Seeing the reveal of Fallout 4 at E3, I found myself compelled to return to Bethesda’s first entry in the series, Fallout 3. There’s just something about it, a special kind of magic that few games have. Initially, I didn’t plan to spend much time with Fallout 3, but it sucked me in. Within two weeks, I’ve put more than 30 hours into Fallout 3, and it’s been a doozy of a time.

Since Fallout 3’s release, we’ve seen a new great Fallout game in the same engine, New Vegas, and we’ve been treated to the wonderful Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. When I first booted up Fallout 3, I was worried that the seven year old game (seven years old!) wouldn’t hold up well compared to its counterparts. Mentally, I found myself comparing Fallout 3 to its descendants, and surprisingly, it holds up pretty well.

I have this bad habit of getting excited about playing Bethesda games, spending a lot of time heavily modding them, then finding my interest for the game waning. This time, I decided to tone things down a bit. I went into the .ini file and tweaked it to have a wider field of view—a must when playing any first-person game on a large monitor. After that, I downloaded a mod for additional map markers, which is great for finding interesting areas that Bethesda didn’t put on their maps. I messed around with a couple others, like adding more music to Galaxy News Radio, but nothing that would change the game experience too much.

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Fallout 3 begins with your birth. I can’t think of any other game that does this except Alien games, but that’s another genre entirely. Fallout 3 takes about 30 minutes to let you out of Vault 101, and they’re pretty rough. That said, the game’s sense of character shines through. By the end of my time in the Vault, I was wearing a Tunnel Snakes jacket, having earned the gratitude of Butch, their leader, by saving his mother.

And then… woah.

Sure, there are better looking games out there, but Fallout 3’s introduction to the wasteland is great. I immediately headed to Megaton, coming across an Enclave eyebot broadcasting Enclave Radio and President John Henry Eden’s voice. He always refers to himself as John Henry Eden. It’s great. Of course, you know the truth of his identity if you’ve played the game, but it was still pretty great to pop back into the world and hear his reassuring voice in the wasteland.

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One of the most interesting things about Fallout 3 I noticed was the ambient audio. If you just stand still for a few moments and listen, you can hear the swirling wind, the occasional explosion or sound of gunfire, and other ambiance that really brings the world to life. Very few open world games really sell an open world the way Fallout 3 does, and part of that is just through ambient audio.

Returning to Megaton for the first time in years, I was greeted by Lucas Simms, that cowboy throwback who acts as sheriff and protector of Megaton. He introduces the game’s first sidequest—I say “first,” because he’s most likely the first person you’re going to talk to. I spent a little time simply walking around Megaton, reacquainting myself with the place, chatting with various characters, regaining my footing. I didn’t have the skill to disarm the bomb, so I headed out into the wasteland to start leveling up. Moira’s Wasteland Guide quests are a great way to get through that initial hurdle, but having restarted the game a few times, I elected to try some other quests first.

Overall, Fallout 3 isn’t really like the first two games. The whole 50’s sci-fi thing was there, but the apocalypse itself was rooted in the Western genre. Fallout 3, being located in the ruins of the East Coast, has a decidedly different, more urban sensibility to its apocalypse. Consider, for instance, these folks:

Fallout 3 has superheroes. It has a town built around a nuclear bomb. One of the quests is about helping rich people in their hotel kill poor ghouls who live below. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find the White House. Several quests take you deep inside museums. You’ll spend an awful lot of time in and around ruined buildings. It’s a more metropolitan-driven endeavor than Fallout 1 and 2. New Vegas too, now that I think about it.

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I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed some of the game’s perks. I can’t say I remember many from New Vegas, and Skyrim doesn’t have skills at all. With Fallout 3, I remember Bloody Mess (it makes gory explosions more frequent), Child at Heart (which is great for talking to kids), and of course, the all-time classic Mysterious Stranger. He’s saved me more than a few times, and it’s always great to hear his characteristic musical theme, then see him walk in and drop my foes in a heartbeat.

I love that guy.

I’ve been pretty surprised coming back to Fallout 3 in part because I thought I’d done everything but here I am discovering various quests, marked and unmarked, that I’ve never seen before, like I’ve come across locations I’ve never visited. I’ve completely missed others I spent quite a bit of time with, like the town of Andale and its freaky cannibal inhabitants.

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Bethesda are masters at environmental storytelling, at least in Fallout 3. Skyrim was a regression. I’ve been to a lot of dungeons in Skyrim, but I don’t remember encountering anything like, say, the abandoned town with hostile ghouls in Fallout 3. There are no notes or stories to explain what happened there; once you defeat the ghouls, you can go inside and see evidence of some weird stuff.

One building has a bathtub—in it are a skeleton and a toaster. Pretty obvious what happened there.

In another shack, a pile of skeletons lies behind some overturned tables. There are some weapons and ammo crates in the room as well. It looks like some sort of last stand. It’s not always so depressing, of course. For instance, I found a dead robot on a toilet.

Bethesda doesn’t shy away from gallows humor either; hidden deep underground is evidence of an ill-advised motorcycle stunt. Someone put a ramp on top of a car, raced their motorcycle down the tunnel, leaped… and got their head stuck in a light fixture.

