"There is no God and we are his prophets." – Cormac McCarthy, “The Road”
Fallout 3 is a profoundly sad game. Forget the bullet point features. This is its truth: the irradiated, unrelenting, brutal, cold and blasted world. The vast empty landscape and desiccated buildings tell us more than an endless monologue ever could.
The body lies cold behind a makeshift barricade, a gruesome tableau of desperation. What did this man lay down his life to protect? I push further into his dank corner of the subway tunnel: a thin bed, a couple of books, a lamp powered by an old battery and a few boxes of irradiated food.
Fallout 3 has left me feeling desperate and grasping for some comfort and light, exploring a bright, almost-glowing wasteland. It grinds me down to a level where I feel empathy for the hollow eyed NPCs. It’s not pitch-perfect, but Bethesda has managed to step beyond its previous efforts. Fallout 3 is something special.
*note* This review is mostly spoiler free.
How S.P.E.C.I.A.L is it?
When Bethesda threw down the number “3” like a gauntlet after the word “Fallout” they had to know that the comparisons to the first two games were inevitable. Building off the technology established in Oblivion--a very different sort of RPG--creates an interesting design challenge. What do you keep, and what do you cast aside to bring the best of Oblivion and the best of the Fallout series together? The good news is that they struck a very careful balance between the old and the new. Simply put, they got it right.
Oblivion staples like the conversation system, the “learn by doing” leveling technique and the ability to re-arrange silverware by floating it in front of you are all gone. In their place we have many of the better parts of the original Fallout games. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L system--an RPG stat system lifted from the previous games--drives character development. Strength is for melee and carrying stuff. Agility gives you more action points--it lets you do stuff. Intelligence gets you more skill points. These are classic RPG tropes, done well. Below the sledgehammer of basic stats, there are skills, which run the gamut from getting better prices in shops to more effectively chewing through your enemies with large guns. Players choose three skills at the start to be especially “good” at and then spend points each time they level up on whatever they like. This means I can get good at small guns now and then pour points into energy weapons later when I start finding them in the wild.
While Fallout 3 has done away with the minmaxish traits system of the original game, the perks system is still a big part of character progression. Perks represent everything from getting skill boosts and better stats to gaining sustenance by feeding on the bodies of the fallen. Old standby perks are back, Bloody Mess being one of the more memorable, along with the always useful Pack Mule and Intense Training. What’s most interesting is that I’ve found myself making the same stat choices as I level right in line with what I did in the original Fallout games--completely by accident. Sure, now it’s first person and a lot of Oblivion staples have elbowed their way in, but the spirit of the series, as conveyed by the stats, artwork and hilarious perks, is still here.
But Is It a “Kick Ass Shooter?”
The giant unknown going into the release was combat. While Fallout was turn-based, Fallout 3 runs in real time and lets you pause the action with its Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. In VATS mode, you select a specific body area and then spend action points to pull the trigger. It’s all done in first person mode--a large departure from the isometric views of old. There is a third person over-the-shoulder perspective, but the player animations are not fleshed out enough to make that something I’d enjoy for long stretches. Gears of War this is not.
Because VATS is so satisfying, I’ve rarely played Fallout 3 like a typical shooter. In VATS mode, it’s easy to spend your action points on tapping a couple shots to the enemy's head, then to his arm to make him drop his weapon, and then to his legs to slow him down. I’ve even shot a primed grenade in a super mutant’s hand, which blew him up in a volcanic explosion of limbs and blood. There’s plenty of time to appreciate the carnage as the camera swings around and cuts to different angles as your choice shots play out in slow motion. I’ve killed hundreds of enemies this way. It never gets old.
But is it a kick ass shooter when you don’t use VATS? No. This is not Halo. It’s not even Bioshock. The problem with inserting stats into gunplay is that you really can’t throw them out the window and let the player completely drive how accurate his character is going to be. I can put the reticule right on the bad guy, but if my character’s skill with that weapon type is only 10 points, I’m going to miss my perfectly targeted headshot more often than not. There’s no aim-assist to speak of and twitch gamers on the console are likely going to find they can’t get the control sensitivity tight enough for quick turns and fast shots.
That said, you’re not going to find many enemies that demand excessive twitch reflexes anyway. Most of the bad guys have guns of their own, so it becomes more a question of positioning, cover and skill rather than clearing a room in five seconds. A typical battle consists of spotting the enemy, pulling up VATS, spending my action points and then either taking cover while they build up again or cracking a few quick “normal” shots to finish him off.
You don’t need VATS to get all the cool, contextual combat touches. You can still shoot weapons out of hands, cripple limbs and explode heads without ever leaving the run-and-gun mode. The beauty of VATS is that you can linger on your firing decisions a bit more, like an artist choosing a destructive brush of death.
Tell Me a Story, Show Me The World
Emil Pagliarulo, the lead designer on Fallout 3, was the creator of Oblivion's Dark Brotherhood quest line, one of the best written and most interesting threads of story in recent RPG history. Fallout 3 continues in that tradition of both excellence and interest. This is a story worth not-spoiling, but taken as a whole, Fallout 3 has a very strong line of quests and interesting choices to make when compared to Oblivion or the original Fallout games. I’ve run quests twice to see how different approaches have different results, and I’ve been delighted to see how often my expectations are thwarted by a clever twist.
The main storyline has the player chasing down his (or her) father after he’s left them behind at the vault, a fairly straightforward Hollywood plot. But I don’t play a game like this for a single narrative; I play for the combined weight of small quests stringing me along in a more personal, over-arching story dictated by my own actions. Fallout 3 succeeds because the quality and uniqueness of the quests mean I’m rarely wasting my time on something trivial. There are no rat tails to be collected here.
And so exploration is the main attraction. Despite the fact that the game is largely populated by burnt out buildings, endless subway systems and enough beiges, browns, rusts and grays to color every uniform in the US Army, the world is interesting. Fallout 3 is carefully consistent in its delivery of the brutal, post-apocalyptic landscape, but that doesn’t mean boring. This is not a world that died. It’s a world where people have cobbled together old, broken dreams in a way that is both depressing and inspiring at the same time. It leaves me wondering what I’d do when survival is a luxury few can manage.
End of Days
It’s perhaps axiomatic to point out that Fallout 3 is not for everyone. Those who didn’t like Oblivion for its lack of strong narrative structure and the endless wandering won’t find that Fallout 3 has tightened things up enough to suit them. While the world is a bit smaller and fast travel is still available, it remains a game that demands the player get down and dirty to find the more interesting hooks. This is not a game of grinding. It’s a game of finding.
The highest praise I can offer any game is that the world I’m in tells me a story about the people who inhabit it, even after they’re long dead and gone. While we can wax poetic about narrative and writing and structure and acting, the real power that games have over other forms of expression is that they give the player the opportunity to linger on details. Fallout 3 is rich with these details, and through them I have had an opportunity to see what life is like after Dr. Strangelove.
You may not like what it says about humanity, but you’ll come away with memories that stand years after you’re done playing.
- Shawn Andrich