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Opinion:  Fallout 3  - Escape From Vault 101
Opinion: Fallout 3 - Escape From Vault 101
November 18, 2008 | By Duncan Fyfe

November 18, 2008 | By Duncan Fyfe
More: Console/PC

[In this in-depth analysis, commentator Duncan Fyfe looks closely at Bethesda's Fallout 3 to discuss why it's "distinctly unlike those "choose fate, save world" games", but is oddly affecting nonetheless.]

Bethesda were part of the story. Fallout 3 previews, between explaining VATS and the Megaton dilemma, made sure to note the long-standing concerns over whether Bethesda could pull this off.

Bethesda had inserted themselves into the history of someone else's series: Fallout, ardently mythologized as a classic, although its commercial cachet had declined. After Bethesda cultivated their house franchise into a well-received cross-platform hit with Oblivion, they suddenly had everything to prove.

Their motivations find parallel in the story Fallout 3 tells about the player character's father, James. One day and without any specific impetus, James abruptly leaves home and the security it provides. He risks everything on resurrecting a certain project commonly thought to be untenable after some recent failures.

Why'd he leave, and why did Bethesda decide to do this? Fortunately they did, because at worst, Fallout 3 would have been an undetermined game; a cautious compromise between the varying design sensibilities of Bethesda and Black Isle and a half-hearted and restrained remake of the original Fallout.

That's not Fallout 3. Here's why it mattered to the post-apocalyptic, profanity-laden, morally vague wasteland that Bethesda make it this time.

The Hopelessness After The Explosion

Game worlds which exist in their fiction as monumental achievements -- like Rapture and Liberty City, grand and exhaustive -- can reflect their developers' real-life dedication to building a quality game.

Instead of vicariously crafting in-game opulence, Bethesda recreated Washington, D.C. as a blasted shithole devastated by nuclear war and depressingly rendered in decrepit detail. BioShock was a toast to failed ambition; Fallout 3 a toast to failure.

Given Fallout 3's timing, reintroducing the series' conceit of war beginning with an Alaskan invasion is faintly hilarious. Now that the resultant wasteland exists in one of Bethesda's open and persistent worlds, you're forced to survey the full extent of the destruction.

You can't ignore all the bombed-out highways, the bridges to nowhere, the irradiated waters, the torn-apart schools, the abandoned cars, the skeletal remains embracing on the beds of shattered houses, or the random and meaningless firefights and explosions. That's the world, and you have to deal with it even when it has no quest relevance.

No previous Fallout game has actually felt so plausibly Post-Nuclear. If Fallout 3 doesn't seem as funny as its predecessors, it's because there's really nothing funny about that. A video game has never been so appropriately painted in brown and gray; the thematic prerogative of Gears of War wasn't hopelessness.

Why Washington DC Works

The decision to set Fallout 3 in D.C. was ostensibly made to further distance Bethesda's game from the West Coast adventures of Fallout 1 and 2, and because the Maryland-based developer were more familiar with the Capitol. This is workmanlike reasoning, which doesn't hint at the massive implications the decision would have on the creative direction of the game.

It's not until after the player leaves the pristine sanctity of Vault 101 in search of his father -- and makes it to Washington proper -- that you remember what's specifically important about D.C.

Not until you march down the Mall, through the wrecks of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the Museums of History and Technology, the National Archives and the Lincoln Memorial to the tune of the America the Beautiful, ducking the street-gangs and mutants further blowing apart the ruins, can you can tell that this is the dismal coda to American history.

America as it was conceived in 1776 is in gradual decline. While some civilians still go about their lives, it seems inevitable that the light will blink out sooner rather than later. When you're able to casually scavenge the Declaration of Independence, and sell it, whatever immaculate prestige American history once had is probably gone.

On your tour of D.C., you're made to revisit all the initial promise inherent in that document, while you're picking up the pieces and kicking around the ashes. The buildings stand remarkably intact, frozen in time, for you to look up at and think about how this all went to hell.

Sitting in the Museum of Technology's planetarium, you can watch the stars flicker across the ceiling from an antiquated projector, listening to an earnest narrator explains the great dream of mankind to explore outer space and some '40s nostalgia drifting over the radio. A pair of super mutants interrupt with lead pipes and miniguns, screaming about tearing your head off. That's Fallout 3.

