I think we can safely grant Bethesda the title "Creator of Largest Worlds." Between the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout, they have practically defined the wide-open, go-anywhere, sandbox style of gameplay, which also includes a stupid quantity of sidequests, extreme levels of customization, and the kind of insane detail that lets you, say, steal individual pieces of silverware from every house on the entire planet. It all leads to a sort of sensory overload, but that's where I thrive: as I keep saying, the thing I enjoy the most is living in a fully-constructed world, and Fallout is more fully constructed than just about anything.
I have an emotional attachment to the Fallout franchise that is surprisingly strong when you consider how little of it I've played. Oddly enough, I first came to it not through the video-game angle, but from the role-playing angle. During development, it was hailed at the first game that licensed Steve Jackson Games' GURPS system. I've been a huge fan of Steve Jackson Games since the very early 1990's, and was excited at the thought that their pen-and-paper games would finally make the transition to computer games.
Shortly before the game was released, there was some sort of legal dispute, whose exact nature never became public. The fallout (ha!) of that controversy was that they abandoned the GURPS system and developed their own, which they called SPECIAL. SPECIAL wasn't exactly the same as GURPS... there are some similarities, but every role-playing system shares some of the same DNA; how many systems do you know that don't include a Strength statistic? Anyways, GURPS is most famous for being a truly generic and universal system; you can use one set of game rules, and apply it to cowboy westerns, space combat, cyberpunk, steampunk, feudal Japan, any setting you can consider. What I like most about GURPS, though, is its character creation system. You get a certain number of points, and can spend it to take certain characteristics; maybe you spend a certain number of points and gain night vision, or uncanny reflexes, or a photographic memory. What's really cool (and more unusual) is that some of the characteristics are actually negatives, and rather than spending points on them, you earn points by taking them. So, you might give your character a stutter, arachnaphobia, and epilepsy; all of these can then be rolled over into more positive advantages for you. The end result is really interesting, varied characters with lots of personality. Best of all, there's no such thing as an "ultimate" character, or a perfect build; you gamble on the sorts of situations you'll be in, try to balance out your strengths and weaknesses (both within the individual and, perhaps, within the party), and hope for the best.
SPECIAL lost the cool negative abilities, but otherwise still feels GURPS-ish. The core GURPS stats are replaced by the SPECIAL stats - Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. They also have a set of secondary skills that you can build out. Because of Fallout's setting, they don't need the universal support of skills, so they are limited to the things that will come in useful in the wasteland: big guns, lockpicking, explosives, and more.
Then as now, I read about many more games than I actually played; it was almost a decade before I finally got around to playing Fallout. My favorite thing about it was the setting. Almost all RPGs I play are fantasy, but this was a full-blown science-fiction one. In the mythology of Fallout, World War III has finally occurred, the United States (and probably the whole planet) has been nuked, the mass of human and animal life has been killed or mutated. The only survivors are those who were lucky enough to be in underground fallout shelters. Now, many years later, the worst of the damage is past, and the survivors and their descendants are starting to creep back to the surface. What they find is an incredibly dangerous world, filled with radiation, lacking fresh water, assaulted by giant mutated animals, and largely lawless or under the control of organized gangs of criminals. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for the world of Mad Max. The coolest thing about it is the technology level, and that seems like something tailor-made for GURPS: it's a planet with the artifacts of an advanced technological society (about 100 years above our own), but that has lost the capacity of producing anything from the industrial age. It has become a consumer society, not a producing one, burning through the plastic remnants of its former self.
I played through the original Fallout and generally loved it. It had a cool party system, a nicely bleak plot, plenty of side quests. My biggest complaint was the combat: there was too much of it and it was too slow. The original Fallout and its sequel followed the example of X-COM, with turn-based fighting and action points. More often than not, one final enemy would try to run away, and I would spend several turns just patiently trying to chase it down one square at a time.
I started Fallout 2 soon afterwards - I think I may have picked them both up in a dual pack or something - but didn't get terribly far until I was distracted by something else.
