Search for your father in the nuclear ruins of Washington, D.C.
PC Release: October 28, 2008
By Ian Coppock
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has long been one of my very favorite games. It’s an open-world fantasy adventure that I still hold close to my heart. My friend Bret, who is incredibly perceptive, noticed this and my love of really messed up apocalyptic horror, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and combined them into a recommendation of Fallout 3. The game took the open-world model I love and combined it with the deep uncertainty of a world gone terribly wrong.
Remember those 50s-era images of what the world would be like by the 2000s? Robo-butlers, fusion-powered cars, hover boots, all that stuff? For Fallout, Bethesda Softworks borrowed those notions of retro-futurism and combined them with nuclear apocalypse. The result is a curiously delicious portrait of irony set in 2277, 200 years after a nuclear war destroyed the entire world. This made for a much more interesting portrait of apocalyptia; rather than take the conventional post-modern day apocalypse, the game adds fresh details in the form of everything from rogue butler droids to crackling dial radios belting out Frank Sinatra. Cold War-era movements and attitudes are prevalent among the characters, which is also a refreshing twist.
Fallout 3 takes place in and around Washington, D.C. Your character, referred to canonically as the Lone Wanderer, is an inhabitant of Vault 101. The facility is a top-secret, pre-war bomb shelter whose inhabitants have never contacted the outside world. The game immediately gets the immersion going by letting you fill your character out at various stages of childhood.
These oftentimes poignant little scenes let you choose your character’s future attributes, such as strength and luck. Your father, voiced by the venerable Liam Neeson, guides your character until your 19th birthday, when he escapes the vault.
With little knowledge of what awaits outside, you follow suit, emerging into a harsh new world quite unlike the sterile serenity of your home.
With your character loosed into a lawless, desolate world, it’s up to you to decide your destiny. As with most Bethesda games, you can pursue the main quest or just wander aimlessly in search of adventure. I immediately began scrounging some bombed-out houses for rations and toilet paper, and it didn’t take long for me to find a settlement constructed around a live nuclear warhead. The game’s main narrative eschews a step-by-step process. Sometimes you just miss your dad as you look for him, and must follow the clues deeper into the Capital Wasteland.
Bethesda games are more like buckets than Twix bars (what?). Rather than having their ingredients tightly wound about a yummy core, they present a container of content from which you can select your favorite goodies first. This setup is reflected in the game’s overall narrative. As with Oblivion, Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas, the main story is not the meat of the game. The meat is the dozens of square miles you can explore. It’s fun, because you can shape your character’s story however you want. You can start out as a bounty hunter, working your way around the wastes in pursuit of your dad. You can work for or against slavers, start businesses with locals, etc. There’s a lot to do, and more than enough to hold your attention.
The Capital Wasteland encompasses the bombed-out ruins of Washington, D.C., and surrounding expanses of Maryland and Virginia. There are almost 200 landmarks you can visit, ranging from tiny enclaves of survivors to military bases and abandoned factories. One fenced-off village is its own self-declared country. Most of these areas function like a fantasy world’s monster-infested dungeon, with nuclear ruins that teem with mutated creatures and brutal bandits.
Your character can also take up side questing as a hobby or an excuse to kill people. A few factions are fighting for control of the wastes, and some of these are integral to the main story. Though the main story is not that strong, these organizations offer plenty of opportunities to explore the wasteland. As far as I saw, only the two main ones care if you have another boss. The characters in this game are usually pretty vapid, little more than thinly disguised quest dispensers, but there were a few true gems. These included a radioactive mob boss, and an eight-year old mayor who swears more than any other character I’ve ever seen.
This game as much as any other open-world RPG allows for some great character story building. Your actions will earn positive or negative responses from the waste’s inhabitants. What I didn’t like about this system was Karma, a rather arbitrary system of good luck vs. bad luck that served no clear purpose other than keeping me from stealing stuff. Characters can automatically sense your Karma score and will react with hostility if it’s bad.
I thought this whole thing was pretty lazy. I know that being able to steal things is cheating, in a way, since it gains you resources and money that only higher-level players should have, but I wish they’d come up with something more clever than an omnipotent scoreboard. Bethesda could have leveled the loot as they did with the monsters.
Fallout 3‘s gameplay reinforces the notion that you are an explorer above all else. You have a nifty little light for navigating the game’s many pitch-black areas. Your wrist-mounted Pip Boy computer can pull up stats and items you’ve gathered. Combat is slightly below-average first, but Bethesda made this game accessible to non-gun hacks with the V.A.T.S. system. V.A.T.S. puts the game on pause and lets you pick where to shoot, but the trade-off is that the percentage chance of hitting something is lower than in freestyle firing. The death camera stays fresh for the first 10 or so hours but soon becomes wearily predicable.
The game tackles health by dividing your vitality among your limbs, head and torso. Severe enough damage to any of these areas can result in broken bone, affecting gameplay and adding realism to shooter injuries. You can also take drugs and alcohol to increase your effectiveness in battle, but this brings about a chance of chemical addiction. Minus the karma system, these gameplay mechanics reinforced the harshness of the game’s story and artwork.
Fallout 3 was built on the same engine as Oblivion. The graphics look a bit aged, but items and buildings are much more detailed than people. As with Oblivion, the characters in this game stand stiffly and stare into your soul. Bethesda did add in-conversation animations (finally) but these had a hard time offsetting the feeling I was conversing with a statue.
Landscapes are drowning in flow-y piles of gravel. The Capital Wasteland is bleak but by no means dull. You can find monumental collapsed buildings, broken bridges and streams of radioactive waste. Though the environments are interesting, the coloration gets a bit repetitive. Everything has at least a few shades of gray, and a lot of the building and structure interiors become cut-and-paste repetitive, especially the subway tunnels.
The audio in Fallout 3 is deeply satisfying. I found myself keeping guns more for the sound they made than whether they were any good. Bethesda got its voice actors to emote a lot more in this game than in Oblivion, so that’s a nice change of pace. The music is a bleak collection of horns and guitar strings that serves as excellent white noise for traveling the wastelands. Overall, I was impressed with the art department’s work. They managed to add new content, but they improved significantly upon the problems present with Oblivion‘s art.
Fallout 3 is one of the finest open-world RPGs out there. You can sink hundreds of hours into this game without skipping a beat, and when you can buy it for $10-20, that’s quite a deal. The game has smooth gameplay, again, minus the karma system, and the art, while dreary at times, will hold your attention. Fallout 3‘s range of downloadable content, from the retelling of a pivotal battle to storming an alien mothership, is all also worth trying out, even if some of it is a bit short. All of this content is available together or separately; try it and love it.
You can buy Fallout 3 here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.