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Traipsing Through Fallout 3's Wasteland

Four hours (and one nuked village) into Bethesda's post-apocalyptic RPG sequel, I feel like I've barely gotten started.

It's a big ugly irradiated world out there.
It's a big ugly irradiated world out there.
Fallout 3 is going to be a big game. Not just big in sales, though over the last decade the Fallout fan base's rosy nostalgia and rabid anticipation have accreted into a burning fireball of chart-topping potential. The game is also big in scope. Anybody who played Oblivion or the previous Elder Scrolls games knows Bethesda's penchant for cramming its games to the bursting point with wide-ranging quests (both story-driven and optional), narrative texture, mountains of loot, deep role-playing character development, and sprawling vistas. Or, wait, this is the post-nuclear apocalypse. Make that sprawling wastelands.

I had four hours to sit down with a freshly made character in Fallout 3--and while that might be enough time to plow through fully half of a lesser game, it was barely enough time with this one for me to confirm that, yeah, it is in fact freaking huge.

If you've been keeping up with coverage of Fallout 3, you know that the main story revolves around the search for your missing father, who's mysteriously excused himself from Vault 101, the underground safe haven you've both called home for all of your short life. Bethesda requested we not pursue that primary plotline during our demo in the interest of preserving the story, so I had to focus on side quests, finding new equipment, and exploring the wastes. But hunting for pops or not, your first stop outside of Vault 101 will be Megaton, a nearby walled village built around an unexploded atomic bomb that sits on the vault's doorstep. The place is home to all manner of scavengers, wayfarers, religious fanatics, and ghouls (or nuclear zombies).

Fallout shares a load of similarities with Oblivion, and Megaton is where you start to see them. But you also see where Bethesda has improved on some of the previous game's rough spots. Character interactions are the same: the camera zooms in on a person's face, and you navigate dialogue trees to get information, items, and quests out of them. Unlike in Oblivion--where characters felt like they'd popped out of only about six different molds--every NPC I saw in the four hours with Fallout had a unique character model and voice.

And everyone had a story to tell. There was Confessor Cromwell, the leader of the cult-like Church of Atom, a group who worships the town's bomb. Moriarty is the tough-talking town saloon owner, an information dealer who you may have to work with regarding your father's whereabouts. Gob is a ghoul who works at the bar, lacks most of the flesh on his face, talks sort of like a New Yorker, and gets beat up on by Moriarty a lot. The place even had a whore-in-residence who offered her services to me, but wouldn't give the same courtesy to Gob. Due to the whole rotten-flesh thing, you know. A girl's gotta have standards, right? Then there was the town tinkerer with schematics for something called a "rock-it launcher," the frightened girl who wanted me to deliver a message to her family one town over, and the friendly town sheriff, who kindly asked me to disarm the bomb, if I had the know-how.

Everybody's got a unique face, voice, and story to tell.
Everybody's got a unique face, voice, and story to tell.
Oh, and don't forget Mr. Burke, the shady businessman with shiny wingtips hanging out in the corner of the bar. He instead wanted me to stick a little pulse device on the bomb so he could detonate it remotely and use the newly irradiated land for some other purpose. (A luxury high rise, perhaps.) Megaton, as you may have read, presents a tidy moral quandary in Fallout 3. You can save it, or you can blow it to kingdom come, and reap some kind of benefit either way. I've personally absorbed so much Fallout 3 coverage over the last year--and consequently read about Megaton so many times--that I made up my mind I was going to fix the town one way or the other by the end of my session.

But first I had to go roam around the wastes surrounding the village to mess with combat, get a feel for the game's exploration, and take in the, uh, scenery. It's brown. Very brown. The post-nuclear future is a very arid, unpleasant place, I'm unhappy to inform you. Life doesn't seem like much fun, either. One town I stumbled onto, Arefu, consisted of a few dilapidated shacks put together on the top of a ruined overpass. The place was being terrorized by a bloodthirsty nocturnal gang calling itself the Family. And I mean literally bloodthirsty; after I tracked them to their hideout and ingratiated myself, I found the Family to be a group of civilized, practicing vampires. Actually, dealing with the hostilities and drama between Arefu and the Family ate up a large chunk of my four hours, and all that spawned from just a minor side quest I'd picked up in Megaton.

On my hunt for the Family, I ran into a handful of different places of interest. Remember how Oblivion featured dozens and dozens of...two different locations? There were Elven ruins, and there were caves. Ad nauseam. From what I saw so far, Fallout 3 seems to offer a whole lot more diversity in the interior areas you'll encounter. There was a bombed out old drive-in movie theater, a subterrannean industrial complex being used as a hideout by some raiders, an abandoned transit station with a boobytrapped subway tunnel, an old supermarket... Just like the wide range of NPCs, it seemed like every place I found on the map had a different appearance and character to it. (Also, just like in Oblivion, you can fast-travel to any place you've been before just by selecting it on the map.)

