Fallout 3 – “Take a Vacation! Explore the Future of America, Today!”
Have you ever felt lost in a videogame? That’s a feeling you’ll often get from “Fallout 3”, this sense of bewilderment on account of the scale and size of this vast, sprawling wasteland. It’s everywhere, it surrounds you, it needs you to explore it, to feed on its expansive horizon, to delve into its bowels and actually *live* in that virtual space. It’s the kind of suck-your-life-dry environment you expect from a MMORPG, except it’s in a single player game, so it’s more of a Massive Singleplayer Offline RPG. Coming from Bethesda, it’s no surprise, as the “Elder Scrolls” series has always attempted to deliver on the same kind of free-roaming, pseudo non-linear, vast world experience. “Fallout” on the other hand, was much more focused and plot oriented, so it’s kind of awkward to see its world propelled into a vast metropolis of post apocalyptic settlements. An Obsidian-based sequel would probably make more sense (since the main authors of “Fallout”, Feargus Urquhart and Chris Avellone are currently in that company), but with time, you come to accept the fact that “Fallout 3” is different from its predecessors, and despite many comments in that sense, it’s also different from the recent “Oblivion”.
The vast world dynamics are clearly ported from “Oblivion”, with its heavy stat based character development, its go-anywhere exploration and grab-all-you-can-get looting, but there’s a striking difference in “Fallout 3”, one that changes the way you perceive the landscape: “Fallout’s” world is actually worth getting sucked into. Face it, “Oblivion” was a high-fantasy cliché, a sum of postcard vistas with an unhealthy amount of shallow fetch/kill/loot quests replicating all the useless and worn-out motifs of mediocre fantasy videogames; it lacked the originality, substance and proper writing that could create the sense of a breathing, living world. The only steady pillar in its foundation was its lore, which took the form of hundreds of books, each meticulously describing past events, myths, religious beliefs and legends. But it was painful to endure so much in-depth reading, more so because a majority of these books spawned randomly with no proper in-game contextualization, or even some semblance of a relationship with the actions you partake in the game… and let’s not forget they weren’t exactly Shakespeare material. This was the area where “Fallout” excelled, its careful rendering of post apocalyptic USA was well written and aesthetically cohesive (albeit not really that original). Bethesda apparently sensed this, and used it in its behalf in “Fallout 3”. Now, their game-world feels real because it has a story to it, and a fine one at that. Every village, settlement, tribe and character has their own little back story, which the game properly entices you to discover through well designed quests; each of them sustained by a healthy dose of well written plot exposure, in the shape of dialogues, log notes and use of the environment itself. It’s also a more focused experience than “Oblivion”, relegating fetch quest nonsense to the background, and properly fleshing out the more important locations and story-lines. Furthermore, there are tons of subtext and satirical remarks beneath these apparently unrelated missions; with time, these help shape the Wasteland not only as a physical space which you can explore, but also as a timeless, allegorical reflection of modern USA and its excesses: consumerism, unilateral war, pseudo-democracy, and glorified capitalism. The main storyline still is a letdown when compared to other modern RPG’s (and even the other “Fallout’s”), but at least it has decent characters and drama, something completely absent from Bethesda’s previous games.
The aesthetic has changed as well, as the derelict cityscape of the Wasteland has very little color and shining flowers; it’s post apocalyptic sci-fi heaven, with a twist of gory humor and art deco flair. Sure, with time, the desert wasteland and destroyed city landscapes can become old, but there are unique elements that always make “Fallout 3” stand out from other tiresome gritty aesthetics. Previous “Fallout’s” aesthetic themes, such as educational propaganda commercials, mid twentieth century songs (delivered through in game radio stations) and Ron Perlman’s cynic narration (war… war never changes), all make a fortunate comeback. In some portions of the game, “Fallout’s” signature themes are stretched to the limit, in order to provide brilliant, over the top settings; e.g. in one quest you’re inside a 50’s soap (don’t ask), complete with black and white photography, chiaroscuro lighting, upbeat soundtrack and characters that seem straight out of “Pleasantville”. The only big letdown in the art department is Inon Zur’s (“Fallout Tactics”, “Crysis”) score, which despite one or two eerie tracks in honor of Mark Morgan’s (“Fallout”, “Fallout 2”) original work, provides an unnecessary light fantasy feel, too much in the lines of Jeremy Soule (“Oblivion”) to make the Wasteland feel as dark, creepy and unsettling as it should be (“S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s” soundtrack would be perfect, by the way).
For all its drab colors, grim, dry aesthetic and rundown environments, “Fallout 3” manages to feel lively and dynamic; there’s always something happening out in the wasteland, and it’s not always about you. “Oblivion’s” Radiant AI is to blame, as it shapes the Wasteland’s citizen’s behavior in the world: characters walk, eat, work, sleep, talk (and fight!) with each other, all on their own schedules and mostly impervious to your actions. And it’s not scripted, it’s dynamic, which helps give these actions credibility and a sense of surprise. The voice acting was greatly improved, as you no longer feel like you’re listening to the same old man and woman making slight tonal variations in every single character (out of hundreds). Unfortunately, character’s physical incarnations still breakup the immersion with their clunky animations and poor facial expressions. For instance, when talking, mouths move, but not the eyes or cheeks, nor even the rest of the body: the hands, the arms, the torso are always stiff – it makes characters lifeless and robotic. These, of course, provide an uncanny inconsistency with their expressive voice and generally intelligent behavior. It’s not hard to dismiss this flaw, as Bethesda added so much quality content into the “Oblivion” framework in just 2 years… but they really need to fix those horrid character animations.
The game also responds to your actions, as you can now choose a moral standpoint to enact in the world. It’s a return of the karma mechanic, a straight good vs evil kind of deal, but for once, the gameworld really responds to your choice, and not just in some generic ending sequence. Character’s perceptions change depending if you’re good or evil, they might assist you by giving items or joining your quest, then again, they might simply try to kill you for no other reason than being evil. Some quests have specific alignments, and can even alter the Wasteland’s geography, as you can be a harbinger of destruction to certain settlements, or their savior against a nuclear attack. It forces you to adapt certain quest-solving to the alignment you choose, and guarantees that the game has to be experienced more than once to be fully appreciated.
Like in “Oblivion”, there are tons of small flaws and imperfections: silly inventory interfaces, buggy physics and AI break the game once in a while, etc. The combat system’s twist, the V.A.T.S. system, which gives the FPS “light” action a turn-based “light” dynamic, makes combat speedier and more tactic than the overlong hectic brawl of “Oblivion”, which coupled with a classic experience driven level up system, helps the game feel less of a grind in the long run. It’s still repetitive like any other massive RPG, but at least, it gives you a point to all of its aimless wandering, as the world constantly repays your exploration with further understanding of the narrative context. And there are so many good stories waiting there for your mind to explore, that you know that you’ll never fully grasp the immensity of this monster of a world. So, if you have the time… how about checking out how Washington DC would’ve become had Bush stayed in office a couple more years? Experience the Future, Today!