In Fallout 3 Bethesda married the world of the classic Fallout games to it’s own established RPG framework.
As mentioned in my previous review, comparing Fallout 3 to its predecessors is similar to comparing Planescape Torment to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Both are vastly different sub-species of the RPG animal.
Many players preferred the classic Fallout mechanics and style over Bethesda’s model. I believe this was due to the shift from the original’s heavy use of text to facilitate its mechanics, narrative and dialogue – to Fallout 3’s more direct interactive mechanics, streamlined interface, full speech and more active combat.
This shift sacrificed depth. Bethesda’s model contained entirely voiced characters, direct controllable combat and a tab based interface – meaning less static time remained to convey detailed information through paragraphs of text.
Less could be told directly. Fallout 3’s gameplay loop really couldn’t portray character quirks or lore through static screens mid-conversation or mid-battle; not without severely disrupting the pace of gameplay.
Technical limitations may have fueled the polarizing opinions between the old and new. Characters in the classic games were drawn from a limited pool of character models with little stand out features. They made no gestures or facial movements nor possessed voices (except for a select few NPCS).
Oddly enough this may have actually helped immersion. Your imagination filled in the blanks and details in an almost book-like manner as you read.
Fallout 3’s NPCs hold you still while they talk, move roboticaly and have the uncanniest of valleys stretched across their faces. They speak and inform, but are poor replications of life. They possess more detail and gestures than the NPCs of the classic series, ironically causing them to feel less human. Technology was used to fill in the details, which is an inadequate substitute for imagination.
That’s not to say the NPC’s aren’t interesting. Fallout 3 contains some well written characters and stories. You just never get to know characters with the same intimacy as you could in the original games.
Aside from this change in presentation, a noticeable shift also occurred in personality. The classic games were the vision and voice of Brian Fargo. The black humor and dark tone felt very unique and as much a part of the world as the people and locations.
Brian Fargo’s absence likely explains Fallout 3’s considerably different personality. Fallout 3 is more straightforward with it’s humor, themes and tone – though unique and interesting in it’s own right, it lacks the distinct personality generated by every aspect of the originals.
These changes to Fallout 3 aren’t necessarily negative. I enjoyed Fallout 3 immensely and is one of my favorite games.
What I have mentioned is how I understand people’s negatives reactions. Those that wanted more Fallout 2 possessed an expectation that was out of line with reality. The classic Fallouts had very much a distinct atmosphere and personality – one that was impossible to repeat without the inclusion of that person (Fargo).
Furthermore, technology and gaming trends changed drastically from when Fallout 1 and 2 were created to when Fallout 3 was released. Heavy use of text was being replaced with alternative, more interactive narrative methods. Other than making New Vegas first, I believe there was no better way to make Fallout 3.
On to the game
If you have played Oblivion, Skyrim and to a (much) lesser extent Morrowind, then you will have an idea of the Fallout 3 experience. A massive open world with many engaging side quests, locations and NPCs. The world can be a joy to explore and there are many ‘Bethesda’ moments whereby a random stop on your journey will evolve into a larger adventure, hooking you until you reach it’s conclusion.
It’s the ‘What’s that over there?’ moments. You enter a seemly random building to discover bodies and messages scattered in the aftermath of a battle. A story begins to unfold as you explore the environment.
45 minutes later you find yourself deep underground, battling ghouls and face to face with their leader, who has gone mad after uncovering a mysterious obelisk.
The above incident began because I got distracted while trekking between towns. Many nights I stayed up long past my bedtime because I wanted to see the end of a story that I accidentally uncovered.
On the eyes
Graphically the game has aged, but not at all to the point of hideousness or non-playability. The post-apocalyptic aesthetic helps forgive the aging process as the world is designed to be an ugly, destroyed place.
Conversely, this aesthetic can at times be problematic to game play. Most items in the world are interactable, including much of the environmental clutter. Buildings are littered with near useless burnt books, scraps of paper, junk metal, bins, clothes and so on, all of which can make finding the useful stuff difficult. One vault/dungeon required a key to progress, a key that was camouflaged by the surrounding grey/brown environment and junk.
On the ears
Conversations with NPCs are a bore and involve getting locked into a face to face dialogue mode while near static NPC vomit sentences. I resorted to just skipping spoken dialogue once I had read the subtitles, as standing still while the NPC looked straight back could barely keep my attention.
Gunplay is considerably challenging at the beginning as accuracy is awful. This isn’t due to broken mechanics, but simply due to the nature of being level 1 and possessing low combat skills.
