dogsounds reviews: Fallout 3

Fallout 3, Brotherhood of Steel soldier

So, here we are again, another dogsounds reviews: is upon us. Being a part-time gamer (and not sitting on a huge pile of cash Scrooge McDuck-style) I have to pick and choose the games I buy, so it’s not often you’ll get a bad review from me.

But, to the chase. I have spent a pleasant few weeks wandering the Capital Wastelands, one man and his dog, and although I am still wandering and nowhere near fully complete I felt that I have experienced enough to offer a fully-fleshed review. In fact, there is so much to this game that there is no way that anyone who has reviewed it has come close to complete, if there is such a thing. So, how does the game stack up? Find out after the jump!

Disclaimer – this started as a review, but ended up as long enough to be a game guide. I apologise. But I LOVE THIS GAME!

I can’t say I am fully sure why I got Fallout 3. I was aware of the game from launch, but had no prior knowledge of the games that came before, or the franchise. I had no prior liking of RPG games at all – I found the whole idea rather silly and rather nerdy (geeks don’t like nerds) and thought of an RPG as something akin to D&D involving a lack of social skills, illegal attention to details, funny dice, silly fantasy nonsense and very thick glasses.

I did play Oblivion – the previous offering from Bethesda Game Studios. Well, I say “played”, I pottered about in it for about an hour till I realised that it was about as interesting as the World Crochet Finals and was full of silly knights in shining armor and badly-written faux-fantasy American English.

Poppycock!” I vented forth, and with due haste returned the shiny disc of failed veiled promises to the casket of dinosaur-residue from whence it had originated.

See what I mean?

But recently I have been watching the Giant Bomb Endurance Run of Persona 4 and thoroughly enjoying it, and thought to myself, “hmm…maybe ‘RPG’ doesn’t always mean ‘silly fantasy crap’.” And, to be frank, I have found that my personal favorite gametype – first-person shooters – have been holding my attention less and less. Play ‘em through, box ‘em up. And for some unknown  reason, without any research or knowledge on my part, something in my mind said “Hey, Fallout 3 is a big long game that takes forever and has shootery goodness”. I have no idea why, I had only ever seen the teaser trailer pre-launch and that’s about as much as I knew.

So, with ne’er a pause I did not tarry and…sorry. I popped to the store and got a copy. And, well, wow. Now I am about 120 hours in and still going. And grinning like a bastard.

So what is Fallout 3? Well, it is the latest in a triumvirate (If you only consider the three main titles) of games set in a post-nuclear holocaust America. The backstory is of a devastating nuclear war between China and the U.S. in or around 2077. However, there’s a twist: this is not some future sci-fi tech story. Rather than real-word, the setting is a World Of Tomorrow America with nuclear cars, robots that do the housework and chores, and women who wear pretty dresses and have husbands with dashing hair and pipes. It’s the future imagined the way the people in the 1950’s viewed the future. And it is awesome.

In the years before the great and final war, a company called VaultTec started research programmes for a number of clients including the American military, and one project they undertook was the construction of a vast number of underground shelters – Vaults – across America. Small underground cities, sealed off from the outside world and protected from the holocaust. Under the guise of preserving mankind, they vetted long lists of potential Vault inhabitants. To the public, they were a last hope. In reality, VaultTec’s motives were more sinister, but we won’t dwell on that here.

Fallout 3 takes place 200 years after the war, and starts, somewhat remarkably, with your birth. Your actual birth. You are born into Vault 101, one f the many VaultTec installations, where the inhabitants have lived safe and secure for those 200 years. To quote the closing stanza of the narration when the game starts: “…no-one ever enters the Vault. And no-one ever leaves.”

For the first half hour or so of the game, you live the first 19 years of your life, albeit slightly accelerated. The first task you carry out is to design your character. Rather cleverly, the first person you see is your father, obscured by lights, who is looking at a computer screen which will examine your DNA to see what you might look like in the future. On this screen, as in Oblivion, is the character customise application, where you can fully customise your character’s sex, face, hair, skin tone and general look. It’s pretty neat and quite flexible, although there are only so may options from the base preset. When you have completed this task, you finally see your father’s face, which is tailored to resemble yours.

