October 28, 2008
Minor spoiler warning. We’re not giving away anything vital.
Every once in a while, a game comes along that plays out like so:
You sit down at 5:30 in the afternoon to play the game. You open a box of Cheez-Its. You figure on playing the game for an hour or two and eating a few handfuls of crackers.
Suddenly the sun is coming up, the box is empty, and you’ve just gotten started in the game.
This caloric description doesn’t even begin to do justice to Fallout 3. Not only is Fallout 3 the best game of the year, but it’s one of the best games ever made.
The game takes place in post nuclear apocalyptic Washington D.C., and you’re one of the lucky few that got to live in the secure Vault 101, free from the radiation, deadly super mutants and certain death in the barren wasteland outside.
You begin Fallout 3 at the moment of your character (male or female) is born, and you age through the game in quick chapters until you one day when you wake up to discover your father, a scientist and doctor, has inexplicably left the Vault – a big no-no. Now the Vault director is after you, and your life is in danger.
Right from the start, Bethesda shows you the sheer volume of choices, side-quests, and adventures in Fallout 3. As you’re escaping the authorities, you’ll find that an infestation of giant radioactive cockroaches has swarmed the vault. You’ll run into a childhood bully begging you for help because his alcoholic mother is being attacked by the roaches, and he’s too scared to do anything about it. You’ll find that your father’s assistant – who was like an uncle to you – has been murdered for information about dad’s disappearance. Seeking revenge, you’ll find the vault director, but wait, he’s the father of your potential love interest and childhood best friend.
And that’s all before the game really even starts.
Leaving the vault, you’ll then spend the next, oh, month of your life exploring and re-exploring a visual masterpiece. Washington D.C., the surrounding area, and all the monuments have been reconstructed and then devastated by nuclear war. It’s eye-popping to walk through this virtual world and see the Washington Monument in ruins as you approach it and the museums of the Smithsonian in various stages of decay, squatters taking up shelter in their strong construction. It’s not just up-close either. From far in the distance, you can see the Washington Monument or the Capital Building, and it’s eerie.
Let me tell you what else is eerie: listening to the radio stations in the background. From the start, you’ll have your choice of Enclave Radio, the propaganda channel for a faction that claims to be the resurrected United States Government, and the rebel free radio wasteland station and its eccentric disc jockey, Three Dog.
You have the choice to be good or bad. You can be a hero, defending the helpless, saving cities and having townsfolk shower you with gifts (that does happen). You can walk into the slave trader’s village and kill all the slavers. Or you can be an asshole. You can exploit children, beat up women, destroy towns. You can be evil, corrupt, and terrifying.
That all starts when you’re a kid or when you’re escaping the vault. Your best friend steals a gun from her father to “aid” in your escape. When the childhood bully begs you for help, you can help him, save his mother and be the hero.
Or you can shoot him in the head and put two in the mother for good measure.
These are your choices, and don’t let emotion get in the way — yes, it’s just a video game, but we’ve all been there.
Even your own health is a series of carefully balanced choices. If your hit points are low, you can drink water from a stream or sink or even down a soda from a vending machine, but this increases your radiation level, which is bad for you in the long run.
You will also encounter a variety of drugs and chemicals that will raise HP or boost your abilities temporarily, but if you take too much, you’ll get addicted and dependent on the drug. If you run out, you’ll go through withdrawal and lose abilities.
The game is bloody, gory, violent, and full of sexually suggestive and explicit dialog. But the game doesn’t include swears in the same way that Kane and Lynch did — just for the hell of it. Fallout 3’s dialogue is tactfully woven together.
There are a lot of little things that I would have liked to have seen built up more, like sitting at a bar and ordering a drink, settling up two lovebirds and then going to the wedding, going to restaurants. These features all happen, but could have been a bit better designed. You don’t have food delivered to you or a drink poured for you; you just buy it and it appears in your inventory.
The game’s inventory system works exactly like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls titles. You can carry items up to your strength limit, and then you have to drop stuff strategically.
The game world is massive. It takes many, many hours to go through it, and you can bet that expansion packs and downloadable content is coming.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m a little biased in favor of the post apocalyptic genre. I grew up playing and reading Shadowrun for Genesis, Super Nintendo and tabletop — still have all the books. I number Blade Runner, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. in my list of favorite movies.
But forget about the genre for a bit. The visuals are unparalleled and the audio is sublime. Walking down a bombed out road in Washington is that much creepier when “America the Beautiful” is playing in the background, seriously. The controls are intuitive and can be inverted or adjusted for sensitivity. The plot is complex and gripping.
When I discovered Interplay’s Wasteland in the early 1990s, this was how I imagined the game would look in real life. Technically Fallout 3 is the fourth installment in the franchise. Interplay made Wasteland and then Fallout 1 and 2, as technical sequels. They also made two spin-offs: the combat-heavy Fallout: Tactics on the PC in 2001 and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (the first console Fallout title) in 2004. Interplay started making Fallout 3, (see Van Buren) but they were broke and struggling. Bethesda scooped up the Fallout franchise last year for just under $6 million. Bethesda completely threw out Interplay’s work and built this game from scratch.
It does use the same gameplay engine as The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.
Fallout 3 is artistic and timely. It has a message to it — a frightening message. But unlike other games with a social context, Fallout 3 doesn’t push these factors down your throat.
It is, however, a quiet indictment of corrupt politics, unscrupulous foreign policy and an increasingly insular American populace.
Blast tested the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. Joe Sinicki and Terri Schwartz of the Blast Magazine staff contributed to this report.