Review by Crofty

Reviewed: 01/28/09

A somewhat short, shallow, but enjoyable RPG

So, here we are again: Another "play your way" free-roam RPG from Bethesda, except this time we're thrown into a bombed out United States rather than the fantasy world of Tamriel. It's quite a bit of a difference, but if you've played any previous Elder Scrolls title (more specifically, Oblivion) then you'll soon see that not a lot is different in Fallout 3 (heck, if you opt to purely use melee weapons you can nearly pretend that you're playing a large-scale Oblivion mod). Perhaps rather insulting to former Fallout games, but a common slogan never-the-less, is that Fallout 3 literally can feel like "Oblivion with guns".

Fortunately, the gameplay and philosophy of Oblivion mixed with the tone and style of Fallout actually works out rather good. Since Elder Scrolls has always been best played in the First-Person perspective, if seems natural to be using actual guns and so it doesn't take long to shake off the feeling that the game may play 'wrong'. Furthermore, the open-ended format of Elder Scrolls actually compliments Fallout 3 pretty well, since the wasted ruins of Washington D.C. offer an unusual amount of joy to explore. I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't really relishing the opportunity to navigate around a grey/brown wasteland (partly because I'm use to much more lush environments in Elder Scrolls, and also partly because 90% of shooters use the same colour/design scheme), however, Bethesda have managed to carve a very interesting setting in Fallout 3.

Even though the Capital Wasteland mainly consists of just that, there's still something compelling enough to make you want to explore and enjoy it. Even when you first peer outside (which is unashamedly similar to Oblivion's Cyrodiil introduction) the ruins of D.C. look weirdly beautiful, which must have been a hard feat for Bethesda to achieve. Of course, the charming look and feel of a game is helped by how good the graphics are, and here Fallout 3 shows much improvement with its engine over Oblivion. Where Oblivion was completely diseased with objects such as trees and entire buildings popping up every few steps, and incredibly low resolution textures plaguing land not even 10 feet away, Fallout 3 manages to keep itself looking dignified for the most part. It's not perfect, mind; objects still do pop-up in-front of your eyes which can take you right out of the atmosphere, but on the whole it's a large improvement.

(On a side note: Since I own both the 360 and PC versions, it's worth mentioning that the PC version of Fallout 3 is most certainly the best from a technical and visual stand-point (and since the game supports the 360 controller, even mouse & keyboard rejects like me can still get on); the game looks roughly 25-35% better on high-ultra settings, and loads a lot faster than the console versions too. The downside is that you will need a decent setup to run the game smoothly, and that it's also - at time of writing - somewhat unstable, even on high-end PCs. If you want the best and most impressive Fallout 3 experience, then PC version is the way to go, otherwise the more stable console versions still do a decent job)

The music, along with the visual performance, help to keep the game feeling authentic. There's a few good tracks that will play while you explore, along with tunes that play depending on your predicament (like if you're in combat) although after a while the same two or three songs do grow tiresome; the game could have used more tracks, really. Similarly, the sound effects do a good job, with each weapon emitting a convincing sound along with the sound you'll hear should it connect with an unfortunate foe.

Speaking of which, the level of violence in Fallout 3, along with the language, is quite strong, but this is no bad thing. Fallout 3 benefits from the gritty tone and even the non-gore lovers will have a hard time resisting a satisfied grin when they blow the head off a raider and see the wonderful results on screen. And since the 18 age rating allows Fallout 3 to go further than it otherwise would have, it means conversations can and do feel more authentic since NPCs don't need to tip-toe around any 'iffy' dialogue.

Bethesda have done a pretty good job with the interaction, especially in respect to the quests available in Fallout 3. Obviously the main quest gains the most attention, with Liam Neeson voicing the player's father and Malcolm McDowell giving President Eden his propaganda ridden tone, but even the less assuming characters involved in side-quests react to the player in ways a lot of other games are struggling to do. This feat is all the more impressive when you consider that the majority of quests have multiple out-comes depending on your choices.

Sadly the amount of quests is somewhat low, with even the main quest not offering the lot in way of length. Most console players will likely shrug off this comment since most Western developed console RPGs aren't generally expected to last more than 40 hours, but PC players - particularly players of previous Bethesda games - may find the lack of content a bit disheartening. The argument here is that RPGs are expected to last a while so you can spend time developing and attuning your character, so less content ultimately means a lot less enjoyment, but since Fallout 3 has a disappointing level cap at level 20 it means this argument is meaningless at the moment.

