Fallout 3 (PC)
It begins with a fade-in to blood on the lens, but not for the reason you'd think. It's not the last time you'll see blood on the lens. Fallout 3 throws plenty of things between you and the game, whether it's a lens, an interface, an awkward dialogue tree or some world-cracking lapse of logic. But if you can cut it the slack any good role-playing game deserves, you'll get a bleak, bloody and epically open RPG the likes of which you haven't seen since, well, Oblivion. And 30 hours later, the fade-in still hasn't managed to make it past grey.
What branches grow out of this stony rubbish
The first thing to point out is the color of this apocalypse. It hasn't got one. Apocalypses from the '80s couldn't resist their weird splashes of color and humor, whether it was the dyed Mohawks in "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior," the rouge and lipstick at the end of "A Boy and His Dog," or all that merchandise in the "Dawn of the Dead" mall. There is no such thing in Fallout 3, which is an almost entirely joke-free post-nuclear holocaust of crumbled buildings, chunks of concrete and subway tunnels littered with debris. There are ruined cars everywhere. No, you can't drive them. This isn't that kind of game -- you're hoofing it. It's downright depressing at times, owing more to Cormac McCarthy's downbeat "The Road" than the punky post-apocalypses established in the '80s. From dust to rust, from ashes to brackish water, it's sullen and mostly humorless. The exhilaration doesn't come until late in the game.
But for a place so grey and lifeless, the production design of Fallout 3 is unparalleled. It's awfully brave to be this barren. Fallout 3's version of the escape from the sewers that unveiled Oblivion's lush world is almost a slap in the face. This? This is what I'll be exploring? These sparse trees and gutted buildings, these piles of rubble and cracked highways, under this grey sky, before this shattered skyline? The answer is, yes, this is what you'll be exploring, and it's as oppressively homogeneous as you expect. That's the point. But there's nothing lazy about the way Bethesda has built this world. Quite the opposite. It's easy to make a fancy fantasy world out of trees, glittering ponds, bustling townsfolk, castles and hot lava -- consider the breezily hung-together but effective world of Fable II. Fallout 3 has to work harder. From the mechanism that opens the door at Megaton, to the view from a Tenpenny Tower balcony, to the ghosts of Vaults 87 and 106, to the last face you see, this is a consistently and shrewdly built world that rewards exploration for how well it fits together.
Empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
A lot of the gameplay involves picking your way through the sad leftovers of civilization, looking for things you can use. Ammo, raw meat, liquor. Cigarettes and sensor modules to trade for gun repairs. That one guy said he wanted Sugar Bombs. Oh, and you need a pilot light from a stove to make a flamethrower. Wasn't there an old stove in that diner shell to the northwest? It's a hardscrabble existence. Inflation might kick in by the end for power gamers, but otherwise, it's a delicate barter economy struggling its way into currency, using bottle caps as money to even out the trades.
The "economy," as it were, goes beyond barter. For instance, scraps of food are readily available in the form of meat from killed creatures, tins of pork and beans, and the delicacy of squirrels or iguanas on a stick. This food heals the damage you'll take, but it tends to be irradiated -- so as you eat, you get sicker and sicker. You can deal with this by occasionally visiting doctors or by using doses of Rad-Away. Or you can be more careful about what you eat, which means being more careful about taking damage. Clothes are often a tradeoff between boosting an important stat or reducing damage. There are even player-housing money sinks if that's your thing. It's all game design woven into the game world, as skilled and distinct as in BioShock.
Here is no water but only rock
The main storyline almost isn't enough to bear up under the sheer size of what Bethesda has created. The plot touches less than half of the world, which is there to be discovered (Fallout 3 will not plot your walk through the sights; it seems happy to let you miss what you're going to miss). There's a thematic unity with the previous Fallouts, which were concerned with the simple facts of food and water and grew into epic stories about technology and corruption. But here the more personal angle of your character's "daddy issue" replaces the previous games' sense of obligation to the Vault. Your family is not a band of survivors. Your family is one man. This motivation works no matter what direction the story takes. Compare this to Oblivion, where you couldn't very well decide not to save the world if you wanted to "finish" the game.
