Fallout 3 Review
What a Wonderful World
Developer Black Isle Studios created three games in the ’90s that still grace RPG “best of” lists today: Fallout, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment. After the significant monetary investment in Stonekeep 2 was lost in its cancellation, the studio released the good-not-great Icewind Dale series before the entire team was axed by Interplay. Beloved for their black humor, moral choices, open variety of ways to succeed at quests, and the SPECIAL stat system, the Fallout games seemed to be a dead series that older gamers would reminisce about and newer gamers would avoid because of all the pixely 2D-ness. This all changed when Bethesda Softworks, creator of award-winning RPGs Morrowind and Oblivion, bought the right to release new games in the series. The end result is every drooling Fallout fan’s dream: all the awesome of Fallout combined with the gorgeous, believable graphics and overall polish and attention to detail of Oblivion.
The world of Fallout 3 is an alternate reality in which America’s culture during the nuclear paranoia of the 1950s never changed. This is the future United States citizens fantasized about and feared then, with plasma guns and clunky robot helpers and a nuclear apocalypse. The Great War in 2077 reduced the surface of the world to a radioactive wasteland. Fallout 3 takes place in the DC area of the US in 2277, an environment consisting of city ruins overrun by mutants as well as a vast, barren area populated with demented raiders and feral abominations. Civilization, as it is, exists sparsely in around a half dozen barricaded settlements in addition to several small pockets of five or so people.
The organization of quests puts a slightly new spin on the western RPG standard. The main quest is rather short, jerking the player back and forth from one end of the map to the other. Events related to the main plotline are usually scripted affairs. While it has some dull moments, it has some deeply emotional ones too, and pushes on the “games as art” button often, requiring the player to think about his decisions and really contemplate how he wants to impact the world, thereby affecting anyone experiencing the game on a level that non-interactive mediums such as novels and movies cannot. While treading across the huge map, towns and locations will be discovered and, ideally, stopped at and explored.
This is where Fallout 3 does things differently. Whereas western RPGs tend to fill cities with dozens of NPCs begging for all kinds of trivial help, this one only has about one quest per town, and then fills out that quest so that it is interesting and complex, ultimately requiring the player to make a choice regarding how it is carried out. A simple request like “Please deliver this letter to my family” can lead to a town on the brink of death, an enemy base to find, a group of sympathetic foes to help or hurt, and, depending on how everything plays out, the potential for multiple quest rewards. Even better, the rewards are inventive and extremely useful. Do not expect to be given a handful of change and a bottle of water after traipsing across the world to resolve the optional quests. For those who wish to be evil, some quests offer creative ways to wipe out entire towns of people rather than forcing the player to whip out a gun and shoot civilians all day. For those who wish to be good, trying to help everyone and succeeding at helping everyone are two very different things. It is a weird feeling to fail at trying to reach an amicable solution to a problem, then a few minutes later find a note in a computer which would have surely prevented bloodshed had it been discovered sooner.
When interacting with the world, be it with voice or gun or lock pick, the SPECIAL system returns to govern the player’s abilities. SPECIAL stands for the base stats Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. These are set soon after the character is born and determine all of the calculated stats like HP and damage resistance, how well the lead interacts with NPCs, and also combat-related aspects like how soon an enemy’s presence is detected and the number of available Action Points. Every time a level is gained, the character gets a perk and a set of skill points to allocate. Perks are powerful, permanent, passive abilities which greatly assist the player. They can be selected to cover for weaknesses, augment strengths, or make the game more entertaining. Skills are a set of abilities ranging from stealth to speech to melee damage, and assigning more points to a skill makes it more effective. Bethesda opted to clean up Fallout 2‘s system. Redundant skills have been packaged together — Doctor and Healing are now one skill called Medicine, for example — and many new perks were added. The open-ended leveling system was excellent in the first two games in the series, and Bethesda touched it up to make it even better. This could be the best character growth system ever devised in a video game, and it should help wash away the bitter taste Oblivion‘s leveling system left in people’s mouths.
Fortunately, the battle system should help those who disliked Oblivion as well. Gameplay takes place in real-time with a targeting reticule and guns and frag grenades, but it differs greatly from a FPS due to the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. Opening up VATS pauses the game and displays the probability of hitting various parts of an enemy’s body. Depending on how many Action Points are left, the player can queue up a few attacks however he pleases, potentially targeting multiple foes and varying limbs. Upon completing this, the commands will be executed in slow motion and each bullet can be seen flying toward the enemy, sinking into him, spewing blood out his back, crippling him, and possibly dismembering him upon death. It is bloody and beautiful and packs in the visceral feel of a FPS without including any of that aiming nonsense. When the AP gauge is depleted, the game reverts back to real-time and must be played like an FPS, but the amount of AP slowly regenerates, so the player can always run or hide until enough points have been gained to open VATS again. Aiming is not a considerable issue, since ranged enemies can be hidden from and melee enemies will be in the player’s face, and hence easy to hit.