Vault Boy's Lament

It's a heartbreaking picture, even though Fallout is still decorated with contrarily cheerful '50s duck-and-cover iconography, replete with the perpetually enthused Vault Boy character. As much as that imagery serves as ironic commentary, it almost exists to leaven the psychological burden of walking around awake in this nightmare.

If you can point to something out-of-place or ridiculous, then you can detach from the world -- rather than submitting to it as a reasonable state of existence.

Even so, Fallout the third is the sober one in the family. Whether you think that's a deliberate choice or Bethesda's Achilles' heel, it works for this game. Fallout 3 executes its humorous interstitials as well as anything in the first game, while rejecting the broader pop culture excesses of Fallout 2's Monty Python prostitute showcase. It is, after all, the end of the world.

Far Cry 2, another sequel from a different studio, has absolutely nothing to do with the first game. The name is a vehicle for an unrelated design document and the game's called Far Cry 2 only because Ubisoft doesn't own the Mercenaries license.

The new Far Cry team and the new Fallout team offer new perspectives. Far Cry 2's Africa abandons aliens for malaria, item degradation, civil war and all-purpose ugliness -- while Fallout 3's wasteland is deliberately and unremittingly tragic. To the history of their respective series, they introduce a conscience.

They tell gamers that they can have their open-world shooter and post-apocalyptic wastelands, with their bloody conflicts, nuclear weapons, headshots, political intrigue and all the occasionally goofy video game accouterments, but they won't pretend anymore that it's all unreservedly awesome.

You should feel bad in Far Cry 2 or sad just walking around in Fallout 3. That Fallout 3 is able to convey all this entirely through atmosphere, rather than disadvantaging the player (a page out of the survival horror playbook) is a pretty remarkable achievement.

Enter The AntAgonizer

Fallout 3's weirdest moment has two costumed crusaders fighting on the outskirts of a remote town, calling themselves the Mechanist and the AntAgonizer. It's a moronic premise, albeit one right in line with Fallout.

When you talk to the AntAgonizer, though, and persuade her to knock it off, the game treats her with completely dignity, as she presents a reasonable case for how she wanted to help the impossibly lost inhabitants of the wasteland, before running away in tears.

As Fallout's setting is such an unnatural mode of existence, it's especially worthwhile to observe how the residents of the wasteland choose to live their lives. What are you supposed to do when all of civilisation's institutions have been erased?

Everyone you meet has written their own self-help book on post-nuclear living. Most subsist on vice, as murderers, dealers, slavers and prostitutes. Skilled fighters hire themselves out as mercenaries or anarchically pillage towns. Others go flat-out insane.

Personal survival can be so insurmountable a bar that few rise above self-interest and do what's right for what little remains of the world. Some try, like the semi-righteous order of knights, the Brotherhood of Steel, but even they're divided on how much they want to help out humanity. The Capitol Wasteland lacks any government or ideology and as chaotic and sociologically fractured as it is, it's a perfect setting for an unfocused open-world game.

There's exactly one person in Fallout 3 who will sacrifice for the greater good and you can follow him if you want. It's impossible to believe that in this world enough people like Alexander Hamilton or James Madison will emerge; a small number of smart people who, though ideologically divided, could do something as immense as drafting and ratifying the Constitution. You can't expect any such coherence or drive from the people of Fallout 3.

Carry On, Regardless

Most interesting among the populace are not the raiders or the samaritans but those going on as if nothing happened. Isolated in private zones or secluded in vaults, they run restaurants, sweep floors, nurse high school crushes; reintroducing domesticity to the post-apocalypse.

You have to wonder how responsible that actually is. Are they doing the right thing in rebuilding familiar societal constructs, or should they accept that the world's in decline and do something about it?

You're an actor in the wasteland like the rest, with more agency and influence than all of them combined, which prompts you to consider what you are going to do. In Fallout, making moral decisions isn't a feature designed to encourage replayability, it's arguably the entire point.

Fallout is distinctly unlike those "choose fate, save world" games like Mass Effect (or Oblivion, for that matter) since their worlds are never believably imperiled. The world is in pretty good shape for the entire game; the danger is theoretical and only ever exacerbated by the player allowing the linear plot to progress.

