Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: Fallout 3

Credit: Paul Porthouse
You have spent your entire life in a vault.  And then, suddenly, one night your father, the vault's physician, simply disappeared.  In his wake is chaos.  The Overseer has clamped down on security, while simultaneously there has been an invasion of radroaches that are killing citizens within the vault.  Furthermore, simply because of who you are, your life is in danger.  There is one solution: you must leave the Vault and venture into a dangerous and unknown fallout wasteland.  Now.

So begins Fallout 3, Bethesda's first foray into the Fallout universe.  I purchased this game at release, played it avidly, and then set it aside for a time.  Then, during December 2012, I picked it back up, started a new character, and have been playing it off and on ever since.  Fallout 3 is enormous.  I logged well over 100 hours in the game, and by the end I was making decisions to explicitly skip areas and quests and just finish the dang game.  I wanted to finish it before traveling abroad this fall.

The neighborhood has gone to hell.
I think the most amazing thing about fallout 3 is its ability to convey its atmosphere.  While it is not quite as jovial as the previous games in the series, it still retains some of that tongue-in-cheek absurdity that contrasts with the desperation of the desolate wasteland.  As I remember the Bethesda folks describing, mankind isn't really don't that well in this setting.  Things are desperate, and the game is filled with incredibly powerful excerpts of the efforts people took to survive--and often their failures.  You come upon houses where the skeletons of children still cuddle with their toys, notes left from desperate parents to their children, and the personal logs of people caught up in the conflict when the bombs dropped...or in the chaos that has ensued afterwards.

Even more amazing is the opportunity to explore the ruins of Washington D.C. in the game.  You have the opportunity to visit the national mall, and visit many of the museums and monuments there.  These include the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial, several of the museums (American History, Technology (i.e. the air and space museum), and the National Archives), and the Capitol itself.  Outside of the Mall are other notable locations, including the bombed-out remains of the White House, the Arlington Cemetery, and the Pentagon.  While the external maps had to be scaled to fit within the game, I was amazed to find how well I knew Washington D.C. geography having played this game during a recent real-life visit to the city.  Even many of the smaller locations match reality: the subway terminals are largely based on real life, with the names and sequences of stops in the game often matching reality: Metro Central, Chevy Chase, Farragut West, Foggy Bottom, Vernon Square, Falls Church, Anacostia Station, etc.  Really neat.

Hey, does this planetarium projector still work?  Yup.
But watch out behind you.
Fallout 3 is technically a shooter.  That was my biggest hesitance about playing it, as a master of shooters I am not.  Fortunately, the designers created the VATS system, which, in homage to the original games, allows you to pause the game and select body parts (or just torsos if need be) to attack.  Each shot in VATS consumes action points, just like in the original game, and so you can only use it so often.  Fortunately, I found that I could usually get off enough shots in VATS to kill an opponent, after which point I could either shoot manually at other foes (point-blank with a combat shotgun does not require aiming) or take cover until my action points refreshed to take more shots.  And eventually, once you hit level 20, you can take a feat that replenishes your action points whenever you kill someone in VATS, giving you virtually unlimited action points.  VATS was enough of a crutch that I found my lack of skill in shooters was not that much of a handicap in the game...and by the end, 100+ hours in, I found that I was actually getting to be a pretty decent shot without VATS as it was.

Lincoln's Repeater.  Best small gun in the game,
if you can keep yourself in 44-ammo.
All of the various guns are a blast to use (hehe), with each weapon having different strengths and weaknesses.  I focused largely on small guns, using the hunting rife (and eventually the spectacular Lincoln's Repeater, which I felt was best small gun in the game) while roaming the wasteland, a unique chinese assault rifle for mid-range dungeons, and the combat shotgun for in-your-face enemies.  I only used a sniper rifle in special circumstances, where the range was too great for my hunting rifle.  By the end of the game, I also started using a plasma rifle energy weapon for variety, but I'm not sure it was better than my small guns.  Big guns, grenades, mines, etc, were fun, but mostly inferior to what I was already using...except when dealing with robots, when pulse grenades became essential.

Welcome to the history museum!
Mind the ghouls.
There are a zillion little locations in this game.  Most do not have named side-quests, but most dungeons or other locations have their own stories and tales to tell.  Some are pretty minor, like a father using a radio broadcast to call desperately (and, as it turned out, hopelessly) for help.  Others are major events, like a son who pursues his father into a horror-filled warehouse.  The broader story is also really good, and far more personal in this game than in the previous titles of the series.  The ending itself was mildly disappointing (though there's an expansion for $5 that apparently improves it), but I felt personal motivation to finish the main quest.  You truly have a chance to do more to save all of humanity in this game than has been possible in the prior games.

It was a great game.  It's hard to say if it was better than the original games because they are so different, but at this moment I am leaning toward saying yes.  While the others were arguably more innovative, Fallout 3 brought it all together in an incredibly world that you get to experience like nothing else.  This game is so big and so incredibly satisfying that finishing it feels like I've just completed a chapter in my life.

An easy 5/5.

Postscript.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I made heavy use of eolsunder's Fallout 3 walkthrough.  I'm not great with open sandbox games like Fallout 3, and following a walkthrough helps me keep focused on the fun as opposed to wondering what I should do next.  Eolsunder's walkthrough was perfect for me: concise, generally averse to story spoilers, and yet still enough detail to help me solve some of the hidden riddles and puzzles that I sometimes would get frustrated with.  I know walkthrough's aren't for the cool kids, but I like them, and I like eolsunder's better than pretty much any walkthrough I've used thus far.  Kudos!

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