A lot of potential, but ultimately flawed
Fallout 3 is a strange game. On the one hand it's one of the most open and expansive videogame experiences to come along in a long time, but on the other hand it's marred by a myriad of niggling issues that ultimately lead to it not living up to Bethesda's grandiose vision.
The Fallout series is one of the most beloved in all of modern video games. It's mix of traditional RPG trappings and darkly humorous subject matter meant that when Bethesda took over the reigns, people started to become a little concerned. Bethesda have been known in the past mainly for the Elder Scrolls series, some of the most serious and hardcore games on the market. The main trepidation that the gaming public had was that Bethesda would simply turn Fallout 3 into "Oblivion with guns." Well....they pretty much have. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.
The story of Fallout 3 begins with you characters birth inside Vault 101. You see, some 200 years before this the world was thrown into a nuclear holocaust sometime after WWII. Most of the Earth's population was decimated, but some were able to survive by hiding in specially made underground vaults. "No one ever enters, and no one ever leaves," this is what you are lead to believe as you grow up inside the relatively safe walls of you steel home. The opening portion of the game acts as both a tutorial and a character creation process, letting you decide what skills and abilities your avatar will use when you inevitably step outside into the vast Capital Wasteland. Your time inside the vault is cut short when your Father (voiced by Liam Neeson) suddenly and inexplicably ventures outside, forcing you to follow and hopefully track him down.
As your eyes adjust to the blazing sun, you begin to realise how immense the world of Fallout 3 really is. Thanks to an impressive draw distance, you can see the ruined remnants of the Capitol building and Washington Monument miles away in the distance. There is a true sense of isolation at work here and that sensation is only heightened when you take a glance at you in game map. This game could take a while!
Bethesda should really be congratulated for crafting such an unflinching vision of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. They don't call it a wasteland for nothing, the sea of browns and greys is only occasionally broken up by pockets of civilization like the town of Megaton, built around a still active nuclear warhead, or Rivet City, a converted Aircraft Carrier. The feeling of despair and hopelessness is one of the best parts of Fallout 3.
Although the game takes place from a first person perspective, it does not play like a traditional first person shooter. Being an RPG, every bullet or punch is still governed by skill checks and behind the scenes "dice rolls." What this means in practical terms is that you might be standing 3 feet away from a Super Mutant and unload a clip into his face, but only hit with half of the bullets. This sounds horrible on paper but once you get used to it, it lends a sense of strategy to preceding and gives all the different weapon and armour types specific uses. In what might have been an attempt to hearken back to previous Fallout games, Bethesda has created the VATS system. By pressing a button the game freezes and zooms in on your closest enemy. From there you can highlight different body parts and queue up attacks which are then played out in slow motion, with body parts flying and bullet casings spiralling into the air. This is a good alternative to the pseudo - FPS action, as it gives the you a distinct advantage over your opponents. Besides, seeing a feral dogs head explode really never gets old!
Combat isn't the only option in F3. Most quests have multiple ways to complete them. For example, early on in the town of Megaton you meet a woman who is writing a Wasteland Survival Guide. She recruits you to go out to a nearby deserted supermarket and bring her back food and medicine. Now, you could go to the supermarket and do as she asks or you could simply wait around for a day, go back to her and lie, telling her that the market was empty. Either way you get the reward. Another option would be to pull out your gun and kill her and then just loot her corpse for you reward.
All of these choices play into the karma system, doing good deeds and helping others nets you good karma, while plundering and pillaging the innocent will obviously net you bad karma. Different quest lines open up depending on you moral alignment and some characters won't even bother to talk to you unless you're good or evil. While this system lends some gravity to the choices you make in the world, it's also somewhat rudimentary, with either the saintly option or the devil option. A middle-ground and some shades of gray would have made for a much better experience.
The graphics on show in Fallout 3 are mostly excellent. As i said before the draw distance is amazing and the atmosphere while your wandering through the wasteland is almost unmatched. Adversely, the character models leave a bit to be desired. When engaged in a conversation, the game zooms in on the characters face and the lack of facial expression is pretty jarring. A supposedly bad ass slaver might be telling you to, "fuck off somewhere else, vault-pussy," but their face looks like they're reciting the periodic table.
The voice acting for the most part is pretty weak, you'll here the same voice actors used for different characters countless times as you play the game and what they have to say isn't particularly well-written to begin with. For despots who have had to survive by eating irradiated dog-meat for the last 200 years, the citizens of the Capitol Wastes sound remarkably well-educated.
This brings me to my biggest problem with Fallout 3, the story telling. Bethesda kind of designed themselves into a hole with the way they go about the narrative. The only way that the story progresses is either through one-on-one conversations, or scripted events that take place within the game world. The conversations are usually pretty boring and poorly-voiced and suffer from the old RPG problem of the player having to stare at a list of pre-defined phrases to keep the dialogue moving, this means that when important story material is trying to be explained I was just looking at the bottom of the screen for the next good/evil thing I was going to say. Scripted events in first person games are nothing new, Half-Life did them back in 1998 and at the time it was breakthrough in immersive story telling. Fallout 3 fails this on both a creative and technical level. Several times throughout the main quest key characters meet their demise. The designers presumably wanted me to feel sadness and anguish toward these poor souls untimely death. Instead I was straining to hear what they had to say over the din of the background music or laughing at the shoddy animation that turned what should have been a heartbreaking moment into a hammy amateur drama performance.
As I said at the beginning of this review Fallout 3 is a strange game. It had a lot going for it, a gigantic and enthralling game-world, strong combat and a great atmosphere. Sadly, technical bugs and poor design decisions turned the newest Fallout adventure into an exercise of frustration and grand ideas that were ultimately not the sum of their parts.