Fallout 3 — The Review
Well it’s been almost a month since I cracked open Fallout 3. And with over 60 hours under my belt, I may not have seen everything the game has to offer, but I’ve seen enough to pass judgment. And my judgment is: pretty damn good. 8 out of 10. I can’t agree with Eurogamer, which raves that Fallout is “a game of life-affirming brilliance that will be heralded as a classic, and talked about for years to come.” But I can definitely back GameSpy’s more reserved recommendation: “Fallout 3 is a must-have title for most RPG fans.”
Easily the most impressive thing about Fallout 3 is the art direction. The blasted landscape of the DC metro area is gorgeously rendered (if you can call charred, stunted trees and twisted steel girders “gorgeous”), the raygun gothic aesthetic of the original Fallout titles is executed beautifully for the few structures that remain standing, and the HDR lighting makes for some incredible dawn/dusk transition moments out in the wastelands.
Which is good, because you’ll spend plenty of time hoofing it around out there. Fallout’s world isn’t quite as large as the massively expansive Oblivion, but it’s still sizeable – probably a 20 minute jog from one end of the map to the other. If you could jog it without stopping, that is. You probably can’t thanks to all the mutants, irradiated insects, and Thunderdome refugees just waiting to pounce on your newly exhumed ass.
The interior locations are generally memorable as well. The ruins around the National Mall are especially nice – how cool is it to prowl through the collapsed exhibit halls of the Smithsonian!? – but many of the abandoned warehouses, condos, and factories that litter the suburbs carry their own unique charms. (Case in point: an abandoned computer terminal in the old Hubris Comics plant runs a playable beta test for the text adventure, “Reign of Grelok.”)
The gameplay is pretty solid, and a small step up from Oblivion. Combat animations are fluid, and the VATS targeting system kills two birds with one stone in both blending the traditional stats-focused combat of RPG’s (“I roll a die, tell me if I hit?”) with FPS style games, and lending every combat encounter a wonderful cinematic feel that wouldn’t be possible with a completely real-time system. There are a lot of technical glitches (model clipping, crazy physics bugs, and here’s something new: the combat system isn’t even functional if you’re playing on a PC with your mouse buttons transposed), but they’re easily overlooked in the shock and awe inspired by the sprawling post-apocalyptic canvas.
After a few dozen hours of scrounging through lockers and metal boxes, though, even the wonderfully eerie, jingoistic diatribes of “President Eden” (expertly voiced by Malcolm McDowell) crackling across the airwaves can’t cover up a basic problem that starts to suck more and more fun out of the Fallout experience. As the game stretches on towards the promised 100 hour mark, it becomes clear that although there’s a lot of “what” in the game, Fallout 3 is running dangerously low on “why.”
I could spend the next hour crawling through whatever catacombs are hiding behind rusty grate number 224, but why should I? Is it really going to offer me anything so different from the last set of tunnels I cleared, or the ten before that? Too often in Fallout 3, the answer is no. And since you’ll hit level cap long before you’ve covered even half of the content in the game, suddenly the lack of a story-based incentive becomes painfully relevant.
Look, there’s nothing wrong, a priori, with incredibly repetitive gameplay. If the game itself is an absolute blast, then maybe we’re just talking about more of a good thing; nobody complains that Tetris is just about dropping the same damn shapes over and over and over again. But shooting super mutants in the head, while undeniably fun, is no Tetris.
And it’s not meant to be. Fallout 3 is a CRPG, a genre which generally delivers its primary reward along a couple of axes: story/plot advancement, and character development. “Character development” can sometimes be interpreted in a strictly numerical sense (leveling up & boosting stats), but if the game aspires to be anything more than set decoration for a set of statistics and a paper doll inventory management system (Diablo and Dungeon Siege, I’m looking at you), then it tries to reflect and celebrate the player’s unique contributions. A good CRPG will present you with opportunities that elicit interesting & revealing choices, and then respond to your choices in a way that feels both satisfying and authentic.
For example, let’s say that you’re playing a badass, evil mofo who tortures puppies and steals candy from babies. Fine. Then you’d like the game to provide some metaphorical candy to steal, for starters. Maybe there’s a Secret League of Badasses that’s plotting to assassinate the King of Goodstuff- you’d be perfect for that group! So you spend some time (and levels) perfecting your throat-slitting and guard-bashing techniques, and it all pays off on the big day when you finally whack the King and slaughter his personal honor guard in the process. Once he’s dead, you decide to wear his crown and strut around bitchslapping all the sad commoners who take offense. Mission accomplished – you’ve left your mark, and the game has validated you as the evil bastard that you always wanted to be (at least for a few hours).
Different CRPG’s embody this design philosophy in different ways. In Fable, you get a constant yay/boo chorus from the population of every town you enter, and your character’s physical appearance is altered to match the demonic (or angelic) polarity of your actions. All Bioware games implement pretty much the same forked network of roads with a saintly “good” path and crassly sociopathic “evil” path for each and every quest. The Witcher tried to riff on this in a less black-and-white way, with ripple effects spreading out from your actions that attract or antagonize different factions in the game, sometimes before you’ve even met them.
However it happens, a good CRPG should feel like my gameplay experience is significantly different – or at least potentially significantly different – than yours. Or mine the next time I play, which is why it’s not uncommon for a gamer to play something like Knights of the Old Republic two or three times, exploring most of the roads not taken before considering it “finished.”
But although Fallout 3 tracks your accumulated “karma points,” the vast majority of the game content plays exactly the same no matter how enlightened or not you happen to be. And while the scale of your impact on the world may sound pretty large – hey, you can blow up a whole TOWN if you want to! – all of your achievements actually play out pretty much in isolation. Most quests like this have a single point of “karmic feedback” built into them, after which it’s back to business as usual in the wastelands.
This is one area where Oblivion, ironically, does a much better job than Fallout 3, despite working with significantly more content. Not only does Oblivion benefit from the increased replay value afforded by the different professions (being a mage summoner makes pretty much every combat encounter dramatically different than it is for a heavily armored warrior), it also provides more quests that link the geographically scattered interest points together. The net effect is that the each hidden dungeon and shrine in Oblivion feels more like part of an organic whole. In Fallout, it’s just another hole… a beautiful, well-designed hole bathed in a gloriously high-res nimbus of light. Feel free to climb in if you need the ammo…
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