Fallout 3

Fallout 3

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios
Released in 2008
Played in 2008
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

Life was pretty great in Vault 101. Sure, it was dirty, dark, and populated mainly by glitchy animatronic dummies, but it was home. Then dear old dad had to go and blow everything. He breaks the cardinal rule of Vault 101: no one enters, no one leaves. Wanted to answer for your father’s crimes, you make your escape and follow him out into the capital wasteland. Then you wander around for a long, long time. Eventually you find your father trapped in a VR simulation and free him, allowing him to continue his work to purify the waters and pave the way for life for thrive on the surface once again. Naturally, this comes at a cost.

How it plays

Maybe I’m not playing this game right. I really do think that might be the case. I think the game wants me to play in first person. I think the game wants me to play it like a shooter and occasionally resort to using VATS. But it allows me to play in its terrible third person mode and constantly use VATS to queue up hyper-gory insta-death headshot criticals. My feeling, though, is that if a game is going to do something it ought to do it well.

The controls for third person gameplay are really awful. I mean unbelievably bad. Bethesda has a pretty consistent history here of giving you a third person mode as a sort of insult. It gets progressively better with each game, in a geological sense. I know that they think games are more immersive in first person, and there are contexts in which I will even agree with them (horror games, mainly). But if you give me a third person option I will always, always use it if I can possibly stand to, because the greater sense of environmental awareness is invaluable. Also — and feel free to call me vain for this — I like seeing my character. I really do. I do not project myself onto video games when I play them. I do not think of it being “me” holding that gun. To me a video game character is no different than a movie or novel protagonist, somebody whose head I am occupying, still distinct from me, the player. But in a game where the protagonist is largely silent, if you take away that body awareness provided by a third person camera, the character disappears. I am not me, I am not them, I am not anyone.

How it feels

Mostly very dry. The humor of the classic Fallout games is mostly absent, with a few isolated exceptions (Button Gwinnett). The following words come to mind when I think about the game’s environments:

bleak
brown
gray
muddy
cold
dirty
dank
depressing
did I already mention bleak?

There’s an emotional distance to the game, where all characters are kept at arm’s length, even those who supposedly have emotional ties to you like your father or your childhood friend. The actors deliver their lines with a modicum of warmth, but the script doesn’t give them a lot to work with and the creepy close up mannequin faces don’t help convey anything other than existential horror. The scene where you are reunited with your father is oddly truncated. He scolds you for following him out into the wasteland, suggests you might as well help him out with a verbal shrug, and then walks off. There’s just something so profoundly alienating here.

What worked

The game’s scope is impressive, and although the look of the world depresses me, it’s certainly dense with things to do. I must have spent 80 hours stomping around this blighted scrap of hell, running errands, exploring, looting, dungeon delving and so on. The quests do a good job of feeling meaty and significant, always serving as a self contained story. These wasteland episodes are where most of the character and charm of the game reside, which is welcome because it sure isn’t in the NPCs. There’s a lot of creativity in the quest design here, and a particular highlight for me was how every vault you find has some new, bizarre wrinkle on the template.

The character advancement system works like gangbusters. VATS is overpowered, there’s no question there, but it’s still ever so satisfying to build your character up into a terrifying angel of death for the many, many hostile wasteland denizens. On top of the satisfying skill progression, there’s the game’s perk system, which wisely decides not to be so stingy and awards a new perk every level now. While I would have appreciated more options here (it feels like you can have every perk you’re likely to want, always a design mistake in my opinion), the sense of empowerment this provides is wonderful. You feel vulnerable and outmatched when you first head out into the wasteland. Twenty hours later, you stride across it like a god. That’s a good RPG progression system in my book.

What didn’t

I really wonder sometime who these game design droids working at Bethesda are, and why they cannot understand our hu-man e-mo-tions. They consistently make games that are so bizarrely, off-puttingly cold. You can tell that they try harder to address this problem with every release, and still the consistently fail. Is this a difficult thing? Every other game developer seems to have it down. I’m not asking for NPCs who can pass the Turing test here. I’m only looking for characters who appear to have been created by a human being, and not a random number generator.

