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Fallout 3 Review - txa1265's View

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2009-01-26

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The loveliest things in life, Tom, are but shadows; and they come and go, and change and fade away, as rapidly as these!


Wouldn't it be great is this was a line from Fallout 3, voiced by Liam Neeson to your character in an elegant explanation of some subtle moment in the game?

While I don't claim to have encountered every line of dialogue, unless they are somehow hiding the good stuff somewhere I am confident that quote from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens is well beyond the level of writing you will ever encounter at any time in Fallout 3.

In his NMA review, VDweller cites a quote from Pete Hines in Eurogamer: "Dialogue wasn’t a battle we wanted to pick...we just don’t have unlimited monkeys and typewriters.". I am reminded of a classic Dilbert comic:

While I have seen very few suggest that the writing is even close to the quality of the originals, I have repeatedly seen people say that it really doesn't matter to the quality of the experience. That just doesn't make any sense to me. How can you possibly be engaged in a large, quest-driven, full-of-consequences RPG and not have the writing matter? You can't, plain and simple. It may be true that you can have a blast despite the sub-par writing, but that doesn't change the fact that the writing is on average pretty mediocre.

It would be easy to say that it is not that the writing in Fallout 3 is bad so much as that the original Fallout games are in that rarefied pantheon of games like Planescape: Torment and The Witcher that feature transcendent writing and dialogue. Indeed the writing is better or at least on par with many recent games such as Two Worlds. But then again, Two Worlds got pummeled for having absolutely cringe-worthy writing and utterly forgettable quests.

My criticism falls into three areas: quests, dialogue, and characters. Certainly there is overlap, but each of these stands out on its' own as an area of significant lost opportunity.

One critical element in building a believable living world is populating it with realistic three-dimensional characters. To be plain I found the personalities in the characters flimsy and one-dimensional - the 'nutty wife' in one town is pretty tame, and in fact the whole town is full of fairly tame characterizations of what is supposed to be a collection of highly divergent personalities who live in that area because they neither fit nor desire to fit into more standardized living arrangements. Just compare any of these folks or anyone in the 'family' in the associated quest with the sorts of characters you would meet roaming around the early parts of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and you will see how absolutely vanilla the characters of Fallout 3 are in comparison.

Of course another element of a believable living world is that the world seems believable. I'm not going to delve into the intricacies of the economy or what people are doing or the organization of towns and 'cities' and people throughout the game - there is just too much minutia for me to want to get into that argument other than saying that there is a bulk effect if you are looking at it as an important element. What bothers me is how so long after a totally destructive war we are confronted with the cognitive dissonance of a world that has totally collapsed yet can manage tasks that would require significant power without any source of distributed infrastructure. I mean, look at Mad Max - there is still some infrastructure, but it is dwindling as chaos takes over and resources become scarce. Fallout 3 has appearances of that society at time through the bandits and raiders, yet you will come into a seemingly 'dead' building and find all the lights are on and terminals working and even things like multi-stage locking mechanisms encompassing an entire building are intact despite being powered by what looks like car batteries - which are replaced/recharged by...? Of course, the fact that there are many modern weapons while anything suggesting atmosphere is glued to the 50's makes no sense either.

There have been some fun quests: the sadistic research for the 'Wasteland Survival Guide' is made worth it due to Moira's little quips. The 'Family' quest offered some solid choices that reflect upon your character's morality and offer good opportunity for role-playing (and also illustrates the 'wayward moral compass' I discuss later). Perhaps the one that tickled me the most was 'Those!'. An obvious take-off on the classic 50's monster movie Them!, the quest uses a title from an unfinished Invader Zim parody of the movie (I don't know much of Zim, but figured there might have been a parody with that name...and there was). It provides a nice microcosm of a world attached but separate, and even pulls you into the sewer system for some final battles. It might be the first time you die more than once on a quest but if not it will likely mark the most deaths in rapid succession - not an easy quest to complete at the time you will likely encounter it! Once again you get to make some choices and can even make a 'bad' choice and use some of your skills to talk your way back into getting the 'good' reward, effectively ending up rewarded twice for the same quest! Yeah, that is really an exploit.

