Fallout 3: A long time coming, and worth the wait
Is it possible to actually enjoy the aftermath of what could arguably be one of the worst catastrophes that could beset us, namely nuclear holocast? To derive pleasure from having to scratch out a painful existence after the world has been destroyed? Yes, and it is called Fallout 3. The highly anticipated followup to the popular Fallout and Fallout 2 games, Fallout 3 from publisher Bethesda Softworks hit DVD drives early November in the US in and early December in Japan. Though I very rarely buy the Collector's Edition of a game, I pre-ordered the CE of Fallout 3, packaged in a metal lunch box much like the kind I had as child, and which included a hardcover book of concept art, a DVD of production information, and my very own Vault-Tec Vault Boy "bobblehead" .
I must admit that Fallout 3 is one of the primary reasons I upgraded my PC from a Pentium 4 2.
I was not disappointed. Fallout 3 is everything I had hoped for, but the developers have really gone to great effort to recapture the feel of the original games and bring it alive in a highly open three-dimensional world. I do have some minor quibbles. For example, you can walk around in either a first-person view (like Doom or Quake) or in a third-person, over-your-shoulder view looking from behind. But the third-person view feels awkward. I don't think it is because I am accustomed to World of Warcraft's third-person view, though they do differ: WoW's view centers your body in the middle of the screen while Fallout 3 places it off to the side somewhat. I also don't care for the keyboard controls. They are rather limited (for example, I cannot hit the M key to bring up the map, something that would ordinarily be a logical mapping) and that may be so because Fallout was released on three platforms simultaneously--PC, Xbox, and PS3--and Bethesda didn't bother to enhance the PC version to make use of the superior controls we get with mouse and keyboard.
One thing we are missing is some kind of construction set. Many years ago, commercial games could only rarely be hacked or modified, but the increasing sophistication of development and the move into three dimensions has meant that developers must create more and more sophisticated tools to create and populate locations and items within their gameworld. I remember how excited people were, and me too, when Neverwinter Nights came out and it included the Aurora Neverwinter Toolset. It was an IDE for creating 3D worlds in which many players at once could explore and interact. World designers could script object and non-player characters with regular or triggered events in quite sophisticated ways, and at one time there were many, many player-created NWN modules available for free or a small fee. NWN went beyond mere content creation, however, and included a server that people could run locally and host multiple players. Some of these persistent worlds have been running since NWN's release in June of 2002 and have thousands of registered characters. It looks like BioWare, NWN's developer, is no longer linking to free modules but is selling a number of its own, no doubt highly polished and engaging. Unfortunately, Bethesda hasn't confirmed they it will be making a Construction Set available for Fallout 3, but people who are familiar with the CSs for Morrowind and Oblivion, Bethesda's two previous and highly-respected fantasy RPGs, feel confident that they will release a CS eventually. In the meantime, and despite this limitation, a surprising number of "mods" have been released. Most are re-textures of existing models or replacements of music or sound files, though there are several utilities available to take apart the .bsa (Bethesda Software Archive) data files, an essential first step in the modification process.
One issue with many games is their so-called artificial "intelligence." Real-time strategy games can suffer from weak AI still. For example, Enemy Nations had very good AI controlling opponent combat units, but for my own units the pathfinding algorithms seemed to select terrible routes between point A and point B . At times units would wander some way off the roads I had built and even switch their direction of travel back and forth. One possible cause might have been because it was easy to place multiple road tiles next to each other so that rather than have a nice straight road you could pave over some additional territory next to the optimum path. And if you built a "cul-de-sac" or side road that went to nowhere, units would still wander down it on their way to somewhere else. Problems like this point out two issues that should be addressed by the game designer: the first is to not make it too easy to accidentally build where the user doesn't want things built and the second is to make sure that the pathing AI actually does calculate the optimum (usually but not always the shortest) path between two points and not be confused by extraneous pathways. Unfortunately, Fallout suffers from some AI pathing problems. For example, you can travel through the game with companions, one a stray dog (he's called "Dogmeat," the same as the dog companion the player had in the first Fallout game) and the other can be a human (just another computer controlled character). I have had Dogmeat for a while now and he dutifully follows you, but if you walk down a narrow area, one where only one person (yourself) can pass at a time, and then you turn around and go back, the dog doesn't move out of your way. When you return you need to walk into him and sort of push him backwards until eventually you have pushed him fully out of the way. Some might argue that thiat is more realist, because a dog can't know when to get out of the way, but I have grown up with dogs and believe me, they know when they need to get out of the way. And besides, there are times when the designer needs to sacrifice realism in order to improve playability. For example, as you wander through the wastelands you come across containers (boxes, weather beaten soda machines, and so on) that can contain medicine, food, ammunition, etc. The UI clearly displays on screen if the container is empty or not. Now, of course in the real world you would have no idea if it was empty or not, but the designers decided to sacrifice realism to avoid the frustration of the player having to spend the time to open every single container. Without that indicator, the player will always have to ask, "Say, did I open that one already?" So no, game designers typically do not attempt to recreate reality with complete accuracy, nor should they.
So, to the bottom line: Fallout 3 creates an extraordinary environment. Let's admit that a post-nuclear holocast world would be a horrible place, and Fallout 3 doesn't simulate that kind of world, thank goodness. It is nonetheless unpleasant, a world populated by human raiders and slavers, but also ghouls and super mutants, giant cockroaches and two legged creatures with huge fangs and claws. So no, it doesn't simulate the world after a nuclear catastrophe. But it does build a fascinating environment in which you can choose to be good or evil, or some combination. You can wander aimlessly or pursue clear goals. The writing isn't quite as good as the Black Isle games of the past, but it is still interesting enough to draw you in and make you feel involved with the situations you find. One thing though: this is not a game for children. The bloodshed is frequent and gory. Body parts and blood fly everywhere. Butchered carcasses of humans litter camps of the raiders and "gore bags" hang from the shattered shells of buildings inhabited by super mutants. When you score a critical hit on an enemy in battle (and unless you try to play a stealthy character you will experience a lot of combat) the body parts fly in close up slow motion. Decapitation and dismemberment by gunfire are common (another area where Fallout does not nearly resemble reality) so if you decide to try it, be prepared for that. I am not a big horror movie or gore fan, so why do I enjoy Fallout? It permits me to make moral decisions in situations that I would ordinarily never encounter and then suffer the consequences of those decisions, good or bad. I can choose to save the villagers who are being terrorized by slave traders or I can raze the village to the ground. I play as a "good" character, and find that the decisions I make in RPGs reinforce the kind of person I am (or think I am) in real life. Interestingly, Bethesda sidestepped an issue in Fallout 3 which they could have handled directly. What are the consequences of killing a child? In the original Falllout games, you could kill children and you would suffer accordingly. Townspeople would refuse to talk to you, bounty hunters would pursue you, and so on. Bethesda avoided the issue by preventing the player from killing children, and thereby also avoided what could have been a moral decision forced upon the player. Of course, explaining this to non-gamers may make them wonder, "Why do you want to kill children?" which of course is not the issue at all. The issue is permitting people to make terrible decisions and then suffer the consequences of those decisions. Still, there are plenty of other opportunities to decide between life and death, between good and evil. And all within a compelling--though quite often depressing--post-apocalyptic world. Despite my minor quibbles, I give it a 95/