Review by EidolonHex

Reviewed: 12/04/08

Who Says the Apocalypse Can't Be Fun?

Admit it: some part of you is a sucker for the whole post-Apocalyptia thing. From this angle, it looks like a ton of fun. Fallout 3 delivers pretty much all those unrealistic ideas you’ve cooked up about your own Apocalypse survival story (and chances), right down to the zombies. The game only begins to falter when you look too close.

Ten years ago, Fallout and Fallout 2 were celebrated PC RPGs. I never played the first, and the second never managed to keep me entertained for more than ten minutes past character creation. Fallout 3, meanwhile, looks very much like a first-person shooter on the surface – a genre I personally am not a huge fan of. So I approached Fallout 3 with no small amount of hesitation.

The hesitation was unwarranted.

At its core, Fallout 3 bills itself as an RPG, and so the story should be its defining aspect.

It isn’t.

The story is thin and generic – chase after dear old Dad when he mysteriously splits one day, only to find out that he’s been lying to you about some key facts of your life. The game offers you plenty of diversion from the story, though, so you can out it off as long as you like.

Character creation, however, is worked into the story, and is done so well. This was a neat touch, in my opinion. It doesn’t have much impact on things overall, but I enjoyed it.

The setting, though, shines. It is amazing. The world of Fallout is a lot like ours. The two can be said to have split just after World War II. The world of Fallout leapt forward technologically, but kept its 1950s-America lifestyle and sensibilities. Then, about two hundred years or so before Fallout 3 begins, the world went nuclear.

You’ve spent your life inside a Vault, a nuclear fallout shelter. Dad disappears one day, and you head after him. Feel free to play good or evil, too. You can do some really terrible stuff, if you’re of a mind, even destroy a whole town right out of the gate.

I once killed a woman for a bobby pin. No lie.

First and foremost, this game is fun. It just isn’t quite as varied as it presents itself to be. A player doesn’t need to spend long with the game to be presented with a ton of stuff to do and places to explore. In time, you might start to feel like you’ll never get all of it explored. Really, there isn’t anything wrong with that – it’s the sort of problem more games could stand to suffer from.

The problem arises in how you get it all done. The player is given such a wide selection of skills and Perks, and yet isn’t likely to ever focus much attention on most of them. This would be fine, except you cannot Speech skill your way past most of those Super Mutant Brutes intent on gunning you down.

Add to this the importance of more subtle skills like Medicine and Repair, and the game starts to feel like there’s only one real way to play through it: with a solid combat skill, and a skill to get you where you don’t belong. The other skills start to feel a bit superfluous. Speech, for example, will occasionally open up new conversation options. You’ll even earn experience if you use these options successfully. But, again: the Super Mutants are not listening. Barter, meanwhile, seems all but useless.

The character-customizing Perk options suffer from the same problem: many of them look great on paper, and can add to the game’s fun, but at the expense of you being able to kill as effectively. Since killing ends up being the one thing you have to be good at, this ends up limiting the character options a player is realistically likely to take.

Despite this focus, Fallout 3 is not a first-person shooter, and cannot be played like one. The game bases your ability to hit and damage an opponent on your character’s skill with the weapon he or she is using. Your own ability to aim as a player doesn’t mean much. To avoid forcing a player to play the game like a first-person shooter, the game offers you the V.A.T.S. combat system.

Unfortunately, the V.A.T.S. combat system – while innovative and initially very entertaining – isn’t really RPG-style combat. At best, the game can be described as an action-RPG, which is fine. But V.A.T.S. is really just “freeze time and aim.” You’re not given anything else in the way of combat options, and while the game lets you aim at specific body parts – shoot an opponent in the leg to cripple their movement, or in the arm to make them drop a gun – the game gives you little reason to ever shoot anything but your opponent’s head. Again and again and again. The cinematic angles the game presents your V.A.T.S. attacks from stop it from becoming too repetitive visually, at least, though the angles are sometimes completely off.

The ultimate result of all this is that you’ll only be gimping your DPS (so to speak) if you choose to look at other options for getting around in the game, and the other options won’t usually keep you alive. Still, if you’re willing to make the sacrifice, these other options can provide some of the game’s most entertaining content. The problem is that this isn’t a choice you should be forced to make.

Beyond your own character, you do get the occasional ally. They aren’t terribly stupid in how they react to danger (except for Dogmeat, in my opinion), though they suffer from occasional pathing problems. There isn’t much in the way “party management,” either. Your companions ultimately feel helpful, but they feel like helpful NPCs, not party members.

Graphics and Sound:
The game looks fantastic, graphically. The sound is also very effective – even the voice acting ends up good most of the time. Combined, they create an atmosphere that really captures the feel of the Capitol Wasteland … until you start to look too close. The various people and creatures you encounter look amazing, but don’t really move right sometimes. The Wasteland itself is also well-crafted, right up until you get tired of seeing acres of rubble. Still, too many intact buildings would’ve ruined the post-apocalyptic feel. Even if it starts to look and sound repetitive after a while, the game at least remains true to its feel.

The game’s basic first-person view is very well done. The HUD is unobtrusive, but very clean and helpful. Even if you’re not a fan of first-person gaming, you’ll end up sticking to this view most of the time, if only because the third-person view is so very, very terrible. Try it. You feel like you’re running sideways most of the time.

Play Time/Replayability
I mentioned before that the game gives you plenty to do. The main storyline is somewhat thread-bare and short, but the rest of the game’s content is more than capable of extending the game’s life cycle. The nature of the quests and the sheer size of the area you have to explore even makes them feel like real quests – you don’t want to describe them as side-quests. This is good, because it makes the game’s extended life very real, as opposed to an artificial increase based on dopey fetch-quests.

Replayability is another matter entirely. Since that part of you that enjoys beating games is going to make you feel like many skills aren’t worth taking, replayability is reduced. Players aren’t given many reasons to take all those other options the first time around. That doesn’t seem like it would change the second time around.

Final Recommendation:
Really, when you start to look at all the little nuances of the game, you start to notice a few problems with the game that shouldn’t be there. The outright requirement to be a combat-capable character isn’t itself a problem. The fact that being a combat-capable requires you to put most skills and Perks on the backburner is a problem. The fact that some skills and Perks (again, I’m looking at you, Barter) are utterly without merit is an even larger problem. The fact that, despite everything it offers you to do, the game actually ends when you finish the main story is also a major problem.

Still, in the end, the game offers a magnificent – if not perfect – balance of RPG and shooter elements. I personally wish that it was more a balance of RPG and action elements, but it is what it is. And it is still fun, if any part of you ever wonders at surviving the apocalypse.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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