Fallout 3 (PC) review
"Fallout 3 threw me completely off-balance. It took a while of playing to realise (not to mention a few "this is brilliant, right?" conversations), but the fact is inescapable: Bethesda's interpretation of this devastating nuclear wasteland is truly, monumentally astounding."
There's an unusual sense of pressure underpinning this review. It's the big release of the year, particularly on the PC where Fallout's roots lay. However the game had turned out, it was always going to spark some serious debate: indeed, the game's official forums are already full of both joyous outbursts and crippling negativity. It's tricky to write accurately and objectively about a title with such high expectations surrounding it, and when it's a given that certain fans are going to be pissed off, it's hard to know where to pitch the review.
The thing is, I kind of knew which side of the argument I'd end up taking - barring a catastrophic failure, of course. I loved the original Fallout games, but I also consider myself forward-thinking and open-minded about modernisation. Any moderately successful update of the Fallout universe would have sufficed for me, so actually experiencing Fallout 3 threw me completely off-balance. It took a while of playing to realise (not to mention a few "this is brilliant, right?" conversations), but the fact is inescapable: Bethesda's interpretation of this devastating nuclear wasteland is truly, monumentally astounding.
Fallout 3 isn't entirely perfect, and on paper some of its problems seem fairly significant. Its stability on release is particularly disappointing: I encountered a total of three crashes-to-desktop, as well as countless animation glitches. Even when it's working, NPCs move somewhat unconvincingly over the dusty ground, seemingly gliding onwards faster than their legs can keep up. And sometimes, during dialogue, I found myself conversing with a wall, such is the occasionally awkward placement of the camera.
But here's the thing: these will all be patched. Frustratingly few games are released in perfect working condition these days, but almost all are fixed within weeks of their street date. I'm sure this will be the case here, although even if not, Fallout 3's quality is so transcendent that it would be difficult to care. Either way, it speaks volumes that each of my major gripes is a petty technical one.
Fallout 3 takes place in and around Washington DC, nearly 200 years after the nuclear war portrayed in the series' previous outings. The world is slowly repopulating, but tensions are high, escalated by the armies of mutants that have occupied the downtown area of the city. Gang warfare is on the increase, slavery has returned, and the Government is acting suspiciously about the whole situation.
You don't know any of this, of course, because at the start of the game you're being born. In one of the most inspired tutorial and character creation sections I've ever witnessed, you tune your character as you progress through childhood, learning a little about your world along the way. A far cry from the expanse of rubble on the surface, your world is the underground community of Vault 101, a radiation shelter that - for reasons unknown to you at the time - never re-opened after the war, and was slowly repopulated to form the society you now dwell within.
Of course, this idealistic little network doesn't last for long, and when you turn nineteen an hour or so into the game, all hell breaks loose. Your friend has been shot, your father's missing, and for some reason the Vault's entire security force is after you. Probably best to head topside.
The moment you first step outside the confines of the Vault is breathtaking, cementing a bleak, helpless atmosphere that rarely lets up until the final moments of the game. Miles of desolate wasteland stretch out in all directions, the silhouette of a crippled Washington poking over the horizon. And it's genuinely scary. With no goal other than to find your father, you're likely to follow a nearby signpost to the settlement of Megaton, where the first bulk of quests become available.
Let's get some perspective on the freedom on offer here. On my first play-through, I stayed in Megaton for hours, rarely straying far beyond its ramshackle walls, meeting people and completing small sub-quests. Eventually, the main quest led me far away from the town, but I often returned to stock up on supplies between missions.
Later, I restarted the game from scratch. This time, I met a shady character who offered me good money to attach a remote charge to the enormous atomic bomb in Megaton's centre. From a distance, I detonated it, destroying the entire town. I don't just mean wiping out the population; I mean totally, utterly obliterating the whole area - inhabitants, buildings and all.
This sort of freedom is so far-reaching that Fallout 3 can sometimes be overwhelming in its limitlessness. Most quests have three, four, or even five ways to complete them, and these methods stem far beyond alternate routes around levels. You can lie or flirt your way out of most situations if your stats are high enough. You can run in with guns aloft, felling anyone in your way with a swift headshot. You can sneak past guards, hacking computers to gain access to secure buildings. You can blow everything up. Or you can ignore the quest completely.
What's spectacular is that Fallout delivers this freedom without ever compromising the quality of the storytelling, which remains well-paced and focused throughout. It's always fascinating, always emotionally poignant, and there's one big plot movement that takes place in a sequence more creative and disturbing than almost anything I've played before. The script is 'only' adequate, but it's voiced extremely well, not least by Liam Neeson as your father. The main quest is relatively short - fifteen hours or so, at my estimation - but this is a game with a whole lot more to tell than the main narrative arc. There's a depth to this world that's rarely seen in videogames, and while it's not always obvious, there's a staggering amount of background to discover if you search for it. While sub-quests aren't as numerous as in some RPGs, each is satisfyingly meaty, telling a whole gripping tale of its own. Again, some are hard to find, but it's no chore to trawl the map looking for them.
