Most people struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Bethesda's Fallout 3, on the other hand, asks them to leave an underground vault after 19 years of seclusion and explore a post apocalyptic wasteland filled with shady characters and horrible mutants, not exactly the sort of morning exercise made better with coffee. Especially when encountering giant ants, unsafe levels of radiation and a shady character that asks them to vaporize a small town. Unless the developers screw up, this could be Bethesda's greatest achievement.
Fallout 3, based on the PC series that garnered a cult following in the '90s, takes place in the 23rd century, hundreds of years after a nuculear war between the United States and China. The bombs annihilated cities and killed millions of people, save the lucky few who thought ahead and constructed vaults, safe havens that protect them from radiation. Much like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory (pre-golden tickets), nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out. It stays that way for 200 years, until the player's dad goes for a walk and never returns, prompting a daring rescue attempt that involves numerous pitfalls, the aforementioned ants being the least of one's worries.
For the most part, the game plays like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a first- or third-person adventure in which players explore a vast land, encountering monsters and non-player characters (both friendly and hostile) along the way.
It all begins in Vault 101, with the main character's birth. To add depth to the experience, Bethesda lets players watch them grow up. It only lasts an hour, but this draws the player into the highly detailed world, supplying them with background info that gives meaning to the purpose of the adventure.
As soon as players exit the birth canal, they select their character's features, pouring through various traits to mold their appearance by choosing gender, body type, eye and hair color, typical characteristics in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games. From there, they meet their father (voiced by Liam Neeson), who before this customization wears a mask. Once the gamer sets the character's features, however, he removes the mask and players will notice that he bears a resemblance to their creation, not a direct copy, but enough to suggest he's related.
After this sequence, gamers watch their character grow up in the vault. As a toddler they learn to walk (a way for the game to familiarize players with the control scheme). At age 10, they score a BB gun (Bethesda won't elaborate on what it may be used for ... to shoot things, presumably) as well as the Pip-Boy 3000, a crude, electronic device (strapped to one's arm) with numerous functions. Not only does it display the character's stats -- Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck -- but also the inventory and a data screen which contains an area map, info on various objectives and useful items. It even functions as a radio, picking up distress signals and playing the 20-plus 1940s and '50s songs Bethesda licensed. It's a sweet piece of tech, old and battered by essential to the player's survival, as important as Batman's utility belt.
When the character turns 16, they must take the G.O.A.T. (Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test), which asks them questions that, depending on the answers, determines his or her skills, and age 19, their world changes forever. After their father's mysterious disappearance, gamers leave the vault, popping the locks on the giant door and exiting Vault 101 for the first time.
Upon leaving the vault, players will notice a sweet blurring effect as the character's eyes adjust to natural light, as well as a sign, once held by people desperately trying to escape the nuclear holocaust. Then they view the destruction, war torn vistas full of crumbling buildings, piles of debris and abandoned cars, most of which still have juice in them, thanks to very active nuclear cores. Gamers cannot drive vehicles, but they can use them to kill enemies, shooting the engines and causing a small nuclear explosion, complete with mushroom cloud.
At the same time, they must exercise caution, as their bodies absorb some of the radiation and it affects their overall performance. Even the water, which increases health when drank, poses a health risk. Gamers must decide how much radiation they're willing to take in exchange for escaping a bad situation or improving their character's wellness.
After wandering around for a few moments, players run into super-sized ants. A few shots from a hunting rifle takes them down, and the game does a nice job introducing them to its combat system. Fallout 3 features two unique ways to fight, either through standard first person blasting, or the V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System). It pauses the action, giving players the opportunity to target specific parts on an enemy's body, be it the arms, legs, head, torso and even a weapon. Each section contains a percentage that translates to the odds of hitting that particular target, each of which affects an NPC in different ways. A successful shot to the legs incapacitates an enemy, forcing it to slowly crawl along. Blasting the arms keeps it from using a weapon, while nailing the head slows it a bit. Do enough damage and the parts fly, with lots of gore. A well-timed head shot sends blood and brain matter flying in all directions. Even the eyes detach, rolling along the ground.
All of the weapons degrade over time and jam, forcing gamers to swap out parts or look for new toys altogether. By toys, we mean rocket launchers, automatic rifles, pistols and a host of other goodies, all of which can be upgraded. To do this, players need to boost their repair skill, which measures their ability to successfully turn a simple looking device into an instrument of death.
As they progress through this gorgeous world, players make numerous decisions, some of which significantly impact the game. The first town they come across, Megaton, sits atop a giant bomb that fell and never detonated. Its inhabitants, who believe it's dead, worship the device, believing some higher power spared their lives. Unbeknownst to them, the bomb lives, and just needs a little prodding to heat up. While in a bar, gamers run into a man named Mr. Burke, a shady guy that not only divulges this information, but also makes a deadly proposition, the chance to activate the bomb and blow Megaton to hell.
If players accept this mission and destroy Megaton (watching from a safe distance), it gets wiped off the map, as do its NPCs, missions and items. Essentially, players lose a portion of the game after destroying the place, an unprecedented video game decision.
Visually, the game looks outstanding. Restricting the world's size (don't worry, it's still huge) gives the developers time to obsess over everything, from the gory special effects to environments to the two-headed cows. Fallout 3's hundreds of NPCs also look more attractive and varied than those in the Elder Scrolls games. Instead of seeing the same faces over and over, the game individually models characters with fleshed out personalities, thus engraining them in the player's mind.
The architecture and overall theme leaves a lasting impression. As previously mentioned, the game contains music from the 1940s and 50s and for good reason. Everything, from the cars to the technology resembles a person from the 1950s vision of the future, which explains why automobiles seem partially ripped from the show Happy Days.
Despite the attention to detail and enjoyable looking combat, Fallout fans looking for a more traditional sequel may be disappointed. At the same time, Oblivion sold millions of copies, and applying a cool license to a quality formula will prove successful. Look for the game in Fall 2008 for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.