Fallout 3 is a special videogame. It's an open-world role-playing game that delivers an experience unlike anything on the market right now. It's a gripping and expansive showcase of how much depth and excitement can be packed into one videogame, and it does justice to the Fallout franchise. This sequel is the first made by Bethesda, the developers responsible for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. You don't need to play any of their past games or any previous Fallout games to enjoy this one. It stands on its own as a memorable and well-crafted videogame.
The Fallout universe paints a picture of a dystopian future. It exists in what people on the cusp of the atomic revolution in the 1950s saw as the sci-fi world of tomorrow…if several thousand nuclear bombs were dropped on it. It's a quaint sci-fi view of a future filled with atomic cars, robot servants, and incredibly basic computer terminals. A nuclear war has taken away most of these technological comforts, providing the backdrop for a game with a dreary, desperate atmosphere filled with glib and dark humor. It's a world that is both fantastic and somehow believable. And it is one that's exciting to explore.
You play as the Vault Dweller, a blank slate for you to write your story on. The game begins with your birth and then quickly moves through childhood with snapshots of pivotal events, such as the day you get your Pip-Boy 3000. It's a cleverly veiled character creation and tutorial sequence that sets the backdrop of the story. You live in Vault 101, a bunker designed to keep its occupants alive through the nuclear war that ravaged the surface. However, this vault didn't reopen when the war finished and as the opening cinematic informs you, it is here you will die because nobody ever enters or leaves Vault 101.
But that wouldn't make for a very interesting game. At the end of your childhood, you awake to alarms and confusion. Your father has opened the vault entrance and taken flight. The fragile existence of the other vault inhabitants has been shattered. Nothing will ever be the same, especially for you since it is your charge to leave the relative comfort of Vault 101 and search for your father out in the wastes.
When the vault door rolls back and you step into the sun for the first time, the sense of awe and wonder as you gaze across the wasteland that was once the United States' capital is palpable. Life is absent where it isn't hanging on by a thread. Few buildings remain standing, most reduced to piles of rubble. In the distance, you can see what was downtown Washington D.C., a standing but wrecked Washington Monument dominates the skyline as the tallest remaining structure. You can already tell this game is going to be extraordinary.
And then your thoughts turn to survival, just as they have for every other human; for every feral dog; for everything.
The war did more than crumble the United States government and its infrastructure. It left behind a reminder of man's transgressions. The effects of radiation are felt everywhere, none more strongly than in the water. Thirst and desperation are constants in Fallout 3 and you won't know the true definition of either until you drink irradiated water from a toilet to gain a few health points. Water and food can heal you, but almost everything has been poisoned by radiation. You'll have to use medicine to manage the levels of radiation you take in from eating, drinking or wandering into hot zones, creating an unending give and take that underscores the struggle for survival that everyone you meet faces.
Such pressure could make even a good man do bad things. For those who are already bad, it provides the excuse to do great evil and take advantage of the weak. You will have to decide where you fit in this world. If you want to be good, there are beggars to give water to and people that need a champion. If you want to be bad, well let's just say that you won't have any problem finding places to ruin lives. If you haven't figured it out yet, this is not a game for kids or anybody with a developing moral compass. Foul language is pervasive and that is often the smallest sin on screen. Fallout 3 shies away from sexual content and giving you the option to kill little kids, but that's about it. The world is filled with twisted people who do nasty things and you yourself are often presented with the option to perform terrible, terrible acts. Several times while playing as an evil character I found the situations so extreme and wholly wicked that I had trouble taking the low road.
But, as they say, karma is a bitch. The choices you make -- be they good, evil or neutral -- will have far reaching consequences. Take the high road and you'll anger the seedier elements in this semi-society. At that point you'll find hit men trying to take you down. Steal from a shopkeeper and they might close up shop and leave. Blow up an entire city…well you can see how that might change things a bit.
The conversations you'll have with the various people you meet in Fallout 3 range from disturbing to hilarious, but they all have one thing in common: fantastic writing. You'll want to hear everything every person has to say, but to do that you'll have to play the game more than once and likely more than a few times. While the dialogue system doesn't take the cinematic leap that Mass Effect did, it brings so much depth that the simple listed responses become quite powerful. Some perks, stats and skills add new conversation options. If your strength is high, you might be able to intimidate someone. If you're playing as a female character, you might be able to flirt your way through a sticky situation with some men. Or, if your speech skill is high enough, you might be able to lie your way to key information. The way you talk to the people you meet can drastically change the story you're writing.
Unlike many games that offer the level of freedom and choice found here, Fallout 3 has an exciting, top-notch main story. It all comes together for a spectacular climax that is just flat out awesome. Rather than spoil the story, I'll simply say that it does not disappoint. What left me most impressed was how many different ways you can progress through the game. Lying, stealing, hacking, fighting; they're all open for you to use to solve problems. If you play your cards right you can even talk your way into, or luck upon, situations that offer massive shortcuts. The system is so flexible that the possible permutations are almost mind boggling. And yet it all ties back together in the end. And there is a true end to this game. Once you finish Fallout 3 and view the ending, you're booted back to the main menu. You'll have to load up a prior save if you want to continue exploring with that character.
