Fallout 3: does the old wasteland still hold up?

Fallout 3


Fallout 3 box

Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today, Andy goes back to the meaner, greener climes of Fallout 3.

When you emerge from Vault 101 you’re blinded by a bright, white light. Having spent your entire life in an underground fallout shelter, you’ve never seen the sun before. Then your eyes adjust and the Capital Wasteland fades into view as Inon Zur’s haunting score swells. This is the moment that defines Fallout 3, and all of Bethesda’s RPGs: gazing across that bleak, broken vista brimming with possibilities, and deciding where to go and what to do first.

Years on, it still has impact. I thought it was time for another journey through the nuke-battered ruins of Washington DC. Stepping out onto that hill, watching the vista fade into view, I still feel a rush of excitement—even though, after hundreds of hours in the Capital Wasteland, I know it inside out. The locations and quests are always the same, but doing them in a different order, choosing different paths and using different weapons, makes it feel almost like a new experience. I’m still finding new things and hearing new lines of dialogue, even now.

The Vault 101 sequence at the beginning isn’t so great. It’s an enforced hour of exposition, following the main character from birth, literally, until their teenage years when they escape, or are expelled from, the vault. You have a lot of options, it’s true. You can surrender your weapons to the Overseer and leave peacefully, or you can kill him and fight your way out, upsetting his daughter (your oldest friend). You can sneak past the guards or you can kill them all. It’s a decent quest, but too damn slow—especially that awkward birthday party. Luckily there are mods to skip it. It’s when you reach the surface that Fallout 3 really gets going.

Fallout 3 mid

Technically, it hasn’t aged well. The world is blighted by grubby low-res textures and the character models are hideous. To be fair, they were hideous in 2008. But the Capital Wasteland is still a wonderfully evocative place. The grey, overcast skies and shattered landscape make for a strangely beautiful post-apocalypse. There’s a lot of empty space—I mean, it is a wasteland after all—but Bethesda scattered enough interesting things around that it never feels barren. There are little stories everywhere, both humorous and poignant. I was caught off guard when I entered an old house in the middle of nowhere and found the embracing skeletons of a couple on a bed, frozen in time.

That’s pretty uncharacteristic of the game in general, though. Fallout 3 is very much a black comedy, with bomb-worshipping cults, talking trees, two-headed cows, and all manner of other silliness. Tonally, it’s all over the place, absurdist comedy staggering clumsily into attempts at more serious storytelling. One minute you’re facing a moral quandary involving rescuing, or exposing, an on-the-run android; the next you’re fighting giant mutated ants straight out of a B movie. But the upside of this inconsistency is variety, and every quest offers something different. If you want a sombre, reflective post-apocalyptic experience, read The Road.

As is the case with most, if not all, Bethesda RPGs, the side-quests are the highlight. The main story—about your father trying to bring clean water to the wasteland—is meandering and fairly dull. Your old man, whose face is generated to resemble the character you create, is played by Liam Neeson, who sounds bored to death. Getting an actor of that calibre in the game made for a great press release, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s phoning it in. His character is a charisma vacuum, and makes Qui-Gon Jinn seem brimming with personality in comparison.

Neeson’s comatose acting sucks all the life from the scene.

You spend much of the early game tracking his movements across the wasteland. You do this by asking people if they’ve seen ‘a middle-aged man’—and that’s as specific as the description gets. When they made it so that the father’s face is unique to each player, the writers must have gone "Shit!" But, despite the vague description, you eventually find him and learn about his grand experiment, Project Purity. It should be an emotional moment: father and son (or daughter) finally reunited. But Neeson’s comatose acting sucks all the life from the scene. It doesn’t really matter, however, because the side-quests are so strange, so funny, and so entertaining.

There’s still a lot wrong with Fallout 3, however. The companions, including gurning supermutant Fawkes, are insubstantial. They’re never fleshed out, making it hard to care about them. The gun combat is weedy and unsatisfying—outside of the slow-mo precision aiming mode VATS, that is. And the quests don’t have as many branching paths or alternate outcomes as other Bethesda games. These are all problems that were fixed in Obsidian’s superb Fallout: New Vegas.

Fallout 3 3

This spin-off is, in many ways, a better game than Fallout 3, with superior writing and quest design, more richly detailed companions, and deeper RPG elements. But it doesn’t feel as apocalyptic, its more vibrant setting having escaped the worst of the bombing. The games share the same engine and many of the same mechanics, but they feel distinct. They have their own look, feel, and personality. Fallout 3's gloomy, grey-skied setting is more evocative, but in terms of writing and design, New Vegas feels more like the earlier 2D games—likely a result of many of Obsidian’s developers having previously worked on Fallouts 1 and 2.

Bethesda did a lot of these ideas better in Skyrim. Fallout 3 is still fun, but it feels janky and bloated compared to Skyrim, which streamlined a lot of the more fiddly elements.

People will always want to return to Fallout 3, even with 4 out. It's one of the most satisfying RPGs on PC to just go for a wander in. Pick a direction, walk, and see what you find. It might be just another mutated mole-rat, but it could be a forgotten vault to explore or a new wasteland weirdo to make friends with. Your character is known as the Lone Wanderer, and it’s the perfect name: the magic of Fallout 3 isn't chasing your boring dad around or finding a way to purify water, but wandering the broken remains of civilisation and shaping your own destiny.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.