This initial inaccuracy is compensated by the V.A.T.S targeting system, allowing you stop combat and pick parts of the enemy to shoot. Parts are given in percentages so you can always aim for the most likely area to hit.
Combat begins to feel very satisfying when you eventually skill up your proficiecy. Shooting directly becomes more fun, but V.A.T.S is still useful and entertaining as it’s slow motion, visceral explosion of limbs and blood is a ballerina of gory fireworks.
On the brain
Story wise the game is competently written. The primary characters are effectively sympathetic people and many of the other NPCs you meet are written well enough that you want to assist with their quests.
Despite the aforementioned boring conversation system, characters still manage to establish some emotional connection – mainly due to skillful writing and well performed voice acting.
However, Fallout 3 tells many of its stories via the world and its environments rather than through the inhabiting characters.
The main plot is similar to previous Fallouts in that you begin with an initial quest after leaving your Vault (to find your Father) which then opens up to an overarching storyline that covers the entire region.
Washington (or ‘The Capital Wasteland’) is the setting of the game, and is as much a star of the experience as any character. Hours can be lost travelling from place to place and exploring the ruins between. Great use of familiar presidential images, monuments and buildings help give the world it’s own personality.
One of Fallout 3’s greatest successes is its ability to use curiosity to drive gameplay. Halfway through a main quest I may stumble on a small town with subtle signs and notes that grab my interest. My exploration is rewarded by the items I find and experience points, but this exploration is driven by the story presented by the environment. I search the next building as I would turn a page – I want to see where the story leads.
Betheda’s ability to evoke a sense of wonder is in full effect in Fallout 3 and is the strongest element they have brought to the Fallout world.
As with the originals there are moments of horror and use of dark themes, but there is noticable difference in tone. In Fallout 1 & 2 the horror tended to be based on the suffering that humans will inflict on others, which I found to be the more disturbing.
Fallout 3’s horror is more explicit than the originals, with gore and macabre elements primarily used to unsettle the player. Antagonists are outright murderous and sadistic. Many locations can be genuinely creepy, such as raider camps that display hooked and chained mutilated corpses or the Supermutant dens that are akin to abattoirs, where people are kidnapped, diced and hung in nets.
Abandoned buildings and subways are infested by feral ghouls that will swarm you if detected. Sneaking around can be nerve wrackingly intense as you attempt to stealth kill enemies without alerting others.
The first major issue with the game is that it randomly crashes. After some considerably frustrating searches I was able to obtain a fix. The issue is caused by either Multi-threading processors or incompatibility with Windows 10. Either way it’s indicative of the infuriating condition that older games are released. You can’t prevent a game from aging, publishers, but you can at least keep it running.
I eventually fixed the issue by finding a guide on how to correct an INI file. This isn’t something that happens on Gog.com. You hear that STEAM?!
That wasn’t so much a criticism of the mechanics of the game rather than its technical failings. What IS a mechanical criticism is that your level cap is 20, something that I hit barely halfway into my playthrough.
This killed a considerable amount of my enthusiasm to continue playing. Generally every skill/action performed (lock picking, combat, sneaking, repair etc…) gives experience. So wandering off and exploring ruins felt rewarding. You knew that even if there was little story or combat, you were at least progressing your character.
Actions provide no experience points after reaching level 20. This meant I could also no longer obtain perks. There was a noticeable silence to my actions, as the cash register like ‘Ca-ching’ sound when gaining experienced ceased.
There were still ways to progress my character through minor skill books, bobblehead perks and just better weapons and items, but the removal of this trickle of experience points left me feeling deflated.
Despite this empty feeling, the aforementioned world curiosity still existed. By the end of the game I uncovered about 90 percent of the areas on the map, many of which aren’t related to the main quest at all – which I feel demonstrates the richness of the world.
There is also an element of the classic Fallout’s Moral system where you can choose to behave immorally, however the game seems to encourage moral actions with no real obvious benefits to immoral choices. This wasn’t necessarily a problem for me, but I understand others appreciate a game that fully supports an antagonist approach.
Fallout 3 possesses all the traits of a Betheda time sink. You intend to play for an hour and realise 3 hours have passed as the world keeps offering little incentives to explore just a bit further. The combat is hilariously gruesome and eventually develops it’s own pleasurable rhythm. The graphics are fine for a game of it’s age and runs well once the initial crash issues are resolved.
Any negatives I have about the game are very much diluted by the positives and at 70 hours of play I can say that the game is worth it’s asking price of a tenner.