“Fallout 3” review

by on Mar.23, 2010, under PC Game Reviews

Game: Fallout 3
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

The Fallout universe has never looked bleaker … or better!

Bethesda Game Studios has returned to the roots of the original Fallout role-playing game in this latest iteration with the gamer controlling the life of his alter-ego within yet another Vault-Tec Industries fallout shelter. It’s now 2277, two hundred years after the nuclear devastation caused by a thermonuclear war between the United States and China. As one of the fortunate few who dwell in Vault 101, you’ve been sheltered from the harsh existence of life in the irradiated wastelands outside, leading an idyllic (albeit mundane) existence within the cold iron confines of this bunker you call home. For twenty odd years, very little changes; the inhabitants content to be born, live their lives and eventually perish within this isolated antiseptic society. That is until one day, your father disappears mysteriously from the vault, catapulting you unceremoniously into the post-apocalyptic and perilous realm of the Capital Wasteland. It’s across the devastated city of Washington D.C. and its associated environs that you will need to traverse to locate your dad and find out why he left the safety of the vault.

The world of Fallout 3 follows Black Isle Studio’s original vision, drawing heavily upon 1950’s pulp fiction, period events and the “Cold War” mentality prevalent for those times. Envision a Retro-futuristic world mixed with generous doses of Stalinist and Googie architectural styles and you’ll get a pretty good picture of this version of the United States of America as it was in 2077. This is a universe of grim-faced statuary adorning monolithic public buildings in downtown D.C., fusion engine vehicles, valve powered computer terminals and the utopian answer to Wal-mart, the Super-Duper Mart. At least it would be, if it weren’t for the several hundred nuclear devices the Chinese detonated across the continental United States. Now, the city and its surrounds lie in ruins; the result of racial paranoia and the false belief that Mutually Assured Destruction would prevent Armageddon.

The seven year interregnum between the last game in the series and this episode has given the developer the opportunity to immerse the player within the Fallout universe in a way none of the previous games could manage. The original isometric portrayal of Fallout 1 and 2 was more a result of the limitations of the technology of the day and smaller development teams than any perceived need to render the game in such a viewpoint. Instead of sticking to this recipe, Bethesda have used their previous experiences with the Gamebyro engine (Morrowind and Oblivion) to render the dark and twisted wastelands from both first and third person perspectives; the results of this revision are truly spectacular. Whether you are standing on a rocky promontory gazing across the ruins of Springfield, following the irradiated shores of the Potomac River or walking amongst the shattered edifices along Washington D.C.’s Mall, the sense of immersion within the game is incomparable to any of the previous instalments.

Any concerns that this instalment wouldn’t remain true to the original game experience and canon will rapidly fade after you’ve spent just a few minutes toying around in-game. The design team has obviously spent a great deal of time and effort gaining an appreciation of just what made the Fallout universe the engrossing world that it is, and every effort has been made to permeate their vision with the lore, mechanics and humour from a decade ago.

The original S.P.E.C.I.A.L. character system returns in all its glory featuring many of the original perks, traits and skills. In Fallout 3, perks and traits have been merged into a single category, but still endow your character with special abilities such as increases to certain skills or unique dialogue choices when conversing with NPCs. There are even a few perks that can be acquired by performing specific actions in-game or via key events. While a few of the original skills have been removed or consolidated, these values are still the primary means of interacting with the game world. If you want to bargain with a vendor for a new laser pistol, better make sure you have a high Barter skill to get a good price. On the other hand, perhaps you would prefer to obtain the weapon via a “five finger discount?” In this case a high Sneak skill will help you acquire your new toy. Bethesda has also added a couple of mini-games to flesh out the rather mundane tasks of picking locks and hacking computers. You now pick locks by using bobby pins and a screwdriver, carefully moving the pin with your mouse while you try to find the “sweet spot” to allow the lock to open. Computer hacking now involves booting the terminal up into its BIOS and guessing the correct password from a list of possible candidates within the screen dump. After each guess, you’ll be advised how many letters of that guess were correct and in the right position. You’ll stumble across a multitude of locked containers and computers throughout the game and the addition of these mini-games pretty much guarantees that players shouldn’t ignore these two character skills if they want to experience all the rewards and flavour that the game offers.

The ubiquitous PIP-Boy makes a welcome return, providing our vault dweller with the late 23rd Century’s answer to the PDA. This latest model (Pip-Boy 3000) has received considerable improvements over the previous version and now sports so many useful functions, it’s hard to see how any discerning post-apocalyptic geek can survive without it. A single key-press will swing the wrist-mounted unit into view, giving the wearer access to his or her personal inventory, character information including skills and statistics, the condition of the character, auto-mapping and fast travel controls, quest management, a Geiger counter and much, much more. While accessing some of the screens (such as inventory) can become rather time consuming, it’s pretty clear that the design of the Pip-Boy was a compromise for gamers playing Fallout 3 on a game console, with their limited number of buttons. Still, a few configurable hot-keys wouldn’t have gone astray for those of us playing the PC version. Nevertheless, its design is a welcome relief from the usual game interface clutter that RPGs have exhibited in the past.

The other major change that fans will notice is the shift from the original turn-based conflict resolution system to this games’ real-time combat. Part of the push towards real-time has obviously been the preponderance of first-person shooters released over the last decade, recent advantages in technology, and perhaps even Generation Y’s propensity to instant gratification. Unfortunately, one of the main features of Fallout’s turn-based predecessors was the original “targeted attack” system that provided much of the visceral entertainment enjoyed by gamers of yore. In order to perpetuate this much loved feature of the series, Bethesda developed V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System), a time-based control that gives the player access to aimed targeting options during combat. A single key press will freeze the game and then focus the screen on your current target. An overlay is also displayed indicating various extremities and areas of your intended victim. Simply select the area you wish to shoot or strike at and press another key to continue the game. The results of your actions are then played out in slow motion, after which the game resumes at normal speed. It’s an elegant means of retaining the original game’s combat system (including critical hits, limbs being blown off, and insta-gib head-shot kills) within this latest opus.

While opponents can be killed or brought down more efficiently using V.A.T.S., it’s by no means a mandatory requirement. First person shooter fans are free to eschew these advantages, spin up their mini-guns and just hold the fire-button down until your foe drops. Just be aware that you’ll expend a lot more ammunition (and thus increase weapon degradation) to achieve the same goal. The only major drawback to V.A.T.S is having to wait a good 3-4 seconds for a decapitated body to collapse to the ground as the paused time segment gradually runs its course; after the first hundred or so repetitions, the player will wish there was a control setting to turn this feature off.

Bethesda has a strong reputation for creating games with vast and open environments to explore; Fallout 3 is no exception. The design team has mapped the countryside north-west of the capital in meticulous detail, accentuating dozens of hypothetical and real locations (from our world) across its broad expanse. The heavily built-up suburbs of D.C. have also been given a generous collection of key sites which are obviously more densely packed due to the smaller area. In total, there are well over 150 possible sites for your character to explore over the course of the game. Although you can complete the game’s story without visiting them all, you’ll be missing out on the many side-quests that the developers have embedded throughout. It’s these many distractions that give Fallout 3 much of its unique flavour. The sheer volume of diversions scattered across the map make completing even the most trivial quests an exercise in self-discipline and control. What may start out as a simple walk to a nearby town often rapidly devolves into a complex menagerie of tasks that you’ve “accidentally” acquired during your zig-zag path across the wastes. It’s also quite likely that you’ll forget what you were originally doing six hours earlier when you first started your gaming session. If the original Fallout water-chip quest and time limit was part of this plot, it would be highly questionable if anyone could successfully complete the game!

Despite the lack of Vault protection some people managed to survive the war; their descendents now eking out a meagre existence in small isolated pockets across the land. Although there are a few cloned individuals provided to flesh out the very small townships and settlements, the key characters you will interact with have had all their dialogue painstakingly voice acted. While there are a few episodes where dialogue becomes disjointed, most of it is well polished and quite a few individuals possess memorable personalities that could eventually achieve cult status in a future sequel. Without revealing any spoilers, even relatively minor characters like Biwwy (yes, that spelling is correct) provide some humorous moments, while Moira’s eternal optimism and perky nature is often enough to make your teeth grate on edge. The concept of Karma has also been perpetuated within the game providing the gamer with both “good and evil” responses to many encounters. While it’s difficult to provide shades of grey to in-game interactions, the results of the choices you make are reflected amongst different communities, and word of your deeds invariably gets around. Karma also affects the reactions of the multitude of factions scattered across the wasteland, and there are some that will be quite content to put a bounty on your head for being diametrically opposed to their goals.

As you would expect, most of the quests you’ll acquire during the game are offered by the non-player characters populating the world, although there are plenty of smaller chores that you can stumble across purely by chance. While many of the quests have been ripped straight from the de rigeur school of “Fed-Ex delivery boy”, they are not endeavours that can be finished in several minutes. You’ll often be required to explore several distant post-apocalyptic “dungeons” to successfully resolve these missions, turning an ostensibly simple task into a lengthy multi-hour epic. There are dozens of caves, military bases, buildings and (unsurprisingly) Vaults to explore as the game progresses. Bethesda has also managed to seamlessly integrate these subterranean realms into the ruins of D.C. by using the vast amounts of debris caused by the nuclear catastrophe to restrict surface movement above ground. Thus, movement within the city requires that the protagonist enter one of the city’s subway stations and travel via the underground tunnels and service ducts that interconnect key locations. Unfortunately, the perceived safety of these subterranean areas has encouraged a number of life-forms (both benign and inimical) to take up residence within. Travelling within the bowels of Washington D.C. is not an action to be taken lightly.

Fallout 3’s bestiary includes a number of creatures from earlier games as well as a handful of new additions to the universe. While the variety of pernicious foes remains limited, each has been meticulously crafted with incredibly detailed textures and smooth animation. They also exhibit specific vulnerabilities to aimed weapons fire, giving players yet another reason to experiment with the V.A.T.S. combat system described earlier. Unfortunately their Artificial Intelligence routines aren’t the most enlightened bits of code within the game, with creatures limited to either standing still or charging you, the decision presumably based on a random number generator. Wilderness geometry has also been known to create wildly divergent courses as creatures attempt to reach you. Humanoid foes exhibit similar behaviour in combat. In many cases, you can simply hide around a corner, crouch and patiently wait. Either your foe will give up in frustration (apparently out of sight does equal out of mind) or charge forward (whereupon you can exercise the third person perspective to watch him approach and then switch to first-person as he rounds the corner and V.A.T.S. his ass!) Pathing routines for NPC’s also suffer, especially in claustrophobic areas, with head-on collisions often resulting in some lengthy slow-motion moon walking as they try to bypass each other.

Any open world game of this scope is undoubtedly going to experience its fair share of bugs and issues and, despite the best efforts of Bethesda’s QA and testing team, quite a few have managed to slip through the cracks. Quest dialogue can be easily broken by undertaking events in the wrong order, resulting in text that is often contradictory. Downtown D.C. is rife with geometry design that can leave your character stuck (fortunately, if you are outdoors, a fast travel to the nearest location will solve the problem.) The Havoc physics engine is particularly twitchy and can cause a wide range of odd in-game effects when you bump into objects. At one stage I managed to kick a skeleton into the air which then span around at high speed, bouncing off the terrain like a skeletal version of Taz, Warner Bros. animated Tasmanian Devil! The game has frozen on a couple of occasions, such as the cellar in Tranquillity Lane that has required a restart. I’ve also witnessed an NPC falling to their death for no particular reason and some bizarre collision events that can project objects vast distances if you merely look at them the wrong way.

While I have to applaud the designer of that “domino effect” puzzle found in an isolated wastelands building (no spoilers here!), the plethora of physics based issues I’ve seen over the last few years should be an indicaton for developers to start toning down the use of in-game physics! Walking across a room full of tin cans might be amusing the first time you do it, but if the only benefit a player receives is a few seconds of eye-candy, perhaps those squandered CPU cycles could be better spent elsewhere in the game. On a side note, you may wish to play the game on Hard or Very Hard difficulty as the default levels don’t really provide much of a challenge. On normal difficulty, by the time you hit character Level 20 (the limit for this game,) you’ll find that most encounters can be easily dealt with, whether they are combat or skill-based challenges.

Surfing the boards, forums and wiki’s on the net also reveals a mind-blowing number of quest bugs, game freezes and a number of NPC behavioural issues that would have a crack team of Social Workers and Psychologists working overtime until next Christmas. It would seem that Fallout 3’s post-release team will have quite a bit of work to do with patches and updates over the coming months. Despite these online reports, and in Bethesda’s defence, I do have to report that in the 60+ hours I’ve currently spent in-game I have only seen the issues mentioned in the previous paragraph and no truly inconvenient game-breaking points that required a major back-track to a previous save game. Given the open-world nature of the game, it’s quite obvious that players gaming experiences are going to be wildly divergent, depending on literally thousands of variables. As with any computer RPG, save early and save often to maintain your sanity and limit backtracking.

