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Fallout 3 - The Third Degree
Review - posted by baby arm on Sat 20 December 2008, 23:06:55Tags: Bethesda Softworks; Fallout 3; Gareth Davies
Fallout 3 - The Third Degree
review by Section8
"Yes. More subjects. I think I shall start with you. Do! Do!"
If you'd asked me ten years ago if I was excited about the prospect of Fallout 3, I would have rolled my eyes at you for asking such an obvious question. If you'd then told me it would be a pseudo FPS developed by Bethesda Softworks, my youthful optimism, zeal for first person shooters and love of Daggerfall would have overridden any concerns of merging two fairly incongruous brands of RPG together. By the same token, if you'd asked me ten years ago if I was excited about Star Wars - Episode 1, I'd have reacted in the same way.
However, by the time Episode 3 came around, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones - like Morrowind and Oblivion - had come and gone, completely shattering my faith by virtue of stiffly animated and poorly acted characters, plot silliness, substitution of visual glitz for any form of substance and outright shitting on continuity. A lot of fans, myself included, have been turned away - no doubt in favour of a less discerning and less jaded audience. With that apt analogy in mind, and a weight of unfavourable information pre-release, I decided to hire Fallout 3 from my local video store for research purposes and promised myself I wouldn't enjoy it.
And there are good reasons why my expectations are so low. Oblivion, despite its "critical" praise, was fundamentally flawed on many levels, its biggest sin being that there was really no point to any character choices - no matter who you chose to be you'd encounter precious little resistance in whatever you attempted. Ultimately the game made all characters into poorly rewarded errand runners in a trashy, derivative high fantasy world. Even Morrowind fared better in hindsight since it had a fantastically well realised gameworld that was fun to explore even if there was no real gameplay to any of it.
So Fallout 3. With expectations of "more of the same" tempered by the awareness that Bethesda have to sell this game to millions more than those who comprise the original fanbase to recoup their extravagant spendings, it was time to get born. Cute concept, but the voice acting of "mum" is more painful than childbirth could ever be. The whole opening vignette isn't much better. It really drags on, as the birthday party forces you to speak to the right people in order to advance, and the GOAT (though skippable) forces you to sit through full voice acting for each question, which makes the whole thing take about ten times longer than the similar "personality" tests seen in Bethesda's previous games. At the end, you just ignore the whole thing and proceed to create your character the way you want. Worst of all, each aspect of character creation concludes a cumbersome and less-than-utilitarian gameplay section without the simple brevity of a traditional character sheet, which just reeks of developer ego forcing you through their"great idea" because given the choice, most people would prefer the simple and effective way.
The whole thing ends with the typical "oh noes, shit is going down, follow the tutorial to escape!" shenanigans. It does set the bar a little higher than Oblivion, but it's still a far cry from Fallout's twist of talking you up as the chosen champion of these cause only to stumble on the remains of the previous hero the minute you step out of the Vault door. Not to mention that all the graphical tech in the world can't present the concept of seeing the outside world for the first time as succinctly the original game - especially since it's just the same "fade-from-white" effect you've seen at four times when the plot skips forward, and also seems eerily similar to Assassin's Creed, FEAR or countless other titles.
"Of course! The mutants will survive! The mutants will rebuild this world!"
At this point I'm a more than a little wary. The high point of Oblivion was stepping out into what seems like a limitless and fascinating world only to find it was anything but. This feels more like Morrowind - Bleak, grey and ugly. There is a lot of it, but it's not particularly eye-catching compared with other AAA titles. The source material itself is obviously partly to blame. As I begin to explore a few things become immediately apparent, and the most obvious is that consistency is hard to come by in visual terms. Some of the art assets are fantastic - fitting well with the source material without directly imitating it, well meshed and textured, while a lot of it is entirely the opposite. A lot of the landscape wouldn't be out of place in Morrowind fidelity-wise, and there's a lot of art direction that only serves the "retro" side of Fallout's retro-futuristic setting.