Your second task, at one year old, is to look at a book entitled “You’re S.P.E.C.I.A.L.“. This refers to the seven basic traits that your character has: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck. You are to assign some points to the traits you think may be most important to the way you will play the game, and each carries up to a maximum of ten points and effects different skills within the game. For example, weighing points towards agility, luck, strength and perception will mean you start with better skills for gunplay and general “run and gun” style activity. Leaning points to luck, charisma and intelligence may make you a little better from the start at sneaking, picking locks, hacking computers and resolving issues through dialog rather than violence. It’s a little bit of a dark horse, as you may not know how you want to play, and once set they cannot be changed – only added to (and not very often or easily).

Then slowly you see the next few years whizz by until your tenth birthday, when you are given what every vault-dweller gets at that age: your very own Pip-Boy 3000 personal arm-worn computer. This awesome, green-screen tube PDA is your most important tool, and remains with you through the game (indeed, it seems from in-game refrences that removal of the Pip-Boy without the proper technical know-how results in death). This device holds your map system, your inventory for items, clothing, equipment, your log of notes and information, your quest list, and a general health system. It also gives you basic information about your skills, S.P.E.C.I.A.L. traits and all manner of stats. I really, really want a real one. If you ever used a green-screen terminal in the days before Windows PC’s and office networks, you find the Pip-Boy bringing back warm and fuzzy memories of more naive times.

Pip-Boy 3000, Fallout 3, dogosunds

Your time in Vault 101 is a very gentle hand-hold through the basic style of the game, a training mission. At 16 you will take the G.O.A.T. – General Occupational Aptitude Test. This is done in the guise of working out what job you will get in the vault, but in reality it is another little way for the game to assess what traits and abilities will be important to you through the game to come.  It’s quite an amusing little test, offering you scenarios and multiple options for a solution, of which you have to choose one. I must have been a good boy, I was told I was suited to be a priest. Jesus.

Then all this nice, peaceful life goes straight down the toilet as you are rudely awoken to be told that you father has left the Vault, and you must leave also, as the Vault Overseer (kind of a Big-Brother type that is the head honcho) wants you dead. Unsure why your father has left without warning, and with no clue as to what is actually going on, you are forced to flee the sanctity of Vault 101 to stay alive and to hopefully find your father and find out why he fled. You emerge dazed and blinded into the outside world – the Capital Wasteland. From here your adventures begin.

And boy, do they ever. The Wasteland is a huge chunk of Washington D.C. – or what remains of it, 200 years on – including Capitol Hill and the surrounding suburbs. From here on in, you are on your own. Despite the main story arc – find your father – there are a huge number of side quests and missions that you pick up from people you meet in the wastelands, and in fact you are under no pressure at all to carry out the main story quest – as and when you like, bro. You can go where you like, do what you like, do quests in any order, a true free-roaming adventure.

A heavy element (no nuclear pun intended there) in the game is that of Karma – good vs. bad. You have the absolute choice at all times of a good, bad or neutral path of action – but these paths are not always self-evident at first. Here’s an example from early on ( if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next paragraph). Most folks will leave Vault 101 and find themselves in the small town of Megaton, a charming collection of houses and facilities built from airplane wreckage around an unexploded nuclear bomb which sits ominously in the midde of the town. When you first arrive, you will talk to “Sheriff” Lucas Simms, who through dialog will offer to let you defuse the bomb. At that point you cannot, as your explosives skills are too low. Then, later on, as you explore this town and talk to the people, you will come across Mr Burke, who offers you an apartment in the luxurious Tenpenny Tower and money if you take a remote detonator and set the bomb off, destroying Megaton. Which way do you go? Which path do you choose? In fact, you can choose both, as your real choice is which to actually do when you are stood in front of the bomb later on the game. By that point, you will have forged relationships with the people and traders in Megaton, and the decision is not so simple. You may have made Megaton your home base (most will). Detonating the bomb kills almost everyone and Megaton is reduced to a smoking radioactive no-go area, and your Karma level becomes bad. But, you get a nice apartment from a nasty man. Defusing the bomb gets you a house in Megaton (interestingly you are not actually told this in advance) and a very good Karma level, as well as the knowledge that you saved lives and made the town safe.  However, you will also come across hit-men from time to time sent out to dispatch you for betraying Mr Burke and his employer.

