Sure, the earth's surface is in ruins and reeking radiation, but with the comforts of a rusted lawn chair and a cold Nuka-Cola everything can be a-okay. The straggling remnants of Earth's population suffer from mutation and disfigurement, but they are not altogether demoralized. Promises of a beaming, domestically ideal tomorrow continue to haunt the derelict landscape. Pre-war images of groomed, salaried family men and clean, quaint neighborhoods feel terribly displaced amidst the radioactive tundra, but are still promoted as if they were every person's due. Inhabitants of this reality have their own priorities and motivations, but the over-arching atmosphere implies that "After the next Super Mutant raid you should tidy up the kitchen."
The world, writing, and characters shine and do justice to the game's namesake. It may not be exactly like the post-nuclear RPG you grew up with, but it's not the end of the world.
The Fallout franchise has had a turbulent history. The original games, developed by Interplay's acclaimed Black Isle Studios, took inspiration from Electronic Arts' Wasteland. The dedicated cult following they garnered watched in dismay as budget cuts forced Black Isle to close its doors in 2003, thus terminating Interplay's third installment. The future was uncertain, and when it was announced that Bethesda Softworks had bought the rights to the series many of its fans weren't sure whether they should cheer or swear in frustration. In some cases, even a month after Bethesda's Fallout 3 was released, the appropriate response for old-school fans is still uncertain.
The game's main character is introduced as a resident of Vault 101, one of over a hundred subterranean compounds created to protect mankind in the event of a large-scale nuclear attack. After starting a new game, you'll spend the first hour or so playing through a montage of the main character's childhood and teen years which doubles as a fairly inventive character creation system. Starting from birth, important events from the character's first seventeen years in the vault are highlighted as playable scenes which determine stats, skills, and appearance; it is a prologue that feels organic and just manages to stay interesting until the story kicks into top-gear. When you learn that your character's father has managed to escape the vault, something believed to be impossible by its inhabitants, you decide to follow suit. Thrust into a stark, unfamiliar wasteland, the adventure begins.
After escaping the vault players are subject to a jarring first taste of sunlight, which eventually relents to reveal a sprawling Capitol Wasteland. These scarred badlands, while beautiful in their own right, come to make up one of only several different types of environments in Fallout 3. Even though there are times when a change of scenery might be welcome, this monotony is usually overshadowed by a cast of rich, interesting characters and sub-plots. There is a good sense of personality to the non-playable characters, backed by a script that would make past Fallout games proud. With solid voice acting and some seriously twisted choices, wandering the dialogue paths will provide some of the game's greatest moments.
If there's one thing that gives credibility to Bethesda's vision of Fallout, it's an oppressive atmosphere with humor and a persistent charm, a staple of the series that was perfectly recaptured. Where gameplay is concerned, though, longtime fans may find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The fixed, isometric viewpoint has been replaced by an adjustable first or third-person camera. Pulling too far back will reveal a running animation that is horribly out of sync with the character's actual movement, but taking a view from the waist up works well.
The introduction of real-time combat was a concern for many people, and while I still prefer the strictly turn-based system of previous games, it's tough to hold a grudge against mechanics that are a natural evolution appropriate for today's market. The shooter-like elements make Fallout accessible to a new generation of players and the Vault Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S., should be an acceptable substitute for the rest of us. V.A.T.S. brings back the idea of action points, and pauses the game upon activation, allowing you to queue attacks for more strategic combat. Using the targeting system will help conserve ammo and will treat you to some laughably gory giblet explosions; tearing through a gang of raiders is completely satisfying.
Fortunately, Bethesda has handled Fallout's S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system with care. As far as advancing your character, this game stays grounded in its RPG roots. Stat points can be distributed between Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. Traits have been done away with, and perks are now available at every level. Perks are fun, imaginative, and particularly useful bonuses that will help to distinguish one character from another. In the end, a melee character will play nothing like a character that uses energy weapons, and a character with high lockpicking will have access to things that one focusing on hacking computers might not come across. Specialization pays off, and while many different character builds are viable, they will all have their own unique advantages.
The main quest will have you slogging through sewers, assaulting historical buildings, and even bullying kids at the whim of a demented little girl. It's interesting while it lasts, which might only be a couple sittings. The game shines, however, when the player chooses to wander off the beaten path. A vast majority of the content is optional, and hunting down all of the side-quests will reveal the most interesting characters and plot points.
In all, it will take about 80 hours to see everything that the game has to offer. This feels like a lot of content, especially considering that a lot of Fallout 3's competition comes from relatively short action games. Stumbling upon an area prematurely can have unintended repercussions, though, as it's possible to skip over significant chunks of the main story by talking to the wrong character at the wrong time. Despite all of the meat on Fallout 3's bones, many locations ultimately go unused by the game's quests and it feels like they could have comfortably packed more tasks into the same physical space.
All things said, this is Oblivion's Gamebryo engine to the bone. If you've played the latest Elder Scrolls game you won't feel far from home with Fallout 3's interface. The term "Oblivion with guns" is often an accusation, but elements from each series have been interwoven with care and the result surpassed my cautious expectations. The traits that made past Fallout games so special are all here and have never been more interesting. The world, writing, and characters shine and do justice to the game's namesake. It may not be exactly like the post-nuclear RPG you grew up with, but it's not the end of the world.