Review: Fallout 3

There’s no other way to say it: I was deeply and profoundly affected by this game.

I don’t need to lay it all out for you, the resume of my post-apocalyptic obsession, but if it helps, try these links. Suffice to say, I’ve been looking forward to playing Fallout 3 for a long time.

First, let’s get the comparisons to the original Fallout games out of the way, so that those of you who’ve already chosen sides in the war over whether to love or to hate this game and are simply looking for an enlistment station – and not a proper review – can get what you need and go about your lives.

As far as comparing Fallout 3 to Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 goes, the fact is this: you can’t. I’m sorry folks, but there’s no going back. Sputnik will never be un-launched, Kurt Cobain will never grow a new head and Fallout will never again be an isometric, 2D, top-down, strategy role-playing game. It’s just not in the cards, so beat that drum elsewhere.

The fact is, as much as I loved the original games, I would never want Fallout 3 to be just like them, to be just “more Fallout.” The original games still exist. I can still play them. But Fallout 3 is so much more than the originals, so much different, and that is entirely as it should be. To set out to make a game now, ten years after the fact, that’s nothing more than a retread of what is, to be blunt, a dead genre, would be ridiculous. And that is really all there is to say about that.

As of this writing, I’ve been playing Fallout 3 for just over 20 hours, and I have to be completely honest and say the experience of playing this game is quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Except, perhaps, for playing the originals.

Fallout 3 puts you in the jumpsuit of a person living almost 300 years into our future, whose ancestors survived the nuclear apocalypse by hiding in a giant underground shelter called a vault. And then they stayed inside for 200 years.

You’re one of the first people to set foot outside the vault. You know practically nothing about the outside world, the area around the vault, known as “The Capitol Wasteland,” except that it’s a dangerous place filled with dangerous people. You have a quest. You step outside the vault to take your first steps toward completing it, are blinded by the light of the sun (which you’ve never seen) and are suddenly dumbstruck by the enormity of your surroundings, your task and this game.


Fallout 3 gives you suggestions as to where you might go to complete your quest, but then it gets out of your way so you can experience its enormous playground at your own pace. You can follow the markers to complete the main quest, or, as I’ve done, just start walking and see what you run into.

What would the world look like 200 years after a nuclear war? According to Fallout 3, it would be a vast, howling waste, depressingly empty of life in which everyone and everything is out to kill you. It’s like Texas with radiation.

Those unused to the Fallout universe (or post-apocalyptic role-playing) may be in for a surprise with Fallout 3. This world is our world. The world of Fallout assumes the gee-whiz ideology of the 1950s survived another 100 years of technological development. There are, in other words, laser guns and much, much more. But there is also radiation – fallout – from the bombs that almost destroyed all life on the planet. And it is everywhere.

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Eat a candy bar to regain some health and you’ll get irradiated. Drink water, get irradiated. Walk in a stream, get irradiated. Residual radiation is ever-present, and while there are medications and tools you can use to reduce its effects, or reverse them, you can’t avoid it. It’s in the very air you breathe. In Fallout 3, in addition to you health meter, you must also pay attention to your radiation meter. Get too much and you may not be able to repair the damage.

Fallout 3 is a game of numbers, starting with number one, which is you; i.e., who you should be looking out for. Look out for number one, and you’ll survive. Your rad count is another number. Keep that number low. Bullets, you need to keep that number as high as you can.

The weapons in Fallout 3, at least the early ones, should be familiar to anyone who watches the local news. You start out the game with a pistol and a certain number of bullets. If you run out, you’ll have to hope you can find some somewhere, or steal them, or loot them off the corpse of that guy who was shooting them at you. Nobody in Fallout 3‘s post-apocalyptic nightmare world manufactures bullets (or much of anything) anymore. So whatever you can scrounge is all you’re going to get.

You can assemble makeshift weapons (like a flaming, gas-powered sword) out of found odds and ends, but bullets for your assault rifle are priceless antiques (as if the rifle itself), so you’d be wise to conserve ammo. You can set booby traps, de-activate booby traps set for you and use them against their makers, and bludgeon enemies to death with baseball bats, lead pipes or any number of other items. Believe me, they’ll be used against you. As will rocket launchers and gatling lasers.

