Just so you know, the following preview was written about the PC version of Fallout 3. If you came here expecting an Xbox 360 preview and don't care about PC details, skip the next three paragraphs. Otherwise, read on.
Fallout 3 isn't exactly an unknown. We've been covering the game extensively since it was first revealed a little over one year ago, and last week published quite a bit of information regarding several of the game's systems, including a preview of a six hour gameplay session and plenty of video. Yet most of that was with the Xbox 360 version. Many PC gamers who still fondly remember the Fallout games of the late 1990s likely still want to know more specifics about the version of their preferred platform, and we got a chance to check it out at a recent event in San Francisco.
While there aren't any particularly major differences between the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC versions in terms of features at launch, there are some smaller ones. Fallout 3 PC will use Microsoft's Games for Windows – Live, meaning gamers will sign in using an account and amass achievement points and all the other associated features of the service. Since Microsoft announced GFWL is now totally free, nobody has to worry about any additional charge. Bethesda also mentioned the PC and Xbox 360 exclusive downloadable content for Fallout 3, the specifics of which will be revealed at a later date, will be downloaded directly through whatever type of download service Microsoft eventually sets up, which neither we nor the Bethesda representative we spoke with have yet seen.
As for the rest of the game, players can expect the regular complement of PC features. Most of the major graphics options like resolution and anti aliasing are configured outside of the game and once in, you can still tweak a few like object, actor and item fade. All the controls can be customized as well. There's a tag for LIVE, which is GFW Live, in the main menu options, but it wasn't active on the build we played so we couldn't check it out. The build ran quite smoothly, but that's to be expected considering the sky high system specs.
Anyway, on to the actual game. Like many of the previous play sessions with Fallout 3, I started out just outside Vault 101 where the game begins and was told I could pretty much go anywhere, though major story spoilers were not allowed. So, in the spirit of adventuring, I set out to the north of the game world, an area some of my colleagues hadn't checked out as much. To the south and directly to the east from Vault 101 are Megaton, where the story picks up, and Washington D.C. where nefarious super mutants reside (Bethesda may have inadvertently made a stingingly topical social commentary given the current economic bailout fiasco), so I headed northeast to the eastern edge of the map, then back and up to the northwest corner. I wound up finding some pretty strange stuff.
In case you're totally unfamiliar, Fallout 3 offers you the opportunity to fight and make friends in a post-apocalyptic world. Instead of the isometric view from games past, Bethesda decided to take the series into the first-person perspective like its Elder Scrolls series. Much of the same color palette of Fallout seems to have been maintained for the third game, depicting ruined wastes, dilapidated factories and facilities, and blasted cityscapes. To what degree the series' ironic sense of humor has been transitioned into the sequel remains to be seen, but after interacting with a few of the NPCs scattered around the game world, I can definitely say they're at least more interesting to talk to than the NPCs in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Though there is a main story in Fallout 3, you don't really have to engage in it. You can, instead, just roam around the countryside, taking on quests from townsfolk or whoever else you happen to run into, and battling horribly mutated creatures, crazed robots, and bandits that populate the game world. By doing this you gain experience, level up and power up your character, and snag new weapons and items, so in that sense it's a very free-form game, letting you engage in what you find to be entertaining.
As you encounter enemies you can either attack in real time with guns or melee weapons or shift into VATS targeting mode, which pauses the action and lets you select specific parts of the enemies' bodies to hit. Each part has an associated percentage, and this mode is advantageous as it lets you blast a few rounds in quick succession. This ability isn't unlimited, however, as it's governed by action points. In Fallout 3, action points regenerate over time, so if you're in the midst of battle, you'll need to find cover and let them regenerate if you want to perform more targeted shots. You could fight in real time, but since the combat is more statistic-based than twitch-based, you're usually better off with VATS. Another factor to consider is your ammunition supply, so close attention should be paid to reserves and the whereabouts of NPC vendors.
Without ammunition was a state in which I frequently found myself during my play through, mostly because I tended to stay in the open wastes, visiting the occasional abandoned production facility or trudging underneath pillars supporting fragmentary sections of highway overpass. Fortunately, melee weapons seem to be pretty easy to come by. Over the course of the session I found sledgehammers, bats, batons, a ripper (a knife fitted with a motorized saw), and a Fisto! (several hunks of metal strapped to your right hand). VATS targeted hits with these weapons tend to suck up a lot of action points. Trying it out with the sledgehammer, for instance, pretty much ate the entire action point bar, but it's worth it. Against some enemies who'd take three to five hits to die with a standard pistol a single targeted melee swipe would bring them down. With the Fisto!, it seemed like nearly every hit, even non-targeted ones, would cause the affected body part of the enemy to be crippled. Or maybe I just got lucky.
Though there are plenty of statistics to bump up in the game as you level, it seems some of the most important are lockpick and repair. During my travels I ran into quite a few areas completely inaccessible without a high enough lockpick skill. Considering some doors lay buried within mysterious laboratories and blocked the entrances to curious spires topped with satellite dishes, I think it's pretty safe to assume that had I been able to get them open I would have been given some interesting rewards. Repair is another skill needed regularly, as it helps maintain weapon stability while in the field. By picking up versions of the same armor or gun type, you use your repair skill to consume one and improve the durability condition of the other. If you ignore these repairs, weapons will deteriorate to the point where they'll break, and then you'll be staring at a radscorpion with nothing but your bare hands for defense and only yourself to blame.
