Fallout 3

28 Oct 2008  by   Paul Younger
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I hate to depress everyone, but the credit crunch is biting hard, and capitalism is on its knees. It’s tempting to find a way to relieve the dark, depressing reality of modern life. How about a bit of joyful escapism to take your mind off everything? Wii Sports can be quite the tonic, you know. But there’s another way to get away from it all: remind yourself that, however bad the situation is, things could be a whole lot worse. Enter Fallout 3.

A post-apocalyptic United States is the happy, breezy setting for Bethesda’s latest time-sink. Mankind is on its knees, brought to the brink of extinction by nuclear war, irradiated by the landscape it’s destroyed. The remaining pockets of humanity are struggling to survive in shanty towns constructed entirely from scrap, or hiding out in the remnants of the country’s shattered cities, away from the Super Mutants, Ghouls, and other creatures marauding the Wastelands of the ravaged USA. Your character starts life as an infant being brought up by your scientist father in Vault 101 – a facility designed to keep a select few alive below the irradiated surface. No one can get in. No one can leave. At least, that’s what the Overseer would have everyone believe.

The stylish first hour of Fallout 3 sees you taking your first baby steps from childhood to adulthood. The RPG staple of assigning points to abilities (the usual mix of weapons, science, medical, luck, and so on), is made more interesting by the way it’s presented, firstly in a pre-school story book, and later by answering increasingly bizarre questions in a school exam. The Vault also introduces the dialogue tree system, where a variety of responses reflect either positively or negatively upon your character’s personality balance. In truth, this opening section gives an impression of concentrated ingenuity that rarely resurfaces in the rest of the game. Once your father escapes the Vault, and you resolve to follow him by getting out yourself (with potentially deadly consequences for one of the people you’ve been getting to know beforehand), a soon-to-become-familiar picture is established – one of often frustrating combat, and repetitive, confusing interiors.

Combat is a mix of the VATS (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System), and real-time shooting. The former is by far the more successful, but it’s not without its kinks. After holding RB to freeze the action, VATS allows you to use your limited Action Points to queue up attacks against specific body parts on a chosen enemy. Based on the distance from the enemy, the weapon used, and the area targeted, each attack has a specific percentage chance of succeeding, resulting in a cinematic mini cutscene with flashy levels of violence. Heads blow off, eyes roll across the floor, bodies ragdoll high into the air in slow-motion – it’s very pretty, if often gruesomely OTT.
VATS has two problems. The first is that its stats-based nature makes it quite possible to miss with a point-blank shotgun blast, which looks faintly ridiculous. The second is that your Action Points quickly run out after a few shots. You are therefore forced to use the real-time shooting while they recharge, which is twitchy, inaccurate, and subject to the same stats-crunching as the VATS percentages. Missing when you see the aiming reticule directly over an enemy’s head is even more annoying than a nailed-on 95% VATS flub. Unfortunately, as soon as Bethesda decided that real-time shooting was in, it chose to go up against the likes of Call of Duty and Halo, and Fallout 3’s attempt at FPS combat is markedly inferior.Escaping the darkness of the Vault, the sight of the ruined, post-apocalyptic landscape is comparable to the breathtaking money shot from Oblivion. Visually, Bethesda’s game engine has received a significant makeover. There’s still limited pop-in, but the juddering is all but gone, and the draw distance significantly upped. Given the vastness of the landscape, not all the textures are particularly sharp, but the art design of the Wastelands, with their destroyed beauty, faded advertising, and pre-war relics, is fantastic.
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If only the same could be said of the interior sections. Many of Fallout 3’s quests are of the “fetch” variety (unfortunately, few match up to the high watermark of Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood). Some jobs are relatively simple, while others expand into multi-layered, multi-hour quests as new objectives get added. While traversing the vast Wastelands to reach a new area is tense, if time-consuming (the ability to fast travel to already discovered areas is a godsend), navigating the interiors (dungeons by any other name) can be intensely annoying. The map system, which lays your objective marker on a flat plane with no indication of whether it’s above or below you, works fine outdoors. However, when making your way around what can only be described as a repetitive, grimy maze of corridors, it’s easy to end up with absolutely no idea where you’re meant to be going. The indoor environments repeat in various guises throughout the world, too, which soon results in a sinking feeling every time you open yet another door that leads underground.

The NPCs are a mixed bag. The conversation system from Oblivion is recycled here – close-up talking heads reciting stilted dialogue ever so slowly (it’s no wonder that subtitles are on by default – you’ll want to skip much of the voice acting) – and while some of the characters are interesting, others have little to say of note, and many repeat each other’s lines when on a particular quest path. Stats-based attempts at persuasion replace Oblivion’s dialogue minigame when needed, with mixed results. All this is rather dated when you consider the likes of Mass Effect’s dialogue options, and your contact with other characters is mostly used as a means to an end rather than something to enter into for the fun of it. Attempts at humour fall flat, whether due to poor line delivery or mediocre writing. The dialogue system just isn’t as good as it should be.

Survival is realistically harsh. The currency in the world is bottle caps and, in order to get enough of them to afford the ammo and medical supplies you need, you’ll need to scavenge areas for various bits of scrap, food and items. These can then be sold to traders, who’ll buy any old tat. If you carry too much, though, you won’t be able to run, so balancing your inventory is an act of micro-management. You’ll also have to cope with the debilitating effects of radiation sickness, since most of the food and water you come across is irradiated, as well as parts of the landscape itself. The menu system is handled by your Pip-Boy 3000 handheld device – accessible via the B button – which successfully integrates what could have been a clunky system into the feel and font of the game. With the 360 controller’s triggers switching between various functions on its monochromatic green display, it’s another example (to follow the likes of Dead Space) of a developer exploring innovative designs beyond the concept of a standard pause menu.

Levelling is handled differently to Oblivion, with the various geographical areas having fixed levels, rather than all the enemies within them powering up with you. This leads to problems with the difficulty balancing – it’s very easy to wander into an area that you’re hopelessly unprepared for, filled with super-powered enemies. NPCs won’t warn you against entering an area with tooled-up nasties, so it’s real trial and error stuff – certain quests that you can gain access to early on are exceedingly difficult to complete without a levelled-up character. Effectively, you’re funnelled down linear paths in the game – yes, you can choose to do story missions or one of the many side-quests, but straying from where you’ve been told to go isn’t advisable, which fights against the open world nature of the game. The levelling system does enable you to run riot later in the game against tougher enemies, which is sweet revenge to a degree, and everything becomes easier once your character gets more powerful.

Fallout 3 is a big game. With a main storyline that can take up to thirty hours to complete, along with a multitude of side-quests, there’s enough content to satisfy anyone. It’s a shame that the combat, dialogue system, and some of the level design don’t display similar ambition. When the game works – the Vault introduction, the Waltons-gone-wrong fantasy level, fighting alongside surprisingly clever AI comrades – it’s fantastic. But when you’re lumbering around yet another sewer, aiming like Stevie Wonder, wondering where the hell to go next, it’s clunk city. There’s enough content here to make you play until the real Apocalypse if you fall in love with the game world, but fun isn’t always high on the agenda. Then again, maybe joyful escapism is overrated.

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