Warning: Contains Main Story Spoilers for Fallout 3
Fallout 3 at first blush seems like everything a fan could want in a revival of a classic franchise; a pedigreed development team, a brand new environment, a story that seems to love the original paired with an engine and gameplay style that brings in a broader audience for a well-loved property. If nothing else, it should be streets ahead of the Brotherhood of Steel games for PS2. ut for all the benefits that Bethesda and its Elder Scrolls style panache it brought to the Fallout setting, it can't measure up to the original.
Bethesda loves world-building. These are the sorts guys who would start a D&D campaign with no less than two three-ringed binders full of notes to bring to the table. It's the bread and butter of the Elder Scrolls titles, but the fact is that the world of Fallout has already been built, then reduced to smoldering ash, then rebuilt. There's very little worthwhile to add to the setting. That didn't stop the Bethesda team, though. The Happy Days-infused pre-war past of the first games was used as a pitch black comic juxtaposition to the chaos and doom of the current setting. F3 re-envisions that as a straight-faced raygun gothic environment that exists only to colour the ruins; the sense of fun and satirical elements of the first games has just vanished. It's a sad thing to see it go.
While we're on tone, let's talk about the game's morality. Bethesda understood two things entering into the franchise: the previous two games offered players options in how to progress through the story and how they interacted with the various factions within the plot. Second, that modern gaming’s moral choice systems are about arbitrary decisions between incredibly shallow presentations of ethics. These concepts don't play well together, especially for Fallout where choices were always about weighing between agendas. Some of those agendas would certainly fall within some value of evil, but there was always a sense of reason behind it, be it greed or a mistaken belief that harshness was in the interest of a greater good. Not so in the Capital Wastes where the big moral pivots of the plot are brought about as the player acts as an agent for some group with an unexplained appetite for acts of cartoonish super-villainy. The people of Megaton are doomed not for some act of hubris on their part, or any valid excuse from Tenpenny, but because the designers felt like having a choice in that location. The same goes for the endgame where the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave are presented only in the extremes of the moral spectrum and the reasoning behind their aims for the water purification project boil down to 'well, they're evil.' This only gets amplified by the game's two narrators, DJ Three Dog and the disembodied voice of Ron Perlman, who exist not to expand the setting and exposit upon the broader scope of the player's action but to reiterate the karma score for the playthrough. Three Dog has never died for any reason other than to force him to shut up and stop passing judgement on the player's moral alignment. Tone is lost in a sea of shallow options. This would be disappointing from any game, shameful for a game in the Fallout lineage.
Then there's the issue of the main plot: removing radiation from the Potomac River Basin. Liam Neeson's character admits to having done so on a limited basis, but in order fully complete the device he needs the Garden of Eden Creation Kit. It’s symbolic of renewal and hope and could be a great point of revival for a post-apocalyptic setting. It is a wonderful idea except these pesky facts getting in the way. It starts with the G.E.C.K, the same MacGuffin of Fallout 2, in which it was a seed bank and fertilization system (with bonus pen flashlight!). That was the joke, a bunch of tribal survivors took Vault-Tec marketing as holy writ and attributed magic powers to a semi-useful gadget. The version from Fallout 3 is actually the Genesis device from Star Trek III, as it can completely rebuilds an ecosystem. The player could have made something liveable of a section of the wastes, created a utopia. Instead the game forces players to take it apart to fix an engineering problem. The audio logs from the first crack at Project Purity showed it working just not fast enough for Liam Neeson’s tastes. And here’s the cherry on top of the sundae of mediocrity that is Fallout 3: this problem shouldn’t even exist. At the start of the game it’s been two hundred years since the last of the bombs hit. Irradiated water can be filtered with clay and dirt, the water cycle would have dealt with this decades before the events of the game. Bravo.
Guess what else doesn’t last two hundred years? Concrete, pre-packaged snack cakes, medicine, bullets, most anything really. Not just in a Life After People sense of this how long such materials take to break down without maintenance. I mean no one in the Capital Wasteland makes anything. For two centuries, a population of thousands has been living off of tv dinners and Twinkies... then killing each other over this food with the same cache of bullets. Bethesda may be great world builders but in terms of setting construction, they’re more interested in a town built on top of a functional unexploded nuke than one near sufficient arable farmland. There’s more to sandbox design than plunking down all the cool ideas you had during brainstorming. It’s about building a living, breathing world, like the kind presented in Fallout 1, 2 and New Vegas.
I'm not saying I hate this game, it would be hard to do that considering the one hundred hours I've put into playing it. What I am saying is that it invites a lot of criticism. In the spirit of fairness, there are moments and environments where this game shines and I appreciate its revival of the Fallout franchise. I'm glad it returned a favourite series for a new generation of gamers and the writing team at Obsidian to play with. I only wish the main story could have been worthy of the other games in the series.