Before you've blinked open eyes smeared with blood in the opening ticks of Fallout 3's character building prologue, before you've toddled around with toy blocks or taken pop-shots at cat-sized roaches or ventured out into the game's gorgeous, desiccated wasteland to grapple with its heaps of broken images -- before any of that, you'll view a simple automated slideshow spooled through a clicking opto-mechanical device. As low brass growls over sinister strings, illuminated stills of posters from within the game world flick by: An issue of Grognak the Barbarian ("In the lair of the virgin eater!"), a flier for "Freddy Fear's House of Scares -- For all Your Halloween Needs!", an advertisement for "Sugar Bombs," the cereal with "Explosive Great Taste!" and a newspaper dated June 3, 2072 with headline "U.S. to Annex Canada!" Blithe on bleak, a glimpse of the world within, a beckoning finger dipped in agitprop and blood.
Eventually The Ink Spots' "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" warbles from a Radiation King radio as the camera pulls back past flickering vacuum tubes, a dashboard hula girl, grab bars, a lunch box, a toy truck, a teddy bear, cracked carriage windows, until you're finally out in the great charcoal ruin of a denuded city. It's an apt enough metaphor for the game's opening moments, formative vignettes that trigger like a shotgun version of Plato's cave and see you born in blood, friended, tested, abandoned, and finally hurled from your underground "sanctuary" into a sterile post-nuclear wilderness.
That moment -- when you step out of a centuries old vault whose digital numeric '101' alludes to the binary insularity of your life thus far -- parallels one in developer Bethesda's last game, Oblivion, the part early going where you emerge from the Imperial City's sewer canals into a sprawling world and the seatbelt suddenly snaps off. It's a birth metaphor, of course, only instead of birch trees and witch grass and glinting ivory colonnades, you're thrust into a wind tossed lunar-scape littered with carbonized stumps and wobbling highway stanchions, the rust-mottled lattices of once-buildings bracketed by piles of rock that bulge like geological tumors. There's something indescribably beautiful about all that. Catch the sun flaring as it sets against some junk town with walls and walkways quilted together from sheets of rusting metal and it's hard not to view it somewhat romantically. This really isn't how the end of the world would look (it'd almost certainly be blander and uglier), which turns out to be almost a blessing from a game that might otherwise encourage hardcore Prozac-popping just to muscle through its swathes of grunge-gray and bleached-brown.
Guns Without Oblivion
But jot this down: This isn't Oblivion, whatever elemental traits the game's inherited as Bethesda's third reworking of the Gamebryo technology. Oh it's got the same view-locked dialogue menus, the talking heads, the camera angles and jerky realtime melee, the foraging through crates and barrels re-imagined as supernumerary toolkits and file cabinets and metal boxes. It's even got the same visual quirks, like collision problems with walls and ground objects when playing in third-person mode, the phantom-phasing when people enter or exist "load" zone houses and buildings, and bodies that come uncoupled from the world when positioned over piles of debris and sloping turf.
On the other hand, the game's edgy, menacing soundtrack might a well be antipodal to Oblivion's stately marches and airy leitmotifs. Gone are Oblivion's cascading libraries of wordy books, replaced by scores of scorched and completely illegible tomes, which if you think about it, almost counts as a joke. Your arm-strapped inventory management tool (aka "Pip-Boy 3000") manages to squeeze all your stats and carry metrics into its stylishly monochrome VAX-style screen without sacrificing ease of access or clarity. Oblivion's use-it-or-lose-it stats are history, too, replaced by Fallout's classic skills and perks (minus the cons) distributed manually as you accrete experience points instead of based on the number of times you pull the trigger on a laser rifle or plasma gun. And the game world is finally staffed with static creatures -- no more spawn zones that level up with you and tag along wherever you go like mobs of murderous groupies.
But here's the difference that matters most: Oblivion was a fantasy world with a fantasy world's problems. Build a magic staff. Gather precious alchemical herbs. Restore the lineage of noble kings. Nobly wander around clapping random demon portals shut and saving the world from giant lava-lathered demigods. The word you're searching for is Wagnerian. And it was.
By contrast, Fallout 3's "capital wasteland" which extends around the remains of cherished structures like the Washington Monument and Arlington Library and Jefferson Memorial hits much closer to home. The D.C. metro rider who thought Bethesda's marketing poster of the Washington Monument in tatters surrounded by "ravaged" American flags was in poor taste may have been overreacting, but the reaction encapsulates precisely what makes Fallout 3 unique: Where Oblivion whisked you off to another world, Fallout 3 brings its not-so-other world home to you.
It's a Hard Knock Life
It's a world that comes disturbingly alive in the breathless spaces out amongst the nothingness that conceals feral dogs and giant mutant scorpions and deranged Robby the Robot sendups. You hear it in the crackling radio broadcasts picked up by the Pip-Boy 3000 and the jingoist jeremiads of a faintly Kennedy-like entity who intercuts his broadcasts with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It's part of the chilling, bewildering surreality of listening to Billie Holiday's "Easy Living" or The Ink Spots' "Maybe" as you wander between parks and abandoned science labs like Snowman in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake with nothing but decaying water towers and tilting power poles as reference points. Are the voices on the radio real or imaginary? Intelligently looped by live bodies or simply tenacious recordings? The answers are there, if you want them.
Cobbling together a living meted out in Nuka-Cola bottle caps (America's post-apocalyptic currency and the drink of choice for vault dwellers) 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 wonder glue. The capital wasteland's a constellation of bygone curios and trinkets, but whether you're building bottle cap mines out of soda-pop tops or slipping rail spikes into the business end of rifles you've improvised from scratch, everything is eventually worth something to someone. There's even a home decoration cash hole into which you're encouraged to pour your earnings, but they're better spent keeping weapons in tip-top shape and your invisible bandoliers replete with spare ammo.
