There was a time there during the 1950s and 1960s when people were expecting WWIII to be fought using atomic weapons. Just like you and I assume there will be a sunrise and a sunset, so too did people of that era assume that one day there would be a vastly different sunrise. The United States and Soviet Union, and all their satellite nations amassed vast quantities of nuclear weapons, with the sole intention of being able to wipe the other side off the face of the map should they chose to use their own weapons first. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the world at peace, and still does in a sense, for 50 years.
The Fallout series takes a look at what would have happened if things hadn’t turned out so rosily. What would the world be like after a radiation bath? Could humanity survive? Would it prosper? The first two games in the series took place in California. Another took place in Chicago but isn’t really considered cannon. Now we have Fallout 3, which switches the West coast for Washington DC, and switches developers due to the bankruptcy of Interplay. Could an area which was so prominent a target as Washington even survive a nuclear exchange? What would it look like?
The game starts you out as a young baby, just having emerged from your mother’s womb. No seriously. The first scene in the game is from your perspective as your father holds you, just having delivered you. There are unfortunate complications (which sadly don’t involve you being able to pee on your dad for comedic effect). There is a flash forward effect, and you are now a bright and precocious one year old. You just learned to walk, and baby gates are no barrier to you. Flash forward once again and you are now 10 years old. You celebrate your birthday by getting your very own Pip-Boy PDA type device.
You meet the people of Vault 101, which is your home. Flash forward once more and you are now 16, and ready to take your GOAT test, which determines what your job will be for the rest of your life inside the Vault. (Vault Loyalty Inspector, that’s me!). Finally you’re 19, and you are awaked by your friend, who tells you your Dad has escaped the vault and the Overseer is looking for you. What will you do? Why of course you’ll go after your Dad, it’s dangerous out there you know? He could get hurt. And so off you go into the wild brown yonder, to do good or ill along the way to finding your father and giving him what for.
The main quest in the game involves you hunting down your father, who is voiced by Liam Neeson, and then assisting him in completing his life’s work, which is to restore a source of clean water to the Capitol Wasteland. To do this you must hunt down a device that the Vault-Tec designers (who ran the Vault you were raised in) intended to be used to clean up the radiation and get society moving again. This device, called a GECK, obviously doesn’t work, or there wouldn’t be a Capitol Wasteland would there? No, the DC area would have been purged of radiation long ago. However even if it doesn’t work it does have some components your Dad requires to make Project Purity, his life’s work, a success.
I found the story was a bit predictable to be honest. There’s an obvious plot twist, and I saw homage’s to more than a few movies. Let’s just say Star Trek fans will get a kick out of at least two moments in the game.
So what would the world of tomorrow look like if the world of tomorrow woke up to canned sunshine? I’ll tell you what it would look like. Brown. Grey sky and Brown earth, and nothing even remotely colorful. Rust everywhere. This is not what I would call a beautiful game. In fact it is downright ugly at times. But what do you expect? The earth has been radiated to the point of lifelessness. Nothing grows in that; even if it has been 200 years.
What I don’t understand is the insistence on using Monochrome everywhere. OK I get it this is an alternate universe where the year 1950 didn’t happen until 2077 or so, but it just makes for an awful viewing experience. And then in the one chance to introduce color to the game, a computer simulation based on 1950s society before the nukes, they decide to make the game even more colorless instead. Perplexing is the word for it.
Now, saying it is an ugly game might make you think its horribly built or something. It’s not. The characters all look at least as good as most games this generation, and the environments all look like they belong in this generation. It’s just that everything is dull and dreary.
The voice cast star studded, and the performances are stellar. As mentioned above Liam Neeson is the voice of your father. Malcom McDowell is the voice President Eden, the leader of the Enclave. Ron Perlman is the voice of the Narrator. You as the main star have no voice actor assigned to you. Why exactly I don’t know. After playing Mass Effect I know that it’s possible to have an RPG where the main character has a voice.
I do think that Bethesda managed to get Sarah Palin to do the voice work on one of your sidequest NPCs. The resemblance is spooky.
The ambience in the game can get overshadowed by the music, and I found it’s a more entertaining game when the music is lowered. Still, I’ve seen people compare the immersion to that of Bioshock, and I’m sorry but it’s not that immersive, at least not when the audio plays a role.
After you emerge from the Vault, you find yourself in a new world, where danger lurks around every corner. You may or may not be armed. Either way you aren’t about to go around kicking ass and taking names. In fact it’s more than likely that you yourself will be somebody’s chew toy if you stand and fight. Until you start to level up that is. Then you discover just how weak those initial enemies really are, or how susceptible to a shotgun blast to the head any person can be.
