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Fallout 3:
The Good Parts

By Shamus
on Monday Dec 15, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews


Fallout 3 is a fusion of two wildly popular game franchises, in much the same way that Taco Ice Cream would be a fusion of two wildly popular foods. It takes the gameplay of Oblivion, and splices it with the setting of Fallout. There are other gameplay elements they’ve introduced to act as adhesive between the two disparate systems, which both add and detract from the whole in equal measure. In order to help confuse both players and (more importantly) reviewers, Fallout 3 has better gameplay than Oblivion, but a worse story than Fallout. So figuring out if the game is good or bad depends a lot on which axis you’re traveling on – which of its progenitors you’re using as a standard.

The name “Fallout” carries expectations with it that I can’t just dismiss with a hand-wave. The fact that Fallout 3 is good doesn’t change those expectations.

In case you missed it, I just admitted that Fallout 3 is good. And now I’ve said it twice. It was no less painful the second time, and I hope you’ll not ask me to do it again. It is entertaining. Inasmuch as that’s what we want from games, it is a success. Despite all my Fallout-based disappointments, this game has merit, and – amazingly enough – manages to hit a few home runs. Let’s go over a few of them:

  1. The music is excellent. Any game that has Bing Crosby in the soundtrack can’t be all bad. This song in particular has been stuck in my head for days. That man was an even, undiluted mixture of talent and class.
  2. The capital wasteland is wonderfully realized. It’s reportedly smaller than Oblivion’s Tamriel in total square footage, but with a greater variety of interiors and a more diverse landscape, which makes it feel larger in the end.
  3. I still pine for the turn-based combat of Fallout. It was good, and now it’s gone. But its loss does not change the fact that the combat in Fallout 3 is pretty fun. The VATS system – where you can pause the game and take an aimed shot at an enemy based purely on the numbers that drive your character – is about as good a compromise between the new and the old as you could hope to conceive. I can’t come up with a system that would deliver the turn-based fun I crave without alienating the FPS gamers this game is courting. (Aside from cutting down on the use of slo-mo. Sweet Jambi, the constant slo-mo became a form of ocular torture after a few hours.)
  4. I haven’t seen anyone else talking about this, but I think the Fallout 3 lockpicking system is the best portrayal of the activity in a videogame, ever. It’s a thoroughly tactile experience, and getting that click at the end is deeply satisfying, even before the game surrenders the loot and XP.
  5. The voice acting is tremendous. Liam Neeson, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman. All of them give great performances. (Most readers will naturally and unconsciously append “Duh” to the end of the preceding sentence, which is why I didn’t put one there myself.) The Bethesda regulars are here again, playing the various small-time NPCs in the game. A few new actors have been added to the mix, so it doesn’t feel like a world of clones the way Oblivion did.

It’s a good game, (ouch again) and I can fully endorse it. This is important to say this up front, because in the next few posts I’m going to hammer away at the egregious failures of the game and I don’t want you to walk away with the wrong impression. This game contains greatness, but it also contains idiocy, and the idiocy is all the more lamentable for the fact that most of it would have been easy to avoid. Most reviewers would just mention these things in passing, but if you’ve been reading for any length of time then you know that obsessive, in-depth pedantic nitpickery is my eternal mandate, and I will fulfill that in the coming posts.

Comments (87)

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  1. Avilan the Grey says:

    I have not gone that far on the main quest yet (have not even been to Rivet City) and I am lvl 13.
    Personally I love this game, and I can’t see why a lvl cap of 20 would make me feel “done”. To me (no matter what RPG I am playing) it has never been about what Level I am. I am building a competent character, I admit (next run might be a more silly build) but I won’t be disappointed when I can’t “grow” anymore.

    As for “too cramped, too much litter, too much radiation…”
    This all takes place in the greater DC area, an area directly hit by nuclear weapons (and for those who claim the city should have been leveled: A) Many nuclear weapons are set to blow up before actually impacting, because it spreads the damage around more than a direct impact (the crater protects the surroundings) B) How much fun would that be. Fallout (all versions) are guided to a large extent on the Rule of Cool, after all)

    I love VATS, I have a VATS-optimized build. I have played this for 20 hours so far and I LOVE the slomo. The zooming in when Murphy gets a perfect hit, and knows it, when an evil smile / smirk spreads on her lips as she pulls the trigger, then follow the bullet (hopefully) through the head of whatever looser she kills… Mmmmmm Brainzzz

    Oh and what disturbs me about the negative points (especially on NMA obviously) is the eerie feeling that somehow, this game has actually insulted a persons religious beliefs. That is what is so… uncomfortable with a lot of the Anti-FO3 fanatics. You suddenly realize how religious wars starts, since a whole forum is nothing but quasi-religious hatred of the “infidels” who likes the game.