The trouble with each of those quests - and with much of Fallout 3 in general - is that the writing is paper-thin and doesn't hold up well to examination or replay. As an example, think about the 'Wasteland Survival Guide'. Here is a society more than two hundred years after an apocalypse, with a fully function society and subculture and economic system built around small towns interspersing the wasteland. Yet you are needed to conduct experiments to help build an understanding of how to survive in the wasteland? Everything about it is totally nonsensical - yet you go along for the ride because it is fun, relatively easy and will load you up with 'caps' and experience.

The problems with the main quest being uninteresting and making little sense have been pointed out in even the most frothingly positive '12 out of 10' reviews, so I will not rehash them here - suffice it to say that getting to the end of the main quest, or even seeing what comes next, will seldom provide any motivation.

Dialogue systems are a tricky thing in role-playing games. You will often get keyword-based system such as in Morrowind or Dungeon Lords, or fixed-dialogue systems more popular in jRPG's such as Chrono Trigger. The other system attempts 'natural dialogue' by having a fixed set of choices and responses for your character and the NPC's you encounter in the world. This is the system used in the Gothic games, everything from Bioware, Oblivion and now Fallout 3. At their best they allow you to carve out your role-playing space very effectively through a series of meaningful choices; very often they present an ordered list ranging from 'good' to 'evil' in steps; at worst they reveal an apathy or incompetence at constructing a conversation that flows naturally. Fallout 3's dialogue tended to fall into the latter two categories almost exclusively.

Perhaps it doesn't help that I have been replaying games lately and simultaneous to Fallout 3, I was playing Arcanum and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines from Troika amongst others. Those games manage to separate exposition from character development from quest explanation very nicely so that things flow more naturally. Sometimes it is little things - in Fallout 3 your character mimics words from NPC's while conversing (e.g. things like talking to people at your birthday party, they 'state I wish I could have done more' and you reply 'it is good but you should have done more'...it just feels like something mindlessly constructed without ever listening to it for natural flow), but more often it is like a virus that has infected the entire landscape. The first thing that comes to mind is entering Megaton looking for your father: immediately everyone is expected to respond to 'have you seen my father?'. It is weak and lazy - they could easily have asked 'have you seen a middle-aged traveler passing through who looks much like me?'. Also, while every RPG has examples of 'omniscient triggers' where something that was unknown becomes fully known and part of every dialogue due to finding a single item, the way Fallout 3 handles it feels unnatural. One of the more intricate quests in the game, involving the android is nearly ruined by this feeling - you find a single item that alludes to androids and suddenly this new vista of dialogue is open for you to explore with anyone labeled as a 'doctor' by the game.

Oblivion was criticized for having a half-dozen actors saying the same lines. Fallout 3 has loads of voice actors...yet many of the lines are repeated again and again. Getting attacked by a group with different people saying the same exact thing is weirder than hearing multiples of the same voice saying the same line but either way it just odd and off-putting (or 'immersion-breaking' to use a phrase I hoped to avoid). It is funny...I was very unimpressed by Mass Effect's dialogue system and feel it doesn't bode well for Bioware's future, but compared to Fallout 3 it feels natural and well done and complex.

 

 

Beyond Good & Evil: The Wayward Moral Compass of Fallout 3


Quick question: is killing someone right or wrong? Is 'profiling', or attributing likely behavioural characteristics on someone based on their appearance of belonging to a certain group, right or wrong? Before you answer blindly, you should ask questions back - what is the context of the killing, what is the situation where you are making the judgement of the person. In the real world choices are seldom as simple as flipping a light switch. Yet in Fallout 3 morality is presented in a way that is at once very thin and yet heavy-handed, and diminishes the quests and overall experience of the game. The game uses Karma to represent where you are on the good / evil scale, and it impacts how others regard you and whether or not certain quests / options will appear.