The aesthetics of this game bother me. I feel like I’m suffering seasonal affective disorder while I play it. It bums me out. Now, clearly the damage wasn’t so significant as to keep me from sinking 80 hours into the game. But did it need to be so dismal? The original Fallout games, being set on the West Coast, had a warm desert palette. I don’t doubt that the muddy, ugly environment in the game is as true to modern Washington, D.C. as the classic games were to California. I just question the wisdom of setting your game in that environment, if it’s going to bring me down like this.

My aesthetic concerns extend to a lot of other aspects of the game. The artists seem to have looked at the bright, cheerful futurism of the old games’ Vaults, unitards and robots and decided that they would clash with the overwhelming gloom of the new setting. (They probably were not wrong.) So now everything has been redesigned with a wrong-headed “realistic” approach that leeches the charm out of all the classic Fallout iconography. Vault suits are now functional denim coveralls. The Vaults themselves are dim, dingy, falling apart. The Super Mutants look wrong. I recognize that these are matters of taste, but the aesthetics of Fallout were a big part of the appeal.

And then there’s the gore. Good lord, the gore. Listen, I’ve been playing video games for a very long time. I’ve seen my fair share of gibs. I don’t recall ever being as uncomfortable with a game’s fixation on ridiculous, over the top gore as with this one’s. The only word I can use to describe it is obscene. It’s gross. And I’m not even talking about all the dismembered torsos and body parts nets strung up around the place — although seriously, ew. I’m talking about the critical hit camera, which wrests control of the camera from me to show me the pieces of brain and skull flying every which way after a successful headshot. I had a decent Perception stat and kept increasing my Small Arms skill, so I saw this a lot in the game. A lot. By which I mean, so much more than I wanted to. So much more that after a certain point in the game, I started aiming for the torso, because a critical hit there (although less likely to kill) would result in a disgusting slow-mo autopsy less often.

Maybe this doesn’t bother other people, I have no idea. I didn’t want to play this game on a full stomach. I certainly didn’t want to eat after playing. The old Fallout games had graphic violence, but there’s a world of difference between a sprite 75px tall losing his torso amidst a spray of cartoonishly red blood and a loving, lingering pan over high-definition guts flying through the air. Yuck.

What I’d change

I really think changing the locale of the games was a mistake. I recognize that the original Fallout devs were local to the environments they were depicting, and I can see the sense in Bethesda moving the action to their back yard. It just doesn’t work because it’s so Goddamn ugly. A Fallout game happens in the desert. It’s part of the soul of the series.

I’d either cut the third person view or make sure it worked, depending on the resources available. Given that this was a AAA game and third person views are not an outlandish expectation in video games, my hunch is that it could have been made to work if it was given adequate attention. The problem seems to be that Bethesda has always considered the third person camera a vanity mode, meant for temporary switchover to see your new gear before jumping back into first.

The NPCs flummox me a little bit. I don’t know how do begin to describe how you fix them. A good start would be hiring some hu-mans to work on the project. I know they’re squishy and messy but they really do bring some intangibles to the table. I suspect there ought to be a few living within driving distance of D.C.

Lessons learned

Don’t give me a feature if you don’t want to support it. Think very carefully before overhauling the aesthetic of a game series known for its aesthetics (and then don’t do it). Maybe that’s enough now with the obscene gore now, hm?

Hindsight from 2013

It’s funny that I can finish a game after 80 hours and come away feeling pretty positive about the experience, only to find that my opinion just keeps sinking as time goes on. I have to admit, I kind of hate this game now. Not so much for what it is but for what it represents: it killed Fallout and is wearing its skin. I haven’t even played New Vegas, a game made by many of the old Fallout developers, because even though I’m sure the writing’s better and the setting is dustier, I can’t stand the thought of spending more time watching heads explode in slow motion.

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