Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fallout 3 (Xbox 360) Review

Every time Bethesda Game Studios gets set to release another game, I have mixed feelings of both anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation because Bethesda Game Studios develops the most immersive and detailed single player RPG environments I've ever played in, and apprehension because their games are digital crack, social life not required.

Every one of their game manuals begins with a forward detailing their open game world, how you can play however you like, and that you can live another life in their world. With a Bethesda Game Studios game, everything else in real life, friends, work, vagina, it all becomes secondary to exploring that beautifully crafted landscape, interacting with those wonderfully detailed characters, and solving the many Quests that are set before you.

It was like this with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition (still the greatest game I never "finished"), it was like this with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and it's the same with their latest creation: Fallout 3.

Fallout 3 is set in the year 2277, 200 years after the end of a war between the United States of America and China that culminated with global nuclear destruction. Many people were able to survive in underground Vaults, and 200 years later, here you are. You are a member of Vault 101 located in the ruins of the Washington, D.C. area, and with this particular Vault, no one ever enters and no one ever leaves. That is, until your father somehow gets out and you have to escape to go in search of him.

Fallout 3 has one of the best introductions/tutorials that I've ever seen in a game, where you start out literally as a baby learning the various game mechanics. You quickly flash forward to different key points in your life, meeting some important characters along the way, and by the time you head off in search of Dad, you've been able to customize your gender and looks, modified your stats via the series' trademark S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, and distributed your points to the Skills that you want.

I've often heard people describe Fallout 3 as "Oblivion with guns," and while this may be true on the surface (and it's hardly a bad thing considering that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is, in my opinion, the best game available on the Xbox 360), the two games are very, very different in terms of their core mechanics.

Yes, you have a wide open world that you can explore anyway you want. Yes, you can interact with a huge assortment of characters with the same general dialogue system. And yes, you can spend a lot of time finding some really great loot, but these are all surface details.

For one thing, your character's stats do not increase normally throughout the game. You can increase your stats by wearing certain items, completing certain Quests, or by finding various Bobbleheads, but generally speaking, if you place a "6" as your Strength, expect it to stay that way for the bulk of the game. In short, the stats you select before you leave Vault 101 are much more crucial since they drastically affect you long term.

You can distribute Skill Points to your Skills ever time you level up, but there really isn't much in the way of specialization like there was in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you had to pick a Character Class and generally speaking, you were a combat, stealth, or magic-oriented character, but in Fallout 3, you can easily do it all. My first play-through of Fallout 3 took me just under 110 hours, and by the time I was done, I could use pretty much any type of weapon effectively, pick any lock, hack most terminals, barter well, win most Speech Challenges (percentage chances to influence someone in dialogue. Gone is the spinning disc mini-game with the oh-so-hilarious facial expressions found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), and well, let's just say there's very little new for me to experience when I get around to doing my second play-through. This can all be both good or bad, depending on your point of view and what you want to get out of Fallout 3.

You're also saddled with a level cap at Level 20, which I reached about halfway through my play-through. This meant that aside from finding and reading various books in the game world, I spent a significant amount of play time with no chance to earn additional Experience or to further enhance my character's Skills, which diminished the feeling of accomplishment for completing Quests and defeating enemies.

Your inventory is also much more simplified than what Bethesda Game Studios has done before. While the general menus of your Pip-Boy 3000 are similar to those found in your Journal of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, instead of collecting full suits of armour, you simply have body armour and helmets, ammo doesn't weigh you down (I can carry 20 Mini-Nukes and 6,000 5.56 bullets with no problem!), and there's no restriction to how often you can heal yourself with items. Thank God for the invention of the Key Ring, however, which greatly reduces the clutter of your inventory.

Graphically, Fallout 3 is Bethesda Game Studios' best game yet. The Capital Wasteland is dark, ruined, and depressing. There's very different architecture between the downtown D.C. area and the game's outskirts, and most of the towns and settlements have their own distinctive flavours; no small feet in a drab, post-nuclear apocalyptic setting. Character models are also greatly improved over those found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Faces are smoother, bodies are more proportionate and realistic, and I swear, I can't be the only one who found many of the female character models in Sexy Sleepware honest-to-God sexy (or maybe that's the social isolation caused by the game talking). The only hitch with character models I found was with their hair, especially on women. Often, a character model's hair looks like a plastic wig, but this is really a small complaint for such a grand world.

Audio wise, the game is quite a treat. The dialogue and voice acting for all the characters is top notch. Creature noises, like the snarls of Feral Ghouls or the laughter of Super Mutants fits in well, and weapons and ambient noises all sound like you'd expect them to. Musically, the game's general soundtrack is a lot more subdued and less epic than what was found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but I loved all the retro tracks found in Fallout 3. The real delight, however, comes in the game's Radio Stations. Throughout radios all over the Capital Wasteland or via your Pip-Boy 3000, you can tune into two of the game's radio stations (as well as other signals you pick up along your travels), Enclave Radio or Galaxy News Radio. Both these radio stations feature full broadcasts, music, talk radio, radio shows, and on several occasions, their "DJ's" even make comment on the activities that you've been up to, which really helps to make you feel like your actions do make a difference in this wide open world.

And, as a Bethesda Game Studios Game, while graphics and audio are all icing on the cake, it's the exploration, the world, and the Quests that really bring about that digital addiction. The Capital Wasteland _is_ alive, and I'm not just talking about the Raiders, Radscorpians, and Deathclaws you'll find roaming the world. There is a full day/night cycle with days, weeks, and even months that can go by (but no weather patterns), and as you explore the Capital Wasteland, it's not uncommon for you to come across various factions fighting it out, wanderers simply exploring, or trade caravans moving from settlement to settlement. In fact, you'll often hear a battle going on in the distance and have no idea who's fighting who, but there's no obligation what-so-ever for you to check it out.

