Why Love Affair with Fallout has been long and torrid. We've had our ups (Fallout and Fallout 2), we've had our downs where we'd eat our meals in silence and stare vacantly into space (Brotherhood of Steel on the Xbox). We also had a time of tragedy with the closure of Black Isle and the sudden death of the nascent Fallout 3.
Now though, after much afterworld kerfuffle, my first true love is back - somehow possessing the body, form and looks of someone else. It's like when Patrick Swayze takes over Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost and has a full-on snog with Demi Moore. With me being Demi Moore. And? Well, it's strange at first -but after a while you're at it hammer and tongs.
Fallout 3 is fiendishly imaginative, beautiful in its desolation, and brutal and uncompromising in its combat. However, it's not perfect - there are flecks of decayed meat here and there that the game's loud and overbearing critics will draw nourishment from as they gnaw upon this worthy tribute to the half-buried irradiated skeleton of Fallout To find out why, how and wherefore, let's start at the beginning.
The first hour or so takes place in Vault 101, the latest in Bethesda's series of intelligent stabs at having you choose your character stats and abilities through story and gameplay rather than sitting po-faced in front of a series of spreadsheets. As a newborn baby you wordlessly demand your name and looks (while your presumably terrified mother carks it through cardiac arrest), as a toddler you earmark your baseline stats, and as a grunting teen nod at your particular skills in a none-too-subtle "How do you feel about shooting someone in the head?" exam. Having learned how to operate your handy Pip-Boy wrist-mounted PDA (and radio, Ordnance Survey map, audio player, rucksack and drugs stash) and shot a few cockroaches in slow-motion with a BB gun, your dad buggers off and everything goes boobs skywards.
The draconian and puritan Overseer, father of your best friend Amata, starts quelling doubters with bullets - and with a little bit of further to-do you're off into the big lonesome outdoors. The storyline that follows is a trail of quest-based breadcrumbs that has you tail your father through the ruins of Washington DC and beyond, enravelling you in a tale expertly shrouded in traditional Fallout concerns: Garden of Eden Creation Kits, the politically minded Enclave, different stuff stashed in different Vaults, the scarcity of water, the Brotherhood of Steel, giant scorpions... all that jazz.
What Fallout3 does brilliantly, over and above anything Bethesda have done before, is create a world where your actions influence the game you're playing. Many quests are deeply layered, not at all of the 'give this plot item to this man standing in the corner' variety, and very often you'll complete them without having the foggiest idea of how deep the rabbit hole could have gone. I completed one quest - the search for a Blade farmer-style replicant - for an evil man in a hat, almost immediately after I got it. I simply agreed with a secret society of synthetic people sympathisers that I wouldn't seek out the vulnerable android. But I can only guess at how much gameplay I missed out on in terms of trying to earmark which NPC in Rivet City was going about their daily business, unaware of their Deckard-esque origins. Or what cool piece of tech the evil hat-wearing man would have rewarded me with for going down his dark side.
Another early quest had me dealing with a vampiric cult called The Family, who'd been blamed for a savage murder in the nearby settlement of Arefu (a place precariously balanced on a broken motorway bridge) and for brainwashing a local teen. My response was to make my way to their lair deep in the Washington subway system, dodging their bear traps, mines and homemade booby-traps as I went. I turned up during some kind of church service and interrupted the sermon with a few stealthily placed mines of my own and a couple of tossed grenades. One extremely hard-won battle later, I had not only a bunch of decapitated bloodsuckers at my feet, but also a flaming metal sword called a 'shishkebab', removed from the corpse of their leader, that would put me in good stead for melee combat for the next 15 hours of the game.
"Hooray!" I thought, "I'm a regular wasteland badass." Only when in discussion with a fellow reviewer did I discover that if I'd been a bit more Poirot about it I'd have learnt the people I'd slaughtered were a bunch of entirely pleasant, yet heavily misunderstood, individuals. I could have brought peace to the region with controlled blood loss, and I would also have been taught the ability to regain health through the use of bloodpacks -which would have been invaluable later.
There are unseen quest branches going this way and that, and decisions you make often rear their head later in the game -I dealt with the situation in Vault 101 at the start of the game with minimum bloodshed, for example. Ten hours later this led to me picking up a radio signal distress call from my friend Amata calling me back into the Vault to help bring peace back to it - after which, even then, I could have left it in several different situations.
To this day I have no idea if something similar could have happened if I'd have been more murderous upon my initial escape from the Vault. When playing Fallout 3 your experience will be very different from mine, and that is far and away the most stunning thing about it.
We ought to touch on my problems with Fallout 3 now though, as they indirectly spring from this added quest depth. In Oblivion, smaller more perfunctory quests would spring up unbidden in your quest log. At any time you had the option of following one of the four guilds' quest paths, the main storyline or any number of townspeople's grumbles.
At its opening, Fallout 3 opens up far less to you: nearby Megaton's quest-count is actually rather small, less pressing stuff that could have been marked up as quests before don't appear on your Pip-Boy (someone feeling suicidal going somewhere at a certain time of day, someone taking drugs in a water treatment plant at night) and though the wilderness is tempting a lack of map markers won't have you straying for long. As such you're very much encouraged to follow the main storyline at first, and this is where Fallout 3's inadequacies rise.
First up, the wrecked Washington DC is stunningly realised - but it's a nightmare to navigate. You can't wander straight through each street, walls of insurmountable rubble are everywhere, and as such you have to negotiate the subway system. In the same way as Oblivion, the Pip-Boy's local map shows you which route you should be taking -whether overground, Underground or wombling free - but with everything a rubbly shade of brown, the tube layout of DC somewhat alien to most players, and paths to and from the main locations being complicated and poorly marked, it means that the map system simply isn't good enough. Actually it's frustrating.
