November 03, 2008
The Fallout franchise tells the tale of a parallel-universe, where history proceeded very differently in the aftermath of World War II. US culture remained stuck in the '50s, while technological evolution expanded much faster than in the world we know. Unfortunately, it all ends in tears in 2077, with China and the United States virtually nuking each other off the face of the earth. Bethesda runs with this premise in their first entry in the Fallout series, previously handled by Interplay. Fortunately for gamers, the franchise is in very capable hands.
Set in 2277, a full 200 years after the massive nuclear bombings, players will begin their adventure by literally being born into the world. Upon your birth, the doctors will be able to use a "genetic projection" device, which allows players to play around with the sex, race, and facial traits they'll have as adults. There's a lot of variety to be had in the character creation system, with a staggering amount of hairstyles and and facial hair styles to choose from. You're not limited to natural shades for hair color either, so feel free to go for the green hair you've secretly always wanted. Fallout 3's character creation system offers much more flexibility than Oblivion did; Bethesda's last open-world RPG. With your future-self established, you're whisked off for an abbreviated childhood, which serves as a tutorial as well as an opportunity to further specialize your character. The simple life as a citizen of Vault 101 can't last forever however. When your father leaves the vault for mysterious reasons, the vault Overseer becomes enraged, and you must escape the vault and begin your journey in the wastelands of Washington DC before falling victim to his wrath.
As you sojourn the wastelands of DC, it'll quickly become apparent that not everyone wants to play nice, and you'll be forced to fight raiders, mutants, and all likes of radiation-mutated wildlife. When the time to fight comes, conflict can be handled in two ways. First, there's real-time action, where players engage the enemy with their guns or melee weapons as one would in any FPS game. The other option is to use the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.), which freezes time and allows players to select a specific part of the enemy they want to shoot. It's possible to use V.A.T.S. to shoot and destroy an enemy weapon, cripple the arm that holds it to worsen their aim, cripple a leg to make them run slower, or just nail that all-important head shot. Once selections are made, the attack is made in a slow-mo cutscene, displaying the resulting carnage to maximum effect. While freezing time, aiming for a body part, and executing the attack may sound like a combat mechanic that would get boring quickly, it really doesn't; watching exploding heads never gets old.
Bethesda carefully designed the V.A.T.S. system so that players can't use it infinitely and cruise through the game with no actual challenge. Actions in the V.A.T.S. system consume ability points, and if all of those points have been spent, no further actions can be taken in V.A.T.S. until those points recharge. Thankfully, even if all ability points are gone, attacks can still be made in the real-time FPS style of combat. The two systems are well balanced so that use of both is essential to success. At close range, V.A.T.S. targeting is brutally efficient, and provides the best was to take out enemies while conserving ammunition. However, as the distance to the target increases, V.A.T.S. accuracy decreases precipitously, making FPS combat the more effective route to victory. Both modes of combat are quite a lot of fun, and finding the balance between them will be a different process for every player.
Leveling up in Fallout 3 takes the genre-standard approach of killing enemies or completing quests to earn experience points. At each new level, players have the opportunity to distribute skill points among any of the game's thirteen abilities as they see fit, as well as choose one special perk that grants further powers or skill enhancements. Perks are tiered, with a new tier of perks becoming available at every even-numbered level, with older perks always remaining available to be selected. Since there are far more perks available then can possibly be chosen over the course of the game, careful choice is critical when building an ideal character. This combination of skill and perk customization gives players a huge variety of ways to optimize a character, and thus play the game how they see fit. There's truly an approach for everyone; whether it be as a stealthy hacker, a silver-tongued diplomat, or a heavy weapon toting Marcus Fenix wanna-be; you'll find a way to progress through the game in a way that makes sense for you.
Quests on Fallout 3 provide structured objectives for players to pursue, and provide rewards in the form of experience points, karma points, items, schematics to create custom weapons, and more. While there seem to be far fewer quests in Fallout 3 than Oblivion, Bethesda has done a great job of making these quests longer and more involving than the simple "run this letter to that town because I'm too lazy" type quests which are too common in RPGs. There's some surprising variety to be had, including a few hilarious quests from Moira Brown of Megaton, who will ask you to intentionally give yourself radiation poisoning, amongst other things. Most quests will take at least one or two hours to complete, and finishing them off feels highly satisfying.
There's also plenty of content available outside of quests, to explore in a less-structured way. Fallout 3 provides a huge area to investigate, which is absolutely crammed with places to go explore. No game has ever made exploration this fun and exhilarating. It's easy to see for miles in the wasteland, and go anywhere for the sheer joy of exploration, or raid a building hoping to pull out some ammo, money, or critical supplies. Both quest-aholics and free roamers will find enough content stuffed in here to keep themselves entertained for dozens of hours.
Every action taken in Fallout 3 has consequences, which are represented by the karma system. Good deeds, like rescuing someone, or saving a town, net good karma, which makes NPCs kinder to you, and sometimes give you free items as thanks for your general awesomeness. Bad karma can be earned by stealing, murder of the innocent, and other criminal activities. It will make some people cower in fear from you, while others will try to kill you on sight. Karma travels with you everywhere, so don't think you can slaughter one town and be received with smiles and hugs in another. This is a vast improvement over Oblivion, where you could be a murdering member of the Dark Brotherhood and still be seen as an upstanding member of society to the Mage's Guild. It's nice to see that a player's moral decisions in Fallout 3 carry a great deal of weight.
