Of late you may have noticed that Semantic Drift, which is only sporadically updated even when I’m at my most prolific, has slowed to a crawl. Partially this stems from a phenomenon I’ve noticed whereby the amount of free time I have to update my blog is inversely proportional to the amount of interesting things that happen to me and my ability to summon the will to write about them. For example, when my finals are looming or I am in the midst of some serious vagabonding I have nothing but great ideas and witty turns of phrase that only my hectic schedule can slow down my enthusiasm; a million interesting things, and no time to blog them. But lately I’ve been experiencing the opposite. My days are long and empty, with ample room to sit my ass down and write. A slight lull between the end of my semester in Australia and the beginning of my return to San Francisco has left me with literally nothing to do for a month or so. You’d think that means I would be stoked about finally having enough time to do some serious writing (and other things that have nothing to do with law school), but as the binary tumbleweeds drifting through the vacant blog attest this has not happened.
Another factor has been the birthday present perfect for the man with more leisure time than he knows what to do with: Fallout 3.
I tend to straddle a strange line between casual and hardcore gaming. Months will pass where I don’t so much as touch a controller, and my console acts as a very expensive dust collector or piece of modern art. But every once in a while a game comes out that totally grabs my attention and I become a prisoner, shackled to my Playstation 3 or X Box 360 for hours at a time pressing buttons in the flickering dark. I am a binge gamer.
It doesn’t happen much. Frequently, the games that grab me are the latest entries in series that I’ve been playing for quite some time. Earlier this year Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots sucked up all my time. Less often, I will fixate on a new game that demands my attention and I usually play with the full knowledge that I am signing myself up for further obsessions down the line. Bioshock was enough to get me onboard for any future installments.
And so was Fallout 3.
While the numerical qualifier obviously means that Fallout 3 is not a brand new game, it is new to me and that is all that counts. I’m sure there were a few jokes and references I missed that tickled devotees of the series, but if so they were integrated into a package that was friendly to newcomers. I never played Fallout 1 or 2, but the story and game world felt accessible and nothing seemed to fly over my head. And what a bleak world it is. The game takes place in the year 2277, over a hundred years after nuclear war has turned the world to hardscrabble desert.
You play as a denizen of Vault 101, an underground shelter where pockets of humanity have survived the devastation. When your scientist father flees the Vault under mysterious circumstances, you follow in his footsteps. Or not. The game world is invitingly open. Your quest to find your father makes up the central narrative of Fallout 3, but the game lets you pursue it at a leisurely pace with as many side quests and digressions as you feel like. If you want to eschew the central narrative altogether and concentrate on other matters, Fallout 3 has something for you. You can be a freelance assassin or spend your time patching up the leaky pipes in a large settlement. You can become a scourge of humanity and put whole towns to the gun, or an avenging angel of righteousness who travels the land righting wrongs.
Aside from the way certain non-player characters react to you, the game does not seem to care what sort of person you decide to be.
It is an open world in the same way that Grand Theft Auto is. Fallout 3 provides a sandbox and you decide how to play with it. But this proves to be something of an illusory freedom. There are in truth a limited variety of different tasks to perform. Like any good role playing game, every new location is stocked with characters eager for you to perform actions for them, whether it is recovering a lost violin from a hive of Feral Ghouls or clearing a train station of mutated fire ants for an overeager scientist
After a while they all seem to blur together and I found myself driven back to the central arc of the main quest which is probably just what Bethesda Softworks had in mind when they designed Fallout 3.
The most obvious antecedent for Fallout 3 is Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which was designed by the same company. The engine that runs the game and the basic structure of the game echo the previous effort. Dialogue options and navigation operate basically the same way, but I enjoyed Fallout 3 because of two key differences that propel it to far greater heights than Oblivion:
1. The Setting. This might be a personal thing, but I have never been member of the Tolkien set. Oblivion was a sword-and-sorcery romp, with elves and other fantastical frippery. Fallout 3 is leaner and meaner, a tale of brutal loners struggling for survival in a future post-apocalyptic wasteland full of monsters and the worst humanity has to offer. The austere Mad Max-ian landscape is full of small settlements and pockets of survivors making the most of the remnants of Washington D.C. The post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3 is full of intangible but persistent signs of its sensibility.You can see it in the little things, like the design of your in game P.D.A, the the Pip Boy 3000:
In the game’s history the Cold War never ended and neither did the 1950s Leave it to Beaver style of culture. There are wandering malfunctioning robots, but they all look like rejects from Lost in Space, with tentacled pincers and cylindrical torsos. The streets are clogged with the bombed out remains of high-finned Cadillacs and old-timey vending machines dispense soda pop. This Gee-Whiz retrofuture clashes nicely with the utter desolation and crumbling remnants of D.C. landmarks.
2. The Controls. On the surface, Fallout 3 plays just like Oblivion. At least until your first fight. Fallout 3 is a hybrid of first person shooter and turn-based strategy. Its up to you whether you want to proceed in real time or use V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) to pause the action and tactically target your oppent’s critical areas. While it can break up the frenetic action of a heavy firefight, V.A.T.S. provides a more strategic dimension to combat.
Also time slows down into a gloriously gory slo-mo explosion of a bloody pink mist that makes the act of unloading a shotgun into the face of an attacking Supermutant infinitely more satisfying than launching a Wand of Wattoomb at a goblin. I literally never got tired of that. Your mileage may vary.
But after your character reaches level 20, you stop advancing. You no longer earn experience points for slaughtering your enemies and completing quests. You can still earn good karma and material rewards, but you lose the tell-tale ka-ching! noise that accompanied each fallen foe for most of the game. I found it hard to care about completing the side quests after I had maxed out. Level 20 seems an arbitrary cut-off point, and this is basically the only real criticism I have with the game. I had managed to max out my skills fairly well, but if I knew ahead of time that I could advance no further, I would have allocated my XP differently. Perhaps I would not have allowed my lockpicking skills to moulder and played the game differently.
On a related note, more enemies would be nice. Your opponents fall into three or four basically similar categories, and after a day or two or playing you will probably have traded bullets with the entire bestiary.
Despite that, the sheer depth of the Fallout 3 environment provided with me hours and hours of entertainment and I really loved it. Any game that can make me wear new butt-grooves into the sofa and go days without showering and barely eating is worthy of attention. Fallout 3 is the game I would like to have with me in my fallout shelter as the air raid sirens blared and the bombs started to fall. A game this immersive deserves serious attention. On my newly created rating system, Fallout 3 earns Five Bored Girlfriends (Out of Five):