Fallout 3 Review
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
The year is 2277. Two hundred years after a global thermonuclear war destroyed the world as we know it, humanity is barely clinging to existence in the irradiated wastelands that were once the heart of civilization. Most of humanity was exterminated. A few survived the cancers and mutations to scavenge an existence out of ancient ruins, and a lucky few survived underground in shelters known as "Vaults," constructed by Vault-Tec Industries. Nineteen years old, you are one of those Vault-Dwellers, but when your father goes wandering out into the harsh wasteland surrounding the ruins of Washington D.C., you leave the vault as well, to forge a fate of your own choosing.
"War. War never changes." The Fallout franchise, however, does change. Fallout 3 isn't quite everything that crazed fans of the original games (like me) hoped for, but that doesn't prevent Fallout 3 from being one of the best games ever released. It's just... different. Fallout 3 adapts to the capabilities of modern consoles.
From start to finish, Fallout 3 maintains a sterling standard of excellence. The game starts with the most amazing character generation and tutorial I've ever experienced. Rather than forcing a hackneyed amnesiac protagonist on me, I got to see everything from birth through the late teenage years, giving me a connection with my character's past that I've rarely had in a video game. That superb design continues all the way through an epic conclusion that truly feels earth-shattering, even in a world already shattered by a nuclear holocaust. If the extraordinary amount of gameplay doesn't maintain a thrill-a-minute pace throughout, that's because you take the game at your own pace. You can enjoy multiple thrills per minute, or just take a scenic and leisurely stroll through post-apocolyptia, punctuated with occasional gunfire.
Fallout 3 is in good hands, but different hands than the first two Fallout games. As a game, it shares a setting without exactly mirroring the sensibilities of the original. Fallout 3 helps the franchise grow (unlike, say, the action-heavy Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel), while making so many fantastic nods to the earlier games that everyone will be won over. Even from the opening moments of the game, seeing familiar artifacts like the vault door and overseer's desk rendered in 3D helped bring the older games to life.
Upon exiting the vault, I saw that the Capital Wasteland (the irradiated region around the former Washington D.C.) was fully realized. I wasn't just going from one set-piece location to another. I could wander the world and find hidden shacks, traders and dilapidated drive-in-movie theaters that made the world feel more real to me. The combination of familiar, real-world locations and vistas, combined with the nearly obsessive attention to detail, made the world so familiar after dozens of hours of play that when I found myself killing crab-like Mirelurks I was hoping to find a container of Old Bay seasoning in the next metal box I opened, with a Strontium-spiked soda to wash it down.
You Probably Won't Finish Until Next Year.
I've given Fallout 3 the highest score that this site awards. Keep in mind that FI's ratings are a value proposition. Fallout 3 isn't a "perfect" game. One of the most satisfying quests in the game turned out to be bugged, leaving me loaded down with Lincoln paraphernalia, and no one to whom I could brag about it. Often, when shooting using the V.A.T.S. interface, I'd end up unloading a series of shots into a nearby wall or railing, wasting my time and resources on hopeless shots that seemed like sure things. And the pathfinding in such a complex environment, particularly for allies, could be, at times, dismal.
Despite these issues, Fallout 3 is easily the best value released this year. There is no better way to spend your entertainment dollar. I might be surprised by a game that comes out in the remaining weeks of this year, but Fallout 3 is (so far) the best game released in 2008, and I can't imagine a better one in the offing. There is so much play in Fallout 3 that the average working adult (or conscientious student) could easily play Fallout 3 for a month or two before completing a single play-through. Even a student on winter break or adult on vacation would be challenged to see all there is to see in the Capital Wasteland within a solid week of play. That's value – especially because there is so much deeply satisfying detail hidden beneath the surface of Fallout 3 to experience and enjoy. And even then, because your choices open and close so many paths, there's more than enough content to inspire a second play-through.
I'm a huge fan of the Fallout setting, but Fallout 3 was so enjoyable because of the vast and detailed world there was to explore. The main storyline offered a huge amount of play, but far more content was hidden throughout the Capital Wasteland. It was glorious to wander the wasteland and constantly discover new and bizarre locations, ranging from slaver pits and enclaves of survivors to a bigamist with a passion for false democracy and a fanatical follower of fountain drinks.
Every one of those encounters was deeply fleshed out. One could crank through the game, shooting everything and ignoring the plots (and sub-plots), but I can't understand why you would. The developers went so far as to flesh out anti-slavery sermons and weddings, such that if you showed up in the right place at a specific time, you could see scripted events, both learning more about the world and uncovering yet more tidbits of lore that explained how things got to be the way they are, 200 years after a nuclear war.
