Review by Scout
Developer Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher Bethesda Softworks LLC
Released October 28, 2008
Available for Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
“Play Fallout 3 and you’ll not only be treated to what might turn out to be one of the best Bethesda games ever to come down the pike but you’ll also experience echoes of Deus Ex, Half Life 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Bioshock. In the end this game is a worthy successor to the Black Isle series and a respectable submission into the canon of post-apocalyptic gaming. What began on the crudely pixelated tiles of the admirable Wasteland, matured in the fantastic Fallouts, has emerged, changed, altered, yet authentically realized in Fallout 3.”
Bethesda Game Studios has developed some of the most successful RPGs in the gaming industry. The Elder Scrolls series, consisting of Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion came out over a period of nearly fifteen years and were set in scattered locations within a unified game world. If Bethesda can do anything, it’s create variations on a theme. When they announced that they had purchased the rights to the venerable Fallout series I knew that, regardless of how they handled the mechanics of the game, they would respect Fallout’s storied lore and build off that. What I didn’t expect was how well they would do it. After all, the prior release, Oblivion, though a blockbuster in terms of sales, was in the end a compromised, albeit complicated entertainment. What is obvious in hindsight is that Oblivion was the first, if not completely successful, step toward a new level of gaming development at Bethesda. What the studio attempted in Oblivion, they executed in Fallout 3. Where they missed the bull’s eye in Oblivion, they hit it in Fallout 3.
The power of the Fallout series, a series that stands apart in the world of RPGs, lies in large part in its uncanny depiction of what might have happened had something gone wrong. Had, say a certain unnamed world leader made a wrong decision or had a bad day on the wrong day. It’s pretty much history now how close we all came in the early sixties to nuclear devastation though few people realize just how close. Now the world suffers through mini-apocalypses, localized reigns of terror and personal holocausts but the Big One, World War 3, did not come to pass, knock on wood. Still, it’s not hard to imagine. In that imagined extinction lies a great power to move. Black Isle recognized this and, building on the classic post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland, delivered Fallout and Fallout 2. The RPG gaming world immediately recognized that this was something new. No elves or spaceships, no castles or dragons but real people in real places. Real places shattered by a single act of madness and repopulated by monsters, human and otherwise. Rabidly loyal fan bases formed around these games and exist to this day on the internet, yet no one expected a third game or if they did they didn’t have high hopes for it. And when Bethesda stepped up and took possession of the franchise many, including this reviewer, didn’t exactly have great expectations. I couldn’t imagine the creators of Daggerfall and Oblivion could grok the dark irony, the grim world vision that a Fallout game necessitated. Sure, on a certain level Morrowind was a triumph of grim social and class criticism but still…
For the most part my fears have been proven to be unfounded. Fallout 3, while not a perfect gem, is an often amazing, sometimes mind-blowing, addictive, lovable, replayable game. I have put in just under 80 hours of play time at this writing and have seen the ending. Well, one of the endings. And a slam bang, bring down the house ending it was right up until the very last second when it sort of went sideways, the way endings will. I’ve grieved over this ending, then decided it was perfect and then decided I don’t know what I think. I am going to play it again soon and by the end of my second run, hopefully I’ll have an opinion about this.
What I do know is that I spent a couple of twelve hour sessions playing Fallout 3, something I never do anymore, no matter how good the game is. Hands down this is the most satisfying sandbox, exploring type game I’ve played since losing eighteen months to a beast called Morrowind. Frankly the narrative arc isn’t anything to rave about and there is no single compelling character to point to, but the side quests are satisfying and the gameplay is excellent. What Fallout 3 does well, it does extremely well.
Seconds into the opening scene of Fallout 3 it was apparent that Bethesda had faithfully adapted the the original design template. As the narrator intones that now-famous tag line, “War. War never changes,” a smile crept over my face. Say what you will about the excitement of the new and the need for constant innovation, there is also a place for tradition. Sure they shifted from a ¾ isometric top down view to a 3-D view and substituted a hybrid action/turn-based combat for the pure turn-based approach but with that opening Bethesda assured us that they had no sinister designs on Fallout. They weren’t going to pull a My Fair Lady on our beloved Dr. Strangelove. No Professor Higgins was going to teach our wastelander proper table etiquette. Fallout was going to remain Fallout, not some bewildering “improved” version, but an updated, faithfully implemented one. Sure, there is that odd, machine-like slickness that Bethesda imparts to all their products and admittedly that bugs the hell out of some people and if you are one of those people, you’ll come away with a vaguely uneasy feeling, wondering what all the shouting was about. But if you can get past that, if you can drop expectations and let the Fallout mythos do that funky thing it does, you’ll find a dynamite game waiting to eat your life.