The same level of flexibility and focus is found in the side quests of which there are only a dozen or so primary ones. That may not seem like much, but it goes hand in hand with the focused story. Each of these primary side quests can take a few hours to complete and all of them are excellent. You could easily get lost in these for hours and forget that the main quest even exists. And, like the main quest, each side quest feels organic with numerous routes to completion.
Beyond that are smaller, non-primary side quests that don't have big stories that accompany them. These are your fetch and collection quests that can be useful for building out your character and killing time, but can't hold a candle to the bigger quests.
When it was first announced that Bethesda would be developing Fallout 3, many assumed this would be "Oblivion with guns." While that isn't such a bad prospect, it isn't the case. The heart of the game, experience points, level progression, and character development, runs on an entirely different system. Everything is governed by the base attributes that follow the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (an acronym for each of the 7 base stats) system. Each of these, in turn, play into individual skills which can be improved through leveling up. And, of course, various things you find in the game such as bobblehead collectibles, books, and certain types of armor can further improve your stats.
Unlike Oblivion, you won't be able to perform repetitive actions like swimming or jumping and expect to gain levels. XP is gained through combat, completing quests, finding locations, picking locks and hacking terminals. And that's it. All experience points go into a single pool and when you level up you get to choose how you want to distribute your skill points. These points aren't tied to your actions at all, so you're free to play as you want and then allocate the points to whatever skills you find most important.
Each time you level up, you'll also be given the option to choose a perk. These bonuses are always-on buffs that can do everything from give you a permanent skill or stat boost to reveal locations you haven't visited yet on the map. Some of these are flat-out awesome. The Mr. Sandman perk allows you to instantly kill any sleeping character and get an XP boost for doing it. The Mysterious Stranger perk causes a guy to show up occasionally and blast your enemy into oblivion. You can even get a perk called cannibalism that allows you to feed on humans after you kill them. That would be for those with bad karma only.
The game also doesn't put such an extreme emphasis on leveling up, either. There's a cap at level 20 which took me roughly 40 hours to reach. At that point, you won't even be close to maxing out all of your skills or snagging every perk, which encourages you to go back and start a new character and replay the game. Perhaps the level cap will be lifted when downloadable content releases for Fallout, at least some of which is exclusive to the PC and Xbox 360 versions, but as it stands you'll hit the cap long before you see everything. This is both good and bad. It prevents you from becoming a god-like character, at which point combat wouldn't be exciting. However, it also takes away some of the fun of combat because you don't get any experience points for killing things once you hit the cap.
If you want a single aspect of the game to show your friends exactly how cool Fallout 3 is, you'll go with the combat. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) is the icing on the cake. The entire game can be played in either first or third person (playing in third person isn't nearly as enjoyable) as a straight action game. Your accuracy and damage will still be based on your skills and stats, but if you want this game can be played as a simple action-RPG. However, you'd be depriving yourself of one of the coolest combat systems to ever grace an RPG.
At any point during combat, you can call on VATS to come to your aid. This pauses the action and allows you to target specific parts of your enemy. Aim for the head and you'll do extra damage. Go for the legs and you can slow down a fast creature. If you want, you can even shoot a grenade in someone's hand to blow them up before they can throw it. You'll see how likely you are to score a hit on each part, taking into account distance, obstacles, and your stats. From there, you can queue up a number of attacks based on your Action Points and let it rip.
Each attack through VATS happens in slow-motion while the camera switches to a more cinematic angle. Occasionally, this camera switch can get confused and wind up hiding the action, but most often it delivers an awesome-looking slow-motion attack. Heads get shot off and explode. Arms and legs can get ripped off with spouts of blood pouring from each limb. I once bounced a feral dog off of the ground with an overhand baseball bat swing. The weapons in Fallout 3 are awesome and when you combine them with VATS you get some fantastic results.
One thing that surprised me is how well some of the traditionally non-combat oriented skills are incorporated into the action parts of the game. Sneak, primarily used for shady activities like stealing in towns, can be a lifesaver in combat. A sneak attack is an automatic critical hit. The only thing more effective is pick-pocketing a raider and leaving a hand-grenade in place of the stolen item. If you have a high lockpick skill, you'll find that you can open boxes to restock your ammunition supplies which can be a lifesaver on long quests. Raise your science skill enough and you can hack terminals to open doors and avoid combat entirely. Repair allows you to combine similar weapons by scavenging parts from one to raise accuracy and damage on the fly. You'll want a high level on all of these, as well as the combat oriented skills, but picking which to focus on is part of the role-playing experience.
