Fallout 3 and Contemporary Graphics Accelerators: Expectations and Reality

The fans of the world famous post-apocalyptic Fallout series have finally got what they have been waiting for – the third part of the game. Since it was created using contemporary graphics technologies, it makes sense to find out what the owners of graphics cards from different price segments can hope to get in Fallout 3 game in terms of performance and image quality.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
12/09/2008 | 03:40 PM

Fallout is a legendary title in the gaming community, such terms as Vault 13, the water chip and others being well known to every devoted gamer. The classic games of the Fallout series have had a huge effect on the post-apocalyptic subculture.

 

The original game was released 11 years ago, on the 30th of October, 1997. As opposed to most other role-playing games, the player of Fallout did not find himself in a fairy land with the purpose of saving yet another fantasy kingdom from an evildoer. Instead, he had to face the hostile and cruel reality of a world that had survived a nuclear war. Strangely enough, it was not an exchange of nuclear strikes between the United States and the Soviet Union. The game was actually set in an alternative reality in which a war for control over the last deposits of petroleum broke out between the United States and the communist China in the year of 2077. Just as you could expect from a global nuclear war, it did not take long and turned to be fatal in its consequences. The larger part of the Earth population was dead in one day, the few survivors having every reason to envy those who had evaporated in the flash of the nuclear explosion.

By the way, technology developed in different ways in the Fallout world than in our own reality. Particularly, they didn’t have the explosive growth of information technologies. As a result, they use computers with black-and-white CRT monitors and 64KB of system memory even in 2077.

 

The developments in microelectronics were mostly limited to making smaller and ever more sophisticated electrovacuum devices, i.e. vacuum tubes. On the other hand, nuclear and thermonuclear technologies came to be widespread, resulting particularly in powerful, portable and practically unlimited sources of energy. Even cars in this world are the descendants of the Ford Nucleon. This affects the overall aesthetics of the game world which resembles the United States of the 1950s and 60s. That’s one of the unique features of Fallout which is so appreciated by the admirers of the series.

The population of the United States was to be saved by the global project of Vault-Tec Corporation that was to build a huge network of high-tech Vaults that would sustain up to 1000 people autonomously, providing them with all the necessities for a long time.

As is often the case, the reality proved to be far crueler than in the official version presented to the public. No one intended to save all of the population. Instead of the required 400,000, only 112 Vaults were built for the government’s secret project. The point of the project was to study the collective behavior of people under nonstandard conditions. For example, 999 women and only one man entered Vault 69 when the Doomsday came. In Vault 42 there was no lamp more than 40 watts. Some Vaults didn’t have necessary equipment or the existing equipment was programmed to fail at certain moments.

The fate of the inhabitants of Vault 12 was perhaps the scariest. The hermetic door of their Vault did not close when the first bombs fell down. These people had been chosen as laboratory mice for studying the influence of high-dose of radiation on people…

A Little Bit of History

The hero of the first Fallout was a dweller of Vault 13. The purpose of that Vault was to study the possibility of survival of an isolated group of people in a limited space. Instead of a standard 10 years, the Vault had been programmed to open up in 200 years only, i.e. in the year of 2277. It would happen this way if one incident didn’t occur in 2161, i.e. 116 years before the set moment. The failure of an indispensable electronic unit of the water recycling system, the so-called water chip (it is the key object of the first game), makes it is necessary to send one of the inhabitants to search a replacement chip.

From this moment the player’s adventures begin and he learns that the world outside the Vault is not a dead desert. Civilization had been reviving from the wounds of war, giving rise to a number of unique cultures and phenomena the player will have to encounter.

An important feature of Fallout was its nonlinear gameplay. Even the main plotline offers a number of variants you can choose from, let alone side tasks and the free investigation of the post-nuclear world. In other words, Fallout offered more freedom than most of classic RPGs. Detailed dialogues and a good sense of humor also added to the popularity of the game. You can take the local currency as an example: this role was played by caps from Nuka-Cola bottles, an allusion to Coca-Cola and one of the most recognized symbols of Fallout.

The second game of the series, Fallout 2, was announced on September 30, 1998, and managed to do what few sequels ever did: it surpassed its predecessor in popularity. It didn’t bring about lots of innovations, though. Instead, the second game drew upon the world described in the first Fallout. The second game is based around an inhabitant of a primitive village called Arroyo that had been founded by the hero of the first game and the Vault 13 dwellers he had saved. 80 years since the events of Fallout, the people of Arroyo still have primitive technologies and a low level of life. And after an especially bad drought, the village elders realized they could not go on like that for ever. They choose a person who sets out to search for the legendary G.E.C.K., a kit of devices and technologies for maintaining comfortable life conditions on the surface after leaving the Vault.

