Why I Love: Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland

Fallout 3 2


In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today Sam appreciates the view in Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland.

There is a trick to Fallout 3’s open world that I don’t think any other game has successfully replicated. It’s the act of showing the player something in the distance in the Capital Wasteland, whether it’s a distinctive-looking building, advertising prop, silhouette or some vague geometry that encourages me to uncover exactly what it is, to see if there’s anyone there or maybe a story to uncover. It’s definitely not the only game to attempt this—but the context of Fallout 3’s desolated landscape makes the horizon an effective device. In this world where there’s nowhere and nothing left, you want to see everything.

Skyrim is almost as good at doing this, but it’s really the difference in fiction that makes Fallout 3 pull ahead for me. I’ve always preferred Fallout 3 over Skyrim, and that’s no slight to the scale or detail of the 2011 RPG—it’s certainly a more refined game, particularly in combat and progression. It’s the more human premise. As fanciful and pulpy as the various storylines are, the scenario of a nuclear strike is a real world concern (especially in decades past), which has a more powerful narrative draw to me than high fantasy.

I’ve always preferred Fallout 3 over Skyrim, and that’s no slight to the scale or detail of the 2011 RPG

You’re experiencing, in first-person, a detailed interpretation of what happens to a populated real-life city in the aftermath of nuclear war. Making that environment into something that players want to explore, when working within those parameters, is a testament to Bethesda’s ability to make the grey remnants of human life look extraordinary—and the horizon is the best tool the game has to show that off.

When I first leave Vault 101, I can see the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument off in the distance. When I reach the river, I can make out the statues on the Anchorage memorial. Tenpenny Tower is usually a sign I’m going in the wrong direction. I’m never in the middle of nowhere in Fallout 3—Bethesda mapped the landscape so it’s very difficult to see nothing in all directions. This layout feeds your sense of exploration. Following the main storyline is a good way to get a tourist’s snapshot of each quadrant of the world, but wandering without a waypoint is the way to properly experience that world. When I first played through Fallout 3 years ago, it was following the skyline that randomly led me to the Oasis side quest with a nuclear tree man and his insane followers, probably the game’s best. Objects and quests are not randomly placed in this world—but their locations aren’t clearly spelled out for you, either. It’s a delicate balance of encouraging the player to explore and not making it too hard to further the narrative. No-one is better at finding the point in between than Bethesda.

Fallout 3 3

The success of the Capital Wasteland as an environment is based equally in art direction and design. A friend of mine once observed that the difference between the art direction of Fallout 3 compared with that of a more colourful, otherworldly locale like something from Final Fantasy XIII is the level of challenge involved in what’s being created. I’ve thought about that a lot when replaying Fallout 3. Bethesda draws beautiful imagery out of the destruction of the real world—there is some out-there sci-fi iconography in the robot and creature design, but Washington DC is a familiar place and is treated as such. It’s designed to provoke us through our images of everyday life, and what that would look like if it was suddenly taken away. My friend posited that creating a gorgeous and exciting backdrop out of a nuked real world location is way harder than building one where there are seemingly no rules as to how colour palette must be used. Replaying Fallout 3 now, I agree with him. There’s rubble, destroyed cars, greying fields, no fauna—but it’s amazing to look at, even now.

Fallout 3’s world is rougher in detail than I remember it, but that urge to explore is the same to me, even though I remember where a lot of the places are. I look up, and I see a rock face in an interesting shape, a broken freeway, a small abandoned town, a centaur wandering by the waterside, some kind of factory—the sky is a grim colour, and all the people are gone, but I still want to keep following that horizon.


Samuel has been PC gaming since 1993, beginning with the questionable Mario Is Missing on DOS. He knows that Red Alert has the best skirmish mode of all the C&C games, and if you disagree, he’ll attach a tiny balloon to you and send you back to mother base.
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