  2. Flying Dutchman says:

    Hey thanks Evangel! I’ll take a look at those titles when I’ve got the time and funds.

  3. Josh says:

    As some have said, I can’t wait for you to tear this game to pieces. I feel we all deserve it.

  4. Avilan the Grey says:

    Well yes, I will as always truly enjoy Shamus review.

  5. Krellen says:

    Avilan (@65):

    A direct nuclear strike does not excuse the way radiation is treated in Fallout Myth. In Fallout, you are sent to an underground military bunker that was a direct target of a nuclear strike called “The Glow” by the residents of the waste. You run around the exposed, irradiated first level for several minutes until you find what you’re looking for, and you come out no worse for the wear.

    Considering how much “radiation” is used as a hazard to enforce alternate paths and plot points, I strongly suspect Bethesda simply doesn’t get what “radiation” is supposed to mean in Fallout.

  6. Jock says:

    [geekery] Remember though, that with prevailing winds we would actually expect the East Coast to have to deal with radiation due to, ehem, fallout more than the West Coast. The jet stream blows from west to east, so that’s where the irradiated particulate matter will head. That’s why Chernobyl only really affected the USSR, and not Western Europe. [/geekery]

    [fanboyery] And what the heck do you mean “what radiation is supposed to mean in fallout”? Do you really think that the creators devoted more than a moment’s thought to ‘what is the significance and purpose of radiation in the Fallout universe?’ More likely they just put it where they felt there should be radiation, as did Bethesda. [/fanboyery]

  7. Derek K. says:

    Let me be a bit cynical and ask if there *any* RPGs out there with a good main storyline? I play games for the sidequests and the interactions. The main story is almost always annoying.

    I’m also amused that a game can fail to be Fallout when even Fallout 2 failed in many opinions.

    If you want to go that route, why not criticize Fallout for not being Wastelandy enough?

  8. krellen says:

    Jock: Yes, yes I do.

    It’s important to note how unrealistic the effects of radiation are in Fallout/2. How radiation is used as a justification for all sorts of strange things, from ghouls to radscorpions. How walking in radioactive sludge makes you grow another, fully-functional, toe. These are things we though radiation would do in the 50s, which is the central point of Fallout; it is the future of the 50s, with all the assumptions and misconceptions of the 50s in place. In the 50s, we though radiation was a good excuse to grant super-powers, thus the swath of radiation-empowered superheroes from the time period.

    Radiation doesn’t make you sick and die in Fallout. It changes you.

  9. ehlijen says:

    Rpgs with a good main plot: I liked Kotor and BG2 for their main plots.

  10. Alex says:

    “Let me be a bit cynical and ask if there *any* RPGs out there with a good main storyline?… The main story is almost always annoying.”

    I wish I could comment on the state of storytelling in any of the Fallout games, but my computer can barely run MS Paint as it is, so I won’t be playing them any time soon.

    Nonetheless, and as much as I get what you’re saying, I can think of two RPG’s off-hand with good “main storylines”.

    Final Fantasy IX has a story about several characters trying desperately to be one specific thing in life(an indecisive woman trying to be a respectable, responsible ruler, a damaged young man trying desperately to be the dashing hero, a living doll made for war trying to cope with the parameters of his own existence, etc.). None of them succeed. They all have to face the crippling reality that they are not suited for the roles they’ve chosen in life, and that this poor judgment may very well come at the cost of the well-being of their friends and their world. This is all a part of the main story, and not side-quest material. It is wonderfully written.

    Final Fantasy X is a story of rejection of the tyranny associated with organized religion, the hypocrisy it wields against the public as a sword of righteousness, and the fear of death that it uses to cripple the world. It is told through the point of view of a man who has a lot more going on in his thoughts than he seems able to communicate to a culture and civilization that is alien to him. It is also about his conflicting feelings for a woman who has condemned herself to a depressing fate for the temporary good of the people around her. It’s about what they want to say, and what they decide not to.

