Commentary pieces are longer, stream-of-consciousness style essays about a particular topic. They can and will take many forms, are randomly organized, and are deeply saturated with personal bias.
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, I’m not terribly excited for Fallout 76, Bethesda Game Studios’ upcoming entry in their blockbuster post-apocalypse franchise. Though there’s still plenty to see of the game in the coming months, I’m nevertheless left feeling tepid – apprehensive, even. Some of my hang-ups with Fallout 76:
- Online only
- No NPCs
- Card-pack based leveling system
- “Upgraded” Creation Engine
- “Beta” being held too close to release
- Pre-orders went live before any aspect of the game was shown to the public
- It’s literally just the scrapped multiplayer component of Fallout 4 given new life and expanded upon
There are other, nit-picky things that have me worried, but the general fear is that Bethesda is taking Fallout too far from its roots – but that’s a discussion for another day.
Also in the news are a shit-load of mods coming for Fallout 4 (ostensibly available for console users through Creation Club after their respective releases). For starters, you have Fallout 4: New Vegas, Fallout 4: New York, and the massive Fallout: Miami – each of which feature enormous overhauls to Fallout 4‘s map or introduce entirely new maps, characters, weapons, music, etc.
It’s exhausting to keep up with all of this. It’s Fallout pandemonium out there. As if the chaos following the Jones Soda Co.’s Nuka-Quantum tie-in wasn’t bad enough, there’s a new Nuka-Dark rum, based on the beverage in Fallout 4‘s Nuka-World dlc, available for pre-order. Replica Pip-Boys are everywhere, cosplayers are making incredibly detailed suits of foam power-armor, and I’m left wondering, after seeing this franchise reach its apparent critical mass: How did we get here?
It wasn’t so long ago that the Fallout franchise was in limbo. Fallout 1 and 2 were a pair of well-received top-down isometric RPGs developed by Black Isle Studios in the 90’s. Following the financial fuckery of publisher Interplay and the subsequent shuttering of Black Isle, Bethesda Softworks saw fit to purchase the franchise rights in the early 2000’s. They then proceeded to sit on it for years.
It’s a long story, one that I can’t spend too much time writing about here, so check out this fan-made documentary detailing the franchise’s tumultuous rise to prominence. What precipitated that meteoric rise was Bethesda Game Studios releasing Morrowind and Oblivion to massive financial success and thinking, “Hey, uh, let’s make that Fallout game now.”
What resulted was 2008’s Fallout 3. A magnificent game worthy of universal acclaim. It not only brought the franchise to 3D, but proved that Bethesda wasn’t a one-trick pony with their Elder Scrolls series. It thrust players from the relative safety of Vault 101 and into the dark and unforgiving Capital Wasteland – the ruins of Washington, DC, left to decay for 200 years after nuclear armageddon. It touted an unprecedented level of freedom for an open-world RPG: Go anywhere, do anything, kill anyone. On October 28, 2008, Fallout was reborn as a franchise and hasn’t slowed since.
But how does it hold up today? People are still playing it, creating enough demand for Bethesda to release it for Xbox backwards compatibility, and later a 4k update for the One X. I first played it way back in 2008, a full decade ago, and have returned to it countless times to continue logging hundreds of hours into new characters. I’ve done the same for New Vegas, and thanks to the settlement-crafting in Fallout 4 I’ve probably logged over a thousand hours into that title alone on my Xbox One.
I love this franchise. But, as with some others, I felt a tad burned by Fallout 4. It was too similar to Fallout 3, but without the latter’s sense of charted moral consequence or player freedom. Fallout 4 was missing . . . something. Something beyond its aesthetics. It’s hard to describe. Many have tried, and many are quick to draw comparison to Obsidian’s franchise-best entry, Fallout: New Vegas, which largely ignored a generalized karmic point-system in favor of uninhibited player choice and consequence. I, however, think it’s important to start at the source of the Fallout revival.
So, earlier this week I decided to dig up my old GOTY-edition of the game and pop it in the Xbox One X and, well, there’s plenty to talk about. So, without further ado.
