This is gunna hurt me more than it hurts Bethesda.
Cut back to Christmas 2008, specifically my Christmas 2008. The Pogues “Fairytale of New York” has played for the 40th time today, and it’s not even 11AM, you’ve had your first ever mince pie and you’re wondering why it’s popular, and you’ve got the Fallout 3 advert stuck in your head. Bob Crosby’s version of “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” plays gleefully over new-found ultra-violence. Your sheltered 12-year old mind wants nothing more than your dad to go over to the now-defunct GameStation, and buy a copy for £20. Does he get it? Not only does he get it, but he also grabs the strategy guide from Prima as well. What a don.
Fallout 3 should need no introduction, or indeed the Fallout series in general. The long-awaited third installment to a series crafted originally by Interplay, now in the hands of a seemingly-promising Bethesda. After releasing Oblivion two years prior, all eyes were on the publishing and developing giant to come through with a product to be revered for years to come. Did they succeed?
Mmm…. well… let’s move on.
You play as the son of Liam Neeson, who shelters you in the cozy Vault 101 after your mother dies while giving birth to you. All’s well and fine until you turn 18, and one night, your best friend is screaming about how your father has left the seemingly inescapable Vault. After you follow in his footsteps and attempt to track down just where the bloody hell he’s gone to, you become embroiled in a bigger conspiracy and war altogether.
Now, as much as I would like to jump back to 11 years ago, with ignorant bliss dominating every part of my body as I attempt to play through Fallout 3 for the 17th time, it cannot happen. As much as I still love this game with every fiber of my being, to the point where after 2500 hours of playing, it’s still in my Top 5 games of all time, the years have not been kind to this game whatsoever in some regards.
The combat, for example, is an absolute mess. Besides the fact that you can’t really aim down the sights of un-scoped guns properly, the guns all feel like crap, save for the Chinese Assault Rifle, which might be one of the best iterations of an Assault Rifle in any video game ever made. Other than that, the 10MM weapons, the shotguns, the energy weapons– they all feel limp in the hands of your Vault Dweller.
Melee combat? It’s alright. It’s basically just Oblivion, except you can’t block properly. This has been an issue I’ve had since 2008, but it’s an actual pisstake that you can’t grab, say, a trash can lid and use it as a shield while equipped with a Shishkebab, or Chinese Officer’s Sword. It’s a side of the combat that wasn’t fully explored, simply.
But wait! There’s always V.A.T.S, isn’t there? Ah yes, the mechanic that turned combat into less of a chore, and more of a handshake between two factions. I’ve grown to hate V.A.T.S in my age, as while the combat may be annoying to grasp at times, it’s still not so bad that you need to completely freeze the game and become invincible for a short while.
It’s a shame that we had to wait until 2018 to get an implementation of V.A.T.S that manages to not look like pseudo-cheating. Yeah, you still have aimbot in Fallout 76, but there’s still the drawback of standing still and looking like a tosser while trying to get free shots on a Super Mutant. There are direct repercussions for trying to be cheap, as opposed to Fallout 3, where you don’t even get damaged if you accidentally throw a grenade at your feet in V.A.T.S.
Graphically, it looks like grey vomit. Every single slight variation of black and white is used in full force, leading to a world where vibrant colors are vilified. Even Oasis, a village where trees are flourishing and wrapping around the enclosed cliffs, is all but lush, with the greens feeling like they’re being restrained. Could be worse, it could be the missing textures that seem to dominate most rock formations outside of Megaton.
Glitch-wise, there’s not a whole lot that’s infamous when it comes to Fallout 3 being glitchy. Oblivion had some spectacular A.I. bugger ups, and Skyrim was just, well, Skyrim, but Fallout 3 has never provided me with anything extraordinary to report on, bar one time in 2012 where a Giant Ant Soldier grew to atmosphere-breaking sizes. Shocked by this Earth Defense Force-style anomaly, I could do nothing but run to Tenpenny Tower and snipe the insectoid beast, resulting in the body model exploding across the skybox.
Mechanically, the leveling and progression of your character is stilted and poorly thought-out. Disregarding the fact that you can only go up to Level 30 at maximum, there’s a lot of way you can make your character immediately OP before you even exit the Vault. Pop your character’s Barter up to 50 before you exit the vault, and suddenly you won’t have a problem with supplies. Sneak to 50? You’re practically invisible, and so on.
It’s quite obvious that the design of Fallout 3 was numbed and boiled to its most generic layout in order to “appeal” to the console market, and I wish it didn’t. This was that dark period of time where franchises and entries in well-established and loved franchises were being dumbed down or mutated to the point of the weakest layer of familiarity. F.3.A.R., Resident Evil 5, DiRT 3, Saints Row: The Third, Hitman: Absolution— Christ, even Portal 2 suffered from the same thing.
