Review by Reuptake
Flawed but Still Exceptional
Fallout 3 is a game that's been a long time in the making. The original designers of the series have since bowed out of license, with the task falling to Bethesda Studios, best known for their work on the Elder Scrolls series of RPGs, and this is apparent at the very beginning of the game. The world of Fallout is a post-apocalyptic future where mankind has fled to the safety of a series of underground vaults throughout the United States to protect themselves from nuclear war and the harsh and radiated life thereafter. The player begins the game as a denizen of one of these vaults, and makes the usual RPGish selections of facial geometry, statistics, et al. through a short sequence depicting the protagonist's development from birth to adulthood. Eventually the player is released from the confines of the vault and left to explore the wasteland of Washington D.C. on a quest to find his father. On a presentation level, the game soars. It's absolutely beautiful, but this is somewhat blunted by the fact that you'll be spending 95% of your time either in a brown, flat, deserted wasteland, or in a grungy subway tunnel. This is an inherent limitation of the genre, and not necessarily a total fault of the developer. After all, a wasteland is a wasteland, and the developers only had so much to work with. It isn't bad, per se, but expect to see a lot of muted grays and browns.
A comparison with Bethesda's last RPG, Oblivion, is inevitable, so let's get that out of the way right now. Fallout 3 is very, very Oblivion-like, with some of the same issues such as NPC pathing, but it's improved in several areas. The visuals are more detailed than Oblivion which is saying a lot as Oblivion was one of the most gorgeous games to ever grace a console or PC back in 2006, but the most dramatic improvement is in the voice acting. Oblivion was lacking in that respect, and it always sounded like Bethesda grabbed three random people, tossed them in a sound studio, and forced them to recite endless lines of dialogue in an attempt to populate an entire world with a variety of voices. In other words, it fell flat. Fallout 3, however, is populated with a rich cast of characters with voices that seldom sound similar and this goes a long way toward extending the credibility of the world.
Fallout 3 is a game with guns. Lots of guns. What it's not is a first person shooter. Though you can aim and fire a gun as if you were playing Call of Duty 4, the results are all tied to statistics and skills, which only create the illusion of active participation in combat. This isn't a bad thing, as long as you know what to expect. A more popular way of playing through combat is by using Fallout 3's VATS system. VATS allows you to pause the game and use "action points" to target specific parts of an enemy's body with varying chances of success depending on factors such as distance and appropriate skills. As you progress throughout the wasteland, complete quests, and fell mutants and raiders, you'll gain experience which allows you to level up. With each level comes a number of benefits: You can increase your skills, and select a perk which grants you various effects such as bonuses to damage, more dialogue options in specific contexts, and increases to primary attributes. It's a simple system that works very well in contrast to Oblivion's arcane leveling scheme that requires a lot of forethought if you want to min-max your character.
Is the game fun, though? In many ways, yes. But the fun tends to come from random side-quests and odds and ends that you stumble across through exploration rather than by following the main story arc. For example, during one of my wanderings I came across a small settlement with the unlikely name of "The Republic of Dave." This guy Dave has declared this tiny town (population 5, plus children) its own sovereign nation. Apparently it used to be the Kingdom of Tom, who was Dave's father, but Dave decided to change the system of government to be more progressive once he inherited the kingdom. In this settlement, the dialogue options are hilarious, and you can attempt to rig an upcoming election and toss Dave out on his ear. Or you can walk through the Republic with an automatic shotgun cutting down its inhabitants like wheat (on a side note, if you make your intentions to take over the Republic clear, the person you're talking to will run away screaming "Communist! Help! He's a communist!!" Classic).
This is but one example of the quality of writing and black humor that's sprinkled throughout this massive world, and this makes the design decisions regarding the main quest even more perplexing. After a few side-quests I decided to follow the main story arc for awhile, and before I knew it I'd come to the end, and the kicker is that once you finish the game and the credits roll, regardless of what final decision you make at the end of the game, you can't keep playing. This is an incredibly poor design decision given that over 90% of the areas and quests in the game have absolutely nothing to do with the main story arc and can be completely missed unless actively sought out. This means that if you want the complete experience you have to force yourself to ignore the main story until the very end. It would have made much more sense to simply allow you to continue playing after you complete the main story arc like in Oblivion.
Morality plays a role in Fallout 3, and you're usually able to choose a "good" or "evil" solution to most of the challenges you face. While in most cases this doesn't have a significant impact on the world, in others it can change the world dramatically, and sometimes even the landscape itself. There's definitely a joy in being able to gun down virtually anyone you come across, and admittedly I spent a good hour reloading the Republic of Dave and murdering its population in hilarious ways just for my own amusement. This brings me to the combat: It's pleasantly gory. Limbs rip off from their sockets and fly across the room from the impact of bullets and explosions, and bits of bone protrude from muscle tissue. While it's a very satisfying experience, it's certainly not for children.
In summary, Fallout 3 is an exceptional game with a variety of flaws that detract from but don't ruin the experience as a whole. There are a lot of things I'd have done differently, but it's a solid game that should be experienced regardless of what system you play it on. Party faithfuls of the original Fallout games will no doubt complain that Fallout 3 is more like "Oblivion with Guns" than a true successor, but Bethesda treats the series with respect, and does a good job overall of blending the atmosphere and systems of the original games with its own RPG engine. I played both the 360 and PC versions, and if you have a rig that can run the game, I highly recommend the PC version for its faster loading times and potential modding possibilities if Bethesda ever releases an editor, but failing that the game is nearly identical on consoles and still provides a fun experience.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Fallout 3 (US, 10/28/08)
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