you're wandering through the wasteland you'll pick up a distress call from a group of Brotherhood of Steel outcasts - those chaps with the rusty armour. They're calling for reinforcements in an area found in the South West of DC, just near the Red Racer factory, and are a bit grumpy at you when you turn up unannounced ready to chip in with a running battle against a cohort of Super Mutants.
In the aftermath of said battle, you're advised to take a lift down into the vaults below you, since your wrist-mounted PipBoy companion means you may be able to help them out with a spot of technology pilfering/securing. You alone, through the magic of Pip, can enter a military training program (with safety parameters decidedly switched off), complete a variety of missions in the snowy virtual tundra and rout the Chinese invaders - thereby unlocking the wasteland installation's loot container.
As soon as you enter virtua-Alaska it's evident that this is an action-heavy piece of content - and due to the nature of the simulation it's very much role-play lite. Holographic corpses flicker and disappear before they can be looted, health and ammo is administered through abundant terminals placed along your firmly linear path, and the multi-layered decision-making so brilliantly executed in the full game is put out on its ear. This is a content pack of the snipe, the grenade toss and of multiple Chinese Assault Rifle unloads direct to the head. Subtle it is not.
The game's first section is essentially where Guns of Navarone meets the opening of GoldenEye (you know, the bit before Sean Bean goes bad). You and a friendly commando plough your way along icy cliff paths and through occupied military installations; your objective being to knock out the three giant cannons that are causing a nuisance to the US troops.
It's in this section that you're introduced to Operation Anchorage's best addition, enemies wearing a slinky Chinese brand of stealth armour - whether they're the crack Chinese commandos called the Crimson Dragoon that run at you with swords, or the snipers that hide in the least convenient corners possible and try to make your life a misery. They're presented and introduced a lot like the lady assassins in the original Half-Life, and undoubtedly add an extra slice of tension and surprise to the accustomed Fallout gunplay template.
The problem, however, is that for the seasoned wasteland warrior everything is just far too easy. True, my character is maxed out at level twenty and is a dab hand at small guns - but surely most people paying for this download will be an established part of the '30 hour+' Fallout 3 faithful? It's possible to spray your way through Operation Anchorage without ever truly breaking a sweat. Overall the number of enemies on-screen at any time is probably higher than the norm, but you nearly always have an ally or two, and health recharge points pepper the level to a degree that goes beyond Bethesda hand-holding and moves into full-blown spooning.
I won't spoil the three missions that follow, but in all honesty there's little to taint. There are three prongs to the second half of Operation Anchorage: you can go left or go right with orders to blow further things up, and when you've done both of them there's a final assault that has you charge straight ahead through a variety of trenches, gun emplacements and worried Chinese folk. It's made fun by the fact you're allowed to pick a specific weapon load-out and take along a set of companions and/or robots, and the pyrotechnics are as impressive as ever, yet the whole experience feels simple and heavy-handed.
Sad to say, but remove the role-play dynamics from Fallout 3 and you're left with a slightly duff shooter (hey, even Todd Howard agrees). Operation Anchorage could have got away with it if it had been clever and more knowing, like the Tranquillity Lane simulation in the full game, but as it is it just feels shallow. For example, expositional holotapes are found in dull, obvious closets directly on your path and behind the easiest of locks; hacking into computers never really goes beyond redirecting the attention of a gun turret; hardly anything can be picked up or ferreted around in. Just so much of what makes the Fallout 3 experience such a complete and all-encompassing one is stripped away, and if you've already spent a fair proportion of the past four months in the DC wasteland you'll feel like you're only playing half the game you love.
Even Operation Anchorage's best and most subtle moment, which again I won't sully through explanation, is ruined by a nearby tongue-between-teeth character hammering home a comment that's along the lines of, "Coo! Just imagine that might have an effect on the geographical design of the future. Nudge, nudge! Is she a go-er? Wink, wink!" Oh, and the ending shares a lot of the problems that beset the full game's finale to boot - it's abrupt in the extreme.
Operation Anchorage, then, through the simple fact that it is not as much fun as it the game it leeches upon, is not a resounding success. Of course, it could be argued that it's not supposed to feel like the full game and that all of my complaints are to do with its 'simulation' setting; but this is before we get round to the pricing. After all, 800 Microsoft Points (despite the best efforts of a turbulent economy) still comes in at the best part of seven quid. I played through the download, at my own pace and in no particular hurry, and completed it in a smidge over two and a half hours. Now, it's not up to me to decide what you can or cannot afford - you're the one that knows your secret internet banking code, not me. But I will say that if my girlfriend were ever to find out that I'd spent seven quid out of our joint account on 150 minutes of gameplay that I only half-enjoyed, she'd kick me in the face. She wouldn't even hesitate. This is why I shred the statements.
I love Fallout 3. I love it to an almost indecent extent. It was far and away my game of 2008, and doesn't look like being knocked out of my personal top spot for a good while yet. But when you sift out its role-play, the ammo-box inspection and the exploration and draft in a fleet of health and ammo regeneration points to compensate... well, affairs just feel shallow and somewhat naked. Hopefully a lesson has been learnt at Bethesda towers. Business as usual next time please.
5 / 10