Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 (360)
Fallout 3's greatest accomplishment isn't that it has an incredible atmosphere. It isn't that it has an interesting game world to explore and inhabit. It isn't how relatively free and non-linear it is. No, Fallout 3's greatest accomplishment is that it lives up to the first game in the series. I wouldn't say that Fallout 3 is as good today as Fallout 1 was back in 1997, but it's still a fantastic game despite some problems that keep it from being as good as it should have been.
I've now finished Fallout 3 twice. In a row. I rarely start a game all over once I've finished it for the first time, so I think this speaks to the quality and unique-ness of Fallout 3, how engrossing and compelling it is. Even the first Fallout can't match the way this game feels and makes you feel: wandering a post-nuclear war wasteland at night with strange creatures attacking you; making your way through the ruins of downtown Washington, D.C., trading assault rifle fire with hulking mutants while your radio plays old 1940s music; making use of the V.A.T.S. mode to shoot a town mayor's head off...Fallout 3 is a game of singular delights and moods. Bethesda rightly stayed closer to the 'feel' of Fallout 1 rather than Fallout 2 when developing this game, keeping the mixture of "bleak post-nuclear war humanity surviving tooth and nail" and "silly, retro 1950s scifi" at a perfect level.
As much as I love Fallout 3, it is a flawed game. Deeply flawed in some ways, in fact. The most nagging thing about the game is ultimately how little freedom you're truly given insofar as the main quest arc is concerned. You're railroaded down the same path no matter if you play the game as an evil sociopath or a saint, and the difference between the endings isn't meaningful enough to matter. Though, as I said, Fallout 3 does an excellent job with atmosphere and the world, it often fails to not seem game-y. From the lock picking and hacking mini-games to the way certain story specific characters are literally unkillable (the fact that you can kill 90% of the characters in the game makes their invulnerability all the more absurd) to the way the V.A.T.S. system combat is stupidly easy but trying to shoot in real time makes it ridiculously clunky, Fallout 3 generally fails to really put you in the game.

Add to this the general freeze/crash bugs that you'll encounter, and it's very clear that this was a Western developed game. For as much as the Japanese have fallen behind the West in terms of general game quality, innovation, and playability, they at least have the good grace to test the hell out of their games and better make you forget you're playing a game. It's always a little disappointing when you need to 'save crawl' (that is to say, constantly saving/loading to get past obstacles) but when you have to do this because you're afraid the game will crash again, it becomes 'infuriating' instead of 'a little disappointing.' Moreover, due to the above game-y elements, you can always see the stitching that holds the world together. It's the subtle difference between watching a movie and seeing people acting out characters/plots and watching a movie but seeing a story unfold instead.
This next paragraph or two will seem like vicious nitpicking, so let me preface by saying that I love Fallout 3 and I think everyone should at least give it a try. Its problems are ignorable and overcome-able because it is, for the most part, very, very fun and unique. Now, then...

Fallout 3 is an RPG that I don't think was play balanced well. Maybe this isn't as important in single player experiences, but certain aspects of Fallout 3's gameplay systems are broken. As in the previous Fallout titles, certain items, weapons, skills, and Perks are far more useful than others. In fact, it seems like the ones that were essential in the original games are pointless here--I never noticed much difference between leveling up Small Arms and not touching it at all (and yes, I was using weapons designated as being under Small Arms). Worst of all is the Repair skill, though. I wish developers would realize that breakable, fatigue-able equipment and weapons are never fun even if it makes the game more realistic. In order to repair things in Fallout 3, you either need to find/carry around additional copies of said items/weapons or pay NPCs to do it for you. I almost always ended up going with the latter choice, since you are limited as to how much weight you can carry; keep in mind that only certain NPCs can repair stuff, and the population of Fallout 3 is sparse and spread out. You might find yourself needing to backtrack across the map to get your machine gun repaired so it does better-than-crap damage. Sure, the game has a fast travel feature, but backtracking is still backtracking.

I mentioned earlier that some NPCs are unkillable. This may make me sound like a psychopath, but: why is it that I can't kill children in Fallout 3?? I can set off an atomic bomb that wipes out a town with children in it, but when I get to a cavern which is occupied by/run by children, I can't touch 'em. This isn't a function of me being a human monster who gets off on killing kids. No, it's that the children in the town are absolute jerks to you even if you're playing a Good character. You'll quickly get tired of them calling you 'Mungo' over and over at least. If it were a town of adults behaving this way, I'd never finish any quests there because I'd end up murdering them all every time.

As for the other unkillable characters, yes, killing your Dad would cause 70% of the plot to have to be re-written into a different scenario, but Fallout 3 is a game that advertises itself so heavily as about player choice in an open ended game world that it seems like a cop-out. As soon as you're dropped in to Fallout 3's world it quickly begins limiting choices and 'open'-ness. Just as the more similar you are to someone the more the small differences between you seem stark and huge, the more a game approaches non-linearity and freedom the more its limitations and linearity stand out. You can rob people blind in Fallout 3, take all of the things from their house/room which you lock-picked into, yet you aren't allowed to sleep in their bed even if they're dead or gone. Why?? After a certain point in the game, you're forced to work with the Brotherhood of Steel even if you prefer their Outcast counterparts. Why?? In order to see most of the content in the game, you have to wander around aimlessly to discover towns and areas that open up quests you otherwise would never see. Since the only appeal of wandering around is the atmosphere of the wasteland and the hope of discovering something, why not give your character a 'map' of the area but still require him/her to walk there before they're allowed to fast travel?? Yes, it's more realistic if you are walking for five minutes without much to do, but it's not any fun from the player's perspective.

I think I need to rope this review back in because it's become way more negative than I wanted it to be. Let me state again that Fallout 3 is an excellent game and I had a blast playing it through twice. But as good as it is, it has flaws and problems. One assumes its financial and critical success will ensure a sequel. Hopefully Bethesda learned a lot from Fallout 3 and the next one will be as much of a masterpiece as Fallout 3 should have been.

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