FALLOUT 3 Xbox 360 Video Game Review

     December 6, 2008

Reviewed by Brandon Bales

Entertainment is escapism; and if videogames are a more perfect form of escapism, then Bethesda’s new Fallout 3 is akin to being pulled part-and-parcel into a perfect digital snowglobe.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the Fallout series has pushed its players to explore a harsh post-apocolyptic United States, where survival is dependent on the user’s ability to stomach irradiated food and water while battling massive, mutated flora and fauna. Fans of the RPG had not seen a dedicated sequel since 1998, so the wait has been long – but we don’t believe the fans will be disappointed – not at all. Having created the famed Elder Scrolls series and then scooped up the license, Bethesda SoftWorks was a grand match to bring this world and gameplay into the next generation. Their games are nothing if not massive excercises in world creation, and they deliver on their promises of giving their players unparalleled scope.

You play as a young denizen of Vault 101, an underground “paradise” built two hundred years ago in the wake of worldwide nuclear tensions. The Great War, as it’s called, decimated most surface life on the earth, and any survivors were forced to move underground. Your character’s life starts here, and the game’s first two hours ( ! ) are dedicated to playable snippets of our hero’s life. The Vault, however, is not without its own social upheavals, and soon the sudden and suspicious disappearance of our protagonist’s father force him topside to step out into the sunlight for the first time in his twenty years. What follows is an immense, surprising and often brutal journey through a scorched Washington, D.C. If you’re at all an RPG fan, prepare to be swallowed whole.

Fallout’s main quest follows the hero’s search for his (or her) father, and for all of the questions the man left unanswered, which start as few but quickly become many. So, off from town to ruined town you go, collecting information, foraging for supplies, and oh yes, mowing down any raiders and irradiated mutants who threaten your survival.

Fallout 3 takes the series’ original isometric RPG concept and fleshes it out more fully into living and breathing 3D world akin to Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls series. The 3D re-do puts the game firmly into the action-RPG category, for better or worse. Combat is free-form, allowing the player to aim fully and freely with their weapons to strike enemies in real-time. Its RPG roots, however, are not completely forgotten, which is where the famed V.A.T.S. system comes in. V.A.T.S. is Bethesda‘s answer to traditional turn-based RPG fighting. With the press of a button, players can freeze time, survey the enemies around them, and then use “Action Points” to pinpoint various locations on enemies’ bodies to dole out specific damage. Is an enemy running away from you? Use V.A.T.S. to cripple their legs. Something bearing down on you with a massive sledgehammer? Concentrate your fire into their arm, and the weapon is dropped. Experienced players will switch between V.A.T.S. and free shooting to maximize their firepower, and will find that the system works reasonably well. Waiting for your Action Points to recharge, for one, leads to many a tense moment of praying that your aim is good enough to snap a few bullets into an oncoming adversary. When the system fails, however, it can be quite a let-down. Frequently and sadly, that 75% to-hit chance that shows up above the enemies’ body parts seems to work a lot less than that. Another small combat letdown lies in the game’s methods of letting you heal. The hot-key function that should enable healing or switching weapons is mapped to the same button that initiates the V.A.T.S. system, so in the throes of combat the player is sometimes forced into much fumbling within the game’s massive sub-menu/status screen.

These few quibbles about combat do little to distract, however, from the sheer scope of the game’s visuals and setting. Stepping out of the Vault for the first time actually gave us chills in the real world. Besthesda has outdone themselves in building the Capitol Wastes. View distances stretch off for miles with incredible variety. It’s immensely clear that hundreds of hours went into making each square mile of the ruined landscape look completely varied and subject to the whims of Nature and nuclear disaster. Decimated houses litter what’s left of the roadsides. Dilapidated grain silos and water towers loom hauntingly on the horizon. And most amazingly, the broken remains of the District of Columbia not only gave us goosebumps, but they also play a huge role in the game’s story. (I spent the night in the top of the Washington Monument!)

In line with the game’s visual scope, players will soon find that the story opens up in the same ways. As you befriend the inhabitants of the Wastes, it’s soon clear that there are a lot of odd jobs that need to get done. It’s up to the player to see these quests through to their ends, but after trying a few they’ll find that these quests will hook them just as much as the main one. The variety of missions is impressive, and the tasks range greatly in the abilities they require of your character, making leveling-up more and more appealing. The side-quests are numerous, but they’re not all required. The programmers make sure that you only take the quests that you really want to take, and you’re given plenty of chances to refuse them. This is in place, it would seem, to counteract the complaint against keeping track of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion‘s ridiculous amount of confusing errands. We have to say, though, that once one gets addicted to the leveling, the extra quests seem essential. (Small side-note about RPG side-quests in general. Why is a woman entrusting the delivery of life-saving medicine to her only son to a STRANGER? I’m just saying…)

As leveling goes, Fallout makes it easy to play the type of game you’d like play. Each level crossed via your experience points allows the alloted skill points to be divvied-up to your liking. While this idea is nothing new, Bethesda does a great job of making all of them seem instantly useful. Without seeming too forced, the player is presented with varied enemies, plenty of chances to sneak and steal, lockpicking opportunities, computers to hack, items to repair, people to persuade, and myriad weapons to master. The amount of different choices presented to the player at all times turns the task of spreading out your skill points into a challenging affair in itself, which is the sign of tight design. In this respect, Bethesda has mastered their carrots and sticks.

You’d be right to assume that there is a ton of gameplay stashed away inside of Fallout 3. The main quest itself can take at least 30 hours if one barrels right through to the end. To complete even MOST of the side-quests will pile on another 70. This is one huge game we’re talking about here. Yet, it’s because of the games gigantic muscles that the few true faults emerge. As is the case with Oblivion, the desire to play big can’t help but remove polish in certain areas. Call it the GTA syndrome – or call it the American Game Syndrome: the net gets stretched so much, some of the little pieces fall through. Take, as the most obvious example, the character models. As with Oblivion (or GTA, again), the models are stiff, odd, and sometimes downright ugly. It’s clear that the lion’s share of the computing is being done to handle the gargantuan world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially considering that Bethesda is doing this all without any cutscenes. No harm, no foul – but considering the stellar facial and character animations of Valve’s recent Half-Life games, Fallout seems a little behind the curve. And woe be to those who wish to experience the game in 3rd-person perspective. As with Oblivion before, when the hero is seen from the over-the-shoulder perspective, he seems to ‘rollerskate’ over the land. We don’t remember it being as bad as it was in Oblivion, but it still stands out as jarring.

All this said, this game is a true achievement, but one large question mark remains. Any real technical issues couldn’t compare to the game’s major stylistic quandary. The real drawback to making a game that stretches out like none other, with so much to do, presenting you with so many options, is that the largess of the designers ends up biting the game in the ass. The player will inevitably be tempted by ideas not present in the designer’s glut of offerings; they’ll want to go to certain places, take certain actions, they’ll come up with questions that don’t exist in the dialogue trees. And it’s these ideas that lead to the biggest frustrations: I can do ALL of this, so why the hell can’t I do that?! It’s in those moments when a bit of the elegance of a more streamlined and linear game is lost – the grand illusion is shattered as we peer up to the sky to see a giant finger tapping against the glass. “Oh yeah,” we think. “It’s just a snowglobe we’re in.” But what a damned fine one it is. Swirl on.

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