Fallout 3 barely had a chance to exceed expectations. Between the presupposing Fallout fanbase and their adherence to tradition and the critical acclaim awarded to the company’s previous project, Oblivion, and the challenge to improve, Bethesda was setting itself up for failure. Adding to this pressure was an enormous mountain of self-generated hype to live up to. On the day of Fallout 3’s release, Bethesda must have held their collective breath in waiting for what would potentially be a public outcry of blasphemy. Instead, they received acclaim equal to or greater than that from Oblivion, for they had created a profound masterwork and one of the most hauntingly beautiful virtual worlds to date.
Most gamers want to know two things about Fallout 3 prior to purchasing it: whether it felt like Oblivion and whether it felt like the original Fallout games. As an ardent fan of Fallout 1 and 2 and a critic of Oblivion, I worried about these potential game-wreckers as well. My worrying proved to be a waste of time. Not long after starting Fallout 3, I realized that Oblivion’s influence was apparent, but shallow, and flashbacks to Cyrodiil were mercifully infrequent. Bethesda has significantly improved on almost every aspect of the open-world RPG formula. As for its faithfulness to the originals, the verdict isn’t quite so clear. The elements and quirks of the Fallout universe are present, but the change in perspective and graphical style transforms the original experience into something that feels decidedly different. Fallout 3 shouldn’t be judged based on the past, however, and the Capital Wasteland will quickly dissolve any dread that may result from the shadow of its predecessors.
Fallout 3 opens strong with the classic line “War never changes,” delivered by Ron Perlman just like in the originals. The proceeding character creation sequence not only acts as a tutorial, but also introduces the plot and its major players. Born in Vault 101, an underground nuclear fallout shelter, the protagonist comes into the world as his mother leaves it due to birth complications. Brought up by his father, he grows inside the Vault without outside contact, for the Overseer prohibits it. Upon turning 19, however, he must leave the Vault and step into the forbidden wasteland: your father has left without permission and without telling you. Your task is to find him and extract from him his reason for leaving the safety of Vault 101 and his only remaining family.
Fallout 3 succeeds almost immediately in making the player feel emotionally invested in the game, all thanks to the loving father figure, voiced appropriately by Liam Neeson. Of course, it’s up to the player whether to mirror his virtues, but the prerequisites for attachment are there nonetheless. After leaving Vault 101, the plot quests take the player on a bit of a run-around, but that’s not to say nothing awesome happens early on. The plot only improves with time, and after a certain turning point and the motives behind your father’s flight become apparent, a sense of urgency develops unfound in most games. A perpetual motivation to resolve the conflict drives players ever onward. It’s all over rather quickly, and the dramatic presentation and intense action leave you wanting more. The end may be a bit sudden, but the story arc concludes succinctly and satisfyingly with the ultimate karmic choice.
The decision to be a wasteland hero, a slayer of the innocent, or something in between is one of the most crucial choices in determining not only the outcome of the story, but the individual interactions along the way. Called Karma, Fallout 3’s system of good and evil is a balanced, rewarding one, rarely fickle, but sometimes easily manipulated. Stealing, for example, always earns the player bad karma. The karmic scale is easy to control, but the game succeeds in making the player feel appropriately holy or unholy depending upon his actions. Evil dialogue choices are almost too wicked to pass up at times, but if talking gives way to fighting, there are always satisfying ways to bring about someone’s bloody, bloody death.
Combat is split between standard first-person action and turn based V.A.T.S., the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. The former relies on both the player’s accuracy and character stats. The latter pauses the action and allows players to target specific body parts entirely based on in-game stats without regard to player skill. Both types of combat injure specific body parts, leading to crippling effects such as blindness, but V.A.T.S. allows for greater precision when doing so. V.A.T.S. is generally the preferred method of combat in tight spots, but a player must keep an eye on his action points; if they run out, no more V.A.T.S. Using both systems alternately, when the need arises, works surprisingly well and never feels awkward. Switching between the two never diminishes the cinematic experience and slow-motion super mutant deaths that result from using V.A.T.S never grow tired. And there are never too few methods of destruction.
Provided with an incredible number of weapons, players can punch, slice, explode, vaporize, nuke, shoot, and pump full of railroad spikes any raider, slaver, or mutated insect that walks by. Although the emphasis is on firearms, Bethesda was sure to include a few creative and fun melee and unarmed weapons. Some of the sweetest kills result from player-created weapons, such as the railway rifle that can pin heads to walls. These arms are created by combining a few simple items at a workbench. If weapons aren’t enough, players have access to plenty of chems and supplementary apparel to boost stats temporarily or permanently. There are even a few other adventurers willing to accompany the character, so long as their morals generally align. And more than likely, weapons won’t be enough to survive.
The theme is sacrifice and survival, and players will certainly feel the thrill of it all. Trekking across lonely landscapes and traversing dark and broken buildings constantly tries the survival tactics of every wasteland wanderer. Fallout 3 isn’t easy and until the very end there will always be challenging adversaries willing to rip your head off with a shotgun shell. There’s something humbling and exciting about being mauled to the grave by a deathclaw at full health at level 15. There are plenty of methods of survival, but perhaps even more exist to kill you. Even the water you drink threatens to poison you with radiation. All that said, death has never been quite so beautiful.
From the moment you step into the pallid light of the wasteland to the moment you walk over a ridge to see the ruins of downtown D.C., Fallout 3 stuns. Dusty beams of light and scattered household objects left to rot in the post-war world characterize interiors, but the true beauty lay outside in the absolute desolation of the land. Perhaps only Bioshock has better established an atmosphere so oppressive and surreal. The world of Fallout 3 is wholly bleak and gray, but I never tired of seeing it. The characters and enemies that populate the world are similarly colored and appropriately designed, if not adeptly animated. Fortunately, humans are no longer the glowing lumps of wax found in Oblivion, and miscellaneous graphical glitches are rare enough so as not to break the illusion. The technical quality isn’t always amazing, but the art design more than compensates. It might be wonderful, but it’s equally lonely, and depression may set in after a few hours. Not to worry: there’s always the radio.
Listening to the whistling wind while stepping over irradiated pools and dodging bullets is powerful in its own right, but tuning in to one of the wasteland’s radio stations creates an entirely different feeling. The song selections and DJ talk between songs runs from clever and comical to poignant, and the juxtaposition of the decaying world with The Ink Spots has no match in video games. With the radio off, sound effects are effective cues to incoming dangers, and players might get to hear some of the original soundtrack. The music is generally subdued, but it works well when used and sounds cinematic at the right times. The occasional celebrity voice actor offers his talents and provides the strongest performances. Other voice actors, including some of those from Oblivion, are somewhat weak at times, mostly due to illogical emphasizing. They are otherwise believable, and the vocal hiccups only slightly reduce the overall feeling of the world. As soon as you take a moment to recognize the scope of the Capital Wasteland, you’ll forget about it anyway. There’s so much more to worry about.
The task of exploring the wasteland is an enormous one, and not only due to the sheer size of the overworld. There are factories and ruins to explore as well as extensive metro tunnels and sewers. Perhaps the most progressive change, the dungeon design removes the sense of randomness found in Oblivion. Each type of structure has a logical, unique design fitting for its pre-war function. The realism achieved by this attention to detail allows for the development of each location’s history. The player may begin to put together a sort of biography for an old farm’s inhabitants, for instance, almost like a post-apocalyptic archaeologist. The abandoned Vaults provide the most intriguing and frightening pasts, filled with violence and unethical human experiments. Much of the past is there to be discovered, if only the player explores a bit and hacks into the occasional terminal.
Some computer terminals are locked throughout the game, as well as doors, both circumvented through brief mini-games. Unlocking computers requires the player to locate the correct password in a Mastermind-inspired word game. Locks on doors can be picked with bobby pins by manipulating the analog sticks. These minor diversions serve to bolster the game’s realism, but present a source of frustration at times. Both mini-games are governed by a character skill and only those with high skills will be capable of foiling the most stalwart doors.
A character’s skills are determined by his core stats (S.P.E.C.I.A.L., each letter representing one stat, such as Strength). The thirteen skills are typically only used for one major gameplay mechanic, but can provide additional dialogue options and the like. Gaining levels grants skill points, hit points, and actions points as well as a perk. These abilities vary greatly and may unlock special attacks, increase stats, or assist in some other interesting way. A player can only choose twenty of these, one at each level, and so the choice of which perks to give up can be difficult, but there are always sacrifices to be made in the wasteland. Unfortunately, the level cap is somewhat restrictive; players will reach level twenty before exploring the whole of the game. Hopefully Bethesda will remove the cap in the future (before the bombs drop). Thankfully, character progression is experience based, and many things yield experience points, including completing quests.
About a dozen side quests constitute the majority of Fallout 3’s optional, structured adventuring, not to mention the main storyline. These major quests are more developed than other, more fetch-oriented ones strewn about that typically award little experience and bottle caps (Fallout 3’s currency). Many of the major quests offer somewhat exclusive experiences that mindless wandering won’t produce. Quest rewards are often valuable and there are always multiple paths to choose within each quest, but they’re unfortunately less dramatic than the main storyline. When compared to the main plot quests, they could have been better. The characters are often intriguing, however, and some of the decisions players make won’t easily be forgotten. At the outset, players might feel slightly disappointed by some of the anticlimactic quests, but in the end, they go a long way in fleshing out the Capital Wasteland with differing values, motives, and characteristics. The resulting product is incredibly satisfying and possesses a sometimes disturbing level of realism.
Ultimately, Bethesda triumphed over all odds with Fallout 3. Defeating hype and the need to live up to the past, the Fallout 3 team created an intensely profound world and worthy successor to the franchise. Nothing can more easily shake the chauvinist in each of us than the sight of the decaying Washington Monument ever present on the horizon. Strongly thematic in areas such as patriotism, survival, sacrifice, and morality in a land of overwhelming hardship, Fallout 3 is unforgettable. As if an atomic bomb had dropped on our world, Fallout 3’s shadow will forever stick to the walls of the video game vault.