Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
With Fallout: New Vegas fast approaching, we take a look back at the radiated goodness of Fallout 3.
I'd like to make a confession. Fallout (released in 1997) came and went without my notice. So did Fallout 2 (released in 1998). I'll even go so far as to admit that Fallout 3 wasn't on my radar until a few short months ago (else how could I have neglected to select it as my most anticipated game of '08 earlier this year?). But when I read that Fallout 3 was being developed by Bethesda Softworks, the Role Playing Game (RPG) masterminds behind The Elder Scrolls saga, well let's just say I was at full attention.
I've made no secret of my love for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a game that improved in a number of ways on the already successful RPG formula that was The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls games are set in the fictional world of Tamriel, Bethesda's take on a pseudo-Tolkienian world of high fantasy. As fun as that particular sandbox is to play in, when I read that Fallout 3 was being billed as "Oblivion with guns," the prospect of Bethesda Softworks creating an RPG set in a Dystopian, future Earth in the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon filled me with excitement the likes of which I haven't felt over a video game in a long time. October 28th couldn't arrive quickly enough.
The day of release came and went, and I have spent virtually every minute since then not consumed with meeting biological and financial needs (i.e. sleeping, eating, and working) playing Fallout 3. I can tell you that this game meets every expectation and rarely (if ever) disappoints. I realize how huge of a statement that is to make. Granted, given my lack of experience with the Fallout series, my expectations may have been different from a die hard fan of the Fallout series, especially considering that the property changed hands mid-development. I can't speak to that. But I can say that if you enjoyed The Elder Scrolls games, you will revel in Fallout 3. If you are a fan of RPGs in general, I am confident you will find that Fallout 3 delivers on the praise I have given it. It is well earned. In fact, I will go so far as to render this judgment: Fallout 3 is The RPG of The Year. It is better than any that have come before (Fable II included), and with less than two months before the end of the year I can't see any RPG that could even challenge it. Furthermore, as I hope to convince you by the end of this review, Fallout 3 should be on the short list for Best Game of 2008.
The best place to begin is at the beginning, and Fallout 3 has one of the more memorable beginnings of any video game. After a brief introduction (narrated by the awesome Ron Perlman) setting the stage and Fallout 3's connection to previous installments in the game series, Fallout 3 literally starts with your birth. You are born in the year 2277 in Vault 101, one of many underground complexes built by the Vault-Tec Corporation to allow for the survival of small pockets of humanity in the event of global, nuclear war, which is precisely what happened 200 years ago in the events prior to the first Fallout game. Upon your entry to the world, you can choose your gender, name, and facial appearance (through the use of some futuristic, in-game tech to give your parents a glimpse of what you'll look like as an adult). MINOR SPOILER ALERT In the finest tradition of Disney family films, one of your parents (your mother) dies within the first five minutes of the game (due to complications from your birth, actually). The game then flashes forward to several key points throughout your youth, which serves as a very innovative tutorial that actually makes sense in the context of the game, rather than simply having some disembodied voice or series of text messages instructing you on the mechanics of gameplay for no discernible reason. The first period is during your toddler years, where you are free to explore the basics of movement, camera control, and interaction with the environment. Here you will also distribute points to establish the baseline for your attributes in the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. program (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck).
The game then flashes forward to your tenth birthday party. This is a milestone in Vault 101 as every Vault inhabitant is bestowed with a Pip-Boy 3000 personal computer when they turn ten years old. The Pip-Boy is a gimmick carried over from earlier games that serves all of the functions of an in-game menu system, in a way that makes sense in the context of the fictional world Bethesda is working in. With the Pip-Boy 3000 you're able to monitor you health, inventory, world map, quests, and more. My only complaint with it is that the text is a little small, and the green-on-black digital representation is a little difficult to read. Anyway, at this point you also gain your first experience with the dialogue system and non-player character (NPC) interaction. Closing out this segment of the "tutorial," you receive a birthday present from your father in the form of a retrofitted BB gun, which provides your first opportunity for target practice with and without V.A.T.S. – Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, though more on that later.