However, as a world to explore, there's more to like. The locations are nowhere near as cookie cut as Oblivion, to the point where some feel unique, and the rest have a bit more variety in the prefabs and "tilesets" they use. A lot of the locations have history - so unlike the uncharacteristic forts/caves/ruins that are almost entirely interchangeable in Oblivion - you now have factories with a clear pre-war purpose. Unfortunately, this is little more than visual dressing, and what little lore there is to be found is generally hidden within computer terminals, leaving some locations utterly baffling.
For instance, I couldn't find any real justification as to why a mad doctor had holed up inside the offices of a tricycle factory, choosing to guard his inner sanctum with Super Mutants and outer sanctum with Feral Ghouls, who I'm reliably informed have "lost all ability to reason and will attack anything on sight." Nor could I see a reason why this Doctor was about three times harder to kill than a super mutant, despite wearing little more than a labcoat. Same goes for the named glowing ghoul he'd imprisoned, who was considerably tougher again, and able to use powerful "magical" attacks from within his rickety cell. It's possible this is all explained by a quest I haven't encountered, but given the encouragement to explore at will, it's just not good enough to leave these typically bizarre scenarios unexplained.
There's also a gratuity to a lot of the locations. The notion of finding another Vault just doesn't register any kind of excitement with me any more, since it'd likely be functionally identical and visually similar to the many vault-like dungeons filled with fully operational pre-war hardware that seem to be under every sewer grate, monument, train wreck or ant hive you come across. I still get giddy about visiting the Glow in my Fallout playthroughs, because it's a rare haven of pre-war goodies. That same feeling evaporated pretty quickly in Fallout 3's abundance of metallic burrows.
The other major gripe with exploration is that you'll blast your way through improbably hordes to some kind of "boss fight" - only to find there's nothing more than a handful of experience available for doing so. I'd come out of locations completed miffed that I'd exhausted a good portion of my ammunition, a few chems and with my equipment in need of repair for no real gain. I can brook the occasions where my eventual goal would be barred by my own lack of skill to breach some final barrier - like a lock beyond my abilities, but a lot of places just left me with an empty "That's it?" feeling.
Even with these criticisms behind it, the exploration play is without a doubt the strongest aspect of the game. Bethesda have struck a much better balance between quantity and quality, and it's certainly nice to feel as though you're exploring more unique locations than Oblivion offered. However, I found my quite positive early experiences were tainted as I went on, simply because every good idea gets repeated ad nauseum until it's no longer noteworthy. The tenth factory/powerstation/foundry simply serves to make all that came before feel less special. Same applies for museums/monuments/libraries/archives. I'd have been happy to see less locations for the sake of more detail and differentiation. Or alternately, if the focus must stay on quantity, then repetition and lack of context/lore is far more forgivable if it's the result of procedural generation.
"I doubt even the FEV will help you. Why am I talking? It's unlikely you even understand..."
However, I've deliberately skipped over the actual settlements in the game, which really need to be separated from the "dungeon" style locations. They serve an entirely different purpose and can't really be compared. Which is good, because they'd compare poorly. Outside of "civilisation" everything feels like it's a little too densely packed and there's a little too much life. Within "civilisation" guess what? It's exactly the opposite. Megaton and Rivet City are far and away the biggest settlements and both seem to consist of a small handful of "important" characters with quests and things to say, a dozen or two named characters with simple roles, like trading or healing and then another small handful of generic citizens.
There's nothing that feels like a metropolis, which is somewhat forgivable given the nature of the setting, but very disappointing given the scope of some of the settlements in previous games. In addition, there's really not much going on in each town. There's usually a single major quest line, and a couple of simple peripheral quests which can usually be resolved in about two minutes. I had one quest where a character remarked a certain trader would sell me drugs if I wanted them - I talked to that character and after two lines and a single Speech check, I'd talked him out of being a drug addict. For the "flagship" settlement, Megaton is pretty simplistic - the only depth to be found is the "Survival Guide" series of quests - and Moira, the character who gives the quests is awful in every way. Poorly written, poorly acted and completely devoid of wit or humour despite the writers' best efforts. Why Bethesda chose to give such a prominent role to such a poor character is anyone's guess - but then again, she's hardly an exception.
