Fallout 3 vs Fallout New Vegas: Tension versus Consequence

There's a lot of talk right now about whether or not which of the two Fallouts that run on Bethesda's engine is the better gaming experience. With fans of the first two games gravitating more towards the Mojave experience and a good number of fans preferring the polish of the birth-to-death story in the Capital Wasteland, a divide among the fan base can be clearly seen. Having liked both games, I will try to point out the good, in my opinion, that each game brings to the Fallout franchise.

When Fallout 3 came out it received criticism from a number of folks that it’s setting (the Capital Wasteland) while vast, had very little life to it. Yes, yes it’s supposed to be a radioactive wasteland, but compared to the previous games in the franchise, there were very few communities of NPCs and your actions had very little consequence to them. Yes, your main objective was to save the wastes and give water to the people; however, by the end of the game you feel that your actions had very minor and very vague/general effects on the population. Very different from the previous Fallouts where you can help communities prosper or choose which tribes thrive and which gangs disperse. There’s a distinct lack of geopolitics in the game. The only major forces you feel are the Capital Brotherhood, and the Enclave. The only consequence that’s given any amount of focus is whether Megaton is bombed or not.

The communities are too small, to spread apart, and too isolated from each other. Whereas in the previous fallouts they interact, they contest for power, and it’s up to you if you want things to go one way or another.

What Fallout 3 did do right though, is by ditching the geopolitical nature of the previous games, they were able to focus on the personal story of your main character. They were also able to inject the game with something that the previous fallouts didn’t have: cinematic tension/immersion.

Remember that moment when you were escaping from Vault 101 for the first time and you were going, “Oh my god, oh my god…” and then you manage to see the big payoff at the end of that (chase, hey it essentially is) sequence, a hilltop view of Capital wasteland, and you feel awesome? Remember being stuck in a sewer in Jefferson Memorial and then seeing Enclave Vertibirds land outside and you go, “Oh shit, I think I left Dad upstairs?”

Fallout 3 is filled with moments like that. From the Behemoth experience right before GNR, to that virtual insanity that was Tranquility Lane, Fallout 3 borrowed some silver screen magic and managed to subject it’s gamers to cinematic magic.

Some folks dig that a lot. However it came at the cost of having a (relatively) dead world, where most of the sidequests don’t really matter, and the juice is in the main quest that the story teller of the game is telling you. And that’s what the haters didn’t like. It’s a great story that’s “told” to them. It’s not something voluntary. It’s not the kind of immersion that works well with them. Their loss, as I was one of those folks who also went, “Oh shit, the Enclave landed, I think I left Dad upstairs.”

Enter Fallout New Vegas…

…and man, the Mojave is alive! It really feels like a living breathing world! Moreover, the way the quests are structured, wherein most of them involve one faction/community needs something at the loss/gain of another faction community, only adds to the illusion that this Mojave is filled with living breathing communities.

Old-school geopolitics is back in the game, and as a result the virtual in-game communities matter more. I could care less about the Republic of Dave, but I really, really wanted to get Primm the best Sherriff possible.

The presence of geopolitics also makes your Companions matter more as well, as they actually interact with the world around them and form opinions of factions. When Veronica’s heart broke at the Follower’s Outpost mine did as well. I really wanted to kill Legion scum for Boone. I didn’t want Cass to get her drunk, vengeful ass in trouble, so I had her wait by the Kings building when I tried to sneak into the Van Graffs. The setting and the “big picture view” is so compelling that it actually aided in the story telling of the more “close up” interactions of the game. This is because you’re given a frame of reference. This is because you’re sold the illusion that your choices matter.

The main quest feels shorter though, and less linear. Yes there are still moments of tension, notable ones include the arrival of an NCR president, and a cannibal’s fine-dining preferences, but they are noticeably fewer and less “Oh shit!” than in Fallout 3. They are however more involved, as a lot of the tension from these New Vegas moments occur because of some voluntary action you did as a player. It’s a different effect than “the enclave just landed, I need to get upstairs now.” It’s more of, “Okay, I’m sneaking down into this Restaurant’s lower levels, and the masked waiters with the flame throwers are starting to creep me out now.”

Even during the endgame sequence, New Vegas rewards participation as the more involved you were during your playthrough, the more things you’ll run into. Old timers in power armor, insane ex-vault-denizens with bombers, suicidal khans, bad-ass rangers all only show up, and add to the entertainment if you let them. Whereas in the Capital, you get Liberty Prime whatever you do.

Shit doesn’t get thrown at you (and you end up liking the shit throwing, I know I did) like in Fallout 3. In New Vegas, you choose which style of hazmat suit to wear and you wade into the toxic cesspool and you wade into the crap yourself (which I liked as well).

In Fallout New Vegas, aside from the vague need to get revenge for getting shot in the head (a pre-gameplay premise), there isn’t much impetus to go in a certain direction. You don’t get kicked out of your Vault by an angry Overseer and the direction to head is obvious: out. You wake up in a backwater town and you’re free to go anywhere. A clue to the direction you head is only gained by asking around, and then the direction you actually go is up to you. This makes the game feel slower. There isn’t a virtual event that’s making your adrenalin pump. There isn’t something that’s screaming for your attention. In New Vegas, if you don’t start nothing, there won’t be nothing.

There is no shit being thrown at you. No waterfall that pours on you. Less excitement. Less thrill. Not as immediate. You do, however, see the consequences of bumping into the bits of toxic debris in the pool that you waded in, and it takes a whole lot more time before the ripples turn into a wave. And for some, that’s just not their thing. For some, their wave doesn’t grow that big. That’s not their preferred style of immersion. I can understand that --their loss, not mine.

For me, the “Fallout 3 vs FNV, which is better?” question really isn’t fair. As both offer very different yet still very valid gaming experiences. Yes, both are sandboxes, and the mechanics and the graphics aren’t so far apart, (heck it’s the same engine) but the way each game is designed and the way each game tells its story is very, very different. I hope that more gamers notice that and stop focusing on engines and systems and mechanics as not all gameplay is determined by those factors, especially for RPGs where structure and design matter as well.

As different as Fallout 3 and New Vegas are from each other, for me they’re definitely both Fallout games. Yeah, I said it. Let the purists hate. I’ll reserve talking about QQ and whining regarding setting verisimilitude in another post (Yes Fallout 2, I’m looking at you).

*My dream: A Fallout 4 that manages to incorporate the geopolitics of FO1, FO2, and FONV and adds in the cinematic spice of FO3. A Fallout 4 that runs on an engine that isn’t buggy as hell and lets your camera zoom out quite far and lets you explore freely with very few invisible walls on a mountainsides. An engine wherein when you “lift” stuff, it doesn’t just float infront of your character in third-persion-view, you actually see your character carry them. An engine that allows for vehicles. I want a Highwayman, or that cool $199,999 car from the FO1 intro. If ever Fallout goes to New York, it better look like a wasted Liberty City. Hey wait a minute, now that engine might work, all you need is SPECIAL and VATS and….. mmmmmmmmmmmmm.