What’s cool is that there’s so much of this scattered throughout the world. No notes, no sidequests, no need to exposit at every turn. Fallout 3 is simply content to set the stage and let the audience draw its own conclusions. It’s a bit disappointing that Skyrim and New Vegas never quite hit the same peaks as Fallout 3 did.

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Of course, they have their own advantages. New Vegas has way more quests, and they’re a lot more detailed. Some of the most popular mods for Fallout 3, like the weapon modifications mod, were added to New Vegas, fleshing out its gameplay a bit more compared to Fallout 3. New Vegas also managed to capture the need for survival a bit more, in part because of its “hardcore” difficulty mode, but also with items like doctor bags. I kept finding myself looking for a doctor bag to fix a broken limb before remembering that Fallout 3 uses stimpacks for that. New Vegas makes a lot of little improvements like this that I didn’t really pay much attention to until I went back to Fallout 3.

Skyrim, however, takes it even further. The one feature I miss the most from Skyrim is the ability to sprint. It would be lovely if Fallout 3 had a sprint feature that treated the player’s Action Points like Skyrim’s stamina. There are times when moving fast would make the game a lot more fun.

Being able to quick-select items and spells in Skyrim was awesome, and coming back to Fallout 3, where everything is done through the Pip Boy, is just weird. As it stands, I have to open up my Pip Boy every time I wanted to use a grenade, find the grenade I wanted, throw it, then re-open my Pip Boy, switch back to the gun I was using, and carry on. At least there’s a grenade hotkey mod. I really hope Fallout 4 comes with this function natively. It’d be especially great to be able to use grenades in VATS.

Ah, VATS, one of the coolest innovations in a first-person shooter ever. Who would have thought that a genre focused on real-time combat would be so much fun with a pseudo turn-based approach to combat. If you’re a VATS user, you know how useful Grim Reaper’s Sprint, the perk that automatically refills VATS on a successful kill, can be.

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On its own, the shooting in Fallout 3 is honestly pretty bad. It doesn’t feel good, or even that accurate. At least it’s got some level of skill-based shooting, unlike New Vegas, which seems to be based entirely on dice rolls, which is incredibly frustrating. Even then, it feels sloppy and uninspiring. It’s a big problem with Bethesda Game Studios’ games on the whole; when it comes to combat, they just don’t compare that favorably to the other Bethesda-published games. Skyrim can’t hold a candle to Dishonored’s magic and first-person swordplay, and Fallout’s shooting is nowhere near as good as the gunplay in games like Rage and Wolfenstein: The New Order.

With VATS, however, Fallout’s combat is amazing. At the touch of a button, you can pause the game, select individual enemy body parts, and let loose with whatever weapons you have at your disposal. It’s awesome, especially if you have a certain special SMG at your disposal. Super mutant behemoths, the biggest enemies in the game, are some of my favorite enemies of all time in large part thanks to VATS. Behemoths are frighteningly fast, but with VATS, you can cripple them, causing them to limp after you while you pick away at the rest of their health.

Most importantly of all, however, is that using VATS is so satisfying. Shooters thrive on feedback—audiovisual cues letting players know that they hit their target. An enemy exploding in a shower of blood and gore after a critical VATS hit is great feedback.

As an aside: as soon as you are able, acquire Lincoln’s Repeater. It’s a great gun. Just remember to check with the runaway slaves who want all of Lincoln’s gear first, in order to get some of the other goodies to spawn. Be sure not to accidentally sell the repeater. There are three people in the game who are willing to buy it for a pretty decent price, but it does great damage, and most importantly, it’s repaired with the hunting rifle, one of the most common weapons in the game.

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Remember that special SMG that I mentioned earlier? Getting it involves finding an unmarked note on a corpse in one mission, then finding the person referred to in the note in another mission entirely, keeping this person alive in one of the game’s more difficult missions, completing the mission with them, and then talking to them about their past. None of this is marked. You have to figure it out yourself.

I love this about Fallout 3. Other games tend to tie quests to loot. The Witcher 3, another game I’m playing right now, is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, but all the best loot in the game comes through marked quests, and most of it is level locked. Fallout 3 just has a bunch of great items in the world, for you to discover on your own. I found a special sniper rifle called the Victory Rifle in an unassuming shack on a cliff side. Lincoln’s Repeater was just sitting there in a museum exhibit.

Sometimes, Fallout 3 doesn’t look so great, its colors blending together in a weird mush.

Other times, it looks downright lovely.

A lot of strange adventures can be had, like convincing a robot that you’re Thomas Jefferson.

Or entering the spooky Dunwich Building and discovering the fate of those who entered before. There’s some great visual storytelling here—immediately inside the door, for instance, are some ammo crates, a blood trail, and some skeletons. Elsewhere, you can find a skeleton by a computer terminal—on the computer are the last words of someone who called for help, hoping his friend arrives with ammunition.

It’s a creepy place, and the notes inside make it even creepier.

Also there’s a monument to an eldritch god in the basement.

By the way, using portable nuclear weapons is a...blast.

Fallout 3 is a great game, with all sorts of cool things to see and do. It’s aged pretty well compared to other games that follow the same formula, and even manages to be better in some regards. But throughout my travels in the Capital Wasteland, I couldn’t help but wonder what made Fallout 3 tick. I think I’ve got an answer, so stand by for my next piece, in which I’ll talk about why Fallout 3 has one of the best worlds in video game history.

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GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.

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