Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: October 28, 2008
Imagine if 1950s Cold War paranoia and its sci-fi super future mentality had actually succeeded in building its pie-in-the-sky ideals, with white picket fences on every corner and nuclear-powered cars in every driveway. Now imagine it all coming to an end in 2077 as resources run out and war becomes inevitable over the remaining supplies. The bombs fall, sending everything back into the Stone Age and transforming proud monuments of progress into towering ruins. That's Fallout. It's been a decade since Black Isle's Fallout 2 was released for PCs. Now that Bethesda has turned its considerable talents into making Fallout 3 a reality, has it been worth it?
Fallout 3 takes place in the Washington, D.C., area 200 years after World War III had turned most of humanity into irradiated ash in the desperate struggle over the last resources. As a descendant of survivors who were fortunate enough to be in a vault when the bombs fell, your character lives away from the horrors of what the world has become. Your father suddenly leaves one day, and you decide to follow him on an epic adventure facing raiders and irradiated mutants, and you're forced to scavenge for survival through the dust of the past. Welcome to the Wasteland.
Admittedly, I was worried that Fallout 3 would feel too much like Oblivion, and Bethesda has clearly leveraged that experience and technology in building the postapocalyptic future. As the third major chapter in the Fallout series, the experience of the first two isn't necessary in order to enjoy Bethesda's stylish take on the series. Fallout 3 often feels as if it isn't squarely aimed at old-school die-hards as it is in introducing Black Isle's former world to a new generation of gamers. Some of the changes are welcome, others not so much, but the end result is an engrossing RPG that provides plenty for both.
The ruined city of Washington, D.C., and its environs are all brought to ruined life with the kind of 1950s B-movie sci-fi and urban art deco that inspired a generation to duck and cover. Bethesda's detailed take stays true to the style of the series and encourages plenty of exploration. The ruined shells of big-bodied highway yachts, robots with domed brain pans, Robbie the Robot wannabes, and a slew of other surprises fill Fallout 3's irradiated landscape. Day and night cycles allow the sun to wash over the distant mountains and through the dead forests around you. There's no weather, but it's not really something that you miss, and it actually adds to the stark nature of being a witness to Armageddon's wake. Then there's the gore, bucketloads of it, as bodies explode like blood sausages or turn into red paste.
Inon Zur's musical talents create just the right amount of dread and horror alongside sci-fi-inspired themes that follow you from the menu and into the dark, gutted halls of what had been the Capitol. Ron Perlman's traditional narration starts things off with a sober recounting of what led up to the end, Liam Neeson voices your father, and Malcolm McDowell provides plenty of delicious propaganda as the All-American President, John Henry Eden. A slew of others fill the D.C. Wasteland with a variety of colorful characters and mutants, many of whom will want to discuss post-war politics with hot lead and energized plasma.
The main quest can be ignored, which is what I did at my first opportunity. It has a compelling story behind it, with plenty of incredible twists and different endings, but it can be finished in about 15 or so hours if that's all you focus on. However, there are easily more than 40 hours of extra content to get lost in. Many of the quests have plenty of entertaining dialogue, and the dark humor of the series is still there, albeit hidden in far, out of the way, places. Ever want to see what happens when a nuclear killsat drops its payload from orbit? If you hated the scaled leveling from Oblivion, there's none of that here, so you won't find ragged Wasteland settlers wearing Power Armor and wielding Plasma Rifles on a regular basis. You might run into a lot more robots and deathclaws, though.
There are still a few things that a series fan like myself still had to take for granted. Two hundred years after the bombs fell, many of the items found in the Wasteland, including food and soda, are in surprisingly usable, if irradiated, condition which made me think that everything was made of Twinkies. The previous titles carefully spaced themselves a reasonable distance along the timeline to explain how this was still possible, or at least give the benefit of a doubt that it might actually work. With Fallout 3, this was a stretch even for me, though it takes place "only" 30 years after Fallout 2.
The new gameplay mechanics will come as a surprise to players who are used to taking advantage of Oblivion's skill system. In addition to your basic statistics, like strength and charisma, the player can also improve their skills, but only through the use of points. You can select three skills to boost at the beginning of the game as "tag" skills, and additional improvement points are allocated at every level. In addition to skills, characters will also earn perks that have a far more dramatic effect on development, such as opening up new dialogue options with the opposite sex, earning experience at a faster rate, or seeing everything die in a "Bloody Mess" while dealing out additional damage. With a level cap of 20 in place, there are only so many perks that can be chosen and skills upgraded, challenging players to make the best use of its many options.
Most every quest in Fallout 3 has more than one solution, the easiest often being to go in with guns blazing, but the most rewarding ones are those that play off of your character's strengths, such as his ability to talk himself out of a situation or lend some intelligent insight about a problem. There are plenty of dialogue choices and situations that might not be readily apparent in a first playthrough with a particular build.