Here, the world is already a write-off. You can't fix the wasteland or the war but there are so many people whose lives you can affect, and that in turn determines what kind of person you are. All that really matters is the quality of your character. If you help whoever you meet, you won't get anything out of it -- not really, not the world or power or glory or any kind of meaningful relationship. All it is is karma.

See What You Can Do

In a weird way, the wasteland is an inviting avenue for change. There are no rules, no institutions, no laws. What do you do when nobody is watching and you can't be held accountable? If you try and approximate the moral and legal standards of today, then that's a statement in itself: you want those structures to endure.

The place is already so desolate you don't even have to do much to improve it. It reminds me, tangentially, of reading about post-invasion Iraq and the early stages of the occupation when the country, bleached to a dreamlike blank slate, so briefly overflowed with possibilities, and an influx of bright young graduates headed out to the Green Zone to reconstruct the country.

I remember thinking, for one dangerously unguarded moment, that wouldn't it be great to move to Baghdad. A place where there's so much to achieve and you can finally have an impact even though you'll probably ruin everything and get murdered.

When the Ink Spots' shiftless anthem "Maybe" is broadcast over the in-game radio, the song being the first thing you heard in Fallout 1, it invokes the series' own memory. Bethesda inspire nostalgia for something they had nothing to do with and recall how unlikely it once seemed that they'd be the ones to restart this thing.

The lyrics -- "Maybe you'll sit and sigh, wishing that I were near/Then maybe you'll ask me to come back again/And maybe I'll say 'Maybe'" -- contradict what this game is all about. Fallout 3 is about making a decision. It's about commitment. It's about doing something.

'A Tribute To Intent'

If it seems like an overly general theme, consider Bethesda's own history with this game. Consider how, out of unspecified desire, they left the safety of the Elder Scrolls for this, and how many development studios are factories for endless variations on popular franchises or uninspired sequels nobody cares about.

Fallout 3 is a tribute to intent. It's not a rallying cry for any cause or even a cautionary tale about the hypothetical horrors of nuclear holocaust. It's a statement on the worthlessness of inaction. It's about not staying in the vault.

In the spirit, then, of conclusive action and definitive answers, we are at last able to resolve every question we've ever had about this game. Does it work; did they pull it off; was it worth all the time, the money, the effort, the mistrust and the suspicion; with everything that this game says and everything that it achieves, well, finally, is this Fallout?

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Ryan Muller
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The writing in this piece is really terrible. I don't normally comment on articles here but the grammar, organization and rambling is really terrible even for an opinion piece. Perhaps English is not the writers first language however a quick pass by an editor would correct many of his mistakes.

Leo Gura
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"...they left the safety of the Elder Scrolls for this..."

I would contest this. Whether you love it or hate it, Fallout is 90% Oblivion design-wise. It's so similar, in fact, that moments of deja vu break immersion. Granted, the mood is very different.

Simon Carless
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Ryan - I gave the piece another read, and I came to the conclusion that I didn't think it was nearly as bad as you did. Nonetheless, we've added subheads to make it easier to read, and generally buffed and polished it.

Arjun Nair
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I thought it was a great read. Makes me want to buy the game more than any review did!

Daniel Camozzato
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I think I didn't understand what this article was about. In my opinion, it went like this: "Fallout 3 oooh, Fallout 3 aaaah.". Err... whatever that means.

Anyway, I found Fallout 3 lacking in its feedback to the player's actions, in that "this is a real world" feeling - the exact opposite to the point you're praising in your article.

Even through I was forced to make decisions along the game, I don't think they had much impact. Oh, I could keep the city intact or blow it up, ok - but that was just a place I had to go once in a while to drop my loot. I think Fallout 1 and 2 did a better job by telling what happened after the game ended as a result to the choices you made.

No, Fallout 3 is not Fallout. It is a very different game, with different pros and cons. I've said this before, in some other topic: "it's like watching the movie inspired on a book". Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse - different.

Steven Conway
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Latching on to Leo's point, not only did Bethesda not truly leave their comfort zone in terms of design, but I also fail to see how they took any other substantial risks in developing a new Fallout game. A new game for any developer carries with it certain risks, and I fail to see how Fallout 3 stands apart as a special case.

