Warning – this article contains some spoilers of the Game of the Year Edition. If you do not want to have some plot elements revealed, please do not read the article.
With its post-nuclear world of a barren radiated landscape, destroyed buildings, mutated inhabitants and, of course, dust, lots and lots and lots of dust, ‘Letting the dust settle’ feels to me like a very symbolic title for a Fallout 3 article…in more ways than one.
Just as it would be if you really did stumble outside for the first time having been cooped up in a vault for the entirety of your life thus far, it can be difficult to know where to start in the Game of the Year edition of Fallout 3. I was immediately presented with four or five mission options or, alternatively, the option of wandering the barren wasteland and exploring a bit. I originally took the latter approach but, only five minutes in to the game, I came across an enemy I was nowhere near powerful enough for and didn’t have the right weaponry to deal with. Five minutes of freedom and I was already dead – not the best of starts.
Having reloaded I chose a mission instead and headed to Megaton which I assumed from the description might be the best one to go for and one that should present a challenge that my current abilities and equipment could handle. I was right. Walking around the town talking with the locals was interesting, and the side quests felt like they meant something and were contributing to the bigger picture (fixing leaking water pipes for the locals or dismantling the bomb that stood in the middle of the town).
Three hours later and I was still in this small town, lapping up all of the side-quests I could find and talking to everyone. I had a real desire to get to know these people better, to find out how life has been for them, what circumstances led to them being here and what I could do to help them, or, in some cases, what I could do to make sure their rule of tyranny came to an abrupt, moist end. It was clear that the dialogue was never going to win any awards, but it was interesting enough and had just the right amount of empathy or immorality, depending on the choices I made.
By the time that I ventured outside of the town, having now levelled up a few times, things were a little easier. I still wasn’t able to take on the larger mutants, but I could at least hold my own in most situations. The VATS system, something that I had previously written off as a gimmick assuming that I would prefer to play it as an uninterrupted FPS game, soon became my best friend. Without it I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have survived the first few hours (or indeed many of the hours after that). My next stop was Grayditch where, among other things, I rescued a lad from what essentially looked like a port-a-loo and vowed to find a new home for him. Again this conversation had a believable amount of empathy (I had chosen to play as a nice guy) and I had an interest in finding him a new home to enable him to start his life anew. The missions were now becoming more involved, my itinerary was getting fuller and the enemies were much tougher.
It’s fair to say that my first twenty hours with Fallout 3 continued in this mould. I was happy spending my time looting bandit-ridden shopping markets, wandering the wasteland for other little settlements and communicating (either verbally or via guns) with everyone I came into contact with. But then something happened, something more surprising than any plot twist I have ever encountered, something that I hadn’t seen coming whatsoever. I fell out of love with it.
Confronting yet another mole rat or radroach in a dusty open space wasn’t fun anymore. No doubt it had actually stopped being fun hours earlier, but the overall experience had helped mask the repetition of these encounters. I’d also grown tired of virtually every settlement, village or place of interest being almost identical to the one before it. Conversations with inhabitants no longer had any meaning, as they stopped having any personality. Even my inevitable reunion with my father had no feeling; far from being the emotional reunion I had expected, my character didn’t seem to be the slightest bit interested and my father didn’t appear to be overly pleased to finally see his son.
More importantly my character had stopped having personality. I no longer felt anything for them, had no interest in their conversations, where they fitted into the bigger picture or what was going to end up happening to them. My character was dull, faceless, voiceless and devoid of, well, character. Taking on missions was no longer met with a feeling, perhaps inchoate, that it may in some way contribute to a deeper understanding of the larger-scale story. In short, it felt as though Bethesda had concentrated on a vast open world that could be explored for hours, but forgot about character, meaning and story.
The original ending would appear to back that theory up. The original ending of Fallout 3, before the Brotherhood of Steel DLC was available, has to rank as one of the least satisfying endings of any game I’ve ever played. For all of the epic playground that came before it, it was akin to coming off the swing backwards and knocking yourself out cold. It was abrupt and not in tune with the enjoyment that came before.
Thankfully, Bethesda did resolve the situation with the Brotherhood of Steel content. This enabled me to carry on my quest and uncover even more of the map while completing all of the other DLC quests that I had saved until the main campaign was complete. However this brought other issues into play, the first of which being that the majority of the DLC quests aren’t any better than those found in the main campaign and in many cases are less entertaining.
Let’s take the Mothership Zeta DLC for example. Not only was this content completely out of synch with the rest of the game, but it was terribly dull. Sure it provided graphical variety and it was nice not to be confronted with another supermarket or barren wasteland, but it just didn’t tie in. In fact the only DLC that I felt added much to the experience was the Brotherhood of Steel and The Pitt, and really only the former because of how it extended the story.
Another issue with the game of the year pack is that you’re not sure what missions are DLC and what are the main game. You can work it out with a guide, and sometimes the names of the missions make it clear, but others aren’t so clear. It might not sound a major, but for instance once you start the Mothership Zeta mission, there’s seemingly no way of abandoning it mid-mission and going back to regular missions if you’re not powerful enough. If you just want to progress the story before embarking on lots of side-missions, it can also become difficult to know what missions to choose in order to progress.
I completed Fallout 3 and most of the DLC in 58 hours. It would be wrong to therefore mislead anybody into thinking that Fallout 3 isn’t a very good game, as clearly you wouldn’t spend 58 hours with anything that wasn’t fun, unnecessarily bloated and offered very little in return of your time investment. Not unless you’re into self-harming. Or Colleen. But it’s just that, for me, once the dust had settled, it simply wasn’t as great as the opening half of the game had suggested. Still highly recommended, especially at its now very budget price, but perhaps not as awe inspiring or genre defining as I had been led to believe by many of the press when it launched.