Each Vault was supposed to have a G.E.C.K., but considering the experimental nature of the whole project, the hero has to take a long and dangerous quest, full of adventures, to obtain one.

Both games had first-class humor and lots of Easter eggs, i.e. allusions to or parodies of popular books and movies. Coupled with the other special features of the series, this created a unique atmosphere and eventually became the cause of the enormous popularity of both Fallout and Fallout 2. Thus, creating a third part of the game would mean taking on huge responsibility. The large army of the fans would not condone any flaw. On the other hand, the attempt looked enticing. For if the developer succeeded, he would become part of the legend, too.

Fallout 3: Development and Technologies

Fallout 3 just had to be released. Such a popular brand could not be left unexploited. The question was what the gamers would get as the final product. At first, Interplay’s subsidiary Black Isle Studios began to work on the sequel to the legendary series, and we could hope for the preservation of the best features from both Fallout and Fallout 2. Codenamed Van Buren, the project reached a development stage at which it could be showcased to the public. Indeed, you can easily find the tech demo on the Web. It uses 3D technologies of 2003 as well as the main feature of the previous games of the series, the isometric view.

 

Fallout 3 could be quite a different game. However, the project was cancelled in 2003, Black Isle Studios was disbanded and fired, and Fallout 3 had to wait some more to materialize. For some time no one dared touch the legendary name, but Bethesda Softworks, the famous developer of the role-playing series The Elder Scrolls, took up the banner in 2004. The developers announced at the start than they would do their best to keep the spirit and atmosphere of the original games of the series and would produce a nonlinear and detailed plot.

Fallout 3 was developed from scratch, actually. It is based on the Gamebryo engine. After Numerical Design Limited merged with Emergent Game Technologies, the engine came to be called Gamebryo Element. This engine is capable of creating a huge and highly detailed 3D world without any seams such as levels, maps or anything. This capability was utilized extensively in Bethesda’s previous projects, especially in TES IV: Oblivion which became a long-standing etalon of visual quality for first-person RPGs. The new version of Gamebryo Elements acquired DirectX 10 support and proved to be a good foundation for the vast post-nuclear world of Fallout 3. The developer could give up the game model implemented in the first two games of the series which had had a global map with discrete locations.

 

 

Well, there are “seams” in Fallout 3, actually. Like in Oblivion, the cities, buildings and dungeons are individual locations that are loaded separately but otherwise the 3D world is seamless and continuous. You can travel it just like the real world. In fact, the Fallout series has evolved from a classic isometric-view RPG made up of discrete locations you could visit by means of a global map into a global 3D shooter with first- or third-person view depending on the gamer’s choice. This evolution may be questionable, especially for orthodox fans of Fallout and Fallout 2, but it is perfectly justifiable at the current point of development of graphics technologies. The transition to the seamless world is not good or bad in itself. What matters is the developer’s desire and ability to keep the spirit of the original, the modern 3D technologies being just a handy tool. Therefore, it is a lucky thing that the Fallout 3 project was given to Bethesda Softworks who had not only necessary tools but also a solid experience of using them.

 

The developers have coped with the job excellently. The visual aspect of Fallout 3 is surely splendid. The ruins of the post-nuclear Washington look most picturesque. The lighting model is implemented well: the HDR effects don’t look rough, but create the impression of a veil of dust hanging in the air, the sunlight having to penetrate this veil. Considering that we’re talking about a world that has suffered a global nuclear war, this makes you feel the reality of the situation. We also like the relief effects such as footprints, warped metal, etc, and we like the water that uses displacement maps, realistic reflections and refractions.

Notwithstanding the vast 3D world, Fallout 3 was originally developed as a multiplatform project and you can enjoy it not only on the PC but also on modern game consoles. This should add even more popularity to the Fallout universe. Being a multiplatform project, the game had to be optimized carefully because the hardware resources of modern consoles are very modest in comparison with modern gaming-class PCs. Indeed, we have heard positive reports about the speed of Fallout 3 from gamers who tried it on such modest graphics cards as Radeon HD 3850 256MB and even GeForce 7600 GT.

Fallout 3: Plot and Gameplay

The developer team from Bethesda was true to their word of keeping the spirit of the original games of the series. Fallout 3 begins according to the canon: the protagonist lives in one of the Vaults, this time it is Vault 101, located in the vicinity of Washington. The fate of this Vault was more or less lucky. Its door shut when necessary and its equipment worked normally and the amount of population matched the predicted figures. The only difference from the reference Vaults was the term of autonomous functioning. Vault 101 resembles Vault 13 in this respect with one difference only: the latter was to open up in 200 years whereas the former, never. Here, the experiment was to show the influence of infinite isolation on the inhabitants, to make sure there was a pure, radiation and FEV unaffected population, and to reveal the role of the Overseer, the person who controlled all the aspects of life in the Vault. Quite a good fate considering the bad luck of some other Vaults.

