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Another thing Fallout 3 does brilliantly is to fit in the sort of game mechanics RPG fans expect, but execute them in a way that doesn't constantly drag you from the game world. Oblivion's inventory screens and quest journal are replaced by the PIPBoy 3000; a stylish, vintage, wrist-bound PDA that gives you all the options and information you need to go adventuring. You can use it to equip weapons or armour, take stimpacks or eat food or check the map or the details of your current quest, and you never feel like you're taking a break from the Fallout world. This sort of thinking permeates the whole game. If something can be shown or done within the game world, rather than an onscreen prompt or HUD item, it is. Stuck in town and can't find the local supply store? Check out the signposts and you'll soon be able to find it.
Of course, the major challenge in a modern, real-time RPG is to produce a combat system that doesn't appear ludicrous or slow paced but still gives the player more to do than just point and shoot. Mass Effect struggled with this last year, and while Bioshock's plasmids and combat skills were a nod towards the RPG, that game was still first and foremost an FPS. Fallout 3 covers both bases brilliantly. You can point a gun at the nearest killer dog or angry mutant and shoot, but you'll struggle in all but the most basic combat situations. The trick is VATS - the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. Squeeze the right trigger at any time and the action pauses, allowing you to select targets and individual body parts at your leisure before returning to real time and firing. Your chance of hitting and the damage you do are managed by good old-fashioned statistics, and a system of action points prevents you from squeezing headshot after headshot after headshot. Best of all, using VATS successful results in a nice visual payoff. Deal a crippling blow to the skull or an extremity and you can watch it get blown or smacked off in glorious slow-motion. It's grim and it's unnecessarily gory but, boy, is it fun.
Is it as much fun as a good firefight in Gears of War 2 (full review coming soon) or Call of Duty 4? Maybe not, but then the pleasures of Fallout 3 go way beyond combat. This is, above all else, a quest and narrative based game, where dialogue is as effective a way forward in many situations as blasting, and where the use of hacking skills or subterfuge can give you options that mean you don't actually have to do the fighting yourself. At any one time you'll probably have multiple quests on the go, some linked to the main plotline, some that take you on bizarre tangents that, oddly, feel just as important. There's the sort of freedom to go where you want and do what you wish that you'd expect from an RPG, and Bethesda has made the Washington area rich in things to do and enemies to kill, without going too far and making every journey a wandering monster nightmare (though the use of an instant travel feature helps alleviate that sort of thing anyway).