Fallout 3 Review
Somewhere around the time I got to the National Mall, that area in Washington, D.C. between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building and found it to be a war zone, I realized that Fallout 3 is the best game Bethesda Softworks has ever made. Unlike their past RPGs, this one takes a while to really get into. After the better part of two days, I can emerge from my own personal vault - one which I seem to have made my living room out of - and say that Fallout 3 is brilliant.
It's not just the unique post-apocalyptic setting or the unsurpassed bleakness of tone that is always hovering but never crushing your will to play. Nor is it the wonderful slow-motion beheadings and gore that the game's unique V.A.T.S. system delivers. It's not the large number of weapons or armor, or skills or interesting perks, or fully first person shooter-style combat. It's the way you can get lost in this game and suddenly realize it got dark outside while you weren't noticing, or for me, also got light outside as well. Only the very best games can turn off my internal clock, make me ignore the stuff I need to do around the house, and just suck me in, but that's exactly what Fallout 3 has done.
Fallout 3 is made by the team that had just finished creating Oblivion, an RPG that does have a lot in common with their latest game. But what is shared between the two games is not damaging to the atmosphere, fun, or action in Fallout 3, nor does it diminish the qualities that made the original games so fun: making drastic choices that affect the landscape as well as the people of the Capital Wasteland, as the game's outskirts of Washington D.C. are called. Many of these choices are limited by your character's abilities, so choose wisely when you start the game and don't be afraid to tinker with every stat, skill, and perk. Be aware of your surroundings, as the attention to detail in Fallout 3 must be matched by your own meticulousness if you really want to get the best out of it. You might not want to open up every filing cabinet in the D.C. area after several hours of play, but do hazard a look at that nearby safe or computer to see if there's something interesting, and make sure to explore every room in a building to see if you missed anything.
Either way, this is not a perfect mimicry of the first two games' style; the move to first/third person view and real-time combat are the proof that this can't possibly be a "perfect sequel" to the first two games, but just because Super Mario Bros. 3 was great, doesn't mean that it had to stay 2D forever. Same thing here. Of course, the question of whether this game is 100% accurate to its past is largely irrelevant, since most people who are picking up a copy of Fallout 3 haven't even seen the first two games. They'll judge the game on today's standards where people care a bit less about the depth of dialog trees and a bit more about the voice acting and graphics. And in that light, it's a shining success.
Fallout 3 revolves around finding and helping your character's father who raised you in the safety of Vault 101. It starts with what I think is possibly the only first-person birth I've ever seen in a game; mom dies shortly afterwards, leaving James to raise you through a few whirlwind sequences of childhood that serve a bit as the game's introduction and tutorial. When he leaves all of a sudden after your 19th birthday and you are forced to follow him, the door opens and you find yourself staring out at the bleakest landscape seen in a video game in years.
It's an interesting contrast: Oblivion started in a dank dungeon that players were glad to get out of, and a picturesque and serene world of bright colors and swaying grass and trees unfolded before them. Here, you step out of one small piece of civilization to look upon a kind of destruction that you may find yourself uneasy exploring for a good many hours before you become accustomed to it. That's what it was like for me, and maybe my acclimation to the wasteland, which took hours, was when I stopped avoiding the open spaces and started really exploring on my own. And once you get into doing that, it turns out it's not as tough as it looked - while you can't fast-travel to any location without walking there on foot first, the ability to quickly move between locations once you've visited them the first time makes travel convenient but doesn't hold your hand.
Your travels through the Wastes are often much more stressful than the wandering of green pastures in Oblivion. The pockets of humanity here will just as soon shoot you dead over a few careless words as they would give you a quest, and you must always keep in mind the question: "What if I just shot this idiot in the face?" Without a true law system in Fallout 3, removing the head of some trader just because you want the stuff that he's got in stock is much more of a viable choice than most RPGs allow. No, you can't just get into a gunfight with someone in the shantytown of Megaton without some retaliation by the residents, but you can get away with murder very often, especially out in the wastes, and not break any of the game's quests or your progress towards the inevitable end.
It's not just the atmosphere of trashed suburbs and busted domes of Capitol buildings that makes this game great: it's the fighting, too. Everything plays out like a first- or third-person shooter, but the twist is V.A.T.S., a system where you can pop into a paused mode and pick out your enemy's body parts with enhanced precision to shoot. Smaller guns get more shots off with your limited number of V.A.T.S. action points, and the points will regenerate once you've used them and gone back into real-time combat. It's not a replacement for first-person action, but it is a wonderful complement to it, and the excellent action cameras often resemble games like Max Payne or even movies like The Matrix. That's not to say you fight in slow motion, but once you've picked your move in V.A.T.S., the action then automatically plays out just like it and you're back to real-time fighting when you're done.
