The real appeal of post-apocalyptic literature, film and games is not altogether easy to explain. To see the world in ruins, to see society smashed and turned to ash and dust; the desperate remnants of humanity clinging on to the remains of the day is peculiarly alluring. What is it exactly? The complete absence of law and order; in gaming allowing the player a sense of complete freedom maybe? Is it the haunting reflection of paradise fallen? Maybe it’s just the potential wanton violence. We do like violence after all. Fallout 3 approaches all three aspects, and succeeds magnificently for the most part.
Ever since I played the first two Fallout games I wanted to see the next in a first person, real time game. An environment so richly developed, with such vast aesthetic potential was perhaps let down by the isometric view point in the sense that you never could get quite as close as you’d like. On the other hand, the excellence of their writing, and the array of options for progression simply made them two of the most engaging and entertaining role play games I’ve ever played. Fallout 3 is a worthy, accomplished, albeit perhaps slightly flawed successor to the series.
The first thing that really struck me upon leaving the Vault for the first time, as I think it will with anyone, is the blasted beauty of the environments. A sombre wasted brown mass they may be, but the little touches; swirls of dust in the wind, the blackened, dying trees barely clinging onto life, and above all, the crippled decayed ruins of the formal capital of the United States evoke a silent attraction. Cullen Murphy perhaps put it best on the allure of DC’s monuments in ruins last year: “They somehow invite you to see them as derelicts, rendered into darkly impish engravings by the hand of some future Piranesi.” Besides the ruins, the wastes and the shattered settlements that interject regularly evoke images straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road.
Fallout 3 being compared to high art and modern literature greats, folks. You heard it here first.
And as for the people who live in these desolate remains? Well, they won’t generally come off as the most memorable of characters for the most part, but I think Bethesda have shown genuine reverence for the Fallout canon where possible. I was admittedly a little put off by their portrayal of the Brotherhood of Steel: They definitely came of at first as being a little too gung-ho, and in the end, the whole “Lyons Pride” squad genuinely irritated me. But at the same time, Bethesda showed care for addressing the canon. If you went out your way to read all the computer entries, and talk to the members, you definitely got a sense that you understood what the Brotherhood were about, and that they were very much the same organisation as they were in Fallout 1/2. Other settlements are generally impressively designed, populated by some interesting characters, though one feels as those some emphasis was placed on the town of Megaton compared to a few of the other locales. There were some tantalising hints to future episodes in the series actually; a mysterious “Commonwealth” in the north, and hints of unrest in the Western Brotherhood for example. Portents of the inevitable expansions perhaps?
Grating however, are a few aspects of NPCs. The facial generation software seems to have evolved slightly from Oblivion, but many of the faces in game still look horribly pudgy and inhuman. A few of the characters; clearly ones of importance like your father or Lucas Simms look fine, but many are pretty awful. Similarly, the facial and combat animations aren’t great. In a post Half-Life 2 world – hell, a post Fallout world is this really acceptable. Lastly, I will agree that the voice acting and dialogue are a mixed bag as has been pointed out by most reviews. There’s some excellent lines, both in script and voice. Most are average however, and there’s a good deal of truly awful lines. This is where Fallout 3 lets itself down most, and the place where fans of Fallout 1/2 will be most annoyed. Regardless, I quickly got over these issues myself and still feel the quality of the rest of the game allows these flaws to be if not ignored, at least not taken to heart.
An area I truly believe Fallout 3 redeems itself perhaps even surpassing its predecessors – at least Fallout 2- is its capturing of the retro styling the series is famed for, and exploiting this for all it’s worth. First of all, the environments perfectly give off a sense of Americana gone wrong; and being able to get up and close with it is a clear benefit of the decision to go first person. Some of the best moments are when the characters are stuck in a half-way house between the 50s world of tomorrow and the brutal post-apocalyptic reality. But more than anything, there’s a moment in the main storyline that just simply eclipses anything either of the previous two games did with the setting: It’s a thing of delicious narrative beauty that I can barely help myself from describing, but of course wont for fear or spoiling it. But I will say that it’s utterly brilliant, and so very darkly humorous. Quite how anyone can say that the Fallout humour is gone are just lying to themselves.
Another aspect I think Bethesda deserve credit for is their cheeky nods to the fan community: The Brotherhood of Steel Outcasts representing No Mutants Allowed anyone? Not allowing you to slay children while giving you a town run by the most annoying little bastards in the world? Unlike Moira Brown (you’ll know what I mean when you meet her), you simply cannot plug them with 10mm, and Bethesda knew it when they put them in. Excellent. Intelligent. So very irritating.
Speaking of plugging things with bullets, the gun play is truly spectacular. I personally think that the general feel of Fallout 1/2‘s turn based combat is genuinely brought forwards into the FPS world, thanks to VATS. I played through using VATS to level the playing field between your usually numerically superior foes, or making critical shots, while using real time to move tactically into position or undertake other tasks. It’s a genuinely unique game mechanic. It’s at least as close as I think you’ll ever be able to get to a synthesis of two very different play styles anyway. I would say it needs some balancing. Eventually towards the end of the game you basically become a destructive powerhouse, demolishing and disintegrating everything but those bloody tough Super Mutant Masters in a matter of shots; though I will say I had much the same experience in the first two games as well.
The game world, already highlighted for its beauty is a fundamentally excellent setting from a game perspective as well. Take the best bit about Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games; vast sprawling game worlds, replete with a multitude of locales; added with the Fallout’s unparalleled unique locations and you have a perfect combination. Where Oblivion’s settlements were largely uninspired and generic, Fallout 3’s are unique and developed. The early highlight is of course Megaton, but later on you’ll come across the hulking, rusting Rivet City based in a beached air craft carrier, or the slaver settlement of Paradise Falls. They’re as instantly memorable as the likes of Shady Sands and (for better or worse) New Reno. I did find myself wishing that there were more quests like the Megaton dilemma though admittedly; there’s certainly an impression that there’s more they could have done with regards decisions that would completely change the future of a settlement, but mostly they’re small scale sadly. It’s not a major issue though, since I will say that the quests are otherwise genuinely brilliant. Each is well developed and not entirely clear cut at times.
I quite liked the main story. Granted, it’s short, and sometimes predictable. But then again, you could complete Fallout 1 in 9 minutes 19 seconds. You probably couldn’t get out of the Vault in 9 minutes 19 seconds in Fallout 3 (though someone will blatantly try to prove me wrong now.) When you get into it, you’ll realise that the main goal of your quest is one quintessential to both survival in any post-apocalyptic scenario, and also the Fallout series. It does become a little too linear for my liking when you reach the end game, perhaps baring more in common with Fallout 2’s end game on the oil rig than the multi-part, multi-solution leviathan of Fallout 1.
So here’s my bottom line: I genuinely believe Fallout 3 is a worthy successor to the series. It’s not perfect, and I think a lot of people will be disappointed by the generally less than great characters, as well as a lot of the changes to the core game mechanics. I personally love the synthesis of RPG and FPS. A lot of people understandably won’t and don’t. But what I will say it that Bethesda have produced a fantastic game world that has Fallout at its heart. Now, excuse me while I load up a new game, and a new character since I only explored perhaps half of its vast game world last time round.
Expansive, detailed game world, full of excellent side quests.
Reverent, evolutionary use of the Fallout lore.
Excellent combat mechanics.
Arguably weak main plot.