That being said, this watered-down RPG isn’t as watered down as other games in the same mainstream light. Sure, it seems almost infantile at points, what with the max level cap of 30, and a fair lack of truly robust character building, whether it be in the perk system or the dialogue options. However, we saw how much worse it could be with Fallout 4, a game where freedom is all but given. That being said, there were annoyances in the perk system of 3.
There are so many perks here that are stupidly specific, to the point where they don’t even seem like a infallible option for a preset character build like sneaking or speech. One could argue that it’s the freedom of its predecessors trying to come back in from the cold, but come on. Who has ever ranked up Little Leaguer? Who has ever been in the position where Nerd Rage! seems like a viable option, even on more crushing difficulties?
When it’s not needless sectioning, it’s perks that come too late to care about. Party Girl/Boy at Level 28, Solar Powered at Level 20, Nerves of Steel at level 26– Nerves of Steel shouldn’t even matter at the point of it being available, because you need your agility to be 7, and you’ve already got a ton of Action Points at that point. What good is regenerating an almost endless supply faster than you could possibly need it to go?
Now, while I do have to put an asterisk here, and state that perks like Party Girl/Boy and Nerves of Steel were added with the inclusion of Broken Steel, which also increased the level cap from 20 to 30, but this is still a weak reward. They should’ve just put them both down to Level 12 and 14/16 respectively, but alas, there’s no point lamenting on it now.
Still, when all is said and done, this is still one of the quintessential Fallout experiences. While New Vegas could be considered objectively better, 3 can still stand to an almost equal height with Obsidian’s swansong. It’s nowhere near the banal boredom of Fallout 4, it’s nowhere near the glitchy grindfest of Fallout 76, it’s nowhere near the… umm… of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. In my eyes, it’s just as good as New Vegas, but for other reasons.
The narrative, for example, showcases an importance and urgency that’s been left behind with Fallout 4 and 76. Fallout 4 and 76 merely promise you that you are important, or that you’re the spectator to a story that doesn’t care for your presence, crowbarring you in with the loosest pretenses possible. Fallout 3 gives you context, creative ideas of how the future could be handled by a new-world government; It’s all fairly interesting. Again, not to the depths of New Vegas, but still interesting.
Beyond that, you have some exceptionally strong writing, adding to this nihilistic atmosphere of fake hopefulness. There’s optimism in their lines, but they’re all lying to themselves, or so they think. It leads to some fantastic characterization, especially when companions are thrown into the mix… well, some of them, but for every flat-lined Sergeant RL-3, there’s a Star Paladin Cross, a Charon, or Fawkes.
This was also the only Bethesda-developed Fallout game to get Karma right. While New Vegas continued to improve and add factions that respond to your every action, the Karma system put into Fallout 3 was a breath of fresh air at the time. Granted, this will rarely make any sort of difference, as the most common enemy you’ll face is Raiders, but there was still options and tests of your faith which felt good… or dastardly, your pick.
With that in mind, Fallout 3 still has one of the most fantastic tones for any video game in the same mindset of arid depression I’ve ever felt. It’s genuinely up there with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in terms of being this oppressive force to be reckoned with, as every step through these dusty and irradiated lands feels like you’re just driving yourself deeper into this sinking hole of insanity and death. It’s like listening to an Elliot Smith album while on Prozac.
While it may not be visually different, Fallout 3 does a better job of showcasing a unique side to the Capital Wasteland than Fallout 4 and 76 do. Providing a uniqueness that isn’t just throwing random biomes around like it’s a hyperactive Minecraft seed, 3 knows how to keep things in a state of wonder and awe while being tonally consistent.
The Vaults are my favourite example of this. As we all know by now, the Vaults of Fallout weren’t safe havens for the lucky few, but mere test chambers for whoever successfully applied, ranging from dystopian to grotesque. The hallucinatory nature of Vault 106. The white noise onslaught which devastated the residents of Vault 92. The simulations of Vault 112, and of course, the endless Garys of Vault 108. Horror, comedy, and ignorant bliss all showcased here.
I think what most people forget about Fallout 3— Myself included, to be honest— Is that horror is one of the most important aspect in this game, and it’s done magnificently well. Regardless of your opinions about the Metro tunnels, they are but a small fragment of how unbelievably terrifying the game can be, and there’s a lot more to be terrified by.
