When I finished playing "Fallout 3" last week at a small New York press event I was told I had played further into the game than anyone who touched the role-playing game at E3.
Ah, to be a pioneer in the game voted Best of Show in the Game Critics Awards competition at E3.
I was a judge for the Game Critics Awards, and I didn't even pick "Fallout 3" as my favorite. I went with "Little Big Planet." If that makes me a skeptic, then perhaps you'd like to know what I thought of the game. After all, I did play more than anyone did at E3 (did I mention that already?).
Without spoiling much, here's what I did:
The PR team at "Fallout 3" development studio Bethesda made me start the game shortly after its tutorial. I began as a man about to leave his vault, on the verge of putting boots on the soil of a 2277 AD Washington, D.C. ravaged by a nuclear attack.
During press demos, I like to try things I don't think the developers are expecting. So when I stepped my character out of the vault and fumbled with the buttons on my Xbox 360 controller, I wasn't just reacquainting myself with the mechanics of a game I hadn't played since a pre-E3 event in June. I was also trying to find surprises. Hitting the 360 controller's back button, I got my wish. Tapping the button brings up the option to make time pass more quickly. I jumped the game's clock 12 hours. I would roam the D.C. outskirts at night. I bet the E3 gamers didn't do that either!
The landscape was dark. A Bethesda rep told me there may be fewer characters out to talk to at night. What I didn't see were any elevated threats.
The gameplay in the vault, I'm told, is all training. Your character grows up as you learn the controls. Outside the vault, options are open. You can roam the wasteland. Or you can go, as I think most players will, to the town of Megaton. Previews for "Fallout 3" have already explained that the range of options at Megaton involve detonating the nuclear bomb in the middle of town, blowing the place up.
I chose a different path, a path that left me securing my very own house in Megaton with my very own robot butler. I could get a haircut from this butler. Or I could get amusement. That's what I selected, and he/she/it told me a joke. It was about two electrons walking into a bar. One saying it lost an electron. The other asking: "Are you sure?" Response: "I'm positive."
Then I -- accidentally -- shot my robot butler, who chased me out of my own house, shooing me with his/her/its small flamethrower.
I asked my robot butler to tell me another joke. The robot butler replied: "My humor emitter ray needs recharging."
And then I -- accidentally -- shot my robot butler, who chased me out of my own house, shooing me with his/her/its small flamethrower.
Theoretically, when you accidentally misfire into their torso or their two-headed cow, you can calm the people who shoot back at you if you holster your weapon. This didn't work against my robot butler. He ran me out of town.
Outside of town I decided to search for my video game dad. I believe this is the game's main quest. The Bethesda people don't want much of the game's story to be divulged. They've kept details from reporters, allowing just a general sense that the player will be trying to track down their missing father. Early quests involve asking just where he is. After completing one murderous side-mission near a ruined suburb near Megaton and returning (safely) to the undetonated town for info, I proceeded toward D.C. proper. I was walking toward a wrecked skyline marked with the upturned fang of a bombed Washington Monument.
On my way to D.C. I learned how best to kill in "Fallout 3." The game's executive producer, Todd Howard, already informed me in June that there are trade-offs between the game's two combat systems.
The VATS system pauses the game and lets the player select the body or machine parts of the enemy they want to target. Percentages are displayed over each possibly targeted part, demonstrating the likelihood of scoring a hit. You queue your shots before un-pausing, but you're only allowed to set up as many actions as you can afford with your finite reserve of action points. Once you've un-paused the game the action points slowly re-generate.
VATS attacks are for threats. Non-VATS attacks are for nuisances...
Howard told me was that the VATS attacks are more powerful than the other available technique, the standard aim-the-right-stick-and-pull-the-trigger action game combat. I used VATS for tough enemies.
For mutant animals pulling at my leg or for nearly dead enemies, however, I just used the real-time commands. I aimed and shot. That worked. VATS attacks are for threats. Non-VATS attacks are for nuisances.
When the in-game sun rose, I proceeded closer to D.C. Near a river I fought a group of Raiders, enemy people who caught my eye because they were hurling either rockets or Molotov cocktails. They seemed to have taken control of a big supermarket. From the roof they had hung dead bodies. One of the Bethesda reps told me that the Raiders' presence there was somewhat random. The guy playing on an Xbox 360 right next to me had approached the same store without the Raiders having been there. I let the Raiders fight nearby security robots. I potshotted a little and left.
I walked through subway tunnels to reach my next destination. A quest-marker on my mini-map pointed me to a building where more information about my missing dad would be found. In the subway tunnels I fought animals and brutes. Every so often I leveled up. I'd selected a Gun Nut perk, so I was a pretty good shot.
On the other side of the river I found myself in a gun battle between two factions, armored humans and some scrappy, muscular Super Mutants. The fight took place near a radio station -- a station whose frequency I had tuned into and was listening to the whole time I was playing the game. If I ran ahead of the human forces, I got shot a lot. When I waited for the humans to advance, they picked off most of the mutants. They used rifles and machine guns. I just had a pistol.
When the battle seemed to be over, I proceeded to the radio station's doors. That's when a Super Mutant Behemoth showed up. This double-tall enemy easily killed me as he rampaged to the front of the building. After I revived from a checkpoint I tried fighting him again. I found a Fat Man mini-nuclear-weapon launcher. I used VATS and aimed for the torso. He survived the awesome shot, barely. And he killed me again. I reluctantly tore myself from the game.
Best of Show? For 90 minutes "Fallout 3" played well, looked good and was fun. The fundamentals are there. Whether this game comes together, I think, will be based on how interesting its adventure is and if it proves to offer as dynamic and malleable an experience as the "Fallout" game that started it all 11 years ago. The sense of gritty action is there. The sense of whether I've crafted a distinct character because of the choices I made requires more than an hour and a half of playing time.
"Fallout 3" ships in the U.S. on October 28 for the PC, PS3 and XBox 360. The 360 and PC versions will share exclusive downloadable content that is not announced to be coming to the PS3. A Betheseda rep contacted this week by Multiplayer could not provide details about when that DLC will be coming.