PC Fallout 3

Scott Tortorice

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A nuclear holocaust is a terrible thing. Living in a world that suffered a nuclear holocaust is worse. Such is the lesson from Fallout 3, which plants you firmly into as hostile an environment as one could imagine, and scarily true to the pitfalls of the aftermath of such a destructive event - with, of course, a fair share of fantasy and intrigue thrown in for good measure.

Fallout 3 takes its subject matter quite seriously, and imbues its gameplay elements with harsh, scrappy survivalism, and the effects of irradiation on, well, everything. Currency, ammunition, weapons, armour, food and health items are scarce. Weapons and other items breakdown from wear and tear. All food and water is irradiated which means consuming too much will progressively poison you with small doses of radiation, and too much will have dire consequences.

This is the world that awaits you in the Capital Wastelands of the former Washington D.C., the "you" being a voiceless child of Vault 101 whom, up until the sudden departure of his father, had never seen the outside world. The Vault was a place of safety and shelter in the very event of a nuclear disaster, and that's exactly what happened many years prior. As you dramatically exit Vault 101 in search of your father, it's kill or be killed from nearly the moment you set foot on the spoilt soil.

It likely comes as no surprise that the world of Fallout 3, developed by Bethesda, follows the structure of Oblivion, an equally open-ended game. The Wastelands is measured in square miles and the player can trek anywhere he'd like upon exiting Vault 101. In most cases the game does a very good job of guiding you in the right direction should you wish, but you may ignore this guidance altogether and go traipsing across vast stretches of nothing, discovering, killing, being killed, and questing all on your own.

What you'll find in the Capital Wastelands is precisely what one would imagine they'd find given the scenario: a barren landscape littered with the remnants of a civilization that once looked like 1950s America, except its 2277 and technology had advanced well past its cultural era. The world is filled with all manner of shades of brown and grey - such is the extent of its sterility that Bethesda purposely avoided colour, despite the likelihood of its existence.

"It's very likely a great deal of plant life would return after a few years and probably thrive in the real world, no matter how irradiated, but it was an appropriate stylistic decision to keep the world dry and brown..." This, from the Limited Edition Art of Fallout 3 book, encapsulates the look nicely, and it’s exactly what you get. Still, while bland, the Wastelands are often a site to behold - stepping up onto high ground treats you with miles and miles of unhindered views out over the former Capital, and leaves an indelible impression that something has gone terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, there's blandness to Fallout 3 that seems entirely unintentional, and will put people to sleep with boredom. Character interaction is paramount in Fallout 3 just as it was in Oblivion, with face-to-face conversations utilizing full voice acting and multiple conversation paths. However, the voice acting is bone dry, lacking any measure of personality, and strewn with more expletives than a drunken sailor with a ninth grade education. Staring at their poorly animated muppet faces while they grind lifelessly through reams of dialogue is depressingly time consuming and utterly uninteresting. Get on with it already, for Pete's sake! When so much time is spent listening, it’s sad that what you're forced to listen through is painfully bland.

That said, the conversation system is key to some very interesting choices for your character, and the attendant morality system that runs through everything. There are quite a few shades of grey in terms of actions and dialogue you may partake in, running the spectrum from evil to neutral to good. Your remarks to characters will shape their responses or retorts, or their sudden call to arms depending upon the situation. These, at least, are very entertaining. My favorite choice of dialogue after getting served a snarky insult was "And your dead"; it left me in stitches.

It is from these broad and far reaching choices that Fallout 3 offers its most fascinating rewards: the ability to truly shape your world according to how you'd like to play, and with real, often dire and permanent consequences. When I left Vault 101, for instance, I did not leave on good terms, so to speak. When I returned to complete a task, the options left to me resulted in violence, because my past actions.

Notwithstanding this incident of violence, I carried myself as a paragon of good, which further shaped my world around me. Mercenaries began appearing on occasion to take me out, with orders from others to do so. I had attracted unwanted attention from the seedier side of the Wastelands. Searching the remains of these unlucky dogs after their unsuccessful assassination revealed a contract and bounty on my head. But this is the least of the extent your actions can have.

One particular mission had me at the doors of a community known as Paradise Falls, the inhabitants of which kidnapped children and adults for the slave trade. Not able to talk my way through the doors due to my nature, I blasted my way in forcibly, which triggered every inhabitant to take up the fight against me. As I plowed through this awful den of lowlifes, it occurred to me that had I decided to take a different moral path, I could be walking freely about, speaking with the people, and even gaining access to other quests. Instead, I blew the scumbags to Hell and back in every way imaginable. There was a great feeling of satisfaction as I walked away, knowing that after wiping out this town entirely, it would stay that way for good.

Your alignment will also grant you occasional access to partners who, should you choose, will join you on your travels. It's a reward, of a sort, and these people typically offer a good deal of help, not to mention some much needed company. Indeed, Fallout 3 features at least a somewhat compelling system of reward through several different methods besides your alignment.

Character progression is dictated by experience points and levelling up as you would expect, with requisite gains in skill points and perks. Perks are surprisingly similar to the perks featured in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, granting the user specific abilities. New perks become available with each level gained, and they run from the mundane to the unique. The Animal Friend perk, if chosen, keeps animals in the Wastelands from attacking you. If you decide to choose it again, animals will actually assist you in battles - a practical benefit. The Bloody Mess perk, on the other hand, despite offering a mild boost in weapon damage, is completely superfluous: characters you kill will explode into bloody, chunky messes. Nice.

