REVIEWS -- Fallout 3 -- PC
A visceral interpretation of our worst fears
by Sebastian Stefanov
Fun factor: Boring
Worth to: Buy
The game’s goal is clearly not to deliver on action and role-playing, but on a message that freedom and complaisance don’t mix
It’s difficult to review Fallout 3 without comparing it to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Both games use the same Gamebryo engine, and both were designed by Bethesda Softworks, a studio that has made a name for itself making good open-ended RPG’s with an acquired taste. The game follows in Oblivion’s footsteps, which might sound strange, considering it’s the third installment to a completely different franchise (the Fallout series, of course). Fallout 3 is similar to its two predecessors in name and theme only, having done away with many of the old turn-base elements. But like its precursors, Bethesda managed to create an engrossing post-apocalyptic world, full of bleakness and despair with pockets of hope.
Fallout 3 shows us that humanity can survive any obstacles or attempts by higher powers to ensnare our freedom through propaganda and mindless patriotism. If anything, the game is a decent social commentary of today’s realities. The message is conveyed rather nicely and gameplay holds its ground to this ambitious undertaking. It’s not without flaws -- the biggest one being that it resembles Oblivion too much -- but it is well worth checking out. Though not the perfect title many have been proclaiming, fans of gore, horror, action, gun-totting patriotism or libertarianism are nonetheless in for a treat.
The American dream: comic books and fancy cars – don’t mind the devastation
Fallout 3 takes place 30 years after the events of the second game, and 200 years after the nuclear war that ravaged the country. The setting moved from the West Coast to Washington DC, but things are just as bleak. On the surface, survivors of the holocaust formed small towns, constantly attacked by raiders and mutants. Life for the unlucky few revolves around scavenging for junk. Large cities are a thing of the past. People live in settlements carved out of scrap. The common currency is bottle caps, water is scarce and purified water is a luxury. Forget gold or diamonds; clean water is the day’s rarity and at the forefront of Fallout 3’s story.
Whatever was left of the country’s government hid inside “Vaults” spread across the land, where it maintained much of the pre-war way of life. Like 2007’s Bioshock, we are presented with a 50’s retro world. The artificial innocence of that era lends itself perfectly to the theme, where comfort and obedience is vanguard, at least in the vaults.
The story begins quite literally at your birth. You see your father, James (voiced by Liam Neeson), delivering you into the world and your mother succumbing to childbirth. Flash-forward to your first year in Vault 101. Your father -- a prominent scientist -- sees you take your first steps. Once alone, you are allowed to explore your crib’s surroundings. It is here you assign your first attribute points (Strength, Agility, etc.). The game flashes forward again to your tenth birthday where you ceremoniously receive a PIP-Boy 3000 -- a GPS with many extras. The vault part is short but sets the tone: you are a young man loved by his father living in a rationed society that thinks it can control every aspect of a person’s life -- a form of socialist jail controlled by an overseer. Everything is peachy, until one day you are awakened by a friend that tells you your father broken vault law by leaving the compound. Your life in danger, you decide to escape in search of him.
Like in Oblivion, you are allowed to modify your character’s face, gender, and skills before heading off into the world. Once outside, players get a glimpse of the horror that is the surface. The effect is somewhat… shocking, even for a video game. Bethesda did a great job recreating the devastation. Vegetation is nonexistent; the lush greeneries of Oblivion have been replaced with rocks and dirt; towns and cities have been razed, with the occasional house still standing; overpasses and bridges look like broken giants; road signs and cars are scattered about, reminding us that this world once indeed had life.
After a few minutes of exploration, and after having encountered your first mutant (a dog or a molerat), players find Megaton, a town built around an unexploded nuclear bomb.
It’s Waterworld… without the water
Megaton looks like Waterworld’s main atoll, where Kevin Costner sold dirt. The town is fortified with pieces of jetliner fuselages. Inside we have metallic ramps, makeshift houses, trailers and whatever else could serve as shelter. Bethesda efficiently made the town look like something survivors would build out of scrap. Most of the makeshift settlements are believable in their improvised nature. It is here players can decide to either continue looking for their father or explore the “Capital Wasteland”.
Fallout 3 has an enormous amount of side missions, from helping a local write a survival guide by gathering objects scattered in the wasteland, to acting as a mediator for a wannabe super-hero (The Mechanist) feuding with a demented super-villain (The AntAgonizer). Good deeds can give your character Karma points, which in theory serve to improve your standing with other NPC characters and can slightly alter gameplay. Stealing and murdering takes them away, but in practice having Karma doesn’t open up any real opportunities. The only noticeable advantage is a woman occasionally giving you gifts in Megaton and your father eventually praising you for being a Good Samaritan.
The RPG element of the game is centered on the various abilities. After leveling up, players can allot a certain number of points to various professions (skills), upgrade Perks (another form of skill) and increase attributes (Strength, Agility). Skills are exactly what the name states. A higher lock picking skill, for instance, makes opening locked objects easier. Perks add special abilities that can’t be characterized as a profession, like receiving bonuses while fighting at night or increasing your experience gaining rate.
Fallout 3 lets players play in a variety of ways, depending on what you decide to focus on. Electronic skills allow players to hack into rather realistic-looking computers (it seems Microsoft finally came to its senses and reverted back to DOS in 2027). Thieving skills let players steal and pickpocket. Action skills give various fighting advantages. Speech -- one of the more important skills -- lets players talk their way out of situations and so on.
Bethesda added a turn-based real-time combat element to the game with the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S. for short. Simply put, VATS freezes time and lets player aim at specific enemy body parts. At first this feature seems like a gimmick, but once skills and Perks are high enough, VATS becomes very useful. Targeting a limb can disarm or cripple an enemy. Various parts or opponents can be targeted in a single session, provided there are enough action points. Once parts have been selected, action unfolds in bullet-time with some rather nice slow-motion effects.
Gore abounds, as well as gratuitous swearing, even amongst child characters. The game is noticeably designed for adults. One can even hire the services of a prostitute. The game is mainly a shooter but it has enough RPG elements to keep both Action and RPG fans occupied. The choices players are allowed to make are what make the game fun. Simply talking to characters can avoid a lot of combat. Conversely, players can kill everybody they come across, even the good guys.
Killing opponents with various weapons produces varied results. For example, slashing someone’s arm with a sword will sometimes cut the limb off. Though takedown effects are nice, especially while using VATS, and graphics have nice effects, Fallout 3 still suffers from Oblivion’s graphical limitations. Bethesda reused Oblivion’s Gamebryo engine but it unfortunately didn’t improve the physics. Characters still walk like plastic toy figurines and topple over like dummies when killed. Note to Bethesda: the Gamebryo engine sucks; stop using it.
Everything in the Fallout world looks nice, but animation is crap. Oblivion suffered from blocky object collision and that’s still true here. As a result, gunfights can be a bit sluggish. Another graphical downer is the limited amount of character designs, both among friendly and enemy characters. All human characters have the same basic model design, save for a few facial and clothing differences. There are no fat people (understandable since times are hard) but there are also no skinny or short adults either. Variety amongst mutants is lacking too. There is but a dozen or so characters in the entire game. Considering Fallout 3 is a long game, players will get to see the same faces too often.
AI can be pretty stupid at times. There are moments where enemies and friendly characters will get stuck around walls or not find their way around a staircase. NPC characters will also go out of their way to antagonize nearby enemies, forcing players to get into needless fights. Members can be added to your team (up to three characters), but there are too few teammates in the game to even mention. Many players will go through the entire story without ever finding someone to help them out. I personally missed the much-advertised dog character. Having said that, Fallout 3 is a huge game feature-wise. Many elements will be missed through the first playthrough, which can take many sleepless nights.
Ok, Bethesda, we get it: you love Oblivion
Gameplay is very addictive once you get settled into the flow of exploring the wasteland. Time flies almost as quickly as the game’s night and day effects. Running around doing missions and gathering garbage for barter, again, resembles Oblivion, sometimes painfully. Hundreds of objects can found and sold, or used to create custom items. Again, the feature sounds good on paper but in practice it leaves much to be desired. There’s a limited amount of items that can be created and most players won’t ever bother with the feature. You can get a house in Megaton, which acts as a dumping ground for all the extra junk found while looting. The house can be fitted with a workbench (used to create custom items) and few more extras, though none of them really have a practical purpose. Still, it’s there, which is a plus. Wadsworth, your robotic butler, is a treat to listen to.
Undiscovered areas have to be reached on foot, but once a location has been found, fast-travel can get you from one place to another instantaneously. Unfortunately, the world only seems vast. Megaton has maybe a dozen inhabitants. The game’s largest settlement, Rivet City (that’s Rivet… not River), has even fewer citizens, and it’s supposed to be a converted aircraft carrier. Missions will often be a spit away from their source. The AntAgonizer (demented super-villain) is only a few feet north of Canterbury Commons, the town that issues the mission.
Another downer is Bethesda rehashing of old concepts, like vampires and religious cults from the “other game” I have mentioned too often already. Note to Bethesda #2: let go of Oblivion -- it seems entrenched in your psyche. Speaking of the “other game”, a large part of the action will take place in caves, caverns, grottos, metros or other similar-looking hollowed-out underground chambers. Needless to say, those parts all look alike. Buildings are no better. Many have repetitive rooms. Players will often get lost while exploring offices, mainly because the game’s indoor map doesn’t have vertical layers.
Sound and music is great but it has its downers. The positive is Bethesda’s decision to focus on 50’s music. Listening to 50’s classics is a treat, especially when blasting a super-mutant’s head off while some “dame” sings about love -- priceless. The cheery music can get annoying, though. It’s gimmicky. A few radio stations can be picked up by your Pip-Boy 3000 but only Galaxy Radio acts as the game’s source of “music”. Fortunately, Fallout 3 has its own ambient tunes, and they are very good, though a bit too few and far between.
Sound effects are great. Caves (and Bethesda knows its caves) have perfect ambient drips and crumbling sounds, and hearing ghouls panting out of view will send chills down your spine. Wind sound effects in caves are often used to clue the player in on how close they are to an exit. Sadly, NPC character lines are very repetitive. This is noticeable even during the first raider encounter. For the most part voice acting is decent while interacting with characters. There are instances where actors simply recite lines, and sometimes midway into a sentence it sounds like the dialog was recorded in another studio using different equipment, but in general voices are good. With so much voice acting one expects a few blemishes here and there.
The story itself is rather short. Had it not been for the side-missions, Fallout 3 would have been a 10-hour game, at the most. But with all the extra quests (200 last I heard), the game gives players loads of play time, that is if one decides to fully enjoy everything. Some players will undoubtedly have problems will Bethesda’s latest creation. It’s one of those games where you create your legacy. Play evil and you might get some things done faster; play good and you will be everyone’s errand boy or girl, but at least you’ll see the best possible plot outcomes.
One flaw about most of the plots is the inert narration. The game seriously lacks cutscenes. Everything is told through dialog, with characters standing around like dummies, occasionally moving their arms for effect. It would have been nice to see some actual action during scenes. This is especially true at the very end, where you are asked to make some rather important choices. Even there, everybody stands around like props. The ending is also rather disappointing, especially Bethesda’s decision not to allow players to continue playing past the ending.
In all, Fallout 3 delivers more in style than in gameplay. The Capital Wasteland conveys a bleak reality. Graphics, though limited by the theme, are depressive and barren -- as they should be. The retro theme adds an eerie reality to it all. This is especially true when your character gets stuck in a simulation program with a scientist hell-bent on preserving his perfect middle-class suburb. Everything is so perfect and artificial you end up wanting to get back out into the filth on the surface. Having said that, the Fallout 3 is more than just a post-apocalyptic Action-RPG; it’s an effective social commentary that freedom is not about creating a perfectly sterile world with no choices, but about allowing citizens to do whatever they want, no matter how dirty and ugly their actions may be.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: October 28, 2008
Review Date: 21-11-2008
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: ---
Notes: Dolby 5.1 Surround, Downloadable Content
Realistic devastation and settlements and nice overall graphics, but character designs and animation are too repetitive.
Open-endedness is a blast, though action can be sluggish. Slight AI problems and some features are useless. Too much like Oblivion.
Authentic 50’s style and settings convey well. Lack of animated cutscenes makes for stiff storytelling. Rehashed concepts. Game with an important message.
Retro music adds a nice twist but gets old. Great sound effects. NPCs repeat themselves. Some voices are sub-par, both in delivery and quality.
Too many missions to accomplish on the first run. Not being allowed to continue playing after the end forces players to replay the game.