In the opening moments of Fallout 3, you are hurled from your underground sanctuary into a sterile post-nuclear wilderness. You're thrust into a wind-tossed moonscape with the rust-mottled lattices of once-buildings bracketed by piles of rock that bulge like geological tumors. Catch the sun flaring as it sets against some junk town, and it's hard not to view it romantically.
Just like Oblivion, Fallout 3 has view-locked dialogue menus, talking heads, jerky realtime melee, foraging through crates and barrels re-imagined as toolkits and file cabinets. But Oblivion's use-it-or-lose-it stats are history, replaced by Fallout's classic skills and perks (minus the cons) distributed as you accrete experience points. And the game world is staffed with static creatures--no more spawn zones that level up with you and tag along wherever you go.
The difference that matters most: Fallout 3's "capital wasteland," which extends around the remains of cherished structures like the Washington Monument and Arlington Library and Jefferson Memorial, hits closer to home than Oblivion's fantasy world. Cobbling together a living in Nuka-Cola bottle caps is risky business as you navigate derelict minefields and scavenge frequently not-empty houses and schools and factories for fire-hose nozzles and surgical tubing, tweezers and cigarettes, leaf blowers and little tubes of glue.
Food and water, which heal you while irradiating you, offer different ratios of helpful to harmful. Toilets are terrible, rivers are better, and sinks are best. Pop a pill and you can reduce your radiation. Or wear different types of clothes and armor which shield you from different sorts of negatives. Or just get to a bed to sleep that flesh wound off.
If you choose to fight, you'll need guns and lots of bullets, which are almost a secondary currency. Whether you prefer small, large, or energy-based weapons, it often takes a dozen hits to put an enemy down. By the time I reached my pick of the game's four endings with half the possible quests completed and 42 hours logged, I'd killed some 300 people and creatures. Competence hacking computers to open safes or wiggling bobby pins to spring locks on ammo boxes becomes essential.
Fallout's controversial V.A.T.S. mechanic couples "action points" to a targeting system and affords you time to pause and ponder your target. Head shots trump body shots, limb shots can cripple, and aiming at an enemy's weapon can actually spring it from their grip. That sounds nice in theory, but it tends to be dull in practice. Blame the game's dodgy enemy intelligence. Oh, and did I mention the violence? Think gruesome on a whole new plane.
The ending isn't a choice so much as railroading you into an irrelevant cutscene that pays shallow homage to the hell you've scrabbled through. When it ends, it really ends. No continues or tying up unfinished business or pushing through to the game's level 20 cap. There's an easy solution: Don't finish the game. That ending will wait, and your appreciation for all the things this game gets right will be better for it.
In the end, Fallout 3 is really about moments spent hunkered under paint-blistered girders propping up a Red Rocket gas station next to a sputtering Nuka-Cola vending machine taking shots at snarling mutants while The Andrew Sisters and Danny Kaye croon "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo." It's spying birds circling like vultures over cities and wondering whether they're ciphers for something else, something hidden. It's standing in the gloomy miasma of Megaton's dual spotlights at twilight, or following Lucky Harith's pack brahmin around the capital wasteland, getting into trouble and sometimes not getting back out again.