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Fallout 3
By Lewis Denby, fresh out of Vault 101.

How do you predict a classic? ‘Citizen Kane’ struggled to make any waves in the ‘40s, and Francis Ford Coppolla was reluctant to accept a job on ‘The Godfather’, envisioning no way to turn it into the groundbreaking picture he wished to direct. Did those who saw the works of William Shakespeare in the 15th Century expect schoolchildren around the globe to be studying their intricacies today?

Away from the higher arts, few would have expected Fallout to have such an enormous impact on the gaming radar.  Released in 1997 among an assortment of big-name action titles, it sparked a fair bit of interest in the gaming press, but was ultimately overshadowed by higher-profile releases at the time.  Still, over a decade later, the third instalment has become one of the most hotly anticipated role-playing titles in recent years, the franchise having gained an admirably dedicated following that still stands just as strong after all these years.  Expectations are high.  We’re due a modern classic.

It’s difficult to tell whether Fallout 3 will be this game – such accolades require hindsight to be fully justifiable.  What’s an absolute certainty is that Bethesda’s take on the Washington wastelands feels fresh, exciting and captivating beyond any similar title I’ve played in a long time.  Indeed, whether or not it pokes its head up above some of its groundbreaking ancestors seems oddly irrelevant.  It’s distinctly a game of our times and, judged in that respect alone, it’s near-unparalleled.

Playing Fallout 3 feels like a real treat – the sort of game we’ve been owed for a while.  It’s deeply intriguing and richly rewarding, tense and atmospheric, and – like so many titles these days – just a little too short.  It’s all relative, of course – there’s more to do in Fallout 3 than in 90 per cent of modern releases – but with a main quest taking only a few hours to complete, it does feel a little on the pokey side when running from start to finish.

But those familiar with Bethesda’s previous work (and, let’s face it, even if the name Daggerfall means nothing to you, it would have been hard to miss Oblivion) will realise that this isn’t the way its games are meant to be played.  Deviating from the pull of the primary narrative makes for a fascinating experience, and the wealth of options to choose from is truly commendable.

"...a game of our times..."

With that in mind, a warning.  There will be times, particularly later on in the main quest, when characters do their absolute best to rush you along into the game’s finale.  Once you’re there, there’s no way back and, unlike in Bethesda’s previous work, ‘finishing’ the game drops you back to the main menu.  The ending comes without much warning, and I found myself standing before the final sequence without fully intending to.  Take your time with Fallout 3, keep a number of regularly-updated save files, and you’ll be able to avoid this disappointment.

Comparisons with Oblivion are inevitable and understandable, given the scale and sandbox nature of the game, but aside from the obvious it’s not a parallel I found myself drawing.  In fact, the standout aspect of Fallout 3 for me was the outstanding scope for experimental approaches, putting it more in line with something like Deus Ex.  Some quests have only one method of completion, but most sections of the game can be tackled in a wide variety of ways, depending on how you’ve tuned your character.

It’s not that there are ‘different routes around levels’ – there are at times, but that’s not the point.  The thrill here is born of the realisation that there are so many distinct ways to behave in order to advance in the game.  A typical (though actually nonexistent) quest may involve exploring a ramshackle settlement for a clue or vital piece of information.  But there’s an overly suspicious guard at the gates.  To gain his trust, you're asked to bring him a valuable item from the dangerous outlands.  Quiz him more and he may suggest that handing him a bit of money might cause him to wander off for a while.  Have a scout around and you may find another guard, who you build up a rapport with before he goes and puts in a good word for you.  Threaten them both and they may back down; or they may get angrier.  If you really can’t be bothered, you can just shoot them both in the spine.

And that’s before you even get in.

You’ll know about the much-touted decision early on that allows you to completely obliterate an entire town if you so desire.  You might be bored of hearing about this by now, but in truth, there’s no better microcosm of the whole game.  Save, destroy, or anything in between.  The freedom is almost immeasurable.