Depending on how high your repair skill is, you can continue to combine like-type weapons and armor to higher and higher durability ratings. This, in addition to keeping the weapon in a functioning state, also helps manage your inventory weight limit, since if you pick up too much and your character will be slowed down. By combining items with the repair skill, you can very easily lighten the load without the hassle of trying to find a vendor to sell off items or simply toss them aside. It seemed that after nearly every fight with humanoids it was a good idea to stop to combine weapons and armor to ensure you were in the best condition for moving forward. And of course stim-packs that regenerate health are also a big help, as you'll need to use them to inject yourself to replenish your general health or stick them into individual body parts to repair damage there. If you ignore individual body parts, they'll become crippled.
It's not just weapons, ammunition, armor and health items that you pick up, however. There are lots of other bits and pieces. Some of it, like morsels of food or chunks of beasts, can be used to replenish small portion of health though you'll simultaneously take on radiation levels. If this rating gets high enough you'll have to inject yourself with rad-away to bring yourself back down to normal readings. You also get other drugs to boost combat performance and defense, though if you use these enough it's possible to become addicted, at which point continued use or a visit to a doctor will be the only ways to remove the withdrawal side-effects.
I managed to find a few workbenches scattered around Fallout 3's environments that seemed to serve as sites for the construction of specific items. At one particular abandoned facility I discovered a schematic for a rail gun, though upon approaching the bench I discovered I was missing the essential components. It's interesting, or perhaps annoying, to consider if the belt you picked up in a random shack might serve as a key ingredient for making some kind of all-powerful armament, or if it's a useless piece of junk.
The gun schematic was only one of several random discoveries I managed to make while roaming. At one point I approached a fenced-in radio tower surrounded by a chain link gate. After fiddling with the lockpick minigame where you manipulate bobby pins before turning the lock cylinder, I managed to get into the area and flip a switch at the base of the tower. I then took a look at my Pip-Boy, a wrist-mounted readout that keeps track of just about everything that goes on in the game, and discovered the tower was broadcasting a new radio station. So I tuned in, hearing only static fuzz for a while but I figured I might be able to get a quest out of it. Unfortunately it was just at that moment when a giant radscorpion came crawling over a nearby ride and stabbed me in the face, and so I loaded up a past save and moved on.
At another point I came down off a mountainous ridge and in a clearing found a curious humanoid perched on what looked to be a chair or some kind. I approached and before long he (or she, it was hard to tell) started screaming and sent a pack of giant cockroaches my way. This person was, apparently, some sort of roach king, and happened to have a mini-gun and lots of ammunition, which made dealing with the roaches all the more intense with the sideways rain of bullets. I managed to take out the roaches with a sledgehammer then equip my sniper rifle which, after successfully landing a few headshots, brought my attacker down pretty quickly and gave me access to the minigun.
Toward the end of the play session I managed to find a few areas I think were a little too high level for me. I wandered into one area armed with light armor and only a pistol only to discover it was populated almost entirely with deathclaws, which are sort of like a Tyrannosaurus Rex but with giant hands. It wasn't long before I was reloading my last save. In another area, what appeared to be some sort of abandoned military base, groups of protectron robots, resembling something like the one from Lost in Space, milled about the streets and began firing lasers as soon as they saw me. I managed to duck into a house and, using VATS and my Fisto!, delivered a brutal uppercut to the robot inside, sending it into a midair somersault before crashing to the floor. I headed downstairs to find a humanoid figure sprawled out in front of an open vault, which I promptly looked inside. Along with some cash (in the form of bottlecaps) and bits of junk, I managed to find a Pip-Boy figurine, which boosted my big guns skill permanently by 10 points.
But by far the most structured bit of my wandering was at a town northeast of Vault 101. Upon entering the city limits I found two peculiar figures arguing with one another. One was dressed in an ant suit, flanked by several giant ants, and called herself the AntAgonizer. The other wore a bucket on his head and some metal armor, had several protectron robots at his side, and referred to himself as the Mechanist. After a brief exchange of bitter words, the two flung their minions into battle, and I learned that robots with lasers are pretty good at wiping out giant ants. After the skirmish, the two characters took off.
Right after the confrontation a townsperson approached me and asked if I could help settle the conflict between the two. He told me if one of them was persuaded to give up the fight, the other would likely stop, and the town would be greatly appreciative as their odd conflict had been hurting trade in the area. I told him fine and explored the conversation options a little more to discover I could, for a fee of bottlecaps, instruct this NPC to get the merchants in town to expand their inventories. I didn't have enough at the time, but it was an interesting option.
After a brief exploration of the town's surroundings I managed to find the AntAgonizer's lair. The first section was an abandoned storage facility filled with traps, most of which were proximity mines. I also came upon a tripwire trap which was linked to a chest-level shotgun. I noticed it before I actually tripped it, and with a bullet fired from a pistol was able to sever the wire and disable the trap. I continued to follow passages down into a warren filled with ants, at the end of which sat the AntAgonizer on a throne. To resolve the situation I had several options. With a high enough speech skill I could attempt to persuade her to stop the fight. Seeing as how l lacked the skill, I could tell her she's crazy and needed to be killed, tell her the Mechanist needed to be killed, or go along the lines of giving peace a chance. Without spoiling absolutely everything about the quest, I wound up just killing both of them and looting their armor, which I could thereafter equip. So in addition to all the loot and experience and items I got during the course of the quest, I also managed to come out of it with a bucket helmet and a unique ant breastplate.
And those were the highlights. In some ways the experience felt like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but with a sense of humor…and robots.
Fallout 3 is being readied for an October 28th release for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.
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