For the past 2 weeks, Fallout 3 has gripped me with a mighty hand. This epic FPS/RPG, set in a post-apocalypse wasteland, is the technical (and developer) sequel to Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Bethesda Softworks has been making these things (epic FPS/RPGs) for a long time now, and they’re exceptionally good at it.
But I’m not enslaved by a game just because it’s well executed. I constantly complain about NOT being enslaved, like I did when I was younger, so when it happens, I want to understand why.
The first thing I thought of when…asking myself "Why?" was the difference between Fallout 3 and Oblivion. The Oblivion engine was re-used for Fallout 3, and they’re very technically and functionally similar. In fact, it was easy to point to game systems, weapons, and NPCs, and remember practically identical things between the two games. Oblivion had ancient ruins overrun by bandits, and Fallout 3 had factory ruins overrun by raiders. Same exact thing.
Except not. I played both games for hours, and I can say that there’s something more compelling about the ruined factories. I wanted to know what happened to the people who once ran those factories. I wondered what the bandits were scheming. I wanted to learn where the super mutants came from, and why they were kidnapping people. I THINK the stories in Fallout 3 were more compelling because the future world was more immediate and real to me, as opposed to the fantasy world of Oblivion. Often the monsters and races of Oblivion simply meant nothing to me, whereas I instantly "connected" with giant mutant crabs and mad scientists.
I know for a fact that the character progression game didn’t hold anything for me. Aside from being happy that a new level allowed better damage and more unlocked doors, I couldn’t have cared less that my Heavy Weapons Skill was 35 or 55. After completing the game, and reading all the online FAQs, I found out about several unique and powerful weapons, which I would have loved to have gotten during the game. Now, however, I have little enthusiasm for re-entering (or re-playing) the game to get those weapons. They’re nice, but not important to me now.
Like Oblivion, Fallout 3 has the property of "something around every corner". You can just strike out in a random direction, and (usually) quickly stumble across something interesting, like a dungeon entrance, an interesting NPC, or a high perch from which to view the surrounding vista. I LOVE that. Within the dungeons, I often found interesting twists or sub-quests. What would start as a simple mission would get more complex, or reveal something unexpected.
These unexpected, complicating, interesting things are all hand-made by some level designer/scriptor, and are much appreciated. I’ve always been a big fan of procedurally generated content, but these hand-made bits of content set a high bar. Not unreachably high, just challengingly high.
On the other hand, while Oblivion was scary enough, Fallout 3 was so bleak, creepy, and scary I couldn’t play it after 8pm. I’m generally a wuss about survival/horror anyway (I still don’t know how I made it all the way thru Resident Evil 4). I kept wishing I was playing a game with all the things I liked, but none of the things that made me jump at every small noise in the house. Could I have been just as hooked if Fallout 3 had the art style of Animal Crossing? In a First Person View, where monsters could jump at me and kill me, would the art style matter that much?