Oblivion's conversation system remains mostly intact in this game, but comes with several improvements. First, the annoying "deception" mini-game of Oblivion is gone, replaced by a simple dialogue option tied to your speech skill, along with its chance of success. Other dialogue selections will occasionally appear based on a player's skills or perks. For example, one perk provides new dialogue options when conversing with the opposite sex, another when talking to children. While the conversation system isn't as innovative or immersive as Mass Effect's dialogue wheel, players will find on average plenty more dialogue options than Oblivion ever had, resulting in more varied conversations.
As fantastically well done as Fallout 3 is, it's not without a few problems. The big one is the inventory system, which could have been handled better. While it organizes items by general category (aid items, weapons, ammo, etc.), the items within each of those individual categories can only be organized alphabetically. An option to sort weapons by type (small guns, energy weapons, etc.) would have been nice, as would a sort option for items, so players could lump all their healing items together, or all radiation items together, etc. Instead, players must run through the alphabetical scroll to find an item, which is annoying if you have multiple items that can do the same thing.
The computer hacking mechanic has replaced Oblivion's deception mini-game as the most annoying ability to use. When hacking a computer, a series of possible passwords appear, and players have four attempts to get the correct password, or be permanently locked out of a computer. After each guess, players are shown how many of the letters of their guess were correct. This system essentially makes hacking a computer a tedious guessing game, which slows gameplay down to a crawl for the time it takes you to figure the answer out. While playing an RPG, the last thing we want are monotonous word puzzles.
Fallout 3's graphics are a case of Jekyll and Hyde. The wasteland features an incredible amount of stuff to look at, with beautifully desolate countryside and cities, all backed up by a draw distance that will allow you to see for miles. Interiors, however, can't impress to a similar extent, with dated textures looking too much like the original Condemned, and level designs that begin to feel repetitive after a while. Some areas are also too poorly lit, to the extent that even with the Pip-Boy's light on, it can be difficult to see. Character models are the greatest improvement the graphics have made over Oblivion, but the visuals still seem a bit dated.
The audio, however, couldn't be better. Voice acting is noticeably improved over Oblivion, due mostly to a much larger voice cast. With the huge number characters to speak to in Oblivion, it didn't take long before they all started sounding alike, but with Fallout 3's cast, this never happened. This voice cast includes a few notable actors, including Liam Neeson (Schindler's List, Batman Begins) and Malcolm McDowell (Star Trek: Generations, Heroes), who deliver excellent performances throughout the course of the game. The background music is subtle and in keeping with the game's mood, while the radio stations provide songs in keeping with the 1950s cultural atmosphere. Three Dog on Galaxy News Radio even provides announcements of your recently accomplished quest exploits, along with his own moral commentary.
At first glance, the achievement list for Fallout 3 doesn't look particularly impressive, with many coming simply for completing quests. However, keeping many achievements quest related was a great decision, since these quests take a fair amount of time, and completing them feels quite satisfying. However, I'm not a fan of the bobblehead achievements. Who wants to be worrying about collectibles in a huge, open-world game? The karma achievements also disappoint. I'm not a fan of morality achievements in general, because they force players to play the game a certain way in order to get the points, and thus undercut the very freedom of choice the game's all about. Thankfully, with careful manipulation of the save system, you can pick up all the karma achievements in a single playthrough. All 1000 points can be earned in one play, but don't expect them all to come quickly... Fallout 3 is a HUGE game.
Despite graphics that look dated in some respects, a boring hacking mechanic, and an imperfect inventory system, Fallout 3 is an absolutely spectacular game. The combat system is hugely entertaining, while the extremely customizable leveling system and wide variety of moral decisions to make, lend Fallout 3 a very high level of replayability. With so many places to visit in the wastelands of DC, open exploration has never been this much fun. Fallout 3 is so immersive, I've had periods of three or more hours pass without feeling like I'd played half that long. All together, Bethesda has provided gamers with another superior product, and one that makes a very strong case for a Game Of The Year award.
Fallout 3 provides exceptional voice acting, along with appropriately atmospheric music, and spot-on sound effects. I can't imagine the audio getting better than this.
Beautifully imagined wastelands and an impressive draw distance are marred by poor textures, making this game look more dated than it should. Some areas are also poorly lit and difficult to see in, even with the Pip-Boy's light on.
This game plays beautifully, with responsive, excellent controls. Only the lack of some additional sorting options for the inventory keep this from perfection.
The Fallout 3 world is fantastically well realized, and incredibly immersive. Sarcastic and dark humor works well in the dialogue options, and the overall theme of the game. You'll feel like you're living a unique life in the wastelands of DC.
Karma achievements force players to play in a certain way, and manipulating saves is the only way to get them all in one play. Collecting bobbleheads seems rather trite when you could be exploring and completing quests. The rest of the list is stellar.
Fallout 3 masterfully creates a parallel universe for players to explore and lose dozens of hours in. No other game of this console generation comes close to offering the amount of content, freedom of choice, and level of immersion that can be found here.