Oblivion had tons of girlie things for me to do. I could pick pretty flowers, collect pretty crystals and buy pretty clothes. Fallout 3 is distinctly un-pretty, but what did you expect from an irradiated post-apocalyptic Earth? The only flowers you'll find here contain death, and you can forget those fancy brocade gowns. I never played the first two Fallouts and have very little sentimental attachment to Pip-boy, Vault 101, or Dogmeat. When early impressions of Fallout 3 labeled the game as "Oblivion with guns," I thought: sign me up. But many diehard fans and purists don't want that. They want an experience that's true to the spirit of the original Fallout, a game that builds on the innovations and atmosphere that evolved in Fallout 2. After being filled in by Manfriend, I was able to take a look at Fallout 3 and judge for myself if it has more in common with Oblivion than it does with Fallout. And after three hours with the game, I've decided… it's 50-50.The way you move and the world in which you move feel as much like Oblivion as Oblivion did – only the genre is different. The rats are mutated ants, the mountain lions are mole rats that chase you for miles over the wide world map, and everywhere you go, it seems like there's a cluster of raiders or thieves out to get you. But everything that holds that world together – from the people that populate it to the plot that moves your character through it – has an utterly different flavor than the magical land of Cyrodiil. That flavor is everything that Fallout ever was, plus a bit more.
The big ticket item is the combat system that incorporates Action Points. I'm glad they decided to make combat real time, because nothing screams "I'm afraid of evolving" like turn-based fights. You might think, then, that strategy goes out the window and the game devolves into shootouts whenever an enemy is encountered. To a certain extent, it does (if you're a trigger-happy spaz like me); but if you keep your cool long enough to press R2 instead of R1 (I was playing on PS3), you get a healthy dose of strategy by opening up VATS mode. VATS mode works sort of like turn-based combat. When the menu is open and you're selecting targets (parts of the body to fire at), the game is paused. After you've set your commands and pressed X, everything moves very slowly while the bullets fly; like bullet-time, only you can't do anything. Each shot you want to take costs you Action Points. The cost seems to vary based on what weapon you're using, how far away you are from the target, and based on any bonuses you might have from your skills or your traits.
As you select targets, you can see the enemy's life gauge flash in portions, telling you how much health will be deducted if you hit your target. This is dependent on what body part you're aiming at. The AP gauge will flash also, telling you how many points are needed for the next hit. This is important, because you might find it takes five shots to kill something, but you've only got enough AP for four. Your strategy would then be to A) take the shots, recoup AP and open up VATS again for the final blow or B) come back and kill the guy later when you've got more AP. AP will build up over time. Say you blow your entire gauge on awesome slow-mo headshots, but it turns out your target had several friends around the corner – and now they're pretty pissed and chasing you. You can't just open up VATS to take them out; you've got to wait for AP to recharge. In this way (and with having your weapons and equipment wear out over time), the game forces you to be strategic about shooting. You may want to settle for a grenade in the midst of a group of armed vigilantes (and don't stand next to cars when you do this – or it could result in your explode-y death) and save the shooting for close encounters only. A second throwback to Fallout that hasn't gotten a lot of attention is the Karma system. Fallout 2 fiends will recognize this as a system for recruiting party members – and it works pretty much the same in Fallout 3. If you do something good (like giving a dying man purified water), an icon will flash on screen to tell you that you've earned Karma; do something bad, like killing an innocent townsperson, and that icon will tell you you've lost Karma. You can't actually view your Karma score in Fallout 3 (I thought you could in Fallout 2, correct me if I'm wrong), but tip the balance far enough in either direction and you'll start to see major outcomes in the game, beyond which party members you can have. If you're especially good, you draw the ire of the baddies and they'll send people after you; act like an asshole and law-abiding folk might take it upon themselves to take you out. So those two major throwbacks hopefully satisfy the sensibilities of the Fallout elite. But what about the rest of us? If (*ahem*) we don't like shooters, but we do like RPGs, is there anything in Fallout 3 for us? Damn straight there is. The main plot alone (which accounts for about 25 out of 100 hours of gameplay) has me totally sold. Too bad I'm not allowed to talk about it. Instead, I'll tell you about the side quest I managed to knock off in about an hour. I spent the first two hours of my hands-on time figuring out the combat system and picking out stats. Fallout fans will be glad to know that the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system is completely intact and all their favorite perks are back, plus a few more (which I'm also not allowed to talk about). RPG stat-whores who aren't familiar with Fallout will be happy to know you can customize the skill set of your character to make pretty much any kind of guy or girl you want – and there won't be any combo you can come up with that'll make the game impossible. That was a big problem in Oblivion – you'd want to play as a charismatic healing mage, and suddenly the main quest became impossible. But back to Fallout 3 – I settled on the Lady Killer perk (which would have been Black Widow, had I been playing as a girl) and gave myself a lot of XP in the lock picking and sneak skills. Then I set off for the wasteland settlement nearest my vault – a town called Megaton. I had a few snags along the way: getting jumped by random vicious dogs and running into a sadistic group of miners that had taken over a rundown school. I was really rattled there for a minute when I was trapped in a classroom with two rabid dogs and a lot of mangled corpses strung up on chains over the desks. I got out of that scrape by killing a few guys here and running away from a lot more guys there – eventually stumbling back out into the wastelands. I made it to Megaton where I met a cute girl in a bar who wanted me to take a message to her family somewhere up north. Since I had nothing better to do, I agreed. Like in Oblivion, you can't fast travel to a place unless it's on your map or you've already been there once (which, duh, puts it on your map). Unlike Oblivion, the trek across the barren lands of what used to be Earth is visually upsetting and incredibly complicated. Everything is dry, dead, and completely destroyed. You take damage swimming across rivers; they're irradiated. And you can't pass within miles of most structures because there are likely people in them who will shoot at you.
