Game Review: Fallout 3

The atomic “meh”.

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Available on: Steam

With all the hype about a new Fallout game, I thought it would be the perfect time to go back and actually play this game all the way through. I originally bought the game for Playstation 3 back when it came out. But after playing through the tutorial and doing some quests in Megaton, I got really bored by the experience. This was mostly tied to the fact that the gameplay wasn’t very engaging.

It’s around that time that I also learned that I absolutely loathe playing games in first-person perspective with a controller. There are a few exceptions to this rule, obviously, but I grew up playing first-person shooters on PC with a mouse and keyboard. And everything else just seems like a step down. A controller can never hope to even imagine to surpass both the speed and the accuracy of a mouse when it comes to aiming. As such, aiming without VATS was a chore for me and as a result, I didn’t have much fun.

So I stopped playing after only a few short hours and never looked back. In the meantime, I also bought the Game of the Year edition on Steam, at a massive discount, of course. And two weeks ago, I started playing it again. Just to see if it was worth it to eventually play New Vegas – which I also bought during the same sale – and the upcoming Fallout 4.

Now that I finished the game on a platform that much better suits the game as well as myself, what can I say about it? Well, I still have a very ambivalent stance towards it. Mostly because the gameplay still isn’t engaging. The mouse control did a lot to accommodate me, but aiming without VATS, especially over long distances, is still a pain because your aim is not the deciding factor if you actually hit your target.

It’s all calculated via a hidden dice roll, it randomly calculates if you manage to hit, and if you do, how much damage you do. Obviously it includes all the modifiers from your stats to increase your chances of hitting something which makes it easier over time to become proficient with a variety of weapons, but that also means that aiming and shooting is not the challenge I as a player am presented with and the shooting actually gets easier over time. It doesn’t help that VATS breaks flow when it wrestles the controls away from the player every single time you encounter an enemy. Not to mention that apparently you take 90% less damage while these animations play out, which only further decrease the challenge. I tell you, that perk that makes certain animals not attack you couldn’t come fast enough for my taste and probably shaved a couple of hours off the experience.

What exactly is it that makes Fallout 3 challenging? Nothing, really. It’s mostly just a post-apocalyptic sandbox for the player to explore and stumble in and out of quests. Depending on how much you like doing random quests that don’t have any connection to the main storyline, you’ll either enjoy it greatly or not. I personally found it rather boring and as a result, I played the first 10 hours of the game without doing many of the side-quests or exploring anything that was out of my way, simply just doing the most basic ones that didn’t inconvenience me and meant that I could just follow through with the main quest. But after that point, I had maybe a dozen or so landmarks on my map and while searching something on a Wiki, I stumbled across a map that showed all the locations you could find and I was surprised by how many there actually were and how much of the game I probably would’ve missed by simply ignoring the world around me and just looking for my dad.

I decided to stop with the main quest for a while – for the record, this was just after I found the holotapes in the Jefferson Memorial – and just wander out into the wasteland, explore buildings and subway stations, searching for quests and NPC and loot, of course. That’s actually the way I used to play all my games, exhaust all the side-quests before continuing with the next main story mission. But I grew tired of that approach and over the years I did less and less side-quests if they didn’t heavily factor into the main story. It’s just not interesting, doing fetch-quests for others and pretending like the chance to get to explore something is a reward unto itself. Especially if that something is an endless string of copy-pasted ruined buildings, subway stations and underground tunnels. That is probably the chief failing of Fallout 3 and many other RPGs I’ve played. Sure, the world might be expansive as all hell, but everything looks the same. All the environments seem familiar after a while and exploration really just boils down to stopping in every single room you’ve been to a dozen times to see what kind of junk is strewn about, with the occasional ammunition box or medical station to find. Never mind that this meant that I was absolutely loaded with ammo and health-items and so much cash in the bank, that I could buy everything in the wasteland and still have enough left to outfit up every last Nuka-Cola bottle with a cap.

And yet, with all of that in mind, how I feel about the lackluster gameplay and the repetitive world, Fallout 3 still managed to make me come back to it. I can’t really pinpoint exactly what it was that made me want to play the game further, because everything in the game is heavily flawed and nowhere near worth the praise the game gets, but something must’ve resonated with me. Maybe it’s because I love post-apocalyptia and Fallout 3 is one of the few games I’ve played where that actually meant something. Large parts of the game are empty without any encounters at all, and that somewhat ties it together. I guess this is why I liked it more than many other RPGs that also feature “big”, “expansive” world that are then populated by maybe 200 characters. See, for all the touted expansiveness of an RPG world, most of them are small as hell and mostly devoid of any real population. I’m supposed to believe that I’m traveling from the DC ruins to Arlington in 10 minutes when Google maps tells me it would take 90 minutes in real life? And I’m not saying I want 90 minutes of nothing happening while I run around in the wilderness (although judging from the popularity of content-light survival games, I’m in the minority here), but it just feels silly hearing people tell me Rivet City is too far away for them to move there when it takes me barely 10 minutes to get there on foot.

I think what Bethesda in general do best with their games is the setting. Each and every single one of their games is extremely flawed, with bad or boring stories, inconsequential side-quests, not very engaging gameplay, iterative world-design and generally very low graphical ambitions. But they manage to create a canvas that holds the players interest. It’s amazing really, that they manage to make so many borderline terrible games when looked at strictly as games and how their fans eat that stuff up. This probably also has something to do with the ease by which you can mod the games, but I was never interested in mods unless they fixed a broken and buggy game. Fallout 3 isn’t really broken at this point, but I still had to edit a file to tell the game to only use 2 cores of my 8 core processor because it would crash all the time since the game – as Steam proudly proclaims on the store page – is not optimized for Windows 7 and later. And even with that change, the game still managed to crash every 3 or 4 hours. Thankfully the game auto-saves often and I save even more often.

So yeah, I have to say that Fallout 3 really isn’t a great game. And I don’t like to use the word but I truly think that it’s somewhat overrated. The atmosphere is nice, but everything else begs for a better execution, first and foremost the drab visuals. I’m not railing against the graphical quality of the game, though to be honest, Bethesda always lag behind a few years when it comes to graphical technology and quality modeling. But it’s just a shame that everything has this greenish gray-brown hue to it. Only occasionally is the world actually worth observing, when the sun rises or sets, but outside of that I just didn’t appreciate the aesthetic.

And you might say that my initial attempt at just following the story is me playing an RPG the wrong way, because exploration and questing is what engages fans of the genre, but I just can’t muster up enthusiasm for a loose collection of quests that don’t really affect the world after I’m done. Sure, NPCs might spout some different badly acted dialogue, but the world doesn’t seem like it’s alive. This is obviously not helped with the way NPCs look at you with their ugly faces and dead eyes and never break eye contact.

And it’s not like I ignored the side-quest in favor of a well written main storyline. Because it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, you’re searching for someone who’s always just out of your reach. You always feel like you’re just a step behind and the plot herds you from one location to the next with a linearity that clashes with the open world and the explorative aspect of the game. And after you actually do find your dad (spoiler alert), the story missions rush towards a conclusion so swiftly that you could almost get whiplash from it. A conclusion that is rather unsatisfactory and in all honesty really disappointing I might add, because it ignores all sensible options (I had fucking Fawkes with me, he’s radiation proof, and I was carrying like a thousand Rad-Xs so I could’ve done it myself) in favor of a tacky binary moral choice ending that makes no sense in universe. Plus, no way to go back into the wasteland to tackle the rest of the quests after the main story is done? Fore shame Bethesda.

In the end, I’m left with a big question mark in my mind as to why people found this title so amazing and are clamoring for more. Because there’s nothing I can say that is entirely positive without some massive downside to it. It’s not a bad game, it’s perfectly functional – when you tweak some files and can deal with the occasional crash – and all the systems within it work fine. I guess this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a perfect “meh” in game form. Competent but to me not really all that memorable.

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