War... War never changes

I've been living a double life these past few weeks. No, I haven't been dressing up in drag and doing a cabaret act. Instead, I've been catching up on the latest round of PC games. After long days of writing for TR, I've been successively stepping in the shoes of Psycho in Crysis Warhead, Marty in Far Cry 2, Louis in Left 4 Dead, and the Vault Dweller in Fallout 3.

It's that last bout of escapism that prompted me to write this blog post. While the other games that tumbled onto store shelves this season have been fun and engaging, I feel like there's something special about Fallout 3. While playing it, I got the same feeling of immersion I experienced with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (but paradoxically not with the sequel).

Before I start, I should note that I never really got into the original Fallout games. I played the first title in the series, but I became tired of it rather quickly and never made it more than a few hours in. The same goes for Bethesda's previous blockbuster, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Pretending to be in my own Tolkien-inspired fantasy adventure was fun at first, but the game seemed to lack personality and ended up feeling more like a second job (or an MMORPG) at times.

Fallout 3 kinda has the same vibe, but much more work seems to have gone in the story, the environment, the characters, and the atmosphere. The voice acting in Oblivion was atrocious and completely broke suspension of disbelief, especially since the same handful of actors voiced something like 95% of all characters. By contrast, Fallout 3 feels much more convincing. From the Vault Dweller's father (Liam Neeson) and the sinister Enclave president (played beautifully by Malcolm McDowell) to airhead scientist-cum-storekeeper Moira in Megaton and the children in Little Lamplight, all characters really seem to have their own personalities. That's quite an achievement considering the scope and size of this game.

I'm in love with the atmosphere and backstory, too. Fallout 3 really plays up the alternate past/future of the United States in the late 21st century, which seems to have been a partial replay of the 1950s atomic age with over-the-top art deco industrial design, nuclear-powered cars, and a constant phobia of communism—this time embodied by the "Red Chinese," who end up invading Alaska in the 2060s to secure oil fields. Coupled with the dark, epic music, the destroyed remnants of over-engineered structures and vehicles really give an eerie sense of fallen grandeur. It's classic Fallout, but with a certain Bethesda zest that really adds to the experience.

Then there's the storyline. While it's not particularly original, I found it surprisingly engaging for an RPG—at least, engaging enough that I completed the game in about 15 hours despite the preposterous number of side-quests and dungeons you can explore. Perhaps the quality voice acting helped, as did the downtown Washington, D.C. setting of the latter stages of the game, which I was eager to see after having visited the real city a few years back. There again, the game plays up its alternate reality setting by omitting the White House and World War II memorial and showcasing a "Virgo II" manned moon lander in a National Mall museum. (The same museum contains a plaque boasting that the first man in space was a "United States Space Agency" astronaut, with no mention of Yuri Gagarin.) Even the flag planted on Fallout 3's moon is a re-imagined version of Old Glory with 13 stars in a circle.

Before I begin to sound like a pretentious art critic, I'll say this: I had lots of fun playing. While cut-and-pasted buildings and monsters abound, combat becomes increasingly satisfying after a while—especially once you get the "bloody mess" perk, which causes mutants and other enemies to be dismembered graphically upon their death. Bethesda throws in your run-of-the-mill FPS weapons, likes a semi-automatic shotgun, assault rifle, and minigun, but you also get plenty of unusual armament to spice things up. For instance, the custom-built Rock-It Launcher propels any old junk into enemies at high speeds, allowing you to (among other things) decapitate mutants with dinner plates. Personally, I found the Fat Man the most satisfying weapon by far, since it fires miniature nuclear warheads into enemies and turns them into radioactive giblets with delightful mushroom clouds.

The folks who wrote the game didn't miss a chance to inject dark humor, either. The game is littered with computer terminals that contain funny anecdotes, and some of the characters and character interactions had me laughing out loud. I found that a refreshing change from games like Far Cry 2 and Crysis Warhead that take themselves so very seriously.

Fallout 3 isn't a flawless gem, of course. Exploration can get monotonous, and the strange mix of real-time and pseudo-turn-based combat sometimes feels clunky and frustrating. Perhaps I would've been happier with a slightly more linear game had Bethesda spent more time mixing things up in the main campaign. But that's also what makes Fallout 3 great: even though I've already completed it, I have a burning urge to start over and take a different path through the wasteland this time. Maybe I'll blow up the undetonated warhead in Megaton and spend some time exploring the other vaults, or maybe I'll just complete more side-quests so I can buy decorations for my house (yes, you can do that, too). I'm also eagerly awaiting the upcoming downloadable content, which should contribute to the backstory and allow players to tread some new ground.

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