Not Quite Nirvana: A Look at Fallout 3

Title: Fallout 3

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Platform: PC (my specs below)

Intel Core 2 Duo 6750 OC’d to 3.0 ghz
4 GB DDR2 (CAS 15)
Nvidia 8800 GTS 512 (some minor OCing here too)
Resolution: 1680×1250
Windows Vista Ultimate, 64 bit

Progress: 20+ hours on normal, not yet finished the main quest.

Performance: Solid throughout.  I didn’t do any true benchmarking; I’m not anal enough to monitor my frickin’ FPS all the time.  I only noticed some occasional  chug in areas with complex lighting.  Settings are on high with 2x AA and (I think) 8x AF.  I’m sure additional tweaking on my part could get things running a bit smoother.  A more modern GPU (Radeon 4870, or 4850, or the newest nivdia chips) should not struggle at all with this game.

Review: I’m addicted to Fallout 3.  When I’m not playing it, I’m thinking about and when I am playing time seems to just disappear.  It has been a long time since a game has done that to me.  Stalker, came close but it never dominated my out of game thoughts quite as much as Fallout 3 does.  That being said I’m going to jump into the negative aspects first because they are there, and they’re glaring.  While the game certainly deserves praise for its entertainment value, art direction, and sheer detail I find the mound of perfect/near perfect reviews a bit embarrassing.

If you’ve played Oblivion you know that Bethesda excels at creating expansive worlds full of detail.  At the same time you probably also know that they are absolutely terrible at character.  Poor dialogue, lifeless NPCs, and stiff character animation are all problems that Oblivion had and they’re problems that haven’t gotten any better in Fallout 3.  All three of those things actually are so glaringly bad that if I were part of the dev team I’d be a bit embarrassed.  The animation in particular is a constant barrier to total immersion; your PC behaves more like an action figure on strings than anything else.  NPC pathfinding isn’t always perfect either twice within the first half hour I saw NPCs get in one another’s way, though I haven’t seen the same happen since.

NPCs still feel like, well NPCs.  Having played the opening parts of Far Cry 2, and even having played through Half-Life 2, it’s still a shame that NPCs in Fallout 3 feel more like interactive props than actual simulacrums of people.  Enemy AI is a mixed bag but is weighted heavily toward the stupid.  Human (and robot) AI in particular is bad and tend towards charging and swarming lacking any kind of tactics.  They are smart enough to run away on occasion, though that only makes my job of slaughtering them without mercy that much easier.  Frequently it is easy to fire a few potshots, then duck around a corner to lay in wait combat shotgun at the ready for when the enemy inevitably follows you.  I haven’t had this tactic fail yet (against human opponents) so that should tell you something about how the AI works (at least on normal, I don’t know if things are any better on harder difficulties).

I saw on the net somewhere an interesting, and I think valid though nitpicky, criticism.  Previous iterations of the Fallout series had a clear distinction between current society and past society.  Stumbling into old military bases in Fallout or Fallout 2 was really like stumbling into a completely different world and it was an experience that engendered a sense of wonder.  Some of that is lost in Fallout 3.  There is a uniformity to the landscape and environments as you wander the wastes that make that distinction entirely less clear.  The world is diverse and extremely detailed but that sense of uniformity strips the game of the piecemeal charm that marked earlier entries.  Fallout 3 is more accessible than any of its forbears, including Oblivion, but there is a cost.

For some great example of my above criticisms (dialogue and uniformity in particular) I recommend you check out the early play through of the beginning sections over at No Mutants Allowed .  You’ll have to read around the obvious disdain of a longtime Fallout veteran, but there is an interesting turn around in tone by th end of the piece.

Criticisms asside none are enough to ruin my enjoyment of the game, nor lessen the fevered enthusiasm that it engenders.  Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is the game’s “wow” moments.  The first big one occurs the first time you step out of the vault and see it spread out before you.  Others are scattered throughout the game: the first time you catch the patchwork remnants of the Washington Monument, or the first time you enter the Great Chamber in Little Lamplight.  The game will constantly impress not only with its sense of grand scale but also its attention to minute details.

As much as both Fallout and Fallout 2 hold special places in my heart I must admit that the move to real time is a welcome one.  As much as I enjoy turn based combat it has never been a perfect system and it certainly lacks the accessibility of a real-time environment.  Fallout 3, despite its real-time combat never really feels like a first-person shooter and in those rare instance it does it feels likes some of the better slower paced tactical/stealthy FPS games (N.O.L.F. comes to mind).  The shift away from an FPS feel is mostly the result of the VATS system that lets you pause the game to target different parts of an enemy.  Not only is it a cool, flashy effect but opens up the combat in the game quite a bit.  Unfortunately it doesn’t do as well with melee combat, you can’t target individual body parts with a melee attack in VATS, a slight that I’d like to see changed.  All in all the shift to real time makes playing the game, and especially immersing oneself in the wastelands, an almost effortless process.  I admit even I was skeptical at first but the first time I shot a gun out of the hands of an enemy I was sold.

The music in the game deserves a mention.  The 40/50s era music with it’s generally up-tempo and enthusiastic style provides a fascinating element of juxtaposition to gameplay that adds a welcome sense of surrealism.  It is unfortunate that the main musical element is tied to a radio station received via your PIP Boy, a clever addition, but one that fails when the majority of the map exists outside the range of said radio station (NOTE: this is ‘fixed’ by an in game quest that I almost missed, apparently you can skip some sections of the “main” quest).  Thus my explorations of the majority of the wastes has been largely silent.

Exploration is another entertaining, yet dangerous, part of the game.  Perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, Bethesda’s removal of enemy auto-leveling, exploration and random wandering has become a nigh irresistible aspect of gameplay.  Indeed oftentimes I find myself ignoring quests, side-quests and otherwise, simply to travel amongst points of interest.  Arriving at one I scan my compass for hints at other undiscovered areas (indicated by triangle outline) and strike onward if there is one.  Rinse and repeat.  Despite the lack of auto-leveling challenges I have rarely found myself in a situation that was too far above me (save perhaps my early trip to Rivet City).  I admit my first encounter with a Deathclaw left me a bit….overconfident.  Later encounters disabused me of that notion rather quickly.

The game uses a “karma” system that tracks your progress on the “good/evil” metric.  It seems to effect the NPCs you can aquire as a follower as the one potential companion I found told me I was a bit too “goody two-shoes” for him.  While my current PC is a (occasionally mercenary) do-gooder I have a rather disturbing desire to cut a bloody swathe through the wastes and have hapless NPCs cower at my approach.  Next time, perhaps.  Also, I have seen neither hide nor hair of Dogmeat (the canine npc you can get).  I’m still hoping I find someone to join me in my adventures.

Free exploration is great.  But what isn’t great is the 20 level cap.  It seem silly that given the ridiculous amount of content in the game that Bethesda would put such an easily attainable plateau on character progress.  They went so far as to include perks that increase the amount of experience you earn.  I’m close to thirty hours in and haven’t touched the main quest yet but managed to hit level 20 regardless of that.  There is SO much game here that putting that the cap is very limiting.  Luckily the game is compelling enough, and the world interesting enough, that playing post level 20 is still a fun experience.

In my opinion this is the game to beat in 2008.  No game has captured my attention and sucked away as much time as Fallout 3.  If you like science fiction, rpgs, adventure, action, exploration and fun than you can’t really go wrong in picking up this game.  It still has its flaws, espescially on the PC (some texture flickerings, and random crashes/save game corruption), but they are things that will hopefully be fixed with patches/mods.  Ok, this is a bit too long, just go BUY THE DAMN GAME!

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