When the reigns of the long dormant Fallout series were picked up by Bethesda, many fans of the series were worried. They were concerned that their beloved series would be turned into a mindless Oblivion clone, with none of the grit, grime, dark humor, and visceral action of the originals. The long wait is over, and Fallout fans need not fear. Not only does Fallout 3 prove itself worthy of its lineage, it expands on conventions of the genre to create a truly memorable RPG experience.
Fallout is set in Washington D.C. some 200 years after nuclear war has decimated the world. You are a resident of Vault 101, one of many underground sanctuaries built to protect its inhabitants from the harsh reality of the outside world. The game opens with your birth, which is the beginning of an incredibly innovative character creation system. During this prologue of sorts, you’ll follow your character from childhood to adolescence, making decisions along that way that shape the person you’ll become. It’s a fantastic take on the character creation process, and really enhances your immersion into the game world.
According to the Overseer of Vault 101, the vault is a safe haven from the horrors of the outside world. While this may be true, you’ll quickly discover that everything is not as it seems. When your father defies the Overseer and leaves the vault, it’s thrown into violence and chaos. You set off after your father, and thus begin your journey through Fallout’s decaying landscape.
When you first step out of the vault, and your sun adjusts to the harsh daylight, the first thing you’ll notice is that Bethesda has crafted an awe-inspiring world for you to explore. Destruction stretches out as far as the eye can see, as decaying buildings and crumbling overpasses dominate the skyline. Pools of radition emit toxic clouds, and rusted out reminders of the world before the war dot the landscape. It can’t be stressed enough how enormous this world is. There are tons of nooks and crannies to explore, and they’re filled with personality. From the town full of active mines (now known conveniently as “Minefield”) to Megaton, a town built around a dormant atomic weapon, the environment of Fallout 3 is amazing.
Your quest to find your father will wind through this environment, although as is standard with Bethesda’s games you could lose yourself in side quests and forget all about your primary goal. These side quests range from the funny to the tragic, and all can change based on your decisions. Fallout is a game with true consequences for the choices you make, not only to your moral standing but to the game world as a whole. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into any of the quests in depth, but the ramifications of your actions even early on have far reaching consequences.
The game rarely devolves into simple “which choice to I pick for good or bad”, as often each path will have more than one option. This, along with the mature tone of many of the quests, adds a great deal of gravity to your decisions. There is a black and white to the morality in Fallout 3, but there’s a healthy dose of gray as well. “Good” can be as simple as giving a stranger some clean water, or as broad as saving an entire town. Meanwhile, “Evil” runs the spectrum from just being a selfish jerk, to wipespread destruction, cannibalism, and mayhem.
In addition to the moral decisions, Fallout adds another interesting wrinkle to your time in the game world. No game prior has put as much emphasis on sheer survival as Fallout does. Make no mistake about it, resources are scare in the wasteland. You’ll often find yourself low on health, food, and anything else that might make your travels through the atomic wasteland more bearable. This constant struggle (especially early on) for resources adds a fantastic amount of tension to the game. There’s nothing quite like taking a Fido like sip out of the nearest toilet just to give yourself enough of a health boost to take down that last Raider.
Not only does this shortage lead to some tense moments of gameplay, I also found it adding another unexpected wrinkle to the gameplay. I found that constantly being short on Bottlecaps (currency in Fallout 3), Stimpacks, food, or drinkable water made the moral decisions in the game even more difficult. It’s easy to tell someone offering you 100 caps for a job “That’s alright, keep it. I just want to help”. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. That is until you realize that you’re 98 caps short of the money you need to repair your favorite weapon or purchase much needed supplies. The weight of that sacrifice starts to push a little harder than you’re used to. Likewise, when your short on health and you see someone else’s stimpack just laying out in the open, the temptation to swipe it is all the more pronounced. The environment really adds a great deal of gravity to even the smallest of decisions in Fallout 3, and it helps take the “moral compass” style decision making found in many games to a whole new level. It really pushes you to decide what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to survive, and ultimately thrive.
Of course, an action RPG is only as good as it’s action allows, and I’m pleased to report that Fallout delivers on the gameplay side of things as well. The viewpoint and control will feel instantly familiar to fans of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion in particular. You’ll have the choice between third or first person view, although from a practical standpoint third person is nearly useless except for checking out those sweet threads you just picked up.
Combat can play out in one of two ways. You can play the game as a straight up shooter, or you can push in the right bumper button and activate the V.A.T.S. system. V.A.T.S. pauses the action and allows you to highlight one or more specific enemies to attack. Depending on your weapon of choice, V.A.T.S. will allow you to target specific body parts with varying degrees of accuracy by pressing the right trigger. Once you used up all your agility points (the regenerating number of attacks you can launch within V.A.T.S., determined by your characters agility), you can press A and watch the carnage begin. You’ll witness a slow motion version of your attacks play out, often with grisly results.
V.A.T.S. is a fantastic addition to the game, and quite honestly I hope other RPG’s copy the formula. I found myself using the V.A.T.S. system to initiate my attacks, and using the standard FPS controls only when I was out of AP or close to finishing an opponent off. The standard FPS controls feel mostly solid, although they seem a bit floaty for my taste. Most of your combat will be through V.A.T.S., both because of its quality and because of its badassery. There are few things more satisfying than watching a single round from your hunting rifle remove a psychotic raider’s head from his neck just before he drills you with that sledgehammer he’s swinging.
Speaking of decapitation, Fallout 3 definitely earns it’s Mature rating. From foul language and excessive gore, to cannibalism and prostitution, it’s all there. The RPG genre has a tendency to shy away from excessive mature content, so the fact that Fallout goes headfirst into it really helps the game stand out from an overcrowded pack. Just don’t let the kiddies play this one.
The sound in F3 is absolutely top notch. You’ll find no real music in the game, other than a smattering of old pre-war classics. Most of your background chatter will come from one of the radio stations you have access to. The best parts of the sound however, happen when it’s mostly silent. As mentioned, the ambience of the game is positively chilling at times, and when you lose radio signal in the middle of the wasteland and are left with just the sounds of the wind and your own footsteps, it really drives the point home that the world of Fallout 3 is a scary, lonely place.
A game as large in scope as this is bound to have it’s problems, and Fallout is no exception. As has become typical of Bethesda’s games, you can expect to experience issues with clipping, hit detection, and getting stuck on/against objects. Most of these glitches are persistent enough to be mildly annoying, but not serious enough to be gamebreaking by any stretch. Hopefully some of the issues will be fixed in an upcoming patch, because they represent a frustrating misstep for a game that does so much right.
In the end, Fallout 3 is among the best games I’ve played this year, and represents both Bethesda’s legacy and the legacy of the Fallout series incredibly well. It’s easy to sink hours into exploring this world, and its depth will consume you if you let it. Fallout 3 is a must buy for anyone who loves games, regardless of your preferred genre.