Fallout 3: Maturing the Action RPG Genre

Few games have been hyped as much as Fallout 3. The latest installment in a venerable franchise, as well as Bethesda Softworks’ first major release since their 2006 smash hit Oblivion, the title has much to live up to. Fortunately, it meets those expectations handily, offering gamers an engrossing and rich experience that sets the bar for the action RPG genre going forward.

Life begins in the apparent safety of the fallout shelter Vault 101, where you choose your character’s essential attributes. The mechanics of character choice are organically presented as you explore, eventually leading you out of the vault and into the Capital Wasteland in search of your runaway father.

Like in the other Fallout games, this one is set in the post-apocalyptic remains of Washington, DC. While the small human population has begun to rebuild society, the cultural milieu is stuck in the 1950s, giving the game a unique fingerprint and a fascinating premise. Retro-futuristic dark humor is rampant (and hilarious). The Capital Wasteland is an unmonitored, unpoliced zone, and the game illustrates the captivating results of a world run by nobody. Fallout explores the nature of man by illustrating the genesis of social relations in the wake of a nuclear reset.

The landscape is visually monotonous, belying the vast variety of experiences available within it. I’m not talking about fetch quests — Bethesda has steered well clear of triviality. Instead, the side action is deep and meaningful. You’re frequently presented with difficult moral dilemmas. Kill a drug addict and you can keep her whole stash; negotiate, and you could be rewarded without getting your hands dirty. Such freedom to be evil is completely appropriate, considering the anarchy of the world you are exploring. You can be a hero as well, though. Aiding a history buff in recovering the declaration of independence from baddies occupying the ruins of the Smithsonian is particualrly fulfilling.

The unique premise creates a perfect foundation for thought-provoking storylines, all along developing your character as a part of the fabric of the Capital Wasteland. Fallout is completely immersive. From the Etta James record playing on the radio to the geiger-counter menu style to the 1950’s style refrigerators filled with radioactive TV dinners and Nuka-Cola, every element just seems to fit. The visual and aural design aesthetic is well-crafted and remarkably consistent. Everything is scarred, torn, and filthy, building a sense of time and place.

Fallout’s graphics are average in terms of pixels pushed, but Bethesda wisely chose to focus on texture quality and visual style instead. The game looks exactly as post-apocalyptic D.C. would. Dark grays and browns dominate, and everything from the buildings to the trees is marked by wear and decay.

The map is littered with points of interest, many of which are familiar to the present-day player. The Lincoln Memorial, the Mall, and the Washington Monument are all present. What’s left of the White House, the Washington Memorial, the Mall: They’re all here, forming a miniature version of Downtown D.C. The Capital itself only forms a fraction of the map, though. The rest is suburban Maryland, the wild west, a landscape dotted with signs of the times. Destroyed highway overpasses, ruined radio towers, and abandoned settlements populate the wastes, inviting you to investigate. The sparse pre-civilization that you discover is fascinating and entertaining. The towns are imaginatively crafted, diverse, and truly fun to explore. Rivet City, for example, is a repurposed battleship docked in the former Navy Yards in the south of D.C. Such ingenuity is emblematic of the spirit of this new world, and the resilience of the population is a hopeful message from Bethesda. Yes, the pervasive attitude of the Capital Wasteland is a self-centered, mercenary one, but human cooperation persists. We can always recover, no matter how badly we screw up the world we’ve been given.

The main storyline is functional but not spectacular. The redeeming moment is the climactic final act, which is pure action-hero badassery. There are some touching moments, and some cool ones, but overall the story works mostly to guide you from one city to the next. Every stop will lead you on interesting tangents, and in a game like this, that’s really the point.

But while the side quests are certainly fun, there is a noticeable lack of structure to them. Most RPGs have quest lines: Fallout has a quest cloud. In Oblivion, for example, the Guilds provided dozens of quests and the concrete goal of advancement within the guild. This omission is certainly the result of a deliberate decision on Bethesda’s part, considering the improvisational, disorganized character of the Capital Wasteland. But they certainly could have done something similar without betraying the spirit of the game, and it would have provided a much longer and more fulfilling experience. Combined with a frustratingly low level cap, the game suffers from a lack of ability to motivate the player after the “wow” factor wears off.

Thankfully, Bethesda plans to expand the game significantly via downloadable content in the near future. The first pack scheduled for release, Operation: Anchorage, will plug you into a “military simulation” of a battle against the communist chinese that is an important part of the game’s lore. The Pitt and Broken Steel are scheduled for later this spring. Hopefully, Bethesda will add content that keeps the player going.

The gameplay is standard fare for a first/third person RPG, save for the focus on gunplay. The aim mechanic is totally crude, but fortunately the innovative V.A.T.S. mechanic takes away the need for a more refined system. V.A.T.S. allows the player to pause, survey the targets in front of them, and select particular areas of the opponent to aim for. The game gives you your odds of hitting certain areas, and if a body part takes enough damage, it becomes crippled, debilitating your foe. You can also aim for their weapon, and if successful, they become a sitting duck. This mechanic places Fallout right between a traditional turn-based RPG and a twitchy shoot-em-up, allowing the player to choose the style that suits them more. Some gamers, myself included, detest playing first person shooters with console thumbstick controllers, and this scheme is the perfect solution.

Fallout 3 represents a maturation for the genre. The title is incredibly polished, but not revolutionary. Its lack of direction means that you’ll spend fewer hours playing Fallout than you would playing another “Epic RPG” type of game, but those will be high-quality hours. The star of the show is the Capital Wasteland itself, and this game is worth picking up just to experience it. Despite some niggling flaws, this is an enthralling title that shouldn’t be missed.