War Never Changes
War never changes; unless, of course, it receives a 4k-patch. PC players have long enjoyed the optimal playing experience for Fallout 3 (assuming they can tackle the game’s notorious Windows Live requirement), but no longer. If you own an Xbox One X and have an old copy of Fallout 3 lying around, you’ll enjoy a fairly sizable update that enhances the game from Raven Rock to Rivet City.
It isn’t immediately noticeable when you start a new game, seeing as your character is literally born into darkness. The silhouette of your father, James, voiced by Liam Neeson, coos you into picking your gender and name (I chose ‘male’ and ‘fig newton’), before your mother dies off-screen and you’re carried forth into a blinding light and Vault 101.
This was a clever conceit on Bethesda’s part, having Ron Pearlman insist that no one enters or leaves Vault 101, and then showing your birth, which leads you to presume that you were, in fact, born in the vault itself. You weren’t of course, but it plays out well once you spend a few hours growing up in the vault, taking tests and getting acquainted with the game’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and skill systems, only to have dear old dad start a rebellion against the tyrannical vault-overseer by simply leaving the inescapable vault.
Playing on a 4k television, old textures are suddenly given new life. Colors have been enhanced, objects are crisply defined throughout the environment – a subtle, but noticeable jump in fidelity from the 720p upscaled presentation used on the Xbox 360. It doesn’t match Fallout 4‘s lighting, not by a mile, but the level of detail in Vault 101 – from the environment to the ecosystem inhabited by the vault-dwellers – puts Fallout 4‘s terse opening sequence to shame.
It may be a slog to replay – allocating points and picking your S.P.E.C.I.A.L., taking the G.O.A.T. test, and escaping the vault – but it represents a design philosophy notably absent from Bethesda’s follow-up. From the jump, players are given a plethora of choices. Do you talk back to the adults at your birthday party? Are you kind and understanding to those around you? Will you help Amata by shooing away Butch and his Tunnel Snakes gang? Do you cheat on the G.O.A.T. test? Are you a dick to your father and the Overseer? Do you tell Amata to keep her 10mm pistol, which she eventually uses to murder a security guard?
Your actions, yours, have immediate and world-changing consequences within the first hour of the game, beyond just point allocation. NPCs live or die depending on your input. That agency within the game, the winding and wide-branching possibilities of your decisions, are notably absent from Fallout 4. In 4 you are restricted to a single personality until you leave Vault 111. Your objective? Son, go find him. And that’s it. You create your character, say hello to your family, coo your crying child, set up your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and two minutes later you’re sprinting for the vault. Then you’re frozen, your spouse dies, yadda yadda, and boom – rush through the empty corridors to the exit and behold the Commonwealth Wasteland. It’s a far less nuanced experience, focused instead on expediency and a truncated role-playing experience.
Not so with Fallout 3. It takes its time, makes you take your time. When you emerge from Vault 101 it isn’t a map-marker or a voice over that guides you forward – it’s the map itself.
A World On Fire
The game world is what sets Fallout 3 apart from Fallout 4, and maybe even New Vegas. I love New Vegas, but its eighteen-month development time shows with how cramped and clamped together so many areas feel – though, I’ll never forget my first nighttime glimpse of the Lucky 38 from afar, blooming with light. Wonderful stuff.
Fallout 3 is different, though. Like I mentioned earlier, after emerging from Vault 101, the eyes are drawn in different directions by the geometry of the map laid out before them. To the right is a metal-looking structure, what you learn is Megaton, and to the left are the battered homes of Springvale. In the distance, marvelously clear due to the added horsepower of the One X, is the Washington Monument. Three choices and one objective, find Dad, but how? Where do you go? Easy: left, right, or center.
Fallout 4 followed a similar approach to populating its map with locations, but offered very little in the way of actual wasteland to explore, a stark contrast to Fallout 3. As you can see in the screenshot above, my Winterized T-51b-clad Lone Wanderer has a choice to make. To the left is a power station, unexplored; to the right is a water tower and another structure; below-center is a bombed out building below the interstate. Between all of it is unpopulated, nuclear-ruined wasteland. Points-of-interests are decorated by terrain that accentuates them, differentiates them from other areas. All of which is meant to invite you, distract you, entice you forward to lose yourself in another dungeon full of Super Mutants or Feral Ghouls.