Deathclaws, the Dunwich Building, Yao Guai caverns, the aforementioned Vaults of 106 and 92, these are hallmarks in well-paced and well-structured horror. The unease, the paranoia, the precaution of making every small footstep taken last for hours. It’s all stellar, and that stellar-ness continues even when horror isn’t even a factor, and is instead replaced by wonder, shock, and awe.
Exiting Vault 101. Going up to the Lincoln Memorial for the first time. Leaving Raven Rock to see the Enclave in ruin, disarray and mania. Blowing up Megaton. Selling Bumble to the Slav– I’m getting sidetracked, but this game is chock full of interesting journeys that still take up a large portion of some of the most memorable quests and moments you could partake in last generation. It’s incredible, and still is.
Look, truth be told, I just love Fallout 3. Like I said before, this is still in my Top 5 Favorite Games of All Time, and will always stay that way. Returning to it was difficult, not because I had to rag on it, but because I believe there’s barely anything wrong with the game as it is, bar the terrible combat. Luckily, there are paths where combat can be minimal, the best paths which truly show off how great this game could be considered to other people if it wasn’t for the mainstream way off cutting parts off from the original machine.
Finally, there’s the DLC to discuss, and these days, the game needs these five DLC expansions in order to flourish properly. Operation: Anchorage was a neat little entrée that served as a nice change of pace from the base game, although it did give you some game-breaking equipment in the form of invincible Power Armor that didn’t need training. Then The Pitt came, which was a fantastic showcasing of restrictions and moral dilemmas. It may have been the dirtiest and ugliest environments the seventh generation of gaming had ever seen, but it had some fantastic horror vibes also.
Broken Steel was the continuation of the main story, after many felt cheated and robbed by the original ending of Fallout 3‘s main story. Because of that, it does feel like the weakest expansion of them all, and was more like a runoff of narrative waste whose sole contributions to the experience were OP weapons and the Super Mutant Masters.
Point Lookout was the prototype for Fallout 4‘s Far Harbor, and for a prototype, it’s done a helluva lot better. The grimy and filthy atmosphere of what seems like The Hills Have Eyes fanfiction is so thick, that you’d need a chain-saw to get through it. Plus, the continuation of the mysteries that the Dunwich Building left behind continued in a quest that’s only available through Point Lookout, so top stuff.
The final DLC expansion was Mothership Zeta, and there’s not a lot that this expansion gets wrong. It’s basically corridor-shooter fan-fiction filled with goofy moments galore, but it gets the job done really well. One massive problem it does have however, is the fact that the alien weaponry is stupidly overpowered, and considering you can get an almost endless amount here, it’s the end for anyone who dares step in our way when we escape.
Out of all the DLCs mentioned, Point Lookout is not only the best, but one of Bethesda’s best works in general. It had a massive new playground to frolic in, the enemies were both hilarious and terrifying, and the hallucinatory meltdown you have in the swamps is easily one of my favorite moments in any video game ever. None of this is a patch on what New Vegas offers, but that’s for another time.
If you asked me what the future of Fallout is right now, I’d give a nervous cough and run out of the room. Things weren’t looking good after the complete non-starter of Fallout 4, but there was still room to improve and get that grotesque dialogue system out of there, but then Fallout 76 happened. While I try to convince on-lookers that the working of Bethesda’s PR company and Beta performance aren’t reflective of how enjoyable the base game can be, I’m still fairly certain that in the hands of Bethesda, Fallout is dead, but 3 wasn’t the death blow. 3 was the most faithful Bethesda had ever been to it.
The narrative wasn’t a barely-entertaining story with fucking Minecraft lodged into it, the combat (While stiff and jerky), wasn’t trying to hide its stiffness and jerkiness by copying Destiny‘s equally stiff and jerky gunplay. The world wasn’t a wonderful little forest you could skip through with some saccharine grin on your face, and the Brotherhood of Steel wasn’t ran by an insufferable tosspot.
What’s my point with this review? I don’t know. After watching people rag on this game mercilessly, I wanted to return to the Capital Wasteland and see if I was wearing my nostalgia goggles the whole time. Was I? Possibly, but then you’re talking to a guy who can enjoy Superman 64 un-ironically, so it could be that I simply have a higher pain threshold than most.
In the end, Fallout 3 is still an objectively good game after eleven years. Is it a bad Fallout game? Arguably no. Is it a bad RPG? Arguably yes. Has it aged poorly? Also arguably yes, but the spirit, the style, the aesthetic and the atmosphere of the original Fallout is still there, buried underneath crap combat and grey rocks. Go play it for yourself if you’re not sure. I promise you it’s not as bad as hyperbolic YouTubers make it out to be.
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