But all of this is preamble. Fallout 3 really gets underway after the final flash forward. You're 16 years old and head to school to take your G.O.A.T. – (Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test) – think the N.E.W.T. from Harry Potter. The G.O.A.T. is a short series of seemingly arbitrary questions that can determine your starting skill set, which covers a range that includes Big Guns, Small Guns, Barter, Science, Repair, and more. Though I was at a loss as to how the game interpreted my answers in order to assign skill points, you're not beholden to it. You are free to distribute your initial skill points however you want, allowing for total character customization. After the final flash forward to the age of 19, you are awakened from slumber by sirens and an urgent warning from a friend. It seems your father (wonderfully voice by Liam Neeson) has done the unthinkable. In direct violation of Vault 101's laws and credo, "Born in the vault, die in the vault," your father has abandoned the safety of 101 (not to mention his only child, you) to venture out into the Wastelands of the surface world. The vault's Overseer is furious and assumes you are complicit in your father's escape; he issues orders for your arrest and interrogation. Armed with little more than a pistol and a lot of questions, you must elude capture and follow your father out to the blasted Wastes.
The Elder Scrolls games along with many other RPGs typically cast players in the role of a hero destined to save a world, the fate of humanity (among other races) resting upon your shoulders from the get go. Fallout 3 has much more humble beginnings, and while this is a change from the LOTR-style epic quest of other RPGs, it certainly is a welcome one. Its personal and intimate nature fits nicely with the realistic tone of the near-future Earth setting, albeit one with an anachronistic coupling of sci-fi elements with a retro 1950's atmosphere, and it successfully draws you into a story that satisfies throughout the game. Yet as good as Fallout 3's main story is, it is really only the tip of the iceberg. In true Bethesda style this game has so much more to offer.
With Fallout 3 Bethesda has perhaps perfected the open-world RPG. This may be daunting to some gamers, and if you want to immediately begin and focus on the main quest of the game you are free to do so, but you would really be missing out. When you first step out of the claustrophobic corridors of Vault 101, you are greeted by the near boundless world of the surface. The "sandbox" of Fallout 3 covers a region that includes The National Mall in Washington D.C. and the surrounding city and countryside, roughly 16 square miles in area. And you can go ANYWHERE. Granted there are some places that will require advanced skill at Lockpicking or Science to access, others that will demand certain forms of "payment" before entry is permitted, and still others whose inhabitants will be openly hostile to your presence regardless of your intentions, but Fallout 3 never says "You can't go here" without good reason. All that said, you should approach exploration with, if not trepidation (else how would the game advance?), then at least caution.
Fallout 3 is not a survival horror game by any means, yet it does seem to have borrowed a page or two from their playbook as it has made (and continues to make) me jump out of my skin a little. It would be more accurate to call Fallout 3 a survival RPG. From your initial steps out of Vault 101, the atmosphere is all at once eerie, serene, and hostile. The sense of unease you feel is created as much by what you hear as by what you see. The color palette of Fallout 3 is almost devoid of any blues or greens, and as you might expect for a world after the Bomb, it is colored mostly by browns and grays. Yet what is achieved with that limited selection is visually stunning. The environment in Fallout 3 is richly textured and minutely detailed. Coupled with the visual stimuli is a soundtrack that could best be described as sparse. Proving that sometimes less is more, rather than fill the game with a musical score that loops and repeats continuously, Bethesda wisely chose to use music sparingly. Often, and particularly while exploring the open range of the Capitol Wastes, you will hear little to any music, and what does play is subtle. With all this pervasive quiet, you quickly become attuned to small sounds. The whistling and sighing of the wind, the rustling of leaves, the crunch of the ground beneath your feet. The silence adds to the sense of desolation and emptiness, and it is almost jarring when music begins to pour out of the speakers, such as when a roving robot broadcasting one of only two radio stations still operational in the Capitol Wastes region: Enclave Radio and its host, self-proclaimed President John Henry Eden, comes within earshot. When Fallout 3's musical score is employed, usually when something significant happens or is about to happen, it is made all the more effective by its corresponding absence. These atmospheric touches are reinforced by more practical and obvious aspects of gameplay to create a survivalist theme.
