I’m willing to bet that, at some point in your childhood, you wanted to be Mad Max, and why not? Mad Max kicks ass: he’s got a shotgun, an Australian accent, a really cool dog, and the most grizzled beard in history: the five o clock shadow. Right then, so take the aesthetics and feel of Mad Max, mix it in with some retro-futurism, a brilliantly realized post-apocalyptic DC, and a bucket load of dark comedy, and you know what you get?
Fallout 3. That’s what you get. And yes, it’s every bit as badass as it sounds.
Now, if I weren’t a rambling, borderline incoherent muppet, I would end this post here and tell you to buy it, but I am a rambling, borderline incoherent muppet, so now I’m going to waste the next 10 minutes of your life telling you why it’s so good.
In fact, no, scratch that, let me go over what’s going on first, give you some context. After slapping the disc in your Xbox or whatever and booting this bad boy up, you’re asked to create your character and call him something stupid (I called mine Moist Pete). From there you live out your childhood in the safe but subjugating arms of Vault 101, one of the underground vaults built before the apocalypse to shelter the world’s best and brightest from the nuclear bombs dropped all over the US by the Chinese. You’ll go through your childhood, getting bullied, going to school and passing your exams and generally having a pretty decent time of things.
Then you wake up one morning to find out that Liam Neeson, your dad, has legged it off out into the wasteland because, according to him, running around an irradiated wasteland and having his legs blown off by an unexploded mine sounds like a lovely way to spend an afternoon. You then find out that everyone in the vault is looking for you too, so, after beating all of your childhood friends to death with a baseball bat and a police baton you go off in search of him, because, let’s face it, a man as smooth as Liam Neeson doesn’t make it through the apocalypse unmolested. He’s gonna need help.
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That’s when the game begins proper, that’s when it chucks you out into this big, open, brutal world and lets you do pretty much whatever you please, and that’s when you start to see the real appeal of the thing. Sure, you could go to the nearest town and start looking for daddy, or you could go in the opposite direction entirely and see what you find.
In this game, stepping out into the wasteland, being blinded by its light for a moment and then looking out over a landscape of dilapidated buildings and lustreless land is one of its most memorable moments, it hints at places unexplored and characters unseen, of stories yet to be told, battles yet to be fought. This is the only point during which everything in this world in unknown to you, where you have no clue where to go, and no idea what you’ll find. It’s glorious.
From here, you’re free to make your own identity: you can become a Mad-Max type; a grizzled reluctant hero who’s only working for the reward he’ll get, you could choose to be a diplomat, or a kind of post-apocalyptic Jesus, or you could just blow up little kids for giggles. Whatever you do, though, whoever, you are and wherever you go, you’re bound to find something interesting: going one way might lead you to a robot themed superhero and his ant-themed nemesis battling it out in the middle of a blown out town, complete with overblown dialogue and elaborate costumes, turn another and you might find a town full of moody 17 year-olds beset by an army of big green mutant things.
Everything in this world is melancholic and brutal, but at the same time hilarious and weird. The wastes of DC are made memorable by a kind of oddball comedy and black humor, it breaks up the ceaseless grey of the landscape, gives its drab, often overused setting a touch of life and color and personality. It’s this sense of humor that makes for some of the game’s most memorable moments, some of its best characters.
I honestly don’t want to give you any more examples here, because, even more so then Dark Souls (reviewed here), the joy of this game is in the wonder of discovery, the sheer joy of journeying out into the unknown, so to tell you too much would be to ruin it for you.
But to give you one example; I was wondering through the wastes one Sunday afternoon when I found a sort of mansion in the middle of DC. Walking in, I found a big ol’, heart shaped bed with velvet sheets in the centre of a pretty grandiose room, two scantily clad women walking around it and an overly friendly, paranoid, Russian dude wandering around in pink slippers and a dressing gown. He kept offering me scotch.
This was a random house, in the middle of the wastes, and Flip Flop Vladimir (I forgot his actual name), was a character I might never have met had I not ventured to that exact spot on the map. Here, curiosity and exploration isn’t rewarded by better loot and the odd Easter egg, it’s rewarded by rare and memorable encounters like this. And that, needless to say, is better by miles.
