How better to follow a disappointing bit of downloadable content than with one nobody can even play? Has the black cat population mysteriously increased in Rockville lately? If Operation: Anchorage's boring linearity, curtailed length and disappointing absence of challenge could be brushed off as an experimental misstep, it was harder to defend this week's issues with The Pitt. As an advert for DLC, this was about as bad and frustrating as it gets.
Like many of you, having excitedly grabbed the 492MB file from Xbox Live early on Tuesday, my first challenge was finding out where on earth to activate the mission in the first place. After wandering the wasteland for a good half an hour, nothing happened. Forums spoke of a radio distress broadcast. But where? And when? I wandered hopelessly around the northern portion of the map. Bile rose.
Assuming it was some sort of technical hitch, I reloaded, and lo and behold, a broadcast came up within a minute. Good. A man by the name of Wernher spoke of a "settlement to the north". I ended up at the place I was supposed to head once I'd met Wernher, and set free a trio of slaves in a small pen outside an underground railway line. Realising that I really ought to go and find Wernher, I agreed to help him out by dressing up as a skanky slave and infiltrating a giant prison camp-cum-steel foundry called The Pitt. Except, of course, I'd broken the game by freeing the slaves, and by the time I'd returned the gaming fairy had inexplicably removed the rotting corpse of the one I was supposed to ransack. Argh. And all this was before reaching the main part of the mission that made the whole thing completely unplayable.
Having fixed that particular issue with the usual dose of save-game vigilance (hey, this is a Bethesda game), I was finally ready to enter the underground railroad, jump onto the handcart with Wernher and head down to the shattered remains of what once was Pittsburgh. A couple of minutes in, however, and the whole sorry affair took yet another turn for the worse. The sight of a landscape scattered with floating red exclamation marks wasn't a good sign, but I soldiered on over a bridge littered with burnt-out cars and live mines until I reached the main gateway to The Pitt itself. And like everyone else, as soon as I tried to go in the game simply locked up the console, prompting much hair-tearing forum-lurking for official news.
Even then, updates on what was going on and roughly how long it might take to fix took an age. Thirty-odd hours later, finally, the fixed build appeared - typically without warning - and only an obsessive dedication to refreshing Bethesda's forum and Major Nelson alerted anyone to its reappearance. After such a tedious, frustrating experience in the run-up to sampling this latest chunk of Fallout 3, it felt surreal to be playing the damned thing. And this is progress, obviously. The last time I felt this hacked off about getting a game to work was in the dark days of my PC obsession. Ironically, had I been playing on PC, I would have been fine!
Anyway, The Pitt. It's good.
The joyful revelation once you get inside this mini-dystopia is how much more it falls into line with Fallout 3's better moments. Regardless of how you approach things, you lose all your gear shortly after the start, but it's a blessing in disguise. Rather than romp around armed to the teeth in your energy armour, blasting everything in sight with your plasma rifle, you're reduced to scavenging in your skimpy slave garb, without even a knife to your name. It's a refreshing change, and ensures that you're tackling the task at hand on a level pegging.
Upon your arrival it becomes apparent that the rapidly mutating slave population is desperate to turn the tables on its despotic ruler, Ashur, as well as find a cure for the condition that's causing many of them to turn into feral Trogs. Early on, a simple fetch-quest for steel ingots turns into a valuable scavenging exercise, with many of the weapons, ammo and armour items you've been stripped of scattered around the sprawling, multi-tiered factory complex. It's worth taking the time to explore, too, because before long you find yourself in several fight-to-the-death arena battles against a series of opponents. It goes without saying that coming prepared helps, but if, like me, you're already a level-20 character, none of it presents much of a challenge.
On the plus side, the addition of new weapons provides much-needed novelty. The Infiltrator scoped assault rifle certainly comes in handy, but the star of the show is definitely the Auto Axe, a weapon fashioned out of car parts with a spinning blade that carves through Trog limbs with delightful efficiency. Other odds and ends, such as a one-off pistol, a special gauntlet and some new armour types flesh out the already long list of weapons in the game, but in terms of new enemies (or variations on them) The Pitt offers just one.
For new features, then, it comes up a little short, but it makes up for it in other ways. The quest is lot more interesting than Operation: Anchorage, offering greater variation, scope for non-linear exploration and degrees of NPC interaction. While still linear in terms of the order you do the tasks, the hub-like environment is more atmospheric and immersive, and graphic tourists will be delighted that Bethesda has once again provided a set of magnificent locations to explore, rich in detail and intrigue. The further you progress, the more enjoyable it gets.
That said, it's an uneven experience. After an interesting introduction, the decision to force you to basically dungeon-crawl against identical (unchallenging) enemies until you get bored is a questionable one. Of particular concern is how easy it makes things for players, and given how long most of Fallout 3's audience will have been playing the game by this stage, you might have expected a sterner test from Bethesda. Make sure you crank up the difficulty if you're visiting with a maxed-out character.
As ever, the journey is a moral tightrope, where self-interest and profiteering steers you away from what you'd prefer to do under normal circumstances. It's not simply a case of good versus evil, but sometime bad versus downright despicable, when even the karmically 'good' thing to do can feel like a dreadful choice. But that's where Fallout 3 and other Bethesda titles have always succeeded - that inherent curiosity they inspire in players to see how things pan out in all directions. The number of options give it a degree of replay value that was sorely absent from Operation: Anchorage, and even offer consequences that cleverly feed into the main game. This is especially relevant with the level cap being removed and game ending set to change in the next round of content, Broken Steel, due out in April.
Priced once again at 800 Microsoft Points (GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60), The Pitt undoubtedly provides far more value for money than its predecessor, with around four solid hours of entertainment for the first run-through, and probably at least double that if you feel motivated to explore the quest from all the intriguing angles it throws up. Obsessives can even busy themselves seeking out all 100 ingots, with increasingly rare and useful booty on offer for every 10 that you collect. It's little things like this which keep me coming back to Fallout 3 long after I finished the main storyline, and will tempt players into purchasing yet more content further down the line.
8 / 10