E3 Hands-on: Fallout 3

If any game company knows the true meaning of the word “epic,” it’s Bethesda. The team that brought us the massive Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion has been hard at work on Fallout 3, the console debut and much-watched sequel to one of the PC’s most beloved franchises. We got an all-too-brief thirty minutes with the game at E3 this year, and Bethesda has proven that the series continues to shine in their exceptionally capable hands.

The demo began just as our protagonist emerged from Vault 101 for the first time. For those unfamiliar, the story starts out with you in search of your father who has disappeared without explanation. The only lead you have is that he was recently spotted in the nearby town of “Megaton,” so you set out on your journey to figure out who he really is and why he’s suddenly gone missing.

Of course, this being a Bethesda game, there’s no rush to get into the story. Just like Oblivion, you can freely roam the land with little to no regard for the main story, venturing out on side-missions and raids for quite a long time before you even touch the main quest. Indeed, the developers seem to be inviting you to do just that, directing you through a bombed-out city and past a dilapidated elementary school before you ever even sniff Megaton. Truthfully, if you ignore these distractions and plow ahead straight to your objectives then you’ll likely miss out on a lot of the fun Fallout 3 has to offer. There are no wrong ways to play this game, but some approaches are definitely more fun than others.

Of course, no game like this is any fun without a fight, so we first ventured off to see what kind of trouble we could get into. Thankfully, a mutated rat happened by (think Rodents Of Unusual Size), and we began happily blasting away. The game allows you to play it like a first-person shooter, simply aiming and firing, and those looking for that sort of experience will no doubt be pleased. For the more tactical crowd, the title features the Vault Assisted Targeting System (VATS for short), which will allow you to pause the action and aim at specific parts of your foe.

For rats and other small creatures, we aimed at the head, but the developers promised that there would be certain situations where enemies would be carrying some pretty heavy firepower, or possibly helmeted, and it may behoove you to try and take out their arms or legs so they either drop the weapon or lose some mobility before you go for the noggin. The VAT System is an interesting mechanic, and by making it a choice, you effectively give the player the ability to play the game how they want, something too few games do now-a-days.

The weapons themselves deserve a few moments’ discussion, as they are truly inspired. While we couldn’t access it in our build, the Bethesda team showed a debug version of the game where the character was wielding the “Fat Boy,” basically a handheld nuclear bomb. The player pulled up VATS, directed the small-scale merchant of death at a cluster of baddies, and as he let fly the camera followed the small but menacing bomb in flight. Needless to say, once it detonated, there wasn’t a whole lot left of the enemies who had previously been harassing our hero.

Those who spent a lot of time in Oblivion picking up worthless junk will be pleased as well, as Pete Hines confirmed the existence of a rocket launcher-like device which would use all your junk items as ammo. So, if you’re faced with a bunch of foes and out of bullets, you can just load up a toaster, some flatware, and maybe a ceramic bowl or two and blast all that at them. It may not be the most effective gun, but it’s likely that while the baddies are trying to figure out who’s shooting appliances at them you might manage to slip away unnoticed.

When you aren’t shooting or exploring you may want to take a moment to check your status or access the map via your handy-dandy Pip Boy. The wrist computer is a critical component of the experience, and features screens detailing your status, weapons, items and more. There were some screens that didn’t make any sense as we flipped through them, but the developers promised they would serve integral functions in the final build and we would understand what they were for when the time was right. The Pip Boy can also tune in any radio stations whose signals you pick up, meaning that you can slaughter mutant zombies to the upbeat strains of “Yankee Doodle.” If that’s not a recipe for fun then I don’t know what is.

Fallout’s environment is incredibly impressive, especially considering that the smoldering wreckage that the landscape consists of is an actual replica of Washington, DC. We didn’t have time to get to the White House, but we did take a moment to ask Hines if it was out there. His reply, “Oh yeah, it’s definitely there, you just might not recognize it. It’s a smoking crater now.” This comment came not long after another developer relayed his constant fear that he was going to be arrested during development because he was spending so much time checking out historic monuments and wondering what they would look like if they were irradiated or blown up. All his hard work has definitely paid off though, as the bleak, barren landscape immediately sucks you in and refuses to give you up from the moment you set foot outside the Vault.

The only aspects of the game we didn’t get to check out in our short demo were the character creation system and any interactions with your canine companion Dogmeat. The character system promises to give you unparalleled ability to determine your appearance, characteristics, and strengths, making it possible to play the game exactly as you want. Dogmeat has also been touted as a key feature, hunting items and providing aid in combat, but he comes later in the game, and no matter how fast we rushed we weren’t able to unlock him before our time was up. Still, if those elements of the game are anywhere near as remarkable as everything else then we’re in for quite a treat.

Perhaps the only thing better than actually playing Fallout 3 was watching everyone else do it. Looking at the ten or so consoles around the room, I was struck by how no two people were doing the same thing. One soul had headed straight for Megaton, found out some more of his character’s backstory, and immediately set off for the next objective. Another player was simply wandering the world blasting raiders and looking for loot. Still another soul had wandered to Megaton, shot the sheriff, and was now being pursued by an angry mob of citizens who were demanding his head. Hines took a particular joy watching this poor chap as he was chased across the map by gun toting and bottle wielding townsfolk. I suppose even in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, some people just don’t take kindly to folks who shoot the only existing authority figure in cold blood. Also, since the sheriff was a figure important to the story, Hines hinted that now the poor soul who slaughtered him would have to work that much harder to get the missions necessary to advance the plot.

Still, with a game this massive, engrossing, and fun, who needs objectives? You could just wander the wastelands, Dogmeat by my side, snapping pretend pictures of former DC landmarks. We can see the postcards now, "Greetings from the smoking hole that used to be the White House!"

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