    OK, the big twist at the end with the main character is stupid, but for the most part it’s a commendable story.

    I do agree that a lot of video game stories are atrocities. But I believe the RPG(that oh-so nebulous term) is the foremost genre for storytelling in video games, if the people working with that genre are willing to put in the effort. It’s starting to sound a lot like Bethesda did not put in that effort. I don’t know. Couldn’t say.

    But I think if there’s any aspect of Fallout 3 character interaction and plot development that leaves something to be desired, perhaps it’s more the fault of the FPS side of things?

    (Great, I’ve just done the same thing that the person I’m responding to has done: made a blanket-statement assumption about an entire genre of games. The very thing I set out to disprove with this comment. I haven’t even played Half-Life for crying out loud. Who am I to talk about stupid stories in First Person Shooters?)

  11. Namfoodle says:

    Krellen: Although I agree with your characterization of radiation in Fallout getting a “campy” 50’s treatment, you’re wrong about the Glow. There is an effect from the massive radiation

    If you don’t take enough anti-radiation meds before you go into the Glow, you will die, no save.

    “I went to the Glow, and then I died for no reason after I left, what happened?” is a question that you often see on message boards.

    The fact that it is possible to completely protect yourself from radation with a few pills is silly, but if you don’t take them, you fry.

  12. R4byde says:

    Just a quick note to Krellen and anyone else who sees F3 the same way: I suggest you take a look over at NMA (No Mutants Allowed) they’ve got a compilation mod in beta and it trumps vanilla F3 by a huge margin. It’s not 100% lore friendly -I personally think some of the weapons are out of place.- and their are currently some CTD bugs, but over all the gameplay is fantastically better. The combat especially is much improved and is about as close as I can see F3 getting to the originals.

  13. Alex says:

    …So, is there a reason why a comment I submitted hours ago doesn’t appear to exist, or is even acknowledged by the comment-count? This was around when ehlijen most recently commented. Hitting submit with the same comment again directs me to what looks like an fancy error message saying I’ve already posted it, but I don’t even see an “awaiting moderation” preview. It’s usually instantaneous either way. It was a longer comment than most, but not even close to the most wordy featured here so far. If it was rejected or something, I’m fine with that, I’m just really confused right now.

    Your website ate my opinions, Shamus. ='(

    …Which actually sounds pretty cool. Oh well. No biggie.

  14. Evangel says:

    Krellen, radiation in Fallout makes you sick and die. FEV from the direct nuclear strike on West-Tek (now The Glow) caused the radscorpions, deathclaws and all the other wonderful creatures.

    And you don’t walk through radioactive sludge, you walk through toxic sludge, bit of a difference. It’s why you take damage from it burning but you don’t get irradiated.

  15. krellen says:

    FEV did not cause everything, Evangel. Early versions of the Fallout Bible (which is not canon) falsely claims it does. Later versions (version 9, specifically) verify that anything not directly attributable to the Master (which is only Super Mutants, Centaurs and Floaters (and Harold)) is, in fact, created by radiation.

    The idea that any sort of virus, synthetic or not, could survive a direct nuclear blast is ridiculous. Not even 1950s science believed that.

  16. Vegedus says:

    A confusing part of the Fallout 3 debate is differentiating the critique it garners for not being Fallout enough, and the critique of standard game design faults. For instance, some find the voice acting lacking. But the original Fallouts didn’t have much dialogue at all, so that would arguably be more a general design problem. A good story is important in most RPGs (and plays some role in most games), so does the supposedly bad ending detract from the Fallout of Fallout 3? If we assume Fallout 1 and 2 were good games and 3 a bad one, in general, would that make it a bad Fallout or “just” a bad game?

    Of course, if you ask an old school Fallout fanboy, something I am loath to do, anything is fair game to use as a weapon to tell that they can’t truly enjoy the evil Fallout 3.

  17. felblood says:


    When you’re talking about how a game failed to achieve a particular feel or scratch a particular itch, technical failings are always going to be fair game.

