Review by ayame95

"Open-ended Adventuring “After the Bomb”"

The first two entries in the Fallout series, PC games released by developer Black Isle in the late 1990's, have become cult classics and a legend unto themselves over the past decade. Although Black Isle is no more, the rights to the series (with the exception of the privilege to make an MMORPG) were purchased by Bethesda, best known for their Elder Scrolls series. Fallout 3 is an entirely different style of game than the first two games, although there are many references and the overall tone remains the same. The transition has brought many changes to the series, many of which are good but some that are questionable in their value. This review will offer an overview of those aspects, with a focus on aiding the reader in their decision about whether to purchase the game.

One aspect has to be made very clear about Fallout 3: The game is incredibly similar to Bethesda's previous game, Oblivion. The engine is the same, as is the overall feel of the game. This includes virtually all aspects of gameplay with only a few exceptions. Anyone interested in this game would do well to keep this fact in mind when making their decision.

Fallout 3 is an open-ended, western-style roleplaying game. The player designs their own main character and spends the game wandering around the game world, a large map populated with open wilderness, cities and towns, ruins and many other features. There is a main quest to be followed, but there are also a very large number of sidequests to follow, locations to be found and general adventuring that has nothing to do with the central, required part of the game. One can literally do anything in the world: go anywhere, talk to anyone (or kill them and loot their body), pick up anything and take it with you, etc. Few limitations are placed on the player, although there are some necessary sacrifices (you cannot attack or kill children, for example). This element is incredibly fun and roleplaying fans will have little trouble wasting hours away in this game.

The roleplaying elements of Fallout 3 work well, and Bethesda has continued to improve their character development system. The game begins with a brief opening sequence that is far more linear than the rest of the game. This section acts as the character creation process, either assisting you or allowing you to assign everything on your own. A certain number of points are given to be distributed among the standard set of attribute (strength, agility, etc.), as well as among a plethora of skills that determine each character's ability in various tasks such as weapon use, item use, lock picking, sneaking and many others. Unlike the Elder Scrolls series, these skills do not improve with use but rather the character is given a set number of points to distribute as they see fit each time they level-up (via experience points accumulated by completing various tasks).

Each level-up also affords the character the chance to choose one “perk” which grants a special ability. Some of these perks just give attribute, skill or experience bonuses, but many are quite creative and more fun. One of this reviewer's favorites was the “mysterious stranger” perk which causes a trench coat-and-hat wearing man (reminiscent of a film noir detective character) to occasionally appear in battle and finish off one's enemies with his trusty magnum. Some of these perks even open up dialogue options or paths that are not available to the player otherwise.

Combat has always been a weak aspect of Bethesda's games, and some improvements have been made here. The game plays normally as a first person shooter, although the engine does not really allow for the smoothness of movement and aiming that one might expect from a top-tier shooter.

This is supplemented by the “V.A.T.S.” system that continues the Fallout series tradition of being able to target specific body parts (head, torso or each individual limb). Gameplay freezes and each section of the body is assigned a percentage chance to hit. Commands to attack multiple body parts and even multiple enemies can be stacked, at which point gameplay resumes and the character's attacks are carried out in slow motion. The amount of V.A.T.S. attacks you can use is limited by one's “Action Points” (AP) which return over time, so in reality combat boils down to using a few V.A.T.S. attacks, and then either playing it as a standard shooter or hiding out somewhere while the player waits for his AP to recharge.

At this juncture it should be mentioned that Fallout 3 is incredibly, incredibly violent. This is in line with the previous two games, but even hardened gamers might find themselves somewhat ill at ease after repeatedly seeing slow-motion shots of heads exploding or limbs being blown-off. Be warned, this is not a game for the faint of heart…and most certainly not for children under any circumstances.

In addition to combat and exploration, there are a variety of activities that players can engage in throughout the world of Fallout 3. Most of these are skill-based, and add considerably to the depth of the gameplay. Sneaking, bartering, speech and the ability to repair weapons and items are all examples. Also noteworthy are fun but somewhat complex minigames for picking locks and hacking terminals.

Interacting with the NPCs throughout the Fallout 3 world is also a major part of gameplay. The player will run into a variety of characters in the towns and cities, and even wandering through the wilderness. Those that are not hostile can be spoken with to obtain information and sometimes sidequests, and many can barter for goods. Doing is so is quick and efficient (character dialogue options can be selected from a list, and dialogue is both spoken and written, and can easily be skipped through).

Fallout 3 takes place in a world ravaged by nuclear war, which broke out between the U.S. and China sometime in the late 21st century. The game centers around the ruins of Washington, D.C. and the area surrounding it. It also supposes a slightly alternate history to our own, with the pre-bomb world closely resembling that of the 1950's. Apparently superconductors or miniaturized transistors were never invented, so many items remain unchanged from that era (television screens and computer monitors are one glaring example). Although some technologies do seem to have advanced (particularly weaponry).

Fallout 3 continues the tradition of the series with a highly cynical tone, contrasting the lollipop utopia portrayed by 1950's advertising and television with the bleak landscape and mass destruction of a post-nuclear war.

