The year is 2277, 30 years since the events of Fallout 2, and some 200 years since the world fell to ruin and chaos amid the ravages of nuclear war. The player, raised within the sealed safety of Vault 101 (one of many special underground bunkers designed to preserve and protect communities of human life) has an assured but oppressed future beneath the watching eye of the vault's Overseer is suddenly replaced by one of adventure and peril when their father, a respected scientist, inexplicably breaks from the commune and heads into the Capitol Wastelands beyond. Unwilling to stay behind, the player also strikes toward freedom in a brave bid to follow their father and uncover the potentially terrible truth behind his sudden departure.
The clever in-game Vault-based orientation of Fallout 3 sees the player's default or (heavily) customised character progressing through notable personal events in the company of his/her father (voiced by Liam Neeson). These events familiarise the player with rudimentary features such as how to navigate the world, interact with others, and fire weaponry. They also introduce the all-important Pip-Boy 3000 wrist attachment, which contains the player's weapons, items, aid, and apparel itineraries along with a world and local map, status and attribute displays, mission notes and other important game-related information.
In order to paint a picture of association based upon existing games that Fallout 3 borrows and improves upon, the most obvious example is, of course, Bethesda's own award-winning Oblivion, which offers a similar gaming experience that unfortunately falls flat when it comes to unintuitive and unrewarding combat - an element some may take issue with again in Fallout 3.
Then there's Take-Two's similarly award-winning BioShock, which was rightfully applauded as an FPS spectacular with RPG character and story elements thrown in for good measure. And, finally, rounding out a trio of critically acclaimed big hitters that tread something of a parallel path to Fallout 3, there's BioWare's sci-fi RPG extravaganza Mass Effect.
Now, while Fallout 3 naturally 'feels' like Oblivion in terms of its gameplay structure, narrative possibilities, contributing NPC scope, and the wealth of positive benefits and negative consequences hanging on the player's every decision, what it offers those willing to immerse themselves into its relentless desolation is a game that betters Oblivion and delivers wholeheartedly on the unfulfilled promises of BioShock and Mass Effect.
Case in point, while set in a futuristic Washington D.C. ravaged by the effects of atomic war, Fallout 3 is built on an oddly befitting and somewhat unsettling 1950's design template, which is a core aesthetic element it shares with BioShock. However, while the claustrophobia of BioShock's underwater city remained a largely linear experience from start to finish, Fallout 3 is an expansive bombed-out playground begging to be explored on the one hand, while also providing action balance with the other through masses of tense linear environments.
When judging the relative successes of Mass Effect, the ambitious opening act to BioWare's sci-fi trilogy appeared to offer plenty of RPG exploration. Yet its central narrative was distinctly quest-lite, while most of the planets on its galaxy map were either barren rocks or home to woefully small outposts that amounted to little more than passing gameplay distractions. By comparison, wandering the landscape in Fallout 3 invokes a sense of palpable awe in the player and also creates a consuming desire to discover another mysterious set of ruins, a new enclave alive with wasteland survivors, abandoned towns hiding untold horrors, and to brave the considerable challenges set by downtown Washington.
And, trumping both BioShock and Mass Effect where depth is concerned, Fallout 3 is crammed with detailed character creation and evolution that upgrades at a rewarding crawl and will see players duly anguishing over where to place their scant allocation of points before moving on towards the next as-yet unvisited map site.
And here's where some (shockingly impatient) gamers may strive to find fault with Fallout 3's size and pacing. The game world on offer here is vast, and when the player is first freed from the confines of Vault 101, the landscape spread before them appears to be frighteningly empty of reference points or distant areas of population that attract interest. As with any RPG worth its salt, boldly striking out and navigating through the unknown is key to maintaining appeal, yet that does come with an initial price.