There is also a ton of junk just sitting around waiting to be collected. At first one wonders what's the point of it all, until discovering that schematics for homemade weapons are available throughout the Wastelands which require combinations of this junk to construct; what once was pointless is suddenly compelling. And these customized weapons aren't just for show: some of them happen to be the most powerful and satisfying in the entire game.

Many of these specialty items are the result of successfully completed side quests. Much like the recent Fable II, these side quests make up the vast majority of the game. They are varied and unique and spread out all over the Capital Wastelands, and typically offer something besides the usual experience points. They might end in specialty items being rewarded, be they apparel or weapons or what have you, and each are typically imbued with some unique characteristics. So there's always a reason to go questing, with a palpable sense of progression.

There appears to be an intelligent methodology behind these side quests as well (and main quests for that matter) that carry you forward in meaningful ways. An early mission in Megaton may grant you a place of your own there, which allows you the convenience of always having a place to sleep to regain health and store all of the extra items you don't need to take with you. Another side quest in Megaton has you travelling all over the Wastelands completing tasks, which introduces you to various aspects of the game and attempts to introduce you to Fallout 3's many parts.

Regardless of a steady stream of reward and these glimpses of intelligent design, there is still a frustrating element of randomness to Fallout 3 that's a legacy of Oblivion before it. Fallout 3 appears to scale the challenge of hostile encounters based upon your own skill progression, which sometimes results in the feeling that you're not as powerful as you should be given the amount of time you've put in. You will still run across the random animal or enemy that seemingly appears from nowhere and dispatches you with frightening ease, which is incongruous with how powerful you may actually be. But it must be said that this problem is not nearly as pronounced as it was in Oblivion, which results in a much less frustrating experience.

Most combat is at least manageable if not thrilling, putting to good use weapons of ridiculous proportions and brutality, and the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) gameplay. Engaging in VATS pauses the action on a selected enemy - you can then queue attacks on different body parts depending on your preference, with each body part displaying the percentage chance you'll score a hit. You're then treated to a slow motion display of brutality, each of your attacks playing out in turn. The end result is an often awesome sight of gore and dismemberment, albeit completely over the top.

Mind you, you only have a certain amount of Action Points used to activate VATS attacks, which means you'll have to engage in real-time combat until they automatically replenish. And it's a good thing they replenish, since real-time combat is unreliable and reveals the stiff and jilted animations of your enemies; it looks incredibly clumsy, and serves as an explicit reminder that while Fallout 3 may have a first person shooter facade, it is first and foremost an RPG.

There is one flaw with VATS that deserves mentioning. Given that ammunition is in short supply, you're apt not to waste it trying to hose down or suppress enemies, especially at a distance. The further you are away from your enemies, the more drastically reduced hit percentages are in VATS. The result is that every time you enter a battle, you usually have to do so at very close range which feels limiting and masochistic. Oddly enough, this even applies to the sniper rifle, its range hardly any better than other medium to short range weapons.

And this brings us full circle back to one of Fallout 3's major themes, which is the scarcity and unreliability of supplies. In this sense, Fallout 3 embodies the trappings of a survival horror game and the tension born of never knowing whether you'll have enough of anything to survive any encounter.

Equipment slowly degrades over time reducing its effectiveness until repaired; you have to constantly manage this, and it takes either a high repair skill or plenty of currency. It takes time to develop your repair skill, but you may not have it developed at all should you decide to focus on other abilities. Currency, should you choose to simply purchase your repairs, is the scarcest resource in the game, which means this option is not always feasible.

The same can be said of the ammunition and health replenishing items, which you have to endlessly scavenge for. Taken together, this minutia of management sucks the life out of Fallout 3. Whilst thematically consistent, I find it hard to imagine how any of this relates to actually having fun.

Still, there's the capacity to compensate dependent upon the way you choose to specialize your character. Skill points rewarded at each gained level through experience points can be assigned to any number of skills. If you find it difficult managing health items, you can place a large portion of points on your Medicine skill increasing the effectiveness of any health item. You could choose to up your Science or Speech or Sneak skills as ways of increasing your chances of finding non-combat solutions to your problems.

In fact, this skill customization speaks to the fascinating amounts of options at your disposal. Just about every quest has some alternative method of completion instead of just going in guns blazing. It's likely you could play the game without every firing a shot, as difficult as that may be. Paths are numerous and varied offering massive replayability. Having sunk dozens of hours into the game and completed the main quest, I suspect I haven't even experienced the half of what Fallout 3 offers. Then again, I'm not sure I'd want to.

You see, just when things start to pay off, just when your comfort level reaches something satisfyingly acceptable, you're treated to some unique and thrilling missions, and then it abruptly ends. The main quest, as interesting and complex as it was ramping up to be, is surprisingly short. Many of its fascinating side stories and twists end up aborting with no further exploration, and you're ultimately left wanting more of the good stuff, which is as scarce as everything else in the Wastelands.

Closing Comments:

Fallout 3 will be for some a matter of preference. Although not completely unmanageable, it is a hardcore experience in almost every facet, requiring many, many hours of play before it begins to pay off with any measure of satisfaction. It at once gives you free reign over a desolate future with brilliant complexity, but walks away leaving you to fend for yourself with what limited resources you have. And even if these massive quests in an unforgiving environment are your cup of purified water, you still have to contend with the blandness and sterility of it all. At the very least, Fallout 3 has inspired my next real-life quest: the fight against nuclear proliferation.

9.0 out of 10
 
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