The Fallout games have reached almost mythical status among PC gamers. Released way back in 1997, Fallout depicted a nuclear-devastated America; an alternate reality showing what might have been had the Cold War become hot. With unique pseudo-1950s art design and humour, visceral combat and detailed characters and dialogue it quickly established itself as a high watermark for the role-playing genre, a reputation which its sequel consolidated the following year.

Preview: Fallout 3

And so, a decade later, we finally come to Fallout 3. It’s been a long and trouble road, with sub-standard spin-offs, studio bankruptcy and rights issues all serving to keep the franchise out of the limelight for far too long. Notably, though, the fans are as vocal and passionate as ever, which illustrates the lasting power this decade-old game holds over those who experienced it.

Unfortunately I’ve only had a limited time with the original games, though I’ve liked what I’ve seen and hope to complete them one of these days. Even a brief session is enough to convince regarding the remarkable atmosphere and convincing world – verisimilitude was definitely near the top of Black Isle Studio’s wish list.

Thanks to the vagaries of the computer industry, Fallout 3 is not being developed by the same talented crew behind the first two games. Instead the baton has been passed to Bethesda, known primarily for their Elder Scrolls series. While Oblivion has the highest profile of that series, I vastly prefer the previous entry, Morrowind, for its political and social depths and fascinating geography and characters, all details that allowed a dedicated player to see past the clunky interface and woeful combat. Oblivion improved all the technicals, delivering amazing graphics and whizz-bang effects, but at the expense of an interesting world to explore. Oblivion had polish but it was Morrowind that had soul.

All of which makes Fallout 3 a something of an unknown. Despite its technological jump forward, Oblivion still featured decidedly ropey combat, poor character visuals and terrible writing – all core elements of the established Fallout experience.  E3 saw Bethesda head honcho reveal the game in greater detail, which us plebeians can watch thanks to Gametrailers:

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.1407448&w=425&h=350&fv=]

The ruined Washington DC looks the part, with Bethesda seeming to nail that natural (or not so natural, in this case) ‘urban decay’ look and feel that so far only Valve seem to be able to accomplish. There’s a slight fear that the entire game could be that same dull grey but, then, the original Fallout also had a very specific palette.

Problems arise when Howard gets to the main part of his demonstration: the combat. It lacks any kind of tension or excitement, possibly due to Howard seeming to be invulnerable for the purposes of the demo, but it could also be linked to Bethesda’s usual clumsy handling of game combat. This is also the first time they’ve properly tackled futuristic weaponry, rather than fantasy-themed magic and swords, and it really shows. The weapons lack punch, seeming more like toys than heavy, functioning technology.

The VATS pause system is a nice idea and a well-intentioned homage to the original game but it also serves to break the natural ebb and flow of an action sequence. This can work well in a third person tactical game, such as Bioware’s forthcoming Dragon Age, but here it feels like a genuine interruption. The first person narrative device implies a certain immediacy and fludity, which VATS disrupts completely. Trying out new ideas is vital in the FPS genre but there are certain core design elements that need to be kept intact. The constant switch from first person to third person viewpoints during combat also runs the risk of being extremely disorienting, not to mention immersion-breaking. When you choose your narrative perspective you need to stick with it, or at least have a good reason for it to vary: and ‘it looks cool’ is not a sufficient excuse. Cool, gory cutscenes might be fun for a brief period but they’ll be pretty tedious when you’re into your 30th hour of gameplay.

Once you add in the ropey animation of the player character and the enemies and the circa 2003-quality ragdoll physics, you’re not left with much to get excited about. Worryingly, we’ve not seen anything of the story, character interaction or non-combat areas of the game, despite it being due for release in only a few months. Early reports suggest that character portrayals still have that slightly-ill appearance that plagued Oblivion, which really isn’t acceptable in a post-Mass Effect world.

The ultimate question is whether Bethesda have hired new writers to create the story and dialogue. If they haven’t, then Fallout 3 is almost doomed to fail. Currently I imagine the non-RPG STALKER sequel Clear Sky has a better chance of providing satisfying role-playing than Fallout 3, but I dearly hope to be wrong.


Dave · July 21, 2008 at 11:13 am

hmm, that fallout3 video does indeed look naff. Great graphics, marred by probably the least immersive combat system i’ve ever seen. That VATS system seems to be a deliberate attempt to take out the thinking on your toes bit of fps combat – i think with god-mode off, most players will get tired of being gunned down while they make their arty slow-mo attack and turn of VATS permanently after 10 minutes of use. i also notice that the VATS system doesn’t seem to involve any kind of defensive actions so you couldn’t run to cover, strafe and then pop out. It seems to be limited to standing like a lemon in a hail of bullets while your character does the clumsily animated attack.

Simon Jones · July 21, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Yeah, its like they specifically set out to ignore all the benefits of making your game a first person shooter. Perhaps they’ve spent too long developing statty RPGs over the years and haven’t noticed all the advances in the genre?

They’d better have something pretty special in the RPG parts of the game, because the shootery bit doesn’t look like it’s going to win them many awards…

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