Fallout 3 Review

We step into the capital wasteland to get to grips with this masterpiece.

Review by Lewis Denby
Published 6th November 2008

Fallout 3

  • Developer: Bethesda
  • Publisher: Bethesda
  • Release Date: 31st October 2008

So it's finally here. Four years after it was first announced and a decade after the last in the series, Fallout 3 is finished. We've spent the last week exploring every corner of its world, pushing it to its limits, seeing where Bethesda has taken the much-loved franchise. They've taken it to a very special place that feels oddly different to the earlier Fallout incarnations, and indeed the developer's previous releases. This shift will no doubt annoy certain fans of both, but taken as a new game in its own right, Fallout 3 absolutely shines.

Before we get too carried away, we have an issue to discuss. This is very much a review of the PC version, but we've dabbled with Fallout on all formats. Of the three, the Xbox 360 version seems to be the most stable, with the PlayStation 3 release sporting a rather disappointing amount of stutters, freezes and crashes. During my time with Fallout 3 on the PC, the game crashed to Windows three times, and a quest broke once, but generally things could have been a lot worse. The questionable release state is made all the more frustrating when you realise just how brilliant this game is, but in the grand scheme of things, it's little more than a minor bugbear.

Set 200 years after the original and nearly 300 years into the future, Fallout 3 drops players in the heavily-customisable boots of a Vault 101 inhabitant. The Vaults were huge radiation shelters, built to temporarily house the local population during the devastating nuclear war portrayed previously in the series. Three generations later, though, you're still cooped up in Vault 101, wondering why no one talks about the surface world any more.

In an inspired tutorial / character creation process, the game begins during your birth and allows you to develop your character through childhood, resulting in a protagonist shaped to your playing style. This is familiar territory for RPG veterans, but few have integrated the process so effortlessly into the plot. Fallout 3 very rarely breaks its illusion, and takes care not to remind you you're playing a game. As a result, it becomes hauntingly immersive, and the tense, lonely atmosphere seldom lets up. For this, Bethesda can only be hugely commended.

At age 19, all hell breaks loose in the Vault when your father (nicely voiced by Liam Neeson) goes missing. Seems dad had some big secrets to hide, and for some reason, you've become implicated in the aftermath. The entire security force is after you - and so the main bulk of Fallout 3 begins. Escape Vault 101, and figure out what happened to your father.

On paper, it's not overly interesting, but Bethesda's writing team has managed to conjure up a glorious world of intrigue for the story to play out in. Filled with memorable characters and places of obscure interest, the wasteland that was once Washington DC is always a joy to explore, with the main plot leading you on an always-gripping journey around it. Things get a bit conspiracy-driven late on, which feels a little hackneyed, but it's delivered well, with some nice twists and brilliant sequences along the way.

Crushingly, I came across one gaping plot-hole that almost ruined the whole thing. It won't be a problem for everyone, as the story plays out slightly differently based on the decisions of individual players, but it's a huge issue when the ending might not make sense. On my first play through, finishing the main quest after just eleven hours and witnessing such a hideous oversight left me feeling ever-so-slightly frustrated.

Yes, Fallout 3's main quest is disappointingly short, and the urgency of the characters involved rushes you along something rotten in the latter half. It's worth doing a lot of wandering and exploring earlier on, as this is where the bulk of the longevity lies. Once you're funnelled into the game's (admittedly edge-of-seat) finale, there's no going back - unlike in Bethesda's previous releases, finishing the main quest means you've completed the game, so you'll have to load up a previous save file if you want to continue exploring the wasteland or your character.

For the sake of this review, that's exactly what I did, and this time - playing at a more leisurely pace, taking care to divert as far as possible away from the main narrative - things really began to glow. The spark of genius that poked its head up at times during my first play-through stayed firmly at the forefront as I traipsed across the depressingly bleak landscapes, scavenging for supplies, hoping to see a friendly face or safe settlement up ahead. Throughout the main quest, it's possible to feel like a bit of a hero. Away from it, Fallout 3 becomes distinctly about survival, and that's where its phenomenal strengths lay.

