Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Available for Xbox 360 (reviewed here), Playstation 3 & PC
Developed & Published by Bethesda Softworks
Oblivion with rocket launchers.
That’s been the substance of many of the reviews I’ve read for Fallout 3, Bethesda’s follow-up to the much-hailed RPG epic Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. It’s not incorrect, but there’s a dismissive tone to it that does a great disservice to this game.
Yes, it’s similar to Oblivion, and likely sports a tuned-up version of the same engine.
Yes, it’s an RPG, but has rocket launchers and grenades instead of swords and sorcery.
Beyond that, however, the differences grow quickly, and Fallout 3 is an achievement far beyond the glory to be found in Oblivion.
To kick this off, let’s get one thing clear: this is a sequel, but isn’t really the third game in a series. You don’t need to know a thing about the first two titles to completely enjoy this game. While the first two games were set on the west coast and Chicago, respectively, the setting this time is Bethesda’s own Washington, DC area. 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse, it’s become the Capitol Wasteland, a devastated area of radioactive mutants, cannibalistic raiders, and paramilitary groups fighting for control and survival while simple folk try to stay alive and make some kind of life for themselves out of the ashes of America’s capitol.
You see, this is not our future. This is a history where development following WWII didn’t slow down, and by the early 21st century we had nuclear powered cars, robot servants…and a rampant touch-and-go war with the Red Chinese. All of it has distinctly late 40’s / early 50’s flair, even though the game is set in 2277, 200 years after the war and well into the future. This affects every aspect of the game, down to the design of the UI. Bethesda also licensed many fantastic songs from the era featuring people like Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter to set the mood.
You play the son of a great scientist who has left the vault you’ve both lived in since birth, sealed for 200 years since the bombs dropped. In the wake of his exit, you’re thrust out to follow him and find out the truth of why he left and, in the end, who you really are.
The gameplay is tight, fun, and incredibly customizable. Even more than in Oblivion, you can completely customize how you like to play the game. You can carry quite a bit more than you could in Oblivion, which means you can easily have four primary ranged weapons, a couple of melee weapons, and grenades all set to different points on the d-pad. With a wide variety of weapons and associated skills, there have to be thousands of different combat strategies that are all viable as long as you play your cards right.
Combat utilizes V.A.T.S., a unique combat system that allows you to stop time and target your attack, even stacking multiple attacks on different targets before starting time and watching them play out. The best description I can give is shoving a Final Fantasy-style combat “timer” into a first-person shooter. It sounds awkward, but it’s as elegant as surgery. This hearkens back to the series’ turn-based roots very well without derailing the first-person combat. Also, it is entirely possible to never activate V.A.T.S. and just fight your way through as you did in Oblivion. You’d be a fool to do so, but you’re given the option.
The combat is fantastic, sure, but the glory of this game is in how it chooses to tell its story.
In a discussion on our forums, we hit on a very key point to recognizing the genius displayed by Fallout 3. Most games with moral decisions give you a pretty clear nudge on which way to go. You have to choose to be evil. The goal is to save the world, restore the empire, rescue the princess, etc.
Here, due to the nature of the world, nothing is easy. There is no black and white. Everyone is a shade of gray when they want to survive, profit, or dominate. Taking the high moral road is tough. Very tough. For most of the game, you’re pretty much the only one taking that road. Nothing comes for free, and going hungry is a literal threat when you have to pay to get healed if you can’t find food or water that isn’t contaminated with radiation. Walking away from a traveling trader without enough meds and ammo to get by when all it would take is a bullet to the back of his head to walk away with everything you need is harder than you would think.
This all matters because of a karma system: Do bad things, get bad karma; Do good things, get good karma. That, by itself, doesn’t mean much. The ability to have neutral karma makes a real difference. Unlike most games, there are separate rewards, companions, achievements, and endings for neutral characters. In short: there are rewards for being the good guy, but you don’t have to be a perfect angel, and it’s very easy to play a rather sociopathic character and still get similar perks to the heroes out there looking for the cape and tights.
Having these options freed the developers from many of the usual conventions. Not only is the “right thing” an obvious choice, you are absolutely allowed to make mistakes. Those mistakes often don’t just have karmic retribution, but consequences to the story and your emotions.
I hit that at one point when I had the option of siding with one faction or the other in a dispute. I wanted to mediate and bring peace, as I was playing the “good guy” for my first run through. I had achieved this with one side, then went to tell the other. Problem is, the path I chose to take to reach them was the path they had asked me to open so they could assault and take their foes by force. I messed up, pure and simple. I forgot that part of the plan, and thought I just had a shortcut.
The massacre was horrible. The original stated plan to drive out the opposing side turned into a bloodbath. I tried to fight them off, and failed. I left, losing a few side quests, a couple of vendors I needed, and carrying an actual sense of guilt. I made a mistake and about a dozen people were slaughtered. The “right” answer wasn’t handed to me, and I just blew it.
This game is rife with responsibility; you have a lot on your shoulders. Any game with the option to enter a dangerous abandoned vault to find a violin for an old woman who can’t repay you that also offers the option to infiltrate an underground city entirely populated with children and turn them over to slavers is clearly above and beyond the average moral choices offered in interactive entertainment. The kicker? You can do both in the same play through. It’s your choice whether you feel good or bad about it. The game doesn’t go out of its way to send you on a guilt trip or on a glory road, the decisions are yours and so are the consequences.
One more thing: Is this a horror game? Sure. There’s a lot of horror here, from well-timed scares in dark vaults and subway tunnels to an amazing amount of grue. Choose the “Bloody Mess” perk and focus on heavy weapons and you’re in for more blood than an Eli Roth film. Giant monsters, cannibal rednecks, zombie-like ghouls, there’s a ton of fun here for any horror fan.
I wish I could end this by saying it’s a slam-dunk five knife masterpiece. Not quite.
There are, at the time of this writing, some major bugs. I’m one of those nit picky guys who expects his console games to be free of game-breaking bugs. I ran into a nasty one involving one of the main side quests that broke the quest entirely. That’s not quite a showstopper, but a brief perusal of the Net found that several sections of the main quest have similar bugs where actions done outside of a specific order can leave you stuck with a permanently dead main storyline. Add reports of corrupted save games and other technical quirks and you start to see a picture of a very ambitious title that could have used another quarter of QA time.
This isn’t enough to avoid a recommendation, but it’s enough to cost them half a knife. If Oblivion is any indication, look for them to fix the majority of the defects for the PC version, while console players may have to rely on Internet searches if they run into one of the nastier quest-breaking issues like I did. Save often, kids, save often and in different slots.
There’s a lot to love in Fallout 3 for any gamer. It raises the bar for anyone attempting to make a role-playing game, a first-person shooter, or a survival horror title. Yes, it’s that impressive. Besides, what’s not to love about a game that has Malcolm McDowell as the president of the United States?
If you play any of the above genres, buy this game. If you don’t, buy it anyway. Just prepare to lose a lot of time out in the Capitol Wastes, listening to Ella singing on the radio about how much rain is falling in her life between Three-Dog’s news updates detailing your latest exploits. Get used to contaminated water, robotic butlers, and Nuka-Cola. Fallout 3 is the kind of game that you get lost in, and that’s the best kind of game there is.
4 1/2 out of 5
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