Fallout 3

A Blast from the Past review

FBT falls-in with Fallout again.

The Past

It’s odd to do a Blast from the Past on a game that’s only a few years old. Sorry? Released 2008? TEN YEARS AGO?! It can’t be, Fallout 3 can’t be a decade old. Have I been frozen in a vault for all that time? I hope not, I would make a terrible basis for a Fallout game. Ten years...

For the longest time F3 was one of my fave games, easily in the top five, but over time it slipped away as I just couldn’t face repeating that huge slog through the wasteland, the impossible scale of it. Until Bethesda took free-roam indulgence to 100 with Skyrim, I couldn’t imagine a bigger game (other than their Morrowind). But although I call it a masterpiece, I just recall endless rubble, raiders and botflies, have flashbacks to never managing to reach my destination without being distracted. I remember having a crush on the off-kilter girl writing the Survival handbook, wearing a ghoul’s face for a mask and everyone chatting to me like it was normal to be walking about like Hannibal Lector. Wasn’t there a giant robot at the end? I know it was all to do with water and my Dad but the more I think about it, all I remember is that rubble, those raiders and damn botflies. I played it multiple times but I think I only finished it once; once all the DLC was added it never ended. It’s time to go be Liam Neeson’s sonaughter again. Ten Years!

Still a Blast?

Oh wow I remembered my own birth. As I go through the classes and appearances it’s a nice character build sequence. Bethesda always did those well, from Morrowind’s immigration questions to this glimpse into who I’ll be as we go from cute toddler to a bratty teen taking their aptitude test. It’s a nice way to get to know myself without being a preachy tutorial. I don’t get to know Mum, who dies in childbirth. Least I still have Dad though.

Dad’s gone! And somehow it’s triggered a riot. I escape the vault, my home for the last two decades, and it’s an oddly bitter-sweet moment. On my first playthrough TEN YEARS AGO I blazed through this sequence itching to get going but this time I’m a bit more relaxed about it. Vault life isn’t so bad. I even try sticking around after the riot but eventually everyone just tells me to leave. The party’s over. Wearing my Fonzie leather jacket and a birthday hat I got for my tenth birthday, I’m well prepared.

Following the original games’ overall story-arc, in 2077 a short-lived nuclear war broke out, with predicable results. Playing off paranoia and threat, “Vault-Tec” had begun building shelters all over the country (in this case, Washington DC) and now they had a captive audience. Vault-Tec added additional tests, events and scenarios to better understand human nature or something probably more insidious. Those in the vaults created their own societies for two hundred years, while outside, survivors and Vault-escapees did the same.

Stepping out into the wasteland still packs a punch. For a decade old F3 still looks great; games might have more pixels now but it’s all about belief and for all its sci-fi, F3 feels real. This is the aftermath of a nuclear war. In this reality though Apple never got out of Jobs’ garage; their style over substance approach is nowhere to be seen (maybe somewhere there’s a Vault that looks like an Apple Store). F3 is one of those fifties ‘the world of tomorrow’ films come to life. An over-designed, art deco, Vic-20 meets Nostromo world buried under an apocalypse. Ten years on and I’m still marvelling; Bethesda know how to build a world. Fallout 4 might have watered down the memory with its retread but this feels more gritty, more real; the immediate danger has passed but there’s no real hope of rebuilding. Instead, folks are eking out a living the best way they can; I just came from a vault which while restrictive, was safe and had water that wasn’t eradiated.

It turns out that’s what Dad was after all along. He wasn't a huge fan of bottled water and his project, Purity, was a way to cleanse the area’s water and the first step towards rebuilding civilisation. But it’s taken a huge amount of steps to reach this point. Like all good RPGs, you follow the mission marker less ‘how the crow flies’ and more like ‘pissed bumble bee’. It’s impossible to walk in a straight line. There’s hundreds of things to go look at and those things have things in them that you spend hours ferreting through or send you off looking for other things that you don’t reach because other things. I’d forgotten how hard it is to get anywhere without being pulled somewhere else. What’s that?

The main mission is brilliantly done; our character has questions, there’s a nice tension between me and Pa, and Dad realises his kid doesn’t need him anymore. You can play the character as pissed off, indifferent or desperate but no matter how you react, nothing will be the same again. As you attempt to finish Dad’s Purity Project, you draw the attention of the Enclave, a remnant of the previous government who realise controlling the water is a means to reasserting power - coincidentally that’s the plot to Tank Girl and both antagonists are played by Malcom McDowell. I’m also dressed like Tank Girl.

It’s fun to dig into your inventory and work out what items you can cannibalise, although it’s not as detailed as I remembered, especially with the weapons. Similar items can be folded into others to raise their stats, but you never really alter or jury-rig stuff the way you should, leaving you to carry multiples of everything, weighing you down. Mostly you’ll be carrying junk, digging through everything like Steptoe in the hopes of uncovering something valuable – or a bobbypin so you can unlock items to find more junk. Although this does feel a bit endless and slows everything down, I’m still enjoying wandering eerie old schools and decrepit Nukacola factories hoping to find something. Usually bloody radroaches. Usually.

