I’ll admit it: Fallout 3 had me fooled. About twenty hours into the game, as I wandered through the wasteland running and gunning the latest super mutant in V.A.T.S, I thought Fallout 3 was one of the greatest RPGs ever made. For those of you who regularly read my reviews, this may be shocking, since you know I am an old school gamer to the core, and yet here I was, having the time of my life with a first-person shooter. Unfortunately, even though Fallout 3 portrays one of the most compelling worlds ever seen in a videogame, the ending of the game is so anti-climatic that it ultimately left me wandering again, seeking a classic RPG to fulfill my thirst.
Fallout 3 is set in the late 23rd century, in a post-apocalyptic version of the Washington D.C. metro area. However, rather than being a futuristic time line based on present-day America, the game features a world set in the cold war culture and values of the 1950s. As a result of this interesting dynamic, Fallout 3 brilliantly illustrates what creative minds can do with a well-constructed narrative world. From the clothing to the Pip Boy 3000, Bethesda did an absolutely phenomenal job in convincing the player of the future of America.
The game opens in Vault 101, as your unnamed and ungendered protagonist begins life as a child oblivious to the world outside the vault’s underground walls. As you begin to grow up and listen to your Dad (brilliantly voiced by Schindler’s List’s Liam Neeson), Fallout 3 contains one of the greatest character creation systems ever made. Your baby book is a way to assign stats, your coming-of-age birthday party garners you a Pip Boy (a tricorder-like computer device, complete with radio), and you are given an exam that concludes your youth and ultimately decides your initial skill set. By the end of your time in the Vault, you will have been blown away by the time spent by Bethesda in creating the initial game sequence.
After you are thrust out of the vault, you become a wanderer in the wasteland with only your soul and your Pip Boy as your guide. As you find your bearings and see the sights, you begin the main quest to find your father and discover why he felt he needed to leave the vault. Along the way, you find a tremendous amount of side quests which range from freeing slaves in honor of Abraham Lincoln to searching the world for thirty bottles of delicious Nuka Cola Quantum. While the side quests remain consistent and pretty stellar throughout, I have a problem with the result of the main quest. As I mentioned in my introduction, I was fooled about halfway through the main quest. The search for your father is compelling enough for you to wander endlessly through the wasteland. However, after a dramatic and interesting tragedy about three-fourths of the way through the adventure, the main quest really tails off. By the time you reach the Citadel for the last time and hear the out-of-place Paladins say “Hail” yet again, you are ready for the game to be over. The first time I finished the game and reached the fairly pathetic conclusion, my PlayStation 3 crashed.
Metaphorically and literally, I felt it was poetic justice.
My problem with the end of Fallout 3 is that after playing a game that feels so epic, so well thought out, and so well constructed, the climax needs to be complementary to the rest of the narrative world. The game claims multiple endings, but they are all interchangeable, and they all leave the player frustrated. While some may argue that on the Xbox 360 version, the DLC may remedy some of my complaints, I find that to be a poor rationale. How would we have felt if Neeson had said at the end of Schindler’s List, “This ring, four, or five more. This car…” followed by a voiceover line about war continuing forever and a “To Be Continued?” Ultimately, Fallout 3’s ending is below average and the impression of the game is lessened as a result.
Because gameplay has been talked about ad nauseum by so many, I will be brief. Fallout 3 functions in much the same way as Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. After setting up your character at the beginning of the game, you gain levels by defeating enemies and by completing tasks. As you progress through the game, you can assign perks that give bonuses to your skill set or give you unique attributes, such as being a robotics expert or a traveler who has discovered every point in the world. Even though the game functions as a first person shooter, it also contains a turn-based element with V.A.T.S, which allows you to stop time and target certain parts of your enemy. If you want to attack an enemy’s head, you will have a lower chance to hit, but success will give you an instant kill. If you want to shoot at an ant’s legs to prevent it from charging at you, you can do that. If you want to take out a Super Mutant’s missile launcher, feel free to do so. I am not a first-person shooter nut, but the V.A.T.S. system allowed me to complete the game with little to no difficulty.
While some of the gameplay elements are fairly nuts and bolts (finding quests, following blinking arrows, and reloading ammo), the game really does appeal to all types of gamers. Those of you who are completionists can try to find all of the twenty bobbleheads and complete all of the sidequests without a walkthrough. Those of you who are into challenges can set the difficulty to hard and try to complete the game with only melee weapons. Evil-doers can try completing the game by constantly killing people, and generally doing things to lower your in-game karma. It is your choice, and that is the beauty of Fallout 3.
While the gameplay is “merely” solid, I found the graphics to be exemplary. Fallout 3 is one of the best-looking games of this console generation. From the color palettes in the vault to the desolated look of the wasteland, Bethesda spared no expense or detail in constructing their world. By the time you get your first glimpse at the dilapidated Washington Monument, you are thrilled with the final product. The only complaint I have is minor, and it is the lack of variety in monsters and the lack of bosses. That’s right, Fallout fans, the game is completely devoid of any bosses. What good is a post-apocalyptic world if there is no over-irradiated evil-doer to guard it?
The music and sound effects of Fallout 3 are stellar. From the various sounds of gunfire to the well-voiced characters, Fallout 3 constantly exceeds the player’s expectations. The main score to the game is properly scary, and the inclusion of Three Dog Radio and the Enclave’s station on your Pip Boy puts the icing on the cake. Do yourself a favor: buy a surround sound package, turn off the lights, crank up the volume, and try to tell me you’re not scared when you hear a ghoul attack you from behind.
The controls in this version of Fallout 3 are extremely buggy. For example, in an attempt to escape from a Super Mutant Behemoth, I actually got stuck underneath a building due to the shoddy controls. The jump function was average at best, and I found the camera clunky at times, especially when you have followers. The game does get a few bonus points for button configurations, and targeting enemies was pretty solid, especially from a crouched position.
Although I have not played the PC or Xbox 360 version of the game, I did find the PS3 version of the game to have some noticable technical problems. It crashed on me at least half a dozen times, generally while fast travelling from one place to another or during important scenes. For example, the game crashed during the G.O.A.T. exam (part of the character creation process) and three times during the last act of the game. My PlayStation 3 has never crashed outside of Fallout 3, so I have to assume it is a faulty version. If you have an option, I encourage you to buy the game on another platform.
From the remarkable Museum of Technology’s Carousel of Progress clone to Pleasantville’s Tranquility Lane, Fallout 3 contains some of the most memorable moments ever seen in a video game. With tremendous graphics, addicting gameplay, and a musical score you’ll cry over, it may seem like one of the best games ever created. However, like a four course meal at a five-star restaurant that ends with an inedible dessert or a Super Bowl with a sub-par fourth quarter, Fallout 3 falls just short of legendary status. The DLC for the 360 version of the game may help it reach a proper conclusion, but that does not help those of us who are playing it on the PS3. As it stands, Fallout 3 remains just a very good title, and not a great one.