Nov 19

Half dead, trudging through the rubble-filled vacant streets of Washington, I’m wearing vintage biker goggles, dirt stained boots, and overalls died yellow from blowing sand. I stop by the burning, rusted-brown wreck of a 1950’s era car to take a drink from a fire hydrant to regain some of my strength, when the hammering crack of gunfire gets my attention. Turning around and targeting the mohawked head of a raider, a bullet from my duck tape covered hunting rifle flies slow motion through the air until it takes his head off with a space shuttle exhaust plume of blood trailing behind it. I scavenge his corpse for ammunition and supplies and move on.

That’s a vividly described moment in gameplay, but it’s a good example of how the description of Fallout 3 as “Oblivion with guns” loses meaning once you get into the meat of what Fallout 3 is.

Developed and published by Bethesda Softworks, the folks who brought us Oblivion and Morrowind, Fallout 3 is one of those games that has some flaws, but the overall product makes it difficult for writers like me to remain objective without professing my love for the damn thing, which is usually a good sign because I’m a sceptical, bitter man who hates everything.

I was disappointed with Oblivion. Though I sunk hundreds of hours into it and remember it fondly, it was clear early on that stealth characters didn’t work very well at all, you had to become a super powerful warrior or mage and then branch out. The hundreds of caverns found around the land were all exercises in déjà vu, and having to worry about levelling up for fear that I hadn’t used the ‘right’ skills in order to get the proper bonuses for my stats was tiresome – narrowing the experience and essentially telling me what I was supposed to do in a game that banked on its open endedness.

While Bethesda took the vast experience of Morrowind and made it into a more accessible but narrower game with Oblivion, they’ve taken the first two Fallout games and their learned lessons from Oblivion to make something S.P.E.C.I.A.L. with Fallout 3.

By the end of the game’s approximately 30 minute tutorial sequence, you’ve chosen your starting stats, three of your skills that’ll start a bit higher than others, and what your guy or girl will look like – which you can change later in the game thanks to plastic surgery and a number of zombies and robots eager to cut your hair, y’know, because in the future zombies and robots have gotten around in the job market.

The sliders for changing facial features don’t seem to change too much, and it’ll take quite a bit of tweaking around to get the hang of things. This doesn’t really limit the flexibility of the creator so much as make drastic changes more difficult to create. The hairstyles are awesome though – really, I never knew there were more than 20 different kinds of moustache with awesome names like “man’s man” and “the comrade.”

As for the attributes, luck gives you more chances to do critical hits and make shots you normally wouldn’t be able to, strength makes your swings do more damage, you know the drill.

The skills are all quite useful, and have been streamlined from old Fallout games. For example, you don’t need to pump up ‘throwing’ and ‘explosives’ to throw a grenade or ‘traps’ to plant mines like you used to in Fallout 2, instead all of these are now handled by the ‘explosives’ skill in Fallout 3. Purists be damned, but the old way was far too clunky.

The whole beginning tutorial shtick is relatively short and paced quite well, but for those wishing to restart the game with a new character, it’s a shame there’s no option to simply skip the sequence during subsequent play-throughs and pick your stats right away.

After a blinding horizon-full of sunlight from exiting the underground vault you grew up in, your character is greeted by the eerie crumbling wastes of Washington, and from there on what you do is your choice: Follow the marker on your compass and start the search for your father, or do what I did and wander around for around 30 hours before finally finishing the main quest several hours later.

Unfortunately, there’s no mini-map to help you out. You have markers on your map telling you where to go for each quest, and you can even set your own. The compass on the bottom of your heads-up-display will show you which direction each of the markers are in, but things get confusing inside buildings. The compass doesn’t let you know if that point you’re zigzagging through hallways towards is on a different floor, so checking the map in the menu screen repeatedly is often the only solution aside from wandering around.

Aside from the “now how the hell do I get out of this building now that I’m done” part, wandering around is where Fallout 3 stands out. There are tons of side quests that you’ll stumble upon, and even other minor events that help add color to the world. One incident had a man with a megaphone guarding an alley full of mini-nuclear explosives, babbling on about a whole lot of nonsense on how “the worm shouldn’t take one step closer” and how a particular brand of soap was corrupting the populace. Another villager was cowering nearby and telling me to make the other guy shut up, so I used my charisma to convince him to work it out by talking. The man galloped into the alley and both men were blown up in a mini nuclear explosion. Oops.

