A PC Gamer’s View from the Vault: Fallout 3 First Impressions

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I have not been around here very long, but for those who have read my stuff elsewhere I think I have already sufficiently established myself as a curmudgeon on many topics but certainly regarding PC gaming: I have railed for years about the impact of consoles on PC gaming (Deus Ex: Invisible War), complain about the state of games that are obvious ports when they do arrive (Oblivion), complain about the generification of genres that has occurred as consoles have led the charge to mainstreaming (again Oblivion), and so on. So I am a perfect candidate for someone to come out and rant about how the newly released Fallout 3 is nothing but ‘Oblivion with guns’ and rant and froth about the history of the franchise and the purity of the RPG genre and … well, just come on in and see …

Suffice it to say that there will be things in here that would easily be called ‘spoilers’, so if you want to experience the gain untainted, avert your eyes now. That said, my goal isn’t to go into deep details but rather give general thoughts as I progress.

First and foremost: anyone who denies that Fallout 3 *IS* ‘Oblivion with guns’ is either lying to you or themselves. At the same time, anyone who claims that ‘Oblivion with guns’ is all that Fallout 3 has to offer is being similarly dishonest. And finally, as for the ultimate debate – is this the Fallout 3 that fans have been waiting for a decade to get their hands on – that will have to wait for a while before I’m ready to answer that fully.

Well, perhaps not entirely – because let’s face it, there are some fairly diametrically opposed visions of what folks wanted in any game called Fallout 3. Some folks are on-board due to Oblivion – and these are generally console gamers with limited knowledge of the Fallout franchise and certainly no vested interest in maintaining the traditions of 1997 and 1998. Then there are those for whom any game that is not presented in isometric view with a fully turn-based system is not a Fallout game. Finally, there are those for whom the role-playing, writing, dark humor, and overall depth is what continues to set the original Fallout games from just about any other game ever released.

So let me clear something up – if you are an Oblivion fan and are buying this on the PS3 or XBOX360 after finishing up Dead Space and months of multiplayer Call of Duty 4, you will be very happy for a very long time. If you are a ‘Fallout purist’ who rails about the ‘loss of Van Buren’ (Van Buren was the code name for the original Fallout 3 project a decade ago) and is hoping that Bethesda has built in some way of getting the perspective and turn-based feel just right to recreate the classic Fallout games … look elsewhere. This is not the game you are looking for.

That leaves those who are willing to be flexible about the perspective, the balance of real-time and turn-based, but are absolutely insistent that success includes maintaining the top-notch writing and depth that the originals had, as well as the dark humor that remains perhaps the best ever in any video game. I count myself in that group – I love action games as well as turn-based games, first-person and isometric alike. But from the start I have been doubtful that the same folks who made the console action game with RPG-lite elements called Oblivion could produce such a game.

So far I am having a blast … but see loads of problems and issues, many carried over from Oblivion.

The opening sequences are tremendous – rather than just dumping you as a fully formed adult into the midst of an ongoing situation, you are stepped from birth to adulthood through a series of interactive vignettes that engage you at different points of your life. You learn about various characters and feel like you are really part of your own history. The immersive factor of doing this – paired up with the subtle performance of Liam Neeson as your father – is tremendous.

The game goes through the usual set of ‘introducing you to the way the game works’ steps, from VATS (the turn-based combat system) to the PIP-Boy 3000 (basically your entire interface) to a whole classroom session to help you pick your first level perks. You learn how choices you make can have consequences, but it remains to be seen whether there is any sort of ‘Witcher-like’ reach in terms of choice & consequence … I highly doubt it.

Eventually you will leave the Vault and get a few choices and several low-level practice encounters along the way. Then just before you exit the vault you have the opportunity to completely redo all of your choices before starting out in the world. As a curmudgeonly old-time RPG gamer I scoff at such things, because it flies in the face of choice and consequence … but in general I applaud the way it is done: you are early enough that it isn’t game-breaking, but have experienced enough that you can see if you have made some errant choices that you’d like to redo.

Out in the wasteland after leaving the Vault, you see two things: the post-nuclear vision of Washington DC, replete with metal hulking carcasses of buses and airplanes and who knows what else; you also see more proof of the fact that we are still looking at the Oblivion engine here (actually the tunnel exiting the Vault could have been from Oblivion!)

Your first stop – after you hopefully take a while to just wander the landscape for fun – is MegaTon, the town built around an unexploded atomic bomb featured in so many screenshots and previews. In MegaTon you start the usual RPG-town cycle: go in, find out the general details from someone near the entry, get the lay of the land, and go get quests and trade items. Taking my time talking to everyone in MegaTon I started to see the strength and weakness of Bethesda at work: this is clearly deeper and funnier and more satisfying than Oblivion, but just as clearly not up to the level of the original Fallout games.

Once you get enough quests and trade enough items, it is time to head back to the Wasteland. This is where the real action begins: soon you will be meeting up with many more dangerous enemies than the RadRoaches of the Vault, and occasionally meeting them in groups. You can try to outgun them in standard FPS mode, but since your targeting is based on skills as well as aim, and since the FPS system is at best ‘clunky’, you will quickly find yourself dropping into the VATS system more often than not. VATS allows you to pause the action and target individual body areas of an enemy and displays the to-hit percentages. You stack a number of actions which take up Action Points, but since action points regenerate very quickly you just stack the actions and confirm and watch your enemy die and then repeat with the next enemy until they are all dead. Sadly the VATS system doesn’t allow you to distribute actions among all enemies within range, which limits the tactical options during combat.

So you finish off some enemies and pick up a cool new weapon, so how do you select that nifty new shotgun? Is it by pressing ‘3’ or another number like in most games? How about scrolling the mouse-wheel? Nope – welcome to console-vania, where you have to press TAB and then click your way through a multi-page interface to do just about anything from changing weapons and armor to looking at a map to reviewing quests and information. Yes, you get used to it quickly; yes, it is worse than Oblivion; and yes, I find it highly annoying. There are ways to get around these limitations, but it is pretty clear that the game was designed with the lowest common denominator of console controllers in mind in terms of that setup.

But getting hung up on that just isn’t worth the effort … what is worth the effort is getting some more hours in with this flawed gem of a game. And that is exactly what I plan to do tonight. And then report back to all of you!

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!