The original Fallouts were great games, classics, in spite of the technical limitations of the day. The interface, the combat, and the engine itself were not quite up to the task of doing all the things the developers wanted it to do. The perspective wasn’t so much a conscious decision from among a slate of equally feasible options, as it was the only way to go. In 1997 you just didn’t do first-person RPGs. It was isometric or nothing. These days, first-person RPGs are as common as rats and crates, and being able to survey the vast ruins of DC from over the shoulder of your character is far preferable to watching a hundred-pixel-high black blob (leather jacket) stalk his way through sprites.
Another improvement is in combat. I love hexes as much as the next guy (I love them more, probably) but for a game about the visceral experience of living in the violent, chaotic aftermath of the destruction of civilization, allowing people to pause, contemplate moves and control maneuvers down to the step and shot doesn’t make sense. Walking into an old church, finding grenades dangling from the ceiling and realizing you’ve been caught in an ambush just as you hear the boots of raiders crunching gravel outside induces an appropriate amount of panic. You waste ammo, miss shots, make stupid decisions and may wind up dead just because you didn’t have enough time to think.
V.A.T.S., in this context, is a dumb gimmick. It’s great that Bethesda has implemented comprehensive locational damage because shooting the gun right out of someone’s hand makes things a lot more interesting, but after the fortieth time you’ve shot someone’s head off and watched it roll, in slow-motion, into a pool of radioactive sludge, it loses its charm. I ended up forgetting about it a few hours in, and I suffered as a result, because at close-range V.A.T.S. attack acts as an easy-button.
Thankfully we’ve been spared from another ludicrous Bethesda stat system like the one that dogged Oblivion. Bethesda has largely lifted the SPECIAL system from the original Fallouts, paring away some of the less useful skills and tweaking the perks, adding a few, subtracting some, and allowing one to be chosen every single level. It’s no longer so easy to gimp your character hideously by just leveling up, and if there was level scaling in this game I didn’t notice it. What I did notice is when a super mutant showed up out of nowhere and smacked me clear half the way across the Potomac with a giant club. Getting ripped to shreds is a key part of any RPG and it’s especially important in Fallout, a game that even with its poor graphics was very clearly bloody and nasty.
In fact, one of Bethesda’s key achievements with Fallout 3 has been preserving the brutal, lurid violence and nastiness of the first two games. A mercenary who’s had his arm crippled doesn’t just groan a bit, he screams and curses up a storm. Blood is everywhere, and even without the ‘bloody mess’ perk, legs, heads, and arms are constantly getting blown off and littered around like confetti. Mines and other explosives are as common as dust and very, very fun.
When the guns stop firing Fallout 3 still tries to keep up the darkness. For instance, in a belowground raider hideout, you find teddy bears and child’s toys in a locked cell where the raiders kept their prostitutes. The player’s radio can pick up signals and investigate their origins, and these explorations often lead to creepy or grisly scenes, like a skeleton draped over a shotgun behind a locked door with empty cans of beans scattered around. You can free slaves, collect mutilated limbs from bags of bloody corpses, get drunk, get addicted to any drug in the game, and even slaughter a whole community with a pack of ferocious ghouls. Most important situations have good and evil approaches, and karma is tracked and plays a key role in your relationships with different NPCs.
The Capitol Wasteland isn’t just a reskinned Cyrodil. I think the rocks are the same, I know they re-used some of the Elven dungeon textures, and I swear some of their bleached-bark dead trees were recycled from the leafy forests of Oblivion, but overall the world of Fallout 3 is distinctly post-apocalyptic. Junk is everywhere, in boxes and on the grimy floors of long-abandoned gas stations. Every pool of water is polluted, and the ruins of the Beltway stick out of the landscape like the spine of some giant beast. It looks like a bomb went off.
The big thing that Bethesda managed to nail in Fallout 3 is exploration. Wandering around and finding cool things in the middle of the vast wastes is great fun. Sometimes these cool and unique locations result in quests, but more often they’re just nice little rewards for playing the game. Walking into an abandoned gas station and triggering an elaborate trap involving dominos and grenades is funny as hell, and finding things like a dead Chinese commando or the audio journals of a man turning into a ghoul helps flesh out the backstory and keep you looking for more.