Bethesda recycled the Gamebryo engine, the same one they used for Oblivion. They also brought back the Havok physics engine and the Speedtree rendering software. Anyone who spent time in Oblivion will quickly recognize the look. There is the HDR, the AA and the multisampling effects, though they’re optimized in-game. Radiant AI is back as well, though its occasional dysfunctional NPC behavior has been calmed. Faces are more pleasing to the eye. There are some eerie similarities between Oblivion and Fallout 3. The blood bags inside the Oblivion Gates have morphed into gore bags in the Super Mutant haunts down to the squishing sound they emit when you paw through them for goodies like money and body parts. The oddly floating bodies and objects that hovered everywhere in Oblivion are back in Fallout 3 as are the crashes upon exit. I played both games on what is basically the same rig except for a video card switch out that gave me cooler temps but with similar performance. While I had to tweak Oblivion with in an inch of its life, Fallout 3 was, performance wise, up and running out of the box. Bethesda has optimized this game to the point where I can even run it at lowest setting on my non-gaming, for-work-only laptop with its wimpy Nvidia 8400m GS card. I suspect some of this is due to the lack of the intensive foliage rendering required of the rig-melting Oblivion forests. Overall, the performance improvements are immediately obvious to anyone with an aging system such as mine.
Character creation is introduced via a set of cut scenes depicting the player’s childhood in Vault 101. At birth you choose your sex and name and physical characteristics. Time jumps a year and you are a toddler taking your first steps. Here you choose your stats via the familiar SPECIAL system of Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. Another jump and it’s your tenth birthday. You get your Pip-Boy 3000, the same interface used in the first two Fallouts. You use it to access all Stats, Items and Data. It’s the same basic interface as in the first 2 Fallouts and like those it’s overly complicated and a drag on the gaming flow, requiring too much clicking and scrolling. Another jump to age sixteen and you further customize your character by tagging three skills, dumping free points into your choices. One final leap forward three more years and the scene is set for you to leave Vault 101 at age nineteen. Just before you exit the last door you get to review your choices and finalize your character. During this entire opening you are allowed to familiarize yourself with the interface, engaging in various conversations, combat scenarios, weapons, armor and ammo, use of the interface and Pip-Boy. By the time you enter the wasteland and begin the game you are outfitted and skilled enough to make it to the nearest locations. But stop a moment and take in the view before you. A blasted landscape of brown, twisted metal resolves before you, nothing but bombed out buildings to the horizon with not a single tree or patch of color in sight. It’s a startling sight and it can take your breath away. “Wait. I’m going to go out into THAT?”
Hello cruel wasteland.
Other than Vault 101 there are no locations marked on your map, just a mysterious dot to the south you might want to check out. If you thoroughly explored the vault before leaving you’ll have a nice starter inventory and a clue where to begin your journey. Or just head off in another direction like I did. I managed to stumble into some punishing locations early before getting my bearings but made it through alive with little fuss at Normal setting. Depending on your skill level, you can choose Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard and Very Hard and can change setting anytime you wish. Normal felt a bit too easy for me and I have less than stellar fps skills. But then this is not a first person shooter. It’s a RPG with some action elements and a hybrid approach to combat using a system called Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting Systems or V.A.T.S. for short. V.A.T.S. is based on the original targeting system used for the earlier, turn-based Fallouts that let you aim your weapon at various body parts. This system gives you the option to either kill or cripple your opponent.
One of the main changes Bethesda instituted was doing away with turn-based combat in favor of real time combat. Since turn-based gaming was the heart and soul of the first two games the developers faced a dilemma. Lose the ability to stop the game and pick and choose your targeting and you lose much of what made the Fallouts special. V.A.T.S. was the very elegant solution to this problem. By hitting the “V” key (you can remap it if you wish along with most of the other commands), you stop game play and are able to target your enemy’s head or arm or leg, torso, antenna, sensor, etc. And like in the first two games you can only target according the amount of Action Points you have. Each shot in V.A.T.S. costs a certain amount of Action Points depending on your weapon. Early in the game you only get a few, relatively weak shots before you have to return to real time and wait for your Action Points to restore. Here is where Fallout 3 diverges dramatically from its predecessors. Where before you had to use Action Points to move as well as to engage in combat now you can immediately switch back to fps style combat, and dodge, duck and run in real time. The benefit is a more immersive and streamlined fighting style. In the earlier games time stood still as you waited for every single member of your and your opponent’s party to spend their Action Points before your turn came up again. While this approach has its ardent admirers there is a downside for a lot of gamers, mainly that you are forced to spend much of your time watching the game progress without your direct input. Indirectly, every action was a result of a prior decision of yours but at a cost to immediacy. In Fallout 3 you remain in combat throughout. This feels a bit awkward at first as you jump from the extreme camera angles, occasional off-kilter animation and bullet time of V.A.T.S. to the faster paced real time combat. I quickly grew accustomed to this and based my fighting style around heavy use of V.A.T.S. My aim seemed surer in V.A.T.S. and seemed to pack more punch so I used it as much as possible. An unexpected benefit was that while in V.A.T.S. some of the reverse camera angles revealed more of the battle zone and occasionally let me see opponents and locations that were out of my view. Also, the slow motion trajectory of a bullet hurtling toward a critical, killing head shot of a Super Mutant was extremely satisfying.