There are times when Fallout 3 is immensely challenging, but it treads the difficulty tightrope so carefully that it never becomes frustrating. Moreover, it simply works in the context of the game's atmosphere. Being lost and alone at night, enveloped by miles of nuclear wasteland, would not be an easy situation to live through. Washington's surroundings are filled with baddies and beasties, lurking around every corner, fighting factional wars that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. could only have dreamed of representing. Being stranded in the middle of it, with no food, water, ammunition or combat stimulants is one of the most truly atmospheric situations I've experienced in a videogame. There's a real sense of hopelessness surrounding Fallout 3's world and inhabitants; the sense of isolation brings a tear to the eye. It's really mind-blowing stuff.

The real-time combat will frustrate some with its looseness, but it's exactly this imprecision that drives home just how scary this war-tattered land is. At lower levels, earlier on in the game, weapons are wildly inaccurate, and it takes a hell of a lot longer to aim than the enemies seem to require. It works. It's what this life would really be like. As you level up, you become more competent, but the story takes you to places where more dangerous foes exist in packs, ramping up the challenge in a nice, subtle way.

While the main quest is over in a flash, sub-quests are widespread and satisfying. Instead of opting to throw in hundreds of fetch tasks, the guys at Bethesda have opted for a smaller, tighter, more refined collection of in-depth side-adventures. I really admire this approach. In sacrificing the sheer number of things to do, Fallout 3 allows itself to tell deeper stories, tales centred around particular characters or factions, journeys that can take hours to see all the way through.

You're rarely restricted to one method, either. Fallout 3 caters staggeringly well for different playing styles, in a way we've rarely seen since Deus Ex. One optional quest saw my avatar attempting to quieten an uprising in one of the Vaults. The obvious route seemed to be to talk to the Vault's Overseer and convince him to give in to some demands, but it soon became apparent that there were a number of different solutions. Instead, I could talk to the rebels and convince them to back down. If they didn't listen, I could threaten them, or even shoot them all. Or kill the Overseer. Or blow the entire place up. That should do the trick.

Elsewhere, you can opt to go in all guns blazing, sneak around undetected, or attempt to talk your way out of tricky situations, depending on how you've crafted your character. Fallout 3's simple and transparent levelling system means you can tailor your character to a chosen style at various points in the game, instead of relying on the auto-levelling system seen in previous Bethesda releases. As well as the standard skill set, you can choose an additional three 'SPECIAL' skills to focus on, as well as acquiring new Perks as the game progresses. This depth allows for some genuinely creative character development, and the straightforward interface means doing so is wonderfully straightforward.

The Oblivion engine may be a few years old now, but Bethesda have optimised and improved it in almost every area. Fallout 3's environments look incredible, and the locations depicted are surprisingly varied given the post-apocalyptic setting. Outdoors, everything is rather brown and dusty, but some of the interiors sparkle with colour and creative design. Whether inside or out, Fallout is always a treat to look at, with the only exception being the rendering of NPCs. They look great stationary, but the animation isn't quite up to scratch, with characters moving unconvincingly and speaking expressionlessly. It's not a huge problem, but it does detract slightly from the otherwise stellar ambiance.

Voice acting is consistently good, and greatly adds depth to a script that occasionally suffers from slightly-too-deliberate writing. The audio design is excellent all-round, with the sounds of distant explosions echoing across the deserted planes, the creak of old buildings unnerving any intruders, and a brilliant collection of radio station loops that could only be improved by being a little longer.

There will be stubborn Fallout fans who won't be impressed, undoubtedly, but going into something like this with a closed-mind is idiocy. Game design has changed in the last decade, and Fallout 3 does feel like a distinctly modern videogame, but it's also a total breath of fresh air for the genre. Its hybrid gameplay style and constant atmosphere contribute to one of the most enjoyable games I've played in a long, long while - the naysayers are beyond foolish for missing out.

Review Score: 9.4/10

Please note, this review was scored using our old system. For more information please see our review policy.

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