The player who sticks to the city or limits himself to the main (and fairly conventional) quest-line will miss the pearls inside Fallout 3's bombed-out shell.
Fallout 3 tests the limits of what game reviews are equipped to do. How do we fairly and meaningfully evaluate a game that aspires to so much, succeeds so often and so brilliantly, and yet also fails (sometimes miserably) to deliver on all its lofty ambitions?
If we view Fallout 3 as a series of features on a game design checklist, it would pass any test with flying colors. The game is full of rich RPG content, weapons, missions, creatures, NPCs, locales, etc. just like Bethesda's previous epic The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Fallout 3's nuclear-baked Washington DC isn't as sprawling as Oblivion's world, but in my book that's a virtue. Bethesda seems to have learned that "vast" doesn't necessarily mean "interesting," and Fallout 3 presents the player with a more condensed environment that holds together better than Oblivion's and encourages more active exploration.
But a feature-list view of Fallout 3 fails to take into account the personal, experiential role-playing that lies at the heart of what this game is all about. From the moment you leave Vault 101 and Bethesda delivers its signature "welcome to the world" reveal, Fallout 3 begins to work on you, emotionally and intellectually, like few video games have done. The game conveys an overwhelmingly oppressive, brutal, and blasted-out depiction of America's capitol, that carries with it undeniably powerful post-911 resonance.
We've all been there and back with post-apocalyptic video games (the original Fallout games remain among the very best), but Fallout 3 manages to create and sustain a vision of this iconic city that communicates a level of sadness and desperation among the survivors that I found almost immobilizing. I confess I initially struggled to remain motivated to play Fallout 3 until I realized the problem. I was playing the game alone, a bit fatigued, late at night, and it all simply became too much for me. I resisted exploring (the very heart of the game) because the world I found and the people I met were so unrelentingly depressing. I soon discovered that playing the game earlier in the day (ideally, with the sun shining) got me past my resistance, and the game itself offers some welcome comic moments in a few of its side-missions and characters. Few games have immersed me so thoroughly...or disturbingly.
A mature RPG should possess the power to provoke us with thoughtful storytelling delivered through gameplay that amplifies or enriches that narrative and encourages discovery and self-directed play. For this to occur, the game world must feel alive and inviting to the player, suggesting possibilities that loom somewhere out there, waiting for you to discover them on your own. This is precisely where Fallout 3 shines brightest. It would have been easy for Bethesda to focus all its efforts on the city proper, weaving quests in and out of each iconic monument. But the outlying areas are where most of the interesting action (and interactions) occur, and the player who sticks to the city or limits himself to the main (and fairly conventional) quest-line will miss the pearls inside Fallout 3's bombed-out shell. Some of these destinations, such as the Springvale Elementary School, have no quest associated with them, but deliver powerful and troubling content. Others, such as Tenpenny Tower, include a robust and inventive quest which makes good on Bethesda's claim that Fallout 3 offers the player meaningful choices with in-world consequences.
If you return to the hideout while ghouls Roy, Michael and Bessie are asleep, you can wake Roy, draw him away from the group, and kill him. Even if you splatter his brains all over her, when Bessie wakes up she will remain friendly with you, unaware of what has just happened, despite the gore, the corpse, and me standing there holding a gun. If, on the other hand, she happens to awake before you kill Roy, she will attack you. Bessie is apparently a very fickle ghoul. Additionally, if you kill Roy after negotiating a compromise between the humans and ghouls (but before the humans are all killed by the ghouls and their bodies moved to the basement), he somehow manages to kill all the humans anyway.
Guards and other NPCs routinely know things they shouldn't know (or don't know things they should know), disrupting the narrative flow of the game. None of these glitchy incongruities are show-stoppers by any means, but they occur with more frequency than they should, especially in an RPG that relies so heavily on such interactions. Of course, Bethesda could have avoided such problems by reigning in the options available to the player, or by writing strictly linear (and, thus far less compelling) quest scripts. Kudos to them for not doing so.
And so I return to the question I posed at the beginning: how do we fairly assess an unquestionably excellent game that succeeds far more than it fails, even when those “failures” are largely related to execution? How many points do we deduct for quest bugs? How many do we credit for mastery of audiovisual aesthetics? Can we assign numerical value to a game's emotional power and to the intensity and resonance of the experience it offers? When so few games reach these heights, how bothered should I be by the formulaic sameness of Fallout 3's interiors or the awkward compromise of its combat system?
All things considered, Fallout 3 is probably the best game released in 2008. I don't think it quite deserves the unqualified, hyperbolic praise heaped on it by the majority of the games press, but it ought to be acknowledged for the lofty achievement it represents. It would be hard to imagine a video game released with more skepticism and preconceived judgment aimed at it than the sequel to one of the most beloved and fiercely defended RPGs (Fallout 1&2) in history. That this game silenced almost all its skeptics (I was one of them) may be its most remarkable achievement of all.