The world has gone to hell in a blinding puff of gamma radiation. Or rather, not quite our world, but The World of Tomorrow as it looked to late-’40s America, with its jumpsuits, nuclear-powered cars and bubble-headed robots.
Stepping from the safety of your underground complex for the first time, you see just how this vision of the future weathered the nuclear onslaught: the sounds of post-war music rasp from an old radio in a shattered diner; dust devils whip round a skeleton nestled at the base of a billboard advertising Vault-Tec fallout shelters; the company’s mascot, Vault Boy, peers out over the bleached landscape, winking and grinning. Fallout 3’s bleak, satirical mix of naïve futurology and post-war paranoia is fun, fearsome and utterly compelling, faithfully capturing the atmosphere of the series’ earlier games.
But as enticing as such snapshots are, slightly longer exposures to Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic RPG can prove less palatable – perhaps a fitting problem to have, given the irradiated setting. Five-minute slices of Fallout 3 show it at its absolute worst. Gormlessly unsympathetic to the player’s needs, the game is cumbersome in design and frequently incompetent in the details of execution.
With a stripped-down HUD, nearly all information, inventory and statistical management is remanded to the Pip-Boy 3000, a cramped retro screen mounted on your arm, with chunky dials and flickering green-on-black text. It’s an idea that probably sounded great to Bethesda’s artists, but overlooks the fact that computing has improved in usability over the last 50 years.
Colour, it turns out, is actually pretty useful – and trying to interpret the monochrome fuzz of Fallout 3’s maps and distinguish between markers is confounding at the best of times and at worst impossible, thanks to the fact that its cartography frequently doesn’t resemble your immediate surroundings.
Some of the more superficial problems will raise a giggle – like the physics bug which occasionally twangs mutant scorpions miles into the sky, or the robotic spasms of an NPC caught between dynamic response and scripted action. A climactic argument between two characters starts with the antagonists aborting multiple sentences of varying relevance before standing up awkwardly and forgetting to shoot at each other as designed. One nonetheless drops dead and his ragdoll corpse slithers down a ramp into plain sight of a group of villagers where it remains as they go about their daily business unperturbed. We immediately bring the grave news to a relative of the deceased, but he mysteriously already knows and, besides which, seems to react to the event with all the horror of someone discovering that a pint of milk has gone off.
Many of these foibles are shared by Bethesda’s previous epic RPG, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – a game riddled with nonsense but easily forgiven thanks to the depth of the world and the freedom to decide your path through it. Similarly, given a short time, Fallout 3 manages the same transition. Bugbears diminish in importance as meticulous character development and rich quest design grips the player.
Unlike Oblivion, which stymied its main quest-line with a repetitive slog through hellish realms, Fallout 3 keeps its most brilliant inventions for the central story. This begins in earnest when the player flees the cloistered order of Vault 101 to pursue his errant father into the wasteland – but other events quickly demand the player’s attention, from the personal problems of local townsfolk to the Super Mutant occupation of central DC.
As wastelands go, Washington’s is a surprisingly busy place, and the game contrives to distract you with meaty side-quests at every opportunity. The broad strokes are well considered, and the best recall the ingenious freedom that marked earlier Fallout games: an encounter with some slavers can find its resolution through complicity, violence, stealth or a fluid combination of all three; a group of cannibals prove to be much more open to reason than their grisly pursuits would suggest; mediating a land dispute between some over-privileged humans and their ghoulish neighbours gives the player several delightful avenues of self-expression.
The writing isn’t quite as consistent as the ideas that underpin it, however, and though dialogue trees rarely collapse into total logical failure, they do sometimes assume knowledge the player has yet to gain, and often have an unreal quality to them – as if human emotions had been explained to the writer secondhand.
Voice-acting is even less reliable, and though some of the robotic bit-parts prompt hearty chuckles, Malcolm McDowell seems to be the only main cast member at home here, albeit underused in his role as the sinister President Eden. Of course, there’s always the option to let your guns do the talking instead.
Fallout 3’s combat packs a decent heft, and the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System is a novel means of integrating shooter and RPG conventions, producing uniquely gruesome results to boot. Activating VATS switches from realtime combat to an action point system, allowing you queue up shots on multiple enemies and select individual limbs to attack, switching to a thirdperson camera to show severed heads cartwheeling from bodies in slow-motion geysers of blood.
It has its problems – rarely does the game give you reason to shoot anything but the head or torso, and the dynamic camera often produces less than cinematic results. It also seems to fall victim to parallax error: enemies that are easily visible in firstperson suddenly become obscured by scenery in VATS, as though the bullets do not fly from the same place on your thirdperson model.
For longer ranged weapons, like the scoped magnum, using VATS proves substantially less effective than shooting manually. Fallout 3 enjoys some of the benefits of being a slightly smaller game than Oblivion – it’s a more intensely designed world, and thanks to the concentration and thoughtful crafting of its quests the player never grinds.
These substantial boons aside, however, Bethesda treads water in most other areas of obvious improvement, and Fallout 3 is disappointing in its lack of finesse. But then submersion in this world means that you quickly look past the many frustrations – the uncanny NPCs, the occasional broken quest, the ill-conceived interface, the dozy voice-acting. It’s a game that rewards the long-haul with deep, inventive missions which eschew the usual fetch and kill structure, ensuring that the many hours spent in Fallout 3’s wasteland aren’t wasted.
This review originally appeared in E196, Christmas 2008.