Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Gaming pedigree and precedent rarely gets much better than this. Nobody makes an open-world RPG quite like Bethesda- and nowhere presents a richer setting for a tragic postapocalypic tale than the venerable Fallout universe. On the face of things, one might expect Fallout 3 to be an absolute corker... and thankfully, you'd be right on the money. I'm delighted to report that this is a very special little game indeed.
In fact, the term little doesn't really do Fallout 3 justice. At all. Starting out at the very moment of your birth (yes, that's exactly how it sounds), you'll live out your formative years entombed within the steely confines of Vault 101; building your character through an immersive series of life-changing events. Helped along the way by your caring yet enigmatic father (voiced impeccably by Liam Neeson, no less), you'll eventually escape the claustrophobic depths and emerge squinting into one of the biggest and most detailed game settings to date. The choice of how to proceed- as they say- is yours.
The Capitol Wasteland presents one of the most dynamic and detailed overworlds in recent memory. Set in the gutted remains of Washington DC and its outlying suburbs, it's a bleak and uncompromising canvas for some impressively freeform adventuring. Apart from an expansive story that'll take you around 12 hours to complete, there are several sprawling towns, cities, 'abandoned' buildings and dangerous ruins to explore- each providing copious opportunities for sidequests and non-linear choices. Dangerous Supermutants need killing. A cynical sentient tree demands a favour. An old woman craves a new violin. And failing that, you can simply pick a random direction and just set out into the unknown. The Capitol Wasteland plays host to a selection of random encounters (including wild animals, roving traders and even a bizarre raider initiation ceremony) that ensures a perfect balance between massive scale and consistent thrills. Put simply, you're spoiled for choice.
There's that word again. Choice. I've used it a few times already- and we tend to bandy this phrase around in game reviews along with its ugly sisters:linear and cinematic. The true joy of Fallout 3 is that it provides the player with an astounding amount of gameplay options; the likes of which we simply haven't witnessed since the glorious Deus Ex days.
Gunslingers and brawlers can batter their way through enemies, sneaky assassins can quietly slip through the shadows, science specialists can hack their way to victory and smooth talking diplomats can blag their way out of (or into) just about anything. Every given situation presents myriad ways of completing, circumventing or just plain ignoring your objective- and we haven't even got to the morality mechanics yet.
Fallout 3 uses a scaled morality system that dictates how the wasteland denizens view you- and almost every decision (both major and minor) provides you with multiple ways of being good, neutral, mischievous or very very bad. Good Samaritans will save innocent civilians, unite families and generally skip around with sunbeams blasting out of their proverbial... but the sandbox mechanics provide you with the framework and opportunity to become a complete and utter bastard. Forget the limpwristed stylings of Overlord; because within a few hours of starting my second playthrough (where I was actively attempting to be the most flagrant douchebag possible) I had killed a grandmother with a chainsaw for pocket money, sold children into slavery, crushed the dreams of a wannabe author and blown up an entire town for fun and profit. Short of killing children, there's literally nothing too depraved to try out. This is yet another example of the gargantuan amount of choice that Fallout 3 brings to the table. You'll need several playthroughs and a huge time commitment to even scratch the surface.
But with with all the options that Bethesda has provided us with, your character will need to enter battle sooner or later. Combat in Fallout 3 resembles a solid if unremarkable FPS; with a selection of guns, rockets, nuke-launching catapults, close combat weapons and gadgets to play with. It's capable enough, but Fallout 3 has a nifty little trick up its sleeve. A quick flick of the right bumper activate VATS mode, which essentially stops time and allows you to target specific portions of individual enemies. Using your character's stats to determine whether a shot or hit lands, you'll watch the proceedings unfold in slow motion... and your foes explode into satisfying chunky kibbles. VATS provides the perfect way to shoehorn traditional RPG mechanics into a shooter- and simply doesn't get old.
So what's the catch? There has to be a tradeoff for all this non-linear exploration... and unfortunately Fallout 3 isn't the exception that proves the rule. Following in the footsteps of Oblivion and Morrowind, Fallout 3 is host to a wide variety of technical issues that occasionally sneak out of hiding to completely ruin your afternoon. Getting stuck in scenery, encountering missing characters/triggers and experiencing full-on gamekilling crashes doesn't necessarily happen that often; but considering that you'll be playing it for dozens of hours, you will run in to a few. My advice would be to adopt a strict saving regimen or turn the technical issues into a fun metagame. 10 points for a crash, 5 for a bugged-out character, 2 for a scenery glitch and 20 for a corrupted save file. Let us know your high score in the comments!
The only other major flaw is that of arbitrary restrictions imposed by an extremely low level cap and endgame sequence. Unless you breeze through the story without touching the sidequests, you'll hit your level cap without experiencing the majority of the content (giving you little reason to continue questing). The endgame is also puzzlingly abrupt; and though there are many ways it can play out, the game simply stops after the credits roll! There's no opportunity to go back to the wasteland and discover what you've missed without starting an entirely new playthrough.
- Hits the sweet spot between accessible, deep and insanely addictive
- VATS might as well stand for Very Awesome Trick Shots
- Perfect balance between expansive and consistently exciting
- Frequent glitches, bugs and crashes demand fastidious saving practises
- Level cap is far too low
- Anticlimactic ending with no return
The Short Version: Fallout 3 isn't perfect... but sometimes, a flawed game demands a perfect score for simply being impossible to put down. Bethesda have once again demonstrated their mastery of the openworld RPG genre by delivering an experience that provides unparalleled depth, replayability and barefaced choice- which will keep gamers coming back for more long after their first playthrough. Technical issues aside, Fallout 3 is a tremendous achievement that deserves your attention, your money... and most importantly, your time.