The role-playing system of Fallout 3 is based on that of the original games; at the game’s start, you can choose the basic characteristics of your avatar (strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck) as well as those skills (small guns, speech, lockpick) for which you will have an aptitude. Then, as you progress, you can increase your skills and earn “perks” such as “Bloody Mess” which gives you a damage bonus and ensures most things you kill will die horrible, bloody deaths.

Those new to this kind of throwback role-playing might be a bit taken aback at first. If anything, Fallout 3 stays too close to the original formula in this regard. This is not “role-play light” by any means, nor is it the usual magic and monsters style of roleplaying a lot of gamers are used to. Newcomers to the universe will have a mildly steep learning curve, but the game does an excellent job of holding your hand through it, and the world’s dark humor makes it a joy to interact with.

On the good vs. evil kick, there’s the Karma system. Everything you do in Fallout 3 affects your Karma. Steal something, you get negative Karma. Rescue a captive, you get positive. There are Karma-based abilities and even story options. If you’re too good, some characters in the game may not deal with you, if you’re too evil, the same. And if you’re generally neutral, not good, not evil, you end up on a different track. According to Todd Howard, the executive producer of the game, the number of possible endings you can reach, based on your positive and negative actions throughout the game, is on the order of 500, and which you end up with is based purely on how you play the game.

After 20 hours, I’m nowhere near the end, so I can’t judge how disparate those 500 possible endings may be. I don’t think I’m even near the middle. Fallout 3 is an enormous game. I can see spending 80 – 100 hours on it, easy. Unfortunately, at the end of those 100 hours, I may need to visit a shrink.

Most games put you into a pure fantasy world, where, if something really bad does happen, it’s easy to forget about. Those aren’t real people getting slaughtered, after all. They’re elves or some kind of fantasy people, living fantasy lives in their fantasy world. Videogames, like Half-Life, set in a facsimile of our world invariable involve some gesture of fantasy so unbelievable it makes the destruction of its world somewhat tolerable.

Fallout 3, on the other hand, is the possible apocalypse. It’s our world, destroyed by us, in a way that’s completely within the realm of possibility, nay, inevitability. The fact we aren’t living in a world eerily similar to Fallout right now is owing to highly improbably acts of sanity on the parts of those with their fingers on the football, and a great deal of luck.

Break open a door to an abandoned house in Fallout 3 to find shelter from a deranged lunatic who’s booby-trapped an entire town with tripwires and mines and is waiting on the top floor of a ruined office building with a sniper rifle to pick off whoever’s lucky enough not to get blown to bits and you’ll find a typical American suburban home, complete with refrigerator, radio and queen-sized bed. On the bed, you’ll find the bodies of the two people who lived there, still wearing scraps of their 200 year-old clothes, their skeletal remains embracing each other in the exact same way they held each other when they died during the initial atomic attack.

You’ll also find the body of the guy who came here before you, was struck by a mine and bled out. You know that’s what happened to him because you followed his blood trail to this house, and discovered his corpse, missing one leg, not ten feet from the door. If you go through his pockets, you may find the bullets you need to take out the guy with the sniper rifle, who’s not some lunatic bent on world domination, just a guy protecting his property from folks like you, gone mad after a lifetime of trying to survive in an inhospitable wasteland.

Bottom Line:After the apocalypse, only the strong will survive. Fallout 3 gives us a glimpse of whether we’d really want to. It is, by turns, hilarious, enthralling, and downright terrifying. And it’s easily one of the best games I’ve played all year.

Recommendation: If you like role-playing games, the post-apocalyptic genre or both, then this game is a must-own. For those unfamiliar with either, I can’t recommend it. It’s far more user-friendly than the originals, but still not for casual players.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Russ Pitts is now wondering if he’ll ever play another game, or if he should insert Fallout 3 into his Xbox and tape the door closed.

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