Fallout 3 is an incredibly difficult game to review. I say this not because there are numerous flaws or because the title is somehow broken, but rather because this is one of those games that refuses to tell you how to play it. From the moment gamers set out on their adventure across the Capital Wasteland, the training wheels are off and you are free to play the game however you see fit. In this circumstance, what may be perceived as weakness by one person is strength to another, and how each player crafts their character will go a long way in determining how the game unfolds. The freedom in Fallout 3 is immense, and this fact alone may enshrine the game as not only Game of the Year, but one of the greatest of all time.
In Fallout 3, the first nineteen years of your life are scripted, but don’t worry, as they go by fast and set the stage for the man or woman you will become. The game starts with the main character’s birth in Vault 101, a shelter for the lucky ones chosen to take refuge there at the outset of full-scale nuclear war. At this point, the player goes through all the permutations of selecting physical characteristics from brow height and chin width to selecting one of the seemingly limitless number of beards Bethesda has thrown in. From there the game fast-forwards a bit, as the toddler version of yourself learns some basic movement commands and distributes your character’s SPECIAL points, a system that returns once again from previous Fallout titles (the acronym stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Intelligence, Agility and Luck). By assigning points you will create the building blocks of your character. The game then continues to hurl you forward through time, and along the way your character picks up his special Pip Boy survival device and establishes his base stats. It’s quite a brilliant way to get players acclimated to Fallout’s world; Bethesda deserves a pat on the back for creating a tutorial that doesn’t simply give you instructions on how to fight and send you on your way.
Life suddenly changes when you turn nineteen. Your father (voiced by Liam Neson), has mysteriously left the Vault, in spite of the crucial lesson that no one ever enters and no one ever leaves. Making matters worse, the Vault Overseer is coming for you, so you must do everything in your power to escape the halls of Vault 101 and strike out after your father. As you dodge guards and fight your way past mutated roaches, your character eventually emerges into the “real world,” and that’s when Fallout 3 really takes flight.
This is a formula which Bethesda milked in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to great effect, and it is back in full force here. Players can strike off in any direction and find human settlements or forgotten ruins, not to mention camps teeming with super mutants or raiders, all eager for the kill. When you have a game which features an Achievement for discovering over 100 different points of interest on the overworld map, you know there’s no shortage of things to do.
While the freedom granted in Fallout 3 is quite a strength, it also quickly becomes the game’s greatest weakness. Early on, your character is ill-equipped and brittle as they come, while the Capital Wasteland is chock full of creatures that wish to liberate your head from the rest of your body. Furthermore, ammo and bottlecaps (the game’s form of currency) are in short supply, as are reliable weapons, so you’ll likely find yourself outmatched at every turn. While these issues are somewhat alleviated as you press through the game, they never go away entirely, and the entire experience makes the game feel more like a survival horror title than an RPG. While scarcity of items can make for good strategy in some respects, there’s no worse feeling than being trapped deep in a dungeon with no ammo and no healing items and wondering if you’ll be able to make it back to safety before some angry enemy finishes you off. It’s always nice to have options, but this may be a case where Bethesda would have been well-served to lock off some areas from low level characters so would-be adventurers don’t get in over their heads too soon.
The open-ended nature of the world also hurts the impact of the game’s story, as there’s never any real impetus to keep you on the path of looking for your character’s lost father rather than striking out on your own. Even as the game progresses, the story never really manages to fully captivate the player. Before long, the main storyline becomes just another objective on the list of missions, something to be completed in your own good time when the urge to tackle secondary tasks has subsided. It’s hard to believe that an RPG can have a forgettable story, but sadly that is the case here, as Fallout 3 is driven more heavily by curiosity than by narrative.
Since you’re going to be spending a lot of time wandering the Wasteland, it would probably be good if you know how to fight, huh? The good news is that your character isn’t exactly helpless out there. While you can play the game as a typical first-person shooter, that would miss the point, as the beauty of Fallout 3’s combat comes in the form of VATS or the Vault-Assisted Targeting System. By entering VATS, players can freeze the action and zoom in on their intended target. The creature’s various body parts are displayed, each with their own health bar as well as the percentage chance that a shot on that particular limb will be successful. This system quickly becomes critical as targeting certain parts of an enemy’s body will cripple them, making life much easier on our hero. For example, when faced with a particularly quick enemy, it might be best to take out its legs so it can’t chase you as effectively. By the same token, if you happen to be facing off against a chaingun-wielding super mutant, knocking out his arms will likely cause him to drop his weapon, or at least become less accurate while firing. Of course, if you’d prefer to simply go for the quick kill, shots to the head are always a good way of ending the fight with minimal expended ammo.
While you’re out shooting the super mutants and looking for the next adventure, you’ll likely want to check out the sights. Gazing at the tattered ruins of the Washington Monument is one thing, but climbing to the top of the monument and then looking out over the ruined remains of downtown DC is something else entirely. The environment, full of the nation’s now derelict monuments to freedom and liberty, is simply breathtaking. Soaking it in, you might even forget to keep a hand on the trigger because someone or something is likely to come out shooting. The art direction and presentation of Fallout 3 manages to both captivate players with a stunning world and cause them to meditate on what life may really look like after a nuclear holocaust. The ramshackle towns and hastily thrown together settlements show that humanity may do what it takes to survive, but the horrors of a raider den or the sight of ghouls who have lost their sanity will also remind you that in a world plunged into anarchy, the atrocities will far outweigh the beacons of hope.
The visuals, while stunning, pale in comparison to the game’s music, which is perfect in nearly every way. As players progress through the game, they will gain access to a few select radio stations that provide the only soundtrack. While some may first discover the propaganda channel of the Enclave, the United States’ pre-war governing body, the real joy comes in the discovery of Galaxy News Radio. This station, run by the Brotherhood of Steel, broadcasts a slick mix of anti-government ranting and an incredible music selection from the 1940s and 50s. All the tunes are licensed tracks, and there’s something deliciously ironic about listening to “Butcher Pete” while sneaking through a raider camp and spotting tortured and mutilated bodies at every turn; or catching a whiff of “Let’s Go Sunning,” as you traipse across the sun-scorched wastes looking for the next sign of civilization. The only weakness in the music comes from a lack of songs, but if you ever get tired of listening you can always turn the radio off and be accompanied by the stony silence that comes with the end of the world.
There is one last thing to say about Fallout 3, and it can be taken as either a complement or a criticism depending on how you view it: There is a good deal of merit to statements that the game is essentially “Oblivion with guns.” Substitute swords and magic for firearms and explosives and you basically have the same weapons system. Replace goblins, ogres and bandits with ghouls, super mutants and raiders and you have your enemies. While the games are distinct in many ways, the two titles share a lot of similarities, and the core of the two games is very much alike. If you loved Oblivion, then likening this game to that one is likely the highest praise, but if you abhorred it, then this one observation may have taken Fallout 3 off the table entirely.
Ultimately though, Fallout 3 really deserves to be tried by everyone, as it is one of the rare games that can be all things to all people. If you wish to play as a stealthy assassin, luring enemies into mine traps and taking out foes from the shadows, that path is available. If you’d prefer to stand and fight, delivering rocket rounds or mini nuclear warheads to your enemies’ faces, that’s here too. Furthermore, you can tread the path of the good and virtuous or walk the road of the deceitful and mean. Fallout 3 can be whatever you want it to be, which is rare in this age of shoehorning game characters into specific roles. So get out there and explore the Wasteland; your father is waiting — if you should ever choose to find him.