It’s release day for Bethesda Studio’s Oblivion. I pick up my collector’s edition (of course) grab a few bottles of any and every energy drink available, and head home to my dark gaming dungeon knowing full well I’ll be super-glued to my TV until my bladder dictates otherwise. It’s the last time I’ll see daylight for about two months as immerse myself in the vibrant world of Cyrodiil.When news emerged that Bethesda would be taking on the Fallout franchise, my imagination ran wild at the prospect of the Oblivion developer creating a post-apocalyptic RPG-cum-FPS. Unfortunately, Fallout 3 struggles to stand under the weight of expectation as the game never quite reaches the same heights as its predecessor. The game begins as you experience your own birth, and the subsequent childhood scenario which takes place inside Vault 101 (a heavy-duty nuclear bunker designed to prevent anything from getting in or out), allowing you to take part in snapshots your early life. It’s a cut above your average orientation level and introduces the RPG elements as you receive your Pip-Boy 3000 (your wrist based computer system that acts as an inventory, map, status report, and radio station). And so you are faced with your first choices in the game as you define your character, class and personality. It’s essentially a choice between good and bad and so I followed in the footsteps of that Jesus chap and created a good guy. However, once you reach the end of the prologue section, the game asks if you wish to amend your choices, rendering your first effort completely redundant. It’s clearly an addition made with the player in mind, but there’s not really enough game in the prologue to decide whether you are comfortable in your class.Emerging from the facility, you’re shown the vast, barren post-apocalyptic wasteland that is the United States, teeming with decaying beauty. Buildings appear on the verge of collapse, rubble litters the derelict streets, and anything metallic looks worn and rusty. It’s a slowly-decomposing world that still manages to look visually impressive.Heading to the first major town called Megaton you encounter the sheriff, immediately dashing any hopes that the forced, one-dimensional voice acting you witnessed in the prologue would improve once you exit the vault. Character interaction is much more limited than in Oblivion and you often feel like you’re talking to smiling cardboard cut-outs rather than people. Also, NPCs offer few visual clues as to their disposition making it difficult to judge how your scintillating wordplay is being received. The one redeeming feature of the voice acting is Liam Neeson, who plays your father. Unfortunately, he doesn’t hang around for long and Bethesda once again blows its voice talent load way too early (see Picard in Oblivion). As you emerge into post-nuclear America with the intention of finding daddy, you’ll find yourself in a vast world of quests, and the notion of choice takes over. I genuinely TRIED to follow the path of the righteous, greeting people with courtesy and completing any old trivial quest for as long as I could. But… a post-apocalyptic hero can only kiss so many asses before the desire to incinerate these needy, ungrateful bastards takes over. A quick save of the game, a slight aim of my pistol, and I remove the sheriff’s head with a brutal single shot. A broad smile appears on my face after looting his body to find a Chinese Assault Rifle. A few hours and an entire slaughtered town later (what? Killing is moreish), I feel better prepared to tackle the game’s legion of nasties.Combat in Fallout 3 is handled through a mix of first person gunplay and VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System), the latter allowing you to freeze time and take percentage-based shots at specific body parts . You can blow off arms, shoot legs to make them limp, pump their body full of holes, or if you’re lucky enough, score a critical hit on the noggin, taking it clean off. I will admit, I had fun running in to enemies at point blank range, hitting the VATS key, and then taking a few heads off, but the novelty soon wears off. The VATS system is too chancy and slowly strips the game of any vague semblance of realism it had at the start. Also, it seems much more relevant to the console version of the game as on PC you can and will do a lot more damage if you just use the mouse to tee up your headshots.Owners of the PC version of Fallout 3 also have access to the same achievements as the 360 version via Games for Windows Live. The achievement list isn’t the most imaginative we’ve seen and doesn’t offer much incentive for experimental play. Nor does it really add to the game’s longevity, something not helped by the fact that after I had put a good few days of play in to the game, I signed in to the Windows Live environment, only to find it had deleted my save games. Take my advice and sign in straight away if you plan to go for achievements!One of Fallout 3’s biggest problems is its predecessor. When compared to the majestic Oblivion (complete with appalling frame rate and all), Fallout 3 comes off worse. The story is less compelling, the environments, whilst well-designed, just don’t feel as inviting and the NPCs fail to evoke any emotions. The main quest does show some imagination at times but too much of the game is spent looking for items in grotty, indoor environments. The one advantage of the PC version (other than the visuals) is that the combat feels less clunky with mouse and keyboard than it does on a joypad. Having played both the console and PC versions, it’s hard not to recommend the latter as the controls make it much more enjoyable to play. However, anyone expecting an experience on the same level as Oblivion will be disappointed. Fallout 3 is undoubtedly a big game but the pacing, quest design and NPCs all too often make it feel tiresome.
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