By now you know that Fallout 3 is a massive critical success. And while I agree with much of what the gaming journalism community at large has said, I'm going to begin by pointing out some of the things Bethesda has really gotten wrong through archaic design and an inability to advance their own gameplay concepts and innovations to the same (or higher) standard as so many other dev studios.
A lot of people might find this nitpicking. Especially in the face of the enormous amount of awesome stuff on offer throughout the Fallout 3 experience, but I think offering as much awesomeness as they have does not excuse a developer of Bethesda's calibre from poor design decisions, and there are a few major ones found within Fallout 3's inner workings.
You begin life in the game as a newborn child. It's from the decidedly interesting viewpoint between your mother's legs hoisted in stirrups (after having just been born), you're asked to create your character. Most of this is standard Bethesda issue; though the overall look still reflects the 50s theme Fallout 3 carries with it.
Once you've created a look you're happy with, you're given mild amounts of freedom as a baby, toddler, child and eventually young adult, all within the safety of your home, Vault 101. The first portion of the game serves as both a ready tutorial for interacting with the game-world as your newly created character as well as feeding you tidbits of information - on a narrative level
- about post-fallout Washington DC.
While all of this clearly sounds functional, it's the first place I discovered my issues with the game. To begin with the third-person camera reveals Oblivion-like animations and movements for your character. There's no weight in how you move; most of the time you feel like you're on an invisible ice rink, sliding to and fro. The first-person camera then is a far better option, and unlike Oblivion, you do get a sense of natural motion in movement, but what this does is ultimately render the character creation element useless and arbitrary. I doubt too many people are going to be using the third-person camera as a result, and given the strength of other third-person games with excellent animation/movement systems (GTA IV, Mass Effect, Gears of War, Dead Space), allowing this portion of the overall design to remain untouched since Oblivion is just plain lazy.
Moreover, interacting with other characters in the game-world is an equally old-school affair with oftentimes single replies repeated over and over again. There's no real dynamism to conversations either, which is just difficult to swallow after being given something as robust as Mass Effect's conversation wheel. You can unlock newer pieces of dialogue by asking the right questions (or having particular perks or the like), but you're not really given much in the way of an expanding branch of discussion, and for the most part, once you clear a convo with a character they never have anything new to say, despite all you might have accomplished in the game (an equal shame, especially after playing the likes of Fable 2 - a game where recognition is both dynamic and important).
The annoying thing about these two main issues is how they sit juxtaposed to an otherwise robust and dynamic game-world. Most of the things you do in Fallout 3 are everlasting in that, nothing respawns or regenerates.
You might come across random mutated animals to kill at unpredictable locations, but these - along with everything else in the game
- remain dead and in place until the very end. If you killed a super mutant who was living in the back of a semi-trailer for example, his body is going to remain in that location until game over. It's refreshing to walk around and be reminded of your handy work as you go, but this presents other issues as well.
One of the earlier side-quests you can discover (and accept) sees you rescuing the folk of Big Town from super mutants. The last part of the quest is to remain in Big Town and fend off the invading super mutants. Killing them completes the quest and all is well.
However, coming back to Big Town quite a while later reveals all the dead bodies still in the same place. It's awesome that they're there, but less than dynamic the Big Town people wouldn't want to get rid of these hulking monstrosities that would surely be creating a nasty smell and less than germ-friendly living environment.
The real problem here is while Bethesda have tried really hard to craft a dynamic world with consequence, they've left out some really simple (and completely obvious) stuff that would have gone a long way to creating an even deeper sense of suspended disbelief.
As I mentioned earlier, this might sound like nitpicking, but when you look at everything they've gotten right with Fallout 3 (and there's a lot, because the whole game and
experience is absolutely massive in scope, detail and execution), all of this just makes it feel somewhat short of an ultimate goal.
Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck
(or S.P.E.C.I.A.L.) is what builds your character's strengths and weaknesses in Fallout 3 and is a throwback to the system Black Isle Studios created for Fallout 1 and 2, many years ago. Each time you gain a level through accrued experience points you can govern skills and perks based on your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. It's an awesome skill-tree system that is equally changed throughout the game based on many factors and even in this modern day and age stands as an innovative system that reflects much of the game's overall aesthetic. You can check and adjust elements at any time through your supplied Pip-Boy 3000, a device you're given in Vault 101 by your Dad.