Many people retreated into large vaults built before the war, living their lives out underground. Unbeknownst to the dwellers themselves, each vault is a tiny social experiment, with some twisted rule or factor governing the way each little miniature society plays out. In the case of the main character's home, Vault 101, the idea was for the vault never to be opened for any reason.

The aforementioned opening section quickly covers the character's formative years in the vault, skipping brief over birthdays, tests at school and other various events. Shortly thereafter a series of events leads to the main character (although you can pick a name he is referred to as “The Vault Dweller”) being thrust out into the world to do as he or she sees fit, ultimately leading to some major decisions and actions that will affect the fate of the world.

The story starts quite strongly, but slowly loses steam as it progresses. There are many interesting bits both along the main quest and in the various sidequests, but there is a very noticeable drop in quality towards the end of the game. Not much more can be said without risking spoilers, but suffice it to say that this reviewer was somewhat disappointed that Bethesda couldn't have provided a stronger finish for a game with such potential, especially given the importance of story to the genre of roleplaying games.

Characters are a strong suit of Fallout 3. Almost all of the characters involved with the main quest are interesting and unique. But beyond that there are countless interesting individuals who can be interacted with throughout the world. It seems that Bethesda really went to some lengths to give every single individual a sense of personality. It also helps that the voice acting is of a high quality, although the problem of identical voice actors and/or lines has persisted from the Elder Scrolls series (although it has somewhat lessened). Not to mention the sparse population fits far better from a logical standpoint with a post-nuclear war environment (this reviewer was often puzzled by the seemingly near-abandoned cities of the Elder Scrolls games, despite recognizing the issue was due to technical limitations). Overall Bethesda does a very good job of using the various characters to bring to world to life.

Overall, Fallout 3 is a game that looks quite good. The draw distance is quite good, and this reviewer noticed very little pop-in, even in the large outdoor environments. Textures are good but some do not hold up to close scrutiny. There are also tons of “little” touches that make a well-done game unique, such as dust storms that blow across the wilderness or the dilapidated look of the various ruined remnants of pre-war society that are scattered around.

Unfortunately, lighting is an issue. The outdoor environments look great as they go through the changes of the day and night, but the indoor sections that are dark look very flat and are hard to distinguish (note that this reviewer played the game on a 1080p HDTV and spent considerable time adjusting the settings to try and improve these areas).

The outdoor sections of the game overall look quite good. Although it might not be as colorful as the forests and mountains of Oblivion, the desolation and loneliness of a post-apocalyptic landscape is well conveyed.

Ugly character models with strange facial structures were one central complaint about Oblivion. Although Fallout 3 uses the same engine, Bethesda has obviously taken pains to improve this area, and the results are overall positive. Although still a bit stiff, characters are far more lifelike and unique. You get a strong sense of personality and can easily differentiate some of the major characters in the game.

Sound in Oblivion is something of a mixed bag. The 5.1 mix is decent but not on the level that some recent games have been. The music is good overall and usually fits the situation, although the music that plays as one's character wanders through the wastes is indistinguishably similar to that of Oblivion's (it may very well be the same track, or a remix of it). Given all the initial concerns of Fallout 3 being just “Oblivion with guns,” you'd think the developers would have done more to distinguish the games from each other in this department.

As previously mentioned, the voice-acting is excellent and more varied than any of the Elder Scrolls games. Although it can always be skipped by impatient players, this really does a lot to add to the immersion factor. Hats off to Bethesda for recording all this dialogue and making sure it fit each and every situation well.

Fallout 3 excels in terms of the sheer amount of hours you will get out of the game. You could probably blaze through the main quest in seven or eight hours, but it is unlikely most will do so and you are really missing the bulk of the game if you don't take your time to explore and complete some of the sidequests, many of which are very well done.

Players can also take very directions with their characters, and with a variety of weapons and skills to concentrate on, there really is more than one way to play the game. Furthermore, Bethesda has instituted a level cap for character progression, encouraging multiple playthroughs. With so much to do, and the option to take a good, evil or neutral route, you really cannot see everything there is to see in one playthrough.

It is obvious from this review (and probably everything else you've been hearing about this game) that Fallout 3 cannot escape two comparisons: to that of the first two Fallout games and to that of Bethesda's previous game, Oblivion. Overall this reviewer would recommend the game to any fans of the genre as a fun experience, but would also like to specifically address these comparisons since many people may plan to factor them into their decision.

Regarding the first comparison, old school Fallout fans who go into this expecting a similar game will most certainly be disappointed. Fallout 3 does a good job over carrying the overall tone and expanding on the story of its predecessors (and is chock full of references) but the game is an utterly different experience. Fans of the old game should only get this newest entry if they are willing to be open-minded about a very different game.

With regards to the second comparison, the game is incredibly similar to Oblivion, with some improvements. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it would be pretty fair to say “If you like Oblivion, you will like this game” and of course vice versa.

One final note is that this is not, by any means, a game for children. Fallout 3 is incredibly violent and contains a lot of dark humor. It is an experience best viewed by adults and parents should not consider getting this for their children under any circumstances. Otherwise, consider giving Fallout 3 a spin…there's plenty to do and see in the apocalyptic wasteland.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 12/05/08

Game Release: Fallout 3 (US, 10/28/08)

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