When I heard that Bethesda, the company behind the Elder Scrolls series, was going to be responsible for Fallout 3, I was more than a little skeptical. Now, I have nothing against Bethesda. I loved what I played of Daggerfall, I loved Morrowind, and I loved Oblivion. Their games have always had their fair share of quirks, but they never failed to suck me in. I played Morrowind for over two hundred hours before I put it down for good, and I played Oblivion for about a hundred and sixty. No other single player game can match that sort of longevity. But despite my love for the company, their decision to carry on the long-extinguished Fallout torch seemed like an odd one. The first two Fallout games are known for their unique atmosphere, great voice-acting, memorable characters, and interesting combat. The latter three traits are ones that Bethesda has never nailed down, and while the company showed they can make a memorable world with Morrowind, that was some time ago. Many long-time fans of the series Fallout also expressed these concerns. Would it simply be Oblivion with guns, or would the game stand on its own?
As it turns out, answering that rather black-and-white question is difficult, as the the game has numerous hits, but also a few misses. Fallout 3 literally begins at your birth; you hear a heartbeat, and you’re in a cold, bright world, your father proudly looking on. The first half-hour to hour of game-play is spent in a prolonged introduction and tutorial nestled in the strangely Orwellian Vault 101. This sequence covers your childhood, allows you to select your skills and stats, and introduces you to your Pipboy, a sort of PDA which is used to manage your health, stats, inventory, and quests. Though longer than I would have liked, this intro is incredibly well done, and it immediately dispels any notion that Fallout 3 is destined to be as poorly written or voiced acted as Bethesda’s previous efforts. In fact, the introduction sequence of this game is far better than what can be found in either of the previous Fallout games, both of which were inflicted with boring, and in the case of Fallout 2, annoyingly difficult tutorials. The introduction can also be significantly reduced if you make the correct choices, which means that you won’t be forced to waste a significant amount of time getting into the meat of the game when you start a new character.
Near the end of the intro, things predictably go wrong. Your dad leaves Vault 101, and the Overseer (essentially, the Vault’s dictator) is looking to extract revenge on you. With the help of your childhood friend, who also happens to be the Overseer’s daughter, you manage to escape. The escape itself isn’t tense or cinematic, but once you exit Vault 101, you’ll be greeted with one of the most awe-inspiring views to ever be seen in a video game. The DC Wasteland that stretches before you seems to extend forever, leaving little doubt that the world you’ve stepped into is one with endless possibility. Step down from your perch, however, and you’ll learn that the DC Wasteland is as dangerous as it is beautiful. Armed with only a few measly weapons, a handful of bullets, and no cash, you’re not well equipped for the wilderness. In this way, Fallout 3 is more reminiscent of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. than anything else. Ammo isn’t easy to come by. Your skills are low, so you’ll have a hard time hitting an enemy even when they are a few paces away. You have only a few items that allow you to recover health, and buying more isn’t an option, as you hardly have any cash to your name. As a result, the early levels of Fallout 3 are a difficult and challenging time. Venturing off to your first few quests is an adventure of its own, and if you run into any Super Mutants or other upper-tier enemies, you’ll probably have no choice but to run. There are moments of frustration to be found, but the result is a survivalist feel that sets the mood of the entire game. The DC Wasteland is no wishy-washy fantasy land, nor is it a testosterone-fueled playground for blood-thirsty beefcakes. It is a deadly serious territory, filled with survivors, mutants, and radiation.
The main quest continues a short ways from the exit of Vault 101, and during its course you’ll visit numerous locations strewn across the vast landscape. On the whole, it is merely an average campaign. The voice acting never ceases to be superb, and the characters you meet are relentlessly interesting, but it is also inflicted with a few flaws that Bethesda has always been plagued with and has yet to correct. The characters in Fallout 3 move like two-by-fours kept together by door hinges. Legs and arms swing stiffly whenever a character walks or runs, and the animations which occur during conversations between characters are so generic that I have to wonder if the company actually employs any animators, or if they simply purchase some kind of stock package from Acme Animations, Inc. This is less apparent when you converse with characters, but it becomes an annoying distraction when viewing other characters having a conversation. The scripted in-game events are even worse, marred not only by the poor animation but also but ridiculous pacing. About mid-way through the game you’ll find yourself watching a storyline event which results in several deaths. This event is obviously meant to be dramatic, and the writing and voice-acting is up to task. But the characters involved pause awkwardly before responding to each other, and their gestures towards each other are more appropriate for characters discussing the benefits of a higher-fiber diet than a life-or-death situation. There are many instances where these sorts of faults re-occur, and as a result the main campaign of Fallout 3 is the nightmare that die-hard Fallout fans were hoping it wouldn’t be.
