Ryan: Scourge of Humanity – Collecting Ears and Ammo Since 2008. By the end of Fallout 3, I had cleaned out at least a quarter of the world’s remaining population and had made quite the name for myself in the process. My only regret: I wasn’t as ambitious with my terminating as I was in tweaking the right balance between small arms, lock picking and repair.
I wasn’t always the post-apocalyptic Genghis Khan; I like to think that I was driven to my actions by a harsh world that had a little too many people all too willing to give me the stink eye. Starting out with Liam Neeson welcoming you into the world is about as great as a beginning as you could expect. Following that up with the novel control and interaction tutorial in the form of a baby learning their first steps was a great follow-up, as was the subsequent standard vault aptitude test as a teenager to tweak your final build. The best decision, however, was letting me run free in a barren world with a pistol, a list of attainable perks, and questionable morals.
As a card-carrying PC gamer, I own and have enjoyed the original role-playing Fallout titles. Gambling, selling, taking down insane cult leaders, I enjoyed my time in the waste. Great as they are, my attachment to the series is far less so than others, and as such I approached Fallout 3 with more tempered expectations. Not that I didn’t expect great things, mind you; I am a fan of Bethesda, from Arena and Daggerfall to Morrowind and Oblivion; but it wasn’t difficult for me to approach the latest entry, without the years of nostalgia weighing me down. This is an important point to make, because Fallout fans are some of the most devoted out there, and I approached 3 with a far different mindset.
With that out of the way, just how is Fallout 3? Pretty great. There are problems, to be sure, the least of which seems to be Bethesda’s slow reining in of their go-for-it-all ambitions that began with Daggerfall. A more measured approach is understandable, with the complexity of hardware and increased cost of development, but the insane scope of Daggerfall is certainly missed. That isn’t to say that a more focused approach has squashed all bugs, as Fallout 3 is not without some technical hiccups. The world outside of your childhood abode, Vault 101, is home to clipping, objects to get stuck on or in, and random oddities that pick away at the immersion. It is also immensely interesting, despite being a wasteland.
Scattered throughout the lands are other vaults, ramshackle towns, deserted cities, nomadic merchants, and wars – a lot of wars. Several factions struggle in open conflict with each other, including the militant technologists of the Brotherhood of Steel, their break off Outcast sect, the resurrected US government in the form of the Enclave, regulators, mutants, mercenaries, and raiders that roam the land in search of slaves and loot. As you make your way past overgrown baseball diamonds and under crumbling overpasses, firefights will break out between parties, animals, mutants, and just about anything else that can move and fight. Your choice is whether or not to engage, possibly forsaking a later alliance and quest line for quick gains. It’s exhilarating to stand on a balcony of a dilapidated motel and see a skirmish break out between groups that inadvertently crossed each other’s paths, knowing you can get in good with one or just scoop in and pick the bones of the dead.
There is an overarching narrative that underlines the chaos. After nuclear war drove the people underground, they have slowly emerged in small groups to repopulate the lands. They are not alone, though, as mutants and ghouls, transformed from the fallout, roam the land: the mutants a violent group of behemoths and the ghouls a more civilized and equally ugly people that are searching for a settled life. Towns sprung up as time passed, with people setting up shop in a crater created by an atomic bomb that failed to detonate, a derelict battleship, abandoned mines, old town squares, and even on bridges. Some of the people strove to collect the remaining bits of technology and others had their own designs with the rediscovered goods, while groups sprung up to take advantage of the weak and others to combat the criminals. As the world teeters on the edge of anarchy, an advanced faction linked to the former US government that goes by the name of the Enclave starts sending out a message of unity and strength. Your father, recently disappeared, has connections with several of these groups, and it is your job to find out why he vanished and what others would want with him.
Tracking Liam down isn’t a problem, and the main quest is actually fairly short. But going straight for the gut won’t satisfy. The joy of an open world is exploring, and to that end Bethesda has added all sorts of enticements. Each area’s monsters are tethered to that area, so that an area you visit in the beginning will have monsters that are of that lower level when you return at level 15 – and end up making short work of them in a frenzy of sweet revenge. This helps to scoot things along, allowing you to trek all over the world without worrying about being trapped in a difficult zone. Of course, it’s also true that you can adventure too much and negate much of the challenge by tying enemies to too low a level for a significant portion of the map; but this problem won’t plague many, as the numerous dungeons (mines, other vaults, abandon buildings, subways, etc.) and side quests will occupy you enough to where you will reach new areas at higher levels. The shells of towns are always a treat to explore, most are held by raiders or random characters that have set up shop to sell their trinkets to passersby: rifling through a scorched dresser in an old bedroom or pilfering a nuke cola or bottle caps (the game’s currency) from a bombed-out restaurant’s machine is always fun, and quite exhilarating in the beginning. Interacting with the random people you encounter is also crucial, as your karma dictates, though to a lesser extent than I’d wish, how others relate to you. Despite the crushing atmosphere, there are all sorts of sights, sounds, and people that are around just waiting for you to find them.
Finding all of these interesting spots and weird characters is handled by a map and waypoint system that is accessed via your wrist-strapped PipBoy 3000 unit. Given to all vault dwellers when they come of age, the unit is the main way you access inventory items, heal, level, and check your surroundings. While the system isn’t bad, it wouldn’t have hurt from a bit more refining. I also never got used to the map system, which I contend is inadequate and inferior to the easily identifiable maps found in the original titles. The waypoint system is helpful, though, guiding you from main quests to handpicked locations, even if it can glitch out every now and then.
