This anatomically based damage is implemented well. Shooting an Enclave soldier's arm may cause him to drop his weapon, shooting his leg will cause him to limp, and a headshot will disorient him. But you aren't immune to these effects, either. If your head takes enough damage, you'll need to deal with disorienting aftereffects; crippled arms mean reduced aiming ability. Fortunately, you can apply healing stimpacks locally to heal the injury; likewise, a little sleep will help ease your troubles. You can also temporarily adjust your stats using any number of aids and healing items. Yet these, too, come with consequences. A little scotch or wine sounds delicious and offers temporary stat boosts, but you can become addicted if you drink them enough, which results in its own disorienting visual effects. And, of course, you will need to deal with the occasional effects of radiation, which is a problem when you drink from dirty water sources or eat irradiated food. Radiation poisoning can be cured, but you'll still need to weigh the healing benefits of certain items versus the resultant increase in radiation levels.
Quests are often more than meets the eye.
This all makes for a remarkably complex game that's further deepened by other elements that add some gameplay variety and help the world feel more lived-in. Lock-picking initiates a decent, if odd, minigame that simulates applying torque to the lock with a screwdriver while twisting a bobby pin. The hacking minigame is an interesting word puzzle that requires a little bit of brainpower. Or if you fancy yourself more of a blacksmith than a wordsmith, you can earn and purchase schematics to help you create weapons using the various components scattered around the land. More of an interior decorator? No matter: Should you acquire the deed to an apartment, you can decorate it and even outfit it with a few helpful appliances. The jokester robot comes free.
Although you'll be spending much of your time wandering alone out in the wastes, or perhaps with a companion or two, there are some memorable cinematic sequences. You will join soldiers as they take on a giant boss mutant, spearhead an assault on a famous DC landmark, and escape from a doomed citadel while robots and soldiers fill the air with laser fire. It's a good mix, paying off the atmospheric tension with an occasional explosive release. Your enemies put up a good fight--often too good, considering that enemies that were a challenge early on can still be tough cookies 5 or 10 levels later. This scaling difficulty makes your sense of progression feel a bit more limited than in other role-playing games, but it feels somewhat appropriate, considering the game's open-ended nature and inhospitable world. After all, if skulking mutants weren't a constant threat, you wouldn't be afraid to peek into the dark corners of the Fallout world. It should be noted that unlike previous games in the series, you can't take a completely peaceful approach to solving your quest. In order to complete the game, you will have to get into combat and kill off some enemies, but since the combat system is generally pretty satisfying, this shouldn't be a serious problem for most players.
Fallout 3 takes place in a bombed-out, futuristic version of Washington DC, and in the game, the area is bleak but oddly serene. Crumbling overpasses loom overhead and optimistic 1950's-style billboards advertise their products with sunny catchphrases. It looks impressive, and you move around the wide-open wasteland with nary a loading time, though you will encounter loads when entering and exiting buildings or quick-jumping to areas you've already visited. Numerous set-piece landmarks are particularly ominous, such as a giant aircraft carrier that serves as a self-contained city, or the decrepit interiors of the National Air and Space Museum. But the small touches are just as terrific, such as explosions that produce mushroom-like clouds of flame and smoke, evoking the nuclear tragedy at the heart of Fallout 3's concept. Character models are more lifelike than in the developer's prior efforts but still move somewhat stiffly, lacking the expressiveness of the models in games such as Mass Effect.
It's a shame, in light of these impressive design elements, that the PlayStation 3 version is shockingly inferior to the others from a technical perspective. Although the Xbox 360 and PC versions display the occasional visual oddity and bland texture, these nitpicks are easy to overlook. Sadly, the jagged edges, washed-out lighting, and slightly diminished draw distance of the PS3 release aren't so easy to dismiss. We also experienced a number of visual bugs on the PS3. Character faces disappeared several times, leaving only eyeballs and hair; limbs on robots went missing; some character models had an odd outline around them as if they were cel-shaded; and the day-to-night transition may cause odd streaks on the screen as you move the camera around. This version doesn't even offer trophies, whereas the Xbox 360 and PC versions offer Xbox Live/Windows Live achievements.
While there is plenty of somber exploration, you'll still find lots of action.
Aside from a few PS3-specific sound quirks, the audio in every version is marvelous. Most of the voice acting is great, some sleepy-sounding performances notwithstanding. Any game's atmosphere can live or die by its ambient audio, and Fallout 3 rises to the challenge. The whistling of the wind and the far-off sound of a gunshot are likely to give you a chill, and the slow-motion groans and crunch of a baseball bat meeting a ghoul's face sound wonderfully painful. If you get lonely and want some company, you can listen to a couple of radio stations, though the frequent repetition of the songs and announcements grates after a while. The soundtrack is fine, though it's a bit overwrought considering the desolate setting. Luckily, its default volume is very low, so it doesn't get in the way.
No matter what platform you own, you should play Fallout 3, which overcomes its issues by offering a deep and involving journey through a world that's hard to forget. It has more in common with Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series than with previous Fallout games, but that is by no means a bad thing. In fact, Fallout 3 is leaner and meaner than Bethesda's previous efforts, less expansive but more intense, while still offering immense replay value and quite a few thrills along the way. Whether you're a newcomer to the universe or a Fallout devotee, untold hours of mutated secrets are lurking in the darkest corners of Washington.