Fallout 3 takes place in a bombed-out, futuristic version of Washington DC, and in the game, the area is bleak but oddly serene. Crumbling overpasses loom overhead and optimistic 1950’s-style billboards advertise their products with sunny catchphrases. It looks impressive, and you move around the wide-open wasteland with nary a loading time, though you will encounter loads when entering and exiting buildings or quick-jumping to areas you’ve already visited. Numerous set-piece landmarks are particularly ominous, such as a giant aircraft carrier that serves as a self-contained city, or the decrepit interiors of the National Air and Space Museum. But the small touches are just as terrific, such as explosions that produce mushroom-like clouds of flame and smoke, evoking the nuclear tragedy at the heart of Fallout 3’s concept. Character models are more lifelike than in the developer’s prior efforts but still move somewhat stiffly, lacking the expressiveness of the models in games such as Mass Effect.
It’s a shame, in light of these impressive design elements, that the PlayStation 3 version is shockingly inferior to the others from a technical perspective. Although the Xbox 360 and PC versions display the occasional visual oddity and bland texture, these nitpicks are easy to overlook. Sadly, the jagged edges, washed-out lighting, and slightly diminished draw distance of the PS3 release aren’t so easy to dismiss. We also experienced a number of visual bugs on the PS3. Character faces disappeared several times, leaving only eyeballs and hair; limbs on robots went missing; some character models had an odd outline around them as if they were cel-shaded; and the day-to-night transition may cause odd streaks on the screen as you move the camera around. This version doesn’t even offer trophies, whereas the Xbox 360 and PC versions offer Xbox Live/Windows Live achievements.
Aside from a few PS3-specific sound quirks, the audio in every version is marvelous. Most of the voice acting is great, some sleepy-sounding performances notwithstanding. Any game’s atmosphere can live or die by its ambient audio, and Fallout 3 rises to the challenge. The whistling of the wind and the far-off sound of a gunshot are likely to give you a chill, and the slow-motion groans and crunch of a baseball bat meeting a ghoul’s face sound wonderfully painful. If you get lonely and want some company, you can listen to a couple of radio stations, though the frequent repetition of the songs and announcements grates after a while. The soundtrack is fine, though it’s a bit overwrought considering the desolate setting. Luckily, its default volume is very low, so it doesn’t get in the way.
No matter what platform you own, you should play Fallout 3, which overcomes its issues by offering a deep and involving journey through a world that’s hard to forget. It has more in common with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series than with previous Fallout games, but that is by no means a bad thing. In fact, Fallout 3 is leaner and meaner than Bethesda’s previous efforts, less expansive but more intense, while still offering immense replay value and quite a few thrills along the way. Whether you’re a newcomer to the universe or a Fallout devotee, untold hours of mutated secrets are lurking in the darkest corners of Washington.