In somewhat typical survival horror fashion, the tools you'll use to keep yourself alive are at a premium. In keeping with the sense that the world has hobbled along for decades after a cataclysmic blow, weapons and armor are all in various states of disrepair. Additionally, ammunition for firearms, especially in the early going, is in limited supply. What is both very interesting and incredibly cool is Bethesda has used this to buck the trend and offer powerful, "high-level" items to low level characters early in the game. What this means is that instead of an item leveling system such as in Fable II where as your character becomes more powerful you get access to ever-increasingly powerful weapons (Rusty Iron -> Iron -> Steel -> Master), in Fallout 3 if you know where to look (or get lucky) you can find a weapon as kick ass as the Fat Man (to get an idea of just how ass-kickingly cool the Fat Man big gun is, wikipedia search "Fat Man" and then imagine that concept coupled with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade)). While firing one of these is guaranteed to stir fond memories of the BFG 9000, the enjoyment will be short lived because either the weapon's poor condition, the scarcity of its ammo, or both will mean your favorite new toy will have a limited role in your personal arsenal. That's too bad, seeing as how Fallout 3 is full of horrible monstrosities all eager to tear into the soft and tender parts of your person.
In the world of the Fallout series, the world did not end in a mushroom cloud. Life, as it is wont to do, survives, adapts, and evolves. Nuclear radiation is everywhere, and the accumulation of years of its effects can be seen on life forms great and small. The denizens of the Wasteland are the illegitimate offspring of Darwinian Theory and the Golden Age of Marvel Comics. Insects have ballooned in size and ferocity like something out of one of those low-budget, 1950's monster movies, "Attack of the Giant _________!" where the blank could be filled with flies, ants, cockroaches, scorpions, just to name a few. Cows are bicephalic. Yao Guai are a large, fast, and powerful species of mutated mammals descendant from the American black bear. You'll encounter centaurs, which – forget whatever happy visual comes to mind – are half-human, half-horrible, tentacled nightmare. And don't think that just because you start out as a low-level character that you're artificially protected from the more deadly denizens of the Wastes. While it is true that as a general rule the monsters in Fallout 3 tend to level up with you (such that Yao Guai are more often encountered than Radroaches in the later "stages" of the game), if you blunder into the wrong area early on, you can bring down the wrath of Super Mutants before you're really ready to take them on. And you don't even want to hear about something called, wait for it, a Deathclaw, so let's talk more about humans. They can't be nearly as bad as some of what I've described, can they? Oh, if only that were true.
For those people who couldn't reach the safety of a Vault and weren't killed in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear holocaust, essentially three fates awaited them. Those exposed to massive amounts of radiation (and somehow still lived) were mutated and reduced to ghouls. Those that were "lucky" were only deformed in body, and still capable of rationale thought (though subject to fear and persecution by normal people). On the other hand, feral ghouls are monstrous inside as well as out. Preferring deep, dark places such as the subterranean transit system beneath D.C., which I might add, you will have to navigate on more than one occasion, feral ghouls can often be found devouring the corpses of the recently dead (if one is particularly sneaky) and will attack on sight (if one isn't quite sneaky enough). The rest of the surface dwelling humans fell on, or chose opposite sides of the barrier separating order from chaos. Those on the former make due with what they have to build and defend places of refuge and community. Life for them is a constant struggle, and death can come in a variety of forms at any time. The latter view things like empathy, decency, and compassion as weaknesses and liabilities. These are raiders, and a paraphrased description of the Reavers from Firefly seems appropriate, as the raiders of the Capitol Wastes will "rape you to death, eat your flesh, and sew your skin into their clothing. And if you're very lucky, they'll do it in that order."
