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.
More pointedly, once the player has uncovered or visited a worthwhile area of interest, that area is then added to the world map and can be revisited in an instant in order to cut down travel time; but, between discoveries, the player must rely on their trusty shoe leather to get them from point-A to point-B. Granted, trekking across the map to reach an unvisited area of note can take a considerable amount of time, yet there's usually a fair smattering of battles to enjoy along the way and also the possibility of discovering and exploring a completely new area in the process - which may cut down on time later in the game.
While Fallout 3 generally resists the temptation to lead the player by the hand as they emerge blinking beyond the artificial lights of Vault 101, it does provide a helpful inertial shove towards the town of Megaton, which is a ramshackle walled settlement constructed entirely from derelict airplane parts. Here the player is able to find their feet, build a relationship with the locals (or shoot them all), get to grips with the new-world currency of bottle caps, take on some menial tasks, and purchase/steal a few supplies before heading back into the wasteland.
When it comes to NPC conversations, there is plenty of trivial and/or important information to be wrangled from the good folk of Megaton (or Rivet City or Slavers Paradise or the Underworld), and everyone with a name is worth talking to. But, even early on in proceedings, the weight and influence of the player's progressive decision making can result in them earning or losing vital Karma (good or evil, light or dark, etc) value and rendering a massive impact on the entire game world.
For example, Megaton is so named due to it being built around an unexploded bomb left over from the war - which some of the locals worship through the creepy Children of the Atom cult. Barely through the town's gates and the player is approached by a mysterious man (clearly bearing a grudge) who asks if they'd be willing to plant a remote detonation device on the bomb in return for a grand reward.
The real devilish twist to this initial characterisation dilemma is that, while the player can freely refuse, should they plant the device (thereby sentencing the entire town to a fiery atomic death), the bomb will not explode until the player travels to inform the mysterious man at a specified location. This enables players to steer clear of that meeting, complete Megaton tasks and return frequently to purchase supplies if they so wish. And, when the town has outlived its usefulness... well, you can guess the rest.
Spoiler Alert: If you're feeling particularly callous, then plant the device, buy a few bits and pieces from the supply store, and head straight to the rendezvous, at which point you'll be granted the 'honour' of activating the detonation along while enjoying a glorious view of the resulting mushroom cloud. What's more, your despicably murderous act also secures a permanent penthouse suite in a high-class hotel tower, which can be personalised and also allows for item storage and any-time weapon creation via its included workbench. And, beyond the swift securing of a swanky abode, unsurprisingly bitter, gun-toting Megaton refugees are subsequently added to the wasteland's population.
One of Fallout 3's major facets is the V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) battle component, which pauses the game and allows the player to specify where on a target they'd like to focus their resulting firepower when action is resumed. Governed by body part or weapon-strike percentages and fuelled by a self-restoring meter, V.A.T.S initially feels like a gimmicky and highly unreliable first-person support mechanism that's making excuses for otherwise twitchy standard FPS gunplay.
However, it gradually grows to become a highly effective mode of attack as progressively more damaging and accurate weaponry is brought into play and level-up points are assigned to boost the system's overall efficiency. Indeed, FPS purists be warned: trying to take on some of Fallout's more challenging beasties without the assistance of V.A.T.S. to cripple legs and shoot out weaponry will only reveal your feeble vulnerability in a world awash with radiation where humans are no longer the dominant species.
The unmitigated devastation of Fallout 3's world means that Bethesda was never going to equal the lush and rich world it conjured up in Oblivion. In fact, many gamers may find Fallout 3's almost complete lack of colour to be somewhat depressing; but then rolling hills, grazing sheep and crystal waters weren't ever going to convey a once mighty city hauled to its knees by nuclear strikes. That being said, Bethesda still manages to surpass Oblivion's glorious visuals by offsetting colour with astounding levels of detail and a relentlessly desperate exterior that rolls beneath the player's feet without ever pausing to load. To be honest, there are a dozen regular games packed into Fallout 3, yet it never overtly beats its own chest or attempts to be unnecessarily flashy. Both indoor and outdoor, its foreboding atmosphere is beautifully weighted while environments are positively dripping with developmental love and attention. Clichéd as it sounds, the singular truth with Fallout 3 is that seeing really is believing.
Throw in superb NPC voice acting that rarely misses the correct tone in order to intensify situations while pushing the narrative incrementally closer to its climax, and it really is difficult to find fault with the game's overall presentation. Even Bethesda's decision to deliver an experience short on orchestrated accompaniment works perfectly, as it allows a silent world almost devoid of mankind's artificial sounds to heap yet more tension on the player's shoulders through creaking buildings, whistling winds and the lonely repetition of footfalls on parched ground.
Of course, graphics and sound aside, the deciding factor of any videogame is its gameplay and, from that perspective, hardened RPG fans or genre virgins can rest assured that Bethesda has crafted a dream entry to the Fallout series that openly embraces everyone. While expansive exploration makes up a great deal of the core game, enjoyable battles against wasteland creatures, human Raiders, automated defence robots, Super Mutants, Feral Ghouls, and the heavily armoured Brotherhood of Steel make for guaranteed challenge and excitement.
Note: the game carries an 'M for Mature' ('18') rating and its violent clashes are punctuated by a savage level of slow-motion impact gore and dismemberment that some may find unsavoury.
Saving can be done at any point in the game, which is a huge plus as long as players actually remember to do so - there's nothing more frustrating than traipsing across the map to a new area only to run into a new foe and have your ass dished before bringing up the save option. Also, players are not physically restricted to carrying a small amount of weapons and items, with the Pip-Boy 3000 providing instant access to virtually anything collected across the game, which includes a weighty portable armoury that would shatter the spine of any normal human being. With RPGs thriving best on inspiring creativity, Fallout 3 includes hard-to-find workbenches that enable players to utilise acquired schematics to construct unique weaponry that will provide a valuable edge when in combat (see, the guilt of obliterating Megaton does have its advantages).
In terms of isolating points of detraction beyond personal tolerance for exploding bodies and a superhuman capacity for carrying heavy equipment, there are a few other things worth noting. Specifically, players will need to be patient as they hone the V.A.T.S. system, and there's a degree of disappointment connected to the clunky optional third-person view. Also, the Xbox 360 occasionally groans under the sheer weight of processing (even freezing on occasion), A.I. opponents tend to blindly rush forward too often, and the odd floating gun or body part may raise an eyebrow. However, any minor quibbles that budding adventurers encounter fade into insignificance when faced with a hulking beast of a game that offers more high-quality content than most software releases can dream of - it's difficult to know how Bethesda managed to pack it all onto a single disc.
Quantifying the merits of a videogame during the reviewing process is generally a case of identifying its genre placement and assessing whether it measures up to, or perhaps even surpasses, integral related and/or established yardsticks of quality. However, every now and again a game comes along that absolutely refuses to be tied down by preconceived notions of what it should or shouldn't be, instead rising mightily above the gamut of gaming mediocrity and unashamedly embarrassing other, supposedly top-tier titles in the process.
In that sense, Bethesda's apocalyptical Fallout 3 belies its own jaw-dropping desolation by delivering a near-faultless action RPG that manages to not only execute compelling first-person gameplay but also provides an influential and in-depth character evolution system that's supported by an intriguing storyline and a mind-boggling game world that screams "Game of the Year" at every turn.