A lot of games make a big deal out of player choice, but few in recent memory offer so many intricate, meaningful ways of approaching any given situation. You fulfill or dash the spiritual hopes of an idyllic society, side with slavers or their slaves, and decide the fate of more than one city over the course of your postapocalyptic journey through the Washington, DC wasteland. Your actions have far-reaching consequences that affect not just the world around you but also the way you play, and it's this freedom that makes Fallout 3 worth playing--and replaying. It's deep and mesmerizing, and though not as staggeringly broad as the developer's previous games, it's more focused and vividly realized.
Welcome to the wasteland.
This focus is obvious from the first hour of the game, in which character creation and story exposition are beautifully woven together. It's an introduction best experienced on your own rather than described in detail here, but it does set up Fallout 3's framework: It's the year 2277, and you and your father are residents of Vault 101, one of many such constructs that shelter the earth's population from the dangers of postnuclear destruction. When dad escapes the vault without so much as a goodbye, you go off in search of him, only to find yourself snagged in a political and scientific tug of war that lets you change the course of the future. As you make your way through the decaying remnants of the District and its surrounding areas (you'll visit Arlington, Chevy Chase, and other suburban locales), you encounter passive-aggressive ghouls, a bumbling scientist, and an old Fallout friend named Harold who has, well, a lot on his mind. Another highlight is a diminutive collective of Lord of the Flies-esque refugees who reluctantly welcome you into their society, assuming that you play your cards right.
The city is also one of Fallout 3's stars. It's a somber world out there, in which a crumbling Washington Monument stands watch over murky green puddles and lurching beasts called mirelurks. You'll discover new quests and characters while exploring, of course, but traversing the city is rewarding on its own, whether you decide to explore the back rooms of a cola factory or approach the heavily guarded steps of the Capitol building. In fact, though occasional silly asides and amusing dialogue provide some humorous respite, it's more serious than previous Fallout games. It even occasionally feels a bit stiff and sterile, thus diminishing the sense of emotional connection that would give some late-game decisions more poignancy. Additionally, the franchise's black humor is present but not nearly as prevalent, though Fallout 3 is still keenly aware of its roots. The haughty pseudogovernment called the Enclave and the freedom fighters known as the Brotherhood of Steel are still powerful forces, and the main story centers around concepts and objectives that Fallout purists will be familiar with.
Although some of that trademark Bethesda brittleness hangs in the air, the mature dialogue (it's a bit unnerving but wholly authentic the first time you hear 8-year-olds muttering expletives) and pockets of backstory make for a compelling trek. There are more tidbits than you could possibly discover on a single play-through. For example, a skill perk (more on these later) will enable you to extract information from a lady of the evening, information that in turn sheds new light on a few characters--and lets you complete a story quest in an unexpected way. A mission to find a self-realized android may initiate a fascinating look at a futuristic Underground Railroad, but a little side gossiping might let you lie your way to quest completion. There aren't as many quests as you may expect, but their complexity can be astonishing. Just be sure to explore them fully before pushing the story forward: Once it ends, the game is over, which means that you'll need to revert to an earlier saved game if you intend to explore once you finish the main quest.
Thus choices are ruled only by your own sense of propriety and the impending results. For every "bad" decision you make (break into someone's room, sacrifice a soldier to save your own hide), your karma goes down; if you do something "good" (find a home for an orphan, give water to a beggar), your karma goes up. These situations trigger more consequences: Dialogue choices open up, others close off, and your reputation will delight some while antagonizing others. For example, a mutant with a heart of gold will join you as a party member, but only if your karma is high enough, whereas a brigand requires you to be on the heartless side. Even in the last moments of the game, you are making important choices that will be recounted to you during the ending scene, similar to the endings in the previous Fallout games. There are loads of different ending sequences depending on how you completed various quests, and the way they are patched together into a cohesive epilogue is pretty clever.
Fallout 3 remains true to the series' character development system, using a similar system of attributes, skills, and perks, including the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system from previous games for your attributes, such as strength, perception, and endurance. From there, you can specialize in a number of skills, from heavy weapons and lock-picking to item repairing and terminal hacking. You will further invest in these skills each time you level, and you'll also choose an additional perk. Perks offer a number of varied enhancements that can be both incredibly helpful and a bit creepy. You could go for the ladykiller perk, which opens up dialogue options with some women and makes others easier to slay. Or the cannibal perk, which lets you feed off of fallen enemies to regain health at the risk of grossing out anyone who glimpses this particularly nasty habit. Not all of them are so dramatic, but they're important aspects of character development that can create fascinating new options.
The VATS system makes for some awesome-looking battles.
Although you can play from an odd-looking third-person perspective (your avatar looks like he or she is skating over the terrain), Fallout 3 is best played from a first-person view. Where combat is concerned, you will play much of the game as if it is a first-person shooter, though awkwardly slow movement and camera speeds mean that you'll never confuse it for a true FPS. Armed with any number of ranged and melee weapons, you can bash and shoot attacking dogs and random raiders in a traditional manner. Yet even with its slight clunkiness, combat is satisfying. Shotguns (including the awesome sawed-off variant) have a lot of oomph, plasma rifles leave behind a nice pile of goo, and hammering a mutant's head with the giant and cumbersome supersledge feels momentously brutal. Just be prepared to maintain these implements of death: Weapons and armor will gradually lose effectiveness and need repairing. You can take them to a specialist for fixing, but you can also repair them yourself, as long as you have another of the same item. It's heartbreaking to break a favored weapon while fending off supermutants, but it reinforces the notion that everything you do in Fallout 3, even shooting your laser pistol, has consequences.
These aspects keep Fallout 3 from being a run-and-gun affair, and you shouldn't expect to play it as one. This is because the most satisfying and gory moments of battle are products of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS. This system is a throwback to the action-point system of previous Fallout games, in that it lets you pause the action, spend action points by targeting a specific limb on your enemy, and watch the bloody results unfold in slow motion. You aren't guaranteed a hit, though you can see how likely you are to strike any given limb and how much damage your attack might do. But landing a hit in VATS is immensely gratifying: The camera swoops in for a dramatic view, your bullet will zoom toward its target, and your foe's head might burst in a shocking explosion of blood and brains. Or perhaps you will blow his limb completely off, sending an arm flying into the distance--or launch his entire body into oblivion.