Finally, Fallout 3! It was a real back-from-the-dead story, as Bethesda bought the rights from the defunct developer. I can't think of another case where one company has continued the franchise of another company, so that was pretty remarkable on its own. It also got great reviews and made several "best game of the year" lists, so it has been in my sights for a while. I acquired it as a very thoughtful Christmas gift, and slipped into a fun RPG obsession.
These kinds of games are a blast, and also pretty dangerous. I tend to want to beat every single side-quest that I can find, talk to every person in the world, and generally extract every bit of gaming goodness that I can. That's really deadly in this case. I got the "Game of the Year" edition, with all the expansions, and all told finished about 100 quests. That's the game's official count. It doesn't take into account the many little quests you go on of the "talk to this person" or "find this item" form, which don't get their own quest entry. It also doesn't account for the fact that, often, a single journal quest may contain three or more separate quests tracked under the same title; for example, Moira's quests have you do totally different things, but you don't complete the quest until you finish them all. All that to say, there's a lot to do in this game. And, amazingly, I don't think I did it all. Late in the game you can take an ability that lets you see all the locations in the world, including those that you haven't visited; I was amazed to see that I hadn't even set foot within a third of them by the time I beat the game. Some of these locations probably didn't have any quests associated with them, just encounters; others sounded like full settlements, which probably contained multiple quest-givers.
The other dangerously OCD aspect of this particular game is its economy. Appropriately enough for a post-apocalyptic game, the world has largely reverted to a barter system; you don't collect credits or nuyen, but largely gain wealth by taking stuff that you find lying around, and then exchanging it for other stuff. The closest thing to currency in this world is bottlecaps, which are a lightweight way of transporting wealth. However, you'll never get nearly enough bottlecaps from quests and exploration; you need to trade for them.
Early on, I would take everything that wasn't nailed down. I'd walk into a blasted supermarket and then emerge carrying breakfast cereal, empty soda bottles, batteries, toy cars, paint guns, anything I could lay hands on. Pretty quickly, I learned that I needed to pay attention to the value-to-weight ratio; a fusion battery was worth 50 caps, but it weighted 15 pounds; wonderglue was just worth 10 caps, but it weighed a single pound, and so by dropping the 15 pounds from a fusion battery, I could potentially carry 150 caps' worth of glue.
Throughout the game, I gradually got stronger and able to carry more stuff. The quality of gear I came across improved, my wealth improved, and my standards for carrying things rose. I began turning my nose up at the 1/5 items that I had previously treated as gold, holding out for 1/10 items or higher. Once you get used to the looting and selling cycle, it becomes really pernicious. I would travel to a place in 1 minute, spend 2 minutes clearing it of enemies, and then spend 5 minutes picking up everything of value, getting overloaded, opening my inventory, finding the least-valuable-by-weight things that I carried, dropping those, picking up some more stuff, getting overloaded again, repeating the cycle until I thought I had the best stuff, repairing and consolidating the weapons and armor that I planned to sell, picking up more stuff with the freed weight, then fast-travelling back to Megaton, walking to a merchant, selling as much as I could until they ran out of caps, then walking around to another merchant, selling out from them, fast-travelling to another city, selling off more stuff, until I was finally clear again. Then I'd go back to that location and do the actual quest associated with it.
In retrospect, this wasn't much fun, but I couldn't really help it. Early on in the game, you're desperately poor, and need to extract as much wealth as you can in order to survive. When you've run out of ammunition or out of stimpacks, you're living on borrowed time. Money continues to be useful through much of the game; some ammunition (particularly .308 caliber bullets, if you're a sniper like me) can't easily be found in the world and must be purchased; other times you can use it to advance plots; you can use it to buy schematics for customized weapons, to decorate your home, and so on. Once you get into the habit of obsessively picking over loot, it's really hard to stop. I got to this point when I finished the original storyline (after playing through all the expansions expect for the one that happens after the original main quest), when I realized that I was carrying about 60000 caps, and had gear worth almost that much stashed on my person or in my house, and that there was no way I'd be able to use it all. As a result, I think I enjoyed the final expansion quest far more than I otherwise would have: I could just play the game, and not constantly calculate how much money I was leaving on the floor. In retrospect, I could have abandoned this behavior much earlier, but it's hard to tell when you have enough money, and in any case, it had become a Pavlovian action for me.
