Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Let's get this issue out of the way first: yes, Fallout 3 is a "true" Fallout game. No, it's not made by Interplay, the graphics look better than an elementary school diorama, and the combat isn't turn-based. A ten-year hiatus and a new developer is bound to result in a few changes to the formula but make no mistake, this is a Fallout game through and through.
Instead of using isometric graphics, Fallout 3 renders the wasteland in 3D for the first time in the series. You can't really say it looks better than Oblivion because well, apocalyptic wasteland is still apocalyptic wasteland no more how well-drawn it is. It's a very bleak-looking game but that does have the effect of making the few places untouched by nuclear war really stand out. The draw distance is very strong, too. The problem with the top-down isometric graphics from the first two games was that you could only see a maybe a fifty-foot radius around you. Seeing nothing but wasteland for miles and miles in any direction in Fallout 3 really is awe-inspiring. The highlight, though, is when you finally come across the National Mall in the ruins of Washington, D.C. and see the crumbling Washington Monument and Capitol building (among other things). It's the most powerful visual I've seen in a video game in a long time.
Though the series has moved from the southwestern United States to the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for Fallout 3, Bethesda doesn't use this new setting as a blank slate. Much of the weapons and other technology that appeared in the first two games makes an appearance here, too. Even the control panels for the Vault doors look the same. The factions that figured prominently out west - the Brotherhood of Steel, a militant organization concerned with recovering pre-war technology, and the Enclave, the power-hungry remnants of the United States government, both have a big presence in D.C. and in the game's storyline. There's plenty of super mutants, raiders, and slavers wreaking havoc in this corner of the wasteland, too. One of the NPC companions from the first two games also makes a surprise-but-fitting appearance in the game. The game maintains the darkly humorous, profane tone of the previous games as well. There's a decent amount of sci-fi/fantasy mixed in though the over-the-top pop culture references of Fallout 2 have been omitted. You won't run into any Monty Python characters here, but I prefer that. The game creates its own setting rather than just alluding to other creative works all the time.
While the storyline is a fitting continuation of the series, I wasn't as thrilled with the characters themselves. Liam Neeson voices the main character's father and he's awesome, but that's pretty much the only character you'll develop any sort of attachment to. It's an open-world game filled with hundreds of characters, many of whom you can kill at a whim, so I wasn't expecting too much character development. I was satisfied with how talkative most quest NPC's were, but the NPC companions are sadly made of cardboard. In addition to the canine companion Dogmeat, you can recruit one other companion. Personally, I ended up with a member of the Brotherhood of Steel. After playing so many BioWare games, I assumed this companion would be bursting at the seams with stories about herself but sadly, her dialogue was limited to commands ("stay closer", "use melee weapons", etc.). It's a shame because these companions are the characters you'll spend the most time with and they could've served to make your journeys through the wasteland feel a little less lonely if they were at all talkative.
I wasn't all that happy to have a companion even when combat started. They're durable enough and they do decent damage but tend to be overly aggressive. I played a stealthy character so I was pleased when my companion crouched down when I did to sneak past guards...but upon getting in line of sight of the guard, she just started firing. Luckily, when your companion breaks stealth, you don't break stealth so you can still get off a sneak attack (an automatic critical hit) while the enemy was distracted. Still, companions' itchy trigger fingers make it impossible to bypass any mobs. The companion's path-finding can be fairly awful when you jump across gaps or hop down from ledges. I sort of wish there was just some automatic recall for these companions so they wouldn't resort to flailing around for ten minutes just to figure out how to return to me.
I'm a bit torn over the new combat system. It's first or third-person real-time combat, making it not unlike the combat from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. As a nod to earlier games, though, Fallout 3 utilizes something called "V.A.T.S." It allows you to pause the combat and take aim at specific body parts of an enemy (your chance of hitting particular parts is expressed in a percentage). You can queue up several of these attacks at a time, depending how full your Action Points meter is (it recharges over time through combat). This makes the game a bit friendlier to people who aren't really first-person shooter fans and makes the game a little more tactical. You can shoot a rifle out of a raider's hands, put a few bullets in a Deathclaw's leg to slow his charge, hit a giant ant's antennae so he frenzies and attacks other ants, etc. The slow-motion death animations from blowing up an enemy's limb or blowing their head off add a little spice to combat too. Still, the problem with V.A.T.S. is that you'll likely only use V.A.T.S. - real-time combat is generally a lot less efficient from an ammunition perspective and the enemies will get in a lot more attacks. Often I would hide behind pillars (enemy path-finding: not so good) and wait for my AP to recharge just so I could launch V.A.T.S. attacks over and over. Ultimately, if you're looking for a first-person shooter, this isn't the game. The combat system is decent but if you're used to getting one-shot headshots all the time, you might be disappointed when you come across enemies that are formidable enough to withstand multiple headshots even if you're using a top-shelf gun.
Despite the action trappings, this is very much a role-playing game and there's plenty of open-world exploration to sate any fan of the genre. The enormous game map is filled with all sorts of abandoned military installations, slaver camps, town ruins, etc. You could probably finish the main questline in fifteen hours or so but you'd be cheating yourself. First off, the game actually ends when you finish the main storyline so you can't just put off all the exploration until after the credits roll. Second, the funnest part of the game is just wandering off into the Capitol Wasteland and stumbling upon a forgotten weapons cache or an entire questline. There's some great side quests out there that really flesh out the Fallout universe and the game typically allows you to utilize a variety of tactics, savory and unsavory, to complete them. At one point you're even allowed to completely destroy a town. By the way, all of the non-combat skills you can choose to advance are fairly useful but you'll also want a decent mix of combat skills too. There's several points in the game you can't sneak/bluff/hack your way out of. You'll get enough skill points and bonuses throughout the game to be adequate with most of your abilities, though.
Fallout 3 utilizes the quick travel system of Oblivion, if you're wondering. By pulling up the world map, you can instantly travel to any spot that you've already visited at least once before. While it would've been cool to have a car like in Fallout 2 and maybe drive around the wasteland in real-time, I shudder at how buggy that probably would've ended up. The game throws a few random encounters at you from time to time during travel, too, to keep things interesting and nudge you toward quests.
Though many of the visuals of the interior structures are very similar and you may get bored seeing a small number of types of buildings over and over, it's still a lot more interesting to search through an abandoned military base in Fallout 3 than some thousand-year-old ruin in Oblivion. The former just feels more "alive." It's important to note that the "dungeons" of Fallout 3 don't calibrate to your level as they did with Oblivion, so you can end up steam-rolling your enemies...or being outgunned by them. It gives a risk-reward structure to exploration; wandering into higher-level areas might result in a lot of death and reloading but if you survive, you can come away with some pretty formidable weapons and other equipment. The biggest problem with the exploration is that there's an experience level cap of 20, which will probably make you guiltily stop wandering and get to finishing the main quest. A cap was inevitable to keep the later parts of the game challenging and so Bethesda could properly plan the downloadable episodes they're planning on releasing for the PC and 360 versions at some point in the future.
If you're an RPG fan, Fallout 3 should be in your game library. The first two Fallout games have taken on this mythical aura amongst fans over the past decade and I have no reason to doubt that in time this game will be viewed with the same rose-colored glasses. Like its predecessors, Fallout 3 isn't perfect in its mechanics but the game effortlessly provides a fascinating 40+ hour jaunt through post-apocalyptia. Other games just feel tiny by comparison.