Note: This is my first review, and I’m still trying to establish exactly how I’m going to format these.
As mentioned previously, I have very loving feelings towards the Fallout series. I love turn-based tactical combat (Jagged Alliance, X-COM, and Silent Storm also rank among my favorites). I love post-apocalyptic settings. I also love cyberpunk settings, but that doesn’t really apply here…
As with many others, I was somewhat concerned when the Fallout license passed to Bethesda. I knew that one of the things I loved so much about the series, the turn-based combat, was out. The isometric viewpoint was also, out, as stated almost immediately by Bethesda (for those of you who are not aware, Bethesda is known for its first-person RPGs). So, knowing that Fallout 3 is not the Fallout that I fell in love with so long ago, how does it stack up?
Right away I will say that, if you are a fan of Bethesda’s other games, such as Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Obilivion, you will enjoy Fallout 3 (as long as the setting doesn’t turn you off). If you are a fan of Fallout and Fallout 2, you may or may not like Fallout 3. Fallout 3 does do a good job of keeping the spirit of Fallout alive, though. Personally, to me, Fallout 3 truly is the sequel to Fallout 2. It’s the third game in the series and it’s quite enjoyable.
Setting foot outside the Vault for the first time, I’m somewhat startled to find that it’s night time. I’m in an unfamiliar land and I can’t see much of anything. I stumble down the slope and right into a fence. I work my way around the fence and keep pressing on until I come across a small band of traders. I dump some of the excess stuff I snatched from the Vault on my way out, then turn around to be greeted by a giant wall with a robot standing in front of it. I am informed that this is the city of Megaton.
There are a lot of these sorts of situations in Fallout 3. You just sort of feel your way around until you stumble upon something great (or terrible, as the case may be… Vault 106, for example). Decimated buildings, desperate survivors. Wandering the wastes feels like wandering the wastes. It’s quite nice. Well, nice in terms of the game… wouldn’t be so nice in real life.
In the first two Fallout games, travel was handled via a large map. It was broken into zones. Some zones were places to visit, others were just empty wasteland. Each zone was probably something in the neighborhood of 4 square miles or thereabouts. This meant that the entire world in the first two Fallout games was rather huge. It was also sparsely populated. You’d have a small town here, a tiny settlement there, with lots of empty space in between. If there were 60 miles between you and your destination, it would take several game days of traveling to get there. This was all handled with a compressed time scale during travel on the map.
In Fallout 3, on the other hand, travel is handled primarily in first person, walking through the world. A 60-mile trek through nothingness would be extraordinarily boring. As a result, the world is kept smaller, and more densely packed. There’s still plenty of wide-open empty spaces with random encounters in between, though. What this translates into is, somewhat surprisingly, a better game experience. It is radically different from the original games, and yet strikingly similar. Travel times are about the same, and random encounters happen just as often. Except now, instead of staring at some dull map, you’re experiencing the world. You truly are wandering through a barren wasteland, constantly checking your periphery for nasty critters (or worse). It makes journeying in the world fun, instead of just something that has to be done.
Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. In addition to being an acronym fitting of the Fallout world (see G.E.C.K.), V.A.T.S. in Fallout 3 is well thought out and well implemented. As I mentioned above, one of the things I loved about the first two Fallout games was the turn-based combat. While I suppose you technically *could* do full on turn-based combat in an FPS, it wouldn’t be very much fun and would completely go against the idea behind FPS. What Bethesda came up with as a happy middle ground is V.A.T.S.
Anyone who’s been following the development of Fallout 3 is familiar with V.A.T.S. It is a way to pause the combat and target specific body parts. To some extent, it is capable of turning the combat into a turn-based affair. When I first started using V.A.T.S., I was disappointed. You enter the V.A.T.S. screen, pick your target(s) (in the same manner as the first Fallout games, which is great), and then unleash a hail of bullets. Thing is, while you’re firing in V.A.T.S. mode, you cannot move. Which prompted me to think of it as almost useless: no more run-and-gun FPS combat. Instead you just pick your target and stand there while getting shot/smashed.
But therein lies the brilliance of V.A.T.S. I’ll demonstrate with an example from Fallout 2. I’m fighting a golden gecko, which can really wallop me toe-to-toe. Thing is, I’m fast, so my tactic is to jab it with my spear, and run enough paces away to just use up its action points. This keeps me from being attacked after the gecko moves, but ensures that it stops within spear range of me. Perfectly safe. At first blush, you can’t do something like that in Fallout 3 with V.A.T.S. Except that, really, you can. There is absolutely no obligation to use all of your action points in one V.A.T.S. session. The equivalent of my golden gecko tactic in Fallout 3 is to simply fire off one, maybe two attacks, then run away in real-time. Your action points recharge, and you can repeat. V.A.T.S. turns real-time combat into a semi-turn-based affair.
The radio in Fallout 3 is brilliant. From the 50’s-era music to the news broadcasts, it’s great. President John Henry Eden, voiced by Malcolm McDowell (one of my favorites), has a firm, reassuring (and mildly disturbing at the same time) message to deliver to America. Three Dog, voiced by Erik Todd Dellums, updates the inhabitants of the Capital Wastelands on the goings-on in the area. It’s fun to hear the deeds of your character being discussed on the radio, although this is also one area that I find somewhat poorly done (see below).
