Fallout 3: First Impressions

(today’s post: 1,416 words)

Fallout 3 arrived in my hands today and I spent a few hours with it.

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The short version? It’s a lot like Oblivion, which is a good thing since I spent about 110 or 120 hours playing it and the expansion. Combat is similar. Exploration is similar. Graphics and animations are similar. Questing is similar. There’s a more polished story path, but you can also wander off in random directions to take on more generic content. One difference between the two games is that dialogue and characters are better; people are more unique and memorable, and you have a few more choices and more interactive conversations.

But generally speaking, my first impression is that I’m playing a slightly improved Oblivion with a new story and new areas to explore. And I’m very happy with that.

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OK. You’re done. Really. But if you want the (really) long (stream-of-consciousness) version, and don’t mind spoilers, feel free to read on:

  • I was expecting it, but I really appreciate that I can sync my Xbox Live account with the new Windows Live account. I love Live achievements and I’m glad I don’t have to miss out on them by playing the Windows version of a game.
  • I was recently reminded that in role-playing games, kids never have a mother and a father. True to form, in Fallout 3 your mother dies giving birth and you’re raised by your father – who disappears just as the game starts.
  • I liked the tutorial. Too many games either don’t do them at all or have some immersion-killing sequence where people are telling you to “press X to activate the +1 bonus on your utility device.” Fallout lets you play from childhood and the instructions make sense within the story, “Crawl over to Daddy” or “Try on your pip-boy” (kind of like a mini personal computer – used to manage all sorts of things) and the like.
  • Maybe this is unfair because Bethesda has never been about “choice and consequence” in games, but tutorials can be great stages for setting up relationships and story. Fallout 3 rushed their tutorial and didn’t provide much opportunity for role-playing. It’s as if they see it only as a vehicle to instruct the player and want to get the player through it as quickly as possible.
  • On the other, other hand, I like that you create your character by playing through the tutorial. I didn’t realize that my answer to such classroom questions as what I would do if, thanks to radiation exposure, a third arm grew out of my stomach would actually impact the type of character I made. Fun!
  • I had a bit of trouble getting used to the controller layout, but that’s typical of many games. I also had a bit of trouble figuring out how to do basic things, like putting away my gun, before realizing there is a controller map in the settings menu.
  • Like the Elder Scrolls series, the player is inundated with items. Walk into a kitchen and you’re likely to find a coffee maker, silverware, cups, and so on. You get used checking the weight vs. value ratio and ignoring the cheap, heavy garbage. Fallout 3 is no different. Unfortunately, there’s a third factor I missed in the ratio; I made it to Megaton before I realized that all those “caps” (money) and “bobby pins” (lock picks) I passed along the way would have been very helpful. Oops!
  • Occasionally, I tuned the game to “high” or “ultra high” at 800×600 to get a sense of the graphics, but generally I set everything to “medium” so that I could play at 1680×1050 resolution with a smooth frame rate (I’m getting around 40-60 per second) on my nVidia 7800 GT. The game is very pretty at low settings, just like Oblivion. But it’s not at all colorful.

And now we move into the discussion of combat.

  • Combat was a bit frustrating at first but I’m getting the hang of it. The frustration came from playing with the 360 controller and using the V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) system, instead of “WASD” 1st-person style.
  • AP (Action Points), which come into effect only when using V.A.T.S., was the primary problem. When a guy is running at me and smacking me with a club, it’s hard to get why I can’t fight back. “Low AP” makes sense but this guy has been beating on me for three seconds since I last did anything. Do I sit here and take it? Run in circles? Will moving take away AP? I eventually realized that shooting slower was the best solution, but that, yes, you can move and recover AP.
  • Also, V.A.T.S. is a little clunky. You press the right-shoulder. The game pauses and the camera zooms in on your opponent. There’s another pause as the opponent is scanned, and then you’re presented with “chance to hit” percentages. Aim at the head, for example, and you have a 67% to hit. The torso, on the other hand, is 83% likely. So you pick your part and then accept. A short cinematic is played of you attacking, the opponent attacking, and the damage results. Then the game zooms back out. Whew.
  • Since a combat can last more than five rounds, you have to repeat this process that many times – which really drags out those “epic” battles with cockroaches. : On the other hand, I hit a giant ant a dozen times without using V.A.T.S. and barely damaged it so I feel compelled to use V.A.T.S. until my character improves.
  • Damage is grossly out of proportion with the visual effects. I shoot at someone’s head point blank and get a critical hit. Blood is everywhere. I’m told that the guy’s head is out of commission. But he’s still attacking me and it’s another 4 or 5 shots before he’s dead. Meh. One of the mods I used in Oblivion let me do massive damage if I successfully sneak attacked someone. In other words, one shot to the head and that guy was dead; I can’t wait until mods like that are up for Fallout 3.
  • Speaking of blood everywhere, if you hit a guy in the head and that’s the shot that kills him, he’s decapitated. Every time. Ants? Same thing. This is how Fable 2 works but that game is more fantasy and less realism than Fallout 3 so it really stands out as odd behavior.

My favorite aspects of Oblivion were the story and exploration; that’s why I favored quick, lethal combat. Without that in Fallout 3, I’m reminded just how combat-heavy the game is.

After escaping from the Vault I was positively overwhelmed by the immersive excitement of exploring a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC. This game really sets the mood. I found a school and ventured in, feeling on edge. A woman inside spotted me and I ran back. Exciting! But then I was forced into a fire fight with her. And then another with another guy. And another. And another. And then some dogs. And then some ants. And then some more guys. It feels off. It takes away from the mood, the exploration and story. I went out of my way in the tutorial to avoid killing people. I didn’t want to be a serial killer. But a few hours into the game I’m already jaded about killing people.

But right after this, moving back along the main story path and getting away from the random time-waster “dungeons” I have another cool moment.

On my way to Megaton I spotted a mole creature. It charged at me and I pulled out my gun as a blast streaked past me (from behind) and nailed the beast. Dead. I spun around and saw three guys decked out in heavy armor. Now that the mole thing was dead they were ignoring me so I figured they were some kind of police force helping out.

I ran over to check them out just as they started firing on some scary-looking thing around a bend. One of the guys was killed but the other two put it down. That moment pulled me right back into the game.

Shortly after, I ran inside Megaton – the first town you’re supposed to visit while looking for your dad. What an impressive layout! I love how you walk up little catwalks that lead to rooftops which lead to more catwalks. It feels so organic. And, again, made me want to explore everything and keep playing – which I did, eventually bumping into a ghoul, a prostitute, and a guy in a suit. Interesting characters each.

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