When I first started playing Fallout 3, I said on Twitter that it was basically a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mod for Oblivion. I still think that’s true, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I was a huge fan of the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R., so when the second, Clear Sky, came out, I was expecting more or less what they originally promised in the first. But, and I think this is largely because they had to shove a second game out of the door just a year after the first, it was buggy, the maps were mostly uninspired rehashes of things from the first game, and it just wasn’t as interesting because it didn’t feel like something new.
If Fallout is a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mod for Oblivion, Clear Sky was a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I lost interest after maybe a week, when the first patch broke all my saved games. Which brings us to Fallout 3. I loved the original Fallout, never played most of the second, and after the failure that was Clear Sky, I needed a new post-nuclear-armageddon FPS/RPG. Fallout 3 came out around the time I was giving up on Clear Sky, so I was set.
A quick diversion: For some reason, Fallout fans are among the most noxious on the internet. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that a game that, among other things, lets you get hooked on drugs and fire rocket launchers at children is probably going to attract a somewhat more deranged fanbase than say, The Sims. So I started reading the no-rules Games forum on Something Awful, “Your Console Sucks”, in an effort to get away from Serious Business Fallout fans. The down side is that now I can’t talk about the game without wondering what the most pro weapon is, or just how many sub-optimal character choices separate a scrub from a scrublord. It’s colored my impressions of the game, to say the least, in that I went in not expecting too terribly much beyond a fun distraction for a week or two.
What I got, in short, was goddamned amazing. The Fallout series made the jump to 3D in largely the same way that Grand Theft Auto did - it’s not exactly the same, but it is unquestionably better. Details after the jump.
I’d like to point out first that, yes, the game is still Fallout. It still has the skills system, the character set up, perks, the conversation system, and the moral ambiguity to allow the player to do a number of horrible things, if they choose. Traits are gone, rolled into perks, and sadly the custom conversation options for low-intelligence characters are gone as well. Actually, the writing in general probably isn’t as good as the old Black Isle games. Lockpicking is kind of fun. the hacking minigame, not so much.
The FPS mechanics are perfect for me, because those are the sorts of games I play 90% of the time, but I can see how they aren’t for everyone. To that end, there’s VATS. VATS is basically a pause button that lets you target a dude’s brain or something and then watch in slow motion while the game calculates out whether you hit it or not, and thus whether the head in question should explode. This sounded like it would get boring, but honestly, I still don’t mind it, some 40 hours into the game. The whole thing is executed very well, and it’s just so cool that I could watch it all day.
In typical Bethesda Softworks fashion, the main quest that drives the plot completely sucks. It probably takes something like 10 hours to get through, is fairly lame, and doesn’t even take you half the map. By that, I don’t mean that it only shows you have of the game content, because that would actually be rather impressive. I mean that the entire northern half of the map is completely ignored by the main plot of the game. The first half of it is “Thank you for saving me, Vault Dweller, but your father is in another castle”, and the second half is only worthwhile because you get decent gear for the first time, and then it ends with a giant robot screaming about Communism while firing exploding laser beams at bad guys. The ending cutscene is terrible. A number of slides pan around, Ken Burns-style,while a voiceover plays that talks about how (good|evil) your guy was, and that you (sacrificed yourself|punked out at the last minute) to (save everyone|kill everyone).
The story behind all this isn’t terrible, but playing through it is a bit underwhelming, largely due to the fact that the two biggest moral choices (ie, the only two that affect the ending, really) take place in roughly the last half-hour of the game.
The real meat of Fallout 3 is wandering around, which is far more entertaining than it sounds. The environments are gorgeous, if generally built around a uniform palette of blasted gray and brown, and mostly filled with rocks and smashed buildings. Interestingly, there’s no weather, like Clear Sky had, though there is a day-night cycle. There’s a lot of things to see and do if you just mosey around the Wasteland, from simply exploring and fighting mutants, to running side quests after talking to random people you meet, or scrounging for new equipment, or for parts to build new things and repair the ones you’ve got. Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance - sort of. You get his hat, at least.
The fuzzy morality of Fallout is still there. The first quest involves whether you want to blow up a town or rat out the guy holding the detonator, and both are perfectly valid options, with roughly equivalent regards. Later, and more hilariously, with low enough charisma and karma, the incredibly rude conversation options that sometimes pop up can turn entire towns hostile before you even set foot inside. In typical “I wonder what happens if…” fashion, I did this several times, then found out much later that the people I’d mouthed off to and then shot up were actually handing out pretty interesting quests, with non-trivial rewards.
Fallout 3 is not as good at the same-situation/multiple-approach mechanic as Deus Ex (eg, when facing a locked door, you might find a key, pick the lock, hack the computer holding it shut, find a password for said computer, go around the door through a ventilation duct or something, or just blow the thing clean off its hinges), which ten years later is still the benchmark for that kind of gameplay, and really for FPS/RPGs in general. It’s not as good at character customization as Fallout 1 and 2. The gun combat isn’t as tight, and the atmosphere isn’t as jaw-dropping as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The plot and voice acting aren’t as good as Half-Life 2. It’s still Bethesda, so the animation sucks (If you don’t believe me, wait until you get the dog. They hired an intern to animate that thing, I swear).
That said, there is something about this game that just sucked me in. I liked it enough to put off writing this post for weeks until I’d gotten my fill of it. It’s not perfect, maybe it’s not even great, but it is ridiculously fun, and I can’t seem to stop playing it. Fallout 3 is flawed, sure, but what game isn’t? It’s an epic game, and I wholly recommend playing it, just for the staggering amount of stuff there is in here
Gah, enough writing, back to playing.