(Bethesda Softworks/Zenimax Media; XBOX360, PS3, PC)
GAMER "War. War never changes." These words have introduced three Fallout games, intoned by narrator Ron Perlman as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape devastated by nuclear bombardment. The world of Fallout is one steeped in retro-futurism, imagining a history in which the end of World War II was succeeded by rapid technological progress but complete cultural stagnation. In the 21st century, competition for resources leads to the Chinese invasion of Alaska, quickly countered by the American annexation of Canada. The question of who fires first is deliberately elided, but the human race soon witnesses the dawn of the apocalypse.
A small fraction of humanity weathers the mushroom cloud, eking out a living among the rubble. Still others are preserved within vast underground vaults. You begin life in Vault 101, literally emerging from the womb and triggering an inspired character creation sequence in which your father's delivery room commentary on your sex, name, and future appearance is interrupted by menu screens that allow you to customize these qualities.
Emerging into the outside world, you are thrust into the vast and dangerous Capital Wasteland, which encompasses Washington, DC, and its environs. Bethesda Game Studios, having acquired the Fallout license from Interplay, has designed an enormous, incredibly detailed, and realistic landscape, filled with places to explore and characters to interact with. Danger and fun lurk in every bombed-out building.
The realism has its drawbacks. The first two Fallout games had graphics so simple that they allowed the player to fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, and the fully realized world of Fallout 3 takes some getting used to if you've played the first two games. The series' trademark dark humor is also somewhat diminished. Bethesda doesn't have the knack for the pulpy, dystopian treatment of slavery, cannibalism, prostitution, and drug use that the previous installments did.
Gameplay is conducted in either the first or third person. The "V.A.T.S." targeting system is back in fine form, enabling you to aim at limbs and heads RPG-style and generally wreak havoc. It also can be played as a more traditional FPS, although this mode feels rubbery and inferior.
As much as it would have accorded with critical ethics, I have not played the game to completion. There is too much left to explore, to experiment with, before I set the events in motion that will conclude the main narrative. Despite my backwards-looking gripes, Fallout 3 is a masterwork of world creation, an apocalypse too good to leave, and a game almost too good to win.