Oh, Bethesda. It must be hard knowing that every day, once the high review scores come rolling in and the sales go through the roof, thousands of angry fans discuss how you’ve butchered The Elder Scrolls. The relationship between developer, critic, and fan is a surprisingly tenuous one when it comes to video games with rich histories – as critics, we tend to focus on the technical aspects of the game. Fans, on the other hand, are usually looking forward to the game as an emotional experience: what does this add to the backstory? They got all the names right, surely? Is the timeline intact? It’s a fickle line for me to walk, as both critic and player.
The Elder Scrolls diehards are picky, but when Bethesda acquired the license for Fallout, you could cut the air with a butter knife. In some cases, this was entirely justified – Fallout has been a sort of holy grail for many PC gamers, and Oblivion, while well received by the press, had ruffled many feathers with its streamlined approach to role-playing. Would Fallout 3 suffer the same fate? Would the world be populated with NPCs that shared all but four voices? Would the entire point of leveling up be ruined by having the entire world level with you? More to the point, what would become of the dark, cynical humor Fallout was famous for? Thankfully, Bethesda has avoided many pitfalls with their latest RPG. But is it Fallout?
The game begins with a fairly clever character creation sequence. Literally. You design your character and are then born and given a name, the soothing voice of your father welcoming you into the world. Not only is he voiced by Liam Neeson, but his actual character changes depending on how yours is designed, so he truly fits the role of father. It’s a nice touch, and the first of many in the opening sequence. The classic S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute system is edited as a baby by looking through a picture book, and your starting stats are assigned after taking an aptitude test as a teen. It’s far more involving than most RPGs, although it does drag on for a bit. Players will probably be relieved by the time they exit Vault 101 to chase after their dad and discover the truth behind their past. However, aside from this initial motivation, the game doesn’t pull you in any specific direction. The nuclear wasteland of Washington, D.C. is open to explore from top to bottom. This nonlinear progression is far more engaging than Oblivion because the Capitol Wasteland is far more dangerous than Cyrrodil. Ruthless enemies, sparse healing items, and deteriorating equipment provide motivation to explore and designate safe areas to sleep and trade.
The Wasteland is rarely safe, though. One of the main cities in the game is built around an unexploded nuclear bomb, and another is conveniently located right next to a Super Mutant fortress, where seven-foot-tall man beasts patrol with miniguns and baseball bats. In between, there are dozens of smaller areas to explore – some populated, others deserted – and most, if not all, places tie into a quest later on in the game. Everything has a sense of place and purpose, and thankfully, everything is far more interesting than a random cave or dungeon.
However, this detail comes at a price; the game isn’t as huge as it would appear upon first glance, and your hand is held a little too tightly when exploring. The HUD’s compass displays markers where undiscovered landmarks are, so clearing out the map is far too easy. Fast travel also makes it possible to skip most journeys, allowing players to return to any location they’ve been to in the blink of an eye. It kills the atmosphere, sure, but at least it’s entirely optional. In any case, Fallout 3‘s destroyed landscape is dangerous, haunting, and well designed – the first view of the ruined Capitol Rotunda upon leaving the Vault is breathtaking.
But what does one do in this ruined world, exactly? Fallout was praised, back in the day, for its nonlinear progression and character building. For the most part, the spirit is intact – quests can be completed in any order, there are multiple endings for each, and your character is entirely customizable, both their appearance and their technique. A wide range of weapons are available – points can be assigned to skill in melee and various sorts of gunnery each time a character levels up, as well as skills like speech and intelligence, which open up options in quests and such.
It’s a fairly deep leveling scheme, granting far more freedom than Oblivion did, because points can be assigned at will and are not based on what you fight with. For all Fallout cares, you can level up your Big Guns proficiency by beating on people with clubs. Perks have also returned, albeit in smaller numbers than previous Fallout games. These traits are chosen one at a time after each level, and range from the useful – plus 3 skill points each level? Sign me up! – to the humorous – Bloody Mess, for example, gives players a chance to make enemies explode into clouds of gore no matter what they killed them with. Oh, Fallout, you do jest.
Combat is offered in two flavors. Fallout is played primarily from a first-person perspective, and fights play out much like they would in any other shooter. This is a little off-putting at first – after all, the classic games were entirely turn-based. However, fighting in this mode still takes RPG mechanics into account – hit percentages will still count as they would in a turn based system. This actually makes playing in real-time more frustrating, because it’s entirely possible that your perfectly-aligned headshot will miss by a mile due to a 45% distance percentage handicap.
Luckily, there’s the V.A.T.S. combat assistant, a bizarre mode that resembles the old Fallout battle screen – specific limbs can be targeted (and the hit percentages are shown, making near misses a little easier to swallow). The game pauses, you line up your shots, and then a slick cutscene plays, showing how the encounter goes down. It’s unique, and it looks great. However, it just goes to show that Fallout 3 is really neither here nor there with combat. Is it real time or turn based? It’s both and neither at the same time, and in some ways, it’s frustrating that the developer didn’t choose one way to go with it. V.A.T.S. looks great and all, but in some cases it just feels like a win button. Can’t aim at that tricky Raider? V.A.T.S. that asshole, then. If you’re close enough, a string of hits is pretty much guaranteed. At least V.A.T.S. relies on Action Points, so it isn’t infinite – players will have to wait in between barrages for the ability to recharge.
So we’ve made the jump into the third dimension. The role-playing is there, the combat is… sort of there, and the setting is still as depressing and barren as ever. But is it Fallout? That’s a toughie. The Brotherhood of Steel and The Enclave are still duking it out, drugs are still all over The Wasteland, and there’s enough 50′s iconography for an episode of Leave It To Beaver. However, the mood of the game has definitely changed. While the first two games were littered with black humor and pop culture references, Fallout 3 feels a little more solemn. As far as atmosphere goes, it’s closer to Bioshock than say, The Road Warrior and its gung-ho attitude towards the apocalypse.
Still, the humor is there – listening to the radio’s selection of peppy American classics is a gut-wrenchingly bleak contrast to the world surrounding the player, and some of the dialogue options are downright comedic, and there are a few quests here and there that lighten the mood a tad. The series has definitely settled down a little bit, though; in some places, it’s downright depressing. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is undeniably different. Ironic 1950′s imagery aside, Fallout 3 is, for the most part, a somber ride.
The look of the game, however, is spot on. Painted in hard greens and soft browns, it’s hardly eye-candy, but considering the country has been scorched by nuclear war, the barren palette is appropriate. Fallout 3 uses the same engine as Oblivion, and it shows. However, the visuals are much improved: the draw distance is far more impressive, and faces are no longer buck fugly and rigid. Unfortunately, the animation is as basic as ever – conversation still consists of a perfectly rigid body topped with a flapping jaw, so no matter how dramatic a monologue a character is delivering, nobody really seems into what they’re saying. At the very least, though, everybody is well designed. Clothing and armor options are often quite stylish – sure, the world has come to a halt and you’re going to be forced to make some difficult choices, but dammit, you’ll look classy doing it!
As a game, Fallout 3 is a success. Bethesda has improved on the Oblivion formula and has, for the most part, reworked the engine in a way that suits the Fallout name. However, there are a few things that will annoy diehards. The combat tends to throw character traits out the window or play the game for you, and the atmosphere has definitely taken a turn for the heavier, rather than the sarcastic and self-referential humor of the other games. Still, a happy medium seems to have been struck. Fallout 3 is a big game that is worth sinking your teeth into, even if you have to close your eyes and hum every time you’re reminded it’s called Fallout.