A gaming legend gets a new lease on life.
Fallout 3 is a game that I have been waiting for from the moment I finished Fallout 2.
Of course, back then I never visualized anything like Bethesda's Oblivion-like treatment of the game. I was thinking of - and wanting - another iteration of the classic 2d isometric game style. And if that is what we had gotten, then I would have been ecstatic.
When I found out that it was Bethesda which was going to make a new Fallout, I was somewhat apprehensive. I had played the stuffing out of their last two Elder Scrolls games - Morrowind and Oblivion. However, I have to admit that I was finding their formula a bit stale. In particular, Oblivion is a game which I gave an earnest effort to getting into, but never found compelling enough to complete.
The worry which I had was whether Fallout 3 would remain true to the series or simply be Oblivion With Guns. Well...the good news is that it is true to the series. The bad news is that it is also Oblivion With Guns.
The Fallout series had its start back in 1997. Game wizards Black Isle developed the title, as well as its later sequel Fallout 2, for publisher Interplay. Heavily influenced by classic DOS title Wasteland, the plot involved people living in the aftermath of a massive global nuclear war which almost destroyed humanity. The player, known as the "Vault Dweller", was among a select group of people who had been living in underground protective vaults since the apocalypse. Your vault, number 13 (a number which hints at the dark humor of the series), has run into an emergency when the computer chip controlling the water purification system needs replacement. Armed with a weak pistol, an even weaker knife, and dressed in a spiffy blue jumpsuit, you are dumped unceremoniously into the bitter wasteland to save your people. In the process, you find out that there is something much worse than a water purification crisis facing the world. So the legend of the vault dweller began. And from the quirky 50's/futuretech stylings of the world to the visceral combat, gamers loved it.
As classic as the first Fallout games were, the combination of key staff members going elsewhere and a lack of success with spin-off games made it so that fans of the series eventually saw a third game as unlikely. So it was that the news that Bethesda Softworks had acquired rights to the IP sent an electric shock through the gaming world. Strong opinions abounded, as they still do, about whether or not it was a good thing that a company known for a very different style of RPG would do justice to a series which was so iconic.
Fallout 3 is, if nothing else, a loving homage to its predecessors. From the Pip Boy character to the use of the Inkspots for the opening music, there is a great deal of classic series nostalgia here. There is no doubt that this is meant to be a continuation in true spirit.
While the first two Fallout games took place in California, Fallout 3 takes place in the wasteland around Washington D.C., including southern Maryland and northern Virginia. The player character grows up as the son of a brilliant scientist in one of the underground protective vaults - Vault 101. It is in this environment that the player gets their first experience with the game, going through a few different stages of early life while working out their initial stats, looks, and such. Some parts, like the GOAT exam, are reminiscent of the old Ultima series where you would be asked a series of situational questions to determine what your character would be like. However, if this is not for you or if the test gives you results contrary to what you wanted, you can adjust things accordingly.
One of the most important aspects of the Fallout tradition is the "S.P.E.C.I.A.L." system for stats. In my earnest opinion, it is one of the finest roleplaying systems ever created. The system is based upon the primary statistics of Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. Each of these has possible scores from 1 to 10 and in turn effects a variety of derived statistics. Then there is a large set of skills, from combat related abilities to speech and bartering, which are influenced by the primary stats as well as points applied directly by the player. SPECIAL is essential to the full experience of Fallout. Bethesda knew this and reproduced it mostly intact. The few changes they did make I have to say I enjoyed. Having new perks - special bonuses or abilities - every level more than made up for the removal of the two starting traits from the first games.
All seems to be going reasonably well in the placid but slightly uneasy atmosphere of the vault until one day everything falls apart in a hurry. Suffice it to say that your father has left the vault and you need to go after him, starting the game in earnest and beginning the main quest line. And once you enter the outside world, you find that it is a place where even if you are skilled with words, some things have to be solved with a bullet (or a sledgehammer...or a missile...or a laser bolt....or a power fist.....etc)
The variety of weapons in Fallout 3 does not disappoint. You can choose from small guns (eg. sniper rifles, assault rifles, pistols), energy weapons (eg. laser rifles, plasma rifles), melee weapons (eg. sledgehammers, swords, baseball bats), big guns (eg. missile launchers, miniguns, a tactical nuclear bomb launcher), explosives (mines and grenades), and "unarmed" (which actually includes things like brass knuckles and power fists). Within each category there is a decent selection of options, each with different strengths and weaknesses. The assault rifle puts out a lot of bullets, but does not have very impressive critical strike performance. Meanwhile, the sniper rifle has a higher chance to cause a critical strike and packs a punch when it does. Different weapons have distinct situational uses as well as play style uses.
There are also schematics available to craft your own weapons from wasteland salvage. It is a nice way to use all that clutter which you are constantly wading through in the game. All I will say about the specific weapons is that firing the railroad rifle is very satisfying.
Combat itself is a mixture of real time and turn-based, as compared to the original turn-based style of Fallout 1 and 2. You can play entirely in real time if you wish and some weapons work much better this way - especially those with high rates of fire. However, aiming is not quite like a normal FPS where things go pretty much where you aim them. Rather, the RPG engine is underneath the action calculating your accuracy and effectiveness based on a variety of factors.
