Moreover, Fallout 3 bears the burden of being a replacement game as well - a replacement for Interplay's canceled third iteration of the series. The cancellation of that Fallout 3 crushed the hopes of many a Fallout fan, including yours truly. Equally as important was the project's resurrection at the hands of Bethesda, best known for its 3D, first-person fantasy RPGs. Losing a third Fallout game was hard enough, but for some, losing the isometric top-down perspective and gaining Bethesda's well-established style was a wicked blow as well - would we see our cherished, ironic, darkly-humorous postapocalyptica ruined, or would Bethesda produce a game that would thrill both newcomers and die-hard fans alike?
It's easy to answer that question now: Bethesda did an amazing job with Fallout 3, and while the game is unquestionably built upon Bethesda's design scheme, it's also a fantastic modernization of the Fallout universe. Almost every aspect of the previous games is retained or provides inspiration for a similar aspect in Fallout 3 - the Wasteland and all of its gritty, weird characters lives and breathes and murders in the most beguiling of ways.
The world of Fallout 3, unlike the west coast setting of the first two games, is set in familiar territory for Bethesda: Bethesda! More accurately, the Capital Wasteland, the ruins of Washingon, DC, and environs. And while the environment reflects an east-coast apocalypse rather than the irradiated deserts of California, the devastation is no less total. Mankind survives, barely, in scattered settlements, underground and downtown ruins, and of course in the infamous Vaults, where many pre-war humans fled to escape the horror of nuclear holocaust.
Bethesda's done a great job of building an environment that looks as if it were destroyed by nuclear war 200 years ago and has endured two centuries of further wear, war, and looting. From the skeletal remains of office buildings to the degrading infrastructure of roads and elevated highways, this is unmistakably a world that was, past tense.
But we've seen that before. We've seen plenty of ruined landscapes in all kinds of games - what Bethesda has done is bring us a ruined landscape that we recognize from our own lives - from the decaying spire of the Washington Monument to the fortification of the Lincoln Memorial, the Capital Wasteland is a place with which we share an eerie familiarity. Populate it with super mutants, radiation-scarred ghouls, slavers, raiders, robots, mutated animal life and the occasional child and you've got a custom-built nightmare that gamers can relate to.
The character advancement system remains largely identical to the other Fallout games: you level up as you gain experience, which you earn through combat and solving quests (many of which can be solved with diplomacy or stealth as well as brute force), and in addition to spreading skill points over your chosen abilities, you'll get a Perk each level. Perks came more sparingly in the earlier games, but frankly it's a blast picking one every level - perks provide special enhancements such as immediate skill bonuses or more curious boons, such as additional dialogue options with children, or becoming resistant to 50% of the damage done to your arms and legs.
Also surviving from the earlier games is the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, Fallout's answer to D&D's character statistics: during character creation you'll allot a limited number of points to your Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck scores.
In fact, character creation is an excellent example of the care with which Bethesda has realized the world of Fallout 3: you begin with birth, selecting your appearance from a machine that projects what you will look like as an adult. Your father, voiced by Liam Neeson, resembles your aesthetic choices. Then, crawling around as a toddler, you'll pick up a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. baby book and select your character's stats. Further choices present themselves and when you're about to leave the Vault and begin your adventure, you'll have the option to review all of your choices as change them as you see fit.
The Vault Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S., takes the place of Fallout's traditionally turn-based combat system. While you can fire your gun or throw a grenade in real-time, you'll be better served by entering V.A.T.S. mode, which pauses the game and allows you to aim for specific body parts. Each shot uses up a certain number of Action Points from a meter in the lower corner of the screen, and you can queue up as many attacks as your AP will allow. Once selected, your queued tactics will be executed in a kind of bullet-time - your enemies keep moving, albeit very slowly, while your character enacts your decisions. You'll be firing or whacking away again in real-time while your AP meter quickly refills, and this pacing does a fantastic job of reproducing the rhythm of turn-based combat without sacrificing real-time action. The downside is that your standard real-time attacks feel weak and inaccurate by comparison. The fatality and critical animations are also outstanding - decapitation by shotgun is a beautiful thing.
Two things that more clearly resemble Oblivion (and thence, the dreaded accusation that Fallout 3 is just 'Oblivion with guns') are the layout of the menu system and the nature of character interaction and other social aspects of the game. As far as the menu layout goes, its resemblance to Oblivion is a good thing: mapped onto the monochromatic display of your Pip Boy 3000 (a durable 'tricorder' mounted on your forearm) is Bethesda's preferred menu layout. Three buttons tab between Stats, Items and Data. Each of these menus has a number of sub menus - if you select Stats, for instance, you can easily tab between your skills, perks, stats and status. This is an example of "good resemblance" - Bethesda has refined a menu system that works well with their games, and they've adapted it perfectly to the Pip Boy conceit.
The character models, while visually more attractive than those uglies who populate the world of Oblivion, are about as wooden as in other Bethesda games - some of the interactions feel stilted and voice acting varies from excellent to childishly bad. Luckily, the dialogue and general storylines are almost always interesting enough to compensate.
That's another important aspect of Fallout 3 - the story is engaging on multiple levels. There's a very personal, human story that's quite compelling, and there's an epic story arc that pulls you along in between bits of personal storytelling: here's a world that can't be saved, but can be improved. How you improve it - or not - is up to you.
A few more things to touch on: the audio is fantastic. Mostly, this results from the radio channels your Pip Boy can receive - and while there aren't as many stations as I'd have hoped for, those that do exist are swell. Not only do you hear routine updates on your own accomplishments as well as advice for upcoming adventures, but you get to kill people to the sounds of Cole Porter and the Andrews Sisters. Blowing off the heads of sexy male raiders while singing along to "Anything Goes" is a distinctly gay gaming experience!
Also, replayability is a surprise find in Fallout, although after playing Morrowind and Oblivion, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. I accidentally completed the main quest, which does end a bit abruptly and which does not let you continue adventuring if you wish; I restarted a save game from much earlier and have been playing along happily ever since, even though I know exactly what's in store for me when I pick up that final quest. That kind of replayability doesn't happen very often.
Lastly, to the charge that Fallout 3 is 'Oblvion with guns,' I'd like to offer some perspective. Fallout 3 shares a lot of design ideals and objectives with Bethesda's other recent games. You could say that it's Oblivion with guns, but you'd probably be missing the point; Oblivion itself was 'Morrowind with better graphics.' As we watch Bethesda evolve and refine a design ethic, we enjoy artists at their best, building their games to best represent their vision.
There are natural expectations that one would have of any artistic team, in the same way that we'd expect a Bioware game to offer, say, black and white moral choices, or expect a turn-based Atlus RPG to feature animated sprites standing on squares. Fallout 3 is Bethesda's best effort, and that effort looks nothing like Interplay's best effort, never mind the decade that's elapsed in between.
What's important here is how excellently the game stands up on its own and how it compares in spirit to its distant predecessors. On that count, Fallout 3 lives up to - and exceeds - expectations.
9 out of 10