Fallout 3 is the kind of game that creates stories and powers memories. I could sit down with fellow players and talk for hours about what happened in my last play session and about how their experiences were different from mine. About that time I took out a pack of Mirelurks with Plasma Mines, about that time I killed Arkansas, while he was making cars explode all around me, about that time I saw my first Deathclaw.
But the story that I will most probably remember the longest is about my character and Dogmeat traveling by night and stumbling on a Super Mutant Behemoth, maybe the most dangerous enemy you can encounter in the game. Most of them are in enclosed locations so that you can make a conscious choice whether you want to fight them or not (there's one of them you can take out with an artillery strike). This one was roaming in an area with a railroad junction that I needed to pass through on my way to Evergreen Mills, a well known raider hideout. The problem is that I didn't see him. I found out about the Behemoth only as he proceeded to kill Dogmeat. So, I spent two hours devising and implementing strategies designed to kill the enemy, while getting Dogmeat out of the encounter alive. I needed a lot of Buffout, Med-X, Psycho, Jet and a very lucky shot with the Laser Pistol. And I constantly talked to the pooch, while fighting the Behemoth.
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|V.A.T.S. ||Blood and rusty dishes |
Fallout 3 has a lot of strong points. Post apocalypse downtown Washington DC and the surrounding area look great, the open world concept works perfectly, with a lot of locations and breathtaking landscapes, combat in VATS and in real time is satisfying. As long as you do not jump right into the main quest and as long as you venture around a bit looking for things to do, you're sure to get more than 50 hours of gameplay in just the first go. And the variety of possible paths, SPECIAL skills, perks and loadouts allows for re-playability. The big letdown is that the main storyline is somewhat short and has a final third on rails, ending up in a final decision, which does not do justice to the rest of the game. Writing seems to be one weakness Bethesda cannot overcome, even if there are some improvements over Oblivion.
If you played the first two Fallout games, you'll need to approach the Bethesda created Fallout 3 with an open mind. VATS will look like a poor replacement to turn based tactical battles. Well, you pretty much can't have those in first person view and the replacement system is good, if not perfect. Storytelling is the only thing Bethesda really can improve. It just seems like the final third of the game was rushed, with a release date coming up quickly and the developers having to wrap it all up in a big hurry. There are also some loose pieces of story which linger after you explore most of the game world (What are the Super Mutants looking for in DC?/Why did the Enclave come to Washington?/What are the disagreements between the robotic President and his Colonel Autumn? I have some answers but they don't come directly to the player in game).
Sometime in 2077, China and the United States of America launched nuclear missiles at each other. This was a result of a long fight in Alaska, which was triggered by the limited natural resources that both nations needed to secure. After nuclear war and after 200 years of post apocalyptic history, humanity is in a pretty bad shape. Those people who were exposed to radiation and did not die turned into Ghouls, some of them being pretty feral and vicious. Super Mutants have appeared as a result of the Forced Evolutionary Virus and they tend to kill humans on sight. There are Slavers, Raiders and other dubious types roaming the wasteland. Then, there are the Vault Dwellers, those who have not been irradiated because they lived the end of the world in Vaults, shielded from radiation and from the initial carnage. The player’s character comes out of the Vault 101 looking for his father. Gunfights, bartering, lying, exploration and moral choices ensue.
Bethesda manages to create a very good Fallout world. There are people pointing out inconsistencies, like lightbulbs still working, still usable food and negligible levels of radiation in most areas. Well, it pays to keep in mind that the entire Fallout series uses what might be called Science!, which is basically how the sci fi of the 1950's sees the future. A future where you have miniature nuclear engines for cars, computers are still on vacuum tubes and nuclear missiles are more or less not guided. If you look at all of Fallout 3 through this lens, then it makes a whole lot of sense and, most importantly, I managed to suspend disbelief through all of the 100+ hours I've put into the game until now.
The Capital Wasteland is populated by various factions. The people in small towns are trying to stay alive, the Brotherhood of Steel is interested in fighting the Super Mutants and getting access to advanced technology, the Enclave seeks the purity of the human race, the Ghouls want to stay out of sight, while the Super Mutants just want to kill people. The minor groups include the Brotherhood of Steel Outcasts, Reilly's Rangers and the Talon Company. Bear in mind that most of those have HQ's that you can visit or fight your way into.