Travel around the Capital Wasteland is quite simple. You simply walk or run from point A to B. It's a fair sized map and there's a lot of ground to cover, but aside from any encounters you'll experience along the way, it doesn't take too long moving from location to location, that is, save for the downtown D.C. area. While out in the Wasteland itself you can simply run anywhere, downtown, you often have to travel through the city's dank, repetitive subway system to access the various sections. You see, after the bombs fell, many buildings were, of course, turned into rubble, and much of that rubble is now blocking the narrow streets. So, even though realistically you _could_ have climbed over it, Bethesda Game Studios forces you to go underground, which really frustrated me many times over. Not only are most of the subways the same bloody thing, but I don't want to fight or sneak past a bunch of Raiders or Feral Ghouls, I simply want to get from Point A to B and sometimes C to further a Quest. At least once you find a location, you can use the game's Fast Travel system to avoid lengthy journeys entirely, and of course, the subways are an overall small complaint given the scope of the world.

The Quests of Fallout 3 are some of Bethesda Game Studios most detailed, lengthy, and involved yet. The main Quest and its story are very well done (save for the anti-climatic ending, which I won't ruin here), and there's several great side Quests for you to embark upon. The problem I found is not with the Quests themselves, but with the fact that there's so few of them. Unlike The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there's little in the way of real character specialization, and no Guilds to join. So for comparison, in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion my first play-through took about 120 hours where I did the main Quest, joined the Fighter's Guild, fought in the Arena, did some side Quests, found the cure for my Vampirism, and completed several unnamed Quests. After all of this, I was still able to come back with different kinds of Characters and not only repeat certain Quests from a different perspective, both in terms of Skills and moral intent, but I was also able to join different factions, such as the Mage's or Assassin's Guild and experience entirely new Quests. That's well over 200 hours of play. In Fallout 3, there's only 1 Quest that I have not completed, and while there are several unnamed Quests, their more like tasks since the ones I've experienced thus far only take a few minutes at most.

This greatly lessons the replay value of Fallout 3, and while I certainly can't complain given that 110 hours is like playing through Halo 3's Campaign 11 times, it is still very sad to see how much more detailed the Capital Wasteland is compared to Cyrodiil, but how much less substance that world actually contains.

At least this time around you don't have to venture alone. In Fallout 3, you can gain Followers who will follow you around and help you in combat, and while their AI isn't perfect, they do help out greatly, and you can equip them to toughen them up further. The trick about Followers is that they're dependant on your Karma. In Fallout 3, your actions will net you Good, Neutral, or Negative Karma, and this will affect how NPC's perceive you in the world, as well as which followers will join you or not when asked. This is a great way to mix things up a little, and it'll allow you to have some different companions on multiple play-throughs. In my game, I made use of 3 different Followers for the fun of it, and found I became really attached to them.

Combat wise, the game is standard fair with what you'd expect from Bethesda Game Studios, save for the inclusion of V.A.T.S., the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. The Fallout series was originally turn-based, and Bethesda Game Studios kept in as much tradition as they could. V.A.T.S. brings about the illusion of turn-based combat by pausing the game and allowing you to select what parts of your enemy you want to shoot at, showing you a percentage chance to hit, and allowing you to attack based on the number of Action Points that you have left. V.A.T.S. is a great system that can really save your ass in a fight, and you can do some very precise shooting once you increase your Skill with your weapons, though I did find it very annoying when V.A.T.S. would tell me I had a 95% chance to hit a target, and then all of my shots simply hit the ground or a railing right in front of me. Note that V.A.T.S. doesn't always take environmental objects or elevation into account when calculating those percentages.

The game's economy is handled slightly differently than what Bethesda Game Studios has done before. In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you could take all the loot you could carry and sell it to most vendors you came across, traditionally at a general merchant in any town. In Fallout 3, merchants actually have a limited number of Bottle Caps (the game's currency) in which to buy items, so you can actually milk them dry and have loot left over to sell, which I found annoying. Town merchants tend not to have a lot of cash, but you can hit up the Trade Caravans who travel from town to town, but unless you invest in them (related to a side Quest), they also have a small amount of funds. Once, I actually spent a full 3 in-game weeks, mainly sleeping to pass the time and allow merchants to re-build their collection of Bottle Caps, in order to sell a huge amount of loot I'd collected, and I had fully invested in all the Caravans. This took me just over an hour in real time, but by the time I completed the game's main Quest, I had over 70,000 Bottle Caps, so I could buy anything or pretty much anyone I wanted.

So what's the final verdict? Fallout 3 is, simply put, one of the best Single Player RPGs I've ever played. I personally feel that it falls short of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, that it has less replay value then Bethesda Game Studio's previous effort, but it is still an epic game by all accounts. As a whole, there is simply so much to see and to do in Fallout 3, so keep in mind that the game requires a significant time investment, but if an immersive, single player RPG is what you're looking for, then you'll get far more than your money's worth with Fallout 3.

A game like Fallout 3 only comes along once every few years, coincidentally when Bethesda Game Studios gets around to releasing another game, and you'd do well to add this title to your collection. Simple words, and a review this short, do not do it justice, and it's an experience you need to live first hand to truly appreciate. Now go out, explore, find Dad, and tell your real life to hold all calls.

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