Oh Em Gee, has it already been three years since Fallout 3 sponged up all my free time? I remember that October morning so well with a clouds-and-sunshine glare and a car that I was worried wouldn’t get me to and from the store. With the game – just the standard edition, please – and the hefty strategy guide in hand, I was ready to dive into Bethesda’s grim visit to Interplay’s classic post-apocalyptic nightmare. My last save clocked sixty-five hours of playtime, but I never did fall in love with Fallout 3, however much I liked it.
For starters, Fallout 3 was built on a pretty solid foundation. Mechanically, it was a fantastic role-playing game backed by the performances of some great actors (including Liam Neeson as your father and a struggling-with-the-American-accent Malcolm McDowell) in a thoroughly-conceived universe. You are born into the closed community of a Vault deep within the hills of Washington DC, the survivors of a nuclear holocaust. In a very cool twist, your first years in the Vault encapsulate the game’s thorough tutorial. When you eventually escape the Vault to find your missing dad, you peer directly at the ruined skyline of Washington DC and a ruined wasteland that lies before you. Fallout 3 was an unforgettable experience that was well worth the time invested, but there were several aspects that didn’t come off quite right, preventing me from enjoying it even further.
The Game Was Too Grim. Fallout 3 lacked the spectrum of color (and cleanliness) of its isometric predecessors. The brightest shades were muted tones or shrouded in darkness and lacked the optimism – as I mentioned in my Rage review – of a civilization rebuilding. The almost sterile Vaults were turned into rusting buckets in this game, leaving little tonal difference between inside and out. The game had no sense of humor to speak of, or only the very darkest shades: at your birthday party early on, a slightly odd, but well-meaning woman gives you a poem as a gift. If you opt to return to the Vault, you find her dead on the table with a medical robot hovering nearby going ‘WHOOPS!’ because he sawed off her leg to cure a small ailment. Eeep.
The Wasteland Was Too Wasteland-y. Yes, this is an odd position to take, but it’s really not much different than my complaint that Oblivion had monotonous landscapes. Yes, I wanted trees in Oblivion, just not miles and miles and miles of them. The world you escape to in Fallout 3 is still squashed flat, as if the bombs just fell a few years ago. Taking place years after Fallout 2, in which various west coast cartels had begun to rebuild a more advanced society than ever, this felt like a reversion, which made wandering the landscape more of a bore at times than it should’ve been.
The Wasteland Was Too Sandbox-y. Since society had yet to rebuild in this game by any means, you encountered only pockets of activity, be it a town consisting entirely of children, a rich man’s complex, the Republic of Bob (which would’ve been even cooler had the game not been so grim), and other aspects. Unfortunately, resolving any particular sector’s problems didn’t seem to have much of an effect on any others as the game rarely tied these cults and gangs together, leaving you with little sense of accomplishment outside the main quest. Speaking of which, randomly wandering the wastes also allowed me to skip a huge chunk of the early main quest when I accidentally found my father and he began speaking of a ton of stuff I had absolutely no clue about since I’d skipped over a lot of exposition in the process. Bethesda’s Todd Howard later claimed that this was a feature, rather than a bug. WHOOPS!
Jank, Jank, Jank! Bugs and other flaws are going to be a given in a massive title like this, the problem is that the engine only allowed for so much detail. The NPCs you regularly conversed with lacked much emotion while in interview mode, many parts of the game couldn’t escape the look of ‘bland’, despite the incredible draw distances, and getting in and out of the Washington DC Mall was one of the largest pains in the butt ever. Quests (like the anecdote above with the main one) broke often enough to be distracting while plundering through offices for equipment and tools got old incredibly fast because of the game’s tile-based layout for structures. As a result of many of these things, the dramatic storyline that the game starts never really feels like it comes to a solid, gratifying conclusion because the game’s tech just can’t handle so many open-ended things at once (and they didn’t write it well, that didn’t help.)
Despite all its flaws, I still fought through the wasteland and (eventually) won the day. I never did invest in the expansions for whatever reason and Fallout: New Vegas never felt quite right to play. We like you Fallout 3, so enjoy that third birthday with your favorite sippy cup.