Outside of the battle system, the game continues to handle well. Once a location has been discovered, fast travel on the world map can be used to teleport there instead of walking forever. The current target for the active quest is displayed on the map in most cases, although some of the more hidden objectives in optional quests will require some searching. Weapons and equipment can be set to hotkeys for easy swapping. During NPC interactions, the writing is solid and interesting; even the less talkative people seem real and believable. There is a good range of dialogue options at all times, letting the player role play as someone as saintly or rude as he desires. The highlight here is the various NPCs’ and the gameworld’s reaction to the choices the character has made. If a quest results in the death of a well known person, expect future dialogue and NPC interactions to change accordingly. It really feels like the player’s decisions matter in the world.
The rest of the presentation is as sublime as one would expect from Bethesda. The game is detailed and easily the best looking RPG out there. The ruins of DC, including recognizable memorials and structures, are visible in the distance from most locations. The opening view from the entrance of the vault is jaw dropping. This is not the fantasy world of Oblivion. Everything is dirty and scarred, and the land is brown and rocky; the player is in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and he will constantly be reminded of it. Faint, tranquil music plays in the background at all times, but the voice-acting is where the audio truly shines. Every line of dialogue is voiced in a way that puts Japanese RPGs to shame. The chatter and the voice-acting talent bring the characters in the game to life. A unique treat comes in the form of a radio station that can be listened to at all times. Three Dog, the DJ, gives regular news updates and often talks about the player’s exploits. When he is not talking, Three Dog plays an assortment of popular American music from the innocent 1950s. It gives the game a surreal effect when “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” is blasting through the speakers while the player is watching his bullets decapitate raiders in slow motion using VATS. The only issue here is that the radio plays a small variety of songs and voice clips, so it can get old fast, and the background score is too vanilla to stand alone.
If there is an odd warning for would-be purchasers, it would be the over-the-top gore, violence, drug abuse, and profanity. Bethesda takes Fallout 2‘s black comedy setting and focuses on the black while mostly abandoning the comedy. Raiders have an obsession with torture and meat hooks, and any location containing so much as one raider will be painted in dismembered, impaled corpses hanging from the walls and ceiling, bloody mattresses with bodies stapled to them, et cetera. Combatants often die in gruesome ways with blood spurting out and chucks of flesh landing yards away from where the dead body falls. Also, elements of classical horror are used in the game. A large amount of time will be spent travelling through DC’s unlit, cramped metro tunnels, and feral ghouls with rotting flesh hide there. They let out an unsettling cackle upon sensing a human’s presence, move very quickly, and then usually spring around the dark corners and catch the player by surprise, screaming and slashing at the front of the first person view. The bleak setting is depressing if one thinks upon it too hard, as this horrible future is, in a way, still a possibility. All enemy-filled locales have more dead people in them than live creatures. This believable, detailed world feels very lived-in and real, and is nothing but gloomy and desolate.
The comfortless tone of the game’s themes and visuals do set up the non-linear nature of every quest in the game, though, and should only be considered a negative to those who are sensitive to such things. The player is presented with a setting in which civilization is broken and headed further downhill, and can choose to what extent he wants to help those living in it. The option to give in to the selfish and cruel nature of the world by making things worse is always present. Quests and atmosphere aside, most of the gameplay consists of exploring the vast world independently and uncovering its secrets, finding new locations, looking for caches, and trying to find the elusive bobble heads. It is like Oblivion in this sense, only with fewer towns and better battle and leveling systems. Where Oblivion used an endless stream of quests to force the exploration of every nook and cranny, Fallout 3 crafts an addicting gameplay experience driven more by its setting and the player’s curiosity; it is so interesting on its own that the non-stop tasks in Oblivion are genuinely not necessary here. This is easily one of the best RPGs ever created, a serious contender for Game of the Year awards from the gaming media, and a title with which all video game fans owe it to themselves to spend some time. It is hard to put down and will not disappoint.
Outstanding leveling and battle systems
Huge, engaging world to freely explore
Deep, lengthy, open-ended quests
Might be too morbid and profane for some