Gamers have had a love affair with nuclear war ever since Matthew Broderick gave new meaning to the phrase "WOPR with cheese" back in the eighties. However, surprisingly few games have really dealt with the aftermath of nuclear war - surprising really, considering the scope of imagination it allows designers. The Fallout series has always* managed to slap huge dollops of originality all over the lithe, inviting setting, creating something filthy, yet oh so inviting.
See, as if a post-apocalyptic wasteland - quite literally a sandbox environment - wasn't enough, the Fallout setting is one of a perpetual, ruined 1950s world. Billboards all feature smiling men with pipes, the rusting shells of cars look like they were once the 'car of the future', and the Vault-boy - cheerful throughout all his spleen-shredding adventures - is the ever-present logo.
Fallout 1 and 2 were some of the most influential and well-crafted RPGs of the 1990s, so it's fitting that uber-RPGers Bethesda should take the mantle for the new incarnation. It's got to be said, visually it's pretty near to perfect in terms of capturing the Fallout vibe. At the risk of offending wasteland grognards I'd venture to say that it captures the "Mad Max meets the Gernsback Continuum" feel that makes Fallout what it is even better than the originals.
Right, that's enough enthusing. It's unexpected tangent time.
Since time immemorial, scientists have searched for a unifying theory - a "Theory of Everything", if you will. Mathematicians too have searched for a magical theorem or formula by which all other theories can be measured. I believe that such a principle exists for RPG design. Ever since Gary Gygax first rolled up a level 1 cleric, there have been certain central philosophies to RPG design - experience points, hit points, levels... you know the kind of thing. Designers have grappled with these concepts over the years in a desperate struggle to keep a game balanced from level 1 right through to... well, wherever you cap your levels.
Does Fallout 3 finally crack this tricky conundrum?
No. Not even close.
At levels 1 through to about 5, you're scrabbling in the dirt for ever bottle cap you can find, pondering interminably over every skill point or perk that you earn, and constantly stressing over your shortage of ammo. THIS is wasteland living as it oughta be! But it doesn't last. You'll reach that level 20 cap all too quickly, and those super-mutants won't seem so super any more. Considering how many gangs of marauding raiders you encounter, there's an incredible amount of loot just lying around everywhere. Ammo, cash, weapons - before long you've got so many of each you don't know what to do with yourself.
This is the only thing I can fault about what is otherwise a terrific game. Missions are involved and interesting, character perks sometimes have hidden uses that surprise and impress, and as a consistent world it all holds together beautifully. Perhaps after 100 hours of gameplay you don't WANT to feel like you're struggling to survive.
If you ever played Fallout 1, 2 or Tactics and enjoyed them, go out and buy this. If you saw the Mad Max movies and enjoyed even one of them, go out and buy this. If you love Oblivion, buy this because they feel really similar for all the right reasons.
The wasteland beckons.
* - OK, excluding Fallout - Brotherhood of Steel.