Since there is no getting around this, I’ll state the fact early and go on with the review. Bethesda is the makers of The Elder Scrolls, including the somewhat recent Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. From the very announcement that Bethesda was making Fallout 3, the worry amongst hardcore fans was that it would simply be “Oblivion with Guns“Â. Well, they were right to worry, but also wrong. Does that make sense? Here let me explain. Fallout 3 is, for all intents and purposes, Oblivion with Guns. The game engine feels the same, the way you interact with the world feels the same and the combat, in some ways, feels the same. The fonts are different and the interface is different but even then it’s the same. The world map and local map are viewed in much the same way you would do that in Oblivion. Only now instead of a faux piece of paper with your position on a map, you now have a monochrome computer monitor showing you where you are on a map. Running around in the country side feels exactly like it did in Oblivion, with the main difference being the color palette.
But even having said all of that, it is the differences that make you realize no matter how many similarities there are between the two games, this is not Elder Scrolls: Wasteland. The primary difference is the inclusion of the VATS combat system, which allows your character to target specific points on your enemy’s person. Allow me to briefly describe combat in Fallout 3. The standard mode of combat, which fans of Oblivion would be familiar with, is just you getting the targeting reticule on your enemy, getting in range, and then pressing attack until the opponent or you is dead.
VATS is a secondary mode which requires attack points. These points build up while you are in normal combat, and you may get up to three attacks via VATS depending on how many points your weapon requires. The specific parts of your enemy that you can target can include their heads, legs, arms, torso, even their weapons. You can also, if you have enough attack points, target two separate people, meaning you could presumably kill two opponents in a quickdraw like fashion if your skills are high enough. VATS (Vault Assisted Targeting System) stops time and allows you to target any of the points on your opponent that I mentioned above. Once you accept your preprogrammed actions it changes the camera angle to something suitably dramatic, and then you can watch the attack(s) take place. This often results in the exploding of heads, arms and various other entrails, more so than attacking in normal mode would.
The second difference between Elder Scrolls IV and Fallout 3 is the way you level up. In the old game you leveled up your core skills by using them. If you wanted a higher agility you jumped around a lot, and this got you a higher agility. In FO3 you are for the most part stuck with the levels you initially “rolled”Â. In return for this sacrifice however you earn “Perks”Â and “Skills”Â, sadly without a Z. Every time you level up you earn Skill Points and 1 Perk point, to be used however you wish. The higher your character level (Up to a limit of 20) the more perks you earn.
Skills allow you to allot points in various ways. If you prefer to use assault rifles or shotguns, you would add points to your Small Guns skill. Your skill level can go as high as 100, though doing this will likely mean you are razor sharp at one thing but bluntly dull at something else. If you prefer to play the game like a thief, there is the “Sneak”Â skill. If you want to be able to talk your way out of just about anything, there is the “Speech”Â skill, etc. I found that some skills are more useful later on in the game then they are in the beginning. Sneak for one, isn’t really all that useful until you can acquire a perk at level 14. For an enjoyable play experience I’d recommend that you focus on one weapon type. By that I mean melee, small guns, and big guns. Doing anything else will just make you wish you hadn’t, as average skill with a rifle and average skill with a flame thrower isn’t nearly effective as expert skill with either. You can also invest your skill points in energy weapons but they are a huge waste of skill points if used early, as you aren’t likely to find anything you can use until you are much closer to the end game, and ammunition is sparse.
Perks range from the useful to the obscure and bizarre. These perks include “Bloody Mess”Â, where all your enemies will erupt in a fountain of blood, and the “Gun Nut”Â perk, which increases your repair and Small gun skills. The perks will all do something to assist your gaming experience, but you may find that the ones you want aren’t available until later in the game. Perks are also one of the few ways you can increase your core strengths, and only if you sacrifice a perk to do it. To do this you choose the “Intense Training”Â perk. It allows you to add a point to any of your basic abilities, be they strength, intelligence, charisma and so on. You can actually, if you bother yourself, create a Fallout 3 version of Wolverine. Two of the perks you can acquire are Solar powered (which gives you something of a self healing ability) and Adamantium Skeleton (well duh). You can then attach death claws to your arms and presto, instant Logan, bub.
The joy of these RPGs is that you can choose to be the hero or the villain, and like KOTOR and Oblivion before it, FO3 does an excellent job of giving you subquests to both grind up your level and also show just how big a prick you can really be. In fact unlike some games, the real joy of a game like Fallout 3 is not the main quest, but all the small side quests you encounter. There’s an enormous amount of them in the game. So many in fact that I was unable to get to many of the cooler ones. Unfortunately, unlike Oblivion, there is no after story game play. Once you complete the main storyline the game is over, fade to black.
During your quest you will travel through much of the ruined District of Columbia. You can see what happened to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Archives, the DC metro (or at least it’s fictional version, I’m told at least one of the stops doesn’t actually exist) and various other landmarks. You WILL see the Jefferson Monument, the Pentagon, and the Washington Monument. You can visit all of the various tourist traps, if you can find them. And that is no easy task. Every street is at some point or another covered in rubble. Not a little bit, but a lot of it. Buildings half caved in, or mountains of garbage that cannot be conquered even if you were Sir Edmund Hilary. So instead you must make your way underground, and here again the game has to be compared to Oblivion because the game feels exactly like Oblivion at this point. When I first went into the subway I was immediately struck by a sense of DéjÃƒÂ vu, as I thought to myself ok, this is how they updated the caves of Cyrodil. Then I was struck by a ghoul or three. It’s ok. I survived. They didn’t.
