Flawed expectations hurt an otherwise great game
Review: Fallout 3 (PS3)
So let me state starting out that I was not a Fallout fan prior to Fallout 3. In fact, I have never played Fallout or Fallout 2. The reason I'd like to bring this up is simply to make it clear that I won't be comparing this game to its predecessors and that this review will be written from my completely fresh perspective. Anyway, let's get on with it!
Fallout 3's presentation is its shining quality. The interface is kept to a minimum while still being informative and easy to follow. The Pip-Boy (your handy computer utility that serves as an inventory/map screen) is well-designed and keeps every bit of manageable content well-organized. But menu screens aside, the real gem of Fallout 3's presentation is just how vast the game is. The first time you exit Vault 101 (the fallout shelter where you spent your childhood) you are blinded by the sun, only to witness a truly amazing sight as soon as your eyes adjust. In this game you can literally see for miles, and what's better: if you can see it, you can probably get to it. Upon first impression, the Wasteland seems very daunting and is presented as such, but I think it was supposed to be that way and it works well in the context of the game. The environment design is somewhat diverse, the categories generally consisting of wasteland, vaults, ruined buildings, and subway tunnels (and perhaps a few high-tech industrial areas). If I had to complain about something then it would be just how brown this game is. Indoors, outdoors, everywhere in the Wasteland all you see is brown. However, I was able to put this unhappiness aside because once again it fits within the context of the game's setting.
I played through Fallout 3 on a PS3 connected to an HDTV and it looked incredible. I noticed much less texture pop-in (and virtually no screen tearing) than I usually do these days and as I mentioned earlier the draw distance is quite incredible. Fallout 3 is simply a very pretty game. I found the lighting to be really impressive as well. At one moment I was inside a ruined factory, wandering along catwalks, when I noticed the room was lit by beams of light filtering in through a few very dirty windows. It's difficult to explain, but the way you could see the dust and grime floating in the air inside those beams of light created a very atmospheric moment for me.
If I had to pinpoint Fallout 3's weakest category, it would be sound. It's not that the sound is really bad, it's just that there isn't much of it. While I didn't really enjoy Oblivion at all, I thought the music in that game was great and was hoping Bethesda would take Fallout 3 the same route. Sadly, while good, the music is rarely present and definitely not as epic as that of Oblivion. Fortunately, the game's sound is made up for in the voice acting. The voice acting of random NPCs has improved dramatically since Oblivion, something that I'm very happy about. Not only that, but your father is voiced by none other than Liam Neeson, and who doesn't love Liam Neeson? Thankfully you get to hear more of him than you did of Patrick Stewart in Oblivion, who dropped out of the game almost immediately.
This is the real meat of Fallout 3 (and I would hope, any game). I'm going to start with the problems I have, mostly because they are in the front of my mind at the moment.
Bethesda and various people have all triumphed Fallout 3's ability to allow the player to be whoever they want to be, good or evil (or I guess, neutral...but who does that?). My problem with this system is that while it sounds good on paper, in the game it's not quite as breathtaking. The game doesn't really offer much choice in long run, something that such an open-ended game should have in spades. Pretty much all of the good/evil choices are confined to the side quests (of which there are many) while the main storyline can remain largely undamaged. And while being evil can often turn characters against you, it doesn't seem to have any real impact. For example, if you defuse a giant bomb lying dormant in the middle of a shanty town, your father will later congratulate you on such a heroic accomplishment. However, if you are evil and decide to detonate the bomb (effectively destroying the city), while your father will be disappointed yet it doesn't seem to have any real impact on him in the overall way he views you. Things like this can hurt the good/evil element of the game. Another problem I have with being evil is that the game's idea of evil is pretty much to kill anyone you meet, which really isn't very creative. This isn't the case all the time, but it often is. While playing, it is quite apparent that the game was intended to play as a good character in order to attain maximum enjoyment of the narrative, but why advertise the good/evil element if it's a gimmick? Bethesda should take a note from the Bioware RPGs in this department, which I believe are better at showing how your behavior can literally change the world you exist in. Whew, one complaint down and two to go.
Up next is something tying back into your father and your relationship with him and other NPCs. This is similar to my previous complaint in that it also concerns the choice (or lack thereof) in the game. This time, I'm talking about how the game tells you which characters you should care about. In a game championed as a subjective experience, I find it rather odd how the game expects us to care about our father, and even more so, our childhood friend (a girl named Amata). In the prologue, your father tells you that Amata is your little friend and you should go play with her and after that you have no choice but to become friends with a sadly generic character. It would have been better with a choice of various children you could befriend after getting to know, so that when big events happen later on in the game you will actually care about protecting and helping your childhood friend. My complaint about the father is similar: the game practically tells you that this is your father and you should care about him, but gives no real reason. This is problematic because of how your father doesn't seem permanently phased by your own actions (as I mentioned before). He would be much easier to care for if he was a more dynamic character, instead of just a plot device to get you to leave the Vault. Okay, enough of that. I still have one more complaint to mention.