To sum up character interaction - it becomes evident that your tenth birthday party is arguably the best the script has to offer - simply by the virtue that childish dialogue sounds much more appropriate coming from ten-year-olds than from pretty much every single adult you find in the wasteland. Every character is a painfully obvious trope, and it seems that most fall into one of three categories - Over-Protective Older Brother, Damsel in Distress or Annoyingly Bubbly Teen Girl. Your typical greeting from a wastelander is either:
- "I'm over-protective of [something]. [Generic tough guy threat]"
- "Help, my (sibling/parent/child/friend) is in danger from (mutants/raiders/ants/vampires/slavers) and needs you to help them."
- "Yay! It's so great to meet a new face!"
Though when you boil it down, the greatest shortcoming of Fallout 3's dialogue is really simple - none of the talkie interacting ever effectively mimics actual conversation. "What's the news about town?" is little better than the classic "Rumours", and by the time you add the equivalent of "Job", "Town", "Rumours", "Current Quest" to every character then you've got a long list of waffle, of which you can only see three options at any given time. If it's not a generic query - it's likely a terse interrogation with more relevance to metagaming than characterisation. If not that, then you're left with conversational responses which seldom offer more choice than "goodwilled naivety", "gratuitous antagonism" or "shameless profiteering".
- "Sure I'll help you! Here's the location of my vault and a list of my fears!"
- "I'd never help you, Stupid. Because you're stupid. Fuck. Shit."
- "Pay me to help you."
Unless you're out to roleplay a wide-eyed pre-teen, an obnoxious pre-teen or a mercenary of indistinct age group then you're going to find it very hard to express yourself in this climate. One of Fallout's greatest charms was that nearly all dialogue choices felt like a viable choice, or at the very least a comedic aside. Dialogue choices in Fallout 3 feel like you're picking teams for a scratch game of football, and you're down to the kids who spend their afternoons rolling dice and painting miniatures.
Generic voice-over also gets repetitive and lot of this comes down to schoolboy error on the behalf of the producers and voice directors. They may have expanded their cast - but in many cases, particularly combat taunts, they've given the same lines to each actor, as though 6 different raiders all saying "This is bullshit, where are you?" is any less repetitive than having the same voice for each one. And keeping true to the form of Oblivion, there's even moments where characters have some lines voiced by entirely different actors to the rest of their lines.
However, to their credit, Bethesda have put a decent amount of effort toward providing stat checks, and even unique dialogue choices based on perks. Functionally, this is bringing the modern RPG back toward the standard set by decade old titles, but the execution still leaves a lot to be desired. The [intelligence] tagged lines aren't clever or insightful, the [charisma] lines aren't particularly charming, but it's nice to be able to leverage your strength or endurance in certain situations, no matter how nonsensical it may be. However, it suffers from the same shortcomings as the BioWare formula - where actual divergences are pretty rare and most choices are fairly cosmetic, prompting a slightly different reply from the character you're talking to before merging back to the same well-trod path. Still, it is a step up, and that can only be a good thing, right?
And on that note, the quest structure across the board has improved as well. Many quests will have different paths toward resolution, optional goals, and in some cases are completely open-ended, though unfortunately these particular quests are rarely more complex than killing a certain amount of critters. Still, it's a big step up from Oblivion and small step toward the far superior quest structure and design of the original games.
It's still a long way from Fallout standard, as many of these paths lead to the same end, and many dialogue checks are more or less a "skip quest" feature. Lying about quest completion doesn't come back to bite you, and it's not even a difficult prospect. It would have been nice to see a quest-giver grilling you to try and catch you out in a lie, giving you multiple speech/inventory checks - but it's a start, and it's one of the few genuinely positive steps forward from Oblivion, since most of the game's positive features can be summed up as "more Morrowind than Oblivion."
"So, what shall it be? Do you join the Unity or do you die here? Join! Die! Join! Die!"
So what about the actual bread and butter gameplay? Again, there's a lot of territory to cover here, so let's start with the most obvious - the combat - because no matter what sort of character you choose to be, you'll be seeing plenty of combat, and likely succeeding admirably. As a First Person Shooter, Fallout 3 is weak. Movement is sluggish, damage feedback is negligible both for yourself and for enemies, and the AI is appallingly bad. Even without using VATS, the combat is very exploitable due to the AI failings.