That on its own would be great, but the ability to up the ante in V.A.T.S. mode, through skills, perks, and getting clear shots to the head really makes it interesting. Perks like Bloody Mess, Mysterious Stranger, Sniper, and Grim Reaper's Sprint make this mode a joy to use - well, as long as you don't mind seeing a cowboy suddenly appear and finish off an enemy or all four limbs (plus head) all pop off in a shower of gore after a nice headshot. Now that I think of it, I've removed more limbs and heads in 24 hours of Fallout 3 than I did in years of playing Mortal Kombat games.
The vast number of choices presented to the player will allow many play-throughs with a good amount of overlap but plenty of new material to see - more than most RPGs have been doing in the last decade since the original two Fallout games. You can tackle everything as a skillful marksman, playing it like a shooter with RPG elements (ok, a LOT of RPG elements), or you can go the stealth route to sneak around and drop live grenades into the pockets of unsuspecting foes, turn their defenses against them inside their home bases, and talk their dissenters into joining you for a bloodbath. Go like a barbarian, mashing and smashing just about everything in your path and only talking to people when you absolutely have to. Go evil, go good, go neutral - depending on how you conduct yourself, who you side with, and how you complete the game's quests, the ending does change. Not that you can undo the atrocities you've committed or the good deeds you've done, of course, and you can't just turn the page on your deeds by picking a key response out of some near-endgame dialog tree.
You'll find yourself choosing between two sides in many sections of Fallout 3, and may find even more solutions than that if you dig deep enough - and that includes the main quest and its lead up to the end of the game. Many of these are delivered through the top-notch voice acting and dialog throughout the game. And yes, Bethesda hired a much larger number of voice actors this time around, although it is spearheaded by the voice of Liam Neeson as your character's father.
You start out simple enough: a wanderer with a hunting rifle and a lightly armored suit, scavenging ruins for food and trying to get the caps (bottle caps - the game's currency) together to buy some new gear. Later in the game, you'll have found your favorite gear and will be repairing it using the parts from other, similar weapons and armor, and eventually you'll have put enough cash together to not care about scavenging anymore and are focused on the goals and finding those little things the developers either intended for you to find or tried really hard to hide. It's a nice, smooth curve, going from a creature barely surviving and taking every piece of loot to hock to eventually working at the high level and worrying about saving the world. Making this transition believable and fun is, to me, what makes a game like this good, and Fallout 3 does it well.
Going into some platform-specific stuff, the 360 version of the game is solid, with great graphics and some relatively short load times. The complete lack of auto-aim at all - and this is one of those features that some of us have started to rely on a bit too much - means you'll be using V.A.T.S. for your more precise shots. On the PC, the graphics are sharper if you've got a solid machine to handle the game, and the free Games for Windows Live portion allows you to get achievements and link them to your 360 gamertag. Some PC diehards might find this to be a horrible idea, but the GFW elements are completely transparent when used and completely out of the way if never activated. If you don't like it, just don't ever enable it and you won't know it's there.
The PC version's controls are certainly sharp and I found myself pulling off many more headshots and quick kills with a mouse and keyboard than I could on the console counterparts, but if you really do want to play with a gamepad, Fallout 3 does fully support the 360 controller on the PC as well. While Fallout 3 does support mods out of the box, Bethesda still has not released their editing tools. I'm confident that either they or someone else will release something to that effect within a couple of months.
Sure, the game has some pretty obvious flaws and issues. The character animations aren't quite up to par for today's standards, the game focuses more on combat than previous games in the series, and both enemy and friendly AI is a little strange (but few games even bother to try to do AI "right"). Considering the number of little issues with Oblivion and how well-received that game was, though - and just how many of those Oblivion issues were avoided or fixed here in Fallout 3 - I can't help but come to the same conclusion. Sure, this game isn't perfect, but its strengths far overpower its weaknesses. From its sweeping, epic score to its ridiculously gory and amusing death scenes and on to the many thought-provoking moments of what life could be like after a nuclear detonation on US soil, this game holds sacred all that is great about RPGs while delivering that action-based punch that keeps you coming back. I just can't find a good reason not to recommend Fallout 3 to any serious gamer out there.