There are few games in recent memory that have had as great an impact on me as Bethesda's Fallout 3. I just finished the game a few minutes ago and am simply stunned at the quality of the storytelling, gameplay, and aesthetics. While the game has a few minor faults, these pale in comparison to its masterful production.
I was a big fan of the earlier Fallout Games, but was initially skeptical that Bethesda would be able to recapture the magic of those earlier masterpieces (particularly I and II). Although some still maintain that Interplay's earlier Wasteland was better, I still count Fallout and Fallout 2 as some of the finest CRPGs ever designed. They eschew the stereotypical dwarves and elves for (IMO) a more interesting post-apocalyptic wasteland reminiscent of The Road Warrior. I love this setting, mostly because it's still recognizable as the "real world" but with a fantastic but still plausible twist. The Fallout games did a great job with the setting, but also created an innovative and fun role-playing system and plenty of Monty Python-esque dark humor. The premise in all these games is that a nuclear war has devastated much of the known world, and the survivors are mostly mutants and brigands. The few remaining pockets of humanity are desperate. Add to this mix the mysterious "Enclave" and "Brotherhood of Steel," two powerful military organizations whose motives aren't often clear. Then there's the vault dwellers--people who have spent their lives cooped up in a secure vault deep underground, safe and isolated. Of course, the player's character doesn't stay in the vault, but leaves to fulfill his or her destiny above.
Fallout 3 literally begins with the avatar's birth in the vault, a clever idea that lets players customize the character and gradually learn the interface. It's also charming and even disturbing, since the game cuts to various points in the avatar's life and gives a clear picture of what life was like growing up in the vault. It's really spooky and thought-provoking, like the best science fiction. Along the way you take a GOAT, a test to help choose your profession, which affects your stats and skill points. There are plenty of options; I chose to become a computer technician, but that didn't really limit me in any way. I'll come back to skills and such in a bit.
Eventually, your father leaves the vault for unknown reasons, and it soon becomes clear that you have to follow him out--the government of the vault has become too unstable for you to safely remain behind. It's not hard to think of psychological themes here (leaving the womb, Oedipal complexes, etc.)
As soon as you leave the vault, you're in pretty much constant danger. The wasteland is swarming with deadly creatures like molerats, rad-scorpions, raiders, and crab-like creatures that infest streams. There are also plenty of "dungeons" sprinkled around, which take you deep underground to confront more dangerous enemies. Probably the scariest are the ghouls, zombie-like creatures reminiscent of the infected in the film 28 Days Later. Eventually, though, you'll be fighting Super Mutants and Enclave Soldiers, both of whom are very tough.
Combat is either in real-time or a hybrid system called VATS. VATS works like this: see an enemy, hit the V key, target the body part you want to hit, and hit "E" (or the left mouse button). Sometimes a brief cut scene will play if you strike a critical hit, but this is a great way to go if you're not the fastest on the mouse. You can only use VATS so many times in a given period; players who rely heavily on this will need to find ways to boost their "Action Points," but I generally found it sufficient. Naturally, it's advantageous to aim for certain body parts on different creatures, and you can take perks to tailor your play style. I chose to increase my action points, damage from criticals, and improved targeting for head-shots. There's nothing really as satisfying as taking down a particularly nasty beast with a critical strike to the head (at point blank range!), and the cut scenes are exciting stuff.
This talk of "perks" will be instantly familiar to fans of the original game. The RPG system is based on SPECIAL (stats, really), SKILLS, and PERKS. The stats are the basic ones seen in most RPGs (strength, agility, luck, etc.) Skills range from combat-specific things like small guns and energy weapons to things like science, medicine, and lock picking. There are lots of computers and locked containers about, so I think it's well worth pumping up these skills. Every time you successfully open a lock or hack a computer you get XP, so it's quite handy. Indeed, not being able to pick locks will be a severe hindrance.
One thing you'll notice pretty quickly in Fallout 3 is that equipment, ammunition, and munitions are rare. Your gear takes damage from use, and you'll need to use your repair skills to keep things working properly. Let's say you're using a combat shotgun--it may start off doing lots of damage and be fairly accurate, but with enough use it will drop off, losing both. The only remedy is either to find another shotgun to either replace or repair it. If your repair skill is high enough, you will be able to keep your gear in good shape by salvaging worn pieces for parts. Otherwise, you're going to be going through gear very quickly. It isn't that problematic if you're fighting mostly humans, but can get very bad if you're in a dungeon confronting mostly beasts or ghouls.