Even if you were to turn a blind eye to that, it just can't compare to the cover system in shooters like Gears of War, or even the derivation used in Mass Effect; it doesn't have vehicles, nor does it have much tactical distinction between enemies. There's a token effort with hit locations that will make an enemy go berserk, but it falls a long way short of contemporary games, and even games from the previous console generation, such as Halo. As a first person shooter, Fallout 3 leaves a lot to be desired.
VATS on the other hand is promising, but packed full of its own set of failings. The first and most obvious is that you get "cinematic" slo-mo everytime you shoot at something, and even if it worked perfectly - it gets boring fast. But to further drag it down, the camera often gets stuck in and behind scenery, and shows many angles that are completely irrelevant both aesthetically and tactically. It also serves to highlight lots of goofy looking situations and clipping issues. When fighting Super Mutants, it's not uncommon to have a shot of yourself with a weapon buried deep within the chest of your enemy and firing at impossible angles to hit their heads. The lack of an option to turn off VATS is as inexcusable as a turn-based combat implementation without settings for movement speed.
VATS is also a poor tactical tool - the camera angles tend to obscure the movements of nearby enemies, and the transition from VATS to real-time is awkward - you'll constantly have to re-establish your bearings. Not that it really matters, as you'll rarely face enemies in great enough numbers to warrant tactical concern in combat. A typical combat situation puts you up against a very polite, slow train of single enemies that you can comfortably dispatch. The only time I encountered an "epic" battle was when I took on an entire settlement and had about a dozen slavers, slaves and traders come after me at once - and as much as it's authentic to the originals to have such poor group AI dynamics, Fallout's "whole-town-becomes-hostile" issues are among the game's most well remembered and widely documented flaws. It's a real shame Bethesda have failed to improve on this.
Same goes for the duck into inventory and use a limitless number of stimpacks mid-battle trick, which is the same faithful exploit lovingly recreated ten years on. However, the biggest problem I have with VATS is that it's greatly incentivised. While watching a VATS queue play out, damage to the player is massively reduced, even low skills have high accuracy against all body parts at close range and the critical chance seems skewed in your favour as well. So even when it's not entirely "necessary" there are lots of reasons to use VATS, which slows the game down and greatly reduces the density of interaction, and there's no worse design than one that rewards the player for doing something boring. It forces their hand and eventually they'll realise how bored they are - the bubble bursts, with the likely result being the steady revision of early good impressions (see Oblivion, Gaming Media's treatment of)
Combat is the cornerstone of Fallout 3, and it doesn't really measure up on any level. It's inoffensive for the most part, and as long as you're easily amused or patient, then the constant VATS delays aren't too grating - and since the game isn't overly difficult, the lack of tactical ability won't leave a sour taste. But it's not fun, just tolerable and that categorises it among countless action RPGs from Diablo onward, where the game lives and dies on the peripheral systems. More on those later.
Aside from combat, there's Stealth, which is a slight improvement from Oblivion, but lacks the "tools of the trade" required. There's still no light meter, no extinguishable light sources, no dynamic shadows, no distracting objects, no real-time lockpicking, nothing beyond human detection such as alarms or security cameras - and so all you're left with is a bare bones system with stealth mode and sneak attacks, making it little more than a complement to combat. The other two skills with related gameplay are the lockpicking, which is simple but effective (though I pity anyone without analogue sticks) and the computer hacking, which is just a simple logic puzzle each time coupled with an unlimited use exploit at no cost to the character. And of course, there's Speech - which has no real "gameplay" associated with it, unless you count the occasional roll against percentage to be compelling.
"My scientists assure me that nothing is wrong. What do you say to that? Say! Say!"
Beyond the immediate gameplay, there are the underlying systems. The primary SPECIAL stat line has been massively overhauled from the original games, and in the adaptation process has become far less defining. The difference between a 10 and a 1 in any given stat is not as significant, and no character ever feels like they have a weakness. There are also a lot of ways to increase your primary stats, further diluting what had previously been a fairly rigid way of defining a character's basic framework.
And instead of increasing the importance of skills to compensate this, they too are very forgiving, with a couple of notable exceptions. Small Guns is an everyman skill. No matter what type of build you have, or how many point's you've invested, Small Guns is far and away the most often used. Even when I'd maxed out Big Guns, I'd only really use them in "boss fights" (or run out of ammo), and my < 25% Small Guns skill was my primary way of defending myself. Being horribly unskilled in nearly all combat skills didn't seem to hinder me at all, and I got solid utility out of all weapon types.
The two "active" non-combat skills, Lockpicking and Science (Hacking) are poorly implemented - rather than repeat the mistakes of Oblivion's "skill-bypass" minigames, they've imposed hard restrictions. Every terminal and lock in the game has a difficulty that is a multiple of 25 - if you have an equal of higher skill, you can breeze through the minigame, otherwise you can't even attempt it. Which means the functional difference between a skill of 25 lockpicking and 49 is absolutely nothing. Progression of two skills with 5 skill levels hammered into a system where the other skills are on a percentile scale feels very clumsy and unrewarding when you can pump a whole level's worth of points into a skill for no change.
The remaining skills basically define how your income will be taxed. Medical assistance and repairs are readily available at a cost, and skills really only serve to avoid some or all of this cost. Barter is simply a way to sell for more and buy for less. All three are made mostly redundant by the abundance or pre-war items and junk, that in turn makes bottlecaps pretty easy to come by. Repair also contributes to the effectiveness of the game's "mushroom picking" gameplay - assembling items from junk by using schematics. It's a nice idea, but has no scope for experimentation, and doesn't really give a significant leg up - the schematic items are certainly better if you have a decent repair skill, multiple schematics, and a ready supply of rarer ammo/items, but I found it easier to keep comparable non-schematic weapons maintained and full of ammo.
The third major aspect of the character system are the perks, which are a mixed bag. There's a significant portion that are nothing more than a boost to a stat or a skill - which doesn't really add anything to the system or further define any character. However, there are a few that are a bit more interesting - like the "Impartial Mediation" perk, which gives a huge bonus to your speech skill as long as your karma is neutral. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but at least it does attempt to define the character and coerce the player into behaving in a particular manner.
"Those who deny this opportunity will be sterilized and let go."
And that's as good a way as any to segue into the Karma system. Like any one-dimensional variable, it produces one-dimensional results. Everyone in the wasteland has a Saint Nick-like prescience of your intentions, and makes it very clear through horrible fourth-wall breaking conversation. Besides which, it's very easy to manipulate Karma at will by stealing or donating, which makes the whole thing utterly pointless.
Worse however, is that by pre-assigning a black and white morality to various actions, Bethesda completely removes the player's ability to thematically explore morality within their gameworld. Theft is always evil. Killing depends on who you've killed, not the situation in which it occurred. Obviously it's a lot to ask that a game be situationally aware, but there's a lot of missed opportunities here. Why have one universal moral code? Why not have characters morally judge you according to a variety of stats, instead of just leaving them as fluff for the loading screens? It's far more interesting to have a character judge you for having killed hundreds of people, no matter how well intentioned each kill was. Or characters who will judge a cannibal as such no matter how many bottles of water they've given to the tiny handful of beggars throughout the wasteland. Bethesda do themselves no favours trying to directly emulate Bioware's simple systems of morality, especially when a Fallout game treats things with the same good guy/bad guy mentality of Star Wars.
But it's not just morality - the whole game is thematically crippled. By turning the vault from a Pleasantville-esque utopia into a totalitarian dictatorship, they're just blandly unifying the pre-war and post-war world. In the original games, there's so much to ponder upon the argument that there's no point in ever re-opening the vaults, as the society they sought to preserve is now just a remnant, tucked away below a new world built on ruthless survivalism. Fallout 3 blithely sweeps this aside - along with the loss of innocence and corruption that comes with exposure to the outside world in your quest to protect this sheltered existence.
