Fallout Series Retrospective – Fallout 3

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The Fallout series essentially went into hiatus following the 1998 release of Fallout 2. Though there were several spin-off games in the subsequent years, such as the critically panned Fallout: Tactics and the virtually forgotten console game Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, no official sequel to the first two games was ever released by Interplay. There was a third game in development, under the codename Van Buren, but development was halted when Interplay jettisoned their PC development team in December 2003.

With Van Buren falling by the wayside and nothing more than a few screenshots and details surfacing over the years, the Fallout franchise was, more or less, finished. Until, that is, Bethesda purchased the rights from Interplay in April 2007. This led to the release of today’s subject, the long awaited Fallout 3.

What could have been - The unfinished Van Buren project

While generally well received following its announcement, Fallout 3 was not without its controversy. As the Bethesda promotional machine went through its motions, it rapidly became apparent that there had been some major changes and that this Fallout would be a wholly different beast. Gone was the isometric, third-person perspective. Gone was the turn-based, stat-oriented traditional RPG set up. There, in its place in all its modern graphics was a first-person action adventure game, in the same style as Bethesda’s most recent (at the time) game, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

This was a major shift and you better believe a great many of the original games were….shall we say, sceptical. Indeed, the major fear inculcated by the series of screenshots and trailers was that this would be a dumbed-down, bastardised cash-in on a once proud franchise. And this was a justified fear; the first Fallout games were, to a certain extent, characterised by their game mechanic. It can be argued that the relatively slow-paced turn-based gameplay was what led Interplay to emphasise the tactical, considered action. Let’s face it, Fallouts 1 & 2 were, in essence, single player pen and paper tabletop roleplaying games translated into a digital medium. How could the new game do that legacy any justice in the guise of a shooty action adventure game?

How could this = Fallout of old?

By marrying a genuinely engaging new game mechanic with a liberal helping of faithful and obviously loving references back to the original game, it turns out. Its almost impossible to quantify in how many ways Fallout 3 is a true sequel in the Fallout series, not just literally, but also spiritually and tonally too.
I think the core reason can be demonstrated by comparing Fallout 3 with the recently released Xcom: Enemy Unknown, itself a belated sequel to an aging, but much-loved original. Initially the similarities seem to halt there, as where Fallout 3 very much stands apart structurally from its older siblings, wilfully going its own way, Xcom is at pains to retain as much of the same structure and mechanic as its predecessor. The thing is, the reason they both work is that they both tangibly the same as the games that came before; they retain the same tone; stepping into their game world has a definite familiar feeling, like returning to the place you grew up after years away: a sense of nostalgia toned with an anticipation of reliving the experience. At its core, this is what Fallout 3 (and Xcom) succeeds in doing, replicating the feeling of the world.

The Fallout games were always more about the world than the actual storylines. The thing that really made an impression on the player was the game world, with its irreverent humour, juxtaposed with gritty realism and genuine spread of grey-area moral choices. The game world was harsh and, frankly, didn’t care if you were too. It didn’t hold your hand, it basically said ‘do what you like, just make sure you have fun doing it’ and that’s what Fallout 3 does too. Like Fallout 1 and 2, Fallout 3’s main joy is in essentially being a cyber-tourist, wandering the world and just experiencing it. It is escapism in the purest form that can be found in any medium and that’s what makes it special. In this sense, while it was initially worrying that the game was basically the Oblivion game engine with a new skin, this was actually a reason to be optimistic. If any other RPG has defined by the exploration of its world, it’s the Elder Scrolls games. In retrospect, basing Fallout 3 on these games wasn’t just a masterstroke, it was poetic justice.

Bethesda were also at pains to remind us over and over throughout the publicity for the game that the team who developed it were big fans of the originals and it shows. There are literally hundreds of homages to the earlier games, varying in scale. From aesthetic features Dogmeat appearing as a follower and bottlecaps as currency, to the game mechanic throwbacks such as the V.A.T.S system for precision shooting, the core gameplay experience was constantly reminiscent of the originals. Throughout the experience it is clear and evident that the writers and developers didn’t just know the Fallout universe, they ‘got’ it to. Ron Perlman’s ‘War? War never changes’ into? Check. Super Mutants? Check. Retro-futuristic feel? Check. Everything, is right on the button, everything. Even the soundtrack, consisting of tracks by the Ink Spots captures that cold-war-esque Americana feel.

V.A.T.S. - one of many homages to the original games

Yes, Fallout 3 is different, no it’s not the same sort of game. But that’s the thing, even though its different, its exactly the same as we remember it. It look a bit different these days, be a bit prettier and learned some new tricks, but at its heart it’s the same franchise we took to our hearts years ago. It’s still the same world as I got lost in throughout my formative gaming years.

Fallout 3 is without any shadow of a doubt worthy of being called a Fallout game and to achieve that at the same time as completely changing the core game mechanic? That’s something truly special.

So, to bastardise the great Mr Perlman:

Fallout? Fallout never changes….