STAFF REVIEW of Fallout 3 (Xbox 360)

Thursday, November 13, 2008.
by Stacy Code

Fallout 3 Box art It?s ironic that there can be a beauty in absolute and total destruction, and Fallout 3, the newest open-ended role-playing game from Bethesda Softworks, has forsaken the lush forests, ornate castles and moody caverns and dungeons of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to dazzle us with a world in complete ruin. Sequel to the two PC role playing games developed by Black Isle Studios, Fallout 3 brings the popular franchise to Xbox 360 as well as bringing the game into full-3d and first-person, putting you in the boots of a man (or woman) left to trek through the atomic destruction of a post-world-war-three Washington, D.C. Bethesda reinvented the game from the ground up, bringing back the same first-or-third-person perspective to the gameplay that they perfected in Oblivion, and seamlessly integrating the combat mechanics, storyline, and very mature flavour of the Fallout games. Fallout 3 is a role-playing game which offers you complete freedom ? there is a storyline to follow, quests to perform and missions to complete, but at the same time there?s a full twenty square miles of post-apocalyptic city ruin and scorched wasteland to explore and eke out an existence in. And the game ? both the main story, and incidental encounters ? will adapt to your choices and actions in the game, depending on whether you play the part of hero, villain, or a careful treading of the fine line between the two.

Fallout 3 begins with the creation of the character you will play in the game, in a very literal sense ? after an opening cinema explaining how the world has managed to club itself senseless with atomic weapons and has descended into lawlessness and violent savagery, you set about the task of creating your character. You witness your own birth, in first person, opening your eyes for the very first time in an underground nuclear shelter, one of many expansive underground warrens known as Vaults ? in this case, Vault 101. The first half-hour of gameplay walks you through the basic gameplay and controls even as your character walks his first steps ? the tutorial phase of the game jumps through several chapters of your early life. As a happily burbling toddler, your attributes and basic physical characteristics are determined by reading a storybook called ?You?re SPECIAL!?, where SPECIAL stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. Later, you?ll experience your tenth birthday party, which ends with a tutorial in basic combat as you practice with your birthday present, a new BB gun, and at high-school age you?ll take a classroom exam whose multiple-choice answers, ostensibly to determine your future job in the Vault, are also to determine what style of character you?ll go on to play in the game. The game also features a powerful facial customization engine similar to Oblivion?s which lets you choose the race and gender of your character, and then set about customizing the fine details of your character?s appearance.

Fallout 3?s main story centres on your search for your father, who, after raising you as a single parent in the shelter of Vault 101, disappears from the vault into the irradiated wasteland of Washington DC, and after the Overseer of Vault 101 declares that you are to be taken prisoner and possibly killed, you flee from the shelter of the vault in pursuit of your father, and in pursuit of the reasons why your father abruptly abandoned you to run from the vault in which presumably ?no one ever enters, and no one ever leaves?. The main storyline will take you on a course that will range from the top of the Washington Monument, to the bowels of the mutant-infested citywide subway transit system ? from the flight deck of a shattered aircraft carrier mired in the Potomac River, to the hills and fields of the scorched and dangerously radioactive countryside beyond the city limits. As well as the main story, which can be played through in about twenty hours on a normal difficulty setting, there is about twice as much gameplay to be had in the various side missions, storylines and quests that you?ll stumble across in your play through the main storyline, and though the game scales difficulty according to your character?s ability and level and the game?s main story can be played through without sidetracks or distractions without having to excessively level up your character, the main story is almost bordering on short, and you?ll want to delve into the side quests both for more of the gameplay, and for the additional gamerscore achievements and loot to be had.

Fallout?s gameplay and controls are extremely simple and intuitive for a role-playing game. Like Oblivion, the game is played with almost exactly the same controls as a standard first-person shooter, with the two analog sticks devoted to movement and looking around, and the two triggers are used for attacking or blocking. One button is used to jump, one for actions (opening doors and suchlike), one for reloading or holstering weapons, and one for bringing up the in-game menu, a pda-like device called the PipBoy 3000 which contains map screens, character stats, inventory, and quest notes to keep track of the different tasks you have underway. In case you have a few different quests on the go at the same time, there are helpful reminder notes in the Pipboy and also marker notes on the map letting you know precisely where you have to go to advance a quest or the main storyline. Like any role-playing game, a large part of the gameplay will involve conversations with main characters and other individuals you meet in the game, and the dialogue you engage in with them offers a decent amount of choice in how you interact with the characters of this world. Generally, any conversation you have with anyone in the world gives you at least three choices ? a positive or even helpful response, a neutral or investigative response, and a negative or even antagonistic response. Being positive and helpful will of course generally endear you to people in the world, and earn you good Karma, where negative answers will generally tick people off and earn you negative karma, although sometimes a negative approach to dialogue can intimidate or frighten people, too. The Karma your character earns is important, as not only does this have bearing on certain gamerscore achievements you can earn, but also determines how the world sees and reacts to you ? my goody-two shoes character developed such a good reputation that he had a contract called out for his assassination in the Wastelands and I found myself in some random gunfights with a group called the Talon Mercenary Company called out to pick up the bounty on my head.

