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I don't think I've ever seen a press release generate so much dismay as when Bethesda Softworks announced that it was going to develop Fallout 3. Fallout fans don't have much in common with Oblivion fans, and the Fallout games were nothing like the Elder Scrolls games, and so it was an odd pairing to say the least -- except for the fact that it combined a popular developer with a popular franchise, and was almost guaranteed to generate oodles of money. A lot of people, including me, feared that Fallout 3 would turn into Oblivion with guns, and while that didn't precisely turn out to be the case, it ended up being close enough for the fears to be justified.
Or at least that's my take, being one of the stodgy older gamers who still thinks that Baldur's Gate 2 is the best role-playing game of all time, and who wouldn't put Oblivion on a top 10 list. I'm also one of those gamers who only plays PC games, and who only plays games that offer a third-person perspective -- two areas where Bethesda doesn't excel -- making me not exactly in the target demographic for the game. And so while you might be getting the hint that I didn't enjoy Fallout 3 as much as some of the other reviewers out there, I recognize that this review isn't (at least entirely) about me. It's about whether the game is a good fit for you, and whether you should spend your money to buy it, and for that you'll need to keep reading.
Fallout 3 starts out in the year 2277, 200 years after a nuclear war between the United States and China. Many people in the United States hid out in special vaults when the missiles started flying, and they managed to survive and stay healthy, but others weren't so lucky. Some people absorbed so much radiation that they turned into ghouls, others were captured or transformed into supermutants, and still others -- the (lucky) ones -- found themselves in an upside-down world where they had to scavenge whatever they could to stay alive.
The first two Fallout games took place on the West Coast of the United States, but Fallout 3 takes place in and around Washington D.C. You play a character who was born in Vault 101, one of the vaults in the D.C. suburbs. The game begins with your birth (where you choose your name, gender and appearance), and then it quickly moves you through some of the key moments in your life (such as your 10th birthday party where you receive a Pip-Boy 3000) until you hit the age of 19 and the game really starts. It's at that point that your father disappears from the vault, the vault's Overseer starts hunting for you, and you decide that it might be a good idea to leave the vault and see what's going on outside.
The (growing up) phase of the game is nicely effective. It introduces you to the world you're living in, it shows you with your father so you can form an emotional attachment to him (and actually care when he goes missing), it acts as a tutorial so you can see how to interact with objects and fight things, and it gives you a chance to define your character. For example, when you hit 16 you have to take an aptitude test, and the test decides which three skills you should tag (tagging a skill gives you a bonus with it).
The downside to the introductory sequence is that none of your decisions have any real consequences. As I was playing it, I kept thinking of Ultima IV, which started out by asking you a series of questions, and then it chose a class for you based on your answers. But in Fallout 3, either you can undo what the game picks for you (such as the tagged skills in the aptitude test), or the game pretends that you did something else. For example, you have a (best friend) named Amata, and even if you're totally rude to her every time you talk to her, and even if you help some thugs make fun of her, she still gives you a gun and helps you escape from the vault when you turn 19. I would have liked the early years better if people in the vault had remembered how I'd treated them.
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