Duck and cover!
On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Fallout 3 at GAME. While I was a big fan of Black Isle Studios’ Icewind Dale and especially Planescape: Torment, for one reason or another I never really got into their Fallout series. However, after reading a lot of good things about Bethesda Softworks’ third game in the franchise (Black Isle having been unceremoniously dissolved in 2003), spotting the hefty discount at which it was being offered, and starved of any good, in-depth RPGs of late, I decided to give it a shot.
I’m glad I did, because while Fallout 3 has problems, it feels very much like a spiritual successor to the great Black Isle RPGs of yesteryear. While the game is decidedly combat-oriented (and can be very punishing if you wade in out of your depth), there’s also a decent amount of emphasis on plot development and conversations with NPC characters. The character system is pleasingly complex without being incomprehensible, with a wide array of different stats at your disposal, many of which affect your ability to bribe, intimidate or lie to characters through dialogue (if you so choose). This is not unlike Planescape, which bestowed considerable rewards to those who pumped their Intelligence and Charisma, therefore delivering a more interesting experience to players who used their brains instead of their fists.
The biggest downside is that the game is fairly ugly - a somewhat significant problem given how long you spend looking at it. I don’t mean that the graphics are technically bad, but rather that the visual style is unappealing. True, I wouldn’t expect any depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland to be rainbows and cherry blossom, but there’s something repetitive about the never-ending grey and brown environments in which you spend most of your time. I even decked my character out with a shock of bright red hair in an attempt to alleviate some of the monotony. The character animation is also wooden, with the pseudo-realistic designs all too often falling into that “uncanny valley” pitfall. I realise that 3D is what all the cool kids want nowadays, but personally I miss the good old days of Black Isle’s top-down 2D RPGs, with their artful, wonderfully detailed pre-rendered backgrounds.
(Oh, and the voice acting matches the animation. I found out a few moments ago that the player character’s father is voiced by Liam Neeson - yet another example of a live action actor turning out to be a poor voice-over artist.)
Another significant problem comes in the form of the game’s combat system. I’m not referring to the VATS system, whereby you can pause the game and issue orders at your leisure, targeting a specific part of the enemy for that optimal kill-shot. This is a great feature that adds a pleasing amount of tactical strategy to the action. Unfortunately, the real-time model is less than ideal, and this is really the only viable option in close quarters. You end up strafing about like a ninny, trying desperately to land a hit, with the wooden animation providing very poor visual feedback. The control system simply isn’t suited to this type of combat, and I now find myself regretting having chosen to specialise mainly in the “up close and personal” side rather pumping the abilities relating to ranged combat.
From what little I’ve experienced of it so far (preparing for the post-graduate symposium having sucked up much of my time this week), Fallout 3 is a great game and a welcome return to the glory years of PC role-playing games. Elements of it are rather clunky, but it would be unfair to say that this is any different from the old Infinity Engine games, which always struck me as being decidedly flawed when it came to the combat side of things. (One of the reasons I loved Planescape so much was the extent to which combat was downplayed in favour of dialogue, neatly circumventing the engine’s biggest failing.) On the contrary, shifting the formula into the third dimension has simply resulted in many of the same problems being present in a slightly different form. Despite these flaws, the qualities of the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world still managed to shine through, and I’m confident that Fallout 3 is very much in the same vein. Perhaps I’ll re-roll and start again with a more tactically-oriented character.