Even the wider themes, such as drug use, prostitution and slavery are poorly developed. Drugs are little more than magic potions - and so is the cure. Addiction ceases to be a concern, which may explain the near complete absence of the hopeless junkies of the previous games. In my time with Fallout 3, I met two addicts - both of which were the chem dealers for their particular towns, kept in line by their wives. But there's no stigma against drug use from anyone else. Chem use is just an accepted part of wasteland life. Prostitution is limited to mean pimps and good-hearted hookers that need saving. Slavery does get a bit more play, but never goes beyond a message of "Slavery Bad!" and there's little evidence that slaves have a lifestyle any worse than anyone else - beyond the squalid quarters, slaves just spend their time standing around, just like everyone else.
And that's the biggest failure of all thematically. The very basic cornerstone of "survival" is rarely seen. Barely anyone in the wasteland appears to be concerned with getting by. Everyone is far more concerned with triviality, from relationships to complete facial surgery. There's cannibals and wannabe-vampires, but not because they're starving and have no other choice - just because. There's none of the hopeless gamblers, few junkies and prostitutes, and very little in the way of exploitation. Bethesda have almost entirely avoided thematically dark content in favour of using mutilation and gore to establish the game's "serious" and "mature" tone.
"Everything that I have tried to . . . a failure! It can't be. Be. Be. Be."
In summary, Fallout is definitely a big step up from Oblivion in a lot of ways, but it's still a game that relies on the player being able to amuse themselves by just "existing" in a poorly realised gameworld with precious little cohesion, or at the very least, suffer the boring and inane bits long enough to reap to occasional reward.
More than anything else, Fallout 3 suffers from a lack of cohesion, consistency and craftsmanship. Across the board, the quality of content runs the whole gamut (though moments of brilliance are particularly rare.) The game's highest "achievement" is the quantity of content and to this end, I feel like Bethesda have achieved absolutely very little. There's nothing in Fallout 3 that couldn't have been accomplished in four years by a hundred enthusiastic kids with rich parents.
There's really no critical justification for something that prides quantity over all else. Nobody lauds a movie that runs for 8 hours just for the sake of it. Nobody takes a ruler to a library and judges books by the width of their spine. Nobody pretends a gallon of waffle-house coffee has any worth beyond the caffeine it contains. Same goes for a four litre box of cheap wine. Fallout 3 shares the same metaphorical space as fast-food, bulk buys, movie marathons. If the only thing you care about is having a metric fuckton of something, then it's probably worth getting. But even then, there are far superior products in the form of MMORPGs and games with "unlimited" procedural content.
And of course there's the question of how it holds up as a sequel to a couple of ten (plus) year old games. Put simply, there's no comparison on any level. Fallout 3 transplants the iconic elements of Fallout's setting thoughtlessly to the East Coast - in most cases offering a poorly conceived reason as to why something West Coast specific up and left, but in some cases the justification involves a perversely coincidental parallel evolution.
For all other comparable aspects, Fallout far exceeds its third installment in every way, except for the graphical tech (obviously), but this is vastly overshadowed by the superior art direction of the original games. The only thing Fallout 3 truly inherits from it's predecessors are the flaws. Dodgy faction AI, boring and protracted combat against low level critters, a difficulty curve that plateaus long before the level cap and a host of minor issues.
In comparison to other Bethesda games, it's about the same - It doesn't really feel any more accomplished than previous titles. Once again, any of the more unpopular design choices from Oblivion have been rolled back to their previous iterations (ie Morrowind), addressed with a kneejerk response that doesn't really solve the problem, or simply made less transparent. It does tick more boxes on the RPG Codex wishlist, but only because it emulates Fallout. Ultimately Fallout 3 is just another content pack for "what Bethesda do best", and your enjoyment of it is little more than a function of your tolerance toward a low signal to noise ratio. As long as you're happy to wade through hours of inoffensively boring combat and inane dialogue for the occasional inspired moment, then you'll enjoy Fallout 3 until the next Bethesda game comes along doing the same stuff with a slightly different dressing.
In a way, it's almost anti-climactic. The cult classic Fallout has another forgettable iteration - I mean, at least Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel registers as a cautionary tale, while Fallout 3 can't even fail spectacularly . And in ten weeks, let alone ten years, nobody will be talking about it... until the Elder Scrolls V hype machine kicks into gear and the frank admissions that 16 hours of gameplay in a hotel room "failed" to reveal the many flaws of Fallout 3.