In the late 21st Century, China and the United States fought a major war over resources in the Pacific Ocean. After the United States won a great victory in Alaska in 2077, it seemed as if the war might be over. Instead, it went nuclear and civilisation was destroyed. The majority of the human race was wiped out, save a few thousand survivors hidden in immense fall-out vaults, and others who somehow evaded the radiation and eked out an existence in the wastelands.
The inhabitants of Vault 101 have lived a peaceful, if somewhat dull, existence sealed away from the outside world, under strict orders that the airlock to the outside world is never to be opened. However, one day nearly two centuries after the apocalypse, one man - your father - flees into the wilderness and you set out after him to find out where he's going, and why.
Fallout 3 is the follow-up to the successful 1997 roleplaying game, Fallout, and its sequel of a year later. However, it has been developed by a completely different team and the action has been moved from the West Coast to the area immediately surrounding Washington, DC, whilst the timeline has been advanced by twenty years. A few minor references aside, there are no connections between this game and its predecessors, which is handy given that Fallout 3 had outsold the combined lifetime sales of the two earlier games within about 48 hours of going on sale.
Fallout 3 is instead the creation of Bethesda, responsible for the mega-selling 2006 RPG Oblivion, and is based around the same engine. Although initially critically lauded, Oblivion soon became a target for scorn due to a somewhat dissatisfying combat system, a dull main quest and a rather silly levelling system that had the whole world levelling up with you (Fallout 3 does away with this, fortunately). However, many of the side-quests were ingenious and the depiction of a vast, beautiful but somewhat sparse (and given its proximity to the Imperial Capital, surprisingly dangerous) world was first-rate. Oddly enough, Fallout 3 plays to the weaknesses of Oblivion: a somewhat sparse world with a highly dangerous landscape makes far more sense in the context of a post-apocalyptic, vaguely Mad Max-esque world than that of a high fantasy setting. The combat system has been totally revamped and rebuilt into something truly impressive, and the more inventive and imaginative quest structure has been redeployed into the main narrative rather then the side-quests.
The result is a much more fun and enjoyable game than Oblivion, although it starts in a similar manner. Fallout 3 replaces Oblivion's prison escape sequence with a set of scenes as your character is born, grows up, learns basic skills and finally decides to pursue your fleeing father into the wilderness. It is an effective way of introducing the world and some of the characters you'll meet later on in the story. Emerging blinking from Vault 101, the vast, blasted landscape of DC greets you with the battered but still-standing form of the Washington Monument towering in the distance, which is a tremendously atmospheric way of starting the game (and, as with the Citadel in Half-Life 2, eventually your path will lead you to that dominant feature on the horizon). Your path will quickly lead to the town of Megaton, where you can pick up quests, find out more about the world and, if you choose to help defuse the nuclear bomb still stuck in the middle of town, even set up a home and garner a reputation for honesty and honour. Conversely, you can choose to set the bomb to detonate, which earns you the gratitude of a local aristocrat and makes you infamous in the wasteland, with the radio stations pouring scorn on your activities and the noble Brotherhood of Steel gunning for you on sight.
Fallout 3 is nicely focused in this regard, and draws you in to its world thanks to its memorable characters and the way your deeds are picked up on and reported, either on the radio stations or among the citizenry. The dialogue in the game is somewhat ropey, and they still haven't fixed the problem from Oblivion with the NPCs being rather stiff and robot-like in their movements, but there's definitely been some improvement. Best of all is the fact that there are now dozens of voices in the game rather than the four or five in Oblivion, which led to situations where two identical-sounding characters would be having a conversation in the street. There's also better use of the celebrity vocal talent, with Malcolm McDowell and Liam Neeson getting plenty of exposure (compared to Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean's rather brief roles in the earlier game). Ron Perlman also returns from the first two games for the opening and closing narration.
Combat is probably Fallout 3's strongest point. Combat can be performed manually in a FPS-style system, but it's more satisfying to activate VATS mode, which pauses the game and allows you to target specific parts of an enemy's body, such as their head or, if you want to disarm them, their weapon or arm. Once you have queued up your attacks, they are carried out from a cinematic viewpoint in slow motion, which is often spectacular (and insanely gory: decapitation is bemusingly commonplace in Fallout 3's world). The system has its weaknesses - the fact you only take 10% damage whilst in VATS means your character is virtually invulnerable whilst it is activated and there is rarely, if any, reason not to shoot someone in the head - but by and large it is a welcome and effective innovation, and a far more satisfying solution to the FPS/RPG combat problems that have plague the genre for a while (with Mass Effect, for example, putting off hardcore RPGers due to its more action-oriented style of combat). I hope Bethesda include a suitable variation of it in their forthcoming Oblivion sequel.
Character growth is also pretty satisfying, employing a system based on the earlier Fallout games but more streamlined. Oblivion's character growth system was completely counter-intuitive, but here everything is much more straightforward and it is easier to build the type of character you really want to be.
There is a weakness in the game's structure, however. In Oblivion you could completely ignore the main quest if you wished, or get it out of the way (to close the annoying Oblivion Gates ASAP) and carry on with the side-quests. However, completing the main quest in Fallout 3 ends the game and you can't play on, which is annoying (and totally unnecessary: the main quest's ending doesn't actually make much logical sense). The main quest in Fallout 3 is also surprisingly short, perhaps 6-8 hours if you ignored everything else. For this reason, I heavily recommend interspersing the main quest missions in the game with the optional side-quests and also just random exploring. The total number of quests in the game is fairly low (certainly far lower than Oblivion's), so randomly wandering the wastes searching for new locations to explore does play a larger role in the game, as does the search for really good gear. A further problem with this is that the game is capped at Level 20, which isn't that hard to attain, so such random wanderings may be rather short-lived once the reward for them dries up. There's also a rather severe limit on what you can carry, again limiting the prospects for lengthy exploration.
Fallout 3 is an excellent RPG, building on the many strengths of Oblivion and coming up with satisfying solutions to its problems. Wandering the burned-out ruins of one of DC's suburbs, or trying to sneak into the Capitol Building, can be extremely atmospheric and the depiction of a ruined, blasted landscape is second to none. The game employs some terrific influences within its mission design as well, with the movies Them!, Blade Runner, Pleasentville and Battle Royale all being directly referenced or parodied in the game. Character building and combat are both highly satisfying, although some issues with dialogue remain. There's also probably a bit too much mucking around in DC's subway system in the first half of the game as well which can get a bit old.
Fallout 3 (****) is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and Playstation 3 (UK, USA). Downloadable missions will start appearing in January, allowing players to visit Alaska, the Pitt and follow up on the main quest as a member of the Brotherhood of Steel.