Just scraping by can feel like rolling boulders up mountains, which is where Bethesda's intuitive understanding of how players weigh options and test hypotheticals or scrabble for their limits pays dividends. It's also Bethesda's way of sneaking in the pros-and-cons it chose to drop from character perks. Food and water which heal you while slowly irradiating your body are surprisingly available but 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 pay a doctor to. Or avoid combat (more of an option later in the game when you have companions who'll step up while you stand back). Or use lots and lots of stimpacks. Or wear different types of clothes and armor which shield you from different sorts of negatives. Or just run away and get to a bed to sleep that flesh wound or crippled limb off.
Pass the Guns, Hold the Butter
If you do choose to fight, and most people probably will, you're going to need guns and lots and lots of bullets, which are almost a secondary currency unto themselves. Whatever your preference -- small, large, or energy-based weapons -- it often takes a dozen hits to put an enemy down. By the time my pick of the game's four endings faded to credits with half the total possible quests completed and 42 hours on the clock, I'd killed some 300 people and creatures. Some in less mundane ways than others, but even the least interesting and rudimentary seeming ammo can be precious when you're three levels underground and cornered, turning up in bundles of a dozen or less if it turns up at all. This is where competence hacking computers to open safes or wiggling bobby pins around in keyholes to spring locks on ammo boxes becomes essential, even entertaining.
That brings me to combat and Fallout 3's controversially ported (from Fallout's 1 and 2) V.A.T.S. mechanic, which couples "action points" to a targeting system and affords you time to pause and ponder what you're after from a matrix of blinking body parts. Simple logic applies here, so head shots trump body shots, limb shots can cripple, and aiming at an enemy's weapon can actually spring it from their grip. While that sounds nice in theory, however, it tends to be dull and unimaginative in practice. Blame the game's dodgy enemy intelligence which hugs cover like you'd hug a zombie and only occasionally knows enough to kick up its heels and run. The temptation is therefore to power through with fast-kill head shots while dancing just out of range or from behind the sort of safe points the enemy seems totally blind to. It's a simple fact: When gamers spot shortcuts, whether by hook or by crook, they tend to take them.
A workaround of sorts is to dial the difficulty setting up, which makes chipping away at enemy health bars akin to jackhammering slabs of rock into pebbles. This is where the game's super mutants and slobbering bear-things and leering demonic reptiles regularly pound you into blood sausage because they've simply got more time to. You'll have to respond by employing smarter tactics like arm shots to momentarily knock weapons down or leg shots to hobble dogged sprinters and give yourself those precious seconds essential to finish them off. The downside's that battles look a little silly, as adamantine combatants square off just yards apart, taking turns plugging each other with guns that could just as soon pick each others' noses as pulverize heads that explode like grenades inside of cantaloupes.
Speaking of, did I mention the violence? Think gruesome on a whole new plane of existence, with a camera that zooms on skulls and torsos as they split like grisly piñatas whacked with sledgehammers (and sometimes sledgehammers are literally involved). Heads pop off like thumb-flicked quarters and bodies disintegrate into giblets caught in slowed down Brownian motion or splatter-porn in zero-G-vision. I won't even try to describe what happens if you take Fallout 3's version of the original two games' "bloody mess" trait which ensures "you always see the worst way a person can die."
The only problem here, if that's even the right way to frame this, is that the game has a fairly subdued sense of humor and takes itself pretty seriously. There's a thin undercurrent of satire, but so attenuated from what it was in the originals that it's got players claiming the game's entirely joke free (it's not). On top of that, it's a really dark game that rarely lets up or sticks an elbow in your ribs to get a laugh. Compare with Fallout 2, which was content to fire off silly non sequiturs, like an impromptu encounter with the TARDIS in the middle of the desert.
Think of the scene in the movie Pulp Fiction after someone gets shot in the back seat of the car, then imagine the conversation between Vincent and Jules dead sober, without lines like "Everytime my fingers touch brain I'm Superfly TNT, I'm the Guns of the Navarone...in fact, what the f*** am I doing in the back? You're the motherf***** who should be on brain detail!" It probably wouldn't work. It might even seem morbid or voyeuristic (and for the wrong reasons). The original Fallout games were hardly Tarantino films, but they got the blood-to-comedy ratio right. In Fallout 3, the ballistic splatter on the one hand evokes a kind laugh-and-cringe reaction, while at the same time making you wonder why you're laughing at all.
The Bad Ending
You've also possibly heard that the main story's ending is awful, and to be perfectly honest, yeah, it's a problem -- not even a choice so much as a gun to your head and an irrelevant cutscene that pays shallow homage to the hell you've scrabbled through. And 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, of course: Don't finish the game. There's so much more to do anyway before you chamber yourself like a bullet and pull the trigger on the epically anticlimactic and frankly bewildering finale. So don't do it. That ending will wait, and your appreciation for all the lovely things this game gets right will be better for it.
Bongo, Bongo, Bongo
But now I'm dithering, because in the end, Fallout 3 is really more 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" over your Pip Boy. 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.
Did I mention the kid in the cave who wants boxes of Sugar Bombs? The guy who wants me to detonate a nuke? Someone's telling me to check the Potomac, that there's a scribe paying dearly for vintage books. And last I heard, there's a society of ghouls living out there, somewhere, in the hills and cities.
PCW Score: 90%