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Fallout 3 (PC) artwork

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.

So.

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.

Rating: 10/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (November 02, 2008)

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WilltheGreat posted November 02, 2008:

!@#$!it Lewis! I was going to do Fallout 3. I bought it on release day and everything. ;_;

Anyway, good review, but I'm not sure I would have given it a 10. 8 or 9, maybe. One of the things I noticed is you don't mark it down for bugs on release because you're sure they'll be patched; a fine attitude for a Stardock or Blizzard game, but let's take a moment and count how many bugs are still present in Bethesda's last game.

But you're right in that the execution is sound. It's no Van Buren, but it's the closest we're likely to get, and it's a good ride.
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Lewis posted November 02, 2008:

Had Fallout 3 bagsied for months, sir!

The bugs issue is one that I'm always unsure about how to tread. Generally, my rule is simple: did I enjoy the game any less because of them?

In the case of something like the new STALKER (and there are considerable comparisons to be drawn between these two games: a large portion of Fallout feels like what STALKER was trying to be), the bugs were frustrating to the point where they seriously affected my enjoyment - and, in the end, my ability to actually finish the thing. Here, it was more a case of 'hey - look how that corpse is bouncing around in the corner' then moving on.

If I'd have docked a mark for stuff like this, I'd have felt like a proper mean bastard. I've not been as utterly compelled by a computer game in years. It feels like the sort of game I've been waiting so long for - and if anything deserves The Big Score, it's a game like that.

(EDIT: As a small side-query, I'd be intrigued as to what you think knocks it down a mark or two. Surely can't just be the occasional instability if it were to be an 8... and what would be a 10 for you? Anyway - scores are meaningless, and all that. Whatever number you tag on the end, I'd be surprised to hear that anyone had been disappointed by Fallout 3, aside from the predictable fanboy idiocy that's circulating the official forums.)

Thanks for reading!
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zigfried posted November 02, 2008:

I missed out on Fallout and Fallout 2, because my computer sucked. I'm finally able to play this one (just started yesterday) and I'm really looking forward to it. Your review and the discussion of freedom and the sidequests to extend the game really makes me think that this could be the proper follow-up to Wasteland that I've been wanting to play for a long time.

I realize all of the above traits were totally expected to be in this game, but still, I'm excited. Your example with Megaton (spending hours in in on one play, blowing it up in the next) was perfect because it showed the absurdly polar range of choices available, and you did it in two short paragraphs. Nice.

//Zig
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WilltheGreat posted November 02, 2008:

I'd say 8 or 9 because, as much fun as FO3 is, it just isn't the same as the first two. It's like some of the magic was lost in the transition from retro isometric RPG to modern 3D FPS/RPG. And I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's just the power-armor looks more like Stormtrooper costumes than it used to (let's hope there's a fan mod). Or maybe I'm just grown-up and cynical.

I consider it more an homage than a true sequel. It's a good way to put the series to bed.
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Halon posted November 02, 2008:

I loved the second game but for some reason don't really want to play this one (yet). It looks like a combination of Oblivion and STALKER, two games that I have no desire to play ATM.
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Lewis posted November 02, 2008:

It's more like Deus Ex meets STALKER, poured into the free-roaming Oblivion world. On only a couple of occasions was I reminded of Bethesda's previous work.

And, of course, it's not a lot like previous Fallout stuff, but it never was going to be. The rose-tinted specs bit of the review is really essential. If you wear them, you'll be disappointed - it's a distinctly modern game. But if you take it for what it is... honestly? I don't think there's much better out there at the moment.

A word about the ending, though. It's satisfying, but there was one distinct problem with it. I'm trying to think of a way to discuss this without spoiling it, which is why I left it out of the review, but basically, this:

It involves making a big moral decision, as expected for this sort of game. But there's a problem. You can pick up characters on the way through the game, and if you've picked one of them... well, it won't make much sense now, but when you reach it you'll understand. Basically, if this one character is in your squad at the time, the ending makes literally no sense. If he's not, it's brilliant. Bit of a tough one, that.
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zippdementia posted November 02, 2008:

I don't think you can mark down Fallout 3 for not being like the originals. First of all, Bethesda did an amazing job of sticking to the old standbys and the overal Fallout feel. From the opening "War never changes" segment down to the cynical sarcasm of the conversation choices, it's definitely Fallout.

I'm pleased Bethesda did something new with the series. I can't seem to stop playing it, either.
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Lewis posted November 03, 2008:

I think it has the Fallout vibe but it's darker, more sinister. The horror side of the game is moved quite heavily to the forefront in places, and the emphasis on pure survival may come as a shock to those who all but avoided combat in the originals. But I'm so chuffed to see Bethesda create something that feels different. In a way, much as I love the series, I'm disappointed to see them announce Elder Scrolls V, because Fallout's always-tense, story-driven action-RPG hybrid style proves they have so much more up their sleeves then the now stagnating ES series.

Fallout 3 is the game I've been waiting for since Deus Ex. Seriously.
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zippdementia posted November 03, 2008:

It does play a lot like Deus Ex, doesn't it? A good thing, that.

I thought the old games were pretty combat intensive, myself. I remember TRYING to play as a stealthy character, and becoming helplessly under leveled by the time the ending rolled around.

