Writer’s note: At the time of this writing, Fallout 3 is a bit buggy on all platforms, and extra buggy on the PS3. I do not wish to neglect these issues, but for the time being they are not featured in the review. If the first patch for the game does not fix many of these issues, I will bring them up in a future piece, but I wish to avoid talking about bugs at the moment as it takes away some of the timelessness of a review. Fallout 2 was broken in many ways upon release, and no one talks about that these days.
We here at videolamer strive to provide timely reviews for major releases. The bad news is that juggling real life responsibilities and funding our own gaming budgets makes this a challenge. The good news is that each year the industry makes meeting this challenge less and less critical, since every year it becomes plagued with an even stronger case of Hype Fever.
There is almost no point in reading fresh reviews, because you know the general opinion on anything with a 90 average or better is going to drop dramatically four months later. In the case of Fallout 3, this hasn’t happened yet, but allow us to get the ball rolling.
Bethesda has managed to make a fine game, one that “feels” more like Fallout than many of us expected. Of course, that means it isn’t precisely Fallout, which causes the game to both succeed and fail in various ways. In addition, your enjoyment on a whole depends greatly on a few crucial factors, one being how long you choose to play. Oblivion with guns? Not quite, but it may at least cause some flashbacks.
First, let us dispense with the comparisons to the old games. Bethesda took the original stat system and made some major tweaks. Base stats like Strength and Perception affect your performance with the various skills and weapons differently than they once did, while the list of skills itself has been cut down. I can understand eliminating something like Outdoorsman, but I am sad to see the loss of Gambling (which was great to exploit for money), First Aid (which could be used for a quick and free heal), and Steal (pickpocketing is now determined by Sneak, which would have been a worthless trait on its own, since stealth movement is rarely worth it).
The diminished number of skills means there is less worry about spreading your points out, though this in turn changes how tagging works. A tagged skill now gives you a mere 15 extra points at the start, and will not improve at twice the normal rate. Traits and Perks are now condensed into just Perks, which are given once per level (none of them are detrimental). What devastating effect does this have on the game? Not much, to be honest.
The bottom line is that many of the Perks give you bonus skill points, the rest being more unique character enhancements like the ones found in the past games. It is likely you will spend most of your Perks choosing the former, thus making your selection of the latter about on par with Fallout 1 and 2. My only issues with the new system are that weapon skills get a bit too powerful by the time they’re in the 50’s, and that some of the Perks are cute but unnecessary. When there’s no need to drink irradiated water, having a resistance to it is only worthwhile if you are a hardcore roleplayer.
More drastic than the skill changes is the new combat system. As you may have heard by now, Fallout 3 uses realtime combat, salvaging a few ideas from the old turn based system and putting them into the V.A.T.S. targeting mode. V.A.T.S. allows you to spend action points in order to target enemy body parts, pausing the combat while you choose your attacks, and keeping you invincible while performing them. With enough Action Points, a high level character can wipe out a party of Raiders without having to fire a shot in real time. Using V.A.T.S. is fun (its cinematic camera makes kills quite visceral), but it is also crucial in order to strike powerful blows without being overwhelmed by enemy fire.
Fun as it is, V.A.T.S. is ultimately a parting gift, an attempt to inject a bit of old school flavor into a much weaker, newer combat sysetm. The turn based setup ensured that you thought out every choice you made, since you were at everyone else’s mercy once you spent your Action Points, and everything, including movement, cost points.
Meanwhile, combat in realtime allows you to move for free; the significance of this change cannot be overstated. Now you can find cover, reload from safety, and flank you enemy in order to get up close. Even the lowliest Vault Dweller with the starting pistol can lop off heads from three feet away, and getting this close in Fallout 3 is rarely a chore. There are only two situations I can think of in which the combat could prove lethal to the player: at the start, when ammo is low and quality weapons are nowhere, or if your character is completely unspecced for combat of any sort.
Such easy combat doesn’t necessarily lead to boredom, since kills are as satisfying as ever. What it does mean is that leveling up is a breeze. Combine frequent combat with Super Mutants with a healthy dose of lockpicking or computer hacking, and you may find yourself cruising to level 20. I reached it with roughly 20-25% of the major wasteland sites left unvisited, with barely any of the main quest finished. Increasing the difficulty doesn’t help either, since that causes you to gain even more experience. Exploring close to 100% of the wasteland is quite possible, but doing so is absolutely unnecessary. The quests aren’t necessary to level, and the sense of fear and wonder during exploration will fade when you’re essentially invincible.
I don’t like the idea of telling anyone how to play Fallout, since it is against the series’ ideals, but as soon as you get close to 20, drop what you’re doing and wrap up the main quest. Leave the unexplored regions for your next time through. It will enhance replayability, and will allow you to complete it in a reasonable amount of time.
And really, you do want to complete it in a reasonable amount of time. You can spend dozens of hours exploring Fallout 3 in a single playthrough. In a community that constantly prizes the hours-to-price ratio, we demand this, and from a developer like Bethesda, we expect it. But it isn’t the way it should be played. Fallout 1 was a very short game, and I know for a fact I did not see (or desire to see) every acre of Fallout 2 on my first run. Neither game was meant to be explored from head to toe, but were meant to be whatever you wanted them to be.
Fallout 3 is no different, it just seems so based on our own perceptions. In the last ten years RPGs have only reinforced the idea of playing them like OCD shut ins, and the rise of RPG-like leveling systems in other genres helped bolster this nasty habit. At the end of the day, Fallout 3 isn’t that much different from its ancestors. You can still slaughter on a town-wide scale. You can still pickpocket and lockpick like a fiend. The main quest can be completed rather quickly, and accommodates most character builds, while the sidequests allow you to pad out the length to your heart’s content. And if you find yourself constantly using Fast Travel, you aren’t acting any differently from how you did back in 1998.
If Fallout 3 falls short as a sequel, it is due to some elements being less potent. Combat, humor, and a lack of hobbies like gambling and child killing (if you’re evil) all take away some of the charm. But in the big picture, most of the game’s negatives can be translated from “this is a flaw” to “this is what Fallout did the last two times.” You can condemn it for not fixing these problems with the help of a decade’s worth of knowledge and technology. Or you can take off the rose tinted glasses and realize that maybe the series isn’t quite as good as you thought.
Yet another idea is that Fallout 1 and 2 really were amazing, because their strengths greatly overshadowed their weaknesses, and that Fallout 3 follows incredibly closely to their footsteps. Or maybe it falls short due to failed execution. I know what I feel (hint: I chose option 3), but this is Fallout. The choice is yours to make.
Depending on how you view the game, this is either a Game of the Year candidate, something very good, or an atrocious piece of shit. Playing off something said by Bethesda themselves, when you make the call, try to be nice. Or don’t.