If Fallout fans could travel back in time to alter one event in our world's history, the Black Plague, the meteor that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs, and all of world's catastrophic events would remain the same. The one thing that would change, however, is defunct developer Black Isle Studios would be alive, well, and proficient enough to pump out a Fallout sequel every year. Watching Black Isle close its doors marked a dark day for video games. We lost one of the industry's most talented role-playing studios, not to mention any hope of spending another day in Fallout's post-apocalyptic world. As much as we wish we could go back and chart a different course for Black Isle, the future holds unexpected surprises, like Bethesda Softworks, a development studio filled with Fallout fans intent on keeping this sacred franchise alive.
Taking on a game like Fallout 3 is a risky venture for Bethesda, as hardcore fans will deem any variation from the original games' formulas a monumental disaster. Like all creations imitated by another hand, Fallout 3 retains elements from the original games' source material, and continually reminds you of why you loved playing these games, but not without setting itself aside as a largely different experience. Make no mistake, this is a Bethesda Softworks game first and foremost. As you journey from the sunless haven of Vault 101 to the irradiated wasteland of Washington D.C. you are reminded of Bethesda's latest work, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, just as much as you are of Black Isle's Fallout catalogue. It really is the perfect marriage of the two games; a chemistry that seamlessly unites Fallout's fiction and atmosphere with the first-person gameplay and open world questing of Oblivion.
This amalgamation leads to an exhilarating adventure that lives up to the namesake of both juggernaut franchises. The game begins in Vault 101, showing your character (whom you mold through a moderately deep creator) coming of age. You control this male or female protagonist as an infant (which is hilarious), a teenager, and a young adult. The decisions you make in these growth sequences directly affect your character's skills and standing in the world. When your father suddenly flees the Vault, you hastily give chase. From here, the character you created must fight for survival in the Capital Wasteland's harsh climate. I found myself drinking dirty water, eating irradiated meat from animal corpses I found on the road, and I even stole rations from the home of a kind-hearted citizen that put his trust in me. In the early stages, your weapons don't pack much of a punch, and ammo is extremely scarce. Enemies, which range from chain gun-wielding super mutants to giant ants, are far more aggressive than any of Oblivion's foes. Their lunge attacks make melee difficult, and their firearm accuracy had me scrambling to find cover. This fight for survival is extremely challenging, yet is captured in a way that is captivating and true to the atmosphere of the world.
While I found scavenging to be oddly satisfying, the true heart and soul of Fallout 3 is how player choice is incorporated into the questing and combat. Every mission puts your alignment in the world on trial. Given how tough some of the choices are, it's difficult to play the entire game with the ideology of ''I'm a good Samaritan'' or ''I'm a ruthless killer.'' I entered the game with the hope of being as evil as possible, but ended up being a gray in-betweener. This falls squarely onto the shoulders of the phenomenal writing. The dialogue is brilliantly penned, some of the situations couldn't be more precarious, and the game has a knack for making you feel guilty and/or foolish. Unfortunately, as strong as the dialogue is, it's hard to embrace its emotional moments as all of the acting is incredibly wooden.
Fallout 3's gameplay embraces freedom of choice just as much as the mission structure. As you gain experience and level up, you can select from a continually enlargening pool of amazing perks that can completely change how you play the game. The combat system allows players to alternate on the fly between traditional FPS running and gunning, and an RPG-like system called V.A.T.S. that freezes time and targets specific limbs. I learned how to use both systems effectively, but found the FPS play to be a greater risk, as the targeting system is a little shaky, and the performance of each firearm is all over the place. When you are in the zone, the FPS play can be a blast, but when it doesn't click, you'll jump right into the beautifully crafted V.A.T.S. system. I preferred V.A.T.S. mostly because it produced a greater spectacle, and also upped the intensity dramatically.
While I did see some texture popping and enemy weapons passing through objects in the environment, Fallout 3 is a remarkably polished and smooth running game. Those annoying mid-gameplay loads that frequented Oblivion are nowhere to be found, and the combat balancing as you level up is greatly improved.
Trekking through the wasteland is one of my top experiences of the year, and it just happens this game also produces some of my top moments, like the communism-hating robot, the pint-sized slasher, Gary, and the enabling of the Cannibalism perk. This game is massive, and as your character's stature in the Wasteland grows, so does the excitement. It's not a true sequel to the Fallout series, but as a fan of the games of old, I found it to be every bit as good.