It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years (almost to the day) since Fallout 3’s release, especially since in that time I’ve wrung hundreds upon hundreds of hours out of it and still find something new every time I play. But that’s the charming thing about the open-world formula Bethesda have honed over the last dozen years: it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Stepping out of Vault 101 into the bleak - and yet dazzling – light of day is, to borrow a phrase, One Of Those Moments. Capitals necessary. Not only was this the first time gamers got to see Fallout’s vision of a shattered America in three living, breathing dimensions; it was the first time we were given something of such raw, bone-chilling scale that seeing it for the first time forces a gasp. The Capital Wasteland is far, far from the biggest world a game has offered (or even had offered at the time of release), but there was still something very deliberately awe-inspiring about that first peek at the barren land, skeletons of long-decayed city buildings teasing the imagination at the edge of vision. You feel alone. You feel small. You feel, quite probably, very lost. And if you’re anything like me, you feel the compulsion to walk very confidently in the complete wrong direction.
My mistake having been forcefully corrected by an impressively prompt execution at the hands of some Raiders to the north, I did in fact manage to find my way to Megaton and thus to the game’s story. Storytelling, I feel it’s fair to say, is far from Bethesda’s strong suit, but with Liam Neeson anything is possible and so between the somewhat clumsy plot-driving set-pieces and awkward facial animation you do actually get a quite moving tale of an abandoned child’s desperate quest to be anything but alone, even if it means crossing the whole wasteland five times over.
But as I’ve suggested, Fallout 3’s real appeal lies in its freedom. No longer are you confined to the bound areas of Fallout 1 & 2 - the whole wasteland is yours to wander, with nary a border to impede you. It’s no surprise then that the best things in Fallout 3 are all organic: a rogue Deathclaw tearing through an Enclave patrol before setting its eyes on you, leading to a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying sprint for your life; a Ghoul clawing you in the back as you poke through the Metro ruins and making you jump ten feet out of your chair; a Wastelander with a 10mm pistol trying to mug you and finding themselves the first customer of your new business as a particularly heavy-handed laser eye surgeon. All the best moments Fallout 3 has to offer are pure products of your own experience, and everyone will have different highlights from their own playthroughs. Similarly, the world is big enough that going from the start of the game to the end can be done in hundreds of different ways, and you’re extremely unlikely to complete or even find every quest without looking them up.
It’s a singular thing to find a game that still surprises you after half a decade, but in Fallout 3 we have just that. The Ink Spots’ ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’ sweetly claims the desire to start a flame in our hearts, and a more appropriate metaphor couldn’t exist for Fallout 3. Seven years on, that flame’s still burning.