Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fallout 3 (360): Early Impressions

So. Fallout 3.

My most-anticipated game of the year is finally here.

Yes, I'm playing it on the 360 instead of the PC (for now--damn, Intel, release Nehalem already, would you?), but no matter. Fallout 3 is finally here.

To talk about how I feel about Fallout 3, though, I have to talk about Fallout and Fallout 2. Briefly, I promise.

I still think the opening cinematic in Fallout was the greatest introduction in gaming history. Please, if you haven't seen it, go watch. It was incredible, and it immediately established the foundation of what made Fallout great: dark irony. I laughed as the camera pulled back from the television set and I saw the surrounding wasteland, but it was an uncomfortable laugh.

To me, that's always been the draw (and a strong one) for post-apocalyptic settings as opposed to historical ones: instead of seeing something that we personally never were, we see something that we could possibly become. It's overwhelming, and overpowering.

It's also what made Fallout such an unforgettable, brilliant experience. Sure, some of the game mechanics were interesting, particularly the targeting system, but almost everything I remember about the game involves the story.

The ending, like every other piece of the story, was bittersweet. There was no "and they lived happily ever after."

It was a magnificent game.

It's easy to compare Fallout 2 to the original, and all you have to do is look at its opening cinematic. Cute, self-conscious, trying to hard for the laugh--it was the curse of trying to follow your own brilliance with something better.

And they didn't. Fallout 2 shipped in a semi-wrecked condition, full of bugs, most of which I think I hit before I quit playing. It was an incredible disappointment, at least to me.

So when I talk about Fallout 3, I only have fond, nostalgic memories of the first game. I'm not looking back on an unbroken line of brilliance in the first two games, because I think Fallout 2 broke that line.

When I sat down to play Fallout 3, I realized, almost immediately, that I was uncomfortable, and I didn't know why. After an hour, I was still uncomfortable, only more so.

Something was wrong.

The more I played, though, the more I suspected that something was wrong with me. I couldn't quite make out why, at least not for several hours, but finally, I realized what was happening.

Many of you have read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. At some point, he mentions that the less detail there is in a character visually, the more universal it becomes, because our brains can fill in the gaps any way we want (thereby adding our own meaning). In 1997, when Fallout was released, developers were constrained in terms of what they could put on the screen. Fallout had appealing graphics, but they were simple, and the detail of the world was limited. It was the suggestion of a world, but that suggestion was so expertly done that I filled in all the gaps with my imagination.

Fallout 3 isn't like that. It's the Fallout universe made flesh. In many ways, there's more detail in the first settlement you visit than in the entire world in the original Fallout. Instead of being suggestive, it was incredibly specific, and that specificity freaked me out.

At first.

Then I slowed down. I stopped trying to rush past the detail, and instead, I started absorbing as much as I could. I started trying to live inside the game instead of inside my head.

That's when I started finding the irony, started seeing moments of poignance that took my breath away.

An elementary school with part of its announcement sign still intact. A rusted playground. Bridges with giant sections of concrete broken away.

It was, in a word, incredible. And, in one more word, real.

I started hearing irony, too, and not to spoil anything, but before you start the game, go into the "settings" menu and turn the radio up two clicks. It's a stunning and ingenious way to overlay absurdity on top of a wasteland.

How does it feel? Barren. Threatening. Lost.

I'm not imagining a post-apocalyptic world. I'm in one.

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