Combat is quite varied. I quickly found myself using melee weapons to deal with roaches and rats, saving my bullets for things that shot at me from range. The most dreadful of all were monsters with missile launchers; a missile can either kill you outright or do so much damage that you can't move away before being hit again. These guys were seriously annoying. Although I eventually found a sniper rifle, I still wasn't effective with it, though this was probably because of my avatar's stats. In general, I either had to lure enemies into traps using mines or blast them at fairly close range with an assault rifle or shotgun. The combat shotgun and scoped .44 magnum are very effective, but limited ammo makes them last-resort weapons. There are also miniguns and the like about (big guns), but you really need a lot of strength for these since they will weigh you down so much.
The same is true for healing. The best thing is just to find a bed and rest an hour, which heals everything (including damaged limbs). Otherwise, you'll need to use stimpacks or chow down on food and water. Unfortunately, almost all the food and water is radioactive, and if you get too much exposure you'll get radiation sickness. You can also find drugs that provide certain bonuses, but if you get addicted to them you'll suffer penalties (like withdrawal symptoms). There are ways to cure such things, but it's important to think before popping those pills or injecting your veins with Jet.
Much of the game's strategy concerns resource management, since you'll quickly die if you find yourself without armor, weapons, or "aid" (food, stimpacks, etc.). The main skills to worry about here are repair, medicine, and lockpicking, since you'll find an abundance of ammo and such in locked containers.
The gameplay consists mostly of exploring and doing quests. The world is huge, and there are plenty of sub-quests and areas that are entirely optional. I chose to do some of them, but focused on getting through the main quest. Still, it was always tempting to see some building or structure off in the distance and want to check it out. I did several sub-quests that were quite fascinating. One of my favorites was a ghoul-infested building where I found tapes detailing a previous adventurer's search for his father. As I explored further, I found more tapes, and I could hear the voice on the tapes becoming less human and more ghoul-like. Of course, at the end of the dungeon I found the explorer, who had long been transformed into a ghoul (who I had to kill). This is a good example of the kind of depth you can find in an area that is entirely optional; there are no doubt dozens more such places I didn't see. You can also find the occasional companion, though I spent most of the game alone.
The main quest involves your father's mission to purify the water in a reservoir so the residents of Washington D.C. will have a safe, non-radioactive source. The mission gets more complicated, of course, with some spectacular twists that are really exciting stuff. I don't want to spoil too much, but just to give some flavor here--when you finally find your dad, he's trapped in a virtual world that looks like an old 50s sitcom. However there is something very, very wrong with the setup, and when I finally got the whole picture I was disturbed indeed. It's creepy to the core!
The production values are sky-high, with some of the best graphics and audio I have ever seen. The settings are fascinating to explore and wondrous to behold, and the whole thing really makes you feel like you're stuck in a Mad Max movie.
So, what are the cons? One thing that was a real disappointment was third-person view. Although you can switch from first-person to third-person with a click, the third-person aspect is very poorly implemented. The avatar doesn't move at all realistically, and I only used this mode when I had to jump around or follow a precise route. Another minus is the rather tedious clicking necessary to get aid, check your armor, and so on. Once you have a sizable inventory, getting through it all can be quite maddening. There really should have been an easier way to sort this stuff. On the plus side, it's easy to set hot keys (1-8) for weapons and aid, but if you lose a weapon you'll have to reset it.
Although it's possible to make your own gear using a workbench, I didn't find enough schematics for this to be useful. I was also irritated that I couldn't modify my weapons; it would have been nice to put scopes on certain weapons, etc. I didn't really focus on this aspect of gameplay, though, and there may very well be lots of schematics around for the diligent. As usual with a Bethesda game, I think I probably only saw about 25% of the game; there are no lots of content I haven't seen. If you really want to be thorough, you may want a guidebook or such to make sure you've seen it all.
On a related point, one glaring omission was vehicles. I kept finding motorcycle parts and even intact motorcycles around, but there was no way to ride them. This was a real pain, because it would've been very cool to have a cycle to ride around on (the world is, after all, immense). Thankfully, though, once you've visited an area, you can travel there instantly using your map. Still, I think having vehicles would have been a great addition.
Still, I wouldn't consider any of these factors a deal-breaker. The game is very solid and probably the best game you could buy yourself for the holidays. I really enjoyed it and looked forward to playing it everyday. Heck, I might try it again with a different character just to see the rest of what the game has to offer. The stories and writing (in even the sub-quests) are really worth seeing; there is very little here that is repetitive or left to chance. Bethesda has really created a coherent world whose nooks and crannies are well worth exploring.
Overall, I give this game a definite 5/5 and recommend it strongly.If you are only going to buy one game for the holidays, I'd either get this one or Mass Effect depending on your tastes. Both games have spectacular stories, memorable characters, and engaging gameplay. Oh--and remember: War...never changes.