It is easy to say - but wait, Bioware has been pushing 'tri-color morality' for years, why pick on Fallout 3? While I agree that Bioware games often have a rather simplistic moral view, it generally works well within the confines of their narrative approach. Games like Knights of the Old Republic work fine for taking the light side / dark side / mercenary approach as that approximates the most common archetypes presented in the game. When Obsidian produced the sequel, they added much more gray to the black & white morality of the original, and the 'influence system' was a great way of incorporating that into the game.

But in Fallout 3, the subject matter presented is much more dark and has the potential for loads of role-playing. Most players will generally play only once and choose a fairly standard approach of either good or evil (or a bit of neutral for 'achievement whores'), and will not notice the choices made behind the scenes. The game presents several situations with morally ambiguous characters or groups on either site of a conflict you need to resolve. I mentioned the 'Family' quest before, and Shamus Young also talked about the 'Tenpenny Tower' quest as an example of this. I will focus on the 'Family'.

You get this quest by stumbling upon a small village built on a half-demolished bridge. Depending on your approach you also just completed a huge battle through some bandits who have a stronghold in a house nearby. As it turns out, that house is identified as part of a subquest in the town, but no matter. You are seeking this location because of an earlier quest to deliver a letter from a sister to a brother. So you come to the town, and meet up with the one person seemingly responsible for anything...um... responsible around town. There have been problems with bandits and raiders, but the worst has been murders of an inhuman nature that have occurred around town. One in particular just happened, and a resident is assumed to be responsible, but has run off. As usual you are tasked with figuring it all out by locating the group responsible, and given possible locations. So you wander off into the wasteland after talking to the half-dozen thinly drawn stereotypical residents about pretty much nothing of value.

Eventually you come upon the (well guarded) camp of the 'Family', and have to talk your way through several people before you can approach the brother and deliver the letter and find out what actually happened in town. I had saved the game just before entering based on stuff the guard at the gate said, and played it through a few different ways to see what happened. First time through I killed the guard and every living thing inside the camp without provocation. I got plenty of experience but botched several quests and made the towns-folk quite unhappy with me for killing the boy, not to mention his sister. I also lost loads of Karma. Next time I talked my way through until I got to the boy, never trying to work with the Family, convinced him to leave and then wiped out everyone. While the town was happy, I lost loads of Karma again.

The last time I talked my way through the whole thing with an open mind, working to see the view of the pseudo-vampires, and agreeing to help broker an arrangement between the Family and the town wherein they would donate blood in exchange for protection. The town leader was wary, but everyone else was happy and I was able to complete all of the quests, gaining loads of experience and Karma along the way.

Apparently the game has decided that the Family are 'good guys' (or at least an oppressed minority) and that setting up a protection racket in the face of losing more townspeople is the moral high-ground. This is very similar to the decision that the ghouls are an oppressed minority and that not trusting them is racist despite the large number of fast-moving vicious ghouls you can encounter almost anywhere that look just like the well-mannered ones. It takes one-side of a complex issue and makes it 'right' and simplistically chooses all others as 'bad' and punishes you for choosing them. It just doesn't make any sense at all, and again comparing to the Troika games that are bouncing around inside my head now, feels like it was something written by my twelve year-old, who would say 'oh' as I pointed out all of the inconsistencies and necessary assumptions to make them even remotely work.

 

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Box Art

Information about

Fallout 3

Developer: Bethesda Softworks

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Post-apoc
Genre: Shooter-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
World
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2008-10-28
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· Operation Anchorage DLC
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-01-27
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· Mothership Zeta DLC
· Platform: PS3
· Released at 2009-08-03
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2008-10-28
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· Broken Steel DLC
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-05-05
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· Point Lookout DLC
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-06-23
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· The Pitt DLC
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2009-03-23
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

World
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2008-10-28
· Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

More information


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