Drifting through the scarred, eerily silent wastelands of former DC, it’s a wonder so few games have utilised the post nuclear apocalyptic setting before. Whether you’re wandering aimlessly through the crumbled skeletal remains of the city, exploring one of the many ruined underground metro tunnels, or stumbling through the dank rusted corridors of Rivet City (a settlement built within the resting remains of a former naval warship) Fallout 3 never fails to immerse you fully into the often harrowing, darkly amusing, and constantly animated world of post nuclear life.
The game begins with one of the most intuitive and unique openings to a game I’ve ever played, and it’s one worth keeping secret to fully appreciate its creativity. Suffice to say your character begins his tale within one of the many claustrophobic vaults built before the fictional nuclear war some two hundred years prior. It is here, within Vault 101, that the character creation element is implemented and much like Oblivion, you’re required to choose a name, an appearance, and attribute points to a number of skills brackets thus forming a character reflective of your style of play. In comparison it’s a far simpler process with no emphasis on the traditional class aspect of RPG’s, with a system of perks instead replacing it. Not only do the perks make for a more unique character creation process, they also affect your character in more obvious ways than choosing a class would. One of the best, and equally comical, perks allows a mysterious stranger to join you at random through firefights. Armed with a magnum and a suspiciously mafia-esque demeanor, he’ll execute foes with brutal efficiency and is just one example of dozens of incredibly useful, often brutal, and amusing perks on offer.
Life in the vault doesn’t last as your father (expertly voiced by Liam Neeson) decides to flee and naturally it’s your duty to be born into the Wasteland and begin your quest in finding him. However once the door is open you are free to travel in any direction you wish. Effectively you could ignore the main story altogether and become lost in the huge world saturated with obscure characters, many of which with their own strange quests for you. It was this sense of freedom that crafted Oblivion into one of the most loved RPG’s of its time and the formula works for Fallout too. In fact it has been refined and improved and it is now rare to find yourself traveling for more than a couple of minutes without stumbling upon a potentially hostile camp of one of the games many factions, or the decaying remnants of former buildings and factories. Further differences are born out of the lack of law enforcement in the Wasteland. No guards are to be found patrolling the makeshift settlements; every man with a gun is his own law. With a little thought this freedom allows you to completely destroy the world, if you so wish, or adhere to the rules you and I know as standard. It’s a notion reflective of the good or bad karma your character attributes throughout the campaign. In fact the game even offers you the chance to demolish a smaller settlement as an alternative to helping its inhabitants. However you choose to treat the Wasteland survivors, each location has a story to tell and potentially useful information or quests. Its good to see Bethesda have recognised and improved upon one of Oblivions biggest flaws.
Fallout 3 was born to the soundtrack of improvement and so it’s not only the exploration that has been refined. The VATS combat system completely retunes the way in which you do battle in the game. It’s a method that allows you to pause the combat, provided you have enough action points to do so, and take aim at a number of the differing body parts of your foe. Aiming directly for the head may be the most efficient method in dispatching the games many enemies, but each segment also has an attributed accuracy rating, and of course the smaller the body part the less likely you’ll hit. On paper it sounds like standard RPG turn-taking practice but once you’ve carefully chosen where to shoot, the game adopts a cinematic camera, often following bullets, assailing limbs, and bouncing heads as your character unleashes his fevered wrath. Standard combat becomes sluggish and wasteful, ammunition is often scarce for the powerful weapons, and so the far superior VATS system of combat is predominant throughout, if you wish to survive the harsh realities of the Wasteland.
VATS however, wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without the fantastic array of weaponry littering the DC wastes. Nuclear missile launchers, bottlecap mines, sledgehammers, plasma rifles, flamethrowers, swords, a makeshift device that fires anything from books to lawn mower blades (depending on what you have in your inventory), miniguns, and dozens more obscure but equally awesome weapons are yours for the taking throughout the game. The expansive inventory of weapons helps keep the combat entertaining, and often hilarious, be it with ranged or melee weapons. On a similar note the enemies are also expertly realised with a strong mix of robotic, human, animal, and ghoulish creatures inhabiting the world; the radiation seemingly fashioning some incredibly varied versions of animals and insects we rarely fear.
The Wasteland looks incredible with impressive draw distances and a palette of grey, brown, and black lacing every horizon. Though the character models aren’t going to astound, they’re reasonably varied throughout, and unlike Oblivion each character generally has his or her own unique voice. Similarly the game excels in it’s sound with various radio frequencies – transmitting music and even information regarding missions and interesting points on your map – available at any point on your travels, and all manner of strange-sounding enemies adding to the strong production values. Sadly a number of frustrating bugs also haunt the thirty plus hours of gameplay, predominantly issues with the console freezing during fights. It was a problem marring Oblivion and one that returns to blight the near perfection of Fallout, though not one that warrants discounting the game by any logical means.
There’s so much that could be written in praise of the latest installment in the Fallout series. So different to its predecessors it’s clear why fans of the previous titles may be skeptical of Bethesda’s efforts. Similarly those who found Oblivion to their distaste might discover the game has a little too much in common with the former RPG.
Ultimately though, Fallout 3 builds upon the strengths of Oblivion, and deals with the majority of the weaknesses. It is a brilliantly realised, meticulously crafted, immersive experience pushed further out into the waters of success by it’s unique, animated location and fantastic production values. It would be unfair to refer to it has a refined, futuristic Oblivion because it is so much more than that, but it is easy to see the foundations the previous title helped establish in the Fallout universe. No matter how long you dedicate to the vast expanse of the Wasteland, Fallout 3 is an outstanding game. Quite simply one of the greatest RPG’s ever made.