Fallout 3 Retrospective


Fallout 4 has been announced for release in November 2015, and fans everywhere are alternately getting very enthusiastic and/or complaining loudly about how terrible it will be. Sometimes both, at once if they’re especially excited. Personally I’m in the cautiously-optimistic camp – Bethesda games these days are as close to an automatic purchase as I get, and all of them (back to Morrowind, when I started playing them) have had something that makes me sink a truly ridiculous number of hours into them.

Fallout 3 however was my introduction to the Fallout series, and I really enjoyed it. There are flaws, of course, some of them are pretty serious. Anyone familiar with the game has their own favourite grievances. But I’m not going to go over them now – I’m going to try something new. I’m not sure it’s ever been done on the internet before, so there’s not really a name for it. For the moment, let’s call it “reverse-complaining”: I’m going to talk about the things Fallout 3 got right.


Just in case you’ve been buried in a vault for the last 200 years, Fallout 3 was set in a post-apocalyptic vision of a United States where the 1950s never really ended but its technology kept on developing. Fallout 1 & 2 were isometric turn-based RPGs set in various bits of the country, we don’t talk about Fallout Tactics, and Fallout: New Vegas was set in Las Vegas (surprise!). Fallout 3 was the immediate predecessor to New Vegas, set in and around Washington DC.

Technically, Fallout 3 runs on a version of the Gamebryo engine which was used for Oblivion (the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls fantasy series). It’s a single-player open-world sci-fi RPG that can be played from a first-person perspective, so obviously it was tailor-made to my interests. I loved Oblivion with the sort of love which is unlawful in 47 states and the idea of “Oblivion with guns” got me highly excited. With that out of the way, let’s start “reverse-complaining”.


Fallout 3 did something that is very rare in computer games: it took the time to give you a damn prologue. As a result, the player gets the chance to actually see and shape their character’s motivations. Their relationships with others are also well-established – yes, it’s handled in typically clumsy Bethesda style, but it’s there and when (spoilers!) your father goes missing under mysterious circumstances the logic of the player going off to find them isn’t too farfetched. Once you find Dad and (spoilers!) things go to hell again, carrying on Dad’s work is again reasonably plausible. The arc of the plots is emotionally coherent, and although the execution of the plots verges between terrible and gibberingly-insane the underlying logic is at least present. The prologue gives the player a reason to care about what’s happening instead of just assuming they would, and I really wish more games did this (especially those which claim to be roleplaying games!).

As a result, Fallout 3 is one of the few Bethesda games I’ve actually finished. The setting of Morrowind was so fascinating that I ended up almost continually sidetracked, and while I did eventually finish Oblivion it was only after doing almost everything apart from the main quest. Skyrim suffered from the problem that it was far more interesting to be a wandering botanist/speleologist/marathon runner, not to mention the main quest was shockingly badly handled. And Fallout: New Vegas fell squarely at the hurdle I described above – I literally did not care about any of the people or factions in the game, and as a result I could not force myself to keep playing it. Motivation is very important in games and in real life, and Fallout 3 took the time to make sure it existed.

If you're thinking of a joke about the vital 1%, just keep it to yourself.

If you’re thinking of a joke about the vital 1%, just keep it to yourself.

VATS stands for Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. It’s been present in earlier Fallout games, but in Fallout 3 it took on a slightly different tone. When activated, it allows the player to pause time and select which part of their target they will aim for, and then shows the results of those attacks. Which makes it seem a bit like an unnecessary gilding of the FPS lily, in some ways: you’re already using your mouse-pointer to aim, why do you need this as well?

As it happens, though, I think VATS is a very clever piece of game design, and the reason is this: it lets you play a character who is good at combat even if you the player are terrible at it. If the term “role playing game” means anything at all then surely it refers to a game in which one plays a role. Most games which call themselves RPGs fall short in this respect, and one of the ways they do so is by making the prime focus of the game combats between the player character and a variety of adversaries. Any game which describes itself as a FPS along the way is especially bad, because FPS games require a degree of manual dexterity and coordination in order to succeed. If you, the person behind the keyboard, don’t possess those skills, then tough luck: your character will never be any good at combat.

VATS goes directly against that. No matter how terrible your own fighting skills are, if you develop your character in the right way you can still be an unstoppable juggernaught of destruction. This gives people more choice in what their character will be like, and as a life-long fan of RPGs I fully endorse this.

RobCo Certified. If you’re playing a science-type character, or just want an army of robot minions – and who doesn’t? – you NEED this mod.

RobCo Certified. If you’re playing a science-type character, or just want an army of robot minions – and who doesn’t? – you NEED this mod.

I’ll come straight out and admit it: mods are what make the Bethesda games great these days. Perhaps the scale of the games makes it inevitable, but they always seem to end up full of bugs and ideas which could have been developed into something great, but weren’t. Some of the blame for this can be placed on the requirement for cross-platform compatibility – I’m looking at you, atrocious UIs! – but the result is the inevitable same. This is where the modding community steps in. Dedicated fans of the game create modifications for it – mods – that fix bugs, restore cut content, and enhance it in whatever way they see fit. Some of this is tiresomely predictable: it took less than 24 hours for the first nude mod to be released for Skyrim, for example, and barely longer for the first ridiculously oversized anime weapons to make it into the game. But if you sift through the collection you can find mods that will fine-tune your game into what you want it to be, and this is an advantage I find it almost impossible to overstate.

In fact, diverging for a moment to talk about Fallout 4, this is one of the things that worries me most about the next installment in the series. Bethesda, no fools, will have noticed the importance of mods to their games, and have recently announced that mods will be available for both PC and console through their own online platform. While they say that they don’t want to do much curation of the mods that are posted there, I can’t help but worry this is an attempt to exert more control over modding. Why, for example, are they not content to use the Steam Workshop or Nexusmods.com, both of which are already set up to provide exactly that sort of service? Given that Bethesda has already announced it plans to revisit the idea of paid mods, despite its disastrous reception last year, I’m greatly concerned that we may see access to mods – some of which are arguably essential – placed behind a paywall. It seems bizarre, but disturbingly common, that pirates may have a better experience than those who purchase the game.


So that concludes my attempt at “reverse-complaining” on the subject of Fallout 3. It was and still is a great game, and since it is now available at discount prices you could do a lot worse than pick it up and see if the Capital Wasteland has anything for you in it. Just be careful in your exploring. Because war… War never changes.

Question of the post: What did you like most about Fallout 3? Do you have any “reverse-complaints” about a favourite open-world RPG? What would you recommend?

About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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1 Response to Fallout 3 Retrospective

  1. Pingback: Taste Test: Autumn 2015 | Speculative OP

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