Review: Fallout 3 (360)

Well, I’m a little behind the times with this one. In all honesty, I bought and played through this game a good while ago, but wasn’t writing at the time. And, no, this isn’t particularly timely in any sense: the game’s been reviewed wide and far, critically acclaimed, and plenty of better people than I have already gone over the game’s qualities. But still, the inner egotist encourages me to put my own thoughts in writing, and who am I to argue?

Let’s get the quick and dull facts out of the way, shall we: yes, this is from the people who brought us Oblivion; yes it’s another freeform first-person RPG, only this time with a post-apocalyptic backdrop borrowed from Black Isle’s celebrated Fallout series; yes, Liam Neeson is in it. Right, on to more interesting things.

The cover art. Mean looking chap, isn't he? He's from the Brotherhood of Steel, don'tcha know.

The cover art. Mean looking chap, isn't he? He's from the Brotherhood of Steel, don'tcha know.

Before its release, there was a degree of grumbling from ardent Fallout fans (specifically the members of No Mutants Allowed, the biggest online Fallout community). The main worries were that Bethesda, while responsible for the acclaimed Elder Scrolls series, and first-person-RPG-wunderkind Oblivion, were ill-suited to working on a title in a series noted for its unique setting and excellent storytelling. After all, where Oblivion and Morrowind (the previous Elder Scrolls title) were well known for their graphical fidelity, massive environments and sense of freedom, the world they presented was fairly run-of-the-mill high-fantasy fare, and the quality of their writing was… mediocre, to put things mildly. Indeed, Oblivion, a game touted pre-release as being filled with incredibly lifelike characters, thanks to the ‘radiant AI’ system Bethesda had coded, became known for the absurd behaviour of its NPC’s, who would stand around talking about mudcrabs they had bumped into. Particularly odd when the NPC’s in question were vampires lurking in the sewers.

Preview footage of Fallout 3 failed to assuage these fears: the game did indeed look a lot like ‘Oblivion with guns’, as some people had taken to describing the game. However, the game was released to a wave of critical praise and supported by fanatical fervour. So much so, in fact, that IGN UK’s 8.8/10 – hardly a damning score – was greeted by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Or at least a few WTF and STFU’s, and some general mockery of British reviewing in general. And if that wasn’t proof enough of the game’s quality, the game was nominated for the award for best writing in a videogame by the Writers Guild of America, and won both the Game of the Year and Best Writing awards at the Game Developers Conference Awards: surely, with a nomination and a win in the writing category, this was the game to prove that Bethesda really could match up to Black Isle in the storytelling stakes?

Mr Neeson, I presume.

Mr Neeson, I presume.

Well, things start decently enough. The introduction to the game, while not to everybody’s tastes, is at least fairly unique: most reminiscent of ancient computer game Alter Ego, it sees you through a series of vignettes from your birth (really) to your teens, allowing you to shape your character and your backstory as a vault-dweller (i.e. an individual born and raised in a giant underground nuclear bunker). The writing in this section isn’t brilliant, but it’s capable enough, and having Liam Neeson voice-acting your father certainly helps.

He’s quick to toddle off, however, and the game proper begins as you stumble out of the vault in search of your now-missing father. This is a good directorial technique, as the player is subjected to an enclosed, limited environment, then just as they become accustomed to such a depressing setting they are set loose to the glorious expanses of the wastes. Just like Oblivion, in fact, where the player slowly makes their way from a prison cell, through a sewer, before emerging into the light of day amongst hills and green fields.

Also just like Oblivion, the player is from here on out free to explore as (s)he likes. In fact, that’s a phrase that will likely crop up often when describing Fallout 3 – “just like Oblivion”. The game distinguishes itself from the Elder Scrolls titles in its setting of course: there are no fields of green – the land of Fallout 3 is a mixture of desert and urban decay; a much less pleasant land to sightsee. It also features a different take on real-time combat: alongside a point-and-shoot system familiar to anyone who has played a first-person-shooter, it features the (in)famous VATS system: the ability to occasionally freeze time and line-up shots on targets, pinpointing body-parts if need-be. But in many, crucial ways it is very similar to the previous Elder Scrolls titles.

May I introduce to you a contender for the 'most punchable friendly NPC' award.

May I introduce to you a contender for the 'most punchable friendly NPC' award.

Though free to wonder where they like, the player is likely to find themselves guided to Megaton, a settlement near their vault. The settlement lives up to its name, being situated on and around an undetonated nuclear bomb, and it offers a number of side-quests, most notably one which can see you either deactivate the weapon forever, or blow the town to kingdom-come. These side-quests offer a high watermark for the rest of the game, which it mostly lives up to – the game frequently throws about inventive situations and the ability to have a significant effect on characters met. They also epitomise the general quality of characterisation in the game, which unfortunately is not so impressive. While the player will not come across any dialogues as absurd as those in Oblivion, it is hard to ever get any feeling of closeness to the characters you encounter in the world. There simply isn’t enough opportunity to explore major NPC’s backstories, and what script they are given is wooden, and frequently poorly delivered. There are plenty of opportunities for picking sides, but while it’s generally clear who the ‘baddies’ and who the ‘goodies’ are, it’s hard to care.

This lack of emotional attachment to the characters you encounter means that the actions you undertake, and the story you drive, often lacks any real punch. The game has a great many strengths – as already mentioned, it meets virtually all of Oblivion’s successes – but once again, writing just isn’t one of them. And that’s a real shame, as writing was always an integral element of the Fallout experience. It leads one to wonder why Bethesda saw fit to make a game using the Fallout license – surely they could have made a post-apocalyptic RPG without it; the only real nods to the previous games are the Pip-Boy and (heavily modified) SPECIAL system, both of which the game could have managed without licensing.

My guess is that it was done out of love for the original franchise, which is a pity, as Bethesda clearly lack the specific talents to craft titles that are distinctively Fallout. What we have here is an excellent, post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Elder Scrolls gameplay, worthy of anyone’s time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it a Fallout game. Those wanting a true successor to Fallout’s legacy are left waiting on Obsidian, to see if their Fallout 3 spin-off – New Vegas – will deliver the goods. If not, well, it looks like replaying Fallout 1 and 2 is the best option there is. At least there’s the high resolution patch to enjoy.

Oblivion With Guns out of Five


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April 2009
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