FALLOUT 3 / Bethesda / PC
It took nearly a decade for Fallout 3 to be made, so needless to say there was quite a bit of anticipation for it. The previous game came out in the late 1990s, when 3D was still new and janky and squinty isometric 2D was still about the best you could expect for an RPG with the depth and options of a Fallout game, even on the PC.

So people waited with bated breath only to find that ... Fallout 3 was Oblivion. Bethesda simply adapted their Elder Scrolls engine to handle guns and rocket launchers, dumped truckloads of rubble and toxic waste all over the lush verdant elfy forests, turned all the old people into mutants and crust punks, and off we go.

Not really a surprise since, despite its popularity and fairly strong sales in the 90s, Fallout was still at that point seen as something of a niche/cult title and a financial risk probably not worth building a new engine from scratch for. But this actually represented a tremendous shift in gameplay. Whereas the original Fallout games were strictly turn-based RPGs, Fallout 3 is really more primarily a FPS with some RPG elements hanging onto its bones for dear life.

The big advantage to this is that it gives you the first fully rendered, fully realized Fallout world. Previous games were basically a handful of towns, a few dungeons, and a boring static minimalist map screen that connected them all. When Fallout 3 kicks you out of your cozy Vault at the outset of the game into the wild wasteland for the first time, the effect of seeing all that ruin stretching out before you - and then being able to go and explore every facet of it up close - is really pretty striking.

The downside is that even though there's an almost total gameplay shift, Fallout 3 nevertheless manages to hew to the bad elements of its tradition - the fact that most of the game is padded out with repetitive Shooting And Looting in environments that are often copy-pasted and boring. It's action-based instead of turn-based now, but enemies are bullet sponges with no regard for their own lives or safety, statistics factor into chances of hitting and damage, and thus much of the game's fighting devolves into simply standing in front of each other trading headshots like it's SNES Shadowrun.

While Fallout 3 manages to port the most boring and tedious elements of its framework into the brave new 3D FPS world, it's also largely bailed out by the same things that bailed the previous games out from devolving into simply a tedious combat-heavy grindfest - the uniqueness of the gameworld (and its contrasting relentless bleakness with campy 1950s satire), decent characters and dialogue, and most importantly the freedom to play the game as a gigantic jerkface without having artificial walls thrown up or being put into an unwinnable state as punishment.
                                                                             Erm ... I'l pass.

For example. Early in the game, you stumble out of your Vault and into the nearby settlement of Megaton. Megaton is so named as it conspicuously has an unexploded nuclear warhead sitting right in the middle of town. You'll soon find an optional quest connected to this warhead - the town's mayor/sherrif asks if you can disarm it. Most games would leave it at that. Fallout 3 has a shady character approach you and request that you detonate the warhead instead, as certain influential interests would like to see it wiped completely off the map. You are not only totally free to genocide the opening town if you care to, you're also rewarded for it with a posh suite in what passes for a luxury tower apartment in post-apocalyptia. Your more "advanced" games might put you on the Black branch of a Black-White dualist morality system for making this choice. In Fallout 3, it will negatively impact your reputation and cause problems with certain other characters, but you're totally free to do this and not only still pursue the main questline as normal, but even pursue the vast majority of the other side quests as well. It's a game that handles layered choice and consequence very well without locking you into linear story branches, and that alone cuts it a pretty significant amount of slack.

It needs some slack as combat is a little on the jank side, sadly. As mentioned, enemies are total bullet sponges, showing no sign of feeling your various bullets to the head or grenades to the groin unless the Random Number Generator grants you a critical hit, at which time they'll maybe shake their heads for a couple of seconds before resuming the frenzied charge. There's positional limb damage and you can even shoot/destroy weapons out of their hands sometimes, but crippling an arm or leg doesn't actually seem to render them unable to shoot or even slow their movement up at all. They also behave as if they're fully aware that they're meaningless pawns in a video game whose only role is to chip away as much of your health and ammo as they can before dying; once in a while they'll run away after taking a critical, but not very often, and when they do they usually just go cower in some conspicuous place for a while before deciding to come back and take another crack at you.
                                                        Hired by some indie designer, no doubt

