Fallout 3, the latest in the post-apocalyptic franchise, begins ironically enough with your birth. A splatter of blood and an infant’s cry signal your entrance into the world where your father, voiced by Liam Neeson, guides you through the in-depth character creation process that has become a staple of Bethesda’s RPGs. This time, however, their signature Gamebryo engine has been enhanced with the addition of Fallout’s signature S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system (an acronym that represents the 7 attributes of your character), which you pick and choose through the clever device of a children’s storybook, appropriately titled “You’re S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” After this exceedingly smart tutorial and character creation system, which follows your character from birth to 18 years, a chain of events transpires in your underground Vault (Fallout’s subterranean bomb shelter/colonies) that takes you from the relative safety of the shelter and thrusts you headlong into the Wasteland.
It’s here at your second “birth” that Fallout 3 takes all of the concerns of the naysayers who bemoaned the franchise’s changes, from an overhead turn-based system to a first-person semi-real-time setup, and throws them to the wind. Leaving behind the cramped corridors of Vault 101 and seeing your first sun-baked glimpses of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. ranks up there with the best game experiences of the year. The new franchise holders at Bethesda may have changed the formula, but their approach (dubbed “Oblivion with guns” by the aforementioned naysayers) works beautifully. The deliberate, turn-based combat of the previous entries has been scaled back, opting for a “mixed-time” mode, where you can leave the real time combat of the first-person view using the new VaultTec Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S. With a squeeze of the right shoulder button, time freezes and the closest enemy is targeted, where you can then take your percentage-based chances on shooting their head, limbs, torso, or weapon. This proves to be more necessity than option, as the game is about as far from an FPS as you can imagine in spite of the perspective. Sometimes your only hope is to blast a weapon from an enemy’s hands, or to quickly separate their heads from their bodies. These turn-based actions also add an additional cinematic flair to the proceedings, as your actions (and their obscenely gory consequences) play out from different angles and varied speeds.
Despite the new perspective and tweaked combat system, this is still the same Fallout you know and love. It still has the same great Tomorrowland-Meets-Mad Max vibe that made the previous games so distinct, classic enemies like RadScorpions and Super Mutants still roam the Wasteland eager to turn you into a mushy red paste, and the same sardonic sense of humor still pervades the game. However, the hyper-detailed environments add an extra layer of strange sadness to the game, as you see the expansive remains of a ruined society around you, whether it’s the rusted husk of a hovercar, or the final embrace of a pair of skeletons, or the bombed-out shells of model homes, there are constant reminders of the once-utopian world that was there before you, and will never be again.
Fallout 3 is like meeting up with your high-school girlfriend all over again, but her acne’s cleared up and she’s lost the braces. It’s fresh and familiar, and with at least 100 hours of gameplay, it’s one hell of a value for 60 bucks. To quote Ron Perlman in his opening monologue “War never changes.” Fallout 3 has, however, and it’s better for it.