Financially, yes the Elder Scrolls has become something of a cash cow, but the Fallout series has a strong brand identity whose status as cult classic (however romanticized and mythologized by rose-tinted glasses) would guarantee publicity and intrigue from both the press and public. Combined with the developer 'of Oblivion' (as noted on so many promotions), and the product was really a shoe-in for pervasive and in-depth coverage throughout its development.

It's akin to saying Valve would be taking a risk by developing a successor to Quake (if one did not already exist).

Steven Conway
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I also agree with Daniel - the thesis of this article is rather unclear.

Will Campos
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The biggest problem with Fallout 3 WAS it's tacked-on, "choose fate, save world" ending. The author's right that this is a totally different world than Oblivion, or Mass Effect, but the fact that Bethseda shoehorned in a generic good guy/bad guy "choice" ending shows how mismatched they are for the Fallout franchise.

The worlds of Mass Effect and Oblivion might never be "credibly imperiled", but as the author points out, the Capitol Wasteland can never be credibly saved, which makes a world-saving ending pretty unsatisfying. Perhaps if we actually got to SEE the impact of that final descicion on the landscape (walking along a crystal-clear river, seeing the beginnings of green grass and blue skies in the wasteland), we might feel connected to it, but the grainy slide show ending we're force fed is pretty much the antithesis of good game design.

I'm also at a bit of a loss as to what this article is supposed to be about. The writer hints at the beginning that he's going to explain why it was essential that "Bethseda make (Fallout 3)this time", but then he just gushes about how great the game is without talking specifically about how only Bethseda could have pulled it off.

Furthermore, the author's conclusion is just vague, pseudo-intellectual horseshit. "The worthlessness of inaction"? Please. Fallout 3 is filled to the brim with active characters pursuing their own goals and agendas. What about that says "inaction"? If anything, the game is a meditiation on the worthlessness of action itself, since we see so many people willing to die and fight over the irradiated scraps of the wasteland.

At the end of the day, the author hasn't done anything to answer the criticisms of Fallout 3. Rather, he's just proved how thin the reasoning behind much of the ejaculatory, overblown praise for this decent-at-best game really is.

David Delanty
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Man, the way he swoons and romanticizes this game...makes it seems as if a perpetual cascade of nitrous oxide and twenty dollar bills was pouring out of the monitor while playing. Or, even more ludicrous a possibility, managed to play through without a single crash.

Nah. Laughing gas and money blizzard. Much more likely.

I don't see this as an opinion piece but more of a droning parallel between the real world and the Fallout 3 universe (note: Fallout 3, not Fallout in general). I feel it could have been a lot better to explain not how Fallout 3 can be applied to the real world (i.e. Baghdad comparison) but the other way around how the bigger picture is ingrained to an individual's own emotions. Good example from the game is when you spontaneously find an audio tape from your mother mid-way through the game. No warning, no real relevance to the continuation of the Fallout 3 plot line, but I still remember that one defining find as the moment when I really felt drawn in and felt the rare twinge of sympathy towards my player-character.

It's not about the world. It's about the gamer. It's about me when I play. I play as an escapist, to break away from the real world, the turmoil, the thoughts of Baghdad. And if Bethesda makes me feel a minor pang paternal bond to a dead mother that only exists as etches of binary on a DVD, that stands as testament of immersing me in the ruin.

Will Campos does bring up a really good point.

"Perhaps if we actually got to SEE the impact of that final descicion on the landscape (walking along a crystal-clear river, seeing the beginnings of green grass and blue skies in the wasteland), we might feel connected to it, but the grainy slide show ending we're force fed is pretty much the antithesis of good game design."

I beat the game as the good guy, but was so disappointed by the ending, I restarted hoping for a different one by going the devilish bastard route. Hardly any difference in the satisfaction of the ending. I compare the storyline of Fallout 3 to taking a long stroll along a nice beach to a picnic, where the journey is enjoyable, scenic, and pleasant. But the picnic, the reward for the journey, is just bread and water. The ending suffices for "substance" but it doesn't make the effort put forth in the journey worth it. Therefore, on the second play-through, I opted to make the journey, the pleasantry, last as long as possible, taking in as much of it as I could. Simply ignoring the final chapter of the main quest line, the deceitful carrot on a stick, made me truly enjoy and indulge in the effort Bethesda put into this game.

