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Games  |  Features

Review: Fallout 3 (Xbox 360)

October 28, 2008  |  10:42am
Fallout-3-Screenshot.jpg

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

SURVIVE THIS

A rallying cry from the Ignited States of America

“I have never advocated war, except as a means of peace.” This fireside chat crackling across the airwaves in 2277 isn’t terribly reassuring, despite the sonorous, Keillor-esque voice of Enclave President John Henry Eden. You’re listening to his radio address broadcasting through the front grill of a slow-roaming, airborne Enclave propaganda robot puttering around the radioactive wasteland of Washington D.C. At this bleak stage of human history, you’ve seen enough to realize that the word “peace” only makes sense now as a euphemism for death. The Great War rebooted our planet like Noah’s flood—storm clouds for humanity’s first apocalypse, mushroom clouds for its second.

Things got ugly fast when Chinese forces invaded Alaska, desperate for resources in the energy-starved wake of peak oil. America fought back, escalating a gruesome conflict that reached its climax in 2077 when nukes were finally deployed. No one knows who entered the launch codes first, but the sad irony of that global nuclear holocaust is that humankind managed to botch its own suicide. A company called Vault-Tec built a number of subterranean bomb shelters around the United States, promising in its advertising “a brighter future…underground.” In just such a vault on the edge of our nation’s capitol—Vault 101, to be precise—your story begins.

As the curtain goes up on Fallout 3, get ready to experience your own birth in first-person. Life purges you from the safety and comfort of your mother’s womb. Your retinas slowly dilate, adjusting to the harsh lights glowing overhead. But it’s Death—not the doctor—who delivers that first jarring slap. Your mother expires moments later from complications as your father tries in vain to resuscitate her. You won’t fully grasp the metaphorical resonance of this scene until you emerge from Vault 101 for the first time into blinding sunlight. Only then it’s Mother Nature who appears to have died.

Your scientist father James (voiced by Liam Neeson) dutifully reminded you growing-up of the vault slogan—“You’re born in the vault, you die in the vault.” But he unexpectedly defies this credo during your 18th year when he flees above ground to the Capital Wasteland. Like it or not, you’re leaving the safety of the vault behind as well. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be some role for you to play in your father’s quest. Like any epic adventure worth its salt, nothing less than the survival of the human species depends on your success.

In the world of Fallout 3, everything revolves around the struggle to survive. It’s the most elemental virtue—stark, unpoetic, Darwinian. It’s customary nowadays for RPGs to offer you moral latitude. If someone has something you want, you can pay for it or wrest it by force. But this game takes things a step further, forcing you to question the very nature of good and evil. At one point during my travels across the Wasteland, a band of Raiders—snarling, post-apocalyptic Johnny Rottens—opened fire on me. I jerked out my hunting rifle and dispatched the bad guys one by one. The last surviving Raider eventually gave up firing at me and turned to run. As I pulled the trigger one last time, I heard her scream “don’t kill me!” Too late. But she was the enemy, right?

With the Raiders gone, I searched the area and discovered their hideout, which was basically a shantytown built atop a deserted, crumbling highway overpass. Sure, there was ammo and stolen loot everywhere, but I couldn’t help but feel pity as I surveyed the squalor they’d been forced to endure. There was a chessboard with missing pieces lying on a makeshift table, as if to suggest that nuclear war is unique in that it claims both pawns and kings. The only food around was feted squirrel meat on skewers. One hovel contained nothing but a grimy, bloodstained mattress lying uncovered on the ground. Maybe I did these people a favor. Either way, I slept like a dead man on that disgusting mattress and woke up rested.

The phrase “god game” typically refers to titles like SimCity and Spore that enable the player to build worlds and, if they so choose, destroy them. But all video games are “god games,” if you think about it. A filmmaker can simply point the camera at her surroundings and capture life as it happens. Video-game designers like Fallout 3’s Todd Howard start from scratch and create whole worlds. Every cracked inch of asphalt; every scorched husk of a tree; every exposed bit of rebar in the ravaged obelisk that was once the Washington Monument; every drop of dark, irradiated water sloshing up against the shore of D.C.’s Tidal Basin.

Fallout 3 is, hands-down, the richest, deepest, most captivating game world I’ve ever explored. You’ll have that same feeling of awe you experienced after reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s appendices at the end of Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth really did exist, if only in the head of a mad artist dreamer from Oxford, England. The world of Fallout 3 must never exist. Consider Bethesda Game Studios the Ghost of Christmas Future.

***

Watch the trailer for Fallout 3:

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