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Fallout 3 Review

Fallout 3: An Attempt At Balanced Commentary

These days people who review Fallout 3 either pronounce that it's one of the best games of all time in every possible way, or else they bewail the tragic fate of the Fallout series of games which has clearly been exploited and abused by a group of Oblivion-perpetrating supervillians. When I read commentary on internet forums and message boards I feel as though I'm the only person in the world who feels sympathetic to both broad points of view. I would not presume to boast any super-normal comprehension or prescience; it's just that empirically people on the internet seem to either have hardcore love or hardcore hate for this game, and I haven't personally read any middle-of-the-road opinions similar to my own. I aspire in this review to provide balanced thoughts and commentary on Bethesda's recent release.
Criticism of Fallout 3 Haters
I am under the impression that the majority of people on the internet who express hatred for Fallout 3 feel the way they do because combat in Fallout 3 is not run off a turn-based strategy engine. Many of these commentators make statements along the lines that since Fallout 3 has taken visual and thematic elements from Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, but has not meaningfully preserved turn-based strategy, it is in fact not truly Fallout, but rather something else, such as "Oblivion with guns", or "a steaming pile of crap", or what have you. I expect that many people who are still playing Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 today are big fans of squad-level turn-based strategy games, which are hardly ever produced anymore, and they feel disappointed that the release of Fallout 3 did not represent a big-budget boost to their beloved genre.
As an ardent retrogamer, and the author of a Fallout 2 mod ( link ), I feel a certain amount of sympathy towards this point of view, and must now make a conscious effort to refrain from going off on a tangent about "console-itis" and "dumbing down", or the lack of intellectual abstraction required to play today's mass market games. However, I also feel that the statement that Fallout 3 is not Fallout because it doesn't have turn based strategy is fallacious. After all, what is Fallout? Back in the mid-nineties, if a high school kid went and installed Fallout on his computer and played it, what did he experience? He experienced turn-based strategy, yes, but he experienced a great deal more, as well. He experienced a compelling post-apocalyptic setting, he experienced characters and dialog, he experienced quests that could be solved in many different ways, and he experienced remarkable 1950s-inspired visual motifs. If Fallout were defined only by turn-based strategy, and none of the above, it would be Nethack, and not Fallout. For a game to be turn-based strategy only it would have to be some kind of console app with lots of statistics, no graphics, no characters, no quests, and no setting. Turn-based strategy was only one of many elements that made up the final product we call Fallout. Logically speaking it doesn't make sense to treat turn-based strategy as somehow representing a bigger or more important portion of Fallout than any of the many other elements that helped to make the game legendary.
In fact, I would go out on a limb and argue that Bethesda did a better job in terms of creating a compelling, immersive, and memorable setting than did the original creators of Fallout. In my opinion, many aspects of the original Fallout games were flawed. Quests were sometimes buggy. Dialog was limited and flawed with typographic errors, bad grammar, and inconsistent style; since the majority of the information in the game was passed to the player through textual dialog these flaws always struck me as especially jarring. From time to time when encountering certain characters, such as the ghoul bartender Wooz in Fallout 2 with his Tragic cards, I felt like the Fallout staff just got tired of trying to create remotely believable characters and instead thought that everyone would derive as much enjoyment as they did from glib references to popular culture delivered in the absurdist manner of an internet meme. I wouldn't accept any excuses for this bad writing on the basis of volume of text in-game or the year that the game was produced, either, since there are many other RPGs from around the same period of time with superior writing and dialog, such as Betrayal at Krondor or Planescape: Torment; Torment affected me emotionally much more than the first two Fallouts ever did because the quality of the text and the quality of writing for the characters was inarguably superior.
Most significantly in the context of creating an immersive and believable world, NPC behavior could be erratic; since universal NPC hostility was tied to flags which could sometimes be triggered by accident, due to bugs, or in unpredictable ways, I remember certain situations in which I had to reload a save because an entire town inexplicably decided all at once, hive-mind style, to pull out their guns and shoot my character. For example, in Fallout 1, I remember how in the Hub there was a man at the Iguana-On-A-Stick stand who was secretly selling human meat on his sticks instead of iguana meat. It was possible to find out about this by exploring a certain house over in Junktown and, after having done this, it was then possible to confront the vendor in the Hub about his unethical business practices. Certain dialog choices (IIRC threatening to reveal his dark secret) would cause the vendor to attack your character. However, if your character defended yourself from the vendor, THE ENTIRE POLICE FORCE OF THE HUB would subsequently attack your character on sight. It should be obvious how in this case clumsy use of flags resulted in unconvincing, bizarre, and immersion-destroying NPC behavior, but I can hardly wait for some Fallout fanatic to rebut this article saying that this outlandish series of events is somehow "realistic" or some similar nonsense. More generally, the frequent inability of NPCs to do or say anything not related to limited few dialog paths or quest elements, and the NPC-combat-hive-mind that tended to kick in and completely destroy quest and character interaction potential for an entire town the moment that a single NPC decided to turn hostile to your character for any reason, made for an extremely frustrating, artificial-feeling, and counter-intuitive role-playing experience in Fallout 1 and Fallout 2.
