Review by johnbakie

"Step into the wasteland for a different RPG experience"

A decade after Fallout 2 graced our screens, post-apocalyptic role playing returns with a new developer and a major face-lift. Fallout 3 is the much-awaited (sometimes derided) successor to Interplay's Fallout series, which became a cult-classic in the late 1990s, and has been remade by Bethesda, publishers of the Elder Scrolls series, for a new generation of gamers.

The game begins with the usual RPG fare; decide what your character will look like with enough facial parameters to create pretty much any celebrity or family member you desire. Then you move on to picking attributes and skills. Fallout 3 adds a nice little twist to all this by integrating the whole process into the story with you choosing character attributes, called SPECIAL, using a children's book and later taking a school careers test to decide what skills you possess. All this takes place in the safety of Vault 101, which has remained sealed from the outside world since a nuclear war took place 200 years before. Following this lengthy introduction you are finally let loose in the Capital Wasteland, as the game world is known, to find your dad who has left the vault for reasons unknown.

As you emerge into the outside world for the first time you begin to appreciate the beauty of the world Bethesda has crafted. The landscape really captures the feel of a barren world with little life (or hope) and the tattered remnants of our once great civilisation have been painstakingly put together. The colour palette is well though out with enough brighter colours to dampen the browns of the wasteland's withered vegetation. Buildings have been given a decent destroyed look while structures and other scenery appear worn, dirty and neglected. The engine, last used in Oblivion, has been significantly upgraded to give a lot more detail in rock surfaces, nice reflections from tarmac and the water effects have also been upgraded. The retro-futuristic style of the game adds a unique feel and is used to good effect throughout.

Character models also benefit from improved detail. Unfortunately, Bethesda's animation team still don't seem to have learned much since Oblivion. Animations are relatively weak compared with the overall graphics package and characters tend to move in a stiff, robot-like fashion and often seem to skate across sloped surfaces. After seeing characters in GTA IV walk perfectly on every single step there is little reason why other games cannot achieve this feat. Characters seem marginally less wooden when in conversation than they did in Oblivion, with the camera places slightly further away to show off some limited body language.

The soundtrack is superb, with gunshots ringing out loud and clear, while impacts really do sound like a bullet hitting flesh. Hearing the twisted scream of a feral ghoul followed by footsteps pounding towards you down a subway tunnel really makes you feel frightened and alone. Veterans of Oblivion will recognise many of the same voice actors in Fallout 3, though a smaller number of NPCs means most characters now have unique dialogue. It is rare to see two characters with the exact same voice talking to each other. A small selection of radio stations provides entertainment in the wastes, with a range of 40s and 50s music to enhance the retro theme.

The user interface is extremely well implemented, with everything you need accessible at the touch of a button through the Pipboy 3000, an arm-mounted computer which allows you to browse your inventory, manage quests and examine the in-game map. The Pipboy 3000 looks great and is very easy to use, providing all the features of former Pipboy incarnations and improvements such as a tabbed inventory. The on-screen HUD also fits the style of the game well and provides your character with a health readout, compass and ammunition counter.

At first, gameplay seems very similar to the original Fallout games, with characters needing to travel around the world scavenging loot and ammo, selling it on in towns and picking up a variety of quests to gain experience and move the story forward. However, the first time you come up against a hostile creature or wasteland ruffian don't expect the game to pause and enter the familiar combat mode. Bethesda has merged real-time and turn-based gameplay with a system called the Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) which allows players to pause the game at any time and take a tactical shot.

Hitting RB stops gameplay and focuses the camera on the nearest enemy, allowing your character to target specific body part. Shooting an enemy in the arm will make it more difficult for them to aim, shooting a leg slows them down, and a headshot can take many creatures out in one hit. Each body part will have a different percentage chance of being hit dependent on its size and your skill with certain weapons, and a recharging action point bar prevents overuse of VATS distinctive advantages. Overall, the system works well, though some players may find themselves constantly tapping RB to check for enemies up ahead. The slow-motion cinematic sequences which come after every VATS shot also become tiring, and an option to skip them would have been nice.

Missions are largely a case of going to a destination and either killing enemies, speaking to someone or collecting something. This is not particularly inspiring but is a staple of more or less every RPG ever made. Computer hacking and lock picking mini-games are decent little diversions from the grind of shooting and exploring, and unlike Oblivion you can't pick the toughest locks in the world on day one just by mastering the mini-game.

As with all RPGs, Fallout 3 requires players to gain experience to increase their character's level. This has been implemented in largely the same way as previous Fallout games, with players able to distribute 15 skill points per level depending on how they want their character to develop. Players can also add a perk each time they level up (as opposed to every other level in previous Fallouts) and the perks are what makes this game really shine. Perhaps you'll choose Ladykiller, which gives you a 10% damage bonus against female characters and adds unique (and often amusing) dialogue options when talking to women. Other perks like Leadbelly allow you to resist radiation when drinking water in the wasteland, while the ever popular Bloody Mess returns, allowing you to splatter each enemy's brains across the wall. The perks are fun and add a unique feel to a game which might otherwise play like Oblivion with guns, and the game's level cap means you really need to think carefully about which perks would suit your character best.

The Capital Wasteland is huge and incredibly detailed with a large number of locations to explore and side quests to complete. There is easily enough here to keep players interested for 50 hours or more, and the number of different choices available for both major and minor quests means the game has substantial replay value. No single character can become a god and no single character can complete every quest available, meaning players will come back to this many times.

Bethesda have learnt many lessons since Oblivion was released in 2005. Fans of the original may not like the many changes made by Bethesda, while others will love the way they have kept the spirit of the previous games alive. The game also suffers from a number of irritating and obvious bugs that should have been resolved in play testing. In a vast, open world game it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, but the developers really should have noticed the suicidal tenancies of a certain town's population. Minor glitches should not put players off, and a patch is no-doubt in development right now. Fallout 3 comes highly recommended for anyone who fancies something a bit different out of the RPG genre.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/05/08

Game Release: Fallout 3 (EU, 10/31/08)

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