Fallout 3 is a video game developed by Bethesda Game Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. It has been released on Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Genre: First-person shooter
Fallout 3 is the first title in the Fallout franchise to be released by Bethesda Softworks, who purchased the license for the game from a near-defunct Interplay. Interplay licensed the rights to produce a Fallout MMO from Bethesda; no such MMO has yet been released, resulting in an ongoing lawsuit between the two companies.
Fallout 3 was built using a heavily modified version of the Gamebryo engine, building on the same technologies Bethesda used to produce The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a few years previously. The title is a massive open-world RPG played primarily from first-person perspective.
The game opens with the birth of the player's character; the process of character creation is laid out as a series of short, interactive interludes showing the character's progress from infancy into early adulthood. These interludes introduce the player to the basic mechanics of the game, allow the selection of starting stats and skills, and have the character interacting with his/her father James (voiced by Liam Neeson) and various other members of the community.
That community is a Vault, an impregnable and self-sufficient underground fallout shelter; its residents are descendents of people who fled into the vault to escape a nuclear holocaust that, in the game's retro-futuristic alternate timeline, took place in 2077, principally the result of a mutual-destruction nuclear exchange between the United States and China. The game itself opens two centuries later, in 2277.
There are more than a hundred Vaults distributed across the United States, each theoretically capable of hosting up to a thousand people indefinitely. These did not preserve civilization as well as had been advertised: unbeknownst to the survivors, the vast majority of the Vaults were tweaked from their initial specifications to function as long-running social experiments. Many, but not all of these experiments proved lethal to the Vault inhabitants; most of the experiments have either concluded or run out of control by the opening of Fallout 3. The Vault where the game opens, Vault 101, is the site of one of the longest-running experiments anywhere in the Vault program: where most Vaults opened after only a few decades, Vault 101 has been designed to never re-open: it's an experiment on how long a closed society can last under the governance of an autocratic Overseer.
Following the opening sections of the game, the main character awakens to find Vault 101 in a state of disarray: James has escaped the Vault, letting in a number of mutated creatures from the outside and sparking off significant social unrest in the form of a conflict between the Vault Overseer, who is attempting to preserve the experiment, and residents who believe that it's time to open the Vault and interact with the outside world. The main character, after a short conflict with the Overseer and his security forces, escapes the Vault into the Wasteland outside, setting out to search for James.
The majority of the game takes place in the Capital Wasteland, the ruins of Washington D.C. and outlying communities in nearby parts of Virginia and Maryland. The Lone Wanderer from Vault 101 (as the main character comes to be known) comes quickly to discover that the Wasteland has its own survivors; there are a number of settlements with varying levels of population and fortification dotted across the Wasteland, as well as small tribes of savage raiders here and there. Other life found in the Wasteland includes: Super Mutants, who relentlessly hunt humans for mysterious reasons; ghouls, who are former humans mutated by catastrophic levels of radiation and have extremely disfigured appearances but greatly lengthened lifespan; feral ghouls, who are ghouls that have lost their human intelligence; a variety mutated wildlife, including two-headed cattle known as Brahmin; and robots, some of which have human brains. The classic factions from the original Fallout games, The Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel make appearances as well.
Gameplay in Fallout 3 consists primarily of exploration of the Wasteland and its ruins; as with Elder Scrolls titles, almost every object in the environment can be picked up and used or sold. Scavenging is a big part of the game's design. Combat follows first-person shooter mechanics, with a modification called V.A.T.S., Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. The Lone Wanderer has a nuclear-powered wrist computer called a PIP Boy; on-board circuitry in his computer helps the Lone Wanderer in battle by pausing the action to queue up shots at enemies, allowing the targeting of specific body parts and quoting damage estimates and accuracy percentages. Use of V.A.T.S. is limited by slowly-recharging "action points." As a result, combat in the Wasteland is generally a mix of first-person shooter gameplay and V.A.T.S. based targeting.
The game features fully-realized RPG mechanics, with experience points, points assignable to a variety of skills such as small arms, lockpicking, explosives, speech, and medicine, and primary stats using a system called S.P.E.C.I.A.L: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck. During level-up, the player gets to assign points to skills and select perks; these perks are unique abilities that dramatically shape the character's specialties in the Wasteland. Many are related to combat effectiveness, improving performance of particular weapon types or the efficiency of VATS. Some increase the effectiveness of a character's skills or accelerate his rate of advancement. Some are more exotic: a perk called Mysterious Stranger will occasionally cause a man with a trenchcoat and a .44 Magnum revolver to appear and finish off your enemies; there are perks that turn the character into a bounty hunter or a cannibal; there are perks that unlock additional conversation options with the opposite sex, or with children; and so on.
The game is structured in an extremely open-ended way; there is a primary quest line that the player is encouraged to follow, but he can just as easily veer off to aid factions in the various settlements, or simply explore remote corners of the Wasteland. The player is allowed to choose sides in almost every major conflict in the game, tracking the character's behavior on a good/evil axis using a system of Karma. Decisions the player makes when dealing with a particular faction can be extreme: the player has quest lines in the majority of major settlements in the game that leave the option of totally wiping out the settlement: detonating a nuclear bomb in the middle of Megaton, allowing feral ghouls to wipe out the human population of Tenpenny Towers, etc. These options aren't even game-over scenarios: typically the destruction of one faction substantially improves relationships with another.
Survival in the Wasteland is a grim proposition: sources of non-irradiated food and water are extremely hard to come by, and medicine to treat radiation is a constant reality both for the Lone Wanderer and for the majority of the Wastelanders he encounters in his travels. Ammunition is relatively hard to come by unless the player is constantly scavenging for more, and keeping equipment (weapons, armor, and assorted clothing) in good condition is an ongoing challenge. Merchants and traders exist and will buy and sell gear to the player; bottle caps are the new world's currency. The inventory management situation is partially mitigated by the opportunity to recruit a follower. Most of these followers require the Lone Wanderer to adhere to a specific path in terms of karma.
In the year following Fallout 3's release, Bethesda released five downloadable content expansions to Fallout 3:
- Operation Anchorage, expanding on a schism within the Brotherhood of Steel and showing more back-story on the conflict between the United States and China.
- The Pitt, depicting the highly-polluted ruins of Pittsburgh and a conflict over Wasteland slavery.
- Broken Steel, increasing the game's level cap and directly continuing the storyline from the conclusion of the game's main quest.
- Point Lookout, giving the player access to a relatively pristine but still-ruined swampland in a former Maryland state park.
- Mothership Zeta, in which the player is abducted by aliens and must escape the ship with the help of other human abductees that the aliens have been keeping in cryogenic storage, many since before the nuclear holocaust which destroyed Earth.
The PC version of the game also offers extensive modding capabilities, allowing people to produce and exchange their own expanded content using the game's engine, world, and content assets. As with the recent Elder Scrolls titles, a rich modder community has built up around these features.
This was my first experience with the Fallout franchise, and was also the first title produced by Bethesda. Previous iterations had been PC-only titles produced by the now-defunct Black Isle Studios, and were much more traditional role-playing games. Bethesda distanced themselves from the original content in a number of ways, choosing an action RPG mechanic instead of the turn-based combat the game had originally used, and choosing to set the game on the far side of the continent from the previous titles in the series.
My previous experience instead came from the Elder Scrolls titles that Bethesda had released for the Xbox and Xbox 360. This game is architecturally very similar to those. Both Fallout and the recent Elder Scrolls games feature a vast open world with wilderness, ruins, and settled regions to explore. They each contain a large main quest-line with dozens or even hundreds of side quests. Interaction with friendly NPCs uses menu-based conversations. The games include much more content than can reasonably be experienced in a single play-through, and the game world is littered with small side areas to explore that are not storyline-significant. One of the biggest challenges during your long exploration of the wilderness and ruins is inventory management. The games are all also extremely buggy when first released, but were ultimately polished into much more high-quality, playable products.
If you buy Fallout 3 for the Xbox 360, make sure you buy the Game of the Year edition. It's got all the downloadable content included, but more importantly than that it has critical bugfixes. This game was downright unstable and crashy in its first releases. NPCs would fall through the geometry and be totally inaccessible to the player for the remainder of the game; simply walking in the towns or Wasteland, collision detection glitches mean it's possible to get wedged into little corners of the map such that it isn't possible to get out or fast travel away from the issue. Loading screens occasionally simply crashed or hung the game, saved games could become corrupt, and quests could occasionally get so badly glitched as to be unsolvable. The re-releases of the game fix all of that, without making you download hundreds of megabytes worth of game patches through Xbox Live.
Bethesda open worlders are huge, and notorious for needing post-release patching. Playing the title at launch is often like playing a paid beta. The downloadable content is also expansive and contains must-not-miss improvements to equipment and play skills. For some players this means that the titles are worthy of repeat gameplay; for others it means that it's better to wait for a year or two after the launch of the primary title before taking it on.
Fallout 3 was an engrossing, deeply enriching experience for me, marred at almost every step by stability and consistency problems in the software. The game is a creaking, leaky, idiosyncratic masterpiece. I remember feeling a sense of awe the first time I reached the beached aircraft carrier known as Rivet City, and a thrill when I found fresh fruit and vegetables in their laboratory: the first non-irradiated food I had seen since I left Vault 101. I remember a pitched battle with slavers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I remember fighting my way inch by inch through Georgetown into the Capitol Building, emerging onto its front steps overlooking the National Mall, and seeing that beautiful greenway transformed into a three-way battlefield between Talon Company mercenaries, Super Mutants, and knights and paladins of the Brotherhood. I remember it as clearly as I remember walking the actual National Mall as a child.
I have what could be colloquially described as mad love for a game that gives me those kinds of memories, but I have that love in spite of sweeping technical problems with almost every one of those experiences. There's something great here, but you have to fight with the implementation glitches to prise it out.
The soundtrack was great. Malcolm McDowell's portrayal of President John Henry Eden has forever changed the way I will hear patriotic march music, and the juxtaposition of classic jazz and big-band standards and spooky nuclear winter wasteland exploration works just as well here as it worked in the BioShock games.
I didn't feel like lack of knowledge about what had happened in Fallout 1 or Fallout 2 impaired my enjoyment of this game. The story is in-continuity but the sheer distance between the two environments in a post-cataclysm world means that there isn't an enormous amount of overlap between the two games.
Years ago I read an excellent review of Katamari Damacy where the author said that
The game doesn't end. It breaks up with you. I had a very similar experience with Fallout 3. I played through the entirety of Fallout 3 at least three separate times, hundreds of hours of my life, and may yet play it again. I played and beat the game the first time with a good karma character, immediately restarted and started playing with a bad karma character instead, quit in a fit of fatigue late in that character's run-through, and then started a brand new character to focus on the DLC some months later. Each time I play the game, I find myself stopping not because I've done everything I wanted to do, but because I had lost the will to continue on.
The game is beautiful, and ambitious, and ultimately flawed in the same way that every massive Bethesda Softworks game is flawed; the design and engineering time seems to go to making the world big, rather than to making individual corners of it interesting and believable, and they end up with a world so big that there's no way to see it all before character progression has taken both the risk and the reward out of it. In the meantime the experience is buggy, stilted, and eventually exhausting.
When you buy a Bethesda title, you get the experience of coming to know a rich and complicated world--and, later on, the disappointment of coming to understand the essential flatness of it all. By letting you immerse yourself in the world, they give up a lot of ability to tell a story about your character, and trade it for a story that your character occasionally intersects with as a witness and a catalyst.
The gameplay falls flat for much the same reason: It exists at tangent to the game's real goals, which are to give the player a sense of exploration and discovery. Combat, level advancement, and economy are all only really there to add a sense of risk and reward to the process.
I think in some ways ambition is the enemy of good storytelling. Bethesda Game Studios titles aim for frontier, and achieve a very good illusion of it; once that sense of illusion starts to fray, what's left behind starts to seem somehow dishonest. The point of a frontier, in narrative terms, is to see the protagonist discover the world and put his mark on it--and to see the frontier make its own mark on the protagonist. These games give us hints at both kinds of change, but in their very scope they always seem to fall short of accomplishing the actual thing. It's up to you as the player to fill it in with imagination and emotional context. You get told about the changes in the epilogue, but you never really get to stay and personally watch the results unfold.
Game franchises like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and Fable, while all much smaller in scope, each seem to do better at creating a world the playable character seems to truly occupy in some way. I suppose I feel like Fallout 3 accomplishes something grand and wholly worth experiencing, but falls short of being a genuine artistic moment.
That's okay, though. Fallout 3 takes existing IP and uses it to birth a new action RPG franchise. Taken as a first title in a new series, this game is a modern must-play classic, has already spawned one sequel and is likely to produce several more in the same vein unless the ongoing lawsuit with Interplay derails things. Those future sequels are likely to incorporate some of the "Radiant Story" features that Bethesda has been working on for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; these features specifically seek to correct the problem I'm describing, by giving the main character more persistent relationships with the people of the game world.
Ambition may have been the enemy of good storytelling here, but it was ambition successfully realized. This game accomplishes some very big and exciting design goals, and I don't regret any of the hundreds of hours I spent playing it.