You may have gotten bored wandering around the world in other games, but Fallout 3 manages to fill its vast wasteland with interesting events like the one I just mentioned. I’m slightly over sixty hours in as of this writing, and I’m still finding interesting things hidden in the game.

It’s obvious that Fallout is running on the Oblivion engine – Character animations are a bit awkward, at least until they ragdoll around after a death blow. Items have their weight and approximate value pop up next to them when you pick them up, and if you happen to pick them up off a table, the other items will float up an inch as if you’ve disturbed a picturesque arrangement and the game realises you want to pick stuff up and generally knock crap around the place with swings of your baseball bat and errant grenades. It’s odd, and doesn’t get in the way of fun, but it takes you out of the immersion and reminds you it’s just a game.

However, the game is an improved version of the Oblivion engine overall, despite its awkward flaws it still has. For example, the third person camera, rather than floating and fishtailing behind your character, has your hero off to the side with the targeting cursor in the middle, making it a bit more usable for combat. Though it’s still better to use first person mode, the option is there if you want it, but the game goes into third person anyways for VATS, the “ooo, wow” factor of Fallout 3.

Oh, and the textures and visuals, animations not included, look great – even if most of the game world is gray, green, or just plain dark.

Now for the combat: VATS is an unimportant acronym for what happens when you press R1, the right bumper, or whatever part of your mouse and keyboard you have set up for it.

The game pauses and you select a target and body part, and depending on your range, weapon, and weapon skill, you`ll fire off rounds accordingly, in slow motion. All the while, the camera will take a random angle, sometimes following a bullet straight into your foe`s head, and other times just panning around your character as he fires off a mini-nuke launcher. Sometimes the camera in VATS gets stuck or doesn`t show what would be the best moment to capture, but for the most part it works well, except for melee.

For some reason, you can`t target individual body parts with melee weapons or your fists. During a melee blow in VATS, your character will do a downward swing or a kick accordingly if your target is low. In standard combat, which feels decent but not great for frantic up close battles, you can whack at individual body parts anyways, so with possible character animation problems not even being there, there`s no excuse for this shortcoming of VATS.

The main benefit of using VATS is that you can make attacks you`d normally be unable to pull off in a shooter, like crippling one dude`s leg with one shot before spinning around and blowing off the head of the next guy. It`s balanced out with it running off of slowly replenishing action points.

Regular combat outside of VATS is adequate, but nothing special. It’s fine for cracking off a killing blow from distance but it gets chaotic up close.

Outside of blowing people’s heads off, the other gameplay moments are lockpicking and hacking, and this is where things start getting frustrating. While lockpicking is great, where you have to feel out where to move a bobby pin before you rotate the lock with a screwdriver, hacking is horrible. In a sea of words and random characters, one of the words is the correct password, and you get four to five tries to figure out which. Finding two brackets facing each other in the same line takes out one of the dud passwords or replenishes your amount of attempts. Sound like a guessing game? Well, it is.

The worst thing is, the whole trick behind the hacking system is broken. After picking an incorrect password, like “boots” you’ll get a message like “0/5” letting you know that none of the characters in that word are in the real password. Yet, often enough the password will have one of those letters in it, so it’s back to guessing for you. Weak.

Gaining experience for just about everything from picking locks and using your speech skill to have your way all the way to blowing off limbs will have you levelling up and gaining perks. Perks are a large part of your incentive for playing Fallout 3, right next to the lure of adventuring. Some perks will have enemies almost always dying in a violent explosion of bone fragments, blood and limbs. Others will have you dealing more damage to the opposite sex and gaining more dialogue options with them outside of combat. To keep in tune with the whole pull of adventuring, some perks can only be gained through adventuring. I convinced a spunky shopkeeper that her idea for a survival guide was horrible idea, and while she was sobbing to herself I was awarded a “dreamcrusher” perk which decreased the likelihood that people would score critical hits on me. Sweet.

The bottom line is that Fallout 3, despite its drawbacks, is an excellent addition to anyone’s library and the defining RPG of both Bethesda’s library and of this generation. It may not be for everyone, but anyone remotely interested in shooters or in RPGs should give it a shot

The verdict:

5 out of 5

A must buy/rent