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Fallout 3 review

Written by Vince D. Weller


"We're not going to suddenly do a top-down isometric Baldur's Gate-style game, because that's not what we do well."
Pete Hines, a used car salesman

Fallout 3 is the third instalment in the award-winning series beloved by children and young adults. The game continues mature themes of exploring a huge world, looting everything that isn't nailed down, killing anything that looks at you funny, and levelling up. While there were other games in the series, no one at Bethesda could remember Arena and Daggerfall, so they stuck with Morrowind and Oblivion for the purpose of determining what exactly they "do well".

Even though the box clearly states that it’s Fallout and adds a very convincing "3", it’s not a Fallout game. It's not even a game inspired by Fallout, as I had hoped. It's a game that contains a loose assortment of familiar Fallout concepts and names, which is why you start the game in a "Vault", get a "Pipboy" device, become buddies with the "Brotherhood of Steel", shoot some "Super Mutants", and stop the evil "Enclave" from doing bad things to good people in a post-apocalyptic "retro-future" America. The main plot revolves around water (Fallout 1 plot) and requires a G.E.C.K. (Fallout 2 plot), thus assuring you that you really are playing a 100% authentic, notary certified Fallout game. With, like, vaults and stuff. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

The Setting

"My idea is explore more of the world and more of the ethics of a post-nuclear world, not to make a better plasma gun."
Tim Cain, a Fallout developer

Once upon a time there was a big war that turned most of North America into a wasteland. Two hundred years later you emerge from one of the vaults that were designed to keep people safe during a nuclear holocaust. Since this is an action RPG, you discover that the wasteland is filled with many dangers and that you can’t walk very far without something trying to kill you. You explore a large chunk of land, eventually making your acquaintance with the order of knights sworn to protect humanity and rid the land of evil man-eating ogres once and for all. On this colourful canvas your epic adventure will take place.

The game is set on the East Coast, rather than on the West Coast like the first two games, providing Bethesda with a perfect opportunity to tell their own story. To show different communities that have formed on the East Coast, how they’ve adapted to the harsh new reality and managed to survive, and what problems they’ve caused and now face. Instead of this, Bethesda decided to populate the East Coast with the already familiar super mutants, Brotherhood of Steel knights, and Enclave troopers. Unfortunately, these groups left their depth over on the West Coast and have all the complexity of cardboard cut-outs.

Super mutants, the failed attempt to create super soldiers from normal humans, are now flesh-eating beasts keeping gore bags full of body parts as handy snack bags wherever they hang out.

The Brotherhood turned from an almost monastic order, too small to fight the super mutants on their own or to attract too much attention to themselves, into a holy order of knight-protectors keeping humanity safe and shooting at things on sight. In Fallout they didn't have enough equipment, in FO3 (100 years since Fallout and 200 years since the war) high tech weapons and armor are everywhere and fallen comrades with their Power Armor and laser rifles are left behind without a second thought.

Although the game tells you that it's been 200 years since the war, the gameworld and environments indicate that this is a lie the Matrix wants you to believe and that it's been only a few decades at most. Electricity, pre-war electronic equipment, powered and still working computers (just think about that for a second), working cola & snack machines, weapons, ammo, scrap metal (needed by many), and even unlooted first aid boxes are everywhere.

In fact, I'm not sure that the people you meet are even aware that they are living in a post-apocalyptic environment. One woman is writing a survival guide (a couple of centuries too late for that, don’t you think?), being genuinely curious about what happens when you step on a mine. Another lady is busy collecting Nuka-cola bottles and giving Nuka-Cola history tours. Makes sense, what else is there to do in a post-apocalyptic world?

Then there’s an android that managed to escape his evil master, get some facial surgery, wipe his memory clean, and started living as a human who doesn’t know he’s a robot. Yes, it’s, uh, complicated. The droid is helped by an organization dedicated to helping androids gain their independence. I'll repeat that. DEDICATED TO HELPING ROBOTS GAIN INDEPENDENCE. In a post-apocalyptic, almost destroyed world. Don't these people have real problems and things to do and worry about? Are their post-apocalyptic lives so empty and boring that they must invent stupid things to do and care about to kill time? Considering that your wasteland shack comes with a brand new, shiny robot-butler - an excellent source of clean water, which in turn is an excellent source of money and positive Karma, maybe these people really don't have anything better to do. That would make a very interesting setting - slowly degrading post-apocalyptic humanity living off the back of robots doing all the work for them, but once again, that's not the Fallout world.

The East Coast “wasteland” is anything but dead and empty – one of many inevitable changes brought by switching the format from a “classic”, isometric RPG focused on exploring through dialogue to a first person, sandbox RPG heavy on the action side. Running into enemies at every step is a traditional sandbox feature. Sticking with Fallout's "dead wasteland" atmosphere would have made traveling in first person unbearably boring. As a result, the "wasteland" seems overcrowded: hungry monsters, trigger-happy raiders, super mutants, and stray, hostile robots of all shapes and sizes are everywhere. Evil-doer hunting Regulators and do-gooder killing Talon mercenaries complete the picture.

The setting’s casual approach to nuclear explosion is especially jarring. You get out of the vault, look at this brave, new world, and someone promptly asks you to detonate a nuclear bomb inside one of the towns. Why? Because it's cool, apparently. Later on you will unavoidably run into a super duper mutant who can only be taken down by a several direct nuclear blasts that, oddly enough, have only a few meters radius and are harmless to people outside this radius. Shooting old rusty cars results in even more nuclear explosions, which makes you wonder if there really was a big War or if a simple car accident caused a chain reaction of exploding nuclear cars across the States.

Prolonged exposure to radiation has added magical properties to clothing. Putting on a dirty, old lab coat instantly increases your scientific knowledge (+10 to Science) until you take it off again. Most hats, including a simple bandana, increase your Perception (+1). Putting on Lincoln's hat imbues you with higher Intelligence and improves your speech. In other words, clothes are your typical magically enchanted fantasy fare.

Towns and locations deserve a special mention. Megaton, the first town you see when you step out of the vault, is basically the only real town in the game. The rest of the humanity is more than happy with 3-5 shack settlements, old hotels, and museums. Nobody does anything and how the hell these people survive remains a mystery. Exploring different towns and different ways of life was one of the most interesting aspects of Fallout, but sadly it’s not present in Fallout 3.

Instead of a consistent and logical world, we get "cool shit". What's cool shit, you ask? An excellent question. Cool shit is whatever stuff random Bethesda designers thought would be cool. To be honest, Fallout 2 was also sporadically guilty of this syndrome, but Fallout 3 takes it to a thoroughly different level.

A town in the crater of an unexploded bomb? - Cool!
A Peter Pan-esque settlement of invincible kids who expel people when they hit 16? - Awesome!
A Lovecraftian Cthulhu-dedicated "Dunwich horror" location - Pretty awesome!
A gang of blood-drinking vampire wannabies - Beyond awesome!
A howling radio DJ keeping the bored populace of the, uh, wasteland informed of your progress - wait, let me check my awesometer... my god, it's over 9000!!!

Overall, it would be easy to write a report worthy of an EU bureaucrat listing all the silly and stupid things Bethesda has shoehorned into Fallout 3. The biggest problem is not so much that it isn’t Fallout, but rather that the setting doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Bethesda had an opportunity to craft a cohesive “living & breathing” world, but instead chose to build an amusement park with a bit of everything ‘cool’ they could think of. To be fair, some things Bethesda did are brilliant and atmospheric, but they are isolated elements that never form a coherent and consistent world that makes even the most basic sense.

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