The visual accomplishments achieved by the developers rival those of any high quality release this year. Despite a lack of DirectX 10 support, the game’s visuals are nothing short of astonishing. Environmental effects are particularly impressive with particle-effect rendered dust-storms and incredibly life-like water effects. The graphics team have also chosen restrained palettes to portray the devastated wastelands in a sepia-tinged hue, whilst the ruined suburbs of Washington D.C. have a much darker stone facade. In both instances, the artists have managed to give everything a suitably aged complexion, from the tattered wall posters exhorting our troops onward to greater glory, to the cracked marble flagstones around the Lincoln Memorial. Even the occasional flower, poking up from the desiccated earth has its colours muted and subdued, showcasing the intense attention to detail that has been bestowed upon the world.

Remember when your parents told you that in the 1950’s things were built to last? Well, that same reality holds true in the Fallout mythos. Even two hundred years after the bombs dropped, power grids are still running in isolated sections of the city, and fusion batteries still maintain a usable charge. These sources of luminescence have diligently been leveraged to provide variable lighting, both within buildings and underground. Whether it’s the faint green glow from a computer terminal, the occasional overhead light flickering plaintively or the muted incandescence from a Nuka Cola machine, exploring indoors takes on a claustrophobic and perilous aspect that will have you teetering on the edge of your seat.

The sound effects and music are of a similar high quality. Inon Zur (who composed the music for Fallout Tactics in 2001) has composed a soundtrack that manages to evoke the full range of emotions in the player, ranging from the intense rasping brass and percussive introductory theme, to more contemplative and relaxing melodies that are performed within the few sanctuaries scattered across the world. While his style deviates markedly from Mark Morgan’s ambient electronic scores for Fallout 1 and 2, Inon’s orchestral works are definitely more mainstream, if not easier on the ear. His considerable experience with video game soundtracks over the last decade permeates through this latest work, interleaving seamlessly with Bethesda’s dark and ominous world. The wasteland themes in particular are quite memorable almost resembling a wild-west theme with copious acoustic guitar sequences and percussion being utilised. Think of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly series and the movie Serenity and you’ll rapidly attune yourself to those melodies. Sound effects are equally impressive, with the environmental audio tracks adding yet another layer of atmosphere as the player explores the dust-strewn wasteland, and the buildings and tunnels within the capital. As you explore the built-up areas of the city, you can hear girders creaking, rubble collapsing and even the occasional explosion in the distance as rival factions combat each other, deeper within the city. Weapon sound-effects aren’t as meaty as they could be, however these muted effects definitely don’t upset the balanced soundscape that the other audible elements generate. At a pinch, you can always tweak the individual volume levels to your taste.

Bugs aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Bethesda has crafted a spectacular instalment of the Fallout universe and their best game to date. While the main story can be finished in a rushed 20 or so hour stint, you’re doing yourself an immense disfavour by not exploring the rest of the wasteland, an exercise that can probably take close to 150 hours! The four years of development Todd Howard and his team have lavished upon this magnum opus have given birth to a game true to the world’s canon, abundant with all the original elements that have made this franchise such a cult classic that it is. The Fallout universe has always exhibited a combination of dark humour, ridiculous pop culture references and disturbed individuals co-existing within a blighted land rife with bloodshed, death and utter devastation. This is a world where you will experience emotional extremes from minute to minute, where the horror of walking through a raider’s torture chamber is counterpointed by the last few computer log entries of survivors, stricken with radiation sickness over two hundred years ago. Walk through Arlington National Cemetery amongst the headstones of the fallen, as the dust billows around you and faint trumpet wails echo off the shattered surroundings. Scour the countryside and ruined townships north of D.C. as you listen to various radio stations broadcasting the latest news or popular tunes from our 1950’s. Rest assured that over every hill and around every corner there will be something fresh and unexpected waiting to absorb another hour or two of your life. And at the end of it all, when you’ve seen and done all that you can, climb to the top of Tenpenny tower at dawn and savour the view one last time as the Washington Monument pierces the horizon in the distance.

This is the world of Fallout at its immaculate best.

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