Like in all RPGs, as you progress in the game you level up. In Fallout 3, as you gain levels you not only get to allocate points to your skills but at every other level you get to choose PERKS. PERKS are great and one of the things that make the Fallouts so satisfying. To my happy surprise, all my favorites were back, including a must-have called Mysterious Stranger. Choose this and sometimes, while in V.A.T.S, a trench-coated ally materializes out of thin air to lend a gun hand, often just when you think you’re going down. This was one of the more delightful PERKS choices. And god, the choices. Since Fallout 3 allows you to choose a PERK every other level instead of every third level as in the first two games, the options can be overwhelming. There are way too many to name in this review but just to give you a few examples in case you have yet to play a Fallout game: Swift Learner gives you an additional 10% Experience Points whenever Experience Points are earned, and Bloody Mess ups the already high gore content to an almost surreal level, serving up exploding bodies, flying limbs, and decapitations aplenty. Gun Nut added additional points to two very important skills, Small Guns and Repair while Commando increases your two-handed weapon accuracy in V.A.T.S. Nerd Rage beefs you up with extra damage and strength whenever your Health drops to below 20%. There is something for everyone PERK-wise, almost too many since you get to choose ten times before hitting the level cap at level 20. And here we come to what I think will be a bone of contention for many gamers.
You top out at level 20. That’s right, 20 levels and that’s it. I found the main quest early on and stuck with it and while this had the benefit of giving me lots of experience points, it also resulted in my character capping out pretty early in the game. I finished the main story line well after reaching level 20. Had I been able to keep gaining levels I probably would have finished up at level 25 or so. This was after eighty hours of game play and I estimate I have only found around half the locations, if that. One of the first mods to catch my attention was one to slow the leveling by reducing experience points gained throughout and it’s one I will definitely choose for my replay.
There are a lot of ways to play Fallout 3 and here, again, Bethesda remains true to the first two games. As in the earlier games you can beef up your Intelligence and Charisma and talk your way out of lots of tough spots. Or you can heighten sneak abilities with Agility and Perception or go brute force with lots of Strength and Endurance. As your skills and levels rise you get more dialogue options and this in turn gives you more choices in how to address an individual or quest. Your decisions affect your Karma rating, adding or deleting points depending on your actions. Your Karma level affects how the NPCs in Fallout 3 treat you. Steal a item marked in red that isn’t yours and you lose a bit of Karma. Wipe out a peaceful settlement and you lose a great big chunk of Karma. If instead you save the day you get Karma. I ended up with basically angelic Karma, choosing the path of sugary goodness in almost every case.
There are still a lot situations when only good old fashion firepower will settle accounts. There is no talking to a Deathclaw, my friends, no running away either, only luck and stopping power and lots of ammo. Small guns such as the 10mm will bring down a mole rat or a club wielding raider but you need an assault rifle, SMG or .44 Magnum and a few extra rounds in your inventory for Mr. Claw. Energy weapons such as laser and plasma pistols and rifles are a fun way to go too, especially if you like to leave nothing of your opponent but a pile of smoking ash. Believe me, nothing says “welcome to my world” better than a few controlled bursts from a plasma rifle. Big gun fans will find all the usual suspects, rocket launchers, mini-guns, laser gatlings, flame throwers and the granddaddy of them all, the Fat Boy, a hand held nuclear missile launcher. Pugilist can indulge in up close melee with fists, baseball bats, batons, knives, sledgehammers, chainsaw machetes and more.
For the fashion conscious wastelander there is a staggering array of armor choices, from a pair of pajamas and a revolutionary war era powdered wig, to a jumpsuit and baseball cap, to a full array of Enclave Tesla Armor. Some armor gives the wearer heightened attributes and some doesn’t. The more damage resistant the apparel, the heavier it is and consequently the more strength is required to carry it. Ammo in Fallout 3 is weightless however and so you can carry an infinite amount. This is a good way to make money, or bottle caps, which in this case, are the coin of the realm. I decided to forgo heavy weapons so I made good money selling the missiles, nukes and 5mm mini-gun ammo I picked up along the way. Both armor and weapon degrade pretty fast, necessitating constant repairs. As far as refurbishing goes, you have two choices. Either pay a merchant or trader to fix your stuff or repair it yourself using identical weapons or armor as spare parts. I chose to repair my own arsenal as it had a two-fold benefit. It saved precious bottle caps and it allowed me to keep paring down my inventory by combining repairable items which in turn upped their eventual worth or use. Since I don’t usually hoard loot and like to carry all my worldly possessions in inventory this was a logical way to go for me. Have three assault rifles but can only carry two? Repair one with another and voila. Sell the repaired, now more valuable, rifle or hang onto it for future parts. Choice is yours.
To pick a lock or hack a computer you enter a min-game screen. Lockpicking is a joy and very intuitive if you have decent hand to eye coordination. It feels real and blends into the flow of the action. Hacking, on the other hand, is an exercise in brain busting puzzle solving where you must cipher out the correct password from a list of similar words. While I could eventually solve the hacking min-game it was terribly disruptive to immersion and I ended up just avoiding the whole thing. Of all the elements in this game, hacking seems the most out of place.
Locations abound in Fallout 3 and once you discover a place and its name appears on your Pip-Boy map, you can fast travel there again and again. This is especially nice in D.C. proper, where mountains of rubble and debris block your path at every turn and you must resort to the maze of subway tunnels beneath the streets. On the other hand, traveling through the relatively open wastelands outside D.C. is much more straight forward and can be a lot of fun. Exploration is an utter blast as you meander through the countryside, under smashed freeways, through blasted settlements and past radioactive rivers. Some of the more quirky characters inhabit the nooks and crannies of Fallout 3, tucked away in tunnels, caves, old buildings and in one case, apparently inside a dream. Meet slavers, bloodsuckers, superheroes, mad scientists, cultists, vicious tavern owners and ladies of the evening. Depending on your Karma rating you can recruit some helpful and not so helpful party members to aid you along your merry trail of tears.
And yes, you can find Dogmeat, perhaps the most famous NPC from the original game. Dogmeat is a dog, some kind of German Shepard I think, and he is as nasty and mean as ever and just as vulnerable. I was excited when I first came upon him and took him everywhere. Unfortunately, while at first he seemed pretty beefy, I was soon getting the dreaded “Dogmeat has died” screen as I moved into the tougher areas. Finally I took him back to the rarely visited dilapidated shack I called home and left him. Even then he appeared out of nowhere once during the main quest and even after I took him back and left him a second time, he disappeared. Dogmeat, at least in my experience, is his own dog and was not about to be turned into anyone’s house pet. I assume he defaults to a specific location if you haven’t interacted with him after a certain amount of time but have yet to test this out.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, for all its faithfulness to the original, Fallout 3 is still very much a Bethesda product, with all the baggage that suggests. An odd ennui overcomes me at a certain point in all this studio’s games. After a while the voices and faces begin to blend together partly due to Bethesda habit of using a core group of professional voice actors to play every last one of their forty bazillion characters. As with The Elder Scrolls series there is a certain emptiness at the heart of this game and I found myself growing a bit weary of the quests and locations at points, much in the way I grow weary of say, the Half Life games and for me it comes down to a lack of strong characterization. For all the addictive, compulsive quality of Fallout 3, and there is a lot of it, for all the dripping atmosphere and cool exploratory elements, I never really became invested in the characters. This is not one of those “All the characters are unlikable so I don’t like the game” rants. I don’t care if characters are likable or not. What I want are compelling characters, characters who makes me follow, regardless where they lead. Sadly, I don’t get that here.
Otherwise, and that issue aside, gameplay is king and Fallout 3 delivers in bountiful amounts. Play Fallout 3 and you’ll not only be treated to what might turn out to be one of the best Bethesda games ever to come down the pike but you’ll also experience echoes of Deus Ex, Half Life 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Bioshock. In the end this game is a worthy successor to the Black Isle series and a respectable submission into the canon of post-apocalyptic gaming. What began on the crudely pixelated tiles of the admirable Wasteland, matured in the fantastic Fallouts, has emerged, changed, altered, yet authentically realized in Fallout 3. All this is a long winded way of saying Fallout 3 is very, very good. It’s not a towering masterpiece like Planescape Torment, my particular gold standard of gaming, but at the end of the day it still gets a Four Fat Chicks gold star. Just not a 24K gold star. If you want hard cold numbers, it’s an 88 on a scale of 100.
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Minimum System Requirements: Vista/XP, Pentium 4 2.4 GHZ, 1GB/2GB(Vista), DirectX 9.0c, 256 MB, Nvidia 6800, ATI x850
Reviewer’s System: XP, Athlon 64X2 Dual 4400 2.20GHZ, 2 GB , DirectX 9.0c, 512 MB, ATI 3870