The Good: Highly interactive and atmospheric post-apocalyptic RPG. The Bad: Perhaps VATS isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Some camera issues. The Ugly: Nothing particularly ugly about this release.
If you’ve played Oblivion, you won’t be far wrong if you expect Fallout 3 to be a post-apocalyptic version of that game. The parallels are almost undeniable. From the very beginning, where Oblivion had you starting in a cramped dungeon, Fallout 3 has you beginning in a not-so-spacious fallout shelter known as The Vault. I must confess that the impact of finally leaving the vault, bursting through into the open, is very similar to that of leaving that first dungeon, albeit that your first view outside the vault is not of a green field bathed in golden sunlight but of a ruined cityscape under the brownish tinge of a radioactive sky. Both games even have a furnish your apartment quest in them! But a couple of key mechanics changes, most significantly a strategic targeting combat system known as the VATS (which stands for, approximately, Virtual Automatic Targeting System), makes Fallout 3 very much its own game, one that IMO is not quite as good. But let’s get to it, shall we?
It’s 200 years after nuclear war. It’s unclear just how widespread this war was, but in Washington DC where the game is set things are very bad indeed. Across the entire game I don’t think you run into even 500 humans total, perhaps not even that many if you throw in the various humanoid mutants that are shambling around. Considering that DC’s population today has to be in the millions that’s a pretty severe population reduction. You are perhaps one of the lucky ones – you live in a form of modern bomb shelter known as a Vault. You were born there, and you start the game near your birth, picking up a book as a toddler called You are Special which allows you to set your beginning stats for strength, dexterity, etc. It’s a highly creative start to what is definitely a highly creative RPG. As you pass through adolescence you learn to control the interface and handle combat (VATS), and you’re given a device known as a Pip-Boy, which is a combination map, inventory controller, status monitor, and quest log. Oh, and it’s also your flashlight, though I only used it as such a couple of times. Things in The Vault seem pretty good, except that the leader seems just a wee bit power hungry and that’s leading to some internal strife. One day when it all comes to a boil your father is forced to leave, and you decide to follow him, outside, into the cold scary world.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the world outside sucks. Sure, it may not have been a bed of roses indoors, but at least the water wasn’t radioactive and the moles hadn’t mutated to the size of large dogs. Civilization outside is in shambles, with more wreckage than anything else. In a sharp contrast to Oblivion, which had dozens of cities, Fallout 3 seems to have only three major ones, if you can even call Megaton a major city (and if you choose not to wipe it off the map leaving only two). There are like six people living on an overpass in ramshackle huts and they call themselves an outpost – that’s how much things suck on the outside. And what you do on the outside (besides look for your dad) is up to you. You can be a white knight, crossing the wasteland, taking quests, righting wrongs, and helping the downtrodden. Or you can be a total butthead, stealing from those who have little or nothing, screwing over the little people, and ending up on wanted posters all over the wasteland (if anyone actually had the technology to print posters anymore, which they don’t). How you choose to live your life will determine who your friends are. You can be with the city folk, scratching out an honest living, or blow them all to hell (in the case of Megaton, literally) and hang with the bad people like the raiders. There are at least four groups floating around the wasteland (raiders, townsfolk, The Brotherhood of Steel, and some legion of reformed cannibals), and what you do will greatly influence how they treat you. This kind of stuff went on in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky as well, and I like the interactivity of it, being able to shape my world through my playing choices. Coming down the street upon a firefight and jumping in on the side of your allies (or finding two groups of your enemies fighting and waiting around to kill the survivors to pick up the spoils) really makes you feel a part of this world.
