It’s hard – but all too easy – to imagine: a nuclear Judgment Day. We’ve narrowly avoided it under the watchful eyes of skilled leaders in the past, but it’s a frightening possibility that we must recognize and strive to prevent in the years and decades to come. But what if we couldn’t?
To experience a post-apocalyptic United States firsthand, look no further than Fallout 3. As the studio behind the brilliant Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda Softworks had extremely high expectations to meet for the first main entry in the Fallout canon in the last 10 years. Those expectations haven’t been met – they’ve been surpassed.
The global atomic war of 2077 transformed Washington D.C. into a smoldering, desolate wasteland literally called The Capital Wasteland. Most organized government was eradicated, and people were left to fend for themselves. A few lucky individuals took residence in Vault 101, the “Jewel of the Wastes.” Vault 101 offered what the outside world did not: sanitation, structure, and safety. The budding Vault society centered around one mentality – nobody enters, nobody leaves.
The game begins the moment you take your first breath, and, in about an hour, walks you through the first 19 years of your wonderful little life in Vault 101. Your mother dies immediately after childbirth, thus your father is your sole guardian. Played by the talented Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Batman Begins), your father is kind, wise, and loving. That is, until he leaves you. Out of the blue, he abandons the Vault, and it’s up to you to escape and track him down.
Bethesda cleverly introduces many of the game’s core mechanics during the upbringing period, though everything is a bit overwhelming when you first leave the Vault. That, though, is clearly intended. Picture leaving your home for the first time, and discovering that there’s a vast world outside. That’s essentially how leaving the Vault feels, though The Capital Wasteland is likely a tad more radioactive than your backyard.
Still, you come to grips with the game’s intricate workings in a reasonable amount of time. The first item you’ll need to understand is the fashionable Pip-Boy 3000. Fastened to your arm, this little piece of machinery has some enormous applications. It acts as an items menu, data display, map and much, much more. It’s an excellent way to handle the majority of the game’s required management (with the exception of game saves), and as it’s a piece of your character, it doesn’t draw you out of the Fallout world. My only qualm with the Pip-Boy is its default, tough-on-the-eyes green color, but that can easily be remedied in the options menu.
So you can interact with a gadget on your arm. Sure, it’s neat, but what about more personal interactions? These are present in full force, second only to the dynamic dialogue of Mass Effect. The branching conversations you have with other people are expertly executed. Ranging from grunts and colloquial remarks to expertly crafted monologues, the writing is always spot on. The voice acting, like that of Oblivion, is excellent, and unlike Oblivion there are few lip-syncing issues. It’s a bit ironic that in a world so dead, the inhabitants seem so alive.
But what’s most impressive about the dialogue is the sense of gravity each conversation carries. Every time you make a remark, it has consequences one way or another. Your karma will fluctuate as you talk to people and perform actions, ultimately determining whether you are good, evil, or neutral. Each path has pros and cons; there is no “right” choice. Most players will find that morality isn’t a clear-cut choice either. While I had no trouble thoroughly pillaging a gang hideout (even though it lowered my karma), the same couldn’t be said of stealing from the residences in the impoverished Megaton (which, indeed, I chose not to blow up). When I once stole a measly clipboard with an errant press of the X button, I actually felt guilty and ashamed. That proves testament to the game’s immersion factor.
You’ll get so wrapped in the game’s world that you’ll often forget that there’s a story to complete. Even though it shifts and twists in accordance with your decisions throughout the game, there’s a definitive beginning and end that everyone who plays Fallout 3 experiences. Still, you’ll undoubtedly need to revisit the world of Fallout once or even twice if you hope to see all it has to offer. The dozen or so side-quests – which stand alone as strong but relevant narratives – last a few hours each, and even more mini-side-quests can distract you from the side-quests that are already distracting you from the main story. It’s all very complicated, but completely organic. Just be prepared to commit some serious time – level 20 doesn’t reach itself.
Not all that time is spent talking, as entertaining as the conversations are – there’s plenty of shooting foes in the head as well. Action plays out in both real time and Bethesda’s unique take on turn based combat. If you played Oblivion, the real time combat functions pretty similarly – replace swords with lead pipes, and bow and arrows with guns, and you’ve just about knocked the nail on the head. The real time gunplay favors aim and strategic shots over the constant strafing and cover mechanics of modern shooters.
Then there’s V.A.T.S., or Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. Every time you use V.A.T.S., the on-screen action pauses and you’re transitioned into an altered view of the battlefield. Specific enemy body parts are highlighted, with a percentage on each one denominating chance of success of any given attack. Your AP, or Action Points, determine how many shots (or attacks if wielding a melee weapon) you can unleash in one bout of V.A.T.S. Select your targets and number of hits, and unleash your attack in glorious slow motion. Once you get the hang of it, V.A.T.S. becomes an instinctive mechanic that supplements – but never replaces – real time fighting. This combination of elements ultimately forms the best combat of any Action RPG to date.
So, the action is accounted for. What about the role-playing piece? Here’s where Fallout 3 deviates from Oblivion. In Oblivion, attributes were increased by performance of specific skills. For example, sneaking skill was increased by the act of pick-pocketing. Bethesda wisely reverted to a more standard system for Fallout 3. You gain experience by defeating foes, charting locations, finishing quests, picking locks and hacking terminals. It’s a tried and true system that works well here. Upon leveling up, you can upgrade one of your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes (strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, luck), one of your perks (think Call of Duty), and various other skills. Due to the level 20 cap, you can never have a fully maxed-out character, so you’ll have to start from scratch if you want to take a different character development route later in the game. While this is a bit frustrating once you’ve reached level 20 as it removes some of the incentive to fight, it also keeps the game at least somewhat challenging throughout.
Even without the allure of experience, you’ll still want to explore every nook and cranny of the vast world on offer. The Capital Wasteland is a massive place, yet contains the smallest of details. Bethesda absolutely nailed post-nuclear war feel. It’s all beautifully depressing.
Unfortunately, where Bethesda succeeds in style, they fail technically. Fallout 3 is by no means a poor-looking game, but it is a sub-par port, sporting some framerate issues, texture pop-in, and significant jagged edges not seen on other platforms. Additionally, the game screen blurs and locks up for a few seconds whenever you receive a notification (like when a friend logs in or out). The only other game I can recall that did the same thing was Tony Hawk’s Project 8, and that was a launch title. This is simply inexcusable.
Further issues within the title are present on all platforms. There are two camera angles in the game, but the third person view is a joke. Your character’s animation is simply horrid. Locking the player into a first person perspective might not have been a bad idea. Poor animation doesn’t only apply to your character though; NPCs also move incredibly robotically. Then there are the bugs. It’s hard, especially for a game this scope, to catch everything during the quality assurance process, but the amount of bugs that plague the title is rather unnerving. Keep two manual save games at all times, simply because anything can happen. At least the majority of these technical issues mentioned could – and probably will – be fixed with a patch.
Overall, Fallout 3 is an outstanding title that sets a new standard for action role-playing games. Its flaws are purely technical. If you liked Oblivion, you’ll love Fallout 3. If you didn’t like Oblivion, you’ll still love Fallout 3. It combines everything awesome about action and role-playing, tells a dynamic story, and sprinkles in a dash of amazing atmosphere on top. Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece is the best RPG you’ll play all year.