10 March 2010

Review: Fallout 3

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Other than Spore, which I played briefly (but intensely!) last year, and occasional multiplayer games when I visited with friends, Fallout 3 is the first serious single player game that I have played in a very long time. I used to be extremely addicted to video games, and for most of undergrad and grad school I had steered clear of them because I felt like I couldn’t afford the time.

But finally, this past christmas I decided I was ready to dive back into the gaming world with an XBox 360. I did my homework, and discovered a bunch of great games that had come out in the last few years for XBox360, and I got several of them for Christmas. Fallout3 just happened to be the first one I played.

Let me get this out of the way up front: Fallout 3 is one of the best games I have ever played. After years of starving myself from video games, Fallout 3 was like a ten-course meal from the finest chefs. I was always a sucker for role-playing games with their rich worlds, interwoven plots and sub-plots, the constant search for better equipment and of course, creating and leveling up a character.

Fallout 3 has this in spades. Let me start with the world, which is definitely the strongest part of the game. Fallout 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC and its environs, 200 years after a devastating nuclear war wiped most of civilization off the map. Using DC as a setting was a brilliant move, because it has so many iconic locations. There’s something simultaneously thrilling and disturbing about walking around the Mall amidst the ruins of the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian museums, and the Washington Monument. Later in the game I went searching for the White House and found that the only thing left was a radioactive rubble pile. The Pentagon and the Jefferson memorial are major locales in the plot, and there is a side-quest to help a group of slaves retake the Lincoln Memorial from a group of slavers and make it into a beacon of freedom.

It’s not just sightseeing downtown though. One of the major strengths of the game is the huge expanse of the “Capitol Wasteland” that you can explore. It’s great fun to just wander the wasteland and see what you find. There are hundreds of unique landmarks in the wasteland, and each of them is related to one of the dozens of quests in the game. And the attention to detail in each location is stunning. It’s also more than scenery: there are people. Memorable characters are scattered throughout the game, and most of the time, if you say the right things, you find that they could use your help with something. And of course, like most RPGs, even simple requests can grow into multi-stage quests that lead you to unexpected locations and into confrontations with unexpected foes.

A screenshot of the Lone Wanderer in the capitol wasteland, with his companion Dog Meat. (Yes, you can actually get a pet dog, and no you have no choice about his name.)

I particularly liked that most of the quests had multiple ways to complete them. Do you kill the raiders, or sleuth around to find and alleviate the cause of their raids? Do you rat out the snake oil salesman, or take him aside and convince him to stop cheating people? Do you blow up the town, or disable the bomb, or do neither? Most of the quests have clear “good” and “evil” choices, but there are a fair number where the right choice isn’t always so evident, including some of the more important quests in the main story.

The story itself is pretty good, and could be completed pretty quickly if one were so inclined, but I dragged it out, pursuing almost every side quest I could find. The voice acting is very good for a video game, and I was surprised to see that Liam Neeson is the voice of the main character’s father. The story begins with the father disappearing mysteriously and the main character setting out to find him. Eventually you do, and get caught up in a project that has been in the works since before the main character’s birth, and which leads to conflict with the Super Mutants who have taken over much of the ruins of Washington, and the Enclave, who have used their superior military technology to take over what remains of the government.

The prevailing culture of the Fallout 3 world before the war was similar to the 1950s, and everything from the propaganda posters to the cars, to the signs on the front of stores recalls this era. It may seem surprising in a post-apocalyptic game, but there is actually a decent amount of humor in Fallout 3 and much of it is based on the incongruity of quaint, optimistic relics of a 1950s culture and the “reality” of the Capitol wasteland. I particularly enjoyed the Vault Dweller’s surival guide, which you can browse here.

Of course, no game is perfect. I had a few minor complaints, the first being the targeting system and the gore. When fighting enemies (which tends to happen frequently), the easiest way to aim is to use the built-in targeting system, which freezes time, zooms in on the enemy and allows you to select which part of their body to shoot, and gives a likelihood in percent that you will hit that point. This is very handy, but it results in a slow-motion cinematic view of the shots being fired. This was really cool the first few times, but after a while I had two problems with it. First, I don’t really need to see every single shot in slow-motion, but I’d like to still be able to use the targeting system. Second, slow-motion means you get to see the blood and gore in excruciating detail. Every. Single. Time. I don’t really need to see heads exploding in that sort of detail, but there is no option either to speed up the replays or to reduce the level of gore.

Another complaint was that the variety of enemies was somewhat lacking. There are a few broad groups of enemies that you encounter in the game: super mutants, feral ghouls (radiation-induced zombies), raiders (humans gone bad), and enclave (high-tech soldiers), and mutated (a.k.a. giant) animals. That’s pretty much it. It would’ve been nice to see a little more diversity. Ugly and green though they are, after killing the hundredth super-mutant, I was looking for something else.

A final complaint is that the level cap is too low. Even with the Game-of-the-Year expansions, which increase the level cap to 30, I maxed out while there was still plenty left to do in the game. On the one hand, it was fun to be so powerful that I didn’t have to worry about most battles, but it made the end of the game somewhat anticlimactic to be able to kill everyone without breaking a sweat. It would be nice if there were levels enough for all of the available experience in the game, and if the difficulty of battles scaled to the player’s level a little better.

A screenshot showing the targeting system and a super mutant. I'll spare you a shot of the gore that is about to follow.

And finally, this wouldn’t be a Martian Chronicles review if I didn’t say something about the science. In this case, I think the game’s developers underestimated the ability for nature to take over once humans are out of the picture. The wasteland depicted is populated by yellowish grass and a few species of mutated animal, but we know what it looks like when a place is irradiated and then abandoned by humans: just go to Chernobyl. Only 24 years after the disaster, Chernobyl has become a haven for wildlife. Although there is some evidence of low birth rates compared to animals outside the exclusion zone, it’s still clear that many species have returned to the area and plants appear to be doing fine. If you look at the chilling pictures of the Chernobyl buildings now, they look a lot like the settings in Fallout 3, which is supposed to be 200 years after a nuclear disaster. Of course, it is never specified how extreme the destruction was in Fallout 3, but since many of the downtown buildings are partly intact, I think the game overestimated the effects of radiation on the surroundings. If 200 years had actually passed, instead of the Capitol Wasteland, a more accurate name would probably be the Capitol Forest, and I suspect the buildings would be even more degraded than they are depicted. For more on how nature would recover if humans were to disappear, I highly recommend the non-fiction book The World Without Us.

This photograph of a classroom in the Chernobyl exclusion zone 20 years after the disaster looks a lot like many of the locations in Fallout 3, which is supposed to be 200 years after a nuclear war.

I won’t go into a critique of the other science issues in the game. I talked in my lasers post about the problems with using them as weapons so I won’t repeat that here. I will point out that if you peruse the remains of the Smithsonian museums, you do actually find scraps of accurate information about astronomy and history among other things (you’ll also find lots of made-up information about the alternate future of the Fallout 3 world).

All in all, Fallout 3 is an excellent game. It is also incredibly addictive, and it is huge enough to keep you busy for at least a hundred hours, if not more. To give you some idea just how big it is, I started a new game after finishing my original game (in which I did my best to explore as much as possible), and played for more than a week doing quests and exploring locations that I hadn’t ever encountered with my first game. I probably still would be if I wasn’t in Texas for a month.

I highly recommend Fallout 3, and I can’t wait to get lost in some of the other RPGs by the same company.