Largely because Fallout's wasteland is simply incredible. Those concerned about how the ageing Oblivion engine would handle a next-gen game can stop worrying: it looks amazing. NPCs may be slightly behind the front-runners, but with the graphical options maxed out, few games render vast landscapes as well as Fallout 3. Even more impressive is that the visuals don't rely on the technology to stand out: they're gorgeously realised, brimming with artistic confidence, distinct identity and creative panache. For such a stark world, locales are surprisingly varied, and some of the interiors rank among the most beautiful we've ever seen.
At a glance, the majority of the game world seems empty and foreboding, but it becomes slowly apparent that there are treasures to be found in the unlikeliest of areas. One settlement sits within an enormous abandoned warship; another in a luxury apartment complex; and one particularly memorable group in a vast network of caves. Fallout 3 richly rewards exploration, and the amount of places to discover is astounding. Having wandered the expanses for hours early on, I was astonished to find later quests directing me to places I'd never even heard of, let alone seen for myself. Each and every new location has something to offer, be it essential supplies, memorable characters, or simply dazzling architecture. It's a game that keeps on giving, right until the very end.
One discovery in particular left my jaw hanging wide open. I don't want to spoil it, but late on, I revisited an area I'd completely exhausted hours ago. I was astonished to find that, in the time since I was last there, events had led to a huge uprising, initiating a quest more captivating than most full games manage.
The mechanics of the game are smooth, intuitive and clear throughout. Gone is the hideous auto-levelling system of previous Bethesda releases, meaning you're free to craft your character to your chosen playing style at each level, rather than relying on the game to predict it for you. The much-touted VATS (Vault-Assisted Targeting System) works perfectly - which is a relief, as the visceral nature of the gunplay makes its use essential in most circumstances. But some of the game's most thrilling moments arrive when you're out of VATS action points, relying on your own shaky talents in order to survive. Fallout lacks the precision of most first-person shooters, but in a very intentional way. Especially at the start, you're not a hardened killing machine. You're a young castaway, low on resources and fighting for survival, and the chilling brutality of the wastelands is all too apparent.
And genuinely, there are times when Fallout 3 becomes one of the most terrifying games in recent history. Deep in enemy territory with just three bullets remaining, never knowing who will be around the next corner; lost and alone at nighfall in the wilderness, out of stimpacks and with only a broken pistol for defence; creeping through a dark, subterranean network, with only the ghoulish sounds of nearby mutants for company... it's in these moments that Fallout 3 shines in its delivery of unparalleled atmosphere.
It's an atmosphere that bubbles with glorious contrast. Radio stations pump out cruel optimism about the future. Billboards celebrate technological advances that have since turned against humanity. Children giggle excitedly about the possibility of an adventure as theyíre dragged off to a slave labour camp. It's witty, tragic and horrifying, all at once.
While I would stress that Fallout 3 is a game that should be enjoyed as a unique experience, I appreciate that fans will want comparisons. Funnily enough, I was reminded more of both STALKER and BioShock than either of the obvious ones, but it's the obvious ones that will make for the biggest discussion.
Firstly, it manages to render Oblivion totally irrelevant in today's gaming universe. That was an excellent game, undoubtedly, but Fallout strikes a critical hit to every aspect of Bethesda's last creation. For atmosphere alone, it improves the formula tenfold. With its delightfully simple mechanics and sheer freedom, it seals the deal.
And then there's the Fallout of old, which brings me to this request: if you're a fan of the originals, please play them again before you tackle this. The absolute worst thing to do would be to revisit the Fallout universe wearing rose-tinted specs, because Fallout 3 really is a resounding improvement on every level. Interplay's games were true classics, but things have moved on a long way since then, and Fallout 3 is the quintessential proof.
A while back, I commented that Mass Effect had raised the bar for modern RPGs. Fallout 3 has lifted it even higher, but this time so resolutely that it's difficult to comprehend. While it isn't strictly anything we've not seen before, it expands upon everything in the formula to create something completely mesmerising. I'm simply not used to games being this good.
There's so much more about Fallout 3 that I want to discuss, but it would be unfair to do so, as this is a game centred around first-hand discovery. There were parts that left me totally amazed by what a videogame could throw at me, but these are sequences we'll talk about in the months to come. For now, all that's left to do is to buy it, and witness what the medium is truly capable of.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (November 02, 2008)
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