By far the most significant change from Oblivion is the VATS system. At the start of combat (or any time thereafter) you can bring up this interface which pauses play and gives you an image of your enemy or enemies, the probability of hitting various body parts, how much armor they have there, and you’re allocated a certain number of action points to expend shooting at them. I think it’s less than perfect for a number of reasons. First and foremost, is makes the combat sort of formulaic. It’s unproductive to unload tons of bullets into somebody’s torso when a few headshots (or blowing off a leg) can get you a kill. My approach to combat is to wait until the enemy gets close while I’m under cover, and then pop out and blow their head off. When you’re out of action points, you can still shoot without using the VATS, but the reticule is not that accurate and the weapons seem to have a lot of bounce. A better approach is to run, or to keep a bulletproof object between you and your enemy (like a phone booth or a ticket kiosk) and play ring around the rosey until your AP come back. It’s just silly. If you don’t want to use the VATS you don’t have to, but as I said, I think the reticule is inaccurate, and ammunition (especially initially) is hard to find so you can’t waste it hosing down every mole rat in existence.
Since Fallout 3 has very few cities, the map is mostly filled with ruins, and as you can imagine the type of things to survive a nuclear war were mostly underground. There are subway tunnels (a LOT of subway tunnels) and sewers. The third person camera has some problems in narrow tunnels. Most of the big monuments in DC seem to have survived (the House, the Washington monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and others). I last took a trip to DC when I was about 10, so I don’t recall if the interior architecture in the game matches that in real life. Oblivion, stretched across a large map had northern cities with snow and southern cities that were almost tropical. In Fallout 3 all the subway stations pretty much look the same, and the lack of variation gets a little dreary. And while I’m sort of on the subject, there just aren’t that many different creatures in Fallout 3 – maybe only a dozen types, certainly less than two-dozen.
What Fallout 3 does have a lot of is weapons. Just about anything in the game can be a weapon (with various degrees of damage). You can wield a baseball bat, a knife, brass knuckles, or go bare handed. You can find dozens of handguns, rifles, submachine guns, miniguns, rocket launchers, grenades, landmines, and the list goes on and on. If those weapons are not enough for you, you can find or buy plans in the game and build your own. Through normal use weapons and armor wear out and you either have to keep them repaired yourself or pay someone else to do it. Someone else can just repair it, but in order for you to repair it you need to have a similar item to scavenge for parts. This forces you to keep several of each type of weapon and piece of armor in your inventory. Since ammunition can be a problem, you actually have to keep several different weapons on hand that take different ammunition, and I found that managing encumbrance was a continual problem.
There are so many things to write about in Fallout 3, and I realize that at about page three of a game review everyone’s eyes glaze over, so I’ll just mention two more things. With each level you get to distribute skill points and pick an enhancement. The enhancements are fairly specific – an ability to carry more weight, an increase in VATS AP or percent success with head shots; that kind of thing – and there are a several dozen you can choose from over the course of the game. There are way too many skills to become even passably good at everything, so you’ve got to pick what type of character you want to be and except the fact that there are things you won’t be able to do in the game. The greatest example of this is lock picking and terminal hacking. Lock picking in Fallout 3 involves a sort of minigame in which you manipulate a bobby pin in a lock (very different from Oblivion, but the intent is the same). Terminal hacking involved a game very similar to Mastermind in which you guess passwords and it tells you how many letters you got correct. In order to play either you need sufficient lockpicking and science respectively. You really can’t spare enough points to be great at both lockpicking and science and still have some left over for, say, big guns or explosives or sneaking. You have to just accept the fact that there are some doors you won’t be able to open and terminals you can’t hack – those portions of the game are just lost to you unless you want to play through it a couple of times.
The other thing that I want to mention is that you can pick up an NPC to fight by your side. Only certain players will join you at all, and even then only if your karma is at the right level for them. I found them to be hard to keep alive as they rarely employ any level of strategy at all – they just run in with guns blazing. But it’s interesting for as long as they last to have them along for the ride.
In Fallout 3 Bethesda has made a very good thing, though it is somewhat hampered by the lack of variable scenery and a VATS that plays less than perfectly. From the opening strains of I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, the chilling atmosphere is pervasive. Between the main quest line and the heaps of side quests you can pick up, I’m not even sure how long this game is. I’m closing in on 30 hours, and judging from the volume of the map space that I’ve explored I’m not even close to done. It’s a game that I’m certain to be playing for a long, long time.