Version tested: Xbox 360
It's a rare game indeed that warrants the investment of time that Fallout 3 does. Yet somehow the sprawling post-apocalyptic wasteland drags us back no matter how many times we think we should be bored of it. Already four DLC packs down the line, Bethesda has certainly delivered on its promise of episodic content - but so far, the quality has been a little variable. Cue a gravel-voiced "Previously on Fallout 3"...
Operation Anchorage was an inauspicious way to kick off the DLC onslaught, with a boringly easy, overly linear trudge only saved by the intriguing scenario. Then came the infamous The Pitt debacle, which, although it was a much better extension to the storyline, was fraught with technical difficulties when it first appeared.
Last month's Broken Steel did the hardcore fans a huge favour by raising the level cap and adding new perks. But although the missions felt better integrated into the existing Washington DC wasteland, it was all a little "business as usual" until the rip-roaring finale. Maybe this time Bethesda could deliver on all fronts.
Hopes have certainly been high in the run-up to release. Pre-release chatter insisted that Point Lookout would be less hemmed-in, allowing for a much greater degree of exploration than previous episodes: an exciting prospect.
Set in a swampland area in the distant peninsula of Point Lookout, the episode kicks off with the note that a certain Captain Tobar is offering passage to "any merc, treasure hunter or adventurer" who's looking to explore. Arriving at the riverboat dock at Protomac in the south-eastern corner of the map, you're told of a land of "warm beaches and luscious wetlands", which is of course a complete lie.
After a brief chat with a distressed woman looking for her lost daughter, the amiable Tobar sails you across, and the adventure begins for real.
At this point, you're free to just wander off and explore the full map without restriction, and it quickly becomes apparent that the swampland is indeed quite a large area - estimates suggest it's almost one fifth the size of the entire Capital Wasteland. Along your way you'll find the peeling remnants of a "fabled pleasure town of the sunny past", including a gigantic ferris wheel, souvenir shops, a lighthouse, churchyard, cave network and mansion. The slightly gloomy, murky feel gives it a cloying atmosphere. Swamp Ghouls and Swamplurks thrive in the dampness, so you'll be expected to battle long and hard if you feel in the mood to poke around much.
Elsewhere, the usual assortment of eclectic residents go about their lives, and you can go and pay them a visit if you're feeling nosy - which of course you have to be in this game. Some offer inconsequential fetch quests, with the usual rewards for carrying them out; others just look like escapees from The Hills Have Eyes, and waste no time trying to kill you in the face.
Going by such names as Bruiser, Brawler, Scrapper and Creeper, these deceptively challenging human foes hunt in packs. First you might catch sight of a scrawny shotgun-wielding short guy screaming redneck cusses in your general direction, but wherever the Creeper goes, a towering Bruiser with crazily bulging biceps goes too. These lumbering, mutated simpletons with faces that even a mother couldn't love can really take some punishment, so it's useful to reach Point Lookout absolutely armed to the teeth.
Once you start following the main story arc, Point Lookout reveals itself to be a strong contender for the best portion of DLC in the series to date. Dancing between the typically contrasting demands of two sets of squabbling factions, your first task is to visit a potty-mouthed ghoul called Desmond, a former secret agent who finds himself going to slightly absurd lengths to defend his mansion from a tribal cult. Under attack by mercs, you go in, kick some butt and pick up the trail.
Without giving anything away, the episode does the usual Bethesda trick of eventually giving you the chance to choose contrasting outcomes. Do you protect the "victim" of an attack, or do you take a contrary view and dig into their past and find out that, in fact, they are the bad guys? Or do you just figure out what the biggest reward is and base your decisions around that? As predictable and transparent as the formula is by now, it's still an irresistible one, and one where you're never quite certain who's the least detestable. As ever, this gives some of the missions a pleasing degree of replayability as you figure out the best outcome for your karma alignment, or simply which of the new perks are most useful to you.
In terms of New Stuff, Point Lookout is a little lightweight, but is certainly no worse an offender than all three previous DLC packs to date. Many of the "new" enemies are simply reskinned versions of familiar foes, albeit tougher to kill, while the majority of new loot and weapons will be all but useless to those wandering around with energy weapons and armour.
Fortunately, the highly entertaining quests and acres of exploration available to you more than make up for any shortcomings in Point Lookout. Also heartening is the amount of non-essential quests dotted around for you to get around to when you feel like it. Like a compacted version of its parent game, this is the first DLC that has felt like a genuine expansion, as opposed to a just a few inconsequential missions thrown together.
Each and every part of Point Lookout is both challenging and interesting, and you come away with the impression that Bethesda's quality control has tightened up over the course of the year. As a whole, Point Lookout hangs together better than any previous Fallout 3 DLC pack, and as such comes highly recommended - yes, even for those of you who have grown weary of endless wasteland scavenging and VATS combat. With this release proving how entertaining a "mini expansion" can be, hopes are now riding high that next month's Mothership Zeta episode can continue the good work.
8 / 10
Point Lookout is available to download now for 800 Microsoft Points (GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60).