When the team behind “Fallout 3” created a vision of Washington, D.C., following nuclear holocaust, it didn’t just wreck the buildings, it twisted the American Dream itself. This long-awaited new installment in the cult franchise from publisher-developer Bethesda Softworks continues in the spirit of its predecessors by giving players a massive post-apocalyptic world to explore, exploit and try to save, while shrewdly integrating classic themes like patriotism, tribalism and mankind’s capacity to destroy itself. Gamers of all stripes will find plenty to play with and ponder in “Fallout 3,” which is sure to be one of the year’s biggest hits.
Life starts for “Fallout 3’s” main character in “the Vault,” a city-sized bomb shelter where generations of survivors wait out the apocalypse. Childhood doubles as a character creation system that teases out whether the player prefers to sneak and cheat his way through life or beat her way through with brute force and explosives, to name just two choices. In fact, few games accommodate such a wide range of play styles. Although “Fallout 3” is fundamentally a role-playing game, its success lies in the way it balances — and sometimes betters — the approaches of other videogame masterpieces: the retro immersion of “BioShock,” the paranoia of “Portal,” the exploration of “Oblivion” and the seamless storytelling of “Half-Life 2.”
The story truly begins when the main character’s father, one of the Vault’s most respected scientists (voiced by Liam Neeson), mysteriously disappears. As players leave the Vault for the first time and pursue dad in the Capitol Wasteland, they’re drawn into a narrative that both explains the past and has world-changing consequences for the future. They’ll be less awed by the plot, however, than the world they find, in which the scars on the landscape are exceeded by the mental scars of the survivors.
Every above-ground survivor follows a tried-and-true American archetype, and each community has its own strategy for survival. From a shady Wild West town to a brutal slaver city, from a patriotic cult holed up in the Pentagon to anarchic raiders, “Fallout 3” is a rainbow of societal dysfunction. The distinctive brutality of the game’s world can be seen not only in its urban ruins but in the many horrors hidden in the hills, where players can explore side missions if they want. Each of the story’s moral dilemmas brings unexpected results, and half the thrill lies in never knowing what’s around the next corner, whether it’s a pack of ghouls under Dupont Circle or a new propaganda broadcast from the mysterious President (voiced with creepy aplomb by Malcolm McDowell).
Combat is a constant fact of life in “Fallout 3,” but players have the choice of blasting away shooter-style with an assault rifle or carefully queuing up shots in an easy-to-use but tactically powerful targeting system. While the difficulty level can be ratcheted up or down, the game never lets players forget the struggles of post-apocalyptic life. Ammo and meds always run scarce, and scrounging every corpse for a few more bullets becomes a nasty habit. Likewise, while the player can heft a range of weapons, they’re all creaky and worn-out — from rustic hunting rifles to B-movie-style laser pistols to rockets that launch like an exploding vacuum cleaner.
The only drawback is that the world sometimes feels too lonely. Players can fight alongside one sidekick at a time — a nonplayer character befriended in the player’s journeys — but they’re hard to find, and one of the best is hidden until the denouement.
If the main story’s plot twists are sometimes hokey, at least they fit with the ’50s nostalgia that guides the design — emblemized by an ever-cheery mascot. The style is rooted in the naive early days of the nuclear era, when optimism and the fear of annihilation went hand in hand. In “Fallout 3,” the American Dream is a charred blueprint survivors are struggling to follow. But hope never dies, and the final stretch of the story includes a Strangelovian display of national power that’s spectacular, ironic and heartfelt. The player leaves thinking America might just survive this war, right in time to start some new ones.