In a nod to series continuity, there's a system called the V.A.T.S. that's supposed to kinda sorta serve as a turn-based alternative to playing the game Duke Nukem style. Tapping a button at any time freezes the action and lets you make a series of moves that are limited by your current AP (which is otherwise never used for anything at all outside of VATS.) Shots you take are determined by your statistics rather than your manual aim, the whole thing dressed up to look like the combat systems of the first two games. It's not a *real* turn-based system by any stretch of the imagination, though; in the early going of the game you might as well just ignore it entirely as it's useless when your stats are shit and you have shit weapons. In the later stages of the game it just turns into Magical Freezy Free Headshot mode, that allows you to basically stop the action anytime and get two or three powerful headshots on an enemy before being dropped back into FPS Mode with no real penalty. You are never, for example, forced to wait for the monsters to attack while in turn-based mode after taking your potshots. So it's useless in about the first half of the game, then feels like an overpowered cheat mode in the second half.

It also has a long-running problem common to open-ended WRPGs, particularly the Elder Scrolls games; it's actually a lot more fun near the beginning when you're relatively weak and there's a whole big unknown world to explore. Once you've seen most of the world and found that it's a bunch of copy-pasted rubble filled with samey battles against samey enemies, it starts losing its charm and becomes tedious quite fast. Compounding this problem here are relatively few enemies types, and as with Oblivion, they scale in level along with you. So you mostly keep seeing the same assholes throughout the Wastes, they just mysteriously keep becoming more resilient to your damage over time (and pick your life down more effectively with more powerful weapons.)

One other problem comes over from the previous games - a whole host of non-combat abilities is offered, but they're employed in either a broken or just very cursory way. That, and the mandatory story missions force you into a bunch of scripted combat as well. So you'll need to invest in at least one weapon type ... and one of those really should be a gun given that you'll face enemies on sniper perches and high ground quite frequently. Stealth seems to be almost entirely determined by statistics rather than line-of-sight; the higher your stat is the lower the bubble in which enemies auto-spot you is. The lockpicking and hacking games are also basically total trial-and-error that just gets a bit more lenient the higher your relevant stats are.

On a more positive note, Fallout 3 is the first to incorporate a significant soundtrack in the form of a GTA-like radio station. It plays a mix of old timey big band and swing, and 1940s-50s pop. I want to give the sound designer a cookie for most of the classy music giving a hilarious and surreal counterpoint to the grim action, and the inspired inclusion of Roy Brown's "Butcher Pete" which fits the game perfectly; then I want smack them in the head for overplaying the I'MINLOVEI'MINLOVEI'MINLOVE song from some terrible 1950s movie. Outside of the radio station (which can be turned off and requires an optional side quest to extend its range to the entire game world), there's nothing but ambient sound with the exception of one of those faint, forgettable little symphonic string-and-percussion pieces during combat.

Back to the negativity, there's a very low max level cap (level 20) that seems like a heavy-handed ploy to sell DLC (paid installments sequentially raise it to 30, then 50.) I left a number of side quests unfinished and locations unexplored simply because I was already at level 20 and swimming in money, so what was the point? Side quests also constitute the vast bulk of gameplay time; those that like to follow primary story cues before doing them will find themselves very disappointed that the main story only lasts for a few hours of gameplay, and ends rather abruptly not allowing you to return to the game to play further. Though, of course, paid DLC unlocks the ability to continue past the ending.
                                           Visual evidence of the hacking minigame being stupid.

Sometimes it feels that the primary concern with the game was selling DLC in the future rather than the core game itself. That, and a mostly new design team took the reins here, and seemed to want to play it extremely safe by just copying Fallout's established elements into a 3D engine without trying to parse them to determine which ones still worked and which ones needed fixing. After all that, though, I still think the game at least deserves a 4/5. It was an engaging and mostly enjoyable experience with very little in the way of bugs, and I had a pretty good time with it playing to completion over 25 hours or so. And at this point 5 years later, you can pick up the GOTY edition for 5 bucks or so on sales pretty regularly anyway, which renders most of my complaints about the DLC aspects moot.
                                           Shoot him in the nuts i'ma shoot him in the nuts
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