I'd also argue that towns and quest hubs are poorly set out - brilliant as Megaton's crater-bound setting is, its vertically makes it hard to remember which path goes where; while the aweinspiring setting of aircraft carrier/town Rivet City is peppered with load zones and layers that make it hard to navigate.
What's more, the fact that most players will find themselves naturally funnelled through this early storyline stuff with a relatively bare quest log and a horde of enemies in beautiful yet samey environs means that at times DC can gain a touch of the Doom 3s.
Despite all the above, stick with Fallout. Once you know the lay of the land and have visited enough landmarks to make fast travel an option, these issues almost completely evaporate as the game directs you back into the furthest-flung depths of the wilderness, where wandering is a far more enjoyable option. In fact it would be remiss of me to fail to indicate that the storyline takes you to some fiendishly imaginative environs: a Vault-Tec sponsored vault exhibit in the Museum of Technology, for example, or the Fallout equivalent of the wonderful 'Painting' quest in Oblivion that I won't spoil, but is where Pleasantville and the Red Dwarf e pisode Gunmen of the Apocalypse collide. There is no doubt that Fallout3 is a wonderful, wonderful RPG - there are few as vast, clever, beautiful or violent.
The action, and the slow-motion targeting assistance system known as VATS, is brilliant: it's supremely satisfying to queue three separate headshots, or to toss a grenade into a morass of enemies in slow-motion, and watch the giblets fly. Sure the camera bollocks up affairs one critical hit in 20, but you'll forgive it for the pure puppy dog exuberance you'll feel whenever a well-placed armshot pings a foe's weapon off-screen, or a ghoul is fried when its claws are just inches away from your third-person fizzog.
And what ghouls! The fast-zombie stylings of Fallouts favourite irradiated creations (non-sentient variety) are a joy to fight, while the Fallout menagerie has been comfortably extended to include mutated bears, bloat flies and nippy giant vole things, as well as the Fallout standards of Deathclaws, Centaurs (which are a bit crap), Radscorpions and giant ants. All of which can be s tussling with each other if met c the open range.
The return of the SPECIAL system is also an entirely welcome one, a more detailed description of which can be found on page 53. At first it seems like you're being given too many points to slot into your various skills whenever you level up (and you now get a perk for every level, Fallout faithful -not one in three), but levels do space themselves out a bit more later in the game. While we're on the subject progress towards your next level is not only shown on-screen, but any gained experience is coupled with a great 'kerching!' sound effect which when paraded with a gaffer-tape noise whenever you're repairing something, shows a great comedic resourcefulness on the part of Bethesda. It just sounds and feels right
Respect Is Paid
The fact that the world doesn't level up around you OMV/on-style (the non-story bits at least) also means that the world feels more visceral and real - in some areas you'll feel fine, in others you'll feel entirely out of your depth.
The game tightens up various nuggets of Bethesdan gaming furniture as well -number one being that the completely random shit you find inside boxes, cupboards and compartmental corpses now actually have a use. If this game had callipers you'd probably be able to do something with them. Schematics of weapons, which can be found or bartered for, list random stuff that you can combine to create home-made armaments - whether we're talking gear sticks, pool balls, hair dryers or pulleys. So you consider carrying around the worthless tat you come across. Other nips and tucks include using harvested weaponry as spare parts for repairing guns, being over-encumbered slowing you down rather than rooting you to the spot and a lockpicking minigame that requires a degree of skill and returns a degree of satisfaction. Is this a worthy continuation of Fallout? I think it is. There was perhaps more wit to Black Isle's games, certainly an added layer of complexity that was found in PC-only role-playing a decade ago and that shows no sign of ever truly returning in the mass market. But in terms of taking the old, retaining its core values and opening the game up to newer, younger, audiences - Bethesda have succeeded. The fundaments of Fallout are still here, even if the fug that covers it all is Oblivion-scented.
For a pure-hearted escapist adventure, and what I consider the meatiest and most satisfying combat system around, you can't go wrong with Fallout 3. It's been a rocky road, but we got there in the end.
Let's have a party: me, you and the dog
Dogmeat is out there, hidden in the wasteland. He's fun to have around, but an absolute bugger to keep alive.
Dogs aren't all that tactical you see, and he has an unnerving tendency to attack things where you'd rather be throwing frag grenades. Still, that's dogs for you. The best thing about him is that when you command him to wait outside Vault 101, where it's less hairy, he'll respond with a puzzled "aroo?" then doefully pad off and mournfully wait.
Otherwise there's ghoul slaves, super mutants. Brotherhood of Steel ladies and various other people you can recruit hanging around in the wastes - though the chances are you won't run into them that early in the game.
Don't expect deep conversation while you're out in the wastes though, they're not the well of interaction that previous Fallout games have fallen into.
"...and the land! Of the! Free! (Apart from the slaves)"
What with Fallout 3s Washington DC setting there's some Nic Cage-esque haring around the place trying to find Declarations of Independence and American memorabilia.
"Oh noes! Slavers have taken over Lincoln's memorial!" Oh, cruel irony! What shall you beset us with next? A supermutant picking his teeth with a cherry tree claiming that he didn't smear excrement all up the side of the Washington Monument?
In all seriousness, what with the villains of the piece being a faux-government of a political bent, things never get ultra-flag wavey. Things can get a smidge apple pie - but it's an apple pie that's full of prostitution, drugs, bigamy and frequent decapitations. So it's fine by me.
Download Fallout 3
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode