Fallout 3 - Staff Review  

Falling for the Third Time
by Adriaan den Ouden

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Xbox 360
20-40 Hours
+ Huge world to explore.
+ Great character customization.
+ Terrific soundtrack.
- Lackluster combat system.
- NPC behavior is often bizarre and nonsensical.
- Landscape is bleak and uninteresting.
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   It's been almost two decades since the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war paranoia that began in the 1950's finally subsided. Many RPGamers are probably too young to remember it happening, but it is such a well-documented and frightening period of history that everybody knows its effects and repercussions. It was a period that held the atomic bomb, the single most devastating creation in all mankind's history, at its forefront, and the possibility of nuclear armageddon as a distant, shadowy menace. It was a time when civil liberties were stripped in the name of national security and protecting the people, and it is with this in mind that Black Isle Studios created Fallout, an RPG set in the aftermath of a nuclear war in a parallel world where the 1950's never ended. Years later, the reins of this widely heralded series have been taken up by Bethesda Softworks, creators of The Elder Scrolls. In Fallout 3, players emerge from the vault once again, this time to explore the ruins of Washington, D.C.

   It's important to note right from the start that Fallout 3 is very different from the developer's previous creations, and at the same time very similar in many ways. It is unquestionably a game that is going to be loved by some, loathed by others, and some, such as myself, will fall somewhere in between. Fallout 3 begins, interestingly enough, at the very moment of the player character's birth, which is something of a rarity in video games. During the rather lengthy opening tutorials, the player will experience his first steps, tenth birthday party, an occupational positioning test, and ultimately a sequence of events that finds him thrust out into the barren remains of the nation's former capital in search of his runaway father.

   In all honesty, the story of Fallout 3 is the capital itself. The main quest is extremely short and won't even see the player through a quarter of the game's enormous world. Furthermore, it's not terribly interesting either. Character development is not one of Bethesda's strong suits, and the result is that the player feels very disconnected with the characters in both the main storyline and sidequests, even the ones whom he is apparently supposed to relate to. It doesn't help that the game is often very inconsistent, and sometimes outright contradictory in how it models character behavior and motivation, particularly when it comes to aggression. If an NPC is murdered by another NPC as part of an event, any other characters present will simply ignore it as if it never happened (and in one peculiar case won't even be aware that it happened.) Murder that character yourself, however, and the entire town will take up arms against you.

Bloody Mess! Bloody Mess!

   To experience the true story of Fallout 3, one needs to go out into the capital wasteland and find it; it's hidden everywhere. Computer logs, journals, and even history told from one generation to the next. Fallout 3's present is stark, unforgiving, and barren, but it's past is tragic, colorful, and ironic, and seeking out what bits of information can be gathered is by far the most engaging and enjoyable aspect of the game. From the dark, insidious secrets of Vault-Tec to the bizarre inclusion of a radioactive isotope in the Nuka-Cola Quantum beverage, there is something sinister lurking behind every seemingly innocuous aspect of the game, and discovering these things can be truly rewarding. It's learning how the world became the way it is that's interesting rather than the world as it stands now.

   Unfortunately, the combat doesn't manage to be nearly as enjoyable as the exploration. That isn't to say the combat is bad; it's simply not very interesting. The system itself is wonderfully streamlined and easy to use. In its most primitive form, the game functions as a first or third person shooter, but the player can also activate the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS), which can handle the aiming for the player so long as his action points hold out. While using VATS, the game pauses and the player can select a target and a body part to aim for. As body parts take damage, they may become crippled, resulting in some sort of penalty to the target's abilities.

   While this is sound in theory, in practice it's pretty much unnecessary. It's rarely worthwhile to aim anywhere other than the head, as it does the most damage, and since enemies tend to die quite rapidly in Fallout 3, leaving them alive long enough for crippled limbs to actually matter is pretty much pointless. Furthermore, despite having several different types of weapons to choose from, the gameplay really doesn't change from one to the other. The most significant tactical considerations players are likely going to have to make is to switch weapons against armored enemies, or to take cover against multiple foes. Beyond that, combat rarely feels like anything more than a roadblock between the player and more exploring. Thankfully, enemies don't respawn, so once an area has been cleared out, the player generally doesn't need to worry about running into more.