 

The character generation process is very original. In fact, the game begins with the first cry of a newborn baby and the question is asked, “Let’s see, are you a boy or a girl?” And the player is prompted to choose the gender and name of the character. Then you can choose his/her appearance using a special machine called Gene Projector.

 

You can give your fantasy a free run here because the appearance-generating features of Oblivion are all available in Fallout 3. The delivery was fatal for the mother who dies in a few moments. That’s the end of the first step of the character generation process.

The next step shows a 1-year-old hero who’s crawling in a playpen. Here you learn the basics of controlling the character by performing the first task – to leave the playpen that had been closed by the child’s father. You can feel the specific humor of Fallout right away – there is a missile-shaped rattle hanging over the child’s bed.

 

Take note of the quote (of the number, actually) from Revelation 21:6 in the frame and of the children’s book called You’re S.P.E.C.I.A.L.! that lies near the toy box.

 

 

When you open it up, you will be able to set up the basic parameters of your character, which will largely affect your playing style: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck.

Aged 10, the hero begins to interact with the society. This step takes the form of a birthday party where friendly and unfriendly characters can be encountered. The Vault’s Overseer gives the hero a portable computer Pip-Boy 3000 and says that he now becomes a full citizen with appropriate duties.

 

 

Here the player learns to work with the Pip-Boy, which is an important element of the game, to interact with other characters, and to shoot (an air rifle is one of the birthday gifts).

 

At the age of 16 the hero has to choose his specialization by passing the G.O.A.T. exam and selecting preferred skills.

 

 

The character generation process may seem a bit long, but it is actually engaging and humorous and helps you get your bearings in the game world.

The developers tried to preserve the character attributes system from the first two games, yet the mechanism of acquiring perks has changed significantly. It used to be a rare occasion, but now you can get a perk for each new level, which gives a cause for some criticism that leveling-up is too easy. Although the character growth is limited to 20 levels, creating a universal specialist is not a problem especially as the Intense Training perk, which increases one of the basic S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes by 1, can be acquired each level.

The actual game begins when your character is 19. It turns out that Vault 101 is not an impregnable fortress forever shut from the outside world because the father of the hero disappears. The Vault’s Overseer is worried at the possibility of breaking the legend of its invulnerability and vents his anger on the hero, ordering his arrest. The hero must escape. Depending on your previous actions, you can be helped by other characters, including the daughter of the Overseer.

 

And so, the protagonist finds himself on the hill, a wooden door of the cozy Vault behind his back, a 10mm gun in his hand, and the Wasteland before his eyes – all that is left from Washington and its surroundings.

 

As we noted above, Fallout 3 has in fact transformed into a full-featured 3D shooter with first- or third-person view depending on the gamer’s choice. It means you can fight in real time just as in ordinary FPS or TPS games. However, this is not the optimal mode for saving your ammunition because the shooting accuracy, although depends on the appropriate skill, is not high. Here you can use the V.A.T.S. mode (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System). Activated by the V button by default, this mode makes everything on the screen freeze and you can fight in a turn-based manner. You amount of Action Points is shown in the bottom right of the screen and you can spend them to shoot accurately at the various parts of the enemy’s body. You can shoot at multiple enemies, choosing your aim with the A and D buttons.

 

When you’ve chosen your aims and confirmed the attack, you see a scene of shooting in slow motion, but the restoration of the action points, the deflection from the return fire, and the search for a shelter are all done in real time, so the combat system of Fallout 3 is not entirely turned-based.

 

The slow motion is its main disadvantage, actually. It is a pleasure to watch the intestines of your enemies fly around, but watching similar scenes again and again becomes boring when there are too many enemies to deal with.

 

 

Talking about drawbacks, the game A.I. doesn’t always behave logically. There are a few good things, too. For example, there is an original way of killing your enemies by placing mines and grenades into their pockets using the stealing skill.

 

Or you can create unique weapons out of the junk and parts you find in the Wasteland. For example, you can put together an old gas tank, a handbrake, a blade from a lawn-mower, and a pilot lamp to create an excellent close-combat weapon Shishkebab that allows not only to stick the enemy through but also fry him in the process.

 

 

We could talk about the game long as it is huge and provocative, but this review is in no way a guide to playing Fallout 3. We’ve had long preliminaries, so let’s get to the point: we will now benchmark modern graphics cards in Fallout 3.

Testbed and Methods

To investigate the performance of contemporary graphics accelerators in Fallout 3 we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

13 graphics systems participated in our today’s performance test session.

Premium/High-End category:

Performance-Mainstream category:

Mainstream category:

We ran the tests in all resolutions including 2560x1600 only for the Premium category. Performance-Mainstream was limited by 1920x1200. Mainstream solutions were tested in 1680x1050 max. The game has four levels of detail: Low, Medium, High and Ultra and allows fine tuning certain options. The complete settings profiles look as follows:

Since we believe that you can really enjoy your gaming experience only with maximum graphics quality settings, we performed our full-size test session only in Ultra mode with the maximum level of detail. Namely, we enabled HDR, MSAA 4x and anisotropic filtering 16x. All other options were set to their maximums. Since most time the player will spend in the Wasteland, the test sequence included a quick run from the Megaton to the school ruins. We used Fraps utility version 2.9.6 to record the average and minimal fps rate. To minimize the measuring error, we took the average results of three combined runs for further analysis.

Performance

Premium/High-End Category

In open scenes of the game the frame rate is not higher than 62-64fps, being obviously limited by the system’s CPU.

The GeForce GTX 280 is the weakest card in this category. Although it delivers comfortable performance at any resolution up to 1920x1200 inclusive, it is up to 25% slower than the ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2. You can improve performance by adding a second such card in SLI mode, but the result wouldn’t be worth the trouble and money unless you’ve got a monitor that can work at a resolution of 2560x1600 pixels.

There is no sense in building a 3-way CrossFire subsystem due to the above-mentioned limitation on the CPU part. Such a subsystem wouldn’t be able to show its best in a PC configuration similar to our testbed.

Performance-Mainstream Category

The choice between the GeForce 9800 GTX and Radeon HD 4870 X2 is not obvious in the previous price category just because the latter is more expensive and has higher power consumption, but it is all clear here. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 260, in its classic version with 192 shader processors, has no chance against the ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB. We didn’t have a sample of the newer GeForce GTX 260 (with 216 active shader processors) for this test session, but we doubt the additional 24 ALUs would make the GTX 260 competitive to the ATI Radeon HD 4870 that has as many as 800 ALUs. Nevertheless, it still can deliver acceptable gaming speed at a resolution of 1920x1200 pixels.

It’s clear that the highly detailed and vast environment of the game puts a heavy load on the graphics card’s memory subsystem. 4x MSAA contributes to this load, too. As a result, the Radeon HD 4850 falls far behind its elder brother even at 1680x1050 as it lacks fast GDDR5 memory. In this case it still delivers a comfortable level of minimal speed, however, in 1920x1200 it loses even to Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+. The latter performs fairly well despite its outdated architecture.

Summing it up, the Radeon HD 4870 1GB is the best choice in the performance-mainstream category for playing Fallout 3. Choosing between the Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce 9800 GTX+ is not easy because the former is only ahead at low resolutions. The older version of GeForce GTX 260 it is being very modest here: it shows considerably lower speed than ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB, and although it boasts comparable power consumption it is much larger in size. There is not much sense in purchasing this card for playing Fallout 3 provided the prices are comparable.

Mainstream Category

There is one leader from the red team in the sector of mainstream gaming cards. It is the Radeon HD 4830. This graphics card enjoys an advantage of 15-16% over the opponent from the green camp, the GeForce 9800 GT, at 1280x1024. The gap shrinks to 7% at 1680x1050, probably because the memory subsystem bandwidth becomes the main limiting factor.

It is interesting to note that the GeForce 9600 GT, based on the modest G92 core with only 64 ALUs, is no worse than the more advanced G92-based card in both average or bottom speed. The rather old Radeon HD 3870 feels all right, too. The Radeon HD 4670 makes up for its narrow 128-bit memory bus with its advanced computing and texture-mapping capabilities. This simple, quiet, cold and inexpensive card is no worse than the GeForce 9600 GT and delivers a high level of comfort at 1280x1024, too.

So, the choice in the top mainstream segment is obvious. The Radeon HD 4830 is unrivalled here. The bottom mainstreams segment offers a wider choice as every product is worth the money asked. However, ATI’s solutions look preferable due to their more progressive architecture and advanced multimedia capabilities, including an integrated audio core.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

The overall results of our tests seem to be optimistic. Fallout 3 runs fast even at the maximum level of detail even on inexpensive cards like Radeon HD 4830 and GeForce 9600 GT. This is true for the resolution of 1280x1024 pixels at least. But can you play at higher resolutions? And can you enable a higher resolution by lowering the level of detail? Will this affect the image quality much?