My favourite improvement in this itteration had to be the skills. Redundant skills (gambling, anyone? Outdoorsmanship?) were removed or bundled into other skills, and each skill truly is useful. I wasn't sure they'd be able to make stealth useful, but the ability to do one shot kills (or at least double damage) on a stealth shot makes it very useful indeed. The others speak for themselves.
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WilltheGreat posted November 03, 2008:

Agreed, but I'm a little sad that Speech doesn't see more play.
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Lewis posted November 03, 2008:

I agree stealth wasn't too much cop in the earlier games, but generally there were far more 'safe areas' in the originals. In Fallout 3, very few places feel truly safe, and you're always on-guard. I saw this as a brilliant thing.

I really am wildly impressed with this game, and I'm glad it only seems to be the Rose Tinted Specs Clan that aren't, because I couldn't give a toss about them anyway.

Will: I poured my stats so heavily into Speech that I could talk my way out of almost any situation by the end. There were a total of big plot changes in my game as a result of it.
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EmP posted November 03, 2008:

Fallout 3 is the game I've been waiting for since Deus Ex. Seriously.

This is a pretty big statement, Lew.

I'm still clawing away at the things I need to do before I fall into to Fallout completly.
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Lewis posted November 03, 2008:

"This is a pretty big statement, Lew."

It is, yes, but I think it's a justified one. It's not as delightfully groundbreaking, certainly, but I honestly reckon it's the first game since Invisible War to take this truly multi-faceted approach to quest-completion. And since Invisible War was a let-down in other areas, Fallout feels almost as exciting as Deus Ex did back then.

It probably won't stand the test of time in the same way that DX did, because like I said, it doesn't really break new ground. But as an improvement on the formula, and as an open-plan action-RPG, it's at the top of the pile, in my mind at least.
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zippdementia posted November 03, 2008:

Yes, speech is very plot changing, if you build it up. I only use it for the occasional "talk me out of this situation" bit.
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zippdementia posted November 03, 2008:

By the way, Lewis, could you tell me roughly how far into the main quest I am? I don't even dare ask on the side quests... I've clocked about 30 hours, am level 16, and am still running errands for Moira.


Anyways, for the main quest...

SPOILERS


... I just rescued my dad from the simulation program in Vault 106, and I'm headed to Rivet City. After some stops, of course. But does that ring any bells? Any idea, maybe percentage wise, how much more I've got to go in the main?
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Lewis posted November 03, 2008:

Somewhere around 2/3 through the main quest.
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zippdementia posted November 03, 2008:

Thanks!
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Lewis posted November 03, 2008:

Be careful not to finish the game by accident.

Unlike previous Bethesda titles, the game is over as soon as you finish the main quest - but there's little indication that it's about to be over until the final sequence is well underway, at which point the game autosaves and you can't do anything other than finish the quest. Make sure you keep a regularly updated 'normal save' slot in case you end up finishing by accident.

As a guide, once you head off with the ENORMOUS ROBOT (incredibly cool, by the way), you're headed for the final showdown. You should be able to tell when this is coming (the game repeatedly asks you if you're ready, but it does rush you along), so just put it off for as long as possible and you should get the most out of the tale.

I'll be interested to hear if more people get the stupid ending. I couldn't think of a way to word it in the review without a big spoiler, so I didn't put it in at all, but it is worth a mention as the only real design oversight in the whole of the game. Now I've heard Ross Atherton of PC Gamer put it into nice safe words, I'll steal his:

It's possible, based on an earlier decision, to be in a situation where the ending doesn't make sense. Which is pretty bad, really, as it does produce a gaping plot-hole that it makes no attempt to fill, and it's clearly down to shoddy planning. Shame - the rest of the game is magical.
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zippdementia posted November 03, 2008:

I was wondering about both of those things.

As far as getting to an ending spot, I feel it starting to wind towards a climax, and yet I haven't explored even half the map! I haven't even been to Paradise Falls or the Commons. I'm in the Brotherhood Citadel right now, but I'm really just staying long enough to see if they'll sell me anything. Then it's back to Megaton to pick up my now functional Power Armour, and then off to visit a Mr. Tenpenny for some much deserved retribution.

As for plot gaps, I've encountered a few already. Actually, quite a bit. A lot of times, I will have seen someone before which opens up a conversation choice with someone else, but the choices reference things I didn't ask that other person about... things like that. I was hoping that the main plot would at least be cohesive, but it sounds like there are ways to make it not so.

The only things I've done so far that seemed a little out of touch with the main quest were that I killed the Overseer before even leaving the vault (a very bloody death, considering all I had was a BB gun) and I didn't spend a lot of time in the town Simulator. I didn't feel like going to the effort of breaking up the marraige, so I went straight for the shutdown sequence.
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Lewis posted November 03, 2008:

You missed out on a lovely and disturbing sequence by getting straight out of the sim. Shame.

It's weird - there are tonnes of little things that I keep finding that should hinder my enjoyment of Fallout, but they simply don't. It's magical. Seriously, far and away the best game released this year.
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zippdementia posted November 04, 2008:

I knew I had to be missing some disturbing stuff, but I just wasn't in the mood to be pushed around by a little girl. My heart was torn between my desire to see mayhem and my desire to maintain my twisted sense of dignity and ego. Ah, it's situations like that which make Fallout great.

Definitely high on the running for game of the year. Although I am dissapointed in the friend AI. I have Paladin Cross on my team, and I spend most of my time keeping her alive or equipped with ammo. It feels like such a waste.

I'm gonna use her as a one shot helper for taking out a Talon base, then I'm gonna send her ass away. I prefer to travel lonely.

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