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Fallout 3 – hands-on

It has been a full decade - an eternity in gaming time - since we’ve seen a new game set in the Fallout universe, but Fallout 3’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’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’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’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’s character winding up and throwing a punch that, with a puff of steam from the Power Fist, took the raider’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’ve seen that in other 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’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’ve seen one way the town’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’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’t need anymore.

Even with this setback, I was determined not to let Burke win. My character wasn’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’s plan for good. Sims’ 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’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’d found, giving me a Gordon Freeman/Yosemite Sam love child look.

My handsome mug was lookin’ 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’t just being lazy by asking me to do their quests for them - it’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’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 ’stache.

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