But it be honest, it hardly matters. While the events which propel the main story of Fallout 3 are universally awkward, the backbone of great characters and good writing remains throughout. The main storyline may be only average, but the side-quests range from pretty good to quite stunning, and though there is some repetition in the indoors level design, it isn’t enough to be distracting. What this all means is that while Fallout 3 has an inferior story in comparison to the first two games, the actual setting is the best of any game in the franchise. In the the first two Fallout games, the story was essentially the reason you played the game. They were extremely linear, and though there were moral dilemmas, they were completely black and white and also quite linear. Side-quests often came across as chores, necessary only to level up or to gain access to a game-play feature that should have been there from the start. Fallout 3 is entirely different. This is a game you play to immerse yourself in a world. Exploring, meeting friends, making enemies; this is what the game is about. And at that it excels, offering location and characters that are superior to not only anything in the franchise, but also to almost every other role-playing game ever made.
Of course, there is one other key aspect to the game, one just as important as questing and exploring; combat. Early game-play videos of Fallout 3‘s combat were far from promising. Scratch that – they were criminally boring. This game uses the same engine as Oblivion, and there is a general clunkiness that remains. Worse, the accuracy of your weapons are partially effected by invisible skill checks, which causes you to miss shots you would have otherwise landed. But there is also the V.A.T.S. mechanic, which allows you to pause combat and target specific body parts. I was one of many who speculated that it would turn into a gimmick, included only to pay homage to the turn-based combat available in the earlier games. I was very, very wrong. The V.A.T.S. mechanic provides an island of relief in a game where combat is typically fast, savage, and hectic. Turning a corner to find a Super Mutant or two staring at you poses a serious threat, particularly if one of them is carrying something like a flamethrower or a sledgehammer. Faced with that sort of danger, its difficult to prevent yourself from firing blindly in hopes that the green giants die before they light you on fire or make burgers with your face. V.A.T.S. gives you the chance to calm down, assess the situation, and decide on a plan of action. If you’re outmatched, you can try to cripple their legs and run. If you’re afraid of the flamethrower an opponent has, you can try to knock it from his grip. The slow-motion execution of your actions never gets old for the very same reasons; if it weren’t for V.A.T.S, you might never get a moment to appreciate just how wonderfully gory this game can be.
It must be said that even when using V.A.T.S., a feature which is unlike anything in the Elder Scrolls game, there are numerous things about Fallout 3 which immediately tips you off to the fact that this is a game made by Bethesda, the brains behind Oblivion. You’ve probably figured this out, as I’ve referenced Oblivion nearly as often in this review as I have referenced the Fallout franchise. The similarities can be so intense that Fallout 3 sometimes feels more like a professionally constructed mod rather than an entirely new game. It is strange, then, that Fallout 3 also offers a more compelling and unique world than any other game in the Fallout franchise. This is the game’s paradox; it is both derivative and unique. Visualizing this paradox will be difficult for gamers who only remember Oblivion‘s generic fantasy world, but easier to deal with for those who can recall its predecessor, Morrowind, a game which featured one of the most interesting and unique fantasy settings ever created. If anything, Fallout 3 serves as return to form for Bethesda. Yes, Fallout 3 has a weak story, but it far exceeded my expectations by presenting a world more detailed than any other entry in the franchise. Fallout 3 presents the DC Wasteland as a tangible place, with landmarks, characters, and history, and in doing so the game represents a new direction for the franchise, one that relies less on linear storytelling and more on immersion, and while this re-imaging may be a bitter pill for old-school Fallout fanatics, those willing to let the series explore new horizons will come away satisfied. I hesitate to say, at this early stage, that this is actually a better game than either Fallout 1 or 2, but it very well may be; at the least, it is game-of-the-year material.