Vault 101 – Welcome Home

Posted on 30 October 2008

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Fallout 3. Has it really been 10 years since we last trod the glowing wastes? The Fallout franchise has attracted a cult following over the years, and I’m certainly not alone in my longing to return to the world of Nuka Cola and Stimpaks. The story of the life and hibernation of this popular series is a saga unto itself. (you can read about it here.) When I heard that Bethesda had picked up the franchise and was developing a sequel, my reaction was a combination of elation and fear. Bethesda was using the same engine that drove their popular and yet deeply flawed game “Oblivion”, and I had some serious concerns. 2 days in, I’m happy to report that these fears and concerns seem to be unfounded.

The game comes on 1 DVD, and installation is reasonable. I was up and running in under 15 minutes. I’m running the game on quad-core Mac Pro under a 100gig Vista partition. I’ve got 4 gigs of memory and an ATI x1900 graphics card. Starting the game, the recommended performance settings were “medium”. I haven’t tinkered with anything (it’s not apparent from the menus how to do so) but performance seems good.

Character Creation:
In an interesting analog to Oblivion, character creation is a lengthy, scripted event. It literally begins at your birth, and the choices you make through the various stages of your early life determine the type of character you’ll be running. Fortunately, you have the option to change all of these settings using hard numerical figures before you leave the Vault. Those familiar with Fallout 1 and 2 will immediately feel at home with the system of SPECIALs, Skills, and Perks. While many of the options are new to Fallout 3, there are enough of the oldies to bring a smile to your face. Lady Killer and Bloody mess are two obvious examples.

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(Bloody Mess Perk in action)

Graphics are amazing, if your system is up to snuff. If it isn’t, the game seems to do a good job at recommending acceptable settings. I run full screen on a 30 inch monitor and everything is smooth as silk. Textures and effects like fire, smoke, and water are on-par with what we all expect for games of this generation.

There is music but as I immediately turned it off, I’ll not comment on that. Ambient sound is solid. You can hear the wind blowing, creatures skittering around behind doors, and people in towns holding conversations (which evidently go on whether you’re there or not.) Eavesdropping is an amusing diversion as you look for your next quest, and all of the NPCs which you can have meaningful interaction with (quest givers, for example) have a speech component. While you will make your conversation selections via a mouse click, the characters respond quickly and verbally. Rather than wait for 10 minutes for an NPC to complete a lengthy paragraph, you have the option to read the subtitle and skip ahead with another mouse click. This option is very welcome and works well.

There are a LOT of quests in this game, and a remarkable number of ways to solve them. You pick up quests in various ways, but it usually involves talking to someone. The depth of the writing really shines here. What seems to be an easy delivery quest rarely turns out to be quite that simple. It’s truly remarkable how open the game system is. You can solve a problem by shooting, talking, or sneaking. You can barter or use diplomacy. The entire skill system comes into play. Lacking the art of conversation, I ended up having to shoot my way out of one particularly gnarly situation. Hopelessly outnumbered, I used a series of well planted mines and grenades to lure my opponents to their doom. Had I spent points elsewhere, I would’ve likely been able to avoid combat entirely. I think that this game has a lot of replay value in that way.

Leveling up:
Defeating opponents and completing quests nets a player “experience points”, and eventually the ability to “level up”. Players can then allocate points to various skills (Strength, Endurance, Charisma, etc.) You can also select a perk. I’m not going to go into the Perk system, it’s described well here. The leveling up process is smooth, and you can back up and undo a mistake before committing to it.

One of the things I disliked about Oblivion was the interface. It was written with the console market in mind, and had an over-simplistic, almost tacked-on feel. In Fallout 3, the chief interface is the Pip-boy 3000. The Pip-boy is an over-amped PDA. Strapped to your left forearm this thing tracks your quests, stats, inventory, maps, and notes. It even has a built-in radio which can receive the various “pirate radio” stations that are broadcasting out in the wasteland. The Pip-boy is simply fantastic…I love it, love it, love it. I want one in real life. Someone should write an iPhone app that simulates it. 🙂
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(The Pip-Boy 3000)

The designers have done a fine job with the combat portion of this game. People will assume that Fallout 3 is a first person shooter based on screenshots and videos of gameplay, but the VATS system is a new paradigm. Clearly a nod to the phased combat of the original 2 episodes, the VATS system utilizes the concept of action points to queue up aimed combat strikes at various targets. When you initiate the vats system, gameplay pauses and you see a close up view of your enemy – with an overlaid grid of percentages for success for your attack on various parts of their body. Each of your attacks consumes a certain number of action points. So say if you want to take shots at an enemy’s leg, you may only get 3 aimed shots off before the round ends. Action points regenerate over time, so many times it’s a game of finding cover, waiting for action points to accumulate, and then leaning out to take another round of shots. The game animation for this is greatly entertaining.

With the caveat that I am only 2 days into this game, I have found Fallout 3 to be a stable experience. I have had 1 crash to desktop. I would also say that the player animations leave a lot to be desired. When in the 3rd person view, the player’s character looks like he is stiffly lurching, gliding, or skating along the ground. This seems like something that was tacked on at the end of the development process and not fully tuned. I will sometimes flip to 3rd person to see what new armor that I have acquired looks like, but then I immediately flip back. The animations are pretty awful. Interface-wise, there are a lot of shortcuts that are poorly documented that are of great help to players once they become aware of them. One of these is the “Pip-boy flashlight.” Holding down on the tab button turns on the flashlight. It’s also possible to map weapons to keys 1-9 by holding down a number and left clicking on the weapon in your inventory.

Fallout 3 is a completely different game than it’s predecessors, but the tone is right. It’s as though Bethesda decided to create a film from the Fallout book. There are differences in the translation, but the feeling is there and there’s no doubt it’s a Fallout game. If you enjoyed Fallout 1 and 2, this is a no-doubt, no-brainer, first-day must buy.

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