In order to survive your travels throughout the Wastes, you will have to deal with these various foes. And by "deal with" I mean "blast straight to Hell" because none of them are really big on diplomacy. As strategic as you will have to be in managing your arsenal, nevertheless you will have a collection of death-dealing implements of destruction that would make Joe Lieberman wet himself. And while you can approach combat in Fallout 3 as a typical point-and-shoot FPS (first-person shooter) the likes of Doom, Half-Life, or Halo: Combat Evolved, it is so much more fun to make use of V.A.T.S. As I mentioned earlier V.A.T.S. stands for Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, and by activating it you will momentarily pause the game and focus in on whatever foe is currently attempting to end your life. You will be able to highlight various parts of your enemy's body, and each will display the chance you have of hitting it along with a "cripple" meter. A successful hit will not only do overall damage to your adversary, but it will also damage that particular body part, and if you inflict enough damage you can cripple it. So if you are facing a raider charging you with a sledgehammer, if you can cripple one of the raider's legs you'll dramatically slow him down, allowing you to finish him off from a safe distance. Target a giant ant's antennae and you can impair its ability to sense the environment, temporarily confusing it. In addition to all of the practical applications of V.A.T.S., it's also incredibly fucking cool. If you target a raider's head and inflict lethal damage, the raider's head might be blown clean off or explode in a spray of blood and gray matter. And the icing on the cake is that once you choose your shot and reconvene gameplay, it will showcase your attack from an alternate, often cinematic angle in slow motion, making the proceedings all the more enjoyable. But as most things in Fallout 3, using V.A.T.S. won't come without cost. You have a set number of action points that are expended to employ V.A.T.S., and more difficult attacks (such as a head shot) will cost more points. You do regenerate action points fairly quickly, but in facing multiple enemies you may have to resort to straight-forward FPS tactics and mix in V.A.T.S. strategically in battle. All in all this is a very cool aspect of gameplay that has been executed to a large extent successfully, and it has yet to get old (at least for me).
But that's not all. Oh no. It's not just the inhabitants of the Wastes that are trying to kill you, the very environment around you is deadly. As I mentioned earlier, as a result of the nuclear war radiation is everywhere. While background levels have decreased to levels permissible (if not exactly hospitable) for life to survive, radiation still poses a threat. In addition to areas of particularly high levels of radiation that should be avoided at all costs, almost all food and water sources have become tainted. You are free (and often compelled) to consume food and water to heal injuries suffered throughout your adventures, but doing so increases your overall radiation exposure. Let it get too high and you will succumb to radiation sickness, which if not cured can kill you. Luckily your Pip-Boy 3000 allows you to constantly monitor your exposure level, and Rad-Away chems are available (but again, not abundant) to help keep things in check. Additionally some of the perks you can choose can also help. Radiation Resistance (what else?) increases your resistance to harmful radiation, and the Lead Stomach perk reduces the amount of radiation you suffer by drinking from contaminated water sources. This is just one more thing to worry over, one more element adding to the survivalist mentality that Fallout 3 instills in gamers.
And yet as much as it seems the Wastes are ruled by a "kill or be killed" code, that does not mean that the world is without morals. Indeed, Fallout 3 presents players with opportunities to be as good or as evil as they want, and they are presented with choices that have the kinds of consequences Fable II fell short in attaining. As just one example – MINOR SPOILER ALERT – one of the first locations you will discover upon leaving Vault 101 is the small community of Megaton, named because of the undetonated atomic bomb sitting in a shallow crater in the center of town. As you explore Megaton you will encounter a man named Mr. Burke who makes you a diabolical offer. He and the other residents of a place called Tenpenny Tower are sick of the inhabitants of Megaton, and he would very much like it if you were to remote detonate the bomb, a surefire way to erase Megaton and its people from the map. What do you do? Do you care more for the reward Mr. Burke promises will make your action worth its while? Or do you refuse to be a part of his sinister machinations and instead help the helpless, defend the defenseless, and strive to be a champion of the Wasteland? How you mold your character in Fallout 3 isn't just about morals; there are more practical things to take into consideration. There are certain quests that will be available to good characters that evil ones won't have access to, and vice versa. Additionally there are certain perks (have I talked about these yet? No? Suffice it to say every time you level up you not only get more skill points to distribute as you will, you also get to choose from a variety of permanent bonuses such as increased damage and accuracy with the various weapon types, increased radiation resistance, influence over animals, and more!) that will only be available to particular alignments, even neutral ones. Most every side-quest you take on has the option to complete in at least two if not more ways.
All of this comes together to create a gaming experience that has incredibly high replay value, even in the absence of any kind of multiplayer. Add to that the fact that Bethesda is famous for making additional content in the form of downloadable add-ons and expansions available to gamers in the months following a main title release, and gamers could be playing Fallout 3 well into 2009. How awesome is that? Fallout 3 is a rare gem of a game, and should serve as a shining example of what video games can be; I hope developers have stood up and taken notice.