'They've done it,' I thought, the moment I stumbled out of Vault 101 and the Capital wasteland came into focus. I traced the horizon with increasing excitement. Look at the blasted trees; and the little shattered towns; and the many, many shades of brown! The world reveal shot—when you emerge from a dark corridor to a carefully poised introductory vista—is familiar now, but in 2008 it set my spine shivering and filled my head with thoughts of freedom and adventure. The fact that I exercised that freedom to drink irradiated water from toilet cisterns the world over is neither here nor there—Fallout has always had a knack for being funny and grim at the same time.
The move to polygonal 3D and a generational leap in fidelity allowed Fallout 3 do more visual world-building and humour with sight-gags and signage. This and an all-knew writers' room shifted the style of Fallout's comedy from a quirky gangland farce to a quirky satire on the utopian idealism of the '50s and '60s, and a delightfully camp one at that. Robots stomp around powered by brains in jars and housekeeping robots are repurposed as death-bot bodyguards. Meanwhile, the comfy Jetsons family unit has been shattered and scattered across the wasteland. The family dogs have formed packs and started eating the adults. The kids live in their own settlement in Little Lamplight, and exiled teens rebel alone in Big Town.
It's a bit depressing—as total societal collapse ought to be—but Fallout 3 strikes a fine balance between lonely wandering and silliness. Did you find the superhero and the supervillain warring in Cantebury Commons? The AntAgonizer leads an army of giant ants against the Mechanist's robot guards, and you can choose to side with either. Megaton's resident researcher, Moira, provides another memorable quest thread that sends you all over the wasteland to conduct field experiments. Irradiate yourself and she studies your symptoms with infectious enthusiasm—"keep up the great research, super assistant!"
Sadly Fallout 3's sidequests and secrets are more memorable than the critical path. A stone cold Liam Neeson continues Bethesda's dubious record with celebrity voice actors—unfortunate given that he's the emotional core of the story. There are some exceptional moments, however, like your entrapment in the Tranquility Lane simulation—a Stepford Wives pastiche of affluent suburban living before the bombs fell. It's inventive, dark, humourous, and recaptures a talent for weirdness that Bethesda hadn't exercised since Morrowind.
It's violent, too, thanks to the real-time-with-pause combat system that lets you melt individual bodyparts with laser pistols. The "Bloody Mess" perk is recommended. The Gamebryo engine has many shortcomings—not least when it comes to NPC faces and posture—but it can chunk an enemy into slabs of physics-enabled mulch very nicely indeed. The VATS targeting system divides opinion, but the zooming Mad Max hero shots it generates for your wastelander are great. Such scenes were relegated to your imagination in the old turn-based RPGs, but now every shuddering headshot gets its own slow-mo rotating, zooming camera dance. If you're lucky, your Lone Wanderer will form an impromptu John Wayne silhouette against the green sky before you're popped back into real-time, where a lacklustre FPS-with-dice-rolls system awaits.
If that's not to your taste, Fallout 3's shortcomings can always be corrected with mods. Remove the green smog to enjoy a much cleaner, sunnier wasteland; or install major combat overhauls that ditch VATS in favour of a deadly survivalist shooter model inspired by STALKER. Fallout 3 features some pretty horrendous monsters—Centaurs still give me chills—but you can add even more terrors with Mart's Mutant Mod, and tweak their abilities and size to provide a challenge even when you're stomping around in full Brotherhood of Steel armour. Fallout 3 was great at release, but only got better in the following years, maturing to near-perfection like a fine pre-war vintage of Nuka Cola.
By Tom Senior