By Todd Kistler
“Fallout 3″ depicts the world at its worst. Anarchy has replaced a civilization devastated by nuclear war, and most survivors maintain only a tenuous grip on their sanity and humanity. Horrifyingly mutated animals and humans roam the wastes.
And when you’re there, you’ll want to stay as long as you possibly can.
The new multiplatform game by Bethesda Softworks is so utterly engrossing that the hardest part of reviewing “Fallout 3″ is that I had to stop playing the game in order to do so. Bethesda, the studio behind the “Elder Scrolls” series, has created another classic in the role-playing genre.
As in “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” which was many reviewers’ game of the year in 2006, “Fallout 3″ shines in its rich character customization, wonderful design and near-limitless possibilities. The main quest centers on finding your dad, who left the safety of Vault 101 — one of many refuges in which survivors of the war with China in 2077 took shelter — for reasons unknown. When you emerge from the vault amid the dilapidated grandeur of the ruins of Washington, D.C., you can follow in his footsteps or just strike off exploring and create your own story. Your dad is a brilliant surgeon with the voice of Liam Neeson, after all: The man can take care of himself.
The sharply designed capital wasteland shows both sides of the world: a dead civilization and a semi-barbaric new one trying to establish itself on top of its predecessor. Raiders hide out in ruined Metro stations, and hardscrabble encampments made of scrap metal are built atop freeway overpasses. A city springs up on a prewar aircraft carrier. Even the Jefferson Memorial has been turned into a staging ground for a water-purification experiment. The whole capital has a “lived in” feel that must be experienced to be appreciated.
Once you’re out there, there are almost no limits to where you can go. Ascend the tattered Washington Monument or take a swim in the irradiated waters of the Potomac. You’re sure to find surprises and challenges along the way.
If some of this sounds like old news for those (like me) who poured dozens or hundreds of hours into “Oblivion,” there are enough gameplay refinements and new features to keep it from feeling like — as some feared — “‘Oblivion’ with mutants.”
One such innovation to combat is the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. A kind of hybrid of bullet-time and turn-based combat, VATS slows the action to allow you to lock on to specific parts of an enemy’s body. That sledgehammer-swinging Super Mutant looks a lot less intimidating if his arm is crippled.
VATS strikes also allow other bonuses. Cripple a giant ant’s antennae, and it’ll go berserk, attacking anything it sees. Or use VATS with a grenade to take advantage of a moment when enemies are clumped together.
The enemy AI is generally impressive. Your opponents often attack in packs and use cover well. They can intuitively switch weapons, and they also know when the fight is lost. Severely wounded enemies will often try to flee. One member of a feared mercenary outfit even yelped “I don’t get paid enough for this!” as he turned tail.
But not everyone you meet is trying to kill you. You’ll need the game’s cast of hundreds to repair weapons, buy and sell goods, and get quests. But they need you too. You can help them solve their problems and perhaps make life a little more bearable, or you can exploit situations for your own gain. Your interactions affect your karma, which measures how virtuous or evil you are and also determines how people react to you. I completed a quest to help the city of Megaton, and when I walk through it now, people often come up and give me useful presents. So much for virtue being its own reward.
The voice acting is solid, if unspectacular, but the conversations seem more naturalistic than they did in “Oblivion,” in which non-player characters often had a creepy, catatonic gaze during conversations. In “Fallout 3,” their reactions and features are more recognizably human. The NPCs also talk to one another, which can provide some good information if you listen in but can also get repetitive. A character will sometimes have a conversation, walk away, and have an identical conversation with the next person they see.
“Fallout 3″ also shines in its creativity with weapons. In addition to the standard arsenal of pistols, assault rifles and shotguns, you can wield the Fat Man, which launches a small nuclear projectile. Or, if you find the right schematics, you can also create your own weapons out of D.C.’s seemingly benign detritus. All it takes is a workbench, and you can turn tin cans into incredibly powerful Nuka-grenades. My favorite home-made weapon so far is the Shishkebab — a flaming sword made of motorcycle parts and a lawnmower blade.
Just don’t go into “Fallout 3″ thinking the combat is going to be as smooth as “Halo” or “Call of Duty.” The targeting can feel clunky, and if you take cover during a firefight, you’ll sometimes find yourself shooting the barricade rather than the enemy you have your target on.
The strengths of “Fallout 3″ lie in its roleplaying, not its running and gunning. The game’s clever tutorial has you begin designing your character from your birth, when you choose your gender and physical appearance. You’ll skip ahead a year to choose your attributes — such as strength, intelligence and charisma — with the help of a children’s book. I think I spent more time at this stage than I think Bethesda intended — it was way too much fun to run around the room on the wobbly legs of a toddler.
When you reach adolescence, you’ll pick your skill set with a kind of high school exit exam (somewhat controversial even 270 years in the future). There are 13 specific skills, including science, lockpicking and explosives, that you’ll build on as you progress in the game and gain experience.
One significant change from the “Elder Scrolls” series is in skill progression. Gone is the system in which you would advance only in the skills that you use. “Fallout 3″ uses the more common system in which your experience points go into a pool that you can use on any skills you want. I preferred the “Elder Scrolls” system — it always troubled me that you could gain experience points picking locks and spend the points on using missile launchers — but I won’t quibble over personal preferences.
For further character customization, Bethesda borrows the perk system from the previous “Fallout” PC games made by Black Isle Studios in the late 1990s. As you level up, you can choose from among several dozen perks. Some will allow for new dialogue options, some will protect you from radiation or bullets, and some will boost your skills. Or, if you feel the need for more gratuitous violence in your life, you can always choose Bloody Mess, which will make your enemies explode.
This level of customization makes a the game almost endlessly replayable. You’d be surprised how many ways there are to accomplish some quests, and the traits of your character — whether a charismatic charmer, a shoot-first psycho or a shadowy sneak — will have a lot to do with how you approach a task.
“Fallout 3″ succeeds from a technical perspective as well. The framerate is consistently solid on my Xbox 360, and the visual glitches are relatively rare. Some characters do have the bad habit of walking into walls, but the game performs at a level that enhances the player’s immersion.
Despite the expected arrival of a few more major games before the end of the year and the emergence of “Gears of War 2″ this month, expect “Fallout 3″ to be on a lot of short lists for game of the year. With a gigantic world to explore and downloadable content promised in the future, I expect to be coming back to it many more times.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
Rating: M for Mature
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC