Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC - PS3 version reviewed.
In a way, Fallout 3 is Bioshock for the people who felt let down by Bioshock. Even more than last year's much argued over masterpiece, it's the successor to games from an older, maybe smarter era of PC gaming. Like Bioshock, it's a game that takes inspiration from period style and classic science fiction, and like Bioshock it goes heavy on narrative, dark humour and atmosphere. Also like Bioshock, it transforms many of the conventions and play mechanics of the traditional RPG in order to make a game that appeals to a wider audience. Arguably, Fallout 3 does some of this stuff better. If you felt sad or irritated that Bioshock had 'dumbed down' from System Shock 2 then you can relax about Fallout 3. This might not be the Fallout you remember, but it's far from being an FPS with light RPG elements. In fact, while the cliched description of Fallout 3 as 'Oblivion with guns' is inaccurate, this is every bit as much an RPG as The Elder Scrolls IV, and maybe even more so.
The setting, in case you don't know, is a post-apocalyptic Washington that seems to have been nuked at the height of a fifties style revival. The mix of Mad Max and McCarthy era values might seem strange, but it actually makes perfect sense. This is the America that the more paranoid Americans of the period felt and feared they might one day see, and the game has a lot of fun at the expense of fiftied ideas and idioms. As an escapee from a locked and hidden bunker, Vault 101, you begin simply trying to find your missing father, but before long you're caught up in a dozen narratives, big and small, that together paint a picture of a shattered world.
The atmosphere is as thick and heavy as an old-fashioned London smog. One of the big worries was whether Bethesda could produce a game as gorgeous as Oblivion in a setting dominated by cracked earth and concrete ruins, but the team has done so with a real flair, creating stark landscapes and fetid interiors that practically reek of catastrophe, plus a cast of superbly voiced characters that shimmer with personality. As with Bioshock, the use of period-inspired detail and music is inspired, putting weirdly familiar notes into jarringly unfamiliar settings. In terms of production design, Fallout 3 is as coherent and well-considered as games get.