Monday, March 19, 2012

Fallout 3 - Combat and Difficulty Settings

Fallout 3 - Difficulty and Combat Settings

This is one of our posts on tips to optimize your Fallout 3 experience -- giving you the best gameplay experience through a careful mix of cheats and mods. For the full index, click here.

In this post we will discuss Difficulty settings and setting up combat encounters in Fallout 3. We first start with what we consider "good combat".

What is a "Good" Combat Setting?
Most of the combat you encounter can be termed "random encounters". That is, on your travels, you encounter some hostiles. They are not important to the plot and to keep the action moving and to keep the quests and stories advancing, they shouldn't totally absorb your time in heavy strategy or multiple reloads/re-dos.
To draw on some 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons methodology, a "random encounter" is just filler action and shouldn't be a life-and-death struggle. You should be able to come out on top having used only just a fraction of your resources (and in a game where you can get mods to have unlimited storage, "resources" means what your Strength allows you to carry, without mods). Random encounters are meant to be exciting, but because they are ultimately unimportant, they shouldn't really take you too much away from the rest of the game, or risk killing you unless you are deliberately putting yourself in excessive danger -- This is our benchmark for what makes combat "good".

As you know, you can choose five settings: Very Easy - Easy - Normal - Hard - Very Hard. The chief difference is:
  • Very Easy: Enemy Damage 50%, Player Damage 200%, XP 50%
  • Easy: Enemy Damage 75%, Player Damage 150%, XP 75%
  • Normal: Enemy Damage 100%, Player Damage 100%, XP 100%
  • Hard: Enemy Damage 150%, Player Damage 75%, XP 125%
  • Very Hard: Enemy Damage 200%, Player Damage 50%, XP 150%
Beyond the numbers, what does this mean, actually? We can look at the early game where you fight Raiders and see how each setting "feels". Then we match it up with whether we like it or not -- although in a game where adversaries can be of a "higher level" and absorb more damage, we can only go so far with using this as a benchmark.

In the early game, at any difficulty, you can expect that a handgun will kill a human with a shot to the head if they are unaware (Sneak Critical). This is pretty reasonable. We can assume that when they are aware, even a direct hit to an unarmored head is just an abstraction in a game where dodging is limited to strafing and ducking. Nevertheless, a couple shots to the head should result in a kill, a few more if they are armored.
Once we get to Hard or Very Hard difficulty and Raiders of level 4+ (and you can't really tell who's veteran and who's not from just looking at them), it can start to swing either way, where you might or might not kill someone with a bullet to the head (never mind that your character can take multiple bullets to the head and survive...). This is not bad, but it just looks weird. It gets weirder when you have the highest-level raiders surviving sniping rifle bullets to the brain or a full clip of assault rifle fire (allowing for some misses due to weapon spread).
This, to us, is not reasonable. It makes combat hard, certainly, but something about the reality-defying nature of it is just irritating. On top of this, the enemy does double damage. Combined with the AI's coordinated accurate shooting and strafing, this can make for a lot of stumbling into no-win situations. (But Bullet Time can even things out a bit).

You can use stims, eat food, and drink water in copious amounts during combat by binding something to a hotkey or opening your inventory, but this is really a type of unreasonable compensation for a too-high difficulty. Realistically, are you going to administer a stim to your crippled head during a gunfight? Or somehow pull out a Brahmin Steak and eat it in between trying to shoot down a mole rat with your rifle? It is our opinion that if you rely on having in-combat healing, then the fight is too tough and should be classed as a mini-boss or boss fight. If you only occasionally use one of these "magic healing potion" options, it's not so bad since chance and mistakes happen in combat. But if most fights, or every fight, is like this, then you've set the difficulty level way too high for things to really be fun.

I recommend the highest Difficulty Setting to be Normal if you fight head-to-head, to still get reasonable-looking results. If you almost exclusively sneak-and-snipe, then you still want to set the difficulty down to Normal because after around Small Guns 30-40, you can kill super-mutants with a single sniping rifle sneak attack shot to the head at even Very Hard difficulty -- which means you are getting 50% more XP for the same work.