Fallout 3

So the Karma system introduces consequences and changes the way the game plays. A bad Karma level – if you play as a bad person, stealing, killing innocents and so on – will mean that you find “good” factions in the game treat you as an enemy and people react to you differently. You also get diffrent diaolg options to someone playing as a good character with a good Karma level (who will find that people are more trusting and give them gifts.  Also, the factions in the game who are generally “bad guys” will be gunning for you, but the good factions will be your allies). It sounds very clear-cut, but in fact it is a nice grey band of choice. You can also choose to keep your Karma level neutral, and this mixes things up even more! Pretty much every act you carry out incurs a Karma boost, good or bad, and so it is actually very hard to maintain a “neutral” Karma level.

Doesn’t sound too much like an RPG so far right? Well, add onto all this the skills that you have. As you play, you have a set number of skills, from lockpicking to sneak, using small weapons, using energy weapons, bartering, speech, science, and so on. At the start these are pretty balanced around the 20-mark  for each with some slightly higher dependent on your choices with S.P.E.C.I.A.L and the G.O.A.T. Each of these can be increased throughout the game as you level up, up to a maximum of 100. The higher the number, the better your skill of that type (for example, some locks require a lockpick skill of 100 to be successfully picked). As you play through the game, you earn experience points for your actions such as killing dudes, completing quests, discovering things, and doing good/bad deeds. Unlike Oblivion, you won’t be able to increase skills by simply jumping in place for an hour or swimming round in circles. You earn them as you go. As you gain experience points you level up, to a maximum level of 20 (or 30 with the Broken Steel DLC). Every time you level up, you are able to assign 15-20 points to these skills as you see fit. So, if you are a run and gun type, you may focus your points on the small and big guns skills, medicine and strength. But deciding where you put these points can be challenging and rewarding. You could focus all your effort on weapons skills and then be kicking yourself later on if something interesting comes up later and you need a higher speech skill.

Also, with each new level you are able to choose 1 perk. Perks are single stat buffs or bonuses you can add to your character and cover a myriad of things: one may add points to some of your specific skills, one may mean you find more ammo in boxes, one may give you better speech options with the opposite sex, make you recover more health when you use meds, make some animals not attack you – the list goes on and on. Again, this is the fun part – deciding what you want to add there and then (when the levelling up screen pops up you have to do it there and then), there is no way out without choosing. Which door will you choose? It’s fun. And this is partly what makes this RPG unlike the RPG’s that I find such anathaema – you only have to think about it when you level up, and doing it is very simple. Reading about skills, perks and levelling up in the instruction manual confused the bollocks off me, but once in the game it all made perfect sense.

Now, bear in mind this is not just an RPG. It is really an FPRPG – played from a first-person perspective. But that’s really where the smiliarity with first-person shooters ends. Unlike other games, if you spend your time running and gunning, pointing and shooting you will die. A lot. Unlike a standard FPS, the targeting and shooting is, like any RPG, governed by virtual dice-rolls. So, you may fire the bullet with the cross hair on the target, but a roll of the dice under the hood works how your percentage chance of a hit, the percentage of damage you will do (which also depends on what the target is wearing), and whether the hit is critical or not. Shooting someone who is unaware of you will do more damage because you have a higher critical bonus than someone who is aware of you. This sounds crazy to a normal FPS player, but makes sense in the role-playing world. And when you first leave the vault, with all your skills low, you won’t be able to hit shit worth anything, no matter how good you are in Halo or COD: MW. The die-roll takes into account your level of skill with that type of weapon and the condition of the weapon. As you gain skills and level up, your accuracy and chance of a critical hit becomes higher and shooting becomes more like a standard FPS.

