Friends, when the atomic bombs fall, where will you be? Will you be in your home, watching 'The Adventures of Captain Cosmos' co-starring Jangles, the Moon Monkey? Or will you secure a place in one of the many state-of-the-art vaults for both your survival and the survival of your future descendants? Considering that all three protagonists of the main Fallout series have either emerged unscathed from these strongholds, or are related to those who have, you may want to consider signing up at your nearest Vault-Tec agency. Oh, and while you're in there, you may want to make sure you have a copy of Fallout 3 with you.
The Fallout series, originally developed by Black Isle Studios with Interplay, has traditionally been a series of role-playing-games played from an isometric perspective. However, the developers of Fallout 3, Bethesda Game Studios, have taken the series into new territory. Utilising the same engine as their previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3 is played primarily from a first-person perspective and contains several other influences. The world map is around the same size, the way your character interacts with others, the number of sidequests, and of course, the ability to steal and horde countless useless objects. The only thing missing is a trusty steed, which means that in the radioactive remains of Washington, you'll be getting around on foot (or utilising the helpful 'fast travel' option from the menu).
However, while much has changed in Fallout 3, there are a lot of familiar elements for fans of the series. For a start, Bethesda have nailed the desolate, post-apocalyptic-but-hey-let's-try-to-have-a-swell-time feel of previous Fallout games, balancing both horror and humour very effectively. The protagonist of the game is once again a Vault Dweller living in Vault 101, built to protect a select few from the devastation of nuclear war. The game doesn't assume that you have prior knowledge of the franchise. In a pretty cool twist on the established 'tutorial' format, you enter the game's world as a newborn baby. As you progress through childhood, you'll be able to customise your character's appearance, assign points to your character's tried-and-true 'SPECIAL' attributes, and undertake the 'G.O.A.T.' examination to determine which skills would benefit your personal playing style. It's all about as immersive as it gets, even down to your father's appearance being based upon the one you choose for yourself. We're not sure if this is why we became so attached to him, or whether it's because he's brought to life with the velvety soothing tones of Liam Neeson, but we found ourselves more than happy to go bounding after him after he escapes the vault for reasons unknown. The main storyline of the game concerns your quest to find your father, as you're forced to explore harsh ruins of the 'Capital Wasteland'.
Fear not, for you won't be alone in your quest, for better or worse. At your side is your trusty Pip-Boy 3000, which acts as your inventory control, map system, radio and status monitor. For the most part, the game plays pretty similarly to Oblivion, but when you find yourself facing off against the mutants and raiders of the Wasteland, you'll discover another one of major differences of the game, the Pip-Boy's 'V.A.T.S.' An aiming system that essentially replaces the magic found in Oblivion, V.A.T.S. allows you to use action points (AP) to stop time and select which part of your opponent's body you want to mutilate at your own leisure. You are then treated to a cinematic slow-motion view of your attack, which thankfully never seems to wear thin. There are also several occasions where you can recruit several party members to join you in your adventures, which is usually quite helpful thanks to their reasonably intelligent AI, although they still seem to have trouble with path-finding.
Whether you get these allies or not is dependant on one of the completely new features in Fallout 3 which is the karma system. Most of your actions within the gameworld will have either a positive or negative impact on your karma level, which in turn affects how people treat you within the game and what kinds of rewards you can expect, or what kinds of people will be after your head. There are some decisions with obvious consequences, such as an early choice of whether to defuse an undetonated atomic bomb in the town of Megaton, or to detonate it from a safe distance for a large sum of money. Other times you may find that you'll have to go out of your way to find the correct course of action for positive karma, which raises another interesting point about Fallout 3. You'll find that you'll be able to level up several of your abilities, from expertise in a range of weapons and explosives, to more subtle skills like speech. In fact, if you level up your speech skill enough, you'll find that new dialogue options will open up in NPC conversations, which allow you to leapfrog many of the game's hurdles just by using your silver tongue.
The graphics in Fallout 3 are just the icing on the delicious immersion cake. While some of the textures are plain and the character models and animations are still a little too robotic, the attention to detail throughout the game is astonishing. Contrary to how it may sound, the Capital Wasteland is full of fascinating landmarks and places, from the rusted and cobbled-together city of Megaton, to the immense converted aircraft-carrier which is Rivet City, there is plenty to see and do. Out of the three versions, the Playstation 3 comes out the weakest, with a shorter draw distance and noticably more aliasing than its brethren, however these problems don't detract from the overall experience. The game's tongue-in-cheek style is prevalent throughout the adventure, from the ever-present 50's-style mascot 'Vault Boy' to the gloriously gory V.A.T.S. sequences, to the patriotic assurances of President Eden on the Enclave's radio station. The quality of the voice acting throughout the game is also very high, with believable performances coming from almost every NPC you meet in the game, as well as from the more famous contributors to this game - Liam Neeson, Malcolm McDowell and Ron Perlman.
There are some chinks in Fallout 3's shiny power armor. The first and foremost complaint that many gamers have had with the game are the number of glitches found throughout. We played the game on PlayStation 3 and encountered only one glitch which prevented us from sitting the G.O.A.T. examination at the start of the game. However, simply saving and reloading seemed to fix the issue, and we experienced no other such problems in the 30+ hours we sunk into the main quest. We also played the game on PC and found that glitches occured much more frequently (see 'Second Take'). There are also instances of some parts of Fallout 3 seeming unfinished or ignored. As an example, the third-person perspective in the game is largely a joke, unless you zoom the camera in for an over-the-shoulder perspective. Any further out, and your character simply seems to ice-skate along the terrain. The game is obviously meant to be played in first-person, but it would have been nice if the developers had at least tried to make the third-person option less ridiculous.
Fallout 3 is a more-than-worthy successor in the illustrious Fallout series. There are few games which provide the level of immersion seen here, and the amount of time and effort which has gone into creating a believable, yet oddball, post-apocalyptic wasteland is astonishing. The game hasn't fallen too far from the Oblivion tree, which is not a bad thing at all. Overall, it's nowhere near as time-devouring as Oblivion, although it arguably has more replay value due to the karma system and the alternate endings you can unlock in the game. But if you like guns, explosions, super mutants and robots kicking miniature nukes as footballs (and really, who doesn't?) then prepare to give yourself over to Fallout 3.
Neil: Three words - gigantic radioactive bugs. We spent about eight hours battling the PC version of Fallout 3 before curling up under a desk and weeping quietly into the night, shattered and defeated. There were glimpses of greatness, over there on the horizon somewhere, but the sheer number of game killing technical problems completely buried the struggling brilliance of Fallout 3.
As is always the case with PC gaming, Your Screen Punching Frustration May Vary. Some people will breeze through the game with an occasional hitch and wonder what all the fuss was about. Others - like us - will vanish beneath a swarming plague of hard locks, freezes and random crashes. Sure, it'll get patched and six months from now the PC version of Fallout 3 will be an easy, two-thumbs-up recommendation. For the moment, however, we can only advise that you approach with caution.