Aiding the player is their PipBoy 3000, which is a wrist-worn computer that acts as your inventory, map maker, and high-tech Blackberry. Quests are tracked here, Quick Travel allows you to magically zip across the landscape, and an inventory list reminds PC players that certain compromises were made from its console iteration. While not unworkable, it's aggravating to know that something like this wasn't customized to take advantage of the PC's interface. There's even a radio function allowing you to listen to 1940s tunes, such as The Ink Spots' "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," Enclave jingoism, or anything else that it might pick up out there, such as Holotape recordings. Depending on your actions in the Wasteland, one radio show will even give you a shout-out on your progress and relate a few of your accomplishments.
While Fallout 3 can be approached as "Oblivion with guns," which can waste a lot of rare and precious ammo, engaging foes using the Vault-Assisted Targeting System (VATS) allows players to surgically dispatch foes, and after getting used to it, I used it at every opportunity. Engaging VATS freezes the action as the screen zooms in, allowing you to target arms, legs, the torso, or the head of your enemy, with hits to those areas affecting different abilities. What this means to gamers is that it's always an option to shoot the mini-gun out of a super mutant's hands and then blow him apart as he runs to find another weapon.
Action points determine how many attacks can be queued up before cutting loose with the results rendered in gory slow motion, playing out as "bullet time" on turn-based steroids. Action points quickly regenerate outside of VATS, but you can shoot back without spending them by relying on your own skill. You don't even have to wait for the gauge to refill; you can snap off something in VATS if you have enough points for that headshot, despite how resilient craniums are in Fallout 3.
Although Fallout 3 distances itself from Oblivion, some of the same baggage is carried over. More disturbingly, there are certain points within the game where it simply feels unfinished, or where some quests seem to have been more fleshe-out than others. Dialogue choices sometimes refer to topics that the character may know nothing about yet, open seams can sometimes be found in the game world (I fell through the map at one point), and most NPC actors are still unable to emote their way through a grade school play, although the sharp voice acting manages to save their roles.
Enemies have even occasionally "teleported" right in front of me after getting lost in the backdrop, or corpses spawned inside of floors, creating a constant rattling noise that I couldn't get away from. Combat may have improved, with enemies ducking behind cover and retreating to keep distance for their ranged attacks, but don't be surprised to also see enemies occasionally stand and do nothing or run in place as they fail to negotiate certain obstacles. Certain characters still share the Oblivion-inspired Care Bear effect of not being able to die because they are important to the story, although the kids in the game will instead mock you for obvious reasons. The character also has the prescient ability to know something is empty by pointing at it with the cursor, which feels like a cheat.
Fallout 3's hardcore attitude toward its character development is also a mixed bag. In what seems to be a concession to the level cap, the game brings in a variety of "bonuses" in the form of special items, such as secret Bobbleheads, that you can discover along the way that can instantly and permanently improve your skills and base statistics. By the time I finished the main quest along with a healthy number of side-quests, my character was nearly as powerful as my level 36 character had been in Fallout 2, thanks to these and several other items. Certain armor can also bestow temporary bonuses in the same way that JRPG items do, which will likely grate the survivalist nerves of more than a few of the Fallout faithful. Some bonuses make more sense, such as when Power Armor grants improved strength or books that improve your skills. I still had a fantastic time despite this, but with so many of these extras floating around, the level cap felt pointless. It would have made more sense to not have a level cap but place a limit on perks, because once they're reached, it dramatically shifts the gameplay into one of pure scavenging without the drive to improve.
On a technical level, Fallout 3 ran nearly flawlessly, with fast loads and smooth performance at maxed details. Since it is Windows Live-enabled, players can earn Achievements that go toward the gamerscore for their account online if they opt for one, but it isn't necessary. Looking at the launch menu, mod support appears to be in place, although the tools haven't been released yet, ostensibly to avoid having to anger the ESRB with controversial add-ons. But if Bethesda follows the same formula as they have with Oblivion, players can likely expect additional content in the near future, keeping Gauss Gun fans on pins and needles.
EA's Wasteland taught me that RPGs didn't have to have swords and sorcery in order to succeed, and it continues to be one of my favorite games of all time. When Fallout was released, I devoured the world's retro-style façade and the turn-based gameplay as I fought radscorpions and brutish mutants. The blasted landscape was littered with the ruins of a bygone era, consumed by the desperate fire of nuclear annihilation. While the original Fallout and Fallout 3 are as different as night and day, with only a postapocalyptic birth certificate to tie them together, I found myself continuing to head back for more bottlecaps and explore the ruined planet that Black Isle and Interplay had termed as Wasteland's "spiritual successor."
Fallout 3 isn't perfect, and some longtime fans may focus more on what it isn't rather than what it has become in Bethesda's hands, but its shortcomings pale before the fun that kept pushing me ahead to find out what was over the next hill of rubble. The world that Bethesda has put together manages to assuage much of that worry with an engaging RPG that easily stands as a passionate demonstration of their love for the series. As Perlman says at the start, "War never changes," and with Fallout 3, the postapocalyptic spirit of the series continues to march on.
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