But don’t fret – this may sound all cerebral and bottle-bottom glasses, but it is all under-the-hood. You don’t have to think about it. Just know that as you play you will get better naturally. It just means that as you start out you have to be a little more tactical, a little more careful. But the game has another trick up its sleeve to take some of the worry out of being a bit rubbish when you start – V.A.T.S.

This is the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. Essentially, what it does is pause the world around you and let you see what your chances are of hitting a target. A quick button-push brings up the V.A.T.S. display – everything around you freezes, and you are able to select which part of the enemy you wish to target – leg, arm, torso, head, weapon etc. You can take as long as you like, and you can use V.A.T.S. to target multiple enemies. You have an allocation of Action Points and each shot takes up a set number of these points. Smaller weapons tend to use less and so you can assign more shots with a pistol in one use of V.A.T.S than say, a sniper rifle. Again, it sounds complicated, but it is not – you simply bring it up, choose where you want to shoot and go. The display shows the percentage change of a successful hit, and a little bar indicates how damaged that body part currently is. You may for example see that an enemies’ leg is more damaged than anything else and decide to focus your fire there, in the hope that if you don’t get a fatal shot even a slight miss will do enough damage to cripple the leg and stop the bad guy from running after you. Once you have selected your shots, simply press the “go” button and you are treated to a fantasic slow-mo (and very gory) mini-cutscene of your kill. Wonderful stuff. As you level up you lean less and less on V.A.T.S., but at first it is a very useful tool.

Fallout 3, VATS, Supoer Mutant

Gameplay itself, aside from the above, is hard to quantify. There is so much to do and so many characters and places and stories that will all pull you in that gameplay is inextricably intertwined with story and setting. Aside from the main story quest, you can choose to simply wander round the wastelands and explore. On your travels you will meet many different people – friend and foe – and many different creatures, all of who add to the deeply-woven backstory and engaging game world. Many will offer you side quests that will tie in to (or conflict with) quests from others. Some quests are not really quests, just ongoing things to do – like “bring me all the scrap metal/pre-war books/teddy bears/tech you find and I will pay you” and these will continue for ever.

And the game itself is not simply about following the main story arc and shooting dudes. Weapons have to be maintained to prevent them from breaking with use, and at first you will need to find people to repair them for you. Which will take money – in this case, the currency in the Fallout world is bottlecaps. Unless you are eaning caps as rewards for tasks and quests, you can scavenge the wastelands for them, or spend your time wandering and collecting the junk you find all over the place to sell to traders. Junk is everywhere – I mean, every-fucking-where, and pretty much anything you can pick up you can sell. Everything has a weight, and you can only carry so much, so you will start to horde the lighter and more valuable stuff you find. Pretty much anywhere you are, even in the middle of a firefight, you will be scavenging electronic components, toy cars, 200-year old packaged foods, medical stuff, scrap metal, ammo, books, papers, holotapes of information, pencils, darts, pots, pans, food, and on and on and on. In addition, there are a number of weapons you can find schematics for, and you can create these using specific pieces of the junk you find. And aside from the trade value of crap you find, there is even a weapon you can build that fires this junk like a rocket launcher. I have never, in my entire life, blown a man to even the tiniest bit of a smithereen with an Intact Garden Gnome. But now I have built the Rock-It Launcher, I know that I can. You also need a plentiful supply of junk to accrue bottlecaps to buy ammo from traders – simply scavenging ammo from those you kill in combat or find along the way will find you running out of ammo, and fast.

So, as well as a shooter and an RPG, it has a little bit of treasure-hunt and trade in there too. I often find myslef whiling away the hours doing nothing but heading out in to the wastes in search of stuff to find that I can sell and storing it in my locker in my Megaton house. And as I wander about, I happen across people or places that spawn new quests. That’s how the non-campaign goes – go out there and see what you can find. It’s about as non-linear as you can get. In fact, there is some benefit to not rushing through the main campaign – if you are playing on PS3 you should take your time. Unless you have the Broken Steel DLC (due on PS3 in July, I think) then you will find that completing the main story quest gives you titles, end of game, thank you very much, come again, try the fish. I am 120 hours in and haven’t finished the main story quest yet. Nor am I rushing to do so.

