Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Game Rating: M (Mature)
When the news broke in 2003 that Bethesda was picking up the Fallout franchise from the faltering Interplay, purists quickly derided what they expected would be a sort of Oblivion with assault rifles. That’s not quite what happened. Or, it kind of is, but it’s better than it sounds. Bethesda threw everything out and started from scratch, changing the familiar turn-based play and isometric, top-down worldview to a hybrid system that is part first-person shooter, part RPG and part post-apocalyptic bloodsport. And when the game finally dropped last October, the naysayers were proven wrong: With Fallout 3, Bethesda knocked one out of the park… and right into the next area code.
Though Bethesda sacrificed much of the series’ self-referential humour, there is still enough kookiness to keep things fun and familiar. And in many ways, Fallout 3 stays true to the franchise: The altered game perspective significantly changes the control system, but the familiar Pip Boy is back and better than ever, offering a simple way to access maps and character information, listen to audio journals or clues and keep an ear to the news via one of the Wasteland’s radio stations. The Pip Boy is also where you access your inventory; selecting weapons, armour and medicines without the paradigm-interrupting toolbars and such that plague so many RPGs.
The Fallout 3 universe is so impressive in its size and variety that you will likely lose yourself in exploration — which is not actually a bad idea; If you follow the main quest too closely, you will finish the game having only seen a fraction of the places and adventures open to you. So, step off the main quest as often as you can.
Choice also plays a big part of how the game opens up for you: you can sally forth to save the innocent and help the weak, or you can embark on a campaign of dastardly evil. Both options come with certain karmic kickbacks, companion choices and a general reputation throughout the Wasteland (news travels fast when there’s only one radio station worth listening to).
Gunplay is a mixed-bag of smooth action and clunky futzing about. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (aka V.A.T.S) takes Fallout 2‘s targeted shooting to new heights to bring your enemies to sometimes spectacular ends, but once your action points are gone, you’re stuck with Oblivion-esque flailing, where hitting anything at all can be a chore. Fortunately, the points replenish pretty quickly. As you accumulate damage you can use stimpaks to heal yourself, sleep when you get a chance, visit a doctor or turn to the many chemical or food aids available to you. Just bear in mind that most of them come with an associated radiation kick, so that you’re constantly balancing off an item’s healing value with the radiation damage it causes.
In terms of design and experience, the game world is beautifully rendered in fabulous detail, though a jagged edge here and there lessen the goshwow. But you can’t fault the design: in the Fallout universe, the pre-apocalypse USA was a Jetsons-y ’50s-retro world of nuclear families (get it?) and suburban Oases. The choice of a Quasi-1950s past is telling: in many ways that was the real American golden age, a time between the end of World War II and the ego-blow of Viet-Nam. The race struggles of the next decade were still years off, and Cold War paranoia was gearing up. Highways were being laid, suburbia was exploding, and Americans felt pretty darned good about themselves. A lot of this came through in the era’s Googie (or Populuxe) architecture and design. The Googie-inspired environment also adds a touch of campy cool to what could easily have been a depressing experience, changing A Boy and His Dog into a post-apocalyptic Zippy the Pinhead. The effect is enhanced hugely by the soundtrack: Inon Zur’s atmospheric, epic ambient music is punctuated here and there by classic tunes by the Ink Spots and other 1940s groups, all in heavy rotation on the radios you find throughout the Wasteland. It’s too bad there aren’t more of these cool old songs included in the soundtrack, as the endless repetition gets old pretty fast. Similarly, sound effects are realistic and the voice acting is uniformly well acted, if a little flat in spots. Again, the canned responses your companions utter during combat makes one wish they’d recorded a half-dozen more, to minimize the recurrence factor a little.
Oh, and one last caveat: there is no nudity. Now, this isn’t the complaint of a fanboy intent on seeing boobies. It’s rather a justified comment by someone who hates being popped out of the zone by PG-13 moments in an M-rated game. And considering the skimpy nature of some of the armour, stealing a dead female raider’s cast-iron buttfloss and leaving behind a corpse dressed in a tank-top and gotchies is a real kick in believability’s pants. And really, any player who will happily pop the top off a person’s head with a .308 bullet can handle the occasional nipple. Instead, one is left wondering if Fruit of the Loom escaped the end of the world, since there are so many identical underwear sets available to Wastelanders and city-dwellers alike.
For the most part, the game is well-designed and presented, the occasional wooden moment notwithstanding. The future is dystopian as hell, but with some campy black humour thrown in for good measure.
Even with the occasional jaggie or dropped frame, Fallout 3 is beautiful. The drab nature of the post-apocalyptic world is convincingly rendered, and NPCs, creatures, robots and animals alike are well-designed and realistic.
Gorgeous. From the compelling sounds of Inon Zur’s soundtrack or the capable and well-mixed voice work to the Doppler shift built into the sonic landscape, the sound is immersive.
The elegant targeting system and intuitive controls are hampered by the sometimes clumsy real-time combat and the fact that you really can’t run very fast. The perks and point system keep the character’s development motivating, but the fact that you can’t progress past level 20 can be frustrating later in the game.
The 20-level limit is an unfair and irritating aspect of an otherwise engrossing game, but the sheer size of the world and the seemingly endless possibilities for adventure will keep Fallout 3 spinning in your PS3 for a long time.