The environments of the game are a stark right-hand turn from the soft, beautiful high-fantasy hillsides and lakes of Bethesda?s last role-playing game. The world of Fallout is disturbingly real, and when it?s not frightening you with its plausibility, it?s a poignant picture of a once-beautiful city in complete ruin. The dungeon-crawls of typical RPG?s have been replaced with half-collapsed transit tunnels and subways crawling with radioactive ghouls and super-mutants, and the castles and keeps are instead crumbling and shattered office buildings, supermarkets, museums and monuments, filled with armed squatters ready to kill you dead for the shirt on your back. Around halfway through the main storyline, you?ll see Rivet City, an incredible sight ? a broken Navy aircraft carrier now taken over as a makeshift city complete with built-in medieval moat courtesy of the Potomac River, and one of the ?wow? moments of the game for me was simply to climb up through the stairwells of Rivet City to walk out on to the flight deck of the aircraft carrier in the early dawn and watch the stars fade in the sky as the sun came out. This sort of thing is the trademark of Bethesda?s games ? it?s not just the story or the combat, but the freedom to do whatever you want in a world that?s as real as they can make it.

Another complete ?wow? moment is a complete chapter of the main story in which you?re visiting another vault and end up immersed in a virtual-reality simulation of pre-war American Suburbia ? the world turns to a grainy black-and-white, your character reverts to a twelve-year-old version of yourself, and you wander through a Leave It To Beaver paradise called Tranquility Lane, with lemonade stands, backyard cookouts, big cars with bigger fins in every driveway, and a perfect lawn and picket fence in front of every home ? and a very strange little girl who is not what (or who) she seems, and who you will match wits with to escape this perfect prison.

Still, one of the main ingredients of any role-playing game, other than the story and dialogue, is of course the combat, and Fallout 3 has taken this element and refreshed it. Combat in RPG?s is typically an onerous chore of ?beastie-whacking? to level up and grow stronger, and often consists of irritating, sudden random encounters that frustrate and distract from pursuing the story. Fallout 3?s combat is in real-time and first-person, so it feels much more real and imperative within the game. The biggest selling point, though, especially for fans of the classic Fallout games, is the incorporation of V.A.T.S., or the Vault-Tec Targeting System. During a fight, you can spend Action Points, which recharge over time during combat. With the tap of a button, the combat briefly freezes and you can spend those Action points to ?program? several attacks in a row, even targeting specific areas on an enemy or even several enemies in a sequence. Then, with a second tap of the button, the camera pulls several feet back and you?re treated to a highly cinematic slow-motion animation of the combat move you just selected ? whether it?s a trickshot where you shoot the weapons out of the hands of several enemies attempting to ambush you, or a grisly attack where you smash in the face of an enemy with a tire iron. The combat?s pretty graphic at times, and using V.A.T.S. you?ll see some fairly intense results to your gunplay ? victims riddled with bullets sailing through the air rag-doll style, spraying blood liberally, and even skulls exploding into chunks and spray from lethal head shots.

One thing to worry about as you trek through the wasteland in the game is taking care of your gear, since it takes care of you. During the course of gameplay, items in the game deteriorate in condition ? your armor and weapons wear out, and become less useful and efficient as they break down from wear and tear. Depending on your characters? skill at repair, some of these items can be fixed and maintained in the field, from scavenging parts from an identical item. This makes policing the bodies of killed enemies especially important, as you look for ammunition of the right calibre and possibly duplicates of your weapons to use to make repairs. You can also manufacture makeshift weapons from found scrap items and junk in the wilderness, if you have a schematic or ?recipe? and the required bits and bobs to cobble together the thing, such as a ?Rock-It Launcher? you hear about early on in the game, a sort of potato-gun cannon that can shoot anything from empty cola bottles to broken ashtrays, and Bottlecap Mines, nasty shrapnel-filled little devices you can put together with a few commonly-found items.

Overall, the gameplay of Fallout 3 is engaging, easy, and fun enough that you won?t lose interest over the course of the fifteen to twenty hours to finish the main story and will likely extend your game to stretch out and explore the rest that the game world has to offer. The solid story, abundance of side quests, and the level of detail and realism in the gameplay make for a compelling world that will draw you in and wanting to see what lies around the corner or over the horizon as you roam the wasteland.