In general, though, the economy in the game is actually pretty good. Things are a bit too scarce early on, but that actually contributes to the overall feel of the game: scarcity is both a major part of the game's flavor and a crucial plot point. For most of the game there's useful stuff that you can or need to buy from merchants. You sometimes need to pick between picking something useful now or saving up for something better later; in my book, this is practically the definition of a well-designed economic system. Reselling works pretty well, far better than in Dragon Age, though there's no equivalent system of "trading up"... a 10MM pistol is better than a .35 pistol, but there aren't different ranks of 10MM pistols; you'll use the best-quality one that you find for as long as you're using 10MM pistols, and then sell it when you switch over to, say, assault rifles. When you do, you'll get a decent price for it, one that you can further affect through your Bargaining stat, if that's important to you. Personally, I totally ignored Barter until I had maxed out on most other stats, and by then I had more money than I could spend anyways.
Combat in this game is much better than in the earlier Fallouts. It's generally Oblivion-y, happening in realtime in the main game engine. However, a feature of this game allows you to enter VATS, in an homage to the original game. You can spend a limited number of action points targeting specific parts of an enemy's body; the engine shows your odds of making the shot, and the predicted damage. I spent most of the game within VATS whenever I could; once your points are expired, you need to fight in real-time, which was fine but not as good as VATS.
Like in Oblivion, weapons and armor decline in quality as they are used in combat. Unlike Oblivion, you don't repair your gear with hammers or a replacement all-purpose item. Instead, you use parts from one item to repair a similar item. So, for example, if you have two suits of leather armor, and both are in poor condition, you can take pieces from the first piece, attach them to the second, and end up with a suit in decent condition. Repairs depend on your repair skill, and your ability to find replacement parts. You can also pay certain characters money to repair your gear, which does not require using a replacement part. I almost never did this early in the game; caps were precious, and I could make do with the things I had if I limited myself to common items. (For example, I loved the Sniper Rifle, but spent much of the early-midgame using the Hunting Rifle instead, because they were so much more plentiful and easier to replace.) Late in the game, I spent much more money on repairs, largely because it's difficult or impossible to get replacement parts for some of my favorite gear. One of my favorite weapons is the Backwater Rifle, which appears in the Point Lookout add-on. It does good damage, snipes well, and has a pretty high critical rate, but you can't find any after you return from Point Lookout, so if you want to keep using it you'll need to pay.
Leveling up works pretty well. You can distribute some points among your skills as you like. It's kind of the inverse of Oblivion: instead of leveling up by increasing your skills through practice, you level up by gaining XP (usually by killing enemies or completing quests), then increase your skills as you want; it's totally feasible to, for example, do all your fighting for a level using a hunting rifle, and then upon leveling up to assign all your points to energy weapons. This seems like a good system, since it allows you to take your character in new directions.
The most fun part of leveling up, though, is assigning your talents. These are combinations of flavor pieces, skill boosts, and unusual abilities. Some are pretty straight-forward, like one that gives you a 15 point boost in Big Guns. Others are more interesting, like "Child at Heart," which gives you access to unique dialog options when speaking with children. I'll admit that I turned to gamefaqs when deciding which talents to take; it's really frustrating to build up a character and then realize that he/she is broken. (I don't min/max, but too many RPGs have broken leveling systems. If the consensus is "take what you want," I'll go for flavor, but if some perks are useless and others essential, I'll want to know now.)