My final problem with Fallout 3 is (from what I understand) specific to the PS3 version of the game. It constantly drops in framerate, mostly out in the Wasteland and can often freeze for a minute or so mid-combat. Once or twice I've experienced it freezing while I was exploring, and had to restart my PS3 entirely. Not really much to say about these technical problems, except that I hope Bethesda puts out a patch to fix them soon.
Whew, okay. I really like this game, I swear. Above inconsistencies aside, Fallout 3 is an absolute blast to play. I've been waiting for a solid post-apocalyptic game for a while now and it definitely delivers in that aspect. From scavenging the Wasteland for trash to sell for bottle caps (post-nuclear war D.C.'s form of currency), to fighting off raiders (who look like they're straight out of Mad Max), to taking on jobs for the various survivors in their settlements feels very rewarding. The Washington D.C. wasteland actually feels like a living, breathing world full of diverse and desperate people. Combat is handled by a system called "VATS" which is essentially what gives this game its RPG genre, rather than FPS. Really, don't expect to play this game like an FPS, you will die. VATS allows you to target specific body parts carefully (and review your chance to hit those parts) before firing your guns. A wounded Super Mutant running away from you? Shoot him in the leg. Someone with a sniper rifle causing problems? Shoot the rifle out of their hands. Combat is very open and very satisfying. This is also where the game gets it's "M" rating. Using VATS always treats you to slow motion footage of you firing at your enemy, and what happens when said bullets hit their targets. Sometimes it can be so absurd it's almost funny.
Like in most RPGs you will gain levels and learn skills as you earn experience in the Wasteland. You can become better at bartering, lockpicking, hacking old computers, sneaking, using and maintaining firearms, first aid, and just about everything else you can imagine that would be useful. The system is simple to follow and choosing different benefits every time you level up to see how you can further improve yourself never gets old. Another thing I forgot to mention is that the game does an excellent job of making sure you know where to go. I've had a lot of problems lately with open-world games giving vague instructions immediately following the introduction/tutorial (I'm looking at you, FarCry 2), but Fallout 3 does a great job of directing you not only to the next part of the story but also to hubs of survivor activity that are sure to get you some side jobs. Besides the main storyline, and side quests from various survivors, you can go hunt giant mutants and hidden items as well as try to explore the D.C. wasteland and find everything it has to offer. There is no blank space in this game, every location has a purpose and reason worth visiting. Also, it's really cool to see the post-apocalyptic monuments (my favorite being the Washington monument and perhaps Arlington National Cemetery). Other made-up locations are quite cool as well, such as an impressive survivor city located on a beached aircraft carrier. While the world is vast and covers a lot of ground, as long as you have discovered a location you can always teleport to it using your Pip-Boy's map feature so that takes some of the tedium out of getting around. As I'm sure you can tell, I really enjoy exploring the Wasteland and everything it has to offer, so much that I consider it to be Fallout 3's greatest strength (you know you're a master explorer when you've found the unmarked alien crash site).
I think some people will disagree with me here. I don't see Fallout 3 having much of a replay value. Most people will say you want to replay as an evil or (I have no idea why) neutral character, seeing as almost everyone is good the first time around. But I just don't see the impact you can have on the world being big enough to justify putting all that time into the game one or even two more times around. You can put many hours into your first playthrough, exploring and helping the various survivors, but I don't think it'd be worth it to shell out that kind of dedication more than once. However, with the promise of downloadable content and new areas in the future, that's definitely something to look forward to.
Alright, so what does it come down to? How much do you like open world games, that's all. If you love to explore and like the idea of scavenging and attempting to survive a world like this, you will find that Fallout 3 has a lot to offer. While the main storyline is good, it is also extremely short, probably only taking a few hours to complete (honestly, like 5 hours, max). But if you dig into the sidequests and I suppose achievements/trophies, then you will find the game pays for itself easily. If you are only looking to play an RPG that offers up some robust choice mechanics and subjective gameplay options, I recommend a Bioware game like Mass Effect instead of Fallout 3. That's really all there is to it, Fallout 3 is an exceptional game as long as you're looking for a certain kind of experience. See you in the Wasteland!