Fallout 3 doesn’t hold up well to other Bethesda games, and the Fallout 4 roll out has brought out my shameful distaste in full.
Bethesda, as a developer, isn’t one that I follow with much enthusiasm while moving further into this industry. Even while the company is certainly hailed at the same level as Rockstar Games by many, that comparison goes a different way for me as both companies make quality titles that drift by me with a nod more so than they’re picked up and played. Part of this is on the studio very stubbornly sticking to their large-scale RPG guns that lowers their output, but even as a publisher, I’ve only played about one-tenth of their 80+ game catalogue, and only loved three of them.
Those three loved games from their combined developing/publishing history – Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Evil Within, and Skyrim – all filled their worlds completely with characters, objects, or whatever else that fit that theme. Wolfenstein was packed with the specific concoction of typical Nazy flair and futuristic automatons that sold that world as much as the fairly moving story and appropriately gruff protagonist. It set the tone early and kept it throughout, much the same with Evil Within and Skyrim. The latter of those two was riddled with bugs and had a somewhat lackluster story, but the combined tales of the world created an existential ecosystem of lore, making up for the main story’s falter slightly in that regard. The world felt populated with stories that encouraged you to make your own.
Fallout 3, in that respect and a few others, seems to fail hard. Let it be said that this is the only Fallout title to date that I’ve touched (besides Shelter), and that this is not an outright damnation of this entry of a series a lot of people love dearly. It’s beyond the hatchet of good game/bad game and risen to the razor blades that separate great, all-time or otherwise, titles from just good. And that’s where this opinion will ultimately rest: this was and remains a decently good game. Not game of the year good, but it does well enough to separate itself from other action RPGs of the time. This was also my very first Todd Howard game (Oblivion was played a bit later).
And there is some slight shame in missing out on this white-hot love that the third Fallout receives mixed with the tasks left undone within my save file. It’s about the same as standing in the middle of a concert that the crowd is crazy for, but you’re just kind of there appreciating the music. You’re missing out on that energy and passion for something, and starting a conversation about it just feels hollow. So you’re not only shamed but isolated. It’s a given also that, since Fallout 3 is my only experience in the franchise hitherto and it didn’t blow me away, I have next to no love for the franchise as a whole, leading to plenty of conversations where series followers just resort to the worst argument there is: you just don’t get it. Would a revisit change my mind? Was the best content just passed by during my particular vault dweller’s journey? Not that I’ve seen, which just feels like a shame cul-de-sac. I can completely understand the love for this game’s wealth of content and memorable scenes like Tranquility Lane, but some essential missing cogs keep me feeling that slight shame and isolation instead of diving headfirst into the franchise.
Fallout 3 was seen as a huge evolution for the series in the way that Super Mario 64 was for Mario games. The second Fallout was an RPG through-and-through with random encounters taking place within an open world and an isometric point of view. It featured a standard loop of battle-experience-upgrade that could lead you to different gameplay outcomes depending on your character’s SPECIAL build. A lot of this made its way to Fallout 3 where it seemed to choke out some of the fun of the open world. An example of such is when alternate paths in conversations were locked off, which usually meant the Vault 101 survivor had to level up their Charisma stat in a totally fine mechanic. What doesn’t seem so fine is the fact that the world seemed to push you to certain categories in an effort to have you tower over your adversaries before you could take on some of these alternate paths. That feeling of being cornered immediately made the freedom of the world feel faulty and translucent, the strings of the game visible behind the scenes.
Cornering is part of the main issue with this game for me. The VATS system embodies this feeling completely; for a while, this system is presented as the only way to attack enemies effectively, presuming that you’d never want to aim in standard fashion after seeing the limb and head targeting mechanic in action. That becomes a major problem when the game has banked on this system comprising the majority of your deathly actions, but the chances of you hitting a headshot actually feel better without the system. VATS is completely fine at mid-range when an enemy is unaware of your presence or sprinting towards you, but it’s an encumbrance outside of that parabola. Thus the presumption that this is the area where a lot of the perks should pertain or where you’ll do the most damage doesn’t hold much water when the thing doesn’t work correctly, or you just want to play the game your way.
While VATS isn’t the only example of off-putting design, that apparent presumptuous nature just made it feel easier to turn away from Fallout 3 when it haphazardly ended. Other issues are certainly present – map and checkpoint issues, encumbrance, the overall plot – but those are mostly workable, and none of them break this game’s hearty back in the same way. Washington D.C. is its own world in the grand Wasteland outside Vault 101, but it’s a world that didn’t have a consistent pulse throughout. Bethesda held the continent in Skyrim accountable for its weirdness with its stories and overall structure while Washington just felt like an area where randomness and iffy design choices reigned supreme. It does feel shameful to be just lightly bouncing in the crowd for that concert that is Fallout 4 because of its predecessor, especially now that fans have the game in hand. But this is the reality of the Wasteland, where the VATS system says I have a 96 percent chance of being redeemed and yet, it still misses.