When rating a game, we have to look at many things; technical achievement, fun, story, graphics, sound, art and many other things that I cannot even think of words for.
A game like Fallout 3 is tricky, because there's so much about it that is great, and yet I still have this nagging feeling like something wasn't quite right; that something is missing.
Being the third game in a cult classic franchise (one that started in 1996) Bethesda had its work cut out for it, as they had a lot of people to please as well as trying to capture the attention of newer gamers who aren't familiar with the Fallout world. While they've abandoned a lot of the gameplay elements of the original two games, make no mistake - this is still Fallout. In spirit, anyway.
Bethesda has done a remarkable job of capturing a post nuclear Washington D.C. Everything in the world has so much character and environmental atmosphere, which is extremely impressive considering most of the world consists of destroyed, burnt out buildings. So how do you start your journey? Well the same way everyone does. You are born.
Keeping in mind that Fallout 3 is first and foremost an RPG, it has one of the cleverest introduction/tutorials I've seen in a game. First, you are born and get to decide what you will look like. Then you are introduced to your father (voiced by Liam Neilson) and then it skips ahead to you being a few months old where you choose your specs (Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, Luck etc). Then you go to your tenth Birthday to learn about conversation and… anyway, you get the picture, and I don't want to spoil everything for you. You live in Vault 101, which is one of many vaults all over America that were built for people to survive the nuclear war which took place three hundred years before your time. Long story short, when you are nineteen you have to leave the vault, and let me tell you the first time you see the outside world it is an amazing experience. Not to mention very intimidating when you realise you can go anywhere and aren't quite sure where to start.
Yes, you are free to explore, but this isn't always the best idea, as unlike Oblivion (Bethesda's last game) the enemies do not level up with you. Rather the world is set from the start, and certain areas will have enemies that you simply cannot face until you are strong enough. Early in the game you can often wander somewhere and find that you cannot survive. And that's what this world is all about, survival. When you do begin exploring the world more and seeing the different towns and areas, the world Bethesda has captured will amaze you. Everything has a sense of desperation about it. The wastelands have mutated monsters and raiders running around. The underground areas are overrun with Ghouls (think zombies) while the Downtown is overrun by Super Mutants.
There are all these different factions in the game that you will get to know, and like many RPGs lately, your interactions with them will differ based on your Karma (whether you're a nice guy or a jerk). Conversation - hell, everything in Fallout 3 has a truly incredible list of options. This is all dictated by how you want to play and what abilities you choose as you level up. You can boost your speech and get different conversation options (which sometimes can allow you to completely avoid some fights, or get greater rewards) or you can focus on being a fighter, or of course go the more stealthy route. While the options certainly aren't limitless, they are enormous and definitely offer plenty of room for replayability.
Besides skills, you also get to choose PERKS as you level. PERKS are sort of like buffs that you choose for your characters and can have many useful, pointless or humorous effects.
Humour is a big part of Fallout and it is captured well here. While they world is full of desperation, it also has quite a few interesting characters, all of whom have unusual outlooks on the world, and some funny things to say. Drama, unfortunately does not fare quite as well in Fallout 3. While I enjoyed most of the characters, I never really cared for many of them. Whenever I did have someone join me in combat, I didn't want them to live because I cared about them. I wanted them to live because they were helping me fight and get through the tougher battles. The characters who I had an interest in were mostly minor characters, and therefore didn't have much to do or say.
It is in these moments that the cracks in Fallout 3 start to show, and you begin to realise just how artificial the whole world actually is. It became clear that these characters were just AI reacting to you based on programming, and eventually stopped feeling real. The animation and faces didn't help either. While the voice acting is good (all the sound in the game is good, especially the few radio stations you can tune into along your journey; you'll even sometimes hear them talking about you) and you hear a lot less of the same voices (a major problem in Oblivion) the characters still just looked and behaved very robotic. This was most apparent during larger combat situations, or when you'd have some AI attempt to flee or get scared. It just looked and felt very fake and would often break the immersion, which is a pretty big problem for an RPG.
The genre has really come a long way in the last year or two, and in many ways Fallout 3 still feels stuck back in a more traditional open world RPG. When we are spoilt by games like Mass Effect that are able to keep the action and narrative moving forward without having to stop, it really is a shame when a game as fantastic as Fallout 3 is hurt by having to stop and have everything around you pause whenever you have a conversation. The world ends up feeling less alive and real, and more like the virtual world it really is.
On a more positive note, the stories populating the world are good. There are quite a lot of interesting quests for you to take and randomly discover. I will admit I was disappointed with the ending of the main story. The developers have said that Fallout 3 has the potential for over a million different endings based on how you played. Technically speaking this may be true, but a million images all telling the same story (or two or three different stories) are still the same endings, no matter how different the pictures are.
They are pretty pictures though, as Fallout 3 is a very good looking game. While I don't think it'll be getting any awards for its graphics on the console, the art direction really is something special, and there were only a few times towards the end where I felt like I was going through the same corridors a few too many times. For the most part the different environments are all breathtaking, and there were many times where I just stopped to look around and appreciate the destroyed world around me.
Those wanting to explore the world in extreme detail would still be better off by picking up the PC release however - most gaming aficionados have admired the potential of the Oblivion engine on the PC, and it's clear that the quality has been reduced to allow it to run adequately on the current consoles.
Still, what better way to enjoy the view than in first person? Yes you can switch the camera to third-person but I doubt anyone will really want to play that way. So is Fallout 3 just Oblivion with guns? No, not really. It is close though but there is one specific thing that separated it and that is V.A.T.S. This allows you to pause the game and target various enemies and different body parts. Attached to each body part is a percentage of how likely you are to get a hit, and once you've made your decision you un-pause the game and watch it all play out from cinematic camera angles. This can often end in a gory mess, and enemies heads can come off, which you will either find disturbing (it's very over the top) or funny as hell. This is not a cheat system though, as you have a limited number of "action points" to use whenever you activate V.A.T.S., and they take a few seconds to recharge.
There is so much more I could talk about in Fallout 3, but that defeats the purpose. This game is all about exploring, and so it's best if I say as little as possible and allow you to go and enjoy it for yourself. Fallout 3 is definitely not a shooter, although many might make that mistake by looking at it. It is, however, a very impressive open world RPG. Bethesda have taken everything that was good about Oblivion and improved on it in many ways. It's always promising to see a developer improve with each game (especially when the quality of each game is so high to begin with) and I cannot wait to see what they manage to pull off next.
I just hope they figure out a way to remove some of the artificial from the intelligence in their world.