These questions are interesting, so we performed one more test using a more difficult test sequence and recording instantaneous results for one minute. We performed this test with two popular mainstream cards, ATI Radeon HD 4850 and Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+, at a resolution of 1680x1050.

The test sequence began in Lucy West’s House. Then there was a run along the Megaton and out of the town into the Wasteland. In other words, the test sequence includes most of the situations the player can find himself in: small closed environments (buildings and tunnels), medium-size environments (halls and towns), and open scenes. Like in the main test, we recorded the frame rate with Fraps 2.9.6. We also used this tool to capture screenshots at different graphics quality settings.

So, this test produced the following data:

 

 

 

 

It is clear that the lowering of the level of detail doesn’t affect the overall performance much even though we are using mainstream graphics cards. The instantaneous speed can be as high as 100fps or lower than 20fps irrespective of the level of detail, maximum or minimum. Both slumps in the diagrams correspond to the moments we exit the house and town, so you shouldn’t bother about them seriously. It is only the transition from the Ultra to the High profile that provides a practical benefit as it improves the average frame rate in open scenes from 25-40 to 50-60fps. But considering that this game is not a first-person shooter, even it though provides for a similar playing style, you don’t have to achieve the 60fps mark desired for the FPS genre. Practice suggests that you can shoot normally even at 30-40fps unless you are trying to shoot off mutants’ heads from a distance without using the V.A.T.S.

As for image quality provided by the different levels of detail, the Low profile cannot be recommended for practical play because it uses a simplified lighting model without HDR effects and has low-detail textures as can be easily seen even in closed environments. The drawbacks are especially conspicuous in open scenes, particularly in the Wasteland. Distant landscapes lose their details, transforming into a series of bleak and uniform hills.

The Medium profile looks better, differing from the more resource-consuming profiles with minor simplifications in the lighting model and the lack of antialiasing, which has a negative effect on the reproduction of micro-geometrical objects such as power rigs, trees, etc.

The High profile is almost the same as the Ultra one, especially in closed environments. Most of the differences concern such shaders as water surface. It is hard to spot them with a naked eye due to the dynamic nature of such special effects. In open scenes you can note a difference in the distance of reproduction of some objects such as grass, bushes, stones, etc. There is no such difference in closed scenes.

Considering our data about the instantaneous, average and bottom speed, we think there is no real use for the Medium and, especially, Low profile because switching into them doesn’t lead to a significant growth of performance and playing comfort. The game is optimized well, and we guess the High profile seems to be the most optimal one. It differs but slightly from the Ultra profile visually while the difference in speed can be considerable. If you’ve got a graphics card of a lower class than ATI Radeon HD 4850/4830 or Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+/GT, you may also want to turn full-screen antialiasing off. This will worsen the reproduction of micro-geometry but won’t spoil the overall impression from the game much. 

Conclusion

The game is an indubitable success. This is testified by positive reports from old fans of the series who had been used to the isometric view of Fallout and Fallout 2. Negative reports are just as numerous, yet some people are just never content with novelties and argue hotly against any digression from the established canon. It is virtually impossible to find flaws in the visual aspect of the game. We guess the developers have rendered authentically all the realities of the post-nuclear world as far as it was possible. The black humor and allusions to famous sci-fi writers such as Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick and to popular movies like The Matrix match the spirit of the first two installments of the Fallout series and make the game even more fun to play. The first-person view can be considered as both an advantage and a drawback (by the orthodox fans) but you can switch it into third-person view at any time. Ordinary shooting has a good alternative in the form of the turn-based mode V.A.T.S.

 

The ambitious project from Bethesda Softworks is not without flaws, of course. The most notable downside is the short and not very logical plot. However, the player is not forced just to follow the plot. The surroundings and ruins of the former Washington are vast and variegated (save for the uniform subway tunnels, perhaps) and you can spend hours investigating them, especially as there is a chance of getting original and interesting quests in some locations.

 

The low limit of the character’s development – 20 levels only – may be disappointing, too. As for the relative ease of leveling-up, the illogical behavior of the AI and your inability to kill children, these things may be corrected by Bethesda’s add-ons or by the gaming community who is going to get the official editor G.E.C.K. in this month.

The game is optimized well for graphics hardware and can run fast at a high level of detail even on mainstream graphics cards such as ATI Radeon HD 4830 or Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT. ATI’s solutions are mostly the better choice for playing it, yet Nvidia’s cards provide the same level of comfort as a rule.

Fallout 3 is technically a successor to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, so we are going to replace the latter with it in our future reviews of graphics cards.