But what about the quality of the game? Well, visually, the Capital Wasteland is mesmerisigly beautiful, but also full of sadness and desolation. From the open, rocky and scrubby wastes of the north, populated by nothing but the odd shack or remnant of civilisation, to the ruined and collapsed metropolitan areas of inner D.C., the setting is breathtaking. The amount of tiny, insane detail is staggering. Bethesda made a conscious effort to make D.C. recognisable without including anything post-1950’s. So the tourist attractions are there – the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial – but alongside are ruins and a Metro system that suggest a world like our own, but not quite. And there is one little detail that floored me when I spotted it. The sunrise and sunset are accelerated – a day takes maybe half an hour or so. But not only can you watch the sun make its way across the sky – with the relevant changes in lighting and shadows – the moon does the same. Sniper scope on the moon and you wil spot it gently ambling along. Clouds and mists form as the moon sets, and a clear sky becomes a morning haze, and then clears with the sunrise. And not only all that , what astounded me is that the moon has phases!

And the variety is enough that you don’t feel like you are going through the same “dungeon” over and over. In the wastes, you roam freely here and there. In DC, you are forced to use Metro tunnels to navigate as the ruins prevent a simple traverse from one place to the next. The Metro tunnels can get a bit samey, but that’s forgiveable.

This attention to detail also factors into the believable world that has been created. From real period music – nothing beats watching the sunrise whilst listening to The Inkspots on your Pip-Boy radio – to the endless list of believable and convincing ’50’s style names from things you find lying around – Fancy Lads Snack Cakes, Wonderglue, Dandy Boy Toffee Apples, Abraxo soap powder – to the stylings and design choices that makes this long-destroyed World Of Tomorrow future seem so plausible. They may as well have travelled back in time, gotten a whole mess of ’50’s designers to draw the future, and then said “Right, now blow it the fuck up.” A fantastic example – closer inspection of the rusted and battered husks of cars that litter the landscape show a nod to the never-built nuclear-powered concept car, the Ford Nucleon. Ah, those days of innocence!

And the almost anal attention to detail and the tiny elements seeps into the game; alongside the quests and story are little things that have no effect on gameplay or story progression but leave you thinking “who the hell thought to put that in?” The best example – you will find occasional radio towers in the wastes. Turn them on and your Pip-Boy will pick up a repeating morse code signal. By using simple triangulation – walk a circle around the radio mast, find where the signal is clearest and strongest, and head out that way – you can find drainage covers and little hidden  underground nooks where lots of loot can be found. Why is this amazing? Well, firstly because who the hell would know to triangulate the radio signal to find a location? And second, because the morse code you pick up comes not from the tower, as most would assume, but from a ham radio set inside the little bunkers! These little vignettes also demonstrate the effort that has been put into creating a real world – at each radio there are usually the long-dead remains of the original radio operator, locked away trying to stay alive, and they are usually surrounded by medical supplies and purified water. The game has an incredible way of drawing you in to feel for these people, shut away in the dark, terrified and unaware of the horrors abounding in the world outside. And the morse code reinforces this – translated, most say something like “CQ CQ CQ, DE LT, K” which would translate as  “Hello, hello hello, this is station Lima Tango, is there anyone there, please respond?”. Of course, they never received the reply they longed for. Makes me sad, and it’s this kind of shit in games that I love, and will help games become more than mere passing entertainment.

Throughout the game you are given opportunites to share yor journey with companions. There are two slots: one is for a normal gun-toting sidekick, and one for someone very special. The normal sidekick will offer their companionship to you during conversation, if you choose the right options in dialog and have the relevant level of speech skill. These folks act as an extra gun and also can carry stuff for you – effectively doubling the amount of stuff you can carry. They also usually have very high damage resistance and can take a lot of punishment. You can control them in a basic way – stay here, follow me, hang back, let’s trade equipment – and the choice of companion is determined by your Karma level – some will only offer their services if you are good, some if you are bad.