My character was named Cirion, natch. One nifty thing about this game is that it lets you pick your character's race, in addition to the standard customization stuff like stats. This actually has a significant impact on the story - no race is better than another, of course, but your father, an important character, will be the same race as you. I decided to play as an African-American. For combat, I specialized in Small Guns, which includes my beloved sniper rifles. I played as a variation on the stealthy character type that I'd used in Oblivion: I focus on stealth, lockpicking, and persuasion; science is also important for me here.
The morality system in Fallout is OK, but frankly nowhere near as well evolved as in Dragon Age. It presents an extremely Manichean view of morality: everything is good or evil, right or wrong. Your actions affect your "karma", which you cannot directly view (i.e., you can't view your karma number), but which does affect your reputation. If you're kind to strangers, rescue slaves, and punish criminals, then you will earn a positive title (like "Vault Saint"), and people you run into will talk about how awesome you are. If you kill innocents, steal from peoples' homes, and kick puppies, then you'll earn a negative title ("Vault Devil"), and... well, I don't know exactly what happens, but I assume that people act really scared of you.
Anyways: my big gripe is that there's no nuance. I realized really quickly that I couldn't play a "virtuous thief" type character like the one I'd loved in DA: stealing is always bad here. I could have continued down that vein, and maybe my positive good deeds would have balanced out my larcenous ways and resulted in an overall neutral rating. But... that just didn't seem like much fun. The game actively praises and scolds you, and for whatever reason it bugs me when a game is constantly telling me "YOU ARE A BAD PERSON!", even if I am doing bad stuff.
Fairly early on in the game, I picked up some armor from Reilly's Rangers. That remained my armor for the rest of the game. I didn't learn Power Armor until close to the end of the game; once I did, the weight was so high that I didn't really want to switch over, plus Reilly's armor has really nice stat bonuses for a stealthy guy like me.
I moved through a series of handguns: I used various pistols in the beginning, focused on the hunting rifle once I began encountering Super Mutants and had a steady supply, then switched to the Backwater Rifle later on. I loved, loved, loved Lincoln's Repeater, and regret having sold it to Abraham Washington. The Sniper Rifle was fun, but took way too many action points; it should have been designed with a much longer range than it had. I didn't do much with weapon creation, but did build and play around with the Railway Rifle and the Dart Gun, both of which were great; the Dart Gun was particularly entertaining, as it was silenced, so I could attack someone and poison them while remaining undetected; they would turn cautious but not hostile. Often my follower would finish them off, other times I would pump them a few more times and let the cumulative poison take them down. This got less fun after I finally picked up The Grim Reaper's Sprint perk, which refills your action points when you kill someone within VATS; once that was in place, along with my perks for improved headshots, extra VATS points, and greater 2-handed VATS accuracy, I could polish off almost any enemy within a single VATS sequence, then use GRS to repeat on the rest.
Other apparel: I picked up the Shady Hat early on; it had no armor, but some nice benefits (I think extra personality?), so I kept it; throughout the game, my goal was to avoid damage, not to absorb it. Along the same lines, the most useful item I ever got was the Ghoul's Mask, which let me avoid fighting an entire class of enemies. This proved so enjoyable that I took a perk I had initially skipped over, Animal Friend, which let me avoid fighting more (but not enough!) species. My only complaint with the Ghoul Mask was that it's darn ugly; since I so often finished killing enemies with critical headshots within VATS, I got tired of looking at that ugly mug in extreme close-up before a slow-motion bullet would travel out of my rifle of the day, float through the air, and then slay my enemy in a comically over-the-top gorefest.
