Fallout 3

BY Michael Ubaldi  //  November 7, 2008

Armageddon ain't the end.


ethesda Softworks, on its 2004 announcement of having purchased rights to the Fallout franchise, undertook two obligations. The first, developing a title with satisfying fidelity to the post-apocalyptic adventures published by Interplay Games; and the second, transposing Black Isle Studios' paned and paneled RPG to the titanic scale model established in Morrowind two years earlier and corroborated two years later by the release of Oblivion. Bethesda's Fallout 3 appends several chapters of steep canon, so isn't definitive. But lessons and wisdom of sandbox roleplaying have been applied well in this turn from The Elder Scrolls. If experiential value is under judgment, Fallout 3 could be superlative.

It doesn't evoke fascination
so much as awe.
The game opens in high tradition. Visuals are a blend of heavy machinery and mid-century kitsch under a sepia filter, the stuff of vandal-punk. Ron Perlman, in voiceover, introduces the obliterated world order. But Bethesda's work swiftly interleaves. Character creation begins at birth, literally, from the eyes of a newborn delivered within a massive, underground fallout shelter. Cries the player character's father, provided by Liam Neeson, It's a — boy or girl? What shall we name this little child? A spitting image of Dad, obscured by a surgical mask, the baby will look like — what? The scene shifts, and Bethesda brings players to the next of four milestones in the character's formative years, personalizing the creation process and intensifying a player's bond to Fallout's world and its occupants from the start.

Bethesda chose the inevitable vault egress to be urgent, serving the story's primary conflict; and a little dangerous, in order to test the use of combat skills. Skirmishes in corridors should trigger a little nostalgia for Oblivion, but will also manifest the familiar shortcomings of dramatic scenes carried out in the Gamebryo engine. Were it a play, lines and blocking would betray a lack of rehearsal; it's a little frenetic and absurd. All of this exposes a lack of polish evident in NPC interactions throughout the game and may shock the player expecting better from Bethesda. It took at least a few hours for my own impression of Fallout 3 to be redeemed.

Much of a player's slowness to enjoy the game may come from the subtlety, even the reticence, of Fallout 3's environment. Oblivion and Morrowind excited players by overwhelming them with the immensity of a countryside and flush volume of quests. Instead of looming mountains and efflorescence, the outside world left by nuclear war immediately reveals no more than barren rocks, skeletal towers and ruined structures beneath a maize-colored sky. Inhabitants of Megaton, the game's closest and most carefully built city, offer just a few quests themselves — and non-quest NPCs are downright standoffish.

But Fallout 3's appeal runs inversely to the other series, not evoking fascination so much as awe. Perhaps as an exploratory game should, it yields depth as players travel, explore and investigate. Quests aren't as arbitrary or trivial or dispersed as in Oblivion; they thread subplots and contribute to the larger picture. And, too, players are welcome to lose themselves in a narrative of geography.

Oblivion's hills and forests were beautiful but quotidian, and quickly lost any visual significance. But Fallout 3's landscape menaces from all angles. No wonder — 200 years beyond The Day After, every ridge and undulation, every object, is a remnant — a perversion — of Western civilization. Hills are upthrown city blocks. Ridges are capsized superhighways. Canyons are parched basins. Obstructions consist of immolated modern amenities: houses, vehicles, markets, malls, high-rises, monuments, fast-food joints. Organic or metallurgic, decomposition is chilling. Everything in sight begs introspection. At the same time, Fallout 3's soundtrack, sparse and elemental like Philip Glass, plays as if the composer were instructed to depict a scene where the only constant movement is wind over debris.

Let them taunt you.
VATS evens the odds.
Yet life persists — oh, and much of it is unfriendly. Encounters demand the ability to respond to a variety of circumstances, long or short range as determined within mere seconds of chance. Wild dogs, mutated fauna and humanoids populate the land. A lot of humans, meanwhile, suffer from the more common devolution of criminality — wasteland raiders, directly out of post-apocalyptica, and enjoyably so. Showily dressed in industrial flotsam and playing for keeps, which is to say, scalps or worse, raiders yell war cries and insults — a brutish arrogance that is a pleasure to confound.

When a character must defend himself, his deadliness is controlled and magnified with an inherited piece of equipment called the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS. Time is halted, and a player may, using periodically replenished action points, target an enemy precisely, incapacitating or even ending the battle in one blow with well-placed strikes. I learned this a few hours in, assuming fights were to be managed freehand; Bethesda failed to promote Fallout 3's finest feature as strongly as it deserves. VATS isn't merely a freeze-frame tribute to the punctilious combat rules for GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System on which the Fallout series' game mechanics are loosely based. It rewards the culmination of character refinement while keeping battles tactically complex and dependably fun.

Combat and its consequences answer to a rigorous set of checks and balances. Players may not simply cast a spell and heal, but must use consumables — many of them irradiated and costing a physical price until one's radioactivity, gauged alongside health, can be ameliorated. Ammunition is neither plentiful nor always matching the caliber of gun currently holstered. Early in the game, players will have run across many melee weapons and firearms. If the instinct is to simplify and husband a cherished few, heed advice to resist.

But resource management is a benefit of play, not only contributing to a certain realism but supporting what I claim is the most balanced material economy in a video game. Fallout 3 has limitations on item value (nothing's worth the whole shebang) and currency (merchants only carry so many of the local coin) that prevent the kind of wealth that removes the charm of roleplaying games. Scarcity ensures a durable sense of value and worth — obtainable homemade weapons don't hurt, either.

Hello, chil-l-l-ldren: Galaxy News
Radio and the Brotherhood of Steel
fight the good fight.
Bethesda achieves powerful immersion. In spite of a grave setting and erubescent carnage, Fallout 3 is neither macabre, like, say, Dead Space; nor morbid, like Half-Life 2; but rather base, simple and savage. The Mad Max trilogy presented a post-apocalyptic world but focused tightly on the honorable loner Max Rockatansky, leaving the wild milieu as background by implication. Fallout 3 offers many days in the life of a Rockatansky, and players may be surprised by how quickly their play style trends toward the collected pragmatism of survival. When one takes a few restorative sips of irradiated water from a stained, ancient sink before calmly bedding down in a cot once occupied by the raider who drew her machine pistol on sight and now lies crumpled in a still heap, there in the decrepit basement of an elementary school — well, that is an experience.

In the face of this endures warmth, levity and hope. Players have two alternatives to Fallout 3's soundtrack — a ghostly loop of banal patriotic tunes or Galaxy News Radio, a channel playing ballads and early rockabilly, hosted by Three Dog, the unflappable and proselytical beatnik. With sharp gallows humor, Three Dog leads vigilantes carrying on "The Good Fight" and, with sources reaching far, broadcasts a player character's accomplishments as they occur. This dynamic relationship is substantiated when players finally meet Three Dog, for better or worse.

But even Three Dog isn't the only one convinced that good will remains a desolate society's expectorant. This may surprise. To preserve sanity, the human mind regards eschatology under the caption of permanence — Armageddon should be decisive — and yet survivors forbear, acting out of more than instinct. A scatterbrained tinker insists that her work is for renewal, putting it this way: if the world shattered like glass, though shards can be reassembled, their product never comfortably resembles what it once was. Why not reconstitute the pieces as something else?

So Bethesda infuses its gritty and grim roleplaying game with a compelling mission in an ironic twist: not much hangs in the balance, the earth's sentence long since already passed. No clash of gods, no bombast, only heroism. Sic transit gloria mundi? Yes and no.

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