Alsongside the sidekick slot is a very special compaion slot – that of Dogmeat. Dogmeat is an Australian Blue Heeler dog, and if you choose the correct speech options when you meet him, he will become your best mate. Dogmeat is awesome. He will follow you around wherever you go, often will give you a heads-up on nearby enemies by growling, and will attack enemies. Enemies will also tend to see Dogmeat as a priority target, so he makes a great distraction. He has a high amount of health, so can take a lot of damage, and can be healed. And should he die (a very, very sad thing) and should you have the Broken Steel DLC you can take a perk called Puppies! which makes sure that when he is gone, a puppy from his litter is waiting for you back at Vault 101. How sweet?  Dogmeat is awesome, pisses on the dog from Fable 2, and everyone should get Dogmeat. Do you have Dogmeat? No? Well, then you just suck at games.

Fallout 3, Dogmeat

Audio in the game is fantastic. Weapons sound LOUD and punchy and environmental audio is top-tier, from the gusts and hot winds on the wastes to eerie rumblings in the sewers or metro tunnels and the chirp of crickets as the night draws in. The keyboard sounds when you are hacking a computer (a great little mini-game that makes you use your ENORMOUSE GAMERZ BRANE) is hypnotising. I can’t speak for the music as I played the first 100 hours without it, so when I evetually tried putting in on it sounded wrong to me – I was used to not hearing it. Dialog is great – acting is for the most part very good, lots of humor. My only real gripe with the voicework is the same with Oblivion – there are like 8 million characters in this game, and, like, three dudes doing the voice work. That is really bad. With the number of lines of dialog you think Bethesda cold make the effort there. You will frequently come across characters with different voices having the same lines, two characters with the same voice having a conversation, or the same voice on totally different characters. All the “old geezers” in the game are voiced by one guy, Raiders by one guy,  non-old guys by maybe two guys, and there’s one “old” woman and one “young” woman. There’s probably a handful more in reality, but the lack of variation really kills immersion.

Animation ranges from outstanding (ragdoll death animations are some of the best I have seen) to really not very good (actors are stiff and poorly animated when in dialog with you). There are frequent choppy animation transitions, and the third-person view of your character is all but useless thanks to a camera a mile from you and your character seeming to hover an inch off the floor and float about. Stick to first-person!

The crafting of the story, and the depth of not just the main arc but the side quests covers so much and in such great detail that I can’t fault it. It is hard to believe that some dudes made this shit up.

Bethesda received so much of a monkey shit-fight of flak with the original “BAM! Game over, thanks, try the fish!” ending of the game that the release of the Broken Steel DLC re-opens the story from where you left off. And with three DLC packs available and two more on the way, all adding new content and quests, you are going to be in the game for a long time. A word of caution on the Operation Anchorage DLC however: this pack is more of a simple, linear mission and personally, other than the fact at the end you get Chinese stealth armor, the T51-B Winterised Power Armor (the best power armor in the game, bar none) and a Gauss rifle, there is not much recommend. PS3 owners are due to get all the DLC packs in July/August time through the PSN store ( I think – if not, it will be a boxed add-on pack).

So this game, you have by now safely assumed, is in my top ten list? Pretty much. For your £40 you get a game that, if you breeze through the main story and that’s it, may last 10-20 hours. Take time out to carry out all the side quests and you are looking at 100 hours or more. And factor in just wandering about and having adventures, you could be looking at double that again. Compared to a standard FPS of 8-10 hours for the same price and no replay value, it’s a no brainer. This is one of, if not the best game I have ever played, for entertainment and longevity and value for money. If like me you tend to get a game every few months, this will keep you going for that long. Not perfect, sure. There are a fair few glitches, places to get stuck in scenery, shortcomings of acting and variation of enemies. But trust me, you will not get bored, you will keep going back for more, you will have an “Oh, shit, it’s 3AM and I’m in work in a few hours” moment more than once, and you will definitley feel that your money has been very, very well spent.

Fallout 3, Lone Wanderer

Overall rating on the ever-changing dogsounds scale: 4.5 stars out of 5 – lacking a little polish here and there, but one of the best games you willl play. And it has Dogmeat.

2 Comments

  1. Posted June 13, 2009 at 11:08 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi I think this is a fantastic blog, keep up the good work…

  2. Posted July 17, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Gotta love Dogmeat!

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