Fallout 3 was one of the few games I’d craved since it was first announced. I’ve never played a Fallout game, so my desire for Fallout 3 was based more on its developer, Bethesda Game Studios, than any particular attraction to the universe or lore. Bethesda is responsible for the oh-so-deep Elder Scrolls role-playing games, most notably Oblivion (my favorite game of all time). Was Fallout 3 destined to be Oblivion with laser guns? At the time it announced, that was my impression, and I salivated at the thought. After getting my hands on Fallout 3 at E3 2008, I realized those expectations needed to be tempered, and having now played Fallout 3 since launch, I must begrudgingly admit that Fallout 3 is, after all, a game in the Fallout franchise and not Oblivion 2.0.
Fallout 3 starts out slowly, with players witnessing (from a first-person perspective) their literal birth as they commence the Fallout 3 character creation process. From there, the game jumps through various life milestones in the main character’s first 15 years, a jarring and awkward experience that, in all honesty, is a weirdly disappointing way to spend the first two hours of one of 2008’s best games. After this beginning, though, Fallout 3 really comes into its own, and as tempting as it is to compare the game to Oblivion, Fallout 3 is definitely unique.
The similarities between Fallout 3 and Oblivion can be counted on one hand, and to get them out of the way, I’ll list them here: both games are created by Bethesda; both games take place in one of the largest open-world environments you’ll ever encounter; both games support fast-travel if you don’t want to wander for hours through the day-night cycling lands; and there are dozens of side missions and “dungeons” to undertake and explore. From there, the similarities end, so set your expectations accordingly.
Three things stand out as being distinctly Fallout 3, each of which helps Fallout stand on its own two feet rather than the feet of The Elder Scrolls series. The first is the setting: a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. in which the main character ventures from the subterranean Vault 101 to figure out where (and why) his father vanished. This adventure takes players through an extensive civil war-esque narrative that’s more cohesive and enjoyable than Oblivion’s, and it provides a host of science-fiction opportunities. For instance, not only will players encounter irradiated mutants and Mad Max-like raiders, but they’ll use laser guns and rocket launchers and find themselves building custom weapons from scrap metal scavenged from corpses and trash heaps. Rather than encounter Roman-like ruins, players will go spelunking in bombed-out office buildings and libraries. Rather than use enchanted mithril greaves, they’ll find, equip and have to repair electrically charged armor. The jump from Oblivion’s fantasy to Fallout 3’s sci-fi setting is enjoyable and well-executed, and the BioShock-esque nuances of a world destroyed too soon really help immerse you in the game’s environs.
The second big difference is combat, with a system that’s reminiscent of turn-based RPGs yet delivers surprisingly fast-action firefights and a sense of real-time panic at times. Although Fallout 3 can be played like a traditional first-person shooter, you’ll quickly find that you’ll spend more time reloading checkpoints than actually playing if you approach it that way. Instead, Bethesda clearly wants gamers to use the VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) system, which pauses the on-screen action and brings up a schematic that indicates your character’s likelihood of hitting specific body parts. In a sense, this system works similarly to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in its ability to “plan out” your next few moves. However, whereas KOTOR gave players up to three battle commands at a time, the number of gunshots players can queue up in Fallout 3 is entirely dependent upon which weapon they have equipped and the number of Action Points at their disposal.
These Action Points work almost like a mana bar in fantasy-themed RPGs. Each weapon in Fallout 3 uses a specific number of Action Points, so you can’t go blasting 15 shots in a row from the Fat Boy or Missile Launcher. Likewise, smaller guns and energy weapons use fewer Action Points, so although you can queue more of them up at a time, each shot will do less damage, so you really need to think about whether you want to go after the 72-percent shot at the head or the 92-percent shot for the left arm. Damaging different limbs has a different effect on your enemy, too, so depending on the foe at hand, you might want to slow it down (and thus shoot its legs), or you might want to aim for its head and thus hamper its ability to see/aim properly. Once you queue up all your desired shots, the game reverts back to real-time action and commences an in-engine cinematic that shows the action unfold. Then it’s either a matter of running like a baby while your Action Points/VATS bar refills or firing somewhat aimlessly at your foe as if you were playing a traditional FPS. The whole “pause the game and activate a cinematic” thing sounds decidedly jarring and lacking any immersion, but take it from an Oblivion veteran: it’s every bit as intense as the real-time melee and magic combat in Oblivion, and at some points, even more so.
The third big difference with Fallout 3, however, is the first instance where I really take issue with the game: character progression. One of the great successes of Oblivion was your gameplay decisions and actions had “real-life consequences” on your character. Use a melee weapon a lot, and your melee skill improved. Use your bow a lot, and your ranged combat improved. Sneak a lot, and your stealth skill improved. In Fallout 3, however, skill progression is strictly based on point assignments, which removes a big part of the feeling of “ownership” of your character. For instance, if you choose to assign skill points to your character’s speech and strength skills, you’ll stink at energy weapons and stealth no matter how much you use laser guns or sneak around the world, because in order to improve, you need to assign skill points once you level up. The “practice makes perfect” elements of Oblivion were full of exploits (sneaking in the guilds while they all slept, for instance), but they really helped you feel invested in your character. In Fallout 3, you basically have to decide early on how you want to play the game, because if you decide halfway through that you like ranged combat, you’ll be hard pressed to level up enough times to actually earn enough skill points to meaningfully change your playing style. This is really an unfortunate design decision, too, because as the scenarios and scenery changes in Fallout 3, there are definitely times where you’ll think “man, my guy can’t catch a break here, no matter how much I try.”
Fallout 3 doesn’t include quite as many quests or “dungeons” as expected, but the depth of the side missions and non-essential locations is remarkable. In fact, for the first 15 to 20 hours of the game, Fallout 3 can feel flat-out desolate — a facet that makes sense since it’s a wasteland and all, but one that nearly inspires a few “where is everything?” moments. But, once you explore the entire world of Fallout 3, the game opens up in a big way, and you really start to see how much work Bethesda did when coming up not just with the quests and locations, but the back stories behind them all. The only thing to keep in mind when exploring the world is that once you complete the main story, you can’t go back to finish up and outstanding or in-progress side missions. Fallout 3 is a completely open game, but only until the last objective.
Until that time, though, it’s easy to get caught up just wandering the wasteland looking for new missions to accept and new NPCs to encounter. Fallout 3 is not a game to play, necessarily, but a game to experience. If you start the game with the sole purpose of beating it, you’ll find it surprisingly short and unrewarding. But if you go into Fallout 3 trying to get a feel for the entire world, for the characters and cities and side missions, you’ll find a title that is much more than its main storyline. Fallout 3 is not Oblivion with guns, nor is it Oblivion in the 23rd Century. Fallout 3 is Fallout 3: one of the deepest action RPGs ever created, a unique hybrid of real-time and turn-based combat. The hybrid at times feels a bit forced, almost as though Bethesda was afraid to go “too deep” at times, but the end result is still nothing short of a must-buy game.
- Score: 9.3
- Different from Oblivion but bound to be compared to it, Fallout 3 is deep, rewarding and as open-world as you get, with only a few issues that warrant a sight raise of the eyebrow.
— Jonas Allen