As with other modern RPGs, Fallout 3 falls behind its predecessors when it comes to your party. You can only have a single follower at a time*, so you never get any entertaining cross-party talk like there was in Dragon Age or the earlier Bioware games. I got Charon maybe a quarter or a third of the way through my game, and was really happy with him; if I were to play this again, I'd have gotten him even earlier. By the endgame he had grown somewhat superfluous, but he proved my salvation during the really difficult middle portion when you're often facing a large group of angry Super Mutants. He doesn't really interact with any of your quests or other conversations, which is annoying; in particular, there are some huge missed opportunities for talkback during the luxury apartments quest. But he was a capable fighter, and, even more importantly, capable of sneaking. The AI seems decent - not great, but better than in Oblivion. One thing that did annoy me was that he doesn't apply stimpacks in the middle of fights; this generally isn't an issue, but there were a few times that I needed to reload because of this. Also, he seems to level with you, which is great; he's always less powerful than you, but remains more or less useful. I kept him well-supplied with a variety of weapons and ammunition, just avoiding grenades (visions of Jayne) and my precious .308 caliber bullets. Later in the game I got the ultimate power armor, which I didn't particularly care for but which Charon seemed to appreciate.
Speaking of leveling: I was delighted that Bethesda fixed their awful leveling fiasco from Oblivion. That game was notorious for becoming less fun the more you progressed; smart players tried to beat the game without advancing past the second level. There seems to be some leveling at play here - by the end of the game I was seeing many more Deathclaws and many fewer Molerats - but it's nowhere near as aggravating as in Oblivion. It helps that you spend points after leveling, not before; the thing I hated about Oblivion was how enemies would get tougher after I had improved my lockpicking and persuasion skills. Here, even if you did manage to level primarily by picking locks and hacking into terminals, you could still dump a chunk of your points into your weapon skill and keep pace. More importantly, though, the difficulty curve seems to keep pace much better. It remains challenging throughout, but not incredibly annoying as in Oblivion, where a random-encounter bandit would be wearing Daedric armor and kick the tar out of you more effectively than most bosses.
So, the story: I suppose you can really divide it into two parts, the main plot and everything else. As with other Bethesda games, the main plot is dwarfed by everything else you can do in the game; I'm sure I spent less than 5% of the game time following the primary quest.
The side quests are primarily focused on establishing the mood and setting, and they do a darn fine job at it. As I mentioned before, the overwhelming theme behind the game is that of scarcity; playing Fallout really helps you appreciate how good we have it in real life. The side quests tend to be fairly fun. They're rarely funny, but do often have a sardonic tone to them. There's a decent amount of variety; the game as a whole is just a bit more combat-heavy than I would like, and this is often true of the quests as well, but you do sometimes get a quest that doesn't require any killing, or one where an alternate approach lets you avoid it. I like the flavor of the quests, too... there's one where an old woman asks you to find a Stradivarius, which eventually leads you to explore the remains of a decrepit Vault, where you piece together the story of deliberately created insanity that the vault's administrators unleashed upon the musicians within. There's another one where an incredibly perky woman asks you to collect Nuka-Cola Quantum bottles for her. All well and good, but her boyfriend, who is trying to seduce her, wants to be your middleman. Oh, and one of my favorites was a battle between the forces of the Ant-Agonizer and the, er, robot guy whose name currently escapes me. That was a really fun one, mostly because of the endgame where you could out-talk instead of out-fight them. And don't forget the big quest, probably one of the first that most people will encounter, where you get to choose whether or not to detonate a nuclear bomb and blow Megaton off the map. It was stunning to think that this large, rich town where I spent much of the game would be totally missing from an evil characters' game.
Actually, I'm pretty amazed by how much there is to miss. There's an entire perk called "Puppies!" that I never took, because I never found the character Dogmeat. He's important enough to get his own perk, and yet totally optional to the game itself, and so incidental that our paths never crossed. That's another great bit of flavor from this game: the sense of scope and scale itself is amazing. It's a disintegrating world, and little pockets of people everywhere are trying to follow their best lights and carve out little nests for humanity, and yet they're all separate and independent, broken fragments of shattered civilization.
