Tuesday, March 3, 2009
When I walked into Bethesda's room at E3 last year, the first thing I did was thank Todd Howard for taking 80 hours of my life away via Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. After I sat down and played the Fallout 3 demo for 30 minutes, I knew I'd have a similar experience with his newest, biggest undertaking. While it may not be geographically larger than Oblivion, it features far more to do and entirely new ways to play. It's a sprawling epic, and the absolute epitome of open-ended gameplay. No two players will ever have the same experience with the game, and it will keep the more exploratory gamers busy for a very long time.
The experience will be immediately familiar to those that played Oblivion. While that game had you killing rats in a dungeon before emerging into a giant, vivid landscape, Fallout 3 has you escaping an underground vault only to emerge upon a giant, apocalyptic hellscape. Structurally, the beginnings are the same, but the world before you couldn't possibly be more different. Instead of rolling fields of flowers and deer, you'll be exploring the rubble of bombed-out cities and trudging through ghoul-infested sewers. Instantly recognizable D.C. landmarks like the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are all there, albeit in total disrepair.
It's a fantastic vision of a post-apocalyptic America, perhaps the best seen in gaming thus far. Scavengers roam the land selling goods off the back of mutated cows, scarred victims of the nuclear blast are called "ghouls" and face a new form of racism, and entire sub societies exist in underground vaults throughout the city. In this alternate universe, the bomb went off in the time of June Cleaver, so there are remnants of 50s-style billboards and products everywhere you look. There is no laws or judicial system in this world, so don't expect to be spending time in a cell like you did in Oblivion. Rather, it's frontier justice. Shoot at an innocent within a town, and it's likely the angry civilians will be coming after you with all they've got.
Various factions are spread throughout this apocalyptic D.C. You'll encounter raiders that are straight out of Mad Max, government leftovers known as the Enclave, and the power armor-sporting Brotherhood of Steel. It's not uncommon to be walking to a destination and accidentally stumble upon a shootout between two rival groups. If you feel like making some heads explode and scavenging their weapons and gear, you absolutely can. If you're low on health and just want to get to the next city, you can simply avoid these skirmishes.
Combat is wholly different than Oblivion and much less melee-based. While you will get the occasional flaming sword, sledgehammer, or nail board, the majority of the punishment will be handed out with rifles, miniguns, energy weapons, and missile launchers. This may not sound a little too "FPS" to the RPG fans more interested in stats and percentages, but those types will love the new V.A.T.S. system. A simple press of the right bumper will freeze the action and allow you to target various parts of your enemy's body. Let's say for instance that you want to put two bullets into a raider's knee, followed by one last shot to his head. You just select the actions in this order while the game is frozen, and they'll be carried out in slow motion once you press the A button. These sequences are some of the most brutal and gory I've ever seen in the gaming medium, and you'll see plenty of heads severed from their bodies (or simply explode) in ultra slo-mo. More importantly, it keeps this action RPG from becoming a first-person shooter with RPG elements.
While the main story involves finding your missing father and discovering what he's been up to since leaving the vault, the massive assortment of sidequests are where much of the game's fun and humor comes from. They'll range from the absurd (tricking a robot into thinking you're Thomas Jefferson so you can retrieve the Declaration of Independence) to the serious (a Blade Runner-inspired quest involving an on-the-run android that has become sentient). In the course of completing one of these quests, it's not uncommon for opportunities for five others to pop up. It all seems a bit overwhelming at first, but everything is tracked efficiently in your "Pip-Boy" organizer on your arm.
Leveling up your character will allow you to gain access to a laundry list of perks. Some of these are basic stat increases, while others will allow specific events to occur (such as the arrival of a "Mysterious Stranger" during battles). Every gamer will start Fallout 3 with the same character, but they'll always end with their own unique creation. Some will be great at sneaking or manipulating others through speech, while other characters will be able to devastate opponents with missiles and energy weapons.
The game features a downright absurd amount of items that can be stored in your inventory. Some are invaluable, and others are complete trash, but it's almost a sure bet that if you see it, you can pick it up. You may think that the crutch or lunchbox you found in a bombed-out house is useless, only to find out there's a weapon schematic that utilizes it. Little features like this are everywhere in this game. You can create a variety of weapons, pick locks, listen to the radio, decorate your house, repair guns and armor, hack computer terminals, and even replace the money you just stole from some one's pocket with a live grenade.
I criticize modern action games all the time for color palates that consist entirely of depressing browns and grays, but it makes sense in Fallout 3. It's supposed to be a grim, desolate, depressing environment, and it succeeds wonderfully. From the first time you step out of Vault 101, you'll look out into the horizon and see that this alternate-future Washington D.C. is certainly not a pleasant place to live. The entire presentation of the game is fantastic, from the mood-setting visuals to the superb sound effects and voice acting. Liam Neeson plays the protagonist's father, furthering his career decision to only play as the hero's father/trainer/Jedi master in everything he ever does (Star Wars, Gangs of New York, Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, etc).
Fallout 3 represents the pinnacle of open-ended gameplay to date. Unlike the mission-based sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, this game features total and complete freedom. If you're in the middle of a quest and something else comes along that intrigues you (and it often will), feel free to completely change your focus and chase an entirely different goal. You're free to mold your character in whatever way you see fit, and the experience will change drastically depending on your decisions. No matter how you play it, Fallout 3 is an absolute triumph and easily one of the best games in recent memory.
First Play: 9.5
Replay Value: 10.0