I felt little more than a vaguely tepid interest in the ongoing development of Fallout 3 and as its release approached, apathy gave way to something verging on mild hostility. I'm more than a bit fond of Black Isle's previous seminal stuff and I couldn't escape this terrible sense that it was all going to end in tears. I wasn't charmed by Oblivion, I felt that in its rush to join the next gen, it took some backward steps from what had been established strongly with Morrowind instead of building on it. Like a devastatingly pretty girl with a severe stutter, comical facial tics and an unfeasibly fat ass, it was blighted with the usual bugs and wrinkles that are as integral to the Elder Scrolls package as the ambitious world building. I found it a stodgy, bloated experience, afflicted with curious design decisions that arguably hindered rather than enhanced its potential. All of this, along with an uneven mix in the quality of quests (the Dark Brotherhood being a memorable high point), left me feeling stuck between admiration and exasperation.
So being less than a dedicated fan of Bethesda's most recent work, I approached Fallout 3 with a great deal of justifiable trepidation. Three days in though, and I'm won over completely. So much of what irritated me about Oblivion has been addressed. I am delighted that the Fallout "feel" has been evoked so comprehensively and I'm digging the hybrid system of real time/V.A.T.S. turn-based shooting far more than I expected to. V.A.T.S. is an acronym for Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System and it plays an integral role in F3’s combat – you can shoot stuff unassisted but it’s rarely the wise option. While using V.A.T.S., real-time combat is paused, giving you time to use what Bethesda have described as a hybrid between turn-based and real-time combat. Both the player and enemies can target specific body areas for attacks to inflict specific injuries, and these various actions cost action points, limiting the actions of each combatant during a turn. Augmented with some of the messier perks available, the spectacularly obscene gibbing just never gets old, this is ‘dirty deeds done dirt cheap’, and I love it.
As a confirmed, long standing fan of western RPGs going back to the good old, fat manual and glossy A3 sized map in the box PC tradition, it strikes me that Fallout 3 evokes a strong sense of a bygone era. It's very much in the mould of classics like the original Deus Ex, System Shock 2 or Thief and has the obligatory big, bold, vividly-realised epic quality while maintaining a very strong sense of structure and purpose. At no time have I felt entirely aimless or set adrift in its expansive ugly/beautiful wastelands in quite the same way that I frequently was on my visits to Cyrodiil (the land in which Oblivion is set), and this slightly more focused approach is managed while offering at least as many diversions from the beaten path. I assumed that this kind of old school grand design had been lost forever, given the elbow in favour of the modern, streamlined & dumbed down approach that leaves me so cold. Certainly, some fat has been trimmed as the series is dragged from its traditional, isometric roots and made to fit into its new Oblivion clothes. But actually on balance, this clever blending of old and new seems a very good one indeed.
Graphically it's kind of a mixed bag, at least by current standards, almost falling just a tad behind the curve. The apocalyptic wastelands, as I said previously, manage to be both grim and beautiful and not as tiresome on the eye as those E3 videos seemed to suggest. The horizon stretches for miles, but suffers some obvious pop up at odd times, some textures in use just don't seem to cut it when contrasted with the otherwise impeccably obsessive art direction and the frame rate takes the occasional kamikaze nose dive. But for all that, it's markedly smoother and more polished than Oblivion ever was, with fleet-footed indoor/outdoor transitional load times, very little in the way of frame rate stutter and none of that irksome pop up grass that plagued Oblivion's lush vistas.
The eternally locked 1950s apple pie, Bakelite, Brave New World styling that is so much a part of the Fallout ethos is everywhere, enhanced by the Ink Spots “I don't want to set the world on fire” fuzzily bopping along on an atomically powered radio hidden somewhere in the brooding, radiation ravaged husk of a house that was very likely once fringed by cherry trees and a cheerful whitewash picket fence. Every bit the chilling haunted dystopia that Rapture was, but with the scope of a Sam Peckinpah western fused with John Carpenter branded horror. Sure, it bears more than a passing resemblance to its adopted parent - right down to the uncanny valley NPCs - and some of the more stubborn and occasionally immersion-breaking quirks of the game engine do crop up here and there. But overall, things have been tweaked to something at least approaching a level of perfection that has thus far eluded Bethesda in their previous best efforts.
I don't believe Fallout 3 is doing anything so evolutionary that it's gonna suddenly win over people who would otherwise avoid solo RPGs like the plague, and anyone expecting a stat-driven FPS is going to be very unimpressed with the loose, non-VATS shooting, but all the things that enthusiasts of the genre love about these kinds of games are present and correct here; it's artistically sound, crafted to an obscene level of attention to detail, the story is mature and relatively sophisticated, some of the incidental side quests are every bit as enthralling as the main show, the plotting is at times downright inspired and the care and reverence shown to a much loved series is heart-warmingly abundant.
Note: Of all versions available, and aside from the minimal graphical differences between consoles, if the other formats are available to you then it's difficult to recommend the PS3 version when considering the exclusivity of official DLC that the Xbox 360 and PC will receive, the latter of which will undoubtedly benefit from the inevitable tidal wave of excellent user-created mods.