I actually completed this game a month ago, wrote half a review (the half bitching about Oblivion) but what with one thing and and other I’ve waited until now, when it is no longer at all relevant, to complete and publish it. That’s the kind of timing and work ethic that has CATAPULTED me to the heady heights of genre publishishing where I now reside.
My short opinion of Fallout 3? For me, probably the best game of the last couple of years, certainly in the rpg/adventure mould.
My long opinion? Ah, well sit down, while I spin thee a tale…
I’ve been a big fan of the Fallout series of games since they started back in … 1783, was it? 1 and 2 were old school isometric adventure games, set in a unique post-apocalyptic wasteland that managed to fuse Mad Max with strange McCarthy-era fifties-y influences, splatter, and a weird sense of humour. They had an interesting game system, were well ahead of their time in offering varied ways to achieve objectives, but most of all they had in spades that hardest of features to pin down – atmosphere. I even really enjoyed the much-reviled not-quite-a-game-in-the-franchise-cos-no-one-liked-it-let’s-just-pretend-it-never-happened Fallout Tactics. Call me shallow, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic raiders in spiked american football armour and silly hairstyles dancing to the rhythm of lead.
So I was very excited when I heard a while back that they were making a Fallout 3, even though I’d heard it was going to be kind of a first-person shooter, which made me worry that they’d dumb it down somewhat, emphasise the action and minimise the role-playing elements, ending up with something a bit like Bioshock, which I found not bad, but very disappointing after all the blah blah.
What I hadn’t realised was that Fallout 3 was being developed by Bethesda, the folks behind Oblivion, apparently everyone’s favourite RPG of the last couple of years. If I had known, I would probably have been more worried still, because me and Oblivion don’t always get on. Certainly Oblivion ain’t my favourite anything. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate it, I’ve played it and its precursor Morrowind quite a bit, but there are a few things that really rile me about it, which I might as well discuss here, since they’re very relevant to my opinion about Fallout 3:
1. Huge world that’s all the same. Fans of Oblivion talk a lot about the massiveness of the game world, and it is impressive in a sense, until you realise that the vast majority of the huge number of locations are all one of about four or five virtually identical dungeons. After a while, you can even see where they’ve used the same u-bend or flooded passageway. Sure, one might have a table with a book, while another has a table with a coin, but that hardly makes for a meaningful and stimulating game universe. There’s not much in the way of sense of humour either. It’s all rather po-faced and pompous. After a while it just becomes like chewing sawdust. Another indetikit dungeon. This one’s got flying thingies instead of ogres, but, you know…
2. Ridiculous play-balancing. Because the world is so free-form, you can wander wither you please and pretty much visit any area from the start, they felt the need to scale up the opposition as the player becomes more powerful, which makes sense in a way, and helps to keep the game challenging. The problem is that it results in some real silliness – ultra dangerous wolves chewing your enormously powerful paladin to death. Gangs of muggers dressed in top-level glass armour and wielding demonic 2-handed swords. I mean, if they had that gear, why mug anyone? This contributes to the feeling the world already creates of nothing being particularly special or interesting. There’s a lack of mystery. A lack of atmosphere.
3. Tedious game play. Combat tends to consist of running around slashing with a sword by tapping the left mouse button a lot. Rinse and repeat.
4. Is it me, or is Oblivion actually a really silly, over-the-top name for a game? The more I type it, the more I think so…
Fallout 3 works on the same engine as Oblivion, and has a lot of features in common. So have the developers managed to overcome some of their previous shortcomings? Yes. Massively.
The game world is absolutely brilliant. Immense, and some might say occasionally repetitive (a lot of tube stations seem similar, but then tube stations are, I guess), but nowhere near as repetitive and dull as Oblivion. The hospital feels like a hospital. The abandoned hotel like a hotel. Washington looks like Washington. After a nuclear war. There’s a sense of meaningful history everywhere, you can almost see what might have happened in certain locations when the bombs fell. It feels far more like a real world than Oblivion, and the fact that it’s OUR world only helps with the effect. It still manages to be completely huge, and you could probably play the game through three or four times and not do too much of the same stuff twice.