In writing there’s an element to the page that works for you without a single word being typed. It’s called “white space.” It’s a clever little tool that writers use to add emphasis to words by isolating them on the page. An example:
Fallout 3 still has bad graphics.
Notice all the space around “still”? Everything around it is white space. The extra millisecond it takes the eye to trace down the page creates a cadence – instilled in your mind by the writer.
See? Did it again. Anyways, my point is that sometimes the best elements of a game, especially a role-playing game, happen in the moments where the game isn’t telling us to do something. Forget dad, he’s in Smith Casey’s Garage, get to him when you can. Find the power lines north of Megaton and go for a jog. Stumble on some wastelanders fighting over some water, kill a few radscorpions. The guns are painfully inaccurate but the game has a means to compensate for it. It isn’t a shooter first. Not when you can hit the road, stress-saving every five minutes, and let the atmosphere absorb you in the space between those points-of-interest.
Does the game world look any better? No. Not at all. No 4k patch is going to fix flickering or texture pop-in. You can see very far now, in certain areas both the Washington Monument and Tenpenny Tower are clearly visible. I’m not sure I like it, either. It makes the map feel kind of . . . small. Which is a shame, because we live in an age of over-stuffed, lifelessly organized open-world games. A game like Fallout 3, dripping with the charm of its own aesthetics, shouldn’t feel so unassuming.
It isn’t much of a complaint. After so many hours played, the game loses some of that freshness – the ability to toss a few surprises at you every now and then. With so much of the map being available to the naked eye, any elevated platform is going to show you how the game devs arranged the map. There’s a fairly uniform amount of space between important locations, jagged rocks are jutting out of the ground literally everywhere to create some variation, and no urban planner would ever sign off on the nonsensical infrastructure of the Capital Wasteland.
Cul-de-sacs are plopped in random areas, neighborhoods consist of three houses, there are maybe one or two schools, every church is identical, huge boulders are jutting from the national mall, highways have one or two off-ramps and neither are in the city. It’s a logistical mess. But, none of that really matters. Fallout 3 still has charm everywhere else.
It’s in the transatlantic accents, the thirties big band and swing, the atomic powered car carcasses littering the highways, the “die-commie!” jingoism, the retro-futurisitc stylings of every billboard and box of cereal, and all the notes and scraps of civilization left behind in desk-terminals in the derelict office-buildings. All of which is in every Fallout game, but it’s integrated more effectively in Fallout 3. You are small in Fallout 3, with an enormous world – seen and unseen – all around you. Everything is connected.
Caravans travel the wastes and stop at specific locations all across the map, then meet at Canterbury Commons, where you can invest in increasing their supply. NPCs have relatives living in other settlements, other settlements operating under different governments. Super Mutants threaten everyone, and the Brotherhood of Steel has fractured in two trying to deal with them. NPCs need you to fetch a document, which leads you to another band of NPCs who you can choose to help or ignore, or kill. Bump into a Scavenger trying to survive on their own, kill them for bad karma, and in an hour hear NPCs insult you or find yourself ambushed by Regulators. There’s a web holding everything in the game, and your actions send ripples everywhere.
The Witcher III this is not, but in 2008 is was a blast to experience.
Ten Years Later
I’ve spent a lot of effort talking up this game. I love it, I really do, but it can be a frustrating mess of an experience. An experience exacerbated by my having played many other RPGs over the past decade.
The shooting is awful. Guns are horribly inaccurate, even with beefy stats, and V.A.T.S. isn’t always going to save you. Action Points regenerate quickly and stimpaks are plentiful after a few levels, so consumables are borderline irrelevant. Enemies offer no real challenge aside from wasting extra ammunition, larger creatures simply requiring more bullets.