I would argue that in terms of bringing the world of Fallout alive with convincing visuals, characters, and dialog, Bethesda did a better job than the original creators of Fallout did. Bethesda came up with quite a lot of material such as posters, furniture, clothing, audio in order to create an evocative 1950s-inspired post apocalyptic landscape. Although some of the items are directly taken from the earlier Fallout games there is also a great deal of high quality artistic content created by Bethesda which I feel is more creative and interesting than some of the original Fallout content. Let's face it...the various 50s style posters and merchandise populating the world of Fallout 3 has more artistic merit and is more convincing than things from Fallout 2 such as the inclusion of post-apocalyptic blow-up dolls, ball gags, and armies of generic hookers. If turn-based strategy represents only one element of Fallout, the world, the characters, the quests, and so on represent many other elements. Even if for the sake of argument we decide that Bethesda did a poor job concerning the turn-based strategy element of Fallout, I would suggest that Bethesda did a better job on all the other elements than even the original creators of Fallout. Indeed, Bethesda took the trouble to preserve many of the exact items from the earlier Fallout games, taking care to make many in-game items have the same names as and look exactly like their predecessors; it is difficult to make a convincing argument that Fallout 3 is entirely "not Fallout".
My Personal Criticism of Fallout 3
With all that being said, there are still a few details I personally wish were different about Fallout 3.
Firstly, I wish that there were unlimited experience levels available to the player, instead of only up to level 20. In my current game, I am finding myself being at level 17 while not even being half-way through the main quest. Why couldn't Bethesda have simply followed the example of Fallout 2 and allowed for unlimited level progression beyond level 20 for the players who enjoy exploration of the game world? It seems like a rather puzzling design choice to limit player character level to 20 when that maximum can easily be reached so early in the game.
Secondly, I think that Fallout 3 is quite a lot easier than Fallout 1 or Fallout 2. The combats in Fallout 1 and 2 were absolutely brutal compared to those in Fallout 3. In Fallout 3, by contrast, the FPS elements of combat are much more variable and forgiving than the strictly mathematical turn-based combats of the earlier Fallouts. In the earlier Fallouts, crippled limbs usually had devastating long-term effects on a character, but in Fallout 3 a simple stimpack quickly and easily restores them to full functionality, and crippled limbs themselves don't affect gameplay very much. Radiation in Fallout 3 can almost be ignored, but in the earlier Fallout games radiation could permanently mess up a character's statistics and the game's instruction manual actually advised players to keep multiple saved games and to restore to an earlier save if their character were permanently messed up by radiation. There are also more resources readily available in Fallout 3 for the player character to harvest. In Fallout 3, ample amounts of junk, such as bent tin cans, litter the game world, and for some reason these items may be sold to merchants in-game. I find that with just a touch of obsessive compulsive garbage-gathering behavior it's possible for a character in Fallout 3 with no investments in mercantile skill to accumulate plenty of bottle caps for the purchase of stimpacks and ammunition. In my opinion, it doesn't make sense for a game which is supposedly about rugged survival in a post apocalyptic wasteland to be easy, since the player will not get the sense of a struggle for survival. I'd go as far as to say that Fallout 3 suffers from a little bit of "console-itis" on this count; i.e. making the game easy and not requiring care and long-term planning to avoid hazards like radiation, husband in-game resources, and minimize the risk of crippled limbs.
Thirdly, I'm disappointed that the game only lets the player raise a skill to 100, and not 200 like in Fallout 1 and Fallout 2. Back in the earlier Fallouts, it was pretty much a given that your character needed a skill of around 150 in his or her specialty, such as Speech, Small Guns, or Unarmed Combat. The combat was unforgiving enough that you statistically really needed to be able to pull of miracle critical hits if you wanted to take down the 5 super mutants with laser guns you were inevitably going to encounter at a key juncture. The original Fallout game manual stated that Fallout was intended to follow in the tradition of table-top role playing games (e.g. GURPS, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) and much in the same vein power-gaming was indispensable if you wanted your player character to be able to solo all the bad guys and win the game, as he or she must, and so the importance of very high skills and the statistically correct combination of perks and attributes was such that it could make the difference between a character who did or did not have a reasonable statistical probability of being able to complete the game. For example, in the earlier Fallouts, if a player decided to make a melee specialist with the Heavy Handed (or Hard Hitter, or whatever it was called) attribute, that would actually be the kiss of death for that character, since later in the game the small amount of bonus damage provided by that attribute would be totally insignificant compared to what the character could attain through critical hits. Fallout 3 basically got rid of this long-term character planning element by reducing maximum skill to 100, getting rid of the attributes chosen at character generation, and tried to minimize the impact of poor Perk choices by allowing for a Perk to be chosen every level instead of every three levels. However, by de-emphasizing long term statistics and math, this means that Fallout 3 is going away from the influence of traditional table-top gaming, and heading more in the direction of brainless gaming that doesn't require meticulous deliberation. Again, a touch of the "console-itis".
A final thought. I absolutely love how firearms sometimes malfunction once their condition deteriorates. Over the past year I've personally gotten much deeper into firearms as a hobby and dealt with my share of firearms malfunctions and have been privileged to get quite a lot of hands on learning as to specific ways firearms malfunction under various conditions and due to various causes. I don't feel I could reasonably ask for more than what Bethesda has done in that area in a mainstream game, but if I could have anything I wanted in Fallout 3 I'd wish for even more realistic and varied firearms malfunctions. Basically, in Fallout 3 most malfunctions are failures to feed when a new magazine is inserted into the weapon, and the animation usually depicts re-inserting the magazine to seat it properly, or manually working the action on the firearm in order to chamber a round. In real life this is only one sort of problem a firearms operator might encounter when using worn out firearms and magazines, and questionable ammunition. Other problems could include hang fires, double feeds, stovepipe jams, obstructions in the barrel, and so on and so forth. Some malfunctions can be quite dangerous and in real life a shooter must pay close attention to the sound his firearm makes when he fires it in order to ascertain whether or not it is operating safely. Part of the skills that a real-life SWAT operator or soldier must master is rapidly clearing various malfunctions while under fire in a combat situation. In my mind, if all sorts of malfunctions and details such as this were added to a game, it would make the game both educational and phenomenally entertaining.
-- Wounded Ronin (12/17/2008)

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