There are other annoying things, too. Sneaking around an enemy stronghold is fun, because being stealth is a huge factor in the game, but when you let loose an almighty blast from your sawed off shotgun and kill an enemy (at messy and fun close-range), with other enemies not even 10 meters off in the distance ignoring not only the blast, but the blood-curdling cry of the just-now fallen enemy, it kind of detracts from the intended realism.
You can break the law in as much the same way you could Oblivion. Break into people's houses, go through their stuff and take anything you want. You'll lose karma for being this sort of person and if you get caught, you may end up fighting for your life. But even in this seemingly free-form element there are poor moments of design. For example - sleeping, even for an hour
- will heal you. However, you're not allowed to sleep in an "owned bed", which is fine except even if you kill the bed's owner and are the only person in their house you can't sleep in their bed. And no matter how many times you come back to their now seemingly vacant property (with their body still there), they remain the owner of the bed and you simply aren't allowed to kip in it (which is really just stupidly frustrating).
Throughout the game there are diminutive moments like those mentioned above that rear their ugly, inconsistent heads (and ever-so clearly because of how polished the stronger portions of the game are). It's part of the problem with spending so much time on factors such as the incredibly detailed and well-presented landscape (though it's not always so post-apocalyptically picturesque with massive moments of pop-up, slow load ins and even huge hits in frame-rate) or the game's robust combat system. But ultimately these factors, while consistently annoying, don't stop the game from being an immensely enjoyable romp - I just believe a game that ignores so much that should be so obvious in the face of a clearly palpable goal should at least be recognised for its disappointing portions as much as its greatness.
And there is greatness here.
Being utterly overwhelmed
is one of Fallout 3's truly outstanding achievements even though it may seem like a detriment to the full experience at first. Once you embrace it the though, the true nature of the game quite literally comes to light. You have to keep reminding yourself; ultimately you're playing as someone who has been sheltered from the world - in its current form
- and its countless dangers and wonders your whole life.
The view as you emerge from Vault 101 is as enticing as it is daunting. Like Oblivion, you can literally travel to any part of the horizon you can see, and it's upon realising you have no idea what lies beyond the next dilapidated white picket fence just ahead let alone the beguiling collection of buildings way off in the distance, you really begin to understand the alluring nature of being overwhelmed in this horrifyingly ubiquitous wasteland.
There are many dangers about, not the least of which are made up of rabid dogs, mutated rats, creepy crawly half man, half centipede monsters, crab people
or massive blowflies.
Beyond the mutated wildlife of the "Capital Wasteland", you'll also find Super Mutants, Wastelanders, Ghouls and more. There are slave-traders (or "Slavers"), travelling salvagers and shops, various faction soldiers and more. And much of the time it's very difficult to discern friend from foe. Everyone in the world of Fallout 3 is out to look after themselves or their vested interests, and as such you'll always need to be on your toes.
Battle is made up of real-time confrontations with traditional RPG rules (percentage-based attacks, similar to those in Mass Effect) or a partial turn-based system called V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System).
VATS will likely wind up being your favourite way to play though, as it offers the most amount of protection (in that action pauses while you make your attack decisions), and can often end-up in an awesome display of (slow-motion) vulgar power. You can't always rely on VATS however, as the system is governed by AP (Action Points) which deplete with each attack decision meaning it also needs time to recover. Moreover, certain weapons use specific amounts of AP (bigger use more than smaller, for example), resulting in a smaller number of assisted shots. It can take a little bit to get used to, and you constantly need to remind yourself you're playing an RPG, not a shooter to avoid frustration every time you're sure you aimed directly at the baddy's head.
Its advantages far outweigh the depleting AP though, as you can target specific body parts, often allowing you to disarm or immobilise an enemy before killing them (or showing mercy). There are also moments when violence can
be avoided just by putting your weapon away. It can be a risky move, but in certain towns and encampments doing so can be the deciding factor between your head being hunted or welcomed with a smile.
Some towns you've messed up in can be left alone for a few days and revisited later with all previous issues left as water under the bridge. It's not as dynamic as it could have been, but a neat feature, nonetheless.
