The Capital Wasteland stretches for miles in every direction, and what you do now is your choice. The game nudges you toward Megaton, a nearby shanty town constructed from the remains of a crashed jumbo jet, but you needn’t bother. The main ‘quest’ features the game’s best set-pieces, but if you want to build stats, and gather weapons and money to buy supplies, it’s wise to attempt one of the game’s myriad side quests. The wastes look barren and empty, but every few miles you’ll bump into someone looking for help or an offer of work. Problem is, the side quests aren’t that satisfying. You can spend an hour traipsing through a subway tunnel fighting giant ants, only to find some low-level loot and a handful of bottle caps (the game’s currency) at the end. Quests that offer up moral quandaries result in little more than raised or lowered karma (your character’s good/evil meter) and an underwhelming reward. In Oblivion you felt as if your choices were affecting communities, but the scope of your actions in Fallout is disappointingly limited.
By any other standards, the game’s ripe with highlights. In a town called Canterbury Commons, two rival superheroes (the Antagoniser and The Mechanist) are at battle, turning the streets into a warzone and terrorising its residents. The mayor asks for your help, and you end up battling through each hero’s secret underground lair to end their reign of terror. You even get their ridiculous costumes as a reward if you finish the quest a certain way. And working for the slavers (human slavery is rife in the world of Fallout) is deliciously evil; especially when you’re tricking hapless eight year-old kids into a life of eternal, thankless servitude. “Here, try on this necklace, kid…” you say before explaining that it’s designed to make their head explode if they run away.
The first two Fallouts let characters with high charisma and intelligence finish the game without killing anyone, but Fallout 3 is action-packed like Call of Duty. Your VATS skill (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System) lets you pause the action during real-time combat, then target an enemy’s specific body parts for tactical takedowns. The ability is limited by a finite allocation of Action Points (AP) that recharge over time. Your percentage of success is relative to your position and stats, so it’s no cheap fix. Do you go for a sure-fire shot to disable the enemy’s weapon? Or a risky one-kill head shot? It’s great fun, but the game’s confusing mix of familiar FPSing and RPG-style combat grates. If you fire at an enemy manually and unload ten rounds into their head, the damage you do will still be partly determined by your weapon stats, not your accuracy. And despite early promises that you’d be able to talk or sneak your way out of most situations, far too many missions leave you no option but to murder everyone with VATS, especially toward the end of the main story.
Fallout 3’s world looks incredible, tinged by the chill of the desolate, post-apocalyptic emptiness. Towns are populated with dozens of characters, all with their own stories, quests and personalities, and some locations are stunning, like the Museum of Technology (filled with interactive displays and real-world relics), Little Lamplight (a gorgeous candlelit underground city populated entirely by children) and the Lincoln Memorial, now ironically overrun by slavers.