   That said, despite not being particularly interesting, the visuals associated with combat are quite impressive and amusing. Some sort of unexplained, degenerative disease has made all life-forms' bones and flesh extremely brittle, as virtually any type of attack, from gunfire to baseball bats to plain old fisticuffs, is capable of causing an enemy's head to fall off, or even explode. For those who are particularly blood-thirsty, there is even a perk that can be taken midway into the game that occasionally causes enemies to explode in a cascade of limbs, guts, and blood (Reviewer's Note: Yes, I took that perk.) While combat is generally not something to look forward to, it is at least engaging, requiring the player's full attention, and the mess of the aftermath is always viscerally thrilling.

VATS makes the combat less like a shooter, but doesn VATS makes the combat less like a shooter, but doesn't do much to make it more interesting.

   The rest of the visuals are equally impressive, though they do tend to get repetitive quite quickly. The graphics engine of Fallout 3 is, quite frankly, an incredible technical achievement. The game runs with an impeccable framerate, only minor loading times, and an impressive level of detail. Sadly, the art direction is not on the same level. The Wasteland itself is, well, gray. Very gray. While certainly realistic enough for a nuclear aftermath, everything in the world tends to blend together, with very little to distinguish one location from another. There are some exceptions to this, particularly within the DC ruins, where several landmarks are clustered close together, creating a very interesting, although small, area to explore. The majority of the Wasteland, however, is little more than barren earth with a few scattered trees, buildings, and cliffs. Other aspects of the game's visual design are quite excellent, thankfully. Commonly encountered things such as computers, advertisements, and robots all have a distinct 1950's charm to them. Computers, and in particular, the player's Pip-Boy, which is used as a general menu, are designed exceptionally. The archaic black and green screens are a great flashback to the early days of computing.

   Other elements of gameplay do make up for the lackluster combat, thankfully. At the top of the list is the impeccable character building system. The Fallout series makes use of a stat system called SPECIAL, which stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. SPECIAL returns in Fallout 3, and players right from the start need to make careful choices about where to place their stats, as once chosen, it's not easy to improve any of them. SPECIAL points affect the player's abilities in a huge number of different skills. Each level, the player receives several skill points, the amount determined by Intelligence, to distribute. By building each skill up, players will find themselves more accurate with certain weapons, able to pick more complex locks, hack more secure computers, sway NPCs to their way of thinking more easily, and many other things. Finally, each level the player is able to choose a perk, which is generally a fairly powerful bonus that improves some aspect of the character's abilities. By using these three customization systems, players can craft a character capable of playing however they want.

   Players will also encounter certain NPCs as they adventure that can join as followers. These followers assist with combat, which can make the game progress a lot more smoothly. Unfortunately, followers are also prone to idiocy. Their AI is pitiful. They will regularly step in front of the player's line of fire, or, even worse, run off on their own without a word of warning, getting themselves killed without the player even knowing.

   The audio is another aspect of Fallout 3 that is simply fantastic. The voice acting is quite good, if somewhat stilted at times, and the sound effects do their job well enough, but the real treat is the soundtrack. Specifically, Galaxy News Radio. Hosted by the energetic Three Dog, Galaxy News Radio, although becoming involved with the story early on, is an entirely optional radio station that the player can, and probably will, leave on for almost the entire game. In between audio snippets in which Three Dog will regale the Wasteland with the player's latest exploits, the station plays an impeccable selection of early 1950's rock and jazz. Although limited to only a dozen or so tracks, they are all excellent and play in their entirety, preventing them from getting stale. There is also something strangely calming about listening to "Happy Times" while blowing a slaver's head off.

   Despite its lackluster combat, Fallout 3's incredibly detailed and intriguing world make it a joy to play, and even those who weren't fond of Bethesda's last offering may find something to like here. The total time it will take someone to finish Fallout 3 depends entirely on how much of the Wasteland they explore. Completing the main quest could easily be done in as little as ten hours, but there is easily enough content to fill out sixty or more. Most players will probably settle somewhere between twenty and forty. The game also offers multiple difficulty levels, should players be seeking an additional challenge, or a lesser one. Fallout 3 surprised me, as I honestly wasn't expecting to enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Bethesda's last game left a foul taste in my mouth, but now I am eagerly awaiting Fallout 4.

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