Being accepted into towns like Megaton is pretty important though. You'll find yourself constantly needing to sell items, repair items (at least until you can do it properly), heal yourself of radiation and the like (doctors can do it, but for a price) and buy new, better equipment. You can fast travel to discovered locations, which is a huge plus (given the overwhelming geometry of the game).
You can also just wait time out. There's a fairly dynamic day and night system, and it can get pretty dark at night - making it difficult to spot particular dangers. So, if it's safe enough (ie there's no threat in the area), you can just choose to waste any amount of time in a 24hr period. It's a good way to be able to travel through the day, or even speed up certain quests that require you to do something at a specific time.
There's an overall quest which is to find your father who escaped from Vault 101 just before you did, and through investigation, you'll constantly unlock new quests in an effort to find him. However, you also have the freedom to completely ignore your old man and just wonder about the wastes looking for your own destiny and fortune. Doing this will reveal countless hidden areas, dungeons, Vaults and more. Visting towns and talking to people also unveils much to be done, such as taking letters to relatives in a far off town, collecting information on the wastes and its inhabitants, exploring new areas, finding out persuasive bits of information, gathering up important people and handing them over to slaves, killing off various threats and lots, lots more.
You can also interact with a lot of stuff in the game that isn't mutated or human. As you gain in level in traditional RPG fashion (and distribute earned points to various skills and perks), you'll equally gain in the ability to work machinery, computers and more. Most computers you come across feature either information about the game-world or specific quests, otherwise they're used to gain access to locked safes or cool robots that more often than not go a bit haywire and help you out by killing hostiles.
There are also machines that can be switched in to just liven up the game's real-world interactivity, and if you pay particular attention, you'll find all sorts of hidden narrative goodies that flesh out the Fallout universe as a result.
Like most RPGs you'll gain in strength and equally come across better, stronger weapons to use. Everything in the game has a lifespan and like Oblivion you are bound by how much weight you can carry. It can be frustrating finding loot only to already be close to being over-encumbered. You can drink booze or take certain meds that give you more strength (and therefore raise the amount of weight you can carry), or if you're super patient, you can always remain over-encumbered and just crawl to the closest trader (to trade and barter to gain precious bottle-caps, the currency of the Fallout universe), but on the whole, finding and trading goods, is one of the most addictive elements of Fallout 3, and one of the reasons you'll find yourself wondering off with no real particular goal.
Speaking of addiction, one of the other cool factors of the game is despite being able to take meds to gain in strength or intelligence, you can also become addicted to them, and going through withdrawals is a real pain (especially at really inappropriate moments like right in the middle of a fight with Zombie Ghouls while low on health and ammo - and believe me, it will
happen). You'll even come across other characters in the game suffering the same addictions as you, and there are various quests that go toward shaping the sort of character you become (governed by gaining or losing Karma) directly through the game's available drugs that you can partake in. It's just another example of the sense of freedom and attempted realism Bethesda have invested in their title for you to lose yourself in.
In fact, all issues aside, you're going to lose yourself in all that Fallout 3 has to offer, simply because it just has so much.
25 hours into the game I'd barely moved beyond the area around Megaton because I was just having so much fun conquering as many of the side-quests I could find, and on top of this is just walking around and stumbling upon something you might never have even found if you hadn't been looking. Which brings the overall point of the game back to being overwhelmed - you could speak to every NPC out in the Capital Wasteland and still not discover everything on offer and it's in this area, Fallout 3 is borderline genius in scope and execution.
Like Oblivion it's very
likely Bethesda will release patches to fix many of the game's shortcomings, but its redeeming features are so vast and varied you're going to lose yourself, regardless. It's not the perfect game, but it does so much better than most, and despite a few early hiccups, the forethought and vision of the team at Bethesda has crafted an ever-lasting game that could potentially keep you playing this and only
this the entire holidays (and let's not forget the potential for expansions down the track, just as they offered for Oblivion with Shivering Isles
). If you love discovering, leveling, mutants, nuclear power, nuclear bombs, exploding heads, complete freedom, 50s nostalgia, stealing, helping, repairing, sneaking, cows with two udders, zombies, hacking computers and bottle-caps - you're going to love this.
(And then some.)