Fallout 3 Review: An Old PC Game at Heart

By Nick Breckon, Oct 27, 2008 9:00pm PDT Fallout 3 is a PC game. Sure, it's an Xbox 360 game, too. And it's a PlayStation 3 game, I guess. It's also an RPG, technically.

But when you get at the heart of it, Fallout 3 feels like a game designed for the PC. It has the soul of a big-boxed, full-manual, five-CD game from 1998. It has all the complexity and addictiveness of a System Shock, or a Deus Ex--or, yes, a Fallout.

And when I say "game," I mean it in the most ambitious sense. It's the kind of title that rekindles that 90s spark of imagination, when the borders of gaming were less defined, and anything seemed possible. From the opening moment, it's the kind of work that has you thinking: "Goddamn--this is a real game."

Not just another collection of cutscenes and shooting galleries. Not just another roller-coaster ride with a slightly different track. Fallout 3 is a deep, interactive experience; a compelling blend of crafted art, inventive quests and open world freedom.

Less a ride and more a trip down a lazy, apocalyptic river, Fallout 3 has a strong current in its central quest line. But it's the option of abandoning the raft--and killing your raft-mates, and stealing their stuff, and selling it to a zombie trader for a quick buck--that makes it something gamers should not miss.

Above all else, this is a game to savor.

Developing this version of Fallout 3 was a brave choice by Bethesda. When most players aren't even finishing directed, linear shooters like Half-Life 2, creating a vast volume of non-linear content that the majority of owners will likely never experience seems a risky business decision. Why even give us the option of passing by so many wonderfully designed quests?

If I was executive producer Todd Howard, I would have shoved every single shred of dialogue in the player's face. I would have pushed every encounter and bit of backstory onto the main path. I would have squeezed every development dollar for all its worth.

Instead, if you're anything like me, you'll miss a lot of Fallout 3 on your first play-through. After 12 hours of gameplay I was watching the credits, but had barely scratched the surface of the available content.

The game carries you through its multi-faceted wasteland at a good clip, leading you by the nose with main quest elements and big green map markers. For a while you're caught up in the middle of it, ticking off the pages of the quest log like the pages of a good novel. You can get swept up in the story from the first beat.

Though identical in function, Fallout 3's introductory sequence is a huge improvement over Oblivion, Bethesda's last major RPG, both in terms of character development and pacing. Starting out in the world as a newborn child in Vault 101, Bethesda brilliantly incorporates the process of picking character statistics and learning movement controls into the experience of growing up. WASD movement is learned as a baby, crawling across the floor and making goo-goo noises with the "E" key. A children's book serves as your first introduction to statistics; an early birthday party brings your first weapon in the form of a BB gun.

Fans of the original Fallout games will admire Bethesda's franchise faithfulness right off the bat. The same post-nuclear, 1950s-era style informs both the art and the sardonic humor. In fact, a surprising amount of the same themes found in the original Fallouts are presented in this sequel. You'll run across sentient computers and governmental remnants. You'll face down racist isolationists and disenfranchised ghouls, blood-thirsty raiders and sympathetic super mutants.

Of course, Bethesda also puts its own spin on things. Signature Fallout entities, such as the armor-clad Brotherhood of Steel and the Ghoul Underworld, are explored in detail. A countless amount of story materials exist to be discovered, some of which delve into mysteries already established by Black Isle's previous games. For example, a computer terminal in a newspaper office--a building that one might simply pass by if they weren't careful, and which serves no purpose other than to provide backstory--contained several articles pre-war articles, one of which explained how the US annexed Canada.

Just knowing that this material exists to be discovered can be enough to make the world feel like a real location, rather than a mess of buildings and AI characters. Even if you don't stop to explore a single house, the fact that there might be something to find behind those doors makes it that much more exciting of a game.

Most importantly, the richness of dialogue options and quest choices lives up to the Fallout standard. And while the quality of voice acting does not always live up to the original titles, this can be partly excused due to the sheer volume. Fallout 3 contains an enormous amount of characters, each presenting a satisfying number of dialogue paths and quest twists. It's a mind-boggling piece of work when examined as a whole.

It can make for some mind-boggling decisions when playing, as well. Save-loaders are going to have a difficult time with this game--those players who can't resist exploring every branch of every quest may find themselves torn, reloading the game repeatedly to take a different path.

Turn the page for more on Fallout 3. _PAGE_BREAK_ Players that can't decide whether to be a nice guy will have it even harder. At one point I found myself spinning off into evil for several hours, wiping out an entire town--including some very important quest-givers--just to see what would happen. As it turned out, I survived, but it was certainly more difficult to solve those quests.

