Fallout Shack: New World Blues
At the end of 2003, development of Van Buren (the original Fallout 3) ceased and the Fallout series was apparently dead in the wastes. This was hugely disappointing for fans of Interplay’s Fallout games who’d been eagerly anticipating the next instalment of the post-nuclear franchise. Skip forward to 2008 when Bethesda’s Fallout 3 utterly reinvigorated the series, scooping several game of the year awards in the process. However, many Fallout advocates turned on Fallout 3, claiming it didn’t live up to the originals, that it hadn’t captured their unique essence. But, really, how could it? The original games and the new generation, despite being distant parts of the same series, cannot be effectively compared due to a number of mechanics that separate them.
The way the games are experienced by the player is fundamentally different. In the original games, if you move the cursor over the wasteland and its denizens or engage in combat, deftly written descriptions of the terrain and action appear in your HUD. Due to the games’ isometric engine, you’re only privy to a part of the world – the unseen details are read as text and then converted into images in your mind’s eye. This makes the experiences of playing through the original games distinctive to every player who engages with them – no two imaginations are identical.
Besides this uniquely personal experience, you can see around your character in a wide radius so you’re rarely surprised (except for occasional traps and explosions). In contrast to this, in Fallout 3 everything is revealed onscreen explicitly via first or third-person perspective – you’re not required to imagine anything that affects you directly as you see everything that happens. Although you’re prone to surprises through the first-person perspective and may employ different combat tactics, you essentially see the world in the same manner as everyone else.
To be both fair and realistic to Bethesda, there was no way they would’ve released Fallout 3 as an isometric, RPG akin to the original games. Although this would’ve likely pleased the hardcore, putting out such a potentially alienating title would not have been a viable option, especially given the technical advances made in the industry and particularly that of the developer’s benchmark-setting Oblivion. Interplay’s games were borne out of old school, pen and paper RPGs and Fallout was intended as Brian Fargo’s original sequel to his 1988 RPG title, Wasteland. Whilst Bethesda had the original games to draw upon, besides their own vast experience with the Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3 is more a sci-fi successor to Oblivion than the original games, and this is completely fine. They had no choice but to take the series in their own direction. Bethesda was tasked with completely rebooting the franchise, pleasing existing fans and creating legions of new ones by delivering an extraordinary game; an immense feat which they delivered on by many accounts.
Interplay’s Fallout games are ingeniously written, with engaging narratives, colourful dialogue and many moments of darkly comic genius topped off with countless references to TV shows, films, comics and novels. Fallout 3 had a completely different writing team. It’s an obvious point to make, but the writing in Interplay’s Fallout games is excellent because its writers were excellent. That’s not something that can be easily aped and nor should it. The writing standard in the original games couldn’t have been recreated, or its essence even properly captured in Fallout 3 unless Bethesda used the same personnel who created it in the first place.
Some accusations were levelled at Fallout 3 that called it unrealistic. Calling a game set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by super mutants, ghouls and robots unrealistic is like remarking the sun is a tad bright as your retinas fizzle inside your eye-sockets. Suspension of disbelief is important to the enjoyment of many entertainment mediums and if you’re looking for things to complain about in order to satisfy a pre-determined desire to dislike something, you’ll find them in abundance. If Bethesda had created a genuine post-apocalypse simulator it would’ve probably played like this:
Day 1: Massive radiation poisoning. Writhe around in agony.
Day 2: Try to find anti-radiation pills but no such thing invented. Get dysentery.
Day 3: Expire in a pool of bloody vomit, veiny diarrhoea and clumps of hair. Ron Perlman says something about a ‘pathetic, bubbling mass of blubber’.
Although the original games contained means for exploration through a large total number of locations, they weren’t open world sandbox games. Exploring Fallout 3’s massive map at your own pace and at your own volition is a great and rewarding experience. I’ve seen players retrospectively dismiss it as a ‘brownish/grey wasteland of nothingness’, but that’s far from the truth – besides the ravaged wasteland landscapes (that would unlikely be a joy-joy rainbowland), it’s home to a multitude of architecture, an expertly realised Washington, D.C. and a sprawling subway system brimming with claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s not a suitable comparison to compare games with less than 20 locations each to one with over 160 (not including DLC) – again, they’re experienced completely differently.
Fallout 3 successfully retained many ideas from the original games: the Googie style architecture, vast arsenal, Vault Boy, Pip-Boy, creatures and the wasteland to name just a few. Mark Morgan’s atmospheric soundtrack was certainly missed and it’s a shame its writing wasn’t better but these aren’t things that render a game unplayable. Fallout 3 has a wealth of enjoyment to experience and well over a hundred hours of gameplay before you even consider its DLC.
If I want to have a similar gaming experience to the old Fallout games, I’ll play them, as they can’t be improved upon. Interestingly, the upcoming Wasteland 2 (with Chris Avellone involved) seems poised to continue the linearity of Interplay’s Fallouts whilst Bethesda’s inevitable Fallout 4 will surely seek to improve on the distinct quality of New Vegas. As a Fallout fan, I’m pretty damn appreciative of all the Fallout currently at my disposal and I can’t help but feel Bethesda’s revival of the series should be lauded rather than decried.