No Shadows? Really?

The Fallout series is part of my pile of shame, excluding the (thus far) newest installment Fallout 3, and that undeniably questions my credibility as a gamer. It feels like everyone but me has played the first two Fallouts and everyone has a tale to tell about stealing kids, grotesque chain reactions, Dogmeat and so on.

Then again, what really boggles my mind is the shadowing in Fallout 3, or the lack of it. The only real-time shadows in the whole game are the ones cast by the characters, which was unacceptable even in 2008 the game was released. And not to mention there were such games as Crysis and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare been released a year earlier with full real-time cast shadows.

Another lighting related problem with Fallout 3 was the one that obviously stemmed from, once again, the dynamic time-of-day –lighting. It disabled the possibility for baked (non-real-time) shadows as well, so in terms of the shadows, Fallout 3 should almost be counted as a retro-game. Interestingly there is a mod that adds ambient occlusion shadows into the Fallout 3 but not basic cast shadows.

One can only speculate the reasons why Bethesda Softworks ended up with such a solution with Fallout 3, so let’s speculate.

I believe the open-world played a huge part when designing the Fallout 3 lighting solution. Obviously there’re still big problems involved when lighting massive areas with real-time shadows, one of the biggest being the absence of area shadows. And perhaps the developer simply aimed more resources towards the actual content of the game, which there are plenty of, than the technology itself. Something like decently performing real-time shadows can drain any studio’s resources in a minute, so perhaps it was about resource management from the get-go.

All in all, at the moment, the shadow-systems can be pretty unstable when applying them to unrestricted open-world environments, let alone when the lighting is a dynamic time-of-day -one. Although Crysis pulled it off pretty nicely but it was, and still is, a PC exclusive and heavy on the hardware, while Fallout 3 was a multiplatform title. On the other hand, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a multiplatform title and it has dynamic time-of-day lighting, of which shadows, however, perform in some conditions rather poorly (I bet the situation is even worse on the consoles). AC 2 has some tricks up its sleeve though, to which I come back later.

So, is Fallout 3 ugly game then? No. There’s so much going on in the geometry (even if a bit repetitive and procedural), textures, atmosphere, and architecture that the lack of shadows can be somewhat ignored.

And it’s a decent game.