Even once you've beaten the game and done all of the major side quests, there is still a ton to do. Upon completing the main story for the first time, I loaded up an earlier save and took a look at the world map to see how much ground I had covered. It wasn't even close to everything. In fact, it was almost embarrassing how little I'd seen at a point where I felt I had "beaten" the game. Since then I've played dozens more hours and still have yet to see everything. It took me about 20 hours, some of it spent exploring and doing side quests, to complete the story. You could easily spend over 100 hours trying to do and see everything.
You'll want to see everything, too. Simply exploring the world in Fallout 3 is rewarding as you brave the wastes and slowly expand your horizons. Each new ruin you find tells a story of its former inhabitants (and brings a few XP points for finding it to boot). Part of what makes it so much fun is the excellent way the game scales to you. From the very start of the game, you can find any of the cool weapons if you know where to look. You can also wander into some areas with enemies that will simply slaughter you. As you progress, the enemies will get tougher along with you, though you'll still run into some low-level baddies that your improved character can simply slaughter. This system gives the satisfaction of feeling like a bad-ass without turning the game into a cake-walk.
The weapon scaling is also done quite cleverly. Early on, the good weapons you find will be in various states of disrepair and only have limited ammo. It's sort of a tease, as you find some cool weapons but can only use them in a limited fashion. Even as a tease, it gives Fallout 3 grounding in reality that many RPGs lack (I've never understood why some RPGs have progression where each new town you visit has slightly better equipment than the one prior). It also makes the game more fun early on than most games of this length. Who wants to toy around with crappy weapons for hours while trying to level up? Fallout 3 gives you a taste of the best weapons early which helps to make the combat exciting from start to finish.
Though, it's almost impossible to say that you're actually finished with the game. Even after you've uncovered every location on the map, you'll find that some places to explore don't even pop up on the map as being found. Hidden raider tunnels, sewers that house collectibles and more are still waiting to be discovered. It's enough to make a budget gamer weep with joy. It's incredible just how much compelling content there is here.
It can be quiet out on the wastes while you're exploring and, though it may seem backwards, this minimalist approach to sound only adds to the experience. Your Pip-Boy can pick up radio stations that have a limited set of classic songs and offer some commentary on what is going on in the Capital Wasteland. Wander out of the station's range and you might find yourself with nothing but the sound of wind rustling through decaying trees and blowing dust across the barren plains. While so many games assault your ears with licensed popular music, Fallout 3 proves that less can be more. When that music kicks in to signal a battle or you catch some tunes on your Pip-Boy, it's all the more meaningful and engrossing.
This comes in contrast with the voice work which most definitely does not take a minimalist approach. Massive amounts of dialogue were recorded for conversations and, since you can play the game as either a male or female, many were even recorded twice. All of it is quite good and a testament to how much sound can add to a game. It's one thing to read text of a kid saying something so nasty that I can't write it here. It's another thing entirely to hear it.
Fallout 3 is such an engaging and fantastic experience that it's easy to overlook its few minor flaws, but they do exist and should be mentioned. With any game of this size and scope, you can likely expect a few bugs to slip through the testing process and that is the case here. I had the game crash a couple times, amongst other bugs. In all of these cases, reloading the game has been enough to fix the errors and nothing was frustrating or detrimental enough to give me thought of not recommending the game.
The larger, and far more recognizable, blemish in Fallout 3 that all versions share is the animations. Everything in the world, from the fantastic landscapes to the oftentimes over-the-top personalities therein, comes together to create a believable and engrossing atmosphere. And then you'll see a person or animal move and be given a reminder that this is just a game. The way people move is stiff and lifeless and is a stark contrast to the rest of the outstanding look and feel of Fallout 3. This is especially noticeable in the third-person view. It's great for seeing the unique armor you find, but your character moves awkwardly and doesn't even look like he's interacting with the world he's standing on.
Even with the wanting animations, this game is quite the looker. Browns and grays dominate the color palette, creating a stylized and convincing post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's clear that care has been paid to giving Fallout 3 a look that adds to the atmosphere of desperation. And even as the bleak style provides clear limitations in terms of how much visual variety can put into the game (don't expect to see many greens, blues, or bright colors in this fallen civilization filled with death, decay, and remnants of former glory), Bethesda has used attention to detail to create unique locations that beg to be explored. One small bunker I found contained little more than a skeleton at the foot of a locked door. I searched the ground around him and found a book on picking locks and a bobby pin -- safety was just a few feet away, but unreachable. These little implied stories make it fun to explore every little nook.
If it's pure graphical prowess you're after, the PC version of Fallout 3 is the one you'll want…provided you have a computer that can run the game. The point where top of the line PCs outclassed current consoles has come and gone and even at the same resolution, the extra detail PCs can pump into Fallout 3 is extraordinary. Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions look great, even if they do suffer from occasional framerate issues that cause the game to stutter. The difference in looks between the two console versions is small compared to the leap that comes with a top of the line PC.
If you're looking for more on Fallout 3, check out the Insider Head-To-Head here.
©2008-10-27, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved