Fallout 3 was my game of the year back in 2008, so the obviously titled rerelease rings true for this reviewer. Packaging all five pieces of downloadable content into one product gives players a reason to take the double dip if they missed out on those episodes during their initial run. While these pieces of DLC range in quality, no one can deny that they add a great deal to an already meaty package.
This was my fourth time traveling through the Capital Wasteland, having spent most of my time with the admittedly buggy PS3 version. You begin your life in Vault 101, an underground compound designed to protect its inhabitants from the nuclear holocaust of The Great War between the US and China. Just about the time the cramped hallways and familiar faces begin to give you a serious sense of claustrophobia, your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) goes missing, and you must leave the protection of the Vault in order to find him.
The blinding light of the wasteland comes as an initial relief after spending the better part of two hours encased in fluorescent oppression. Then the focused scenery brings on a feeling of dread and despair. The world we live in today is now gray and ruined, with destroyed homes and bodies littering the environment. Seeing Washington DC crumbling around you will certainly hit home for a lot of Americans, and helps to immerse you in a world that has been destroyed. I could have cared less about the lands in Oblivion because they were simply generic fantasy. I have a real connection to the world of Fallout 3, however. I have seen the Capital Building, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and to see them overrun with super mutants, the Brotherhood of Steel and slave traders respectively hits an emotional chord that few other games can really reach.
Beyond the unique setting, however, is a fairly standard Bethesda RPG. You wander the environment, discovering various locations (that act as towns, dungeons and other places of interest), receive quests from locals in need of aid, and then complete your tasks. The level of freedom in the game is almost overbearing at first. You can walk in any direction once you reach the overworld, though the game does try to steer you toward the nearby town of Megaton. One would think that walking the scorched earth in search of adventure would prove boring at times, but Bethesda has done a masterful job of placing locations that always hold something important. The gas station on the hill may hold ammo, a super mutant, or something even more terrifying, while the satellite tower off in the distance could cause you to make a course correction to investigate. You can fast travel to any of these locations after discovering them, allowing for easy completion of quests and also cutting down on some of the downtime found in the casual strolls through the devastated countryside as the subtle soundtrack invokes a feeling of loneliness.
There are many stories to be told in the Capital Wasteland, but the one involving your father is, unfortunately, the weakest. Though you will take part in some rather elaborate and exciting set pieces, the final conflict and resolution is terribly abrupt, and does not resonate as much as a game of this magnitude should. The side quests provide most of the truly memorable moments, including the retrieval of the Great Emancipator’s private items and rescue (or enslavement) of the citizens of Big Town.
The karma system from previous Fallout games allows you to be a murdering psychopath, virtuous law bringer, or something in-between. You can kill nearly every character in the world, allowing you to take their precious resources for your own survival. I found myself playing rather ruthlessly in the beginning of all of my playthroughs because resources were fairly limited, though I would eventually turn back towards the light in (nearly) every case. You can also acquire many valuable rewards depending on your decisions. These can come in the way of unique weapons or perks to make your character stronger. Leveling up allows you to increase your skills and add unique enhancements that make you feel like a total badass. You may start the game a scared teenager new to the ruined earth, but soon you will be a power-armor wearing force of destruction that few can stand against. Enemies do not scale in difficulty, which is both a blessing and a curse. You will not notice ghouls magically getting stronger, but you also run the risk of finding yourself surrounded by enemies that are simply too tough to take down. Be warned, some of the most dangerous enemies in Fallout 3 lie within the city limits of DC , and you will be gently pushed in that direction quickly if you follow the main quest.
Combat is handled using stat-based first person shooting and VATS, a system allowing you to stop time and directly target different areas of your enemies. You only have a limited amount of time in VATS based on your agility score, however, meaning that some of your shooting will be done in real time. I found the shooting mechanics in the PS3 version to be far too clunky and unreliable to take seriously, but the PC mouse and keyboard setup works much better. Unfortunately, enemy AI is abysmal. They will rarely take cover and are more than happy to chase after you around blind corners without any sense of self preservation. Battles will often degrade into something resembling the American Revolution, with the two sides standing perfectly still and firing until one falls. You will also run into the problem of dice rolls in the game’s engine completely screwing you over. Missing three times with a shotgun despite the fact each shot had a 95% chance of hitting can fill anyone with rage. Though problematic and clunky compared to modern shooters, combat is still satisfying due to the rather brutal nature of the world. Heads and limbs will go flying off of your enemies in slow motion glory with VATS, and the effect never gets old.
All of these praises and criticisms extend to the main feature of the GOTY Edition: the downloadable content. Bethesda went out of their way to support the release of Fallout 3 by putting out new adventures for the Lone Wanderer. These run the gamut from shooting intensive set pieces (Operation Anchorage and Mothership Zeta), to the exploration and quest heavy Pitt and Point Lookout expansions. Of special note is Broken Steel, which extends the original game’s level cap from twenty to thirty, gives a new and more satisfying ending to the main quest, and best of all allows you to continue the game after the credits roll.
I had little interest in Operation Anchorage and Mothership Zeta, as they focus on the already underwhelming combat mechanics of the main game. The Pitt allows for more exploration and difficult choices that are the true highlights of the Fallout franchise. The moral decision at the end of the main quest is delightfully grey, but acts in direct conflict to the karma meter. I would rather have Bethesda take the karma meter away altogether and just allow me to make my own decisions without trying to uphold a certain moral code. The real treat of the show is Point Lookout, which acts as a tiny wasteland full of character and quests for you to complete. The change from the DC countryside and city to something resembling a southern swamp shows that just because it is the apocalypse does not mean you cannot have some visual variety. Each quest is expertly crafted, and easily rivals the best side quests from the main game. There is also a greater focus on survival, not just because the enemies of Point Lookout are incredibly strong, but also because the environment features far more radiation hazards than the DC area. Of course each DLC episode has new armor and weapons for those craving loot.
The amount of extra content on display here rivals a full game release, so seeing it attached to the main quest is almost overkill. Considering each of these DLC pieces was ten dollars originally, this is quite the bargain for those looking to experience the Capital Wasteland for the first time. Hell, you could even justify the purchase if you already owned the game and never bought them!
Just because Fallout 3 has the Game of the Year subtitle does not mean it is perfect, however. The game is notoriously buggy on all three platforms. I have encountered several crashes to the desktop despite the fact I am running on a fairly powerful machine. The lock picking and hacking minigames are fun, but lack any real challenge because you can always quit out and try again when you are about to fail. Certain perks are completely worthless (why waste one on leveling up immediately again?), and others are completely overpowered. This same problem extends to skills, as I have yet to find a use for barter when a strong energy weapon will almost always do the trick. Bethesda also needs to lose the stiff conversation perspectives as well, especially now that BioWare has completely redefined the way we interact with NPCs in Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
Honestly, my score would be substantially lower if based purely on the gameplay portion of Fallout 3. But the game has something that is completely intangible, and that something is immersion. I feel like I am walking the wasteland of DC when I boot the game up. I think about my next move in context of survival. I base my moral choices on personal gain rather than just seeing the opposite outcome of a previous decision. Truth be told, I have seen almost every choice played out in every way except for one because I just cannot bring myself to be that evil. Fallout 3 may be janky and stiff when compared to something from BioWare, but it also feels more alive and oppressive than nearly any other title out there. It is one thing to click a location on a map and then play out a random encounter on your way. It is something entirely different to see an unknown structure in the distance and wonder if you will survive long enough to see it.