Format: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC)
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Graphics: 8 out of 10
All in all, the graphics in Fallout 3 are fantastic - but they aren't without their faults. The NPC's you speak to all have a glassy stare on their faces which a bit of naturalistic animation could have fixed. This is also a criticism that has been levelled against Oblivion, so it's somewhat annoying that Bethesda hasn't fixed it. There is also a fair amount of repetition across the various areas of the wasteland - you will continually find identical looking metal boxes, radios, sewer systems and other bits and bobs. I understand why the developers would choose to reuse resources wherever they can in a game of this scale, but I appreciate it when teams make a bit of extra effort to make different areas of their world look unique (Dragon Quest VIII remains a shining example of this in my opinion).
Nevertheless, there's still an awful lot to be admired about the visuals - when you're creeping around, unsure what's around the next corner, it can be extremely atmospheric, and when you are suddenly faced with a Feral Ghoul of a Super Mutant Master it can be shit-your-pants scary. The minor quibbles won't spoil your enjoyment of the game too much, but they are serious enough to lower the score to an 8.
Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Most of the time while playing the game I was tuned into Galaxy News Radio, and I absolutely love the range of old timey music that plays on that station. The list of artists include Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Great though this music is, there isn't quite a enough of it. By the end of the campaign, I must have heard the same tunes dozens of times. I didn't matter too much, but at the same time I would have appreciated some more. If Bethesda had offered a DLC pack which was nothing but another selection of 20 or so tunes for example, I would have bought it - but that is unlikely to happen.
Apart from the music, there are also a few famous voices amongst the cast. These include Liam Neeson as your father, Malcom McDowell as President John Henry Eden and Ron Perlman, reprising his role as the narrator from the first game in the series. All of them put in solid performances and help give the game more atmosphere. Some of the incidental characters have the same voice (most of the male ghouls sound the same for example) but this is nowhere near as great a concern as it was in Oblivion, where there was seemingly only a half dozen or so actors playing hundreds of people.
Finally, the sound effects. Gun shots and explosions all sound suitably beefy and realistic, monsters sound nicely disgusting and the sound effects of the VATS system, while borrowed from the first game in the series, are unique and very easy to identify.
You can gain several followers during the game including Dogmeat here. He died valiantly defending me from killer robots during my play through.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
My opinion about the game mechanics is much the same as the Graphics - they work well enough but still have a few niggly flaws that prevent them from being great. Firstly, the battle system - you can play Fallout 3 in real time like a first person shooter, but it really doesn't function very well if you do decide to go that route. To get the most out of the game you should use make use of VATS whenever you can, and just use the real time combat as a fall back. Pressing the RB button freezes the action and puts an overlay over the enemy that allows you to target a specific body part and see how likely you are to hit it, and you have a certain amount of ability points to spend on shooting at the enemies. Different weapons will use up different amounts of AP.
The VATS system isn't perfect either, though. The theory is that you can cripple the legs of your enemy to slow them down, but it is almost always better to simply aim for the head and try and get an instant kill instead.
The freeform nature of the quests have also come under a fire a little bit, too. I just recently listened to an episode of the Listen Up podcast where host Garnett Lee was describing how he accidentally managed to skip over several major storyline quests when he decided to do some of the optional quests first. I did exactly the same thing, except I later found out that you can go back and do those quests anyway if you want to (Galaxy News Radio). I see his point but personally it doesn't really bother me that you can direct the path of the main story, because I was planning to play the game a second time as an evil character anyway.
Speaking of which, Fallout 3 is yet another RPG where you can decide to be good or bad, following in the footsteps of pretty much anything by Bioware, and the Fable games. I do like these games that give you moral choices and two ways to play the game, but it has been done to death at this point. Fallout 3 doesn't really add anything new to the idea but hopefully Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins will do something different. Each time you level up your character, you can also choose a perk, and your choice is also effected by your good/bad alignment, how may points you have assigned to a certain skill and how you rolled your stats at the beginning of the game. They include Strong Back, which allows you to carry extra loot, and everybodys favourite, Bloody Mess, which can cause enemies to explode in a shower of guts.
Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Much of Fallout 3 is built upon the foundations of the original Fallout (the world, the dark humour) and Oblivion (the game engine, the overall design and structure), but that's not to say that it doesn't bring anything new to the table. The VATS system is a decent attempt to convert the battles of the original game into a real time, 3D world, and there are some very inventive optional quests for you to take on.
Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10
This is really the major strength of Fallout 3. There's an absolutely massive world out there, and completing the story and the optional quests will only show you a fraction of it. You could spend hours trawling through the the ruins of DC, taking down roaming bands of Super Mutants, or wandering the wasteland to see what you can find. Then of course you can do it all again as a character of the opposite alignment, and maybe focus on sneaking and thievery instead of just blowing everything to kingdom come. The choice is yours.
Overall: 9 out of 10
Despite all of the minor flaws, Fallout 3 is still a fantastic game and it was very nearly my favourite game of 2008. You don't really notice the niggly things while playing the game, you're too busy having fun. It's only after you've finished and think back on the experience that you realise that certain things could have been better.
I haven't covered any of the DLC packs in this review because so far I've only played through Operation Anchorage. I have bought and downloaded The Pitt and Broken Steel, and will play them soon, but I will wait until Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta are released and then write a round up of all of them at the same time.