There’s a whole host of beasties to battle, and to help there’s the VATS system, which stands for something. You can pause and pick where you want to aim and you’re given a percentage of how likely the hit is. It’s a bit like an intellectual’s Bullet-time but fun watching the shootout in slow-mo. It’s also fun using VATS to fatboy a botfly. Swatted the bastard.

But, the botflies and radroaches soon give way to speedy giant scorpions and Guai; I’d forgotten about those werebear things; but I hadn’t forgotten about the bloody Deathclaws, apparently a war-time super-weapon gone awry. Also very awry are those Super-Mutants and their side-kicks, those nightmarish Centaurs. There’s also the ghouls, folks who survived the nuclear fallout but lost their sanity (and looks, but not their clothes. Even zombie America is concerned with modesty), and giant ants referencing the infamous fifties movie Them! but mostly we’re fighting raiders who figure the best course of action is swing a lead pipe at the gal in power-armour. When Fallout was adopted by Bethesda, there were grumblings from the original series’ fans that it would become The Elder Scrolls, and to be fair, it has. This is Oblivion without spell casting, but it’s a lot more focused and you do more digging around, and the setting is much more relatable. Plus, no Oblivion gates popping up every ten feet. It is its own game and ten years on I’m still finding new areas, new experiences and loving the post apocalypse.

The good thing is, unlike more recent RPGs (like Fallout 4), the main story is nicely non-urgent. Almost from the outset Dad says the water purification project won’t save the world and it’s freeing to not be that heroic, to not have pangs of guilt when I return to Megaton again to offload junk then go do something for folks who need this, want that, send you there. We’re getting a priest to realise he’s in love, putting a stop to cannibals (or not), and researching lovely Moira’s Wasteland Survival Guide. We’re looking for old civilisation artefacts, rescuing folks from Super Mutants and Slavers – unlike Fallout 4 and Skyrim’s disheartening ‘radiant missions’ this feels more realistic than endlessly visiting a smug Jarl who’s yet again bitching about a Dragon that’s outstayed it’s welcome. Instead, there’s just enough to lone wanderer into. Unless your lone wanderer prefers company.

Unlike Oblivion, followers are more than bullet-catching NCPs. The best is Dogmeat. A mutt we rescue, he becomes a doggo liability, running off to attack something ten times his size, falls off cliffs and constantly get in the way. After a short while I leave him at my digs in Megaton, terrified I’ll lose him. There’s various mercs, thrill-seekers and more than a few quest-related folks who make life interesting by following then disappearing, getting stuck or dying and leaving the mission unfinished forever. Followers haven’t been quite perfected in F3 and they kind of undermine the ‘Lone Wanderer’ shtick our character is rocking, but at least they can carry stuff for you. Just don’t give them anything valuable.

Another Oblivion nod is the Karma system. This was much better utilised in New Vegas, here it means getting pestered by do-gooders and having marginally better dialogue choices, but also draws the attention of mercenaries who don’t like nice people. If you decide to be a mercenary yourself, the ‘Regulators’ come after you instead, and being a dick doesn’t block you from mission opportunities, just more evil options once you’re mean enough (bye, Megaton hovel, hello penthouse in Tenpenny Tower).

I’d like to say a lots happened since F3 was released, but … has it? Playing this now, I realise RPG hasn’t moved on, it’s just repeated itself. F3, along with Oblivion, got it perfect and as I play and remember moments, events and set-pieces I realise how much Fallout 3 informed my expectations of RPG. It’s good. When’s the last time you had a hundred-foot-tall robot as a follower? F3’s scenery does become samey but there’s so much layered into the game that it becomes more than endlessly clambering over a tip. The loose societies and clans that have sprung up, the communities like Megaton or Rivet City and heavy-handed groups like Enclave and Brotherhood of Steel - this is how its going to go when someone finally presses the button.

When you add in a compelling but unpressured main story, tons of side-missions and events, and some stellar characterisations and observations, you’ve got a decade old game that’s timeless. Graphics might continue to impress and advance, and one day Fallout 3 might seem creaky and basic, but it’s spirit will still be indomitable and that’s missing from modern RPG; Fallout 4 and Skyrim included.

Like lovely Moira’s Wasteland Survivor’s Guide, Fallout 3 should be required gaming for anyone planning on taking up RPG so they understand how it’s done; and it should be a tutorial for anyone planning on developing one – and that includes Bethesda. Fallout 3 is back in my top games list. Play Fallout 3; make Liam Neeson proud.

2008! Developer; Bethesda Softworks | Publisher; Bethesda Publishing

Platforms Win, X360/One, PS3