I have to point out that while I do understand Washington would be a primary target should the United States ever get into a nuclear exchange with Russia or China, I cannot forgive just how difficult it is to get around the city. If you have to find some place within the city limits it is like trying to get to Mount Doom. When you take up a quest to find the National Archives, say, and it takes you hours of slugging your way through ghouls and super mutants and mercenaries and raiders, and you get to a spot where you should be able to see the damned building but can’t because of the pile of rubble that is there to keep you from just walking around the city unfettered, its annoying but ok, design choice, fine. To then say ok, I guess I have to use the subway and then not be able to find the damned subway is just ridiculous.
If fast travel was not in this game I do not know if I would have finished it, enjoyable as the rest of the game is. For those of you reading who are saying to yourselves geez, can’t this guy use the waypoints like I did? Yes there is a system of way points on your map but it’s not very useful. So congratulations on being able to pathfind. I suggest you gather your equipment and get ready for the coming apocalypse. After all, the Republicans won’t be out of office forever.
The game takes the concept of living in a post apocalyptic world and runs with it. There are some absurd weapons in the game, including the FAT MAN, which is a tactical nuclear warhead launcher, and even better yet the MIRV, which is a modified FAT MAN capable of launching a number of mini nukes rapidly. Add to that the Rock-It launcher, which will fire whatever you load into it, including scrap metal, books, and small children if you could manage it, and you have a recipe for kooky yet entertaining gameplay.
I also think the developers found the one situation that would allow people to not be offended by having an all out gun battle on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Like Oblivion, there exists the ability to get into places where you don’t belong. By that I mean being able to pick locks and hack into computers. And while the computer hacking does make sense once you understand the concept of it being based on the game “Mastermind”Â, I found the lock picking to be unintuitive from the very beginning, and never did quite get the hang of it.
This is, aside from some minor quibbles, a well made, well thought out game. The amount of things you can do just by exploring, the little things you can read or find along the way is amazing. That little bit of polish alone makes the game addictive. You want to keep going, turn over every rock in search of new and interesting game play. Hell even walking from one end of the map to the other can be addicting, you never know what’s going to happen. You may get ambushed by some mercenaries, or you may happen upon a trading caravan, or you may happen upon a trading caravan getting ambushed by raiders, only to be beaten to the punch of poking your nose in by a Deathclaw that kills everything in sight. Or you might just happen upon a trader that only recently got attacked and killed by some wild beast, thus allowing you to loot whatever remains.
At one point I was walking when I saw a fire fight break out. As I got closer I saw two caravans being attacked by a Deathclaw. Not wanting these sources of possible medicine and ammunition to be destroyed I jumped in and started helping. We beat the beastie, but not without the loss of two people. And it was totally random. You just don’t see things like that in most games.
Bethesda have gone and created a game despite knowing that whatever they produced was going to be picked over with fine toothed comb, and somebody somewhere, likely a number of people, weren’t going to be happy no matter what resulted. That’s what happens when a new developer takes over a classic franchise. So knowing that they went out and made a great game. I can’t sit here and say that Fallout fans need to give it a chance, because I remember the fear that struck my heart when I heard Derek Smart was going to take over the Freespace license. I can’t say approach it with an open heart because that just goes against the nature of being a fan. You know what you love, and anything that is different is likely to suck in your mind. So I will say this. Play it if you want to, and remember that nothing in this game will ruin the memories of Fallout 1 & 2.
For the rest of the world, if you played Bethesda’s last game, Oblivion, and liked it, you will probably find much to like here also. If you didn’t like it, you may not think that the change of scenery and the addition of the VATS system is enough to change your mind.
Fallout 3 is a game which has been released on PC and 360 in addition to this, the PS3 version. I bring this up because it’s clear that the PS3 version was not main system in the development cycle. It’s just not possible to be when the game crashes as frequently as this one does. During the time I had the game it crashed on me 5 times. That’s not so bad, until you know that I only had the game for a week. So in seven days it crashed five times. I search online and discover this isn’t a problem with the 360 or the PC, so the only explanation is the PS3 didn’t get the full attention it needed. In fact I can guarantee it didn’t. Because if it had, the notification of a friend signing into or out of PSN wouldn’t cause the game to pause until the notification goes off screen. I can’t compare the graphics on this version to the others, because I haven’t seen them. However the game has nothing to be ashamed of, except for that little crashing problem and the PSN bug.
Balance: Below Average
Appeal: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Pretty Poor FINAL SCORE: GOOD
Short Attention Span Summary
War never changes but Fallout 3 is constantly changing, with no two encounters being alike, it seems. If you can get past the main plot and dig into the side quests you will find an engrossing game which could have been even better had it shipped as a game that was capable of not crashing.
About The Author
Based out of Toronto Ontario, Michael is a long time reviewer and columnist for Diehard Gamefan, as well as being one of our International Correspondents.