The world in Fallout 3 doesn't exactly level up with you the way it does in Oblivion – so there are some pockets of deep shit you do not want to step into at too low a level. But there's also the assurance that if you walk into a dungeon, the creature you encounter there will always be that creature; so you could leave, grind, come back and kick its ass. And I'm told the game is more balanced than Oblivion, such that you're not forced into fights you're too weak to handle. I can't speak to this, since I wasn't allowed to follow the main plot – but I did step into several pockets of deep shit right outside the vault that had me running away like a scared bunny (assuming I didn't catch it in the back of the head before I could get clear). For every pocket of shit, though, there is a pocket of sanity; wandering traders willing to chat, or friendlies who want to ask a favor. Your navigation compass in the lower left hand part of the screen will tell you which is which by flagging good guys as green and bad guys as red. I arrived at the small northern settlement – a cluster of tin shacks out on a broken overpass. Right away someone shot at me, but then had the good grace to come and apologize. He thought I was someone else. Here again is a place where Fallout 3 blends its Fallout roots with the best of Oblivion: the dialogue exchanges. In Fallout and Fallout 2, there were complex trees of lines that led to completely different outcomes. Being polite over being sassy could be the difference between a firefight and a gift. In Oblivion, the voice acting and facial expressions were visual cues as to what you should say to placate characters; but often as not, those conversations usually had only one outcome. In Fallout 3, you can hear how a character talks and reasonably predict which response in your menu they want to hear. There isn't a charisma mini-game, alas, but certain dialogue options will open up based on perks or skills. (I heart Lady Killer/Black Widow because you can seduce people into telling you passwords.)
Warning! Here Be Side-Quest Spoilers! I chatted up the guy who'd shot at me and he told me his town was under siege. If I wanted to deliver my message from the cute chick back in Megaton, I'd have to check on all three families in the settlement myself. The family I was looking for had been killed – partially eaten, in fact. But apparently, a son wasn't among the dead and the guy who'd sent me to check on the families advised me to find the settlement of the dudes who were laying siege to the town. If the son went there, I could deliver the message to him and maybe rescue him, if he'd been taken against his will. I was sort of annoyed that my quest didn't update at this point – no marker appeared on my map to tell me exactly where the cannibals had gone. I had only the vague directions of "northwest or north of here" from the dude to go on. This led me into several more encounters with roving raiders, until I eventually found an entrance to a subway. There, I meet a couple of "Ghouls" – mutant people who didn't want to fight. These two only wanted to find a way to make "Ultrajet," a variant on the drug "Jet" that humans could use freely. Ghouls don't get respect in Fallout 3 and you can choose to terrorize them or be nice to them. I'm a nice girl, generally, so I bartered with them for information on where to find the guys I was looking for – all they wanted in exchange were boxes of Sugar Bomb cereal to make their drug. I ventured deeper into the subway and got the feeling I was onto something when I got my leg crippled by a bear trap. Body parts are a big factor in Fallout 3 – both for enemies and for you. If you should happen to have a certain part of your person crippled (by bear traps or well-placed bullets), you either need to visit a doctor to have the damage undone or you need a stimpack healing item. There are lots of healing items in the world (most of them irradiated food or water), but only stimpacks will fix broken limbs. I'm not sure if having a crippled limb has a real impact on your movement – the build I was playing on wasn't final and the guy next to me had a totally different experience when he got his head crippled. When that happened, his screen seemed to be all blurry and I guess maybe his character was suffering from some hallucinations or something – it looked way funky, until he popped a stimpack. But in my game, I didn't really notice a difference in movement, despite having a bum leg. Leg patched, I wound my way deeper into the subway and ran into two mutants I just couldn't beat. Luckily, the game doesn't punish you for running away like a scared bunny – and I was able to race past their nest to the underground hideout of the guys I'd been hunting. I met a guard out front and told him I had a message for a guy from his sister and that he might be inside the settlement. I expected an argument, or at least that I'd have to bribe the guy with my hard-earned bottle caps – but he let me in straightaway because, evidently, the son of the dead family had gone with them willingly and advised them that he had a sister who might try and find him. Inside, I met with the gang leader and had to rely on my instinctive charm and wit to avoid a throw down. He was the crazy type – one of those intellectual cannibals. He told me the guy I wanted to talk to was "in meditation" and not to be disturbed. I found the nearest chick and Lady Killed her into telling me where the guy was and the password for his room. Another dialogue tree wound by and the guy decided he needed to be with his sister, so he went home. And now I had to tell the leader of the cannibals I'd just gone against his wishes and deprived him of a new member. He took it rather well. There was no shooting, no screaming and no biting my face off. He even agreed to an armistice with the town and made me his emissary to them. Then he gave me a freaking sweet gift and sent me on my way – quest complete. End Side-Quest Spoilers!
So there you have it: a game that has as much in common with Fallout as it does with Oblivion. For some, the balance might not feel 50-50 all of the time (especially if you reject the notion of "evolution" in gaming) – but for me, it suits rather well. Now if only there were some pretty renaissance gowns I could buy for my character… Fallout 3 is out on PC, PS3 and 360 Oct. 28. There will be Achievements and there won't be Trophies at launch – but relax; patches fix all.