Shines with the brightness of a nuclear detonation.
Being someone who sadly has not had the opportunity to play either of this game's prestigious predecessors, and neither having known the wonders Cyrodiil within Bethesda's previous game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (although this has now been gladly rectified), I approached Fallout 3 not knowing exactly what to expect, since I had no bar to judge it against. What I discovered was a game packed to the brim with a unique atmosphere, a fantastic sense of scale and grandeur, a solid plot and huge replayability. Whilst there are a couple of problems here and there (mostly some graphical hitches and sound corruption), there is little which majorly spoils this glorious romp through the Wasteland.
To summarise briefly some of Fallout 3's lengthy backstory. The game is set in an alternate history, where sometime during the 1950's, society stagnated, with core social values and ideals remaining relatively consistent for the next hundred years. It envisaged a retro-futurist world; where cars are nuclear powered, the microchip and transistor were not invented, and everything still uses vacuum tubes. Fully-functioning robots are commonplace, Betty says at home to clean the house and cook the meals whilst Bob works in the bank and little Jimmy plays in the yard. Imagine a scene within a typical 1950's comic book such as The Eagle and you will soon get the picture. However, things quickly did not turn out to be the swell, good 'ol times many had hoped for. A combination of wars for natural resources and the constant threat of an invasion from Communist China eventually lead to an all-out nuclear Armageddon occurring on October 23rd, 2077. The world is thrown back to the Stone Age, and most of the Earth's population perishes. Those who remained were either hideously mutated by radiation poisoning, or took refuge in a system of underground fallout shelters, known as vaults, which were constructed to house the citizens of the United States in the event of a nuclear engagement (or so the people living in them believed; the truth was rather different). The previous two games in the series have both been set at earlier times after the Great War, with this third iteration taking place 200 years later, in 2277. You play as a resident of Vault 101, a pre-war fallout shelter located within the ruins of the Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. The player resides in the vault until waking up one day to discover that their Father has left for reasons unknown. From hereon in, it is your task to hunt down your Father, discover the reasons behind his actions, and maybe explore the remains of the Capital Wasteland while you are at it. For the most part the plot is relatively involving, although it suffers the same fate as BioShock by having a lacklustre ending.
The first thing that will hit you upon escaping from the vault is that the Wasteland is huge. Like the Imperial Province of Cyrodiil from The Elder Scrolls IV, most of the map is one vast, sprawling expanse, where you can trek from one side to the other. The area is festooned with crumbling freeways and monorails, collapsing ruins of Pre-War buildings, and the ramshackle settlements which survivors have erected in an attempt to scrape a living. The various districts of the actual city of Washington (such as The Mall or Pennsylvania Avenue) are only accessible via the ruins of the Metro system, because collapsed buildings have blocked most of the old thoroughfares. What's more; all of this is explorable from the very beginning. You can decide to ignore the main campaign and go off on your own, to forge your own way in the wilderness. Whilst there aren't as many listed quests as there are in Oblivion, each of these is a lot more detailed, containing numerous sub-parts to reach the final objective. The Wasteland itself is one of the strengths of the game; it usually being a joy to simply roam around, dealing with whatever you might encounter. It also has a great sense of scale, and whilst there are some discrepancies to real life (e.g. the Mall is much too short) these can be explained away. If I could level some criticisms, it would be that there are areas where there isn't a whole lot to do (just rocks, dead trees and bare earth), and that the general colour palette is quite limited, especially compared to Oblivion. The Wasteland is a sea of grey and brown, and also features no changes in the weather (it never rains, for example). Whilst I can understand the limitations of colour do add to the general atmosphere, it can become rather monotonous.
Gameplay is a mixture of classic RPG and FPS elements. The SPECIAL attribute system makes a return for the series, as do Perks, which have been merged with Traits for simplification purposes. You level up by gaining experience points through killing things, unlocking doors and hacking computers, and at each level you can assign skill points to each of the 13 skills, such as Sneak, Barter, Small Guns, etc. You are also granted one special Perk per level-up, which include various special abilities; for example Mr. Sandman allows you to kill characters silently whilst they are sleeping, or Animal Friend makes most of the Wasteland 'animals' become non-hostile. This mix of styles normally works very well; the major stumbling block is the somewhat restrictive level cap, which tops out at Level 20 (which can be reached relatively quickly). From then on, you never feel like you are actually making any progress in building your character. Travelling around is done exclusively on foot (unsurprisingly, none of the Pre-War automobiles work, although they will still explode very nicely). You can attack enemies in the standard FPS way, but you can also enter VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System), pausing the action momentarily, using a number of Action Points to queue up attacks on the various parts of the enemy's body. These sequences are done through a cinematic camera, and whilst it can sometimes loose sight of what is going on, mostly it gives you a great show as your bullets or melee blows rip off various limbs.
There are a great number of characters with whom you can converse with out in the Wasteland, although this number is heavily down from that featured in Oblivion. However, since there is a larger cast of voice-actors here, each who normally has his or her own minor quest, you will be hard pressed to think of two people who sound exactly the same. Voice-acting is very good across the board, and also includes some foul-mouthed children (which is rather unexpected). A separate carryover concept from Oblivion is the idea of weapons degradation. Whenever you use a weapon, or a weapon is hit by enemy fire, its condition degrades, making it less accurate until eventually it is unusable. You must work to keep everything in good condition by using the repair skill; either by salvaging spare parts from subsequent weapons, or by giving it to vendors to repair for you (at a price). This concept works to make you less gun-hoe about blindly rushing into battle, since you may loose your most prized weapon in the process.
Music is divided into a two-forked approach. The orchestral soundtrack is reasonably good, with the main theme being suitably dramatic, but some of the incidental music is rather uninspiring. However, the music you can listen to on the in-game radio stations is fantastic. Galaxy News Radio has a selection of classic tracks from the 40's and 50's, ala BioShock, such as "Civilization" by Danny Kaye and "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" by The Ink Spots. There is also Enclave Radio, broadcast by the remnants of the US Government, who in-between various jingoistic patriotic speeches by President John Henry Eden also play typical American tunes, such as "Hail Columbia" and "The Star-Spangled Banner". Finally, upon completing a certain mission you can also here a number of classic violin pieces whilst journeying about the Wasteland. It is these in-game songs which add to much of the atmosphere, and occasionally assist the darkly humorous undertones that have always been part of Fallout. Graphically the game is also very impressive, with an excellent draw distance, good character models and some extremely impressive explosions. However, there are some minor issues with both sound and graphics. You will infrequently find misplaced objects which appear to be floating, or enemies that are suddenly thrown a hundred feet into the air. I also suffered some occasional sound corruption with songs on the radio. Also be sure that if you have an ATI graphics card you uninstall Catalyst Control Centre, since this seemed to cause frequent crashes to desktop.
Fallout 3 is the reinvention of the Fallout series. It might take many cues from Oblivion, and it might lack some aspects which made the previous incarnations so enduringly popular, but it takes a successful formula and delivers appropriately. With several downloadable content packs still on their way (one of which is scheduled to expand the main quest past the current ending, as well as raising the current level cap), there is still much to be seen and heard in the retro-futuristic wilderness of the Capital Wasteland.