The main quest is about starting to piece those fragments back together. I put off the main quest until I'd completed all the side quests I'd stumbled across and all the expansion packs (except for Mothership Zeta, which I did between the first and second parts of the main quest). The main storyline concerns Project Purity, which was your father's lifelong dream: creating a source of pure, radiation-free water. Water is critically important in the Wasteland, and is the single thing that most makes outsiders envy the vault-dwellers. Water is a source of misery and tension, so the hope is that by restoring abundant and clean water, society can rise out of barbarism.
Of course, the dreams of scientists don't always mesh with the ambition of the powerful. There are a couple of factions at play in Project Purity. One particularly interesting one is the Brotherhood of Steel; apparently they were significant actors in the original Fallout games, though I must admit that I don't really remember them very clearly. The main Brotherhood was formed from remnants of the US military, and is focused on retrieving all pre-disaster technology that it can find. This mission is more important to them than anything so mundane as, say, protecting the innocent; as they state, "We can make more people, but we can't make more laser cannons." In Fallout 3, you encounter a splinter branch of the Brotherhood which has actually started to focus on defending the Wastelanders and fighting the Super Mutants. This has caused considerable dissension within their ranks, and a large contingent of California-aligned knights have formed their own subgroup, the Outcasts, which claims to be the true Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood supports Project Purity, but they have their own style, which makes the scientists nervous. They eventually agree to join forces, and together take the battle against the Enclave, which is descended from the US political elite in the same way that the Brotherhood is descended from the US military. The Enclave is better-equipped (bearing plasma weapons instead of lasers) and has a strong presence; the Wasteland is filled with peaceful flying drones that broadcast the rambling pronouncements of President Eden. Both the Enclave and the Brotherhood want to control Project Purity; the Brotherhood claims to be doing it out of generosity; the Enclave, you eventually learn, sees Project Purity as a chance for racial purity, a chance to eliminate all the biologically mutated humanoids who fill the Wasteland. Even though you've spent most of the game killing these things, you can stand virtuous and reject the Enclave's commands, giving the world the gift of the water of life.
I kind of wish that they'd done a bit more with the Enclave. You can catch some scenes of internal dissension, as there's a power struggle between Eden and his top military commander. Anyways, they were nicely sinister, but it seems like there was some unexplored potential there.
Just about the coolest part of the main quest is Liberty Prime. It's basically Optimus Prime, but even taller, and prone to shouting about "COMMUNISM IS WEAKNESS! DEMOCRACY IS STRENGTH! MUST ANNIHILATE THE CHINESE THREAT!" When he's a-walkin, the buildings are a-rockin'.
The game "ends" once Project Purity comes online. I'd actually heard (with a vague level of detail) about this when the game first came out: some people were a bit surprised and upset that, in an open-ended sandbox game like this, it would just END when you finish the main story. From games like Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls, etc., we've gotten used to that peaceful post-triumph phase where you can just sort of explore, wrap up some loose ends, and bask in the glory of having saved the world. Making the game actually stop is a bit more dramatic, but also kind of disconcerting if you weren't expecting it.
Fortunately, since I had the GOTY version, the game didn't really end. After the heartwarming closing video, I woke up in the emergency room. The second part of the main quest features the demise of Liberty Prime, which was very sad. After that you chase down the remnants of the Enclave and fight to take them down. The action here was fun - there are some great level designs and good puzzles - but it's a bit disappointing to be missing a personable villain like President Eden or Colonel Auburn (sp). They're just The Enclave, and a bit boring for that.
That said, the final final part of the quest is pretty fun, with lots of nice explosions. When it was over I was like, "Wait, is that it?" I talked to some people in-game, then hopped online to check it out. Yup: that was it. Kind of the inverse of a game that ends when you don't expect it to.
Phew! As you can probably guess, there's still a lot more that I COULD do in Fallout. With all the unexplored territory out there, I'm sure there are many more optional sidequests waiting for me. Still, this seems like a great place to say that I'm finished: I've completed the main quest and all the expansions, and even managed to hit Level 30 about halfway through Broken Steel. The Wasteland still needs heroes, and a new generation will be there to serve them. I wrote a book that should help show them the way...