Video Game Rentals Delivered

Fallout 3

David Yun (PSN Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (PSN Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2009-04-25 00:08:44

Fallout 3 - Rank A

Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Date: 10/28/08

Also available for Xbox 360 and PC

Bethesda products tend to be like intricate Greek statues of antiquity. Their role playing games are masterful exhibitions of creative prowess, but the wear and tear of heavy use exposes their brittleness. The ambition and scope they invest into their games is akin to the grace and nobility ancient sculptors lavished on their creations. The problem is that their heads have a penchant for crumbling off. Fallout 3 is their sturdiest release yet and is a fount of videogaming wonderment, but with so many publications falling over each other to anoint it as the return of Elvis and Bruce Lee combined, I wanted to make sure that this review stressed how easily its arms can snap off.

Don't get me wrong; Fallout 3 is a triumph of design. The playing milieu is a massive and seamless world riddled with pockets of discovery. The sprawling environment is convincingly dense and vast, from the nooks and crannies that harbor juicy nuggets of interaction, to the sweeping vistas that yield a sense of expansive exploration. The end result is a staggering sense of immersion into a truly fascinating game setting. Unfortunately, each aspect of Fallout 3 suffers from spectacularly jarring failures that shatter this otherwise magnificent suspension of disbelief.

One such failing is that it's infested with bugs, and I'm not referring to giant mutated radroaches. Screenshots of the game relate Fallout 3's undeniable gorgeousness. It might be irreverent to describe an atomically irradiated wasteland as beautiful, but the ugliness of that holocaust is exquisitely rendered...if you only examine screenshots. Actual play is marred by a stumbling frame rate. And make sure to use Fallout 3's autosave function, because it can seize up at any given transition. Every load screen holds the potential to crash the game. In one of my play throughs, using the VATS combat system (more on this later) also caused the occasional lockup. Characters in the game occasionally spawn fifty feet up in the air and suddenly drop to the ground, or become stuck inside of a wall and disconcertingly clip out of either side. Worst of all, they can spawn in such a way that they tumble to their deaths. If you needed to interact with that character for a quest, that turns an otherwise laughable glitch into breath stealing frustration. These are technical shortcomings that would be deemed unacceptable in other "Triple A" titles, and we only let them slide in Fallout 3 because of the game's unparalleled scope and ambition. This is a hallmark of Bethesda developed titles (any of you remember Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall? - it was literally unplayable until numerous patches after release). Fallout 3 continues this tradition of combining impressively deep design work with brittle technical execution. This applies in restrained measure to the Xbox 360 version, but the PlayStation 3 and PC versions are noticeably worse.

Still, these shortcomings do not negate the effort and prowess of Bethesda's design. Their vision of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. is seductively immersive. Pockets of humanity struggle to eke out life and fend off the bandit slavers and irradiated monstrosities that roam the devastated countryside. D.C.'s extensive subway system has been translated into engrossing dungeon crawls, fraught with disturbing and dire confrontations. Giant "Super Mutant" barbarians rule downtown D.C.; seeing them growl and stomp up and down the ruins of the National Mall, from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, filled me with a disquieting awe.

Unfortunately, much of this immersion funnels you toward absolutely sterile game play. I've just about topped eighty hours of play in Fallout 3, and I shudder to contemplate how many of those hours were wasted on scrounging. This activity fits in thematically with post-apocalyptic survival, but actively participating in it is nothing short of drudgery. In more primitive gaming days, your character would enter a room, and a list of its contents would be displayed. With the advent of realistic, fully rendered environments, you're now forced to scour shelves, boxes, cabinets, and desks for useful materiel. It's not at all challenging or interesting; it's a mind-numbing chore. Managing your stockpile of junk isn't optional either. Not only do you require ammunition and medical supplies, you need a steady supply of salvage in order to repair your constantly deteriorating equipment. Fallout 3 requires stupidly particular items toward this purpose. If you want to repair your 'Chinese assault rifle', it cannot be done with scrap metal. You need to cannibalize another 'Chinese assault rifle'. Other firearms won't do the trick, even regular 'assault rifle's. Another nitpick is that merchants have a limited amount of cash on hand, so if you're trying to unload your goods, you have to wander around from vendor to vendor. This, and so many other aspects of the game, becomes a JOB. I don't want to be THAT immersed.

