For the third time, we are reminded that war never changes, but Fallout has. The post-apocalyptic RPG has jumped coasts to DC, dimensions to 3D, perspective to first-person, and platforms to include consoles. It’s all delivered by Bethesda, which bestowed the high fantasy Oblivion a few years back. Will the newest exodus from the vaults live up to its pedigree or should it just duck and cover?
Be prepared to take on the wasteland from cradle to grave. Actually, even earlier, with the game starting at your very own birth. From there you experience a truncated adolescence living in vault 101, a huge underground fallout shelter where generations have lived and died, shielded from the radiation and desperation of the outside’s after-the-bomb challenges.
It does a good job of masking character creation, shoehorning in some tutorials, and setting the scene of vault life. When you turn 19 and wake up to discover your father missing and his friend murdered by the tyrannical Overseer of the vault, it makes perfect sense to hightail it out of there and go questing for dear old dad in the morbid, violent world beyond the blast doors.
It’s a simple premise that quickly becomes complicated with tons of questions and objectives. It’s ultimately your story reflected in people’s reactions or how the local radio station reports on your feats. Even the side quests are beefy, like little novellas that spiral out into full works of their own. There’s some occasional iffy writing, but the for the most part, it’s a quality tale of a boy and his dog--and some super mutants.
Fallout 3 is massive, and once through the streamlined Vault opening, the world becomes your mutated oyster. You can tramp around the wastes in search of fame and fortune, stumbling upon hundreds of locations, enemies, and treacherous terrain. Exploration can be overwhelming with so much to scavenge, kill, and loot. The pockets of civilization are also there to bequeath quests, offer a cot to rest your head, or provide shops and doctors who offer services and enticing narcotics. Just don’t get addicted.
Your quests team-up with your PIP-boy, a combination PDA, flashlight, and FM radio, supplying maps, track points, and objectives, so when you’re hell-bent on chipping away at progress you’ll have a guiding light.
Quests are multifaceted, large, and span across several locations. Along the way you’ll have to deal with plenty of enemies, locked doors, and computer terminals. This is where skills come in, and leveling, which allows you to do things like gaining an attribute point or getting special dialog options with the opposite sex.
This is also where you improve skills that range from lock picking to handling weapons. The game’s so vast, that the biggest problem is that it can all become overwhelming. Without the ability to mark your map, it’s hard to remember where each high level lock or group of super-powered enemies is.
It’s a rich world of content, and without multiple play-throughs using different character types, it’s hard to see it all. A very flexible save system does let you play “what if,” but there are few games with as much play-per-dollar as Fallout 3.
While the majestic dread of the badlands and its topography of secrets is simultaneously charming and intimidating, it’s how you operate that cinches the deal. For the most part, your stats, observations, and resolve will steer the course of events through handy, context-sensitive button presses. Dodging into the shadows turns the “talk” option into “pickpocket,” while mini-games present the challenge of a lock tumbler or secure terminal.
Combat is handled through either real-time altercations or with VATS, which allows strategic targeting, and is as simple as choosing a target and a body part. It’s straightforward and it works, while rewarding you with some sweet third-person murder-cam shots. These mini vignettes are occasionally garbled if you’re too close, and can’t be skipped, which is can be annoying when you just want to finish the fight. Thankfully, they’re brief. Beware, you can only target the head so many times, though, since it’s all governed by action points.
The other side of VATS is that while it slows down time, enemies can still be mauling or shooting you, albeit in slow-mo. So, shoot from the hip, or rely on VATS, either way is balanced, and you’ll be switching between the two to keep things from getting stale. Just get one thing straight, though all the footage released up to launch looked otherwise, this isn’t a first-person shooter. You won’t be circle strafing. It’s more like a gentleman’s duel--a bloody gentleman’s duel.
There’s some manual cover taking and strategic reloading, but Fallout 3 doesn’t have the celerity for twitchy action. That’s not to say that true aim with a sniper rifle won’t make VATS eat its shorts. There’s nourishment and health everywhere, though it’s equally balanced with the rate you become radiated. Third-person view is there to see how you’ve customized your character, but it’s not a valid way to play the game—whether you’re in combat or traipsing through a radiated Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The level-up perks ensure character growth beyond doling out skill points, and the dark, tongue-in-cheek humor provides a reprieve from brutal wasteland justice. And while the non-sequiturs are welcomed, when something else breaks the reality, it shows the chinks in the power armor.
From the shiny sheen of power armor to the shrub on a dejected hill, the visuals drip with atmosphere. Set pieces are reused quite a bit, and the depravity does eventually start to look the same. Still, there are tons of unique areas, and the people that populate them usually have something to say, or at least a pocket to pick. The populace generally comes across strong, though it seems the uncanny valley might be in DC, with unblinking eyes and some odd movements.
The music from your PIP-boy has some classy numbers from the ‘30s, while the score and sound design are always appropriate. All these positives only make it even more painful when one of the game’s many glitchy, buggy moments arise. Still, it’s a pretty damn convincing world.
Any preconceived notions of this post-Apocalypto should be shelved. Fallout 3 is not another Gears of War or Halo. Overcome and embrace, for there’s a constant flow of surprises and excellence packed into this RPG. Everything is set at such a high caliber that the negligible flaws and inconsistencies come across as much larger blemishes than in most games, but they can’t tarnish the overall experience. Don’t wait for the wasteland, just hit the road.