Written by Richard Brown
The story behind Fallout 3 is a long and painful one. Back in the 90’s Interplay made a very clever Role Playing Game (RPG) that let you kill things in a horribly gory way, but also talk your way out of fights in the first place. It was something a little closer to real (i.e. tabletop) RPGs, as opposed to the fantasy combat simulators or visual novels that are known on the PC and console markets. A good sequel came, several spin offs, but also financial disaster for Interplay. Advance to the present and you find that Bethesda has made a sequel, after obtaining the single player rights, and have released it on the PS3. Now, Bethesda are best know for the excellent, but definitely not Fallout-like, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Have they kept what made the series great? And is the game any good? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
Its been 200 odd years since a nuclear war between America and China, and things aren’t going well. You live in Vault 101, one of the bomb shelters designed to house people until the background radiation is low enough to retake the surface. However, the Overseer of Vault 101 is reluctant to do this, and the underground town has remained closed. Then one day, your father does the impossible and leaves without a word, fleeing to the outside world. You no choice but to follow him into the Capitol Wasteland. What will you do? Will you chase after him, forget him, do good or indulge in evil?
The Dead Landscape
The Capitol Wasteland, well, they weren’t mucking about. It’s a rocky desert marked by ruined buildings, dead trees, and mutated beasties. Walking though it, with 50’s era music on the radio, its difficult not to feel immersed in this horrific cold war satire and morality play. Those of you familiar with the older games will be wondering what has returned. Let’s see…. Ghouls: Check. Super Mutants: Check. Brotherhood of Steel: Check. Enclave: Check. Harold: Check. Tribals: No, but I guess it’s hard to be a hunter-gather with this amount of concrete about. Bethesda seems to have gone out of its way to recapture Interplay’s setting in three dimensions, and they have definitely succeeded. The game is also more cinematic than I was expecting, and that’s a good thing. The character creation and tutorial are handled in a very clever way; a string of scenes from birth through childhood to the age of 16. The game also gives us a couple of action set pieces, as the more built up bits of the wasteland are full fledged warzones, and things go up a notch when the Enclave comes in. Sadly, while the presentation is generally excellent, the game is very unstable. After the first week playing the game, I found that something was going wrong on a daily basis, from odd character animation, to dialog failing to play and major slow down. While bugs are nothing new in a Fallout game, almost nostalgic, Fallout 3 generated more annoying glitches than the rest of my video game library put together. At the time of writing, a patch is in the works, but its inexcusable that the game was released like this. Stunning, but flawed.
Talking Someone to Death
However, very few people will be buying this game on the assumption of a technically refined visual masterpiece. Many like me will buy based on happy memories of the first game, where you could sneak, fight, lock pick, reprogram, and talk though just about anything. The first Fallout game set the bar high for the entire role playing genre, making it possible for you to talk the final boss into committing suicide. I can confirm that that Fallout 3 is just as open ended, and while the S.P.E.C.I.A.L ruleset has been reworked, the spirit is the same. You can create more or less any style of character you want, say a smooth talker, a stealthy assassin, a techie, a warrior of justice, or a pirate. Interactions with the assorted characters and quests always have more than one solution. An interesting touch is the karma system, which depicts your reputation and has a knock on effect on you relationships. This gave me a real surprise during my first run of the game, as I’d accidentally made myself so good people where giving me things in the street, while someone had put a bounty on my head for being too much of a saint. It’s a very good sandbox game, perhaps more so than GTA 4, and very addictive.
It’s challenging as well, partially due to day-to-day survival being a function of the game. You can’t easily heal yourself, and you have to rely on consumable items or dirty water, which eventually gives you radiation poisoning (this was the first major variation from the earlier games I noticed). Maintaining your weaponry is also a priority, as they can wear out quickly, and the only way to maintain them yourself is to strip another weapon for parts. Early on, you find yourself desperately scrabbling for any gun you can find, as you can’t afford to pay for the ammo. It’s an undoubted success of the game, adding to the atmosphere, as the game really did feel like a post-apocalyptic scramble for dwindling resources. This does become something of a downer when random encounters come into the equation. One resource that isn’t in short supply in the wastes is gun-toting Mad Max extras, and they don’t have the same economic problems you do.
As the above comment will tell you, Fallout 3 leans more towards action than some of its predecessors. The game occupies a middle ground between real-time and turn based combat, thanks to the well-publicised Vault Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S). This pauses the game, allowing you to target individual limbs of multiple enemies at once. Once you’ve selected, the game switches to slow motion shots of your character firing, often resulting in hugely gory and over the top deaths. It’s a good system, as diehard role players aren’t known for response time and it encourages a more tactical style of combat. Attacking manually tends to waste ammunition, but it can be done on the move, whereas V.A.T.S forces you character to stand still, and requires a few seconds to recharge afterwards. There is also a good variety in weapons, adding another layer of tactics, with the small arms category probably being the most useful. While I must regrettably inform the reader that it’s not possible to shoot someone in the groin and eyeballs, as you could in the previous games, this is compensation for by the comic brutality of the games hand built weapons. I’d like to single out the “Rock-it Launcher” as one of the true joys of the game, as there a few things more memorable than a spray of ballistic garden gnomes, tin cans and teddy bears.
While this ultra-violence is huge fun, it leads to my only real disappointment with the game, and the inevitable Oblivion comparison. One way in which Oblivion and Fallout 3 are similar is that both games tend to turn missions into dungeon crawls. However, whereas Oblivion made it easy for you to do other things, such as with the four guilds you could join, Fallout 3 does not. What Fallout 3 does instead is invite you to go wandering, to discover things like Harold’s hiding place and the Nuka-Cola museum, which can actually be really annoying thanks to the ever present raiders and muties trying to eat your face. Its enjoyable, but its quite dangerous early in the game, and a bit repetitive. With exploration being difficult at low levels, I found myself pushed into the main quest, which has its moments, some excellent, some face-to-palm stupid, but it is actually quite short. Why is this disappointing? Well, you can create a character who isn’t all about killing, but the game doesn’t really reward that and neither is it an especially deep RPG. I’m exaggerating slightly, as the game tends to adapt itself to how you play, but the constant random, and pre-planned, fights force you into creating a combat-oriented character. Great, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s at odds with the wonderful character creation options. There’s very little practical application for the Medicine or Barter skills, given how easy scavenging can become once you’ve completed a few quests. The Science skill is often just the Lockpick skill with another name and the Talk skill also tends to close off missions rather than open them. I suspect that the programmers were having so much fun with the weapons selection that they forgot to do anything else. Yes, you can be a scientist or a master manipulator, but don’t expect much opportunity to ply your craft if you do.
Fallout 3 is a strong candidate for game of the year, and certainly a guaranteed hit, but the best word for it is “almost”. I have this slight feeling that this game hasn’t quite brought the franchise into the 21st century. Sure, it’s in impressive 3d, but the actual scope of things seems small and the game mechanics never quite fulfil their promise. That shouldn’t stop you from buying it though, as it’s still brilliant.