If anything, Fallout 3 was even darker than the original games, but hung on to enough humor to keep things from becoming too bleak. In one heart-wrenching encounter, I followed a repeating radio signal from a father begging for help for his sick son, only to find two charred skeletons (one smaller, and wearing kiddie clothes) lying dead amongst a few supplies. As depressing as that was, it really brought the world of Fallout 3 into stark focus, and made me all the more grateful to meet up with my old buddy Harold, come between battling superheroes, hear the kvetching of the goth chick in Big Town or enjoy the towering proclamations of Liberty Prime.
I didn't appreciate that for all the brilliant content, main quests and tiny sub-plots, choice seemed less meaningful in Fallout 3 than in the previous two Fallout games. Fallout 3 does a brilliant job of creating a world in which one can be saintly or diabolical (or even ride a wave of neutrality for personal profit). And I loved how those choices could be ironclad. Many locations were open or closed depending on the moral choices I made, making a second playthrough mandatory. What I didn't like was how the various skills weren't ultimately important choices.
In both Fallout and Fallout 2, I could play as a smooth-talking scientist, an immoral pickpocket with a penchant for explosives, a medical doctor with an additional Ph.D. in fisticuffs or a sharpshooting merchant. I also appreciated that every choice I made shut off other options and made my play experience unique. As a scientist and communicator, I couldn't pick locks and had to do my best to avoid combat. As a pickpocket I could rarely talk my way into or out of a situation. In Fallout 3 my character started as very distinct, but quickly became homogenized.
There were so many quests (or bonus bobbleheads, apparel or even books) that I was able to raise nearly every ability and skill to nearly absurd proportions. On my first playthrough, I chose to create a charismatic scientist and diplomat who was a casual acquaintance with a laser pistol. At first, I couldn't pick a lock or swing a sledgehammer to save my life, but long before exploring even half the wasteland, I could use nearly any weapon, open any lock, shoot any target (at any distance) all while conversing and bargaining with the slickest folks the Wasteland could offer.
This wasn't a huge problem, but it led to two things. Most importantly, my choices felt less meaningful. No one cared that I started as a scientist and a statesman when I spent much of my time as a sniper and grenadier. Also, I felt that a lot of my choices were wasted. Not knowing how many free skill and stat points would be floating around the wasteland, I spent a lot of early points pumping up certain skills that were later more than maxed out. By the time my character read his copy of Paradise Lost, he failed to learn anything from it.
I would have liked for the choices to be more meaningful, even if that had meant some of the late content in the game had gone to waste. I felt like the early encounters offered many paths to victory. The same quest could often be completed through diplomacy, stealth, combat or even computer knowledge. Late in the game, there were often fewer paths to success, largely because my character could do everything. Also, combat was a much bigger part of Fallout 3 than the previous Fallout games. There just wasn't a way to avoid it in many circumstances. I realize that would have required even more work in an already Herculean effort, but it was part of what makes me so fond of the original Fallout games.
But with my own kvetching out of the way, I appreciated that entire towns were shut off to me on my first play-through, because I was far too much of a goody-goody to be allowed to speak with slavers.
The superb voice acting and sound design also deserve more than a passing comment. The sound effects were so well implemented that I not only enjoyed every sickening splatter of a laser rifle cauterizing flesh from hundreds of meters away, I was able to solve a high-concept puzzle in mysterious simulation almost immediately thanks to clever audio clues. The voice acting was superb, and the choice of music was truly marvelous (kudos in particular for bringing back the theme from the original Fallout).
More powerful than any of that, though, was Galaxy News Radio, hosted by "Three Dog." Not only did the radio station sport plenty of great classic songs, very appropriately chosen for the game's themes, but Three Dog constantly recognized my own achievements. It was satisfying to have him tell all the wastelands about my exploits, constantly admiring my improving character, and even providing a bit of feedback on my fashion choices. That sort of interaction in a game is exactly the sort of thing that makes players feel truly heroic (or notorious – as the case may be). I wish the radio had a few more songs given the potential for literally hundreds of hours of play, but I loved leaving my Pip-Boy locked on to GNR's signal.
I may have dwelled more on the imperfections of Fallout 3 than on its many brilliant moments, but that's because I can wholeheartedly declare that everyone should play Fallout 3, and I don't want to spoil the game's many marvelous moments and revelations. So much of Fallout 3 is executed so perfectly, from the cleverly seamless Pip-Boy interface to the endless possible actions in the wasteland, that Fallout 3 is the kind of game that gamers must play, and non-gamers should consider purchasing a console or upgrading their PC to experience.