Review: Engrossing Fallout 3 Mutates a Classic Series
Fallout 3 is not the game that hard-core, longtime Fallout fans are hoping for.
Gone is the series' trademark dark humor, elegant interface and turn-based combat. These have been replaced by a decidedly more serious tone, an unnecessarily complex menu system and combat that resembles a curious mutation of that found in Bethesda Game Studios' The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.
But despite the changes grafted onto the game in its jump to three dimensions, Fallout 3 is an incredibly deep, engrossing title that easily ranks as one of the best role-playing games in recent memory.
(Fallout 3 is available for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. We reviewed the 360 game.)
The story in Fallout 3 starts with your birth. Through two short vignettes in which you play a toddler and 10-year-old version of your eventual avatar, you're introduced to the game's mechanics. This sort of introduction-as-gameplay gimmick has ceased to be novel in and of itself, but Fallout 3's version proves entertaining if only by virtue of the gorgeous graphics and sound.
Superficially, the world that Bethesda has created for Fallout 3 seems like Oblivion with a Fallout paint job. It has that same go-anywhere-pick-up-anything freedom, but where Oblivion often felt sparse and desolate, Fallout 3's world is teeming with the sort of mangled life you'd expect from a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Even when roaming the barren wastelands outside major cities, you're never more than a few meters from a burned-out car or a knife-wielding raider. Yes, it's something we should expect from these open-world role-playing titles — yet it's done so well in Fallout 3 that it feels novel and immersive.
Combat in Fallout 3 is also an obvious evolution of Oblivion's, right down to having the exact same delay timing when swinging a melee weapon. The sword combat in Oblivion was equal parts unwieldy and terrible. But applying the same system to Fallout's firearms works much better. It feels much more natural to squeeze a trigger button to fire off a round than to swing a sword, even if the FPS-style real-time combat moves too slowly to properly track your enemies' hyperkinetic sprinting.
But combat isn't all about first-person fighting. There's also VATS. That's an acronym for "Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System," but none of that is important — all you need to know is that it melds the turn-based combat of earlier Fallout games with some gorgeous visual effects.
Once you've encountered an enemy, clicking a single shoulder button will activate the VATS system. The action freezes, and you zoom in on whatever enemy is nearest you. Through a few simple manipulations of the control sticks, you're allowed to select various body parts as targets. Once you've selected where you want your attack to land, clicking the "Accept" button restarts the action. But this time, everything is seen through a serious of action-movie-style slow-motion cuts and altered camera angles.
Not only is the VATS system the only way I would recommend people play through Fallout 3, it also looks intensely cool, as the camera slowly trails the bullet you just fired to its eventual resting place in the head of a Super Mutant 100 yards away.
That's when the gore kicks in. Even the smallest handguns are capable of exploding craniums with a well-placed bullet in Fallout 3, and after the first few levels you'll rarely leave a battleground with your enemies still in one piece.
One area where Bethesda abandoned the Oblivion playbook is in the game's leveling system. Everything -- from how you gain experience to how you mold your character -- is pure, vintage Fallout. No longer will you have to bunny-hop across the world to boost your Acrobatics skill.
As in past Fallout titles, the experience and attribute system is classic Dungeons & Dragons stuff, but what really sets the series apart is the addition of "perks." For every two levels that you gain, you're offered the chance to add a new feature to your personality that affects your abilities and how you interact with the world. The "Swift Learner" perk, for instance, gives you extra experience every time you do something useful, while the "Bloody Mess" perk ensures that your foes will always die in the most gruesome way possible (and adds 5 percent more damage to any weapon you're currently wielding).
Not only do the perks offer players new ways to improve their virtual lives, they also offer a huge amount of character customization. Want to play as an evil contract killer? There's a perk for that. Want to be a smooth-talking charmer? Yup, there's one for that, too.
Fallout 3's story seems like a similarly well-crafted re-creation of the classic tales of the first two Fallout games, at first, but after a few hours longtime fans will realize that the whole thing feels a bit off. It took me nearly 15 hours of gameplay to figure out what exactly felt wrong.
And then it dawned on me: Nothing in Fallout 3 is funny.
Certainly, you'd expect a post-apocalyptic wasteland to be depressingly bleak. But what the first two Fallout titles did so well was to show that even in the darkest of times, the irreverent human spirit remains. Interplay was very good at crafting a number of fun in-jokes and meta-references — the encounter with Dr. Who's TARDIS, for instance — that elevated the series above the average RPG.
Fallout 3, by comparison, is much darker. In the first hour of gameplay I encountered no less than three drug addicts -- not including my own character, who picked up a nasty Jet addiction. As if to drive the darker theme home, Bethesda even included a side quest where you're given the option of becoming a vampire. This kind of thing is quickly becoming a trademark of the publisher's titles, but in a futuristic world it seems out of place.
Fallout 3's story isn't bad. Actually, it's incredibly deep and nuanced, and stands up against any recent RPG's. But it just isn't as good as those of past Fallout games. It's not enough of a flaw to deduct points from the game's score, but longtime fans should be aware of the issue.
Another complaint: Outside of the leveling system, the menus in Fallout 3 are unforgivably complex and lack a necessary amount of user-friendliness. To wit: After specializing in the use of "Small Guns," I was curious as to what exactly qualified as such. Nowhere in a weapon's description does it specify whether it happens to be a "Small Gun," "Large Gun" or "Energy Weapon," and after e-mailing Bethesda I was told that the only way to know which weaponry you should use is to carefully read the description of the specialization you choose.
So if I want a "Small Gun," do I pick the Combat Shotgun or the Scoped .44 Magnum? As it turns out, both qualify as "Small Guns," despite the size and weight difference in both the game and in real life.
Despite the clunky menu system and nearly useless real-time combat options, the biggest complaint I can level at Fallout 3 is that it isn't by the original developer, Interplay. But since we'll never see that game, Bethesda's take on the series is a very acceptable substitute.
Images courtesy Bethesda
WIRED Stunning graphics and sound, nuanced post-apocalyptic setting, innovative turn-based combat adaptation
TIRED Unnecessarily complex menu system, poor real-time combat options
$60 (console), $50 (PC), Bethesda Softworks