Some technical flaws mar what is otherwise a great RPG
No matter how much you like or dislike Bethesda's games, one thing that you can't say about them is that they don't try. Their huge, open-ended role-playing games are incredibly ambitious affairs that offer mind-boggling amounts of content along with gorgeous visuals. Fallout 3 is no exception to the rule. It is perhaps the most ambitious Bethesda game to date. It incorporates the major elements of other Bethesda games and then attempts to roll all of those elements into the Fallout setting. It has a lot of great ideas and it takes a lot of chances, and the game is the better for it. At the same time, it addresses the problems with Oblivion, making exploration and character interaction a lot more fun. It is as good as any role-playing game of the past few years. It would be tops, were it not for the overwhelming technical problems that shipped with the PC version and still persist to this day.
One of the keys to enjoying Fallout 3 is to view it less as a sequel to the first two games, and instead view it as a pretty good post-apocalyptic RPG that stands on its own. Another key to enjoying the game is to be prepared to spend hours tweaking your computer to get this game to actually play. Fallout 3 might be the most technically unsound game ever made. This is an incredibly hard game to get to run properly. If the game isn't crashing to desktop because it doesn't like being in full-screen mode, it is slowing to a crawl because it has some conflict with a video codec that you have installed. It took me hours of experimenting to finally enjoy the game. First, I had to troubleshoot why the game was running so slow. After hours of surfing the official forums, I found that it was due to a conflict with a video codec. Via the forums, I found a tool that allowed me to turn that codec off. This problem still hasn't been fixed via patching. After I fixed that problem, I developed a problem where the game would crash whenever I left the game's first area. I fixed that one by running in windowed mode. Then the game would periodically crash because of problems with the in-game radio. I played with audio codecs for a while, but nothing fixed the problem. The game also always froze up upon exiting to desktop. This is another problem that was never patched. If this paragraph has been boring or annoying to read, then that gives you a small feel for how irritating this game can be on the PC. Despite the sharper graphics and better controls offered by the platform, you might want to consider playing this game on a console instead.
Technical problems aside, Fallout 3 is a quality open-ended role-playing game. The world is huge and there are hundreds of areas waiting to be discovered. You could easily spend over 80 hours completing everything that there is to do in the world. In typical Bethesda fashion, quantity sometimes comes at the expense of quantity. This problem isn't as bad as it was in Oblivion, but it is still there. The writing, for example, is very mixed in quality. Some of it is good, and some of it is lousy and amateurish.
Like all Bethesda games, Fallout 3 immediately grabs your attention with beautiful graphics. It looks technologically advanced and very sound. Texture quality is excellent. Lighting and shadows seem very realistic, and so do the NPCs' faces (a huge upgrade from Elder Scrolls IV). The frame rate is good on a rig that exceeds the minimum requirements. At the same time, the game is very stylish, sporting a look that has never been seen before, except for in the previous Fallout games. The gray and brown-heavy color palette is kind of drab, and the indoor environments get repetitive after a while, but the sheer amount of little objects that you find in the game is astounding. Everything from the stimulants that you take to guns that you find has a highly detailed model. The weapon models bear an extra mention – they look as good as the weapon models in any first person shooter to date. The outdoor areas are often breathtaking. Fallout 3 depicts a bombed-out, devastated, desolate, futuristic Washington DC with an effectiveness that is awe-inspiring. The horizon is always littered with the remains of big buildings and famous landmarks. Wandering the wasteland is made fun just by seeing what will pop up next on the horizon, be it the Washington Monument or huge crumbling factory.
There was no shortage of controversy about Fallout 3 before it came out, thanks to the switch from tactical turn-based gameplay into the 1st/3rd person action style. A lot of what defined the old games was lost in the transition but that doesn't mean that Fallout 3 doesn't excel in its own ways. This is why you ability to enjoy this game will depend largely upon your ability to forget about this transition. Fallout 3 does a lot of things right. It is an incredibly ambitious RPG that combines good exploration with competent combat, tons of dialog, a great role playing system, and dozens of interesting quests. The visuals benefit from the artistic vision that was successfully carried over from the first two games. The "Ozzie and Harriet meets Mad Max" theme that defines this series is implemented with a comic book style to near perfection. All of the high tech equipment in the game looks as if it was directly pulled from "Lost in Space" or some other cheesy old sci-fi program. The iconic Pip-Boy returns here with dozens of amusing drawings that depict all aspects of the role-playing system. The game's main radio station plays an excellent mixture of Big Band music, mixed in with some radio dramas and DJ commentary.
The radio and the voice acting provide a good audio presentation, although the weapon sounds are terrible. All of the guns make some kind of weak "pop" or "pew". Even huge and powerful death machines like the mini-gun don't sound intimidating. The game's ambient music is also awful. Instead of a unique techno score like Fallout 1 and 2, Fallout 3 has a generic and forgettable fantasy soundtrack that keeps the game from developing the same atmosphere. It is one area in which the developers dropped the ball badly.
The quests are probably the best parts of the game. With a few exceptions, the boring fetch and collection quests that typically plague action-RPGs are gone. In their place are some very interesting tasks that often provide you with meaningful choices. They frequently reveal more depth than they show up front and take you to multiple locations. Most quests have some kind of peaceful solution, be it diplomacy, lying, or bribing. A lot of them give you some kind of good or evil choice. Some of these choices have memorable consequences. For example, if you take the "good" option on a quest early in the game, you will draw the attention of a really nasty, powerful gangster who will repeatedly send assassins after you until you kill him. If the game's quests have any problem, it's that they sometimes drag on too long and they usually require some kind of lengthy dungeon crawl to get to your final goal. In general, the games "dungeons" – i.e. the indoor and underground areas, get repetitive and tend to overstay their welcome. It's a problem, but not a big one.
If you like for your RPGs to have meaningful role-playing and dialog choices, then you should be pleased by what Fallout 3 has to offer. Each level gained gives you access to more skill points and a huge selection of useful perks. The balance between combat and non-combat skills is excellent. Putting skill points into speech affects dialog tremendously and can make your life a lot easier. The level scaling that spoiled Oblivion has been toned down, making your levels gained a lot more significant.
No matter how you shape your character, combat is a major part of the experience. Fallout 3 takes its biggest risks in this department. In order to placate both the old and new fans of the series, the game presents a hybrid FPS/turn-based combat system that excels at nothing but is at least competent. During combat, you can stop time and use up action points to take aimed shots at enemies. If you are out of action points or you just don't want to use the turn-based system, you shoot at enemies in real-time. The turn-based portion is pretty mindless and doesn't add much to the game. You just click on an enemies' heads until you run out of action points. The FPS action works, but like you would expect, it is not as enjoyable as the combat in a pure shooter. The combat at least does a good job of integrating your role-playing stats into the outcome so that your choices of weapons and skills matter. It fits the game adequately, but it gets tiresome after 30-40 hours of gameplay
Fallout 3 has a lot to offer you if you are hungry for a dialog and combat heavy RPG. It has a great setting that doesn't quite capture the atmosphere of Fallout 1 and 2, but is a great change of scenery from the glut of fantasy-based RPGs on the market. If you can tolerate or solve all of the technical problems that it will have on your system, then you will get a lot of enjoyment out of it. This game tries to accomplish a lot, and even though it's not perfect, it succeeds far more often than it fails. Even if you are skeptical about Bethesda's ability to provide a quality Fallout experience, you should give Fallout 3 a try and judge it on its own merits.