Point Lookout is one of those add-ons that sticks with you. In a world where downloadable content is often forgettable, Bethesda crafted an interesting new addition to Fallout 3 and populated it with some of the best quests they have ever produced.
Expansions are hard to pull off well. All too often, developers release something that's overpriced and undercooked. Consider, for instance, Batman: Arkham Knight's Batgirl DLC, which Evan described as terrible. A 90-minute, $US7 DLC isn't exactly an enticing proposition, but this sort of thing has become the trend. Fortunately for us, Point Lookout didn't just buck the trend, it showed us how expansions should be done.
A good expansion needs to strike a balance between fresh content and familiar stuff. It exists to supplement the base game, rather than supplant it. It should take the base game and do something interesting to the experience, and it should do so for a reasonable price. Point Lookout was $US10 on release, and it played to Fallout 3's strengths while doing its own thing.
Fallout 3 is great because of the way it propels players out into its living, breathing world. Its first two expansions, unfortunately, failed to live up to that promise. They put the player in small, constrained locales that felt artificial. The third expansion, Brotherhood of Steel, added a new world space to explore, though the flat world design left something to be desired.
Point Lookout begins with players finding a paddleboat near the southern tip of the world map. A bereaved mother begs players to find her daughter, who went missing some time ago. Tobar, the shifty captain, offers you a lift. Assuming you accept, you'll wind up on the front of the boat as you paddle up to an eerie boardwalk. What follows is a story about a battle between a centuries-old ghoul and a telepathic brain from before the war. In the process, you'll meet a neat cast of characters, return Nadine safely to her mum, and explore one of the best locales in Fallout 3.
The tone is completely different from Fallout 3's. A thick fog hangs over the ruined boardwalk, which seems abandoned. Exploration beyond the boardwalk reveals a destroyed town and the wasteland beyond it. Mad dogs attack. This is not a good place to be. Fallout 3 featured plenty of friendly folks to encounter, but Point Lookout is almost entirely devoid of life, and what life is there is hostile.
The way the boardwalk is designed, most players will walk directly up to an abandoned motel before getting out into the world proper. Several rooms in the motel tell their own stories — one, for instance, looks like the site of a murder, and the "Pint-Sized Slasher" mask you find there would seem to indicate as much. Like I said, Point Lookout is creepy.
Another motel room introduces a quest focused on a pre-war Chinese spy ring, which, much like the introductory quests in Fallout 3, sends players around the map, providing plenty of opportunities for distraction. It's an enjoyable quest too, climaxing in the destruction of a submarine. Some of the elements it introduces, like solving a puzzle while wearing special glasses or playing audio recordings for a security system, are different and interesting enough to make the quest feel wholly unique. Even though the human beings who put the quest in motion are long dead, you get to trace their movements and gain interesting insight into the pre-war world, while earning plenty of neat loot in the process.
There's a sense of focus here — nothing in the quest feels out of place or unusual in the way some of Fallout 3's quests did, with their jarring moods and motives. You are playing the role of a spy, so all your missions are appropriately spy-themed. It's neat. This sense of focus comes through the rest of the game as well.
Point Lookout maintains the sense of creepiness throughout. One questline takes you to the site of various underwater digs. As it turns out, a peculiar gas in the area is caused by the decomposition of the mass graves of Civil War soldiers. Another is enjoyably Lovecraftian in its structure, but for those of you who haven't played it, I won't spoil anything here. It's a great quest.
Creepiness abounds in the environmental storytelling. A Chinese internment camp reveals the lengths to which American torturers would go to stamp out communism. An abandoned warehouse is full of baby carriages, some of which are rigged to explode. The site of a wrecked aircraft is littered with axes and skeletons. Near the fuselage, a body sits with a gun. Elsewhere, an open coffin full of toys and a skeleton is surrounded by shovels and lights, as if someone was digging up a corpse just to get at the contents of the coffin before you came along.
Point Lookout isn't afraid of under-sharing. One vender, Harley, says he just woke up one day with no idea of who he was, took the name of the hardware store he woke up in, and now he trades with the locals. Bethesda presents many opportunities to ask questions, but has no qualms leaving those same questions unanswered. It also has no problem leaving quests unrewarded — the town's lighthouse is broken, and you can find the light to fix it, but there is no reward for doing so. In fact, Point Lookout is so confident, it is content to hide much of its content away, leaving it unmarked and completely missable by the inattentive player.
Fallout 3 did a lot of things right, but its scattershot approach — giant robots here, vampires there — left something to be desired. Point Lookout presents a thematically coherent space, using its world and the quests inside to examine the macabre in a lot of different ways. Bethesda happily subverts this by presenting a haunted cave where the "ghost" is actually a completely normal boy named Kenny. He lives in a cave because his parents, like most of the denizens of Point Lookout, are mutated freaks, and his mother was afraid his normalcy would get him killed.
This sense of focus means that the main quest — a battle between a disembodied brain and a British ghoul named Desmond — makes complete sense in the world that's been established. Nadine is located safe and sound, but a newer, more sinister plot emerges: the disembodied brain of the evil Doctor Calvert is trying to mind control everyone around.
Mind control is another element that pops up in Point Lookout. At least two quest lines deal with it directly. Others approach it in other ways — a corporation wants to ensure no one knows where their new resource comes from in order to control the way the public sees them. The American government utilises propaganda to fight the communist. One individual quest results in your being drugged and someone literally taking away a piece of your brain.
Every quest deals with the mysterious and creepy in interesting and enjoyable ways, and they're all totally different from each other. One quest involves fighting off waves of zombies in an arena. Another involves sneaking into a cave to listen to the hologram of the aforementioned giant brain give orders to a man who submitted to voluntary trepanation.
Unfortunately, Point Lookout had a few problems. First was the inclusion of the mutant swamp people. Thematically, they work in a very "Hills Have Eyes" sense, but they're not that fun to fight because they're all bullet sponges. Good difficulty in a game is found in smart encounter design, not enemies who can take and deal lots of damage. The yokels aren't particularly challenging, just boring, adding nothing interesting to the overall gameplay, despite looking far more interesting than the typical raiders found in Fallout 3.
They also don't make much sense: several of the characters in the game say things along the lines of "they don't like normal people; yes, I look normal, but they leave me alone because I've lived here all my life." Then you have Kenny, whose mother abandoned him because she feared the opposite would happen. Despite this characterization of the hicks as real people, they're like monsters, and we only ever see the males. Are there women? Where do they live? We see evidence of their existence throughout the world, but while they're characterised through the story like human beings, they behave like Fallout 3's monsters instead. It's the classic "show, don't tell" problem: the story tells us that they're people, but in gameplay, they act more like typical wasteland creatures instead.
Most developers will counter a newer, tougher enemy type with a more powerful weapon. Unfortunately, Point Lookout's new gun type, a sawed-off shotgun, is a poor excuse for a weapon, and not particularly enjoyable. Fallout 3's shooting was never great, and New Vegas managed to make it worse, but the sawed-off shotgun is an especially remarkable disappointment. It adds nothing new to the game, isn't effective at doing much damage, and has a painfully slow reload speed. There are other, far better guns to use.
So the enemies don't make the world feel as real as they could, and the major new weapon type doesn't add that much to the expansion, but it gets far more right than it gets wrong.
Point Lookout has some of the best environmental storytelling in the game, some legitimately great quests, and a strong emphasis on interesting themes, which it never deviates from. The world is always interesting to explore, guaranteeing something interesting to be found. It is, in many ways, a perfect expansion, demanding the attention of its players, wrapped up in a nice package.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.