Things change around level 20+ IF you have the Broken Steel add-on because that expansion adds monsters specifically designed to kill player characters -- in particular, the Super Mutant Overlord, the Albino Radscorpion, and the Feral Ghoul Reaver (also in Point Lookout). All of these have a lot of health, can do a lot of damage quickly: The Super Mutant Overlord has a 40-120 damage bonus using the Tri-Beam Laser Rifle that cannot be blocked (and that only applies to the player character); the Feral Ghoul Reaver and the Albino Radscorpion both do massive damage and move very quickly. Combine this with the 200% monster damage from Very Hard Difficulty and combat jumps in difficulty very suddenly, compared to what you will have encountered before. A tedious amount of sniping and running might safely defeat these enemies (and they have high Perception, so Sneak skill would have to be very high), but head-to-head things can get suicidal.

If you don't mind using (a lot of) potions mid-combat, then go for Very Hard, because that gives adversaries similar survivability compared to you. They don't have the advantage of potions (i.e., food, water, and stimpacks) so taking half damage is okay.

Combat Difficulty and "Static Game" Fallout 3
To make the game more interesting, and to slow down your skill progression a bit, you can start at level 10, but without the skill advancement. This will also give you more health to start, which is generally fine because you will be facing stronger enemies from the start.
Once you have finished the initial "Escape!" quest and you are about to exit Vault 101, BEFORE you activate the door to finalize your character, use the console command player.setlevel 10 . The game will recalculate your XP to put you at the very start of level 10, and award you the additional health from level increase. You will not gain any skill points or perks. Essentially you will experience the game world as if you were level 10 (including a slightly wider variety of store items and an increased possibility of energy weapons in stores) but with level 1 skills. Your level advancement rate will be slower because the XP requirement between levels increases as you increase in level. You will also have a wider variety of perks to choose from because all perks have a level requirement.

A even slower rate of advancement can be had by setting your starting level to 21 instead of 1 (using the console). As this is the initial level limit in Fallout 3 (without the Broken Steel add-on), by setting your initial level to 21, you will see pretty much everything the game has to offer from the start. This provides a "static game", where the world just "is", and the only difference in your experience is your character's skill improvements -- as opposed to the levelled game, where new creatures and items suddenly appear because you are of a higher level.

By starting at a higher level, you have theoretically more survivability from having more Health, but having less Sneak and combat skills means fights are harder, and some typical random encounters can be outright suicidal  without some luck and a lot of healing (e.g., 2+ Talon Mercenaries, who normally don't appear until you are level 7+, by which time you would have had the chance to acquire solid skills and decent gear).

If you start your level at 31 (or significantly above 20), you can encounter the deadly Broken Steel add-on creatures, and some areas or even random encounters will be impossible. Some equalization can be gotten with the Dart Gun, however. Remember that Broken Steel is an add-on in the original game where your level is limited to 20, and the super-monsters don't appear until you are level 26+. Further, in the original game when you enter an area, it records your character level so that future encounters are all keyed to that level. Therefore, the Broken Steel super-monsters are theoretically very rare, and limited to any new areas in Broken Steel. If you start a game with Broken Steel, AND you develop your level before exploring a lot of locations, you'll encounter them much more frequently. In fact, at a high level, you may find you encounter more Super Mutant Overlords than regular Super Mutants.

If you do start your character at a higher level, you will also want to tweak your game to increase your maximum level to account for your level jump without getting perks or skill points, since the maximum level is normally 20, or 30 with Broken Steel.

Finally, for an exceptionally challenging time, you can make your own Perk in the GECK editor to adjust your Health downward so you are truly "level 1" when you start. i.e., If you start at level 31, to be properly "level 1", you need to suppress 30 levels of Health, or 300 Health. Some monsters, especially on Very Hard difficulty, will kill you with a single hit even with your starting 120 to 200 Health.

V.A.T.S. vs. Real Time vs. Bullet Time
The VATS system in Fallout 3 is really a compensation for AI opponents who calculate moves far too quickly.
  • At range, they and run-and-gun very well at all levels, thereby dodging your attacks while hitting you with uncanny accuracy. Unless you are exceptionally good, you cannot match that level of coordinated agility with just your keyboard and mouse.
  • At close quarters, you cannot always intuit whether your weapon barrel is too close and in fact pointing behind the target (and thus your shots will have no effect). The AI automatically knows this and can compensate -- All within a split second.
  • In melee, they can move, turn, and strike as well as calculate weapon distance to weave into range of their attacks or out of range of your own. They also constantly circle you, and you are stuck with either turning in place to find them or zooming out into third-person view where you have inferior targeting.
Because of all this and more, Fallout 3 implements VATS, which basically lets you queue a few attacks. While in VATS you take only 10% damage, to compensate for not dodging while in VATS, and having to wait for your Action Points to fill up once the VATS sequence ends. Also, the chance to hit in VATS goes down very quickly over range, making sniping useless.