The randomness of combat is always refreshing, though. Walking up to a grain silo and having a Yao Guai charge forward to tear your arms off really gets the adrenaline pumping – as does visiting Old Olney for the first time. It’s still fun to explore and survive, but it isn’t difficult anymore.
Caps are the name of the game. The in-game currency is easily obtained, I mean it. Cram valuable junk lying around every office or metro tunnel into your pockets and sell them to vendors. It requires very, very little effort to eventually have more money than you need.
Skill-checks aren’t as prominent as they are in New Vegas, but they’re still here. Intelligence and Science and other perks will offer unique dialogue options that can change conversations or unlock non-violent paths to completing quests, but the Speech requirement is a huge missed opportunity. It’s worse in Fallout 4, as there are no fucking skills in that game, but you are still given a percentage chance to pass any Speech-check. You aren’t meeting a previously withheld barrier and surpassing it, you’re simply raising your chance of success. All you have to do is save before a conversation and reload when you fail a check, then roll the dice again. Simple.
I don’t mean to insinuate that the game is in any way broken because there are ways to exploit it – [if a vendor has duplicate objects of low quality, buy and sell the same item repeatedly to eventually glitch the barter mechanic and take all of a vendor’s money] – I’m simply saying that it speaks to the quality of the vanilla experience if all I want to do is take measures to circumvent it.
And I do that a lot. Especially after playing Fallout 4.
It’s frustrating how slow the movement speed is, how glitchy all the rubble is, and how easily the game crashes. NPCs are mentally vacant, walking into one another or inhibiting quest-progress on multiple occasions. Dialogue is acted very poorly most times, and the four voice actors don’t have the range to differentiate the dozens of NPCs populating the game.
Most textures are muddy, even after the patch ramped up the resolution, meshes are low quality, there’s absolutely no interaction between light and the objects within an environment unless it’s from your Pip-Boy, etc.
Some may find the rag doll character models endearing, but the Gamebryo engine and its Havok physics don’t hold up by today’s standards. The player character floats across the map when running, arms and legs too stiff to adjust angles until the player inputs in a cardinal direction.
Saves get corrupted, easily, and at times my DLC won’t even be recognized.
But damn it, there was one thought that kept running through my mind as I encountered these problems. One thought that I had while diving into a flooded metro station, or the trenches of the national mall, or clearing out Evergreen Mills, or scouring the wastes for the Keller Family Transcripts:
I really, really missed this game. The game’s engine fails by today’s standards, and that’s okay. Yes, it’s rough around the edges – enough to give it a sort of jutting-boulder shape – but it’s immersive in a way that most modern games don’t even try to be. Only a handful of studios are concerned with delivering this type of single-player experience anymore, and few manage a game as consistently engaging as Fallout 3, from its world to the narrative within it.
While the story itself is a tad too earnest, it’s nowhere near the sentimental sci-fi that plagues Fallout 4′s worst missions. You can explore the main quest-line at your leisure, enslave some scavengers for profit, give a homeless man forty water bottles to offset the negative karma, hunt down all the bobbleheads, and blow up Megaton for money. Or maybe just grab your canine companion, a good rifle, turn on Galaxy News Radio, and head out into the wasteland. There’s plenty to do, in as many different ways as you please, and five stellar DLC expansions to play through. And I highly suggest that you do.
No matter what year it is, 4k upgrade or no.
Here’s hoping that Bethesda can match the storytelling and world-building standard set by their first forray into the Fallout universe. I don’t blame them for the lukewarm response to Fallout 4, they kind of had to make another Fallout 3 with more commercial appeal. That means dumbing things down. I just hope that isn’t the death knell for Fallout 76.
While games continue to evolve into multiplayer services rather than stand-alone experiences, as battle-royale modes are shoehorned into unrelated IPs, and impudent monetization schemes clutter user-interfaces and restrict content, one thing is for certain: In another ten years, I’ll still be playing Fallout 3.
And that’s it for this essay. If you agree with anything I’ve said here, feel free to let me know. If you disagree, please do the same. Share this content with anyone you think would like it. Like and follow this blog using the widgets at the bottom of the page.
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Until next time.