The Black Isle-Bethesda Connection

Fallout 3 highlights common trends of successful developers

It's impossible to know what greater impetus drives a feral ghoul. I stumbled across a pack them a few nights ago, and the immediacy of their frenzy left me with little time for diplomacy. Their maddened eyes reflecting none of the fear of death inherent to sentient life, they quickly went to work with tooth and claw, seeing no difference between me and their last meal.

Luckily, I wasn't alone. My animal friends, a motley group of blind mutant rats and wasteland-hardened bears, quickly turned on my attackers, distracting them from their quarry and allowing me to get a measure of safe distance between the two warring factions of irradiated monsters. My centuries-old weaponry, an arsenal of gunpowder and rust, left greasy pockmarks in their flesh, and the chemical cocktail flowing through my veins kept my aim as still as the grave from which these things might have come.

But my time in the wastes has given me a few inhuman traits of my own. Bored with both my hellish Disney entourage and the glorified zombies from whom they defended me, I made short work of both with a round from a nuclear catapult I keep handy for just such an occasion.

When Bethesda Softworks, creators of the epic timesink Elder Scrolls series, acquired the rights to develop Fallout 3 from bankrupt publisher Interplay (and by extension now-defunct series developer Black Isle Studios), one thing quickly became clear about the franchise's fate: The quality of the finished product notwithstanding, Fallout 3 would be filled to the brim with seemingly-random encounters like the one described above.

Series fanatics have long ranted that any deviation from the established Fallout formula would immediately send the series spiraling into post-Black Isle mediocrity, killing off the franchise, and single-handedly wiping the idea of engaging gameplay from the public consciousness like a swarm of depth-eating locusts intent on reducing the gaming landscape to a barren plain of Wii minigame collections and Barbie Horse Adventure sequels. While there's something to be said for that kind of single-minded devotion, that mindset would have Mario tromping around in two-dimensional stagnation well into the 21st century.

After four years of development, Bethesda's results are a slap in the face to those naysayers; Fallout 3 is a unique combination of first-person action and intricately-layered RPG elements atop a gamescape unparalleled in its sheer size, which bridges the gap between past and modern Fallouts (never mind the lackluster spinoffs) while dragging the series' purists kicking and screaming into this frightening new era.

It doesn't hurt that Bethesda's tricks closely mirror Black Isle's. Fallout 3 is a monster of a game, easily dwarfing both its open-world peers and many of the previous entries in both developers' libraries. Set nearly a century after Fallout 2, Fallout 3's wandering protagonist finds himself in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., so eerily detailed in its devastation that the development team might find themselves on a no-fly list.

Mutants and mercenaries fight on the steps of the Capitol, while slavers ply their trade from the Lincoln Memorial. What suburbs haven't fallen completely to decay are populated by humanity's remnants, a remarkably hardy strain plagued only by Sidequest Malady Syndrome, a disease whose symptoms are related only by the single known cure: an up-and-coming hero in need of a quick infusion of experience.

Those same sidequests provide Fallout 3 with its filler material. Another old trick shared by Bethesda and Black Isle, Fallout 3 relies on its smaller diversions to give the player a greater look at its world. The main storyline—something about potable water and Liam Neeson getting another "fantasy martyr" role under his belt—provides only a single story within the greater Fallout tapestry, while the backstory is filled in incrementally by everyone else's problems.

That tapestry remains true to its gratuitously bloody roots. After Fallout Tactics' lukewarm hybrid combat, marrying real-time and turn-based systems produced in my head an abomination before gaming which only made me want to fight its creators. Bethesda disabused me of this notion; Fallout 3's V.A.T.S system (don't worry about what that means) works for both twitchy FPS gameplay and turn-based, statistic-oriented combat.

Players don't have to switch to the turn-based method during combat. The game can be completed entirely as a run-and-gun affair (or a sneak-and-stab affair, or a speech-and-diplomacy affair), but after the second time they reduce a group of raiders to a fine red mist by blowing a grenadier's ill-advised weapon out of his hand, I can't imagine why they wouldn't want to.

Making turn-based fun with hand grenades into an aphorism might seem silly, but that's really the best insight I can provide about Fallout 3. Call it an Oblivion clone or a mutation of a pure source if you want, but disregarding the additions Bethesda makes to the franchise for reasons like that only results in one missing out on the entertainment value the game has to offer.