There are subtle touches sprinkled throughout as well. In particular, a radio that constantly plays signals being broadcast by the Enclave and Galaxy News Radio (hosted by the obnoxious DJ, Three Dog). There are also distress beacons and older broadcasts that hint at the recent past, including the war with China and annexation of Canada. Chinese propaganda will play alongside calls for help from rangers, and even a downed UFO; using the strength of the signal to track down the source was clever and sadly underused. But the encouragement to adventure is constant, if only to see what the next wonder will be – a fortified Lincoln Memorial or an abandoned metropolis – and to track down more newspapers and computer terminals to learn about America before the fall.
The other joy of exploring is combat, and the subsequent leveling process. Despite playing and looking like a first-person shooter, Fallout 3 isn’t built as a run-and-gun title. Bethesda has already released a handful of excellent first-person shooters in the Terminator franchise, so they are quite capable of providing a traditional experience, but such a focus would negate the action point system of the series. While you can engage in standard combat and become accustomed, which is made easier by allocating experience appropriately, the real star of combat is the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.). Now don’t get me wrong, I would have enjoyed a tighter combat system, since a lot of firefights feel like spray-and-pray encounters, but using action points to slow down time to focus on specific body parts and objects was a blast. The slow-motion animations of headshots and critical hits didn’t hurt either. The main downside to the system is that there is little need to go for anywhere else but the head: this is unfortunate, since I spent a good deal targeting in the original titles and didn’t get the same experience out of maiming a mutant this time around. In a game like Fallout 3, there is no place for controlled violence.
Thankfully, Bethesda understands that violence is a prerequisite in a post-apocalyptic world and moved largely in that direction. The biggest nod is in the excessive gore perk known as “bloody mess” that was carried over from the previous entries, with successful shots causing enemies to explode into a mass of blood and matter. This is all in good fun, of course, but the game is definitely not for younger players. Bloody mess is just one of several perks that lend themselves to the darker side of surviving in a hellhole.
As icing on the cake o’ combat, experience leads to a number of points that are allocated to the aforementioned perks. Aside from turning mutants into piles of goo, you can also become a friend of animals (less attacks in the wilderness); become a cannibal, gaining health by eating corpses at the expense of your karma; greater resistance to the radiation that permeates the land; being more adapt at sneaking, shooting, and using certain weapons; calling on a mysterious stranger to step in and assist during a V.A.T.S. attack; additional experience per kill, and so on. Many of the perks go towards increasing your S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes (strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck), which is your base character stats that affect everything from the kind of responses you receive when talking with people, the level of computer you can hack, how many blows you can sustain, and what kind of loot you come across. Others are based on combat and related arts, such as being better with one of the numerous weapons (shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, baseball bats, grenades, plasma rifles, missiles, nuclear bombs, etc.) and repairing the weapons to keep them fit for duty after extended periods of use. The rest are the fun and weird sort, like the mysterious stranger, hacking sentry robots, and being a contract killer that allows you to exchange the ears of do-gooders for cash. There is a lot to like, and numerous ways to tweak a build to make unique character.
Clothing is also used to spice things up. I wish there were more varieties of armor types for those of us that want to look like the unstoppable juggernauts that we are while not wearing a massive power suit sort, but there are enough varieties – from the Mad Max, spiked-to-hell raider outfits to the trench coats of the rangers – to make do. What should please the less aggressive crowd are the abundance of clothes scattered about lockers and dressers that benefit non-combat skills, such as speech and science. There’s nothing quite like donning a spiffy business suit to talk a vendor down from their original price for a bowl of squirrel soup.
The biggest shame is that, with all that is given for you to do and experiment with, the game caps out at level 20. I was only halfway done with the main story by the time I hit 20, and what had been an exciting journey into a hostile world turned into a string of anticlimactic encounters that ended with one of the most anticlimactic third acts that I’ve ever experienced. Upcoming downloadable content is going to thankfully raise the level cap, hopefully erasing the ending vignettes from my memory, but the expansions will also address another complaint I have: the end is the end. Unlike in Oblivion, you cannot continue to play once the main story is finished. The decision makes sense with the ending, but I couldn’t help but be let down that I couldn’t jump back into the world with the character I had so carefully crafted. Then again, I suppose that’s a testament to how enjoyable I found the experience to begin with.
There is a lot more that I could discuss. From the politics of the factions, the lock picking mini game, the confusing subway dungeons, addiction to medicines, dwellings you can own, non-playable characters you can hire, and even the handful of moral choices - but even if I went on for another thousand words, I still wouldn’t be finished. To the latter, I earned my reputation as evil incarnate: destroying anyone that was snippety, talk down to me, or addressed me improperly. I took a torch to the uppity inhabitants of an apartment building, destroyed a den of cannibals and the ungrateful town that hired me to do so, and wiped the town built inside an old battleship, Rivet City, off of the map. I also did my share of good: eradicating each and every raider I saw; freeing children from a slave camp and killing every slaver; killed deranged pimps; and brought the swift hand of pleb justice to the aristocracy. But you still a few million in bottle caps’ worth of goods and you’re labeled a criminal for the rest of your life. So judgmental, Bethesda.
Overall: 9/10A few technical and design hang-ups aside, Fallout 3 is a blast. I cannot speak to how much diehard fans of the series will enjoy it, but coming from someone who owns and enjoys the first two titles, there are a lot of good times to be had here. This isn’t the hardcore role-playing game that the previous titles were, but this also isn’t a Black Isle title, either. Fallout 3 is simply Bethesda’s take on the series, and they have done a fine job. If you can forgive an incredibly disappointing ending and its handful of foibles, you’ll be in for a strange, memorable journey.