It would not be an easy game to follow. So Bethesda decided to, once again, develop a new chapter in a beloved cult series that began in the mid-‘90s. Few have likely played the first two Fallouts, which, despite being considered among the best computer RPGs ever made, never crossed over to gen-pop.
They could have simply ditched the number three altogether, making it a series reboot like Batman Begins, but Bethesda wanted to pay tribute to the originals (which were developed by Interplay, a company that sold the license to stave off bankruptcy) even while forging a bold new path.
Gone are the old games’ primitive top-down look and turn-based combat, replaced with a first-and-third person perspective and real-time fighting thanks to an amped-up version of the Oblivion engine — though the V.A.T.S. targeting system still allows for strategy (and bloody decapitations). But fanboys need not fret, as Bethesda kept the franchise’s signature retro-futuristic, post-apocalyptic aesthetic intact (if not its black humour, which was dialled down in favour of a more nihilistic worldview).
The speculative fiction of Fallout takes place in a land much like our own — or at least one that was once much like our own. But the game world’s Atomic Age America actually made the 1950’s "World of Tomorrow” a pulp reality where robots and ray-guns coexist with Leave it to Beaver-type TV and mid-century marketing.
But as with BioShock, retro-futurism’s utopian ideals led to disaster. A lack of resources sparked wars in the Middle East, America annexing Canada, China invading Alaska and, eventually, a nuclear exchange that blew everything to holy hell.
Fast forward two centuries to 2277. While bands of survivors, many now mutated into "Ghouls,” still roam the ravaged wastelands or live in ramshackle settlements, others have been hiding from the holocaust in underground vaults. You grew up in Vault 101 and have never set foot outside. But one day, without warning or explanation, your father (voiced by Liam Neeson) goes topside. Lonely and impetuous — not to mention threatened by the vault’s dictatorial Overseer — you follow and the world the Bethesda has built will likely seem as open and vast to you, the gamer, as it does to your vault-raised avatar.
While the previous games were set on the West coast and the Southwest, Fallout 3 takes place in Washington, DC, which just so happens to be where Bethesda is based. So while it may not be a to-scale version of today’s U.S. capitol, it’s plenty close. So close, in fact, that when they ran an ad campaign in the DC subway that showed images of the district’s biggest landmarks — the mall, the monument, the capitol building — in post-apocalyptic ruin, nervous commuters demanded they be taken down.
Gamers have had no such qualms about exploring the bleak, Capitol Wasteland setting, which is filled with intricate detail and teeming with life despite its name. There are sepia-toned towns built from crashed airplane parts, cults that pray to unexploded nukes, Mad Max-esque raiders, junkie prostitutes, pirate radio DJs, robot lawmen and two-headed cows.
Events here have consequences, too. There’s the constant threat of radiation poisoning from contaminated water and food, the likelihood of becoming addicted to your medicine and, most importantly, your karma level. Rising or falling based on your moral decisions — such as the game’s now-infamous early choice of exploding or disarming a nuke in the trading-post town of Megaton — it will affect how other, non-player characters interact with you as well as impacting the branching storyline.
As with Oblivion — and Grand Theft Auto 4 — Fallout 3 lives and breathes just fine outside of its linear main quest, pushing the medium’s sandbox gaming into ever-more immersive territory. For too long developers have aspired to be as cinematic as possible — much like early films emulated stage plays — but this is an open-world experience that could only exist in videogame form. Bethesda’s triumphant epic heralds a new era in gaming, a thrown gauntlet, and its fallout will be felt for years to come.