It also really feels like there are a lot of different approaches you can take. I can still remember when that was proudly trumpeted about Deus Ex, some years ago, but the freeform element basically came down to pick the lock or hack the computer, but basically you still have to shoot everything. With Fallout 3, yeah, you still have to shoot a lot, but it feels like there are plenty of different approaches that would work, and pretty much all of the non-combat skills feel like they have a valid use. The system is much better balanced than most, in other words, and I can imagine very different character types would all have their appeal. I can’t think of many games, certainly adventure games, that have such good replay value.
Gameplay is vastly superior to Oblivion as well, with a system that allows you to stop time to target specific areas of your enemies. Sure, you pretty much always go for the head, but it’s amazing how watching a Super-Mutant’s brain explode in slow motion never really gets old. It also manages to capture some of the sense of the turn-based combat of the original Fallout, and update it for the modern era. It’s arcade-y enough, without being too arcade-y. Which is good as, when time speeds up again, it’s pretty clunky as a First Person Shooter, with most weapons, anyway.
The plotting is nice, with some excellent set pieces, especially the end sequence, but there are plenty of side-quests, and they manage to feel important in their own right, on the whole, and generally pretty involved. There’s a thankful lack of the rather pathetic, “get me six fish” type jobs you sometimes get in these type of games. It is truly open-ended, and you can go anywhere you please pretty much right from the off. I can’t think of many games where they’ve made this approach work as well as they have here, and the moment where you leave the Vault (think bunker) in which you are born and the vastness of the outside world becomes clear has to be one of the classic moments of gaming history.
Effort has gone into everything. There are vast numbers of nooks and crannies, all carefully designed. There are strange random encounters which I hear are sometimes different depending on choices you’ve made during the game. The whole thing is presented beautifully as well, and feels seamless. From the moment you turn it on, everything, from the clickety 50s style slide-show that starts it, to the inventory screens which are handled through your 50s style personal computer, reeks of atmosphere.
One can point to shortcomings, of course. The graphics on some of the figures are a bit ropey, especially your own character in third person view, but, hey, play in first person, then. Some people bitch that the post-nuclear wasteland isn’t ve
ry colourful but, duh, it’s a post-nuclear wasteland. Dialogue options occasionally don’t tally with what’s actually happened, although the range of possibilities are pretty huge what with the game being so free-form, I guess. The physics is a bit dodgy at times – A body once fell through a floor and dangled there, legs swinging, cans get caught in corners and rattle around forever, and I once sniped a raider on the roof of a building and his corpse inexpicably flew into the air and zipped around all over the wasteland for a few moments like a burst balloon.
But these are details. For me, it triumphs as an update of Fallout, really maintaining, and expanding on, the unique flavour they’d produced in those old games. It has the sense of humour. It has the atmosphere. But it also triumphs as a fine-tuning and a natural development of Oblivion, delivering a much more interesting and balanced game world and far more exciting gameplay. The graphics may not be truly AMAZING, no better than good, I wouldn’t say, but nonetheless I can’t think of another game I’ve played recently that felt like such a quantum leap forward in those areas that really count. Kind of gives me faith in the whole genre, actually, and also makes me very excited to see what Bethesda come up with for the next game in the elder scrolls series.
And by the way, people who say that you should never give 10/10 because no game/thing is perfect need to get over it. There’s no point in having a scale out of ten if you can never use ten. Especially if you never use 1-5 either. I can think of ten or twenty games I’d give 10/10 to over the last twenty-five years or so. By it I mean that a game delivers great entertainment, succeeds completely on its own terms, and also manages to push things forward a bit at the same time. For me, Fallout 3 does all that and more.