The Capital Wasteland is a vast and lonely place, and a wandering soul could spend months, maybe even years scouring its surface and still not discover every hidden secret it holds. In fact, just this week a new treasure trove of adventure was found, and those who have longed for a reason to go back into the desolation of the not-so-distant future will no doubt be pleased. This time, however, you aren't fighting irradiated mutants on a scorched and withered plain; oh no, for this particular mission you'll find the battlefield to be a lot more … chilly.
Operation: Anchorage, the first of Bethesda's promised three DLC packs for Fallout 3, starts out like so many other missions before. As you're traversing the wastes, your Pip-Boy picks up a distress signal coming from a group of frantic Brotherhood of Steel Outcasts. After tracking down the source, you find a group of your beleaguered brethren in a pitched battle against a squadron of Super Mutants. Once you clear the path and escort the boys back to their base, they begin to take a keen interest in you. You see, they've made their base at an old armory, yet they can't get the doors open to access the equipment in the vault. This is because the lock is controlled not by your average security terminal or key-operated door, but rather a virtual-reality program that none of them have been able to crack. Lucky for them, your Pip-Boy grants you access to the simulation, which will allow them to finally access the treasure trove of hidden goodies in the vault.
After entering a pod eerily similar to the one that your character had to access for the "Tranquility Lane" mission, you are deposited on the snowy cliffs of Alaska. It turns out that the program housed inside the pod is the training sim for the American liberation of Anchorage, Alaska, used to sharpen troops and prepare them for battle conditions. You immediately meet up with Sgt. Benjamin Montgomery, your partner and one of the only friendly faces you'll see for the duration of the sim. What follows is a mix of gameplay that incorporates elements from sources like Metal Gear Solid, Rainbow Six and even a bit of Call of Duty. Starting out, you are armed only with a silenced pistol and a Stealth Boy, so discretion is the better part of valor. Seeing as this is all virtual reality, none of your weapons or items have carried over, and you're relegated to procuring all of the items that you use out in the field. Even more interesting, since enemies aren't real, you can't loot their corpses for guns, ammo and Stimpaks, but must rather seek out the weapons and ammo/health recharge stations scattered around the map. It's a huge departure from the normal Fallout experience, but this divergent set of mechanics really makes the whole mission extremely interesting and fresh.
Perhaps the best thing about Operation: Anchorage is that it isn't merely a single mission, but rather several shorter operations all combined into one four- to five-hour experience. Your first task is to make your way up a mountainside to an artillery base with Sgt. Montgomery and take out three Chinese artillery positions that are harassing American forces. Perhaps the high point of this experience is that once you have infiltrated deep into the base, the standard Chinese soldiers give way to the Crimson Dragoon squadron. These elite troops wear cloaking armor and attack with katanas in swift and debilitating blows. Once these soldiers burst onto the scene, you've got to keep your senses sharp and your trigger finger tense so you can live to see the top of the mountain.
Once the guns are silenced, you're deposited back at Field HQ and given a new set of tasks. The general wants to make a push on the Communist headquarters, but there are a few targets that need to be knocked out along the way. First up is a fuel depot the Chinese have been using to supply their Chimeras, super-tanks that can decimate an entire infantry squadron in seconds. Also of interest is an enemy listening post that doubles as air traffic control for Red forces. Take it down, and the enemy will no longer be able to call in air support, and supply lines will be completely mucked up. Finally, the headquarters itself, which is protected by a magnetic pulse field that keeps troops in power armor from getting anywhere near the base. If you can find the controls and override the circuits, then the field will go down, and American troops will finally be able to retake the city.
Objectives can be tackled in any order, and you're actually given your own squadron with which to complete the mission. Even better, your troops are not preset and you can change soldiers at any time. If you're heading into a heavily fortified enemy camp, it would be wise to bring along a Sentry Bot and a soldier equipped with a missile launcher. For those who prefer ranged battles, stick a sniper in your company and bring along an infantryman to mop up any troops who get too close. It's an interesting dynamic not previously seen in Fallout, and it makes for a game in and of itself to mix and match your troops in order to figure out what team suits your play style the best.
Even though there is a lot to love about Operation: Anchorage, there are a couple of bugs and one major omission that hurt the experience. First off, in the tradition of the game there are some very buggy spots that don't lend themselves to any sort of reasonable explanation other than lines of broken code. For example, in one particular location, you are ambushed by four snipers, and taking out all of them can be an immensely challenging exercise. In my case, I managed to bring down two of them before I had to go running back to a health station to keep from succumbing to their fire. Strangely enough, when I returned, the remaining troops were gone and there was no sign of them anywhere. I pressed ahead warily, awaiting their attack, but it never came. It was as though the soldiers had never existed at all, and for whatever reason, they had simply vanished.
In a later mission, players find themselves traversing a series of trenches in order to storm the Chinese stronghold. While navigating the serpentine alleys, I would constantly experience enemy soldiers suddenly "popping" into existence. On the one hand, the generous player would say that since this is technically a VR sim, the sudden appearance of opposition is just a function of the program, and it is spawning bad guys in the same way a video game does. This is all a bit cerebral, however, and I think the real issue is just that enemies only appear when you hit a certain proximity trigger, and sometimes when moving too quickly, players accidentally pull back the curtain and see the puppet master pulling the strings.
The first two glitches are easily dismissed, but there was one other bug that made a significant impact but I never able to figure out. After completing the sim and opening up the armory, I was invited to take whatever I wanted before leaving. As I loaded up on goods, half the members of the Brotherhood suddenly attacked with no provocation or warning. After reloading a save to see if maybe I had somehow flashed a weapon or done something to provoke them, I found them attacking again, once again for no noticeable reason. I still have absolutely no comprehension of why this event transpired, but in the end, I was left with a bunker full of corpses, never to know the truth and never to benefit from any of the services the Brotherhood Outcasts had to offer.
While these issues only mildly detracted from the overall experience, I was massively disappointed that the DLC did not feature Liberty Prime. The giant, Commie-fighting robot seen in the bowels of the Brotherhood of Steel Citadel was originally utilized for the push to drive the Chinese out of Alaska, and I was desperately hoping he'd get a cameo in the mission.
Even without the nuclear weapon-chucking bag of bolts, Operation: Anchorage is an impressive piece of content and is highly recommended for those looking for a good excuse to get the Fallout 3 disc spinning in the tray once more. The way the missions unfold within the VR exercise really gives you a sense that you're playing a game that isn't Fallout, yet it's using the exact same engine. I mean this as a high compliment, though, as it shows that Bethesda really has what it takes when it comes to adding even more content to an already massive game. You should really buy this before Bethesda catches on that $10 is too cheap for something offering this much content, enjoyment and fun.
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