Whether it’s morbid or light hearted, though, every location in Fallout 3 has its own little story, and its own pressing issues. It creates the impression that you’re just one part of a vast and complex world that neither knows nor cares about you, a world that has existed and will exist for a bloody long time, not just a few trillion lines of code and a flimsy disc.
The games duality is reflected in its mechanics, too: wandering through the wasteland without music is a grim and silent experience, one punctuated by the sounds of distant gunfire and the melancholic moan of lonely winds, and if that’s what floats your boat you can leave it like that; you can immerse yourself in the gritty feel of your surroundings, get lost in all that’s cold and dank and dying, because you’re depressing and mopey and nobody really likes you.
If you’re fun and popular and not fat, however, you can drown it all out with the sounds of 50s style Jazz, or patriotic propaganda on the in game radio, all played with era-appropriate zeal and optimism. The juxtaposition’s a tad heavy handed, sure, and that’s the case in all other aspects of the game, but it’s just so bloody charming that I don’t care.
Then there’s the combat: your guns are in constant need of repair, ammo is scarce, and healing items are expensive. It makes sense: this is the apocalypse, after all, and the guns you’re using are two hundred year old antiques, made with 200 year old parts and shooting 200 year old projectiles, they’re going to need to be repaired. It means the game isn’t about finding a really good weapon and sticking with it, as it is in other RPGs, it’s about having enough weapons and enough ammo so that you’re not dead at the end of each encounter. It means every weapon has value and a degree of usefulness; because you never know when your dudesploder 8000 is going to blow up in your hands, and you’re going to need something to fall back on to make sure you don’t die, but, on the other side of the coin, you can unlock a perk that means when you hit someone just right, they explode in a shower of blood and bits of leg.
The contrast between the slapstick and the bleak, the morose and the strange, is so consistent, so constant; that it’s heavy handed approach no longer matters. There’s hardly a moment in this game where the oddball is counterbalanced by the brutal, or vice versa, and it creates the impression that there’s always something to new to see, something different to discover. This is the kind of stuff that keeps your hands glued to the controller for days at a time.
The games handling of morality is also pretty good, sure it’s weakened by the fact that it arbitrarily decides if an action is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in a world in which neither really exists, but that and a few sidequests aside, the morality is pretty good, and you get the impression that even the perpetually hostile raiders are just people trying to make their way in a relentlessly brutal world where life has no value and death carries no meaning.
The guys who go out and capture men and women to sell as slaves might not be in the running for Pope lovely pants the third, but again, they’re just doing what they can to make a living and, as they themselves proclaim, no one in the wasteland’s truly innocent.
It’s hard, mechanically, for you to be a nice guy, too. Given the choice between robo-Hitler and Martin Luther Christ, most people are going to pick the latter, because being Robo-Hitler is only fun when you’re supposed to be the good guy, but here, in Fallout 3, becoming Martin Luther Christ is actually very difficult. It’s something that will leave you penniless and struggling for hours, and sure, saving that town from those mutants was a lovely thing to do, but now you’ve got no money and no stimpacks left, and graciously declining their payment isn’t exactly going to help with that.
On the other hand, capturing and selling your victims to the aforementioned slavers is a great way to make lots of lovely, lovely money. In fact, sometimes you’re actively punished for being nice to people: poor old Moist Pete was attacked by a band of mercenaries hired to kill him by an anonymous and probably eccentric gentleman. The world of Fallout 3 doesn’t just claim to be brutal; it is, at least in the early hours, anyway.
There’s so much more I want to say about this game, so many stories I want to share, so many characters I want to introduce you to, but I can’t, not because I’m unable to, but because doing so would spoil the experience for you lot. There are so many surprises in this world, so much to see, so much to do and almost all of it is interesting. It reaches a point where it almost seems to parody other RPGs with its sheer excellence: a quest to deliver a letter to a nearby settlement might seem run of the mill, but it quickly becomes something altogether more interesting, something that challenges your perceptions and questions your sense of morality, something that gives you agency and power, not just loot and a level up sound effect.
Every little caveat and crevice of this world tells its own story, either outright or implied, and it’s all designed with such attention to detail that it’s impossible not to find yourself drowning in it all. So go on, you lot, get this game whack it in your PC or Xbox or whatever and play it. A lot.
And if you already have, you should probably go play it some more, in fact if you already have played it, tell me about it, and then we can gush over it together, because I’m getting lonely over here.