The game does an admirable job of providing a large number of approaches to each quest. Generally each choice applies to a good, evil, or neutral approach to a situation. However, although your "karma' is tracked based on your good or bad deeds, it's less transparent than something like Fable II, never showing you just how many "evil points" you've earned. Fallout 3 also offers plenty of chances to escape from a situation using only dialogue, a feat mostly predicated upon your speech skill.

But amongst all of the varied characters and clever quests, the star of the game remains the world itself. To me, the wasteland of Bethesda's DC is far more captivating than any generic fantasy setting. There is a gritty reality to it that enhances almost every moment of outdoor exploration. Just staring off in the distance at the ruined hulks of our iconic national landmarks can be entrancing.

Bethesda's artists deserve an enormous amount of praise for pulling off such a compelling world. Making a collection of burned-out buildings and rocks into a beautiful, but believable landscape is no easy task, and the team exceeded my expectations. As the time of day shifts, the color palette changes dramatically, with sharp orange sunsets cutting through the mountainsides, and dark blue shadows cast across the cold Potomac. Oftentimes I found myself stopping in the middle of a long journey to admire the apocalyptic view, even as I was attacked by Radscorpions and other friendly wildlife.

Speaking of attacks, players will be faced with plenty of enemy encounters as they explore the wasteland--some random, some scripted. Often you'll simply run across packs of human raiders battling it out against Super Mutants. Other times you'll find innocent victims being held hostage by Super Mutants in disheveled houses. As you must first walk to a location before you can fast-travel to it, these side-shows serve as entertaining--and mostly optional--distractions to break up the long journeys.

If pure exploration isn't your thing, the combat is entertaining enough to compensate. While I was skeptical of how the slow-motion VATS system would impact the flow of the game, it works quite well in practice. With a press of the spacebar the game freezes, allowing you to target an enemy's head or leg. More often than not you'll go for a satisfying headshot, but immobilizing an enemy's leg or weapon-arm can also be a wise choice, and satisfying--watching a hobbled Super Mutant futilely amble toward you is a sick pleasure.

True to the Fallout style, players will have a huge amount of options when it comes to character builds. As always, a high speech skill level is preferred, allowing for far more dialogue choices during quests. Beyond that, it'll be up to your preferred play style. Specializing in stealth, demolition, giant guns or computer hacking can all be advantageous depending on the situation. The game is balanced such that you can choose enough of these skills to feel diverse in your powers, but not all-powerful.

Now, if I was looking for a reason to dock percentage points from a great game, I could pick out some flaws in Fallout 3. The stiff character animations that often lead to embarrassing mid-hallway collisions. The repetitious dungeons, in the form of the ghoul-infested metro tunnels.

But despite its flaws, the game more often surprised me with its polish. Every time I tried to creatively "break" Fallout 3, it defied me. When I jumped into a slave pen from above, trapping myself inside, a guard was triggered that opened the door from the outside before attacking me. When a quest took me deep into a dungeon, and then left me wandering all the way back out after completing it, the game interjected with a scripted sequence that whisked me off to another location--one of, if not the only time this happens in the game.

And yes, the ending of Fallout 3 is an abrupt, unsatisfying halt to a fantastic experience. But as with all good things, the journey is the important part, and it simply should not be missed. This is a game that can be played and replayed. Even the plodding nature of your character's movement speed seems to be Bethesda's way of telling us to slow down and smell the Brahmin.

So get out there and explore the edges of the wasteland. Take your time. Games like this don't come around every year.

Fallout 3 is something to savor.

Fallout 3 is now available on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

A note on platforms: First of all, I can't recommend the PlayStation 3 version as an attractive option, considering that substantial exclusive DLC is lined up for the 360 and PC versions.

Now, I played through Fallout 3 on the PC. While I have not played the final version of Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360, I can make a few recommending statements based on my experience.

The game's UI and controls work perfectly well on the PC--the "A" and "E" keys provide easy loot and dialogue solutions--so that shouldn't factor into your decision. Regardless of that, I far preferred using a keyboard and mouse to control the game, especially in combat situations.

Load times on a high-end PC were mostly instantaneous, and even going from a major town into the wasteland only took a second or two. Having only played an incomplete Xbox 360 build, I can't speak for the final 360 version, but outside of the option to install the game on the Xbox 360 hard drive, load times will almost certainly be higher. And on a solid PC, with 4X AA and a widescreen monitor, Fallout 3 looks as good as it's ever going to get.

More than that, as I stated above, Fallout 3 just feels like a PC game. This is an immersive FPS-RPG in the classic sense. It's a game to be played a few feet from a monitor, with thick headphones clapped around your skull--preferably in the dark.

Even weighing the presentational advantages of a home theater setup, for me, the Fallout 3 platform of choice is the PC. Take a look at the system reqs first, of course. If you have the means, I highly recommend it - Nick Breckon

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