Sunday, November 2, 2008

Fallout 3 Review


As I wait in a dank, post-apocalyptic sewer, I can hear something skittering about in the darkness ahead. My wrist-bound PipBoy 3000 has a small light I could activate, but if I turn it on then whatever is lurking up ahead will know I'm here. A quick check at the pale green readout of the PipBoy shows my radiation level is within manageable levels. 'Manageable' means that with the proper drugs ('RadAway') I won't die outright from occassionally having to stave off dying of thirst by drinking irradiated toilet water.

The scratching sound is getting closer.

I leap out into the sewer intersection, raise a sledgehammer over my head and time suddenly slows down -- grimacing, I slam the hammer down on chitinous back of a 'radroach' - a giant, mutated cockroach. With a single satisfying crunch, the radroach is dead.

Radroach meat tonight, mmmmm....

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Welcome to the world of Fallout 3, probably one of the best games I've yet to play on the PS3 (also available on XBOX and PC) to date, maybe the single best game overall that I've played on any system.

The backstory is that around 2077 the world underwent a nuclear holocaust rendering the world an irradiated wasteland. The only surviving humans are those that were fortunate enough to be sealed away in vaults. Each of the Fallout games of the past detailed the adventures of the 'Vault Dweller' - a character who is (through circumstances) thrust out of the sterile, rigidly-controlled vaults into the wasteland that the world has become.

The hallmark of the Fallout series of games is the heavy dose of black, sardonic humor injected into the story lines and artwork. Before the nuclear holocaust the world (America, at least) had achieved the 'Golden Age of Science Fiction' - the time dreamed about in the 1950's and 1960's -- a world in which androids clean the house for mother, men work on their own personal flying cars -- it's the DisneyLand view of what the future was going to be like. Or was, from the perspective of the Fallout games.

So, whenever the game gives you information about how it's important to stay hidden from enemies, it will do so using an illustration of a man in a 1950's-style suit hiding behind a boulder, while mutants pass him by, while he smiles amiably. Think of the old film reels your parents watched in high-school advising them to 'duck-and-cover' in the event that a nuclear bomb were to land in the school's playground.

Fallout 3 continues the franchise's weird blending of apocalyptic horror with dark comedy.

The game has a number of features that make it a contender for top game of the year. For starters, the game is completely open-ended - it's like Grand Theft Auto in that you can wander in any direction you like. It all takes place in what is called the 'Capital Wasteland' - the environs surrounding the Washington D.C. area. Which brings up the game's visuals, which are astounding - the imagery is well-done, eery and creepy and lonely. Looking at the Capital Dome in ruins, the Washington monument really had an effect on me.

Also, the game presents you with moral decisions, and the ability to make your character either a saint, a devil, or anything in between -- and the game world reacts to your decisions. Kill someone inside a town, and the townspeople will attack you -- this is a desperate world filled with desperate people, they stick together! Fallout 3 presents some of the most desperate NPC's I've ever seen in a game - I encountered a man dying of thirst. My possible responses were to help him, or tell him that he's 'not my problem'. You even get a chance to detonate a nuclear bomb and destroy an entire town.

In my case, I reported the man who offered to pay me to do the deed to the local sheriff. The sheriff insisted that I go with him to confront the man, and I did. The evil NPC calmed down the sheriff, who turned his back. Before I knew it the man pulled a gun and started shooting at the sheriff! Naturally, being a Boy Scout, I pummeled the evil NPC on the spot, killing him.

But the sheriff was dead, which left the town at the mercy of another, even more cruel NPC.
The point is, this game keeps you on your toes. The sheriff didn't have to die, if only I had been more careful.

The combat system is also interesting. When encountering the various irradiated fauna of the Capital Waste, be it a mutated molerat, raiders straight out of Mad Max, or rogue military robot still searching for communists, the game resembles a first person (or third person) shooter. The weapon selections are what you would expect in a post-apocalyptic world: sledgehammer, plywood with nails in it, lasergun, brass knuckles, hammer, wrench -- including conventional firearms.

But what really makes the game a guilty pleasure is VATS (Vault Assisted Targeting System) -- which allows you to stop time and make split-second decisions about where to aim at your opponent. You can choose the head, the limbs, even the weapons that your enemies are holding. In some cases there are specialized parts of the creature that are more vulnerable, or result in special behavior if struck -- such as a military droid 'combat inhibitor chip' or a ceiling-mounted turret gun's targeting system.

In my earliest use of VATS I was on a quest to raid a SuperDuper Mart not far from a city. I went into the parking area and was immediately attacked by a Giant RadScorpion -- my bullets were bouncing off it, so I used VATS and used a baseball bat to pummel it to death. I then dragged myself into the store.

And another thing: this game plays dirty -- just like you'd expect in a gritty, hellish world. You'll spend a lot of time sneaking around. Early on, at least, staying hidden from your enemies is crucial. Did I mention that the evil NPC who killed the sheriff earlier used a silenced handgun. It was mine now, as I slinked around inside the SuperDuper Mart. A raider was walking along the tops of the shelves, a sentinel. Using VATS I was able to snipe him from very close. Then I noticed that there was another enemy nearby, so I moved in to take that raider out.

I waited for the raider to walk past me, then jumped out -- but kicked over a bottle, and that raider whipped around, along with a second raider I hadn't even noticed. This second raider was a woman, and she was right behind me. Using VATS I targeted her head once (since she had a tire iron as a weapon) and then targeted the chest of the original raider three times.

So from my perspective, the game is frozen, with an enraged, very scary woman attacking me from behind, and another raider firing his handgun at me. I accepted my targeting choices and hit the button. What you see then is a slow-motion video of the results.

My handgun shifted right, and my single shot took off the woman's head. My jaw dropped. My remaining three shots dropped the second raider. But keep in mind -- the game spares you nothing. You see the head separate, the blood, the head flying, rolling, bouncing off things. It was so horrific I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This game is absolutely not for children.

Despite my luck, the rest of the raiders showed up in force, and I could not escape.

Go buy Fallout 3 now, and get started -- the game combines sneaking, an open environment that is visually spectacular, character customization and creation that is incredibly detailed, problem-solving, and very hardcore action. If you're a fan of the earlier games you will not be disappointed -- if you've never played any other Fallout game, this is the one to get. You do not need to have played the other games.
9/10