Until download content is released (or unless you remove the cap via tinkering methods on the PC) the level cap feels like a blow to the overall experience of Fallout 3. The game actually fixes the issue of the difficulty slider used in Elder Scrolls titles (where-in there is no penalty/bonus for making the game easy/difficult) by rewarding more or less experience depending on what mode you pick, but since the game is capped at level 20 putting it on the hardest difficulty for faster experience means hitting the cap even faster. Since gaining experience and levelling up is one of the best parts of playing Fallout 3, it's actually a better idea to not bother with the difficulty slider or else you may find yourself not taking part in lock-picking, computer hacking, or even combat at level 20 since there is no experience reward. Currency is still an incentive at max-level, but by the time most players hit level 20 they'll own everything they wanted to buy anyway. A severe lack of top-level incentive means that creating a new character is more appealing than sticking around at level 20, unfortunately.

There's plenty of different weapons and weapon types, with even a few unique and powerful weapons to be had, but chances are you'll have a good selection of weapons at level 20. The array of armour types is sadly not as vast as weapons, and a lot of the available armour doesn't actually seem to affect your performance too much anyway (I pretty much went from level 3-20 in the same suit without any problems) although the design on them is well realised. The much seen Brotherhood of Steel armour (actually on Fallout 3's box cover) is a good example of heavy armour, while there are some more toned down and agile armour types available for the sneaky players.

When you have a choice of wearing heavy or light armour you'll have a good idea of what type of character you are. Since Fallout 3 is a RPG at its heart you can opt to go down one path and then perhaps do things differently when you create a new character, especially in regard to combat. There's plenty of combat styles to check out, going from smalls guns such as pistols and sawn-off shotguns, to all out blowing-things-up-with-huge-rocket-launchers, or even the basic hand-to-hand style.

But no matter what style you like best, each of them will be played out in a First Person Shooter environment. And, as probably expected, Fallout 3 isn't exactly on par with the likes of Half-Life 2, or Crysis in terms of solid combat, but even if we expect an RPG to not rival other games dedicated to a single genre, Fallout 3 still feels somewhat poor when it comes to combat. The enemy AI, along with the general gameplay, doesn't allow for exhilarating experiences, but rather, semi-enjoyable shoot outs that soon become slightly boring and repetitive as the game drags on. The one function that saves combat from being Fallout 3's Achilles heel, is the Vault Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.); this feature allows the player to literally pause the game while they use Action Points (AP) to target specific areas on an opponent's body. Once the player has spent the AP they can then trigger the combat to continue to which the game will present a slow-motion shot of the player's character firing rounds into the selected areas. There's a whole mini-system with V.A.T.S. that dictates hit rating depending on line-of-sight and weapon skill which really adds a lot of tactical thought to a common firefight. It's also here where you'll have most fun as you can choose to target one specific area and then proceed to pummel it until it actually rips from the opponent's body, for example, if you spend AP using a shotgun on a Super Mutant's head, you may just well blast it completely off.

V.A.T.S. is a saviour for Fallout 3, and what's more is that it manages to never grow old. After levelling two characters and completing the majority of content on them both, I still enjoy using V.A.T.S. to take out an enemy just as much as I did when I first started playing. Without V.A.T.S Fallout 3 would feel too under-developed and consequently much less enjoyable to play, but fortunately Bethesda have done a good job in implementing a gameplay function that keeps the combat feeling fun and - to some extent - refreshing.

And so it is, Bethesda have managed to craft another good RPG that can be enjoyed on both the PC and consoles. The content and the depth is perhaps not as strong as some would have hoped, and the combat just manages to stay within the fun category thanks to a nifty gameplay function, but still Fallout 3 is worth playing. It's most certainly not one of the best RPGs ever made, it's too flawed and shallow for that, but yet it's a game I would recommend to both hardcore RPG players and casual players who prefer pick-up and play experiences. Any game that can do that deserves some level of credibility, and if that was Bethesda's intention, then they have succeeded.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Fallout 3 (EU, 10/31/08)

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