In the event of a nuclear war, the best place to live is in a strategically important area that’s likely to be targeted. Being vaporised right under the warhead will be as painless a death as it gets. Survival could be viewed as a very sharp double-edged sword, as indeed you could expect pretty much what you see when stumbling forth from the underground vault at the beginning of Fallout 3.
A shattered radioactive shell of a landscape, crowded by husks of buildings, mountains of scrap metal and motorways that look like they’ve been ripped up by the petulant hand of some childlike deity who has got thoroughly teed off with their Scalextric set. Not to mention mutated psychotic savages, brutal mercenaries and giant fire-breathing ants.
Such is the setting for Fallout 3, where RPG meets FPS in a large open-ended style world that’s somewhat reminiscent of Bethesda’s previous opus, Oblivion. There’s no magic here, of course: it’s traditional apocalyptic sci-fi, with a mixture of Mad Max spiky flak jackets, rusty swords and conventional assault rifles, alongside laser pistols and robots.
By default the game is played in real-time just like an FPS, and initially the combat is pretty tough as the enemies are quick on the draw and sharp shooters to boot. That’s where the VATS (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting) system comes in to lend a hand. Tapping the VATS button pauses a fight, allowing the player to aim at a monster’s limb, body, or head, before setting off an automated attack with a percentage to hit. You’re much more likely to hit using this method, especially from long range.
Each character has action points that determine the number of VATS attacks that can be used before you’re forced into real-time combat and have to wait for them to replenish. It’s an interesting spin on the sword and gunplay, although we must say we rather liked the raw challenge of sticking to real-time, only engaging VATS in really sticky situations.
The Fallout series is famed for its rich storylines, depth of characters and dialogue choices, and number three doesn’t stray from this philosophy. There are always choices to be made and quests can be completed in multiple ways depending on the sort of character you’ve built. Thief types can pick locks and sneak into areas others can’t, while charismatic chaps receive extra dialogue options such as lying and bluffing.
For example, one task is to enter and reach a location in a landmined town, disarming and retrieving a mine to prove you’ve been there. But we happened to find a mine on a dead mutant and, presenting it to the NPC, bluffed our way into convincing her we’d completed the quest.
There are lashings of sub-quests and plots to get embroiled in, dotted across an expansive landscape crammed with settlements, disused tube stations, irradiated dangers and hidden enclaves, all with their own back-story and intrigue running alongside the main plot. It’s this sort of carefully woven content, coupled with the beautifully realised post-apocalyptic environment, that makes Fallout 3 a joy to partake of.
And the interface doesn’t get in the way, either. The HUD is minimal but informative, the controls are smooth and intuitive and the maps, logs and inventory are divided into neat little compartments. About the only brush with clumsiness is the long lists of items in the core inventory that have to be scrolled through.
The final word has to go to the bugs. Not the mutated skittering horrors lurking in the shadows, but the blue-screen-of-death variety. We’ve heard a fair bit of negative buzz about the problems Fallout 3 has caused some users, but we didn’t have a whisper of trouble running the game under Vista 64-bit. The only issues we experienced were the odd glitch in the monster behaviour AI, but these were infrequent occurrences.