But the real storyline here is how you develop your character and navigate the choices. This is what makes Fallout 3 a great RPG. It's got plenty of meticulous stats and picky skill checks, but what sets it apart is the way you navigate the moral geography. Who do you help or hurt, and how do you do it? That's the far more compelling part of the storyline, and it's the bulk of the character development, even more than which perk you take when you level up (which is also pretty compelling). In this regard, Fallout 3 is very much like the games of Obsidian and Black Isle, but without their dated top-down contrivances.
In the room the women come and go
Not that there aren't any contrivances here. There are, and they give Fallout 3 a split personality. On one hand, the game is terrifically moody and immersive, nearly as much as Far Cry 2. But on the other hand, the world is chopped up into separate boxes divided by loading screens, where characters simply vanish when they walk through a door. The animation is terrible for anything but slow-motion death scenes, and the game looks particularly awkward when it attempts some sort of coordination between two or more characters. It's enough to make you want to leave your companion at home.
The combat might be a sore point for some players, but I loved it. Bethesda's objective seems to be letting you play it as a turn-based slow-motion decapitation sim, or as a slightly clunky shooter. Take your pick or just alternate as the mood strikes you. For folks who prefer to play it as a shooter, Fallout 3 offers weightless ammo, and plenty of it. Those of us who mostly use the nifty turn-based "V.A.T.S." system will never want for a bullet. V.A.T.S. lets you target body parts, shoot the weapon out of someone's hand, or cripple him so he can't chase you. At least, that seems to be the idea: In practice, there never seemed to be a reason to do anything other than simply close the distance and queue up a series of sure-fire headshots. Hand-to-hand combat (use the biggest blade you can find!) and explosives are overkill, as they should be. But well into my second playthrough, the ridiculously gory deaths still haven't gotten old.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
It's a hassle messing around with the terrible Pip-Boy 3000 to manage your weapons, examine your map, or check your radiation level. The clunky dialogue trees are painfully old-school and crammed into too-small windows posted beneath talking heads. Mass Effect's cinematic conversations would have helped a lot, but even then, clicking through dialogue killed so much of the world-building. Conversations are like commercial interruptions. "And now, a series of one-line messages from your NPC. Stay tuned! The game will be right back!"
The graphics look a lot better on the PC, which is nearly enough to recommend it above either of the console versions. But what seals the deal is that you can expect plenty of mods from Fallout fans, eager to tweak the game to their own exacting standards. The price you pay on the PC is the terrible interface that does almost nothing to take advantage of the keyboard. It's as if Bethesda expects that moving your hand off the WASD keys -- much less being able to escape out of a conversation -- will be too much of a strain. Hopefully, this can be patched or modded, since a few sensible hotkeys will go a long way.
Decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse
There are a few lapses of logic, most of which are gameplay concessions. But strange holes in the final set piece will make some choices feel hollow when they should have been satisfying payoffs (has an "evil" arc ever seemed like such a common-sense and even noble thing to do?). The story ends with an obligatory and derivative twist, followed by a big action sequence that you could literally see coming down Fifth Avenue, followed by The Choice. You know The Choice. It's that last bit that determines which cinematic you'll get. Be sure to save before you make The Choice, so that you can see the other cinematic. (Or at least bits of the other cinematic.) Fallout 3 plays you out with a ponderously written movie composed of discrete modules. For all the cool thematic unity in the game's main storyline, it's a shame the "outro" is so tacked-on. I'd rather have Chris Farley come out and do a "Remember ? that time ? when ? you killed those mutants?" routine.
Many of these are trappings of conventional RPGs, and there's no denying that's exactly what Fallout 3 is, but in an unconventional setting. Like BioShock and Far Cry 2, this is an uncompromising and unforgettable vision. Whatever its failings as a game, it more than makes up for them with what it accomplishes as a place -- and a story about a character passing through that place, changing it, and being changed by it. As RPGs go online and morph into rote progression, they lose sight of this part of the genre. The grey wastelands of Fallout 3 are one of the best places you'll find it again.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.