So Bethesda didn’t totally botch it. But they didn’t get everything right, either. The landscape is awfully monochromatic, either blinding yellow bloom and gray rust if it’s daytime, or different shades of black if it’s nighttime. Even the built-up areas of the wasteland, the places where humanity has allegedly scratched out an existence, look pretty much identical to everywhere else. It seems that there are about ten or so unique building models in the whole game, and after a while seeing the same brown, burnt-out suburbs with the same three models of rusted car sitting outside them gets tiring. If it weren’t for the cryptic radio signals and places like the Dunwich Building (don’t ask, just go there), Fallout 3 would resemble Oblivion in that there would be virtually nothing worth doing outside of the major towns.
Bethesda has greatly improved on the anemic fetch quests and insipid characters of Oblivion, and this time around people are a bit more fleshed out and quests are more interesting. The amount of distinct quests outside of the main storyline is very small, but each is broken up into several sub-quests that are often lengthy in themselves. Most of the time, these sub-quests are ‘go to location x’ and ‘talk to y’ or ‘bring me a amount of b’ or something equally generic. Not that the original Fallouts didn’t have dumb quests, but Fallout 3 suffers from a severe lack of real set-pieces like Junktown. There are a couple of quests that come close, like those involving Tenpenny Tower or Megaton, but very few times did I complete a quest and think “wow, I’m glad I spent time doing this.”
The overarching story, which I won’t spoil, is not the most captivating thing either, and the much-touted claim of there being dozens (hundreds? I forget) of endings is essentially baseless. There are only two endings that I managed to get, and the only difference between them is slight. Fallout 3 is definitely an open-ended game, but the main quest is on rails.
Another major problem is the Oblivion engine, which is totally unsuited for FPS combat for a million different reasons. The animations are still bad, gunplay is thoroughly unsatisfying, stealth is broken, and the hit boxes for the environment and enemies are very loose. Traditional FPS concepts such as cover simply don’t exist in Fallout 3. Trying to make shots from the corner of a building or from behind a block of concrete are often problematic because the player lacks a line-of-sight, according to the engine, when most of the time the player can see his enemy perfectly fine. These are all issues that crop up when you use a melee engine to do firearms. It doesn’t work.
AI is another problem. Enemies have terrible pathfinding which is compounded by the profusion of rubble and uneven ground in every location of the game. When a raider with a knife is charging you, his AI works fine. When you shoot a soldier with a rifle and then retreat behind cover, he goes apeshit and runs around like a chicken with his head cut off, often making long detours to skirt a small pile of junk, or getting stuck behind barriers, or simply forgetting about you and going back to sitting on his ass chewing fat. When the AI gets missile launchers, they frequently blow themselves up.
Another thing is the dialogue and voice-acting, which, as they were in Oblivion, are grating. Very few characters have good lines, and while there was some attempt to integrate intelligence and perks into dialogue by opening up new options for players who had made choices to invest in those areas, they are far too few.
So where does this leave us? Ironically, Fallout 3 shares many of the flaws of the original Fallout games, in that it’s restrained by its engine from fully realizing its potential. It introduces new flaws, too, in that quests, characters, and locations are cut too often from the same generic cloth.
Still, Fallout 3 is not terrible. Some quests are genuinely fun, the experience of exploration which has been key in every Bethesda RPG is here in full force and provides easily the most compelling experience of the game. The details of this world are far more interesting than the blank desertscape of earlier Fallouts, and without doing any of the quests you can fully explore the abandoned metro stations, highway outposts, and ruined factories Bethesda has constructed. That’s worth a lot, especially considering very few other studios really make the effort to make their vast worlds worth taking a look at.
Fallout 3 is just mediocre. It’s bogged down by too many problems, engine issues, and poor writing to really wrestle its way into classic status.