Instead of VATS, you can slow the world down to 25% speed for everyone -- including you. At that speed, you can think, move, and fight approximately as well as the enemy. What they can do, you can do too. It then comes down to damage and weapon spread, both of which are determined by the skills your character has developed. A simple mod that does this is GQ Bullet Time, which lets you toggle 25% time on and off.

Whether you fight in real time or bullet time, you may still want to use VATS:
  • Melee:
    • VATS knows if you can score a Sneak Attack, and will go for the head if you can -- you can't always do this in real-time from a crouched sneaking position without losing your Hidden status (and therefore your automatic Sneak Attack Critical). If it cannot start with a Sneak Attack, it can aim for a gun if the attack will definitely disarm your opponent, before safely completing its attack sequence.
    • VATS can account for the required distance to the enemy. Sometimes you think you are close enough but you really aren't, so you end up missing. This happens a lot with Radroaches: Outside of VATS you can only punch, so you often need to get very close and crouch. VATS can use kicks and stomps and doesn't need you to crouch. It will also automatically move you close enough.
  • Arcing Shots and Throwing: For attacks that require arcing (such as all Grenades and some Big Guns), VATS will automatically calculate the strength of your throw and the arc of your shot to land your projectile where you choose (although the percentage chance of an accurate throw is often rather low). You would otherwise have to figure it out yourself.
    • VATS can't bounce Grenades off walls to go around corners, so you will still need to do that on your own outside of VATS.
    • VATS explosives detonate on impact instead of having a slight delay, during which your grenade can continue to bounce out of the area.
  • Shooting Weapons: You often have a very high chance of hitting even tiny weapons (such as grenades) held in your opponent's hands. If successful, a weapon can be flung away or (for grenades) explodes. Enemies do go and recover their weapons, however. And they can also opportunistically pick up better weapons.
Other Combat Tweaks
  • Apocalypse Armoury: This vastly increases the number of weapons. By giving out a wider range of weapons, you will get wider variety in combat as each opponent adapts to how their weapons are best used (shotguns, for example, are shorter range weapons; assault rifles are medium range; and rifle-using enemies tend to stay at range and wait for you to pop out). This large mod can also result in a crash-to-desktop-on-save problem.
    • CTD on Save is a game-loading issue that is made worse by lots of resources having to load from a mod. Fallout 3 does not always correctly load everything it needs to when you load a previous save. A workaround is to load from the main menu, then re-load the same save game. The second load of the same game allows the game to load less or what it missed before, because the first load already moved some resources into cache or memory.
    • Another game-loading issue comes from repeatedly saving over a previous save game. Corrupted save games have been reported from doing this too often. Use a "clean save" -- Save in a new slot rather than overwriting a previous save.
  • Initially I recommended Mart's Mutant Mod and an increased number of enemies over higher difficulty to make the game interesting. Sadly, I can no longer recommend Mart's Mutant Mod.
    • It offers a lot of interesting features, but the dealbreaker was that it could cause crashes. I got a repeatable crash approaching Wilhelm's Wharf, and only removing MMM stopped it from happening. You might not get a crash in that same location, but overall it appears that the resource requirement may destabilize your game.
    • And there are various side effects of increased spawns and some of the other things MMM does, such as roaming groups of Night Ghouls engaging unique encounters or unique characters, and possibly killing them before you have a chance to experience them in-game. The vanilla game is tweaked to retain certain encounters, such as characters that wander outdoors; with MMM, these can easily get killed.MMM with increased spawns is okay for AFTER you have finished the quests and are just doing sandbox play with Fallout 3. It is probably less risky with no increased spawns, but realistically you should still be wary of unexpected crashes and losing NPCs you may have to interact with.


  1. great article thanks.

  2. @Anonymous - You're welcome! And thank you for taking the time to post a comment.

  3. Thank you! Glad you found it useful. Thank you for taking the time to comment.