"...shoot them both in the spine..."

This freedom plays out in a delectably atmospheric Washington DC, 200 years after the nuclear war that all but destroyed the planet.  It exists in a parallel timeline where the aftermath of World War 2 led to designer conservatism, with early 50s culture idealised and maintained, while technology was allowed to advance at an alarming rate (except for the 1980s computer terminals, seemingly).  When the nuclear war came, the lucky were housed in vast underground bunkers – the Vaults – to avoid the radioactive fallout.  For some reason, the Vault you were born in never re-opened, and its inhabitants seem worryingly cagey about the outside world.

After spending much of your childhood designing your character in an inspired series of ‘rites of passage’, all hell breaks loose in Vault 101.  Your father is missing, your friend is dead, and you’re forced to flee for your own life.  A far cry from the lush safety of Oblivion’s greenery, you discover topside to be desolate, decayed and littered with the dangerous aftermath of intense conflict.

It paints a lonely picture, and an ambiance that rarely lets up throughout.  Few games manage to capture such a marvellous sense of place, but Fallout 3 does so with real aplomb.  It’s achieved through a very deliberate combination of audiovisual techniques: primarily, the radio stations play chirpy announcements and upbeat ‘50s music, while the scene around you firmly establishes a bleak tragedy of a planet.  The art direction is superb and surprisingly varied considering the limited palate Bethesda had to work with.  Miles of deserted sand and dust have never looked so fascinating, and some of the spooky interiors overflow with stark contrast.

It all amounts to Fallout 3’s main aims: atmosphere and immersion.  On the whole, it succeeds so remarkably well that, when you’re snapped out of your trance on a few occasions, it becomes all the more frustrating.

Mainly, we’re talking about bugs here.  There are a couple of dialogue issues, but largely the script and acting are perfectly adequate.  It is slightly silly, though, that it’s possible to skip entire quests by simply turning up at a later location in the game.  If you’re creating a large, open-plan world that encourages heavy exploration, you need to make sure the plot functions tightly and efficiently within this world.  At times, Fallout’s doesn’t, which can create severe problems.  With this in mind, stay away from Rivet City until someone specifically tells you to go there.

"...nasty physics niggles..."

There's a gaping plot hole as well, which some won't experience but a fair few will.  Without spoiling anything, there's a chance - based on an earlier decision - that you'll find yourself scratching your head as to why a plainly obvious approach to the finale isn't possible.  This actually scratched a fairly big mark in my opinion of Fallout 3 at the time, and with it being literally right at the end, it could leave a lasting impression for some.

There are also a couple of nasty physics niggles, including enemies that get stuck on scenery and occasionally keep twitching long after death.  One time, a previously static corpse catapulted itself into the stratosphere when I walked over it, though I found this far more entertaining than I probably should have.  These are all known problems with the Oblivion engine, and issues that affected that game equally.  It’s a perplexing shame that they’ve not been fixed in the meantime.

But when the rest is this good, it’s difficult to stay mad for long.  Some will moan about the difference in tone from the previous games, or the heavier emphasis on combat.  Comparing Fallout 3 with Black Isle’s titles is a little futile, though.  It reeks of nostalgic arrogance to expect a modern developer to create a title in line with decade-old expectations, and anything less than a dramatic shift of approach would have undoubtedly alienated the rest of its target audience.  For what it’s worth, Bethesda has captured the feel of the original games exceptionally well, albeit without much of the offbeat humour adored by many.

And, as a next-generation title, it absolutely excels in all the right places.  It’s deep, involving, captivating and creative, with simple mechanics utilised to staggeringly diverse effect.  This sort of game doesn’t come around very often at all.  When it does, the only sensible reaction is to soak it up, then shower it with praise – and that, thank you very much, is exactly what I’ll do.

FORMAT: PC (reviewed) / XBox360 / PS3



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