The combat system is also a disjointed hybrid. Fallout 3 is ostensibly a first-person shooter, and a mediocre one at that. (There is a third-person option, but the way the character model handles and interacts with the environment is laughably terrible.) In addition to the previously mentioned frame rate issues, the controls are sluggish and lack the visceral audio/tactile punch of quality shooters. Should you elect to go with melee combat, it feels haphazard and soft compared to the likes of Condemned, or even other hybrid games like BioShock. The way Fallout 3 attempts to address this shortcoming is VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System). Activating it stops time, and allows you to target specific body parts. You queue up shots, each of which consume "action points" (a vestigial term from the turn based genre). The game then enters a cut scene depicting the success or failure of your attack, determined by the game based on a combination of your character's skill, the weapon, and the range involved. If you run out of action points, VATS is not available until it recharges. The practical offshoot is that the combat is fought in a strange alternating combination of real time and turned based action. Neither is particularly satisfying, and I strongly feel that the game would have benefited from focusing on one or the other. Also, it goes without saying that a lawless anarchy would have its share of violence, but Fallout 3 seems to tip over into a gratuitous celebration of violence. Look at the silly screenshot above; you'll see hundreds of variants of that scene over the course of playing the game.

Bethesda also did an admirable job adapting the Fallout mythos (they were not responsible for Fallout or Fallout 2). It's a charmingly goofy mishmash of retro-futuristic horror. You'll interact with every trope of '50s science fiction, from giant mutated insects to bulbous robots that shout, "Communist detected on U.S. soil - lethal force engaged!" Most importantly, the huge cast of supporting characters are richly lavished with back stories and motivations, and in a significant step forward for Bethesda, are reasonably well voice acted. Meeting them, and getting swept up in their petty or grandiose conflicts is the core joy of Fallout 3. Simply meandering and exploring and getting lost in the sprawling backdrop of humanity pushed to the brink is where the game excels. In direct contrast, the main storyline is weak. It's riddled with gaping plot holes and feels forced. It's propelled by contrivances meant to elicit empathic emotions, but their predictability and lack of nuance fall well short of the greatness injected into the ancillary plot threads. Fallout 3 is the inverse of Mass Effect. That game presented an enthralling core story supported by a universe that seemed massively dense, but was largely empty if you chose to explore it. In contrast, Fallout 3 delivers a sumptuously populated world that serves as a place setting for a fairly undramatic central narrative.

Fallout 3 nevertheless provides a significant step forward for actual role playing in role playing games. Your character can be built any number of viable ways, from stealthy commando to burly front line combatant. Problems can be solved via charismatic negotiation (or conniving) or bypassed with criminal skills or scientific prowess. Most importantly, your character is challenged by complex moral decisions. Once again, the game soars or falls flat on its face in this respect. When it works, Fallout 3 forces commitment to addressing moral dilemmas, resulting in consequences, both good and ill. But if you examine too deeply the mechanics for rewarding behavior, the game breaks down. During one quest, blackmail can be employed to achieve "good" ends. That seems in line for a "neutral" amoral character, but not for a genuinely moral individual. Nevertheless, Fallout 3 rewards you positively for such questionable acts. Conversely, you could be playing a truly moral agent, looking to enforce basic social laws, the most fundamental of which is bringing justice to murderers. And yet, when you accost a certain group of cannibals, if you should bring an end to them, you'll receive "evil" points and fail the quest. On final examination, the morality system is absolutely busted. If you want to swing your character toward evil, you can simply become a psychopathic killer for the sole sake of racking up "negative karma". If you later wish to pop it back up, you can make a charitable donation and conveniently wipe out those previous sins with "positive karma". By paying money. This demolishes the deeply satisfying sense of playing a moral agent faced with consequences for significant decisions.

I honestly struggled with this review. I put it off for months. It's schizophrenic in nature, and doesn't even begin to touch upon every aspect of Fallout 3 that I found interesting or significant. A full critique could easily run ten pages. I also wrote with a tone of forceful negativity, and you might be wondering why I awarded it a Rank A. So many people crowned it as their Game of the Year, that I felt a need to defend not giving it my highest grade. I wanted to illustrate some of its very many flaws. And yet, I must assert that despite them, Fallout 3 provides such an engrossing experience, that it should make any gamer's must play list. Where Fallout 3 fails, it fails spectacularly, but its strengths make for a special and unique game. I don't merely forgive Fallout 3; I embrace it. Even where it blunders, it stumbles with lofty goals that other games don't even attempt.

[Note: I strongly recommend the Xbox 360 over the PlayStation 3 version. Frame rate issues, freezes, and glitches, and other bugs seem to be worse on the PS3. I only played through the downloadable content on the Xbox 360 version, so I cannot comment on their technical performance on the PS3, but I am led to believe that the bugginess is significantly higher than that of the Xbox 360 counterparts. The content is identical, however, and you can read my Xbox 360 DLC writeup here.]

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