Visually, the game is astonishing. From the moment you step out of Vault 101, you will be blown away with the level of detail and attention to the city of Washington D.C. ? from shattered overpasses with jutting steel rebar and broken asphalt, to the skeletons of farmhouses flayed open from blast shockwaves and littered with the detritus of their former owners ? the city environs are simply overwhelming, from the Washington Monument (with holes torn through its structure) to the dark, half-collapsed subway tunnels littered with broken machines and squatter hovels. The level of detail is almost TOO much, and you?ll have to be careful as you trek through the wasteland ? small items and objects can almost be overlooked in the sheer amount of detail on the screen. Many times I stumbled over land mines that were almost invisible amongst the broken pavement and gravel in the streets, and small items such as ammo, first aid kits, weapons, and ?treasure? can be easily overlooked in all of the clutter of some of the environments. Unlike typical fantasy games where money and treasure are usually conveniently located in easily identifiable treasure chests in near-empty rooms, the post-apocalyptic world of Washington D.C. works on a slightly different economic model, and you?ll want to be on the lookout for castoff junk ? things like a broken lawnmower or a length of surgical tubing aren?t garbage, but take on new importance ? they can be sold for much needed medical items and ammunition, or can even be used to cobble together makeshift weapons of themselves. The game engine doesn?t overdo it with graphic treatments like light blooms ? a lot of games now think that a mediocre level of visual quality can be glossed over with a few cheap visual effects. Fallout 3 uses whatever techniques are necessary to deliver a look as realistic as possible ? look toward the sun, and you?ll be slightly blinded as your surroundings darken as your eyes adjust, and real-mapping is only used on surfaces where it?s appropriate. This is not just a world that?s ?used?, it?s been beaten up and OVERused, so surfaces are dirty, scuffed, and often poorly lit if there?s any light at all ? the built-in flashlight in your Pipboy will be your new best friend as you crawl through dark, dangerous indoor environments looking out for threats. The game takes place in August of 2077, so the daytime lighting (when it?s not raining, or overcast, or night time, or something else) is a stark, autumnal light, with the sun casting long shadows, and painting the game world with a sharp contrast ? bright, washed-out highlights and deep shadow. Just the quality of the daylight gives the strong feeling that this is a world that?s entered the last days of its life, and headed into a long, dark winter. The animation of the inhabitants of the world is well done, and some of the monster animations are genuinely frightening. Ghouls, irradiated zombie-like humans who have devolved into feral savagery and cannibalism, will fling themselves at you with an inhuman fury in their attacks, and when the V.A.T.S. system freezes the combat in still frame, some of the poses of enemies are incredible as you catch them in mid-animation. The movement of your own character is a little mechanical if you play the game in third-person ? walking sideways or backwards looks a bit stilted and the lack of any animation in your character?s behaviour ? head movement, arm and hand movement ? does stand out in a screen with more lively, lifelike NPC?s. Most players will simply play the game in first person, however, so this is isn?t a critical failing ? you?ll probably just toggle out to third person to get a good look at some new armor or equipment on your character, and then switch back to first person for ease of gameplay and immersion anyway.

The game has some of the best sound I?ve heard in an RPG in a long time, from the sound effects, ambient audio and music to the character dialogue and sound effects. The sombre quiet of the abandoned city, complete with a stark, lonely musical score, is almost threatening, and makes the sudden crack of a distant gunshot or a shouted threat from an approaching enemy that much more unnerving. Several times I found myself very unpleasantly startled by the sudden, screaming ambush of a feral Ghoul in a subway tunnel, hearing the shriek just as it flung itself through the air at me. The voiceover for the dialogue is not at all hammy or clumsily acted, but delivered in a straight-up, cinematic fashion by competent voiceover artists, including Liam Neeson as the voice of your character?s father, and good voiceover is critical in an RPG of this size ? few things are more painful than wading through several minutes of torturous cartoon voices to get some necessary information or to advance the story. You'll hear a lot of f-bombs and rough language in the game, so parents be advised - the ESRB's M (17+) rating isn't a joke.

Inon Zur?s music for the game has a bold, heroic voice when necessary ? the game?s opening anthem, incidental combat music ? but is often a poignant, sombre counterpart to the picture on screen. Throughout the game you?ll be able to tune into various radio stations still broadcasting in the wasteland, which serve up classic American tracks from the 1930?s and 1940?s, a Fallout trademark and an ironic counterpoint to the bleak reality of the world. For fun, I popped the soundtrack to Escape From New York on a flashkey for my travels through downtown D.C., but to be honest the quality of the game?s music begs to be heard. Music in RPG?s typically gets terribly repetitive after ten or twelve hours of game play, and Fallout?s play length, which is in the ?sweet spot?, and the quality of the tunes, means this is one time you likely won?t be reaching for the Xbox Guide blade to squelch the game tunes.

In all, Fallout 3 does everything just right ? it?s the perfect length, not overlong for an RPG but serves up a main story that you can finish within a week of regular play, enough side story and additional exploration to extend the game for however long you want, a combat system that takes what used to be a chore and turns it into a gratifying cinematic experience, a gamerscore achievement roster that steadily rewards continued play with regular awards for each completed story chapter or side quest, and a unique flavour and setting that haven?t yet been explored in this type of game. The people at Bethesda are well-known for making games with incredible longevity and replay value, and Fallout 3 is another solid, worthy achievement by this studio ? you can be sure that down the road there?ll be expansions or downloadable content for this already sizeable experience. When you?re not battling online in Xbox Live in Gears or Halo and you?re looking for a world you can simply lose yourself in while the snow or rain falls out there as the world turns dark, Fallout 3 will fit the bill, and may stay in your Xbox drive tray for a long, long time. Even if you rent it to play the main story through, you?ll buy it to return to and explore everything the game has to offer. Pick it up today.

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.7 / 10
Sound: 9.2 / 10


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