Anton Maslennikov
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I can't help but agree with many of the comments here. While Fallout 3 is a good game, it is not fallout. I felt that the author played the game and enjoyed the experience, but this romantic view has resulted in an article that praises the game without much constructive criticism.

I honestly do believe that Bethesda tried to make fallout 3 play similar to the others within the series. However, the end result was simply oblivion with fallout textures. The design team did not understand how humor worked in the game and while parts of the main story (particularly the begging half) are quite good, the latter half felt rushed and flat. My sentiments are the same as those of Will Campos and Daniel Camozzato in regards to player feedback within the game. As several of the designers from the original fallout pointed out in comments to an article a week ago, when they designed the original games they tired to always have 3 ways to solve a problem. Often these were not black white and gray as seen in many modern games. Instead they were a combination of solutions to circumstances that would never quite solve the problem in a linear manner.

Of all the things I thought that this game and article missed, it mostly deals with what i just mentioned. There were times that I grew emotionally attached to things inside of Fallout, NPCs, locations, ideas... but I was never given an opportunity to act out my emotions properly. I felt that I was playing any other RPG with the classic pattern of do good thing or bad thing or neutral thing, then get a reward and leave. I walk into a location and some good looking NPC talks to me. She implies with voice and speech that she wants my player avatar for the night. I do things to gain her trust, not for her reward, but for her admiration and that implied one night stand. My reward? Three sentences that have nothing to do with her implicit affection for my avatar and some bottle caps. Get kicked out of the vault? Angry about it? To bad, since you can't even give any emotional comments from your player avatar. Find yourself doing a quest finding some juicy information about a NPC? Seems dirty enough to make him pay you to keep quiet? Sorry, you can't do that. Infact, you can't even tell it to anyone else that would be interested in knowing. But hey, at least you can tell him you know and get him to change his evil ways.

The ending, I felt, was just like the rest of the quests within the game- Black or white with the occasional gray and little to no consequence to my avatar (nor any valiant attempts to get give emotional depth to things outside of the main character arch).

Carl Chavez
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If Fallout 3 is a statement on the worthlessness of inaction, then I must say that ending of Fallout 3 is a statement on the worthlessness of my play time due to the developers' and designers' inaction.

One of the great things about Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 was the dynamic ending. There were thousands of possible endings, and not just for your character, but for different NPCs and locales. Truly, Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 were extraordinary statements of the worthiness of action.

Fallout 3? Eight possible endings. Eight combinations of good/bad, sacrifice/no sacrifice, and destroy/do not destroy. Eight unsatisfying endings, with no closure on the many places and people I found and met during my adventures. What happened to Big Town? To Megaton? To all of the other places? Did they grow? Did they shrivel up and die? Fallout 1 and 2 answered these kinds of questions and made the consequences of my actions important. Fallout 3 gives me the finger and says that nothing I did mattered, because the only thing that matters is the destroy/not destroy choice. Rather than being a statement of the worthlessness of inaction, Fallout 3 basically tells me that I may have well been inactive.

Furthermore, I am angry at the developers for not taking the relatively small amount of extra coding necessary to create a dynamic ending system that could make me feel like I made a difference in the world. Why is it that a game sequel that is 10 years removed from its predecessors not have one of the defining elements of the series? Inaction. The technology is not so advanced that it would have taken much time to implement. In fact, it's relatively simple to implement, and since the endings were all text and pictures, it wouldn't even have been expensive (except for the recording of Ron Perlman's extra lines). To me, that statement of inaction is what made Fallout 3 ultimately worthless to my play time, and the first game in the series (not counting BoS, which I never played) that I did not want to replay, since I didn't see the point.

And swooning over the environments? One thing that really bugged me about Fallout 3 was how there was almost no evidence of agriculture, other than two or three brahmin farms. In previous games, you could see how humanity had survived, but Fallout 3 gave no such support to its environment. By all evidence, there should have been almost no life in the Capital Wasteland. If they are surviving, then they're doing it with... inaction. And if they can live through inaction, then that destroys any perceived statement on the worthlessness of inaction.

Furthermore, there is very little backstory for most of the locations. Why the heck are there so many kids in Lamplight Caverns? Where do new ones come from? Why is Big Town so far away? Why are there slavers, but no slaves? Why, why, why... so many questions unanswered. In short, why are there so many holes in the game's environmental design? Inaction.

I could also get into the numerous gameplay issues I have, but that would not be relevant to the discussion.

Note: I agree with David Delanty; the recording of the mother from the old lab was one of the high points of the game for me.

Bart Stewart
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Agree with him or not, I thought the author's overall point was made clear in the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph: "It's about not staying in the vault." The getting-there was maybe a little ruminative compared to the hyper-practical reportage style many gamers and developers affect, but sometimes it's pleasant to just explore ideas instead of being Gatling-gunned with somebody's unrelentingly negative opinions tersely stated as though they were obvious facts.

As it happens, I didn't agree with some of the author's points -- Baghdad? Alaska? any other political shots we'd like to take before they become verboten in January? -- but the conclusion seemed OK to me. Of course Bethesda reused some of its mechanics from Oblivion -- this practical approach to game development seems like sufficient grounds for dismissing the entire game, with its astonishing quantity and quality of original content, as a mindlessly derivative hack job by Bethesda?

Of course it's not perfect. It ticks me off that my game crashed every time I ran into two or more raiders until I turned off antialiasing completely -- none of us playing Fallout 3 should have had to figure that out. I'm not thrilled with the constant parodying of honest patriotism as empty jingoism. And I'm frankly stunned that Bethesda balanced the progression through the level system so that, on normal mode, I've hit the level cap having explored barely half of the game locations and half the main quest line.

But Fallout 3 is merely "[O]blivion with fallout textures"? I don't believe reality supports that opinion. This is a much, much more satisfying (if often grim) gameplay experience than such comments indicate, and the author of the opinion piece on which we're commenting did a decent job of highlighting the feel of that play experience. In terms of content and mood, Bethesda have nothing to apologize for. Fallout 3 isn't the greatest game of all time, but it's nothing like the radioactive disaster that the piling-on comments above claim it to be, either.

I can only dimly imagine the incredible thrashing that Interplay are going to get if they dare to proceed with trying to create a Fallout MMORPG....

Andrius Kavaliunas
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I was hooked on Fallout3 on its very day of release.

Immerse environment, intense action, different story choices. All that I'd put in a single word -- FUN.

The problem was I lost the interest in the game after 40hrs of play.

Then I tried and played Fallout2, which I found... Different sense of the world, characters, goals. But who I am to judge since I was/am not even likely a fan.

Nevertheless, you can brag, cry, shout, disagree, but Bethesda DID IT. With all due respect, thumbs up for Fallout3.

Rob Hobson
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Duncan and Simon,

The article's a perfectly acceptable piece of writing. Duncan does fall into the trap of pushing for a journalistic, short-and-choppy style, the trips over himself by lapsing into longish sub-clauses, but (if you needed reassurance) the English is of a far better standard than I find in the majority of games journalism. Well done.

I might say, with regard to what I perceived as the point of the article, that it could well have helped the game if they'd stayed clear of the Fallout franchise and simply built this game under another moniker. As a previous player of the Fallout series, I'm in as much love with them as the 13 or 14 other people that bought them at the time. But I find the constant whining and hand-wringing over whether Bethesda "get it" tiresome, to say the least.

Personally, I'm with Barthes, although perhaps "Death of the Franchise" might be a more apt title.

John Ingrams
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I found this article most interesting, and considering I come from England, found the English perfectly acceptable.

I would change the 'Maybe' lyrics to remind us where we were before Bethesda took up the Fallout crown:

Maybe:-- "Maybe you'll sit and sigh, wishing that Fallout 3 were near/Then maybe you'll ask Interplay to come back again/And maybe they'll say 'Maybe'". Fallout 3 is a lot better than 'maybe'!

And if you're a grown up, I don;t see why you cannot enjoy both Fallout 1 and 2 and Fallout 3 today, right now. I own all 3 and have never had a problem digging out Fallout 1 or 2 and playing it again - any more than I do the original Half Life, Baldur's Gate, etc.

Given we get very little writing about a game beyond preview and reviews, I say can we please have more articles like this? IGN did something similar and it got many many hits. So I hope this is the future. Not all articles will be great, but I would rather have articles like this than the edited press releases we see on so many gaming sites, all purporting to be there to 'support gamers' when to all intents and purposes seem to actually be there to further the publishers interests!