I’ve written a lot about Fallout 3/NV, but not in a consolidated way. So here’s some thoughts on why Fallout 3 is the best open world game.
- It’s got a killer theme: the devastation of nuclear war. Fallout tells us that war never changes, but it’s wrong. Before 1800, the European great powers engaged in near-constant wars, not least because they were rarely fought to the complete destruction of one side. From Napoleon on, great power war is played for much higher stakes, and is thus rarer. And nuclear war, which can destroy civilization, is so terrifying that even politicians can see they’re a bad idea.
Fallout uses it as a background for a game, of course, and it embraces the ’50s-sf-movie style of radiation as a form of magic, giving us mutated giant animals and maybe superpowers. But it also viscerally communicates the horror of devastation in a way no impassioned editorial could. It gives everything a little punch and pathos that you’ll never get in Tamriel.
- It’s gorgeous. There’s nothing quite like that opening reveal, when the vault opens, you’re blinded by the sun you’ve never seen before, and you look over the destroyed, strangely beautiful, enticingly new landscape.
(I’m sorry, I don’t like the bird’s-eye-view-of-tiny-little-characters genre, so Fallout 1/2 don’t appeal to me.)
- Bethesda creates the best first ten levels in video games. You want to progress and unlock the good guns and get your skills above 20 and not cave like a Radroach when the nearest bandit plugs you– but savor it, because you’re in the maximum fun zone. You’ll enjoy those bigger guns, but there’s nothing quite like the tension of facing a ruinful of bandits with rapidly dwindling ammo and not enough Stimpaks. Plus everything is still new and a short walk in any direction can give you three new quests.
- Many games have beautiful level design, but it’s just set design for you to look at as you blitz past. Not here. Few other games create such a interactable, livable world.
You can talk to anyone, at least anyone who’s not trying to kill you. There’s lore to find in every computer terminal and recording tape. Almost all the junk strewn about the map can be picked up, and even the lowliest bits can be used for something: people will pay you for scrap metal, cola bottles, holotags, pre-war books, and certain body parts, while everyday junk can be recycled into weapons. You’ll eventually get the opportunity to own your own house, which you can decorate it as you like. And it really will feel like your own little place in the Wasteland.
- You can do as you like. The game booklet– I got F3 as a physical package, so there was a game booklet– tells you that you can follow Liam Neeson’s trail, or you can strike off on your own. And you can! There’s a huge world to explore, and people to meet, and other people to shoot. And your choices accumulate, and affect the world.
- F3 has a quirky underbelly. The main quest includes the Twilight Zone weirdness of Tranquility Lane as well as a talkative Super-Mutant. And President Eden, with the mellifluous voice and delusions of still running the country.
Then there’s things like the Republic of Dave, the vampires, the lesbian ghoul couple, Three Dog (because two dogs aren’t enough), Little Lamplight, the Mysterious Stranger perk, Tinker Joe and his robot companions, homages to classic comic books and Lovecraft, and Bethesda’s own studios.
- It respects your choices. It’s illuminating to read the Fallout wiki on, say, the initial mission. There are a lot of branching paths– many of them involving things it would never occur to me to do. You can be the Wasteland’s greatest monster, or its savior.
- The world is rich enough that you can make your own story. I did a whole playthrough concentrating on collecting bobbleheads.
You could make it your mission to eradicate those annoying Talon ops, or blowing up slavers.
- It has one of gaming’s cleverest tutorials. It starts with your birth– a natural time to choose your sex and appearance. You appear as an infant– perhaps the only game where the character is learning WASD at the same time you are. I wouldn’t want every game to do this, but it gets you through the basics while respecting immersion, and setting up the main story.
I greatly enjoyed Oblivion, but F3 is a far superior game: looks better, quests are deeper, theme is more involving. And though Skyrim is even prettier, it’s hard for me to get past the bland medievalness.
What about Fallout New Vegas? Well, overall, it’s more Fallout, and it has improved game mechanics (and a little more openness about sex), so that’s great. But I prefer F3, though that’s probably a minority opinion. It has poor voice acting, it’s more railroaded, and the middle of the game bogs down in endless gabbing. New Vegas itself, though initially impressive, is unconvincing: it seems dead and dull, not a hive of activity and depravity. Also, its plot deals with how you reestablish things after an apocalypse. That’s a great theme but it’s not explored in any interesting way (Caesar’s Legion is a boring answer to the question).
But FNV redeems itself in DLC. The four DLCs tell much more compelling stories than the main game. By contrast, F3’s DLCs are a bit meh, except for the refreshingly amoral Point Lookout.