Count on the V.A.T.S. to save your ass from time to time.
Count on the V.A.T.S. to save your ass from time to time.
Some of the role-playing elements in Fallout 3 were a little daunting at first. There's an awful lot of info crammed into the PipBoy, your little wrist-strapped monochrome computer screen that doubles as the menu interface. That's where you'll access all your quests, notes, maps, equipment, character know, all that RPG stuff. By the end of the demo, though, I was navigating through all those menus with relative ease, though I feel like that all might be a little easier to handle with a mouse than a console controller. There are a lot of numbers you have to keep track of. Items have weight here like they did in Oblivion, but I was picking up all kinds of junk to sell back at the vendor and never had a problem with getting overly encumbered, even at a low level. You also have a RAD level that indicates how much radiation you've taken on, and that value sticks with you unti you treat it medically. You can pick up RADs by entering irradiated areas, eating tainted food, that sort of thing. If you get too much radiation, you'll start to suffer detrimental effects.

Leveling up is a more straightforward affair than it was in Oblivion, since this game uses the traditional Fallout SPECIAL system to let you allocate points into basic attribute categories immediately when you level up. None of that having to find a place to sleep to actually increase your stats, or having the skills you use the most naturally increasing over the other ones. (So don't go bunny-hopping everywhere just to raise your agility--it makes you look like a doofus.) You can also pick out a specific perk at every level, some of which are pretty funny and have some strange effects. One of them was called Lady Killer and gave you an extra 10 percent damage against female opponents, not to mention some extra dialogue options when talking to women in normal dialogue. Weird.

The game is generous with low-level loot like Oblivion was. I picked up an assault rifle, several melee weapons, and a variety of armor just by fighting the early raiders that were roaming the wastes. It seems like the best and most unique equipment you'll have to make yourself, though. I gained my first schematic right at the end of the demo, for an item called the shishkebab. That required me to find a motorcycle gas tank, a pilot light, a lawnmower blade, and a motorcycle hand brake. The schematic said the resulting item would both "slash" and "burn," which sounds like everything I'm looking for in a good melee weapon. You'll need the schematic, the right parts, and a high enough repair skill to actually assemble this kind of crazy makeshift weaponry.

There are nice ghouls and not-so-nice ghouls.
There are nice ghouls and not-so-nice ghouls.
You can fight in real time if you want, of course, but I really started to appreciate the potential of the V.A.T.S. during this extended demo. That's the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, the thing that lets you pause the action and target the specific limbs, torso, or head of your enemies. Here's the best example. I ran into a Super Mutant early on in my explorations, one of the big burly gun-toting brutes who are occupying what's left of Washington, DC. Considering I was only level 2, the dude could have flattened me with his fists alone, but nevermind that; he was firing a missile launcher at me as I dodged around an old trailer. I happened to pop my V.A.T.S. when I had a good shot at his weapon, so I expended all my action points targeting his launcher and managed to get enough hits with my measly pistol to knock it out of his hands. That just pissed him off, so he charged at me. Then I targeted his right leg and unloaded into that until he was crippled and couldn't keep up with me, after which I put some distance between us and shot the guy in the face repeatedly until he went down. The V.A.T.S. made it possible to immobilize and defeat an enemy I'm pretty sure I was too weak to be fighting. That was a fun strategic moment.

OK, yeah, Megaton. Sorry, I could talk about this game all day. Toward the end of the four-hour session, Bethesda's Pete Hines began pacing the room announcing we had 20 minutes left. Figuring some fireworks would make for a good end to the day, I high-tailed it--or, I should say, fast-traveled it--back to Megaton and slapped the pulse device onto the bomb, then set off for the Tenpenny Towers marker on my world map. That's where Burke said to meet him if I decided to carry out his dark deed. What did I find but a little luxury estate right there in the middle of the wasteland, with Burke hanging out on the penthouse balcony next to a giant shiny red button. He let me do the unceremonious honors. One giant mushroom cloud later and I'd snuffed out several dozen people--but hey, at least I got my very own master suite at the towers!

There are a hundred other little things I'm leaving out here. I liked tuning in the radio station on my PipBoy for the Enclave, the shadowy remnant of the United States government, listening to president Malcolm McDowell spewing jingoistic propaganda between snippets of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I was intrigued by the Megaton tinkerer who wanted me to help her with field research on the wasteland survival guide she was writing. I wanted to know more about the Super Mutant occupation of DC and their conflict with the Brotherhood of Steel, a couple of armored members of which I ran into right at the end. That stuff will have to wait--but not for long, since Fallout 3 is out on PC, 360, and PS3 in a mere three weeks.
Brad Shoemaker on Google+