Along side the real time action, there is a turn based mode known as V.A.T.S.. Hitting the VATS button causes the action to pause. At this point, the player can choose to target various parts specific locations on one or more enemies with ranged weapons, depending on how many action points are available. Melee, unarmed, and grenades can also use VATS but they cannot target specific body locations. I found that this setup was gracefully instituted in general. It works very well for quick and accurate head shots or, when facing a powerful enemy, for tactical attacks on limbs. And shooting a grenade while it is still in the enemy's hand is always a great moment.
Combat in general is visceral and brutal in the game. Slow motion critical strike take-downs can be quite entertaining. In the tradition of the earlier titles, deaths can get gruesome, with blood and gore spilling out liberally over battlefield. Adding the infamous Bloody Mess perk just ramps up the carnage.
Using the same engine as Oblivion, the graphics in Fallout 3 to be technically excellent. The overall sense of devastation after a nuclear war is impressive and leaving the vault for the first time is one of the best moments of gaming, no doubt. The models and textures that are used are all very well done.
Character interaction was somewhat faithful to the earlier games. There are some genuinely fun characters in the game.
As far as quests, the side quests are really the shining point of Fallout 3. Most of the smaller quests and side quest lines are fun to play and some are quite memorable I think that I had the most fun with the character of Moira and the quirky missions she sends you on in order to complete research for a book. But that is just the beginning. Exploring the wastes, you find yourself rescuing mercenaries, retrieving historical documents, dealing with costumed crazies, and more.
While you are taking care of business, your exploits are announced to the world via one of the in game radio stations - Galaxy News Radio. In general, GNR serves as an extra soundtrack, providing a list of old big band and jazz classics, including the iconic "Maybe" by the Inkspots. During interludes between the music, DJ "Three Dog" will make news and public service announcements. Being able to hear about your adventures over the radio is one of the coolest ideas I have seen in gaming. Bethesda gets a big thumbs up for that one.
Thanks to the release of the modding utility, a robust modding community has now sprung up around Fallout 3. They have introduced a variety of possible changes, extensions, and fixes to the game which can significantly improve the experience. I highly recommend checking out what is available.
As I said, Fallout 3 is Oblivion With Guns in many ways.
To start out with, I have always found that in Bethesda games there is a strange sense of things being incomplete regarding how people react to your accomplishments. For instance, in Morrowind, I was head of the Fighter's Guild and yet when I needed to hire them to guard my new house, I still had to do quests for the Fighter's Guild.
In Fallout 3, I found myself disappointed that when I finally did return to the vault briefly, no one really noticed that I had come back as a seasoned wasteland warrior in a suit of *power armor*. I might as well have been walking in wearing my vault suit and carrying a baseball bat for a weapon.
Repetition is another major issue. Just like in Oblivion, while Fallout 3 is massive, the set of models and textures is just too small. After exploring for awhile, the continual sameness of many of the locations saps away some of the life of the experience. Variety is the spice of life. Bethesda needs to get a bigger spice rack.
Now I will stop here and say that I do realize one could say the same for Fallout and Fallout 2. Absolutely. But those games were made a long time ago and, furthermore, were not 3d first-person games. As soon as you go into that realm, any sameness becomes much more noticeable.
I would much rather have a smaller world with more interesting places to see.
For contrast, look at Bioshock. Yes, Bioshock is much smaller. However, every place had a very strong sense of reality to it and was distinct from the others. Exploration of the Bioshock game world was extremely rich because every location was fully unique.
Also the same are NPC's - both in models and vocalizations. There were a few big name actors who, naturally, provided good work to the game. However, most of the voice work for the minor characters in the game sounds as if Bethesda had something like five total voice actors available. Indeed, as far as I can tell, there is only one male and one female VA for ghouls period. And, unfortunately, the dialogue often sounds unnatural and stilted.
It became quickly tiresome to run into the same voices and models all the time. And, worse, it destroys immersion and makes it harder to take the characters seriously.
Additionally, while I loved GNR, the same small list of tracks plays over and over again until you start to become really tired of it. For an A-List title, I really find that problematic. And the fact that there is no built-in utility to have a custom playlist (as there is in the much lower tech Grand Theft Auto games) is a sever omission. However, the modding community has come to the rescue on this with custom playlist mods and even a wonderful library of classic music to extend the GNR library by as many as 100 songs. The latter mod is called More Where That Came From and it greatly enhances the game experience.
In general, I did not find the plot of the game to be as well put together as that of Fallout 1 and 2. There were some severe holes, especially in the ending (which thankfully was changed by the Broken Steel expansion), and it was too short. Further, some things in the game seemed too gimmicky, which also hurt the overall sense of narrative.
Finally, there are numerous bugs, including quest breaking ones. Things like character walking off of high ledges and falling to their deaths should not happen in an A-list title. Even with patches, things are still messy and that is unfortunate.
The Bottom Line
Fallout 3 is a very enjoyable and engaging action RPG with a classic post-apocalyptic setting. A must-play for Fallout fans. But it is not without its flaws.