Dad is a big shot scientist who, after guiding you through your childhood, disappears from the Vault, which allegedly never opened its doors to the outside. You decide you need to follow him in the outside world that eventually leads you to your destiny, one which involves shaping the history of the Capital Wasteland. If you want, go straight for the main quest and get it over with pretty quickly. And you will be disappointed. Because more than two thirds of the beauty of Fallout 3, as far as questing is concerned, is in the side quests and in the various random encounters. Even sprinting across the landscape to find new locations or to reach various places feels interesting, as you can find an abandoned shack or a group of Raiders.
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|Thermobaric? ||View from the front |
Amongst the side quests, a few stand out. The Wasteland Survival Guide is long and interesting because it takes you to various places, even thought the rewards sometime seem poor. The Family Ties quest and Those! also manage to offer a lot of choices, plus very good narrative threads, while incorporating dark humor much suited to the setting.
I can't stress how much I'd like Bethesda to release a massive patch expanding the end of the game. The final choice is poor and does not provide enough possibilities and the whole final third lacks depth and seems stitched together at the final moment. Still, as long as you explore the Wasteland and hit level 20 before you get to Vault 112, you should have plenty of fun with Fallout 3.
The biggest chance is going from third person and turn based to first person and real time. Well, partly real time, because Falpout 3 has VATS, the Vault Assisted Targeting System. The move to first person allows Bethesda to use the game engine to create truly beautiful vistas and complex areas, like all the buildings and the metro stations in downtown Washington DC.
VATS is a good system. Shooting and strafing in real time can also work, but for more powerful enemies and for quick kills, you need to use VATS. It realistically models chances to hit certain body parts, taking into account movement and cover, but it can get repetitive killing a Super Mutant with a head shot and watching his limbs part from his body. The reality is that after a few hours of gameplay, VATS becomes second nature and I started not noticing it, be it in a good or a bad way.
One of the letdowns regarding gameplay is the dialog. You talk a lot in Fallout 3, with traders, quest givers, and companions, even to some of the bad guys. Various states, either from SPECIAL or from the traits you boost affect options and the outcome of each encounter can be influenced. The disappointment is related to the fact that the dialog interface feels outdated. You choose lines and then the character you talk to responds. You exhaust all options and then you go to the previous level of the tree. You can't exit a conversation without saying “Good bye!” which gets real old really fast. I wish that a more evolved system, a la Fahrenheit or Mass Effect, would have attracted the attention of Bethesda. It doesn't help that some of the character voices feel forced.
Visuals and audio
Just look at the screenshots. I don't have the most powerful system but getting somewhere high and looking at the landscape is one of the joys of Fallout 3 early on. Urban destruction is nicely done, even though some portions of the city are artificially separated. I would have preferred radiation filled areas to rubble. The scenery is brown, especially in the underground sections, but it's all justified, given the decay and the nuclear exchange which preceded it. There's a bit of art that gets recycled but exploring the Satellite Arrays, the National Archives, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House or the various towns evokes a world which got hammered and is now trying to rebuild using scrap metal and a lot of wood. The unique locations, like Rivet City or the Satellite Arrays, manage to convey a sense of what the place is by way of images and audio logs, creating back-story without the need for characters to talk about them.
Throughout the game, you get to listen to a variety of audio. The various tapes you find give quests or offer a bit of background and are generally well done. The Enclave and the GNR radio stations are very well developed. The former offers propaganda in something that feels like casual talks, while the latter chronicles your adventures in the Capital Wasteland and gives various background information. There are also radio signals you can pick up if you switch relay stations on and there's an alien signal you should really watch out for. The GNR music soundtrack might be a bit limited, but the tunes are very catchy and you'll be humming them after a few hours. Agatha's violin playing is just beautiful.
Fallout 3 has flaws. There are weak storytelling, unconvincing voice acting, a short main quest and stiff character models. The companion mechanic is limited (nobody seems to be interested in the fact that a Brotherhood of Steel Paladin is watching my back) and the level 20 cap for experience means that you can be very powerful if you explore side quests and hoard XP (at level 20, choose the Traveler perk and go exploring; this map might also help). The game could also have used a Survival difficulty setting (I played on Hard, some portion on Very Hard), which made munitions more scarce and limited the amount of Stimpacks and other light items you could carry. There were moments when I was powerful enough to seem a bit disconnected from the world.
But the scope of the game and the successful implementation of a first person view and VATS make up for that. Bethesda has managed to deliver a true Fallout experience, with moral choices, consequences and multiple ways of doing things. Add cool gun play and a lot of space to explore and you get a possible Game of the Year. It could be the best game I have played since Baldur's Gate 2. And that means a lot.