    Technical flaws in features that did not exist in the emulated product are going to be the most disruptive thing that could possibly exist.

    In complaining about them, the “fanboys” are effectively saying, “I would have suffered gladly or even enjoyed this change had it been implemented smoothly or skillfully, but it was not and I will not.”

    I never played any Fallout games, but I know the pain of the disappointed fan. You’re looking for another taste of what got you hooked, and when somebody offers you that, he had better deliver, by Blood, or somebody is going to hear about it.

  18. Evangel says:

    Vegedus, Fallout 1 and 2 had tonnes of dialogue. They also had about a dozen talking heads (voice acted) characters.

  19. ehlijen says:

    That fact that fallout 3 doesn’t feel like fallout is not what makes me dislike it. It’s the fact that while it has plenty of good things and potential for more, we instead get it’s ‘main plot’.

    Like oblivion, it’s a game that could have been better, but they chose not to make it so.

    Bethesda deserves praise for attempting to live up to the fallout fame (which at least in part owes it’s size to the fact that the original fallout had almost no competition) and not failing completely (fanboys are difficult to cater to at the best of times), but they do also deserve a smack on the head for once again not living up to their promises.

    AUD$100 for a game that they gave up on halfway through (or so the dialog leads me to believe) is just not fair.

  20. Jansolo says:

    I love hacking computers mini-game too.

  21. Jeff says:

    Fallout 3 is a good game.

    Fallout 3 would be a GREAT game if they actually had writers.

    Reportedly, they said they didn’t have anyone doing dialog specifically, because “they didn’t want to do the dialog game”. That’s… wonderful. Which is why, much like Oblivion, we have this breathtaking gameworld populated by cardboard cutouts with a tape recorder attached to them. The same tape, mind you.

    Also, endings. Would it have killed them? What they did with it isn’t much more than the slideshow at the end of FO1&2, except considerably LESS. Yes, turn based may be out now, but if you’re just going to do the same thing as before, do it BETTER. Fully rendered or MORE endings would be a step forward. Their ending was a step back.

    Seriously. Writers. Not a secondary thing but one of the primaries.

    That said, VATS with a missile launcher is great to watch.

  22. Fean says:

    I have to disagree on several counts.

    VATS. As an FPS fan, I detested the clunky real time combat. It’s second rate at best. As a turn based strategy/rpg fan, I hated the half-assed “turn based without any actual tactics” VATS mode. The game is balanced with VATS in mind, so playing it without is both hard and unrewarding(see above). Using VATS really began to annoy me around level 10.

    It was amusing seeing a head fly off someone’s shoulders the first time. Even the 20th time. Heads rolling and bodies exploding is awesome… until said rollings and explodings happen so often you just wish you could skip that part and play the damn game. Bethesda managed to make me bored with exploding heads.

    I also thought the lockpicking game, while probably the best one I’d played, was still a cakewalk. If it weren’t for the stat requirements on locks, I could have (once again) picked everything in sight. At least they added stat checks to it and an option to auto-pick it.

    The voice acting has gotten a lot better but what’s the point if the dialogue sucks the big one?

    Atrocities commited against mankind and the Fallout universe aside, FO3 was decently entertaining and probably Bethesda’s best game ever. It’s even pretty good most of the time. But I doubt I’ll ever reinstall it again. I’ve probably booted up FO1 and FO2 a dozen times each. This game has no lasting appeal, it’s $50 amusement ride; once it’s over, you step off and that’s that.

    Derek: Planescape Torment is a fairly boring game with a story that could have been a “Grade A+++ would read again” novel.

  23. I’ve enjoyed FO3’s immersiveness. In a lot of ways, I find it better than Fallout 1 and 2. I loved Arcanum, for example, but the idea of randomly searching the world map until you encounter something seems much less immersive than, y’know, EXPLORING, jumping up and down. I felt a real sense of accomplishment very time I came across a power planet.

    @ Krellen: I personally found radiation to be almost a non-issue. With the massive stock of RadAway, I was chowing down on NukaColas even if I had hundreds of Stimpacks just for bottlecaps. If anything, I’d want radiation to be MORE severe. The few times radiation was an issue, of course, it was just too blatant.

    The main plot has a few wallbanger quests and elements, but overall I liked the idea of saving the water of the Wasteland.

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