Fallout 3 – hands-on

The end of the world never felt so fun

It has been a full decade - an eternity in gaming time - since we%26rsquo;ve seen a new game set in the Fallout universe, but Fallout 3%26rsquo;s release is imminent. Many people believe there is no greater RPG franchise... which means expectations are king-sized. Can the latest installment in the story live up to its classic predecessors? The only way to find out was to play it. This is a journal of the people, mutants, skills, abilities, weapons, equipment, and quests we encountered during our day in a post-nuclear role-playing game.

I doubt anyone has ever looked forward to life after nuclear armageddon as much as I have. As a gamer who counts Fallout 1 and 2 among my favorite gaming experiences of all time, this was a singular thrill: For the first time since announcing the resurrection of one of gaming%26rsquo;s best-loved role-playing franchises in 2004, renowned developer Bethesda Softworks handed over the controls of Fallout 3 to someone outside its employ. It was with perilously high expectations that I stepped out of Vault 101, the self-contained bunker located under Washington, D.C. that sheltered 1,000 people from the apocalyptic war of 2077, and into the bleak post-nuclear wasteland of 2271 with nothing but a pistol and a few life-restoring stimpacks to my name. The main quest (which revolves around the mystery of why your father suddenly left the Vault and what he%26rsquo;s up to) was off-limits for anti-spoiler reasons, but absolutely everything else was fair game.

Before letting me run wild, Todd Howard took me on a brief tour of some never-before-seen features with a buffed-out late-game character. First up: melee combat. Equipped with a pneumatic Power Fist and the legendary Bloody Mess perk, Todd moved in close to an attacking raider and activated The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS), which lets you pause the game and single out body parts for auto-targeted shots (when using ranged weapons). Melee VATS doesn%26rsquo;t let you target individual body parts, but it does increase your chance of scoring a critical hit and inflicting extra damage. Todd cued up a couple of attacks and pressed the go key, treating us to a slow-motion scene of Todd%26rsquo;s character winding up and throwing a punch that, with a puff of steam from the Power Fist, took the raider%26rsquo;s head clean off with a spray of gore. He also demonstrated some EMP grenades on a roving sentry bot.

The big revelation, though, was the Enclave. Until now, Bethesda has been tight-lipped about Enclave involvement in Fallout 3, except the mention of an Enclave radio station broadcast on your Pip Boy. But thanks to a spectacular entrance near the Brotherhood of Steel-occupied Pentagon (now called the Citadel), in which a dual-bladed helicopter called a Vertibird (a crashed one is seen outside Klamath in Fallout 2) deploys a squad of advanced power-armor-clad troops equipped with laser weapons, we can confirm that the Enclave presence in the Washington, D.C. area is very real, and very well-armed.

After the quick hands-off demo, I was let loose at the beginning of the game. The world, and all of its treasures and perils, was mine to explore. I skipped over character creation, since we%26rsquo;ve seen that inother previews, and set out on my adventure. The moment I set foot in the wastes I heard a familiar sound effect - the classic Fallout level-up chirp! I brought up my Pip Boy wrist computer interface, pumped all my skill points into small guns, and, after carefully looking over the list of available perks, couldn%26rsquo;t help but choose Ladykiller - I felt confident that would come in handy down the line.

The town of Megaton - a walled-in community built from scrap around an undetonated nuclear bomb left over from the war - is so close to Vault 101 that you can hardly avoid exploring it. In previous demos, we%26rsquo;ve seen one way the town%26rsquo;s central quest can play out: Mr. Burke, a creepy guy in a bar, gives you a device and tells you to plant it in the bomb in order to reactivate it, and the two of you watch from a remote tower as Megaton is wiped off the map in a spectacular explosion. But I was there to see something new, so after speaking to Burke, I ran squealing to the town sheriff, Lucas Sims. Sims immediately marched into the bar and arrested Burke, but made the rookie mistake of turning his back on the prisoner; Burke calmly drew a gun, shot the sheriff in the back (but he did not shoot the deputy), sat back down, and reminded me to finish the job. That%26rsquo;s not exactly how I expected things to go down, but on the bright side I did end up with a snappy new duster coat, hat, and Chinese-made assault rifle that the sheriff wouldn%26rsquo;t need anymore.

Even with this setback, I was determined not to let Burke win. My character wasn%26rsquo;t at the top of his class science-wise, so I popped some Mentats that temporarily boosted my intelligence enough to permanently disarm the Megaton bomb, thus foiling Burke%26rsquo;s plan for good. Sims%26rsquo; son presented me with the deed to a vacant Megaton home as a reward. Inside my new residence I found (among other things) a robot butler who offered to give me a haircut, so I restyled my premade character%26rsquo;s bland hair to a bright red color and added a massive bushy handlebar mustache. I completed the look with some thick-rimmed glasses I%26rsquo;d found, giving me a Gordon Freeman/Yosemite Sam love child look.

My handsome mug was lookin%26rsquo; good, but my house was in dire need of decor. Some helpful townsfolk directed me to Moira, owner of Craterside Supply, for some household furnishings. A very cheerful lady, Moira offered me work helping her research a guide to the wastelands that she was writing - she wanted me to scout out a nearby Super Duper Mart for food and medicine. That worked for me, since I was headed in that direction anyway; I had picked up another quest in the bar from a woman who asked me to deliver a letter to her parents in a nearby village called Arafu.

Upon leaving the relative safety of Megaton, I found that these NPCs weren%26rsquo;t just being lazy by asking me to do their quests for them - it%26rsquo;s brutal out there. My first encounters were with a pair of giant ants and a giant bloat fly, but they were easily dispatched with a few shots from my pistol. I came across a dilapidated baseball field with several dismembered human corpses strung up on the backstop - a telltale sign of a raider base. As I approached I was charged by several raiders wearing firefighter helmets and intimidating gas masks, and sporting baseball bats. Melee combat works very much as it does in Oblivion: one button strikes, another blocks. It%26rsquo;s a basic system, but it gets the job done. A few good whacks later I was trying on a firefighter helmet, but ditched it because it covered up my %26rsquo;stache.

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