Conversation and Game Awareness
The dialog in Fallout 3 is really hit-or-miss. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. I remember the first Fallout games really placing a heavy emphasis on great conversation. One example is the difference in conversation choices based upon your character’s intelligence. Fallout 2 has a particularly good example of this in the character of Torr. With a character of normal or high intelligence, Torr is an idiot. Conversations with him consist of his one- or two-word replies to your fully formed sentences. If your character has an intelligence of less than 4, though, you can have complex, intelligent conversations with Torr, because you are both of like mind and you understand each other. On the flip side of that, with an intelligence of 4, your conversations with other NPCs are more like Torr’s conversations with everyone else, to the point that one NPC even complains that you’re “another one.”
I’ve seen none of this depth in Fallout 3‘s conversations. In fact, some dialog options don’t even make sense. Your character is bizarrely aware of things he has no business being aware of. For example, in Megaton, you mystically know the name Maggie before ever seeing said person or even hearing the name from anyone. The same thing happens with quest information throughout the game. You just magically know about things. Clearly more attention should have been paid to this.
Similarly, Three Dog has a mystical awareness of your deeds. I can understand information finding his ears quickly, but when literally one minute he’s calling you an exemplar, and the next a neutral observer, without anyone having seen you do anything, things are a bit off. Specifically, he was recounting my recent deeds, and my karma happened to be high from completing a recent quest, so he kept referring to me as an exemplar (my title in game at the time). I’m attempting to keep my character neutral (mainly because I find I’m a bit of a klepto, so end up neutral most of the time anyway), so I was stealing some random things about town until my karma dropped enough for me to be a “neutral observer.” Immediately, Three Dog’s back on the radio musing about whether I can be trusted or not because I’m simply a neutral observer. He must be watching my TV, because nobody but me saw what was going on…
While moving about the wasteland is done in first-person, there is an annoying cordoning off of large sections of the world into sort of pseudo-zones. There are areas where, in order to access them, you must enter the subway tunnels and travel in a pretty much linear manner, dealing with whatever baddies happen to be down there, and the exit on the other side to be in another small zone. Clearly, Bethesda has the streaming-world tech down pat. Oblivion had a huge world in which you could walk from one end to the other without ever encountering a loading screen or zone boundary. Even in Fallout 3, a huge chunk of the world is just open and free to roam in. But when you get into some heavy city areas, you’re forced to navigate via the pseudo-zone system. Thank goodness you can quick travel once you’ve discovered the areas.
The Fallout series has a character creation and leveling system that is very particular. You have your attributes, known as S.P.E.C.I.A.L – Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck. Then you have your skills, such as small guns, sneak, lock pick, etc. Finally, there are your perks, which give you some extra little edge. In the first two Fallout games, your attributes were locked post character creation, which made your initial setup of them incredibly important. You really had to know what you wanted your character to be. Your skills were used all over the place, and if you didn’t have the skill to do X or Y, you simply couldn’t do X or Y, and that’s it. Perks were granted every few levels, and were truly, truly special.
Fallout 3 kind of tosses that out the window a bit. Skills, S.P.E.C.I.A.L., and perks still exist, but they all seem sort of watered down. Your skills, for the most part, don’t seem to count for much. Sure, lock pick, repair, and science still operate mostly like the old Fallout, given that you simply cannot pick certain locks if your skill isn’t high enough, etc. But the firearm skills seem much less useful. Even with little skill in a type of weapon, you can still fair pretty well in the FPS combat (just not so much in V.A.T.S.). Some skills are almost useless, even. Your attributes can now be increased via a perk, so your starting attributes don’t really mean quite so much. You even get a perk every level now, so they feel less special. It’s all there, it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like Fallout.
The first two Fallout games were brutal. Truly, you were a little sheltered peon trying to survive in a harsh wasteland of gangs and mutants. You had to watch every step you took, every move you made. Pick a fight with the wrong guy, and you would be lying dead on the ground in no time flat. Fallout 2 was even more brutal than Fallout. Undoubtedly, this turned some people off to the series, but for the rest of us, it was awesome.
Fallout 3, on the other hand, is almost easy. I’ll likely try on a harder difficulty in my next play-through, but this go-round, I’m on normal, and it’s stupidly easy. I’ve encountered one relatively difficult battle, and even that I could handle with a bit of “tactic” (read: I ran back and forth in front of a doorway firing at the opponent on the other side). I mean, the presumably trained security forces in Vault 101, armed with batons and guns, were no match for a 19-year-old geek (lock pick, science, and repair were my highest skills) with a baseball bat? I should have been mince meat, instead I’m popping the head off the head of security with one shot. Granted, things get a bit harder once you leave the Vault, since that is the tutorial level, but still. I haven’t met a raider who could so much as pretend to challenge me. Pretty much the only time I’ve died is when I stepped on a well-placed land mine or hit a trip wire…
Fallout 3 is a game in the spirit of the Fallout series. To some, it may not earn its title. To others, it’s worthiness was never in doubt. To me, it’s kind of somewhere in the middle. Fallout 3 is a great game. Were it called something other than Fallout, I’d still enjoy it. Let’s all be perfectly honest with ourselves here, though. Bethesda bought the Fallout license from a dying Interplay. While the game may not quite be up to the level of the first Fallout, neither was Fallout 2. Fallout 3 is the only Fallout 3 we’ll ever get, and it’s a perfectly good game with many hours of enjoyment to be had. The team that worked on Fallout 3 clearly know and love the Fallout world, and paid their respect to it. Bethesda put a lot of hard work and effort into creating a great experience, and hopefully their next Fallout title will be even better.