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A Few Rads Never Hurt Anyone

June 23rd, 2009

My obsession du jour is the PC game Fallout 3, a role-playing experience set within the post-apocalyptic ruins of Washington, D.C.

While this is not my first exposure to the Fallout franchise–I played through a Playstation 2 spin-off called Brotherhood of Steel–I never tried either of the PC-based installments. I know that some old-school Fallout fans were turned off by the new game’s switch from a turn-based combat system to something resembling a first-person shooter, but I don’t have the grounding in the originals to make a proper comparison.

That said, I’ve played my share of FPS games, and it rarely feels like one of those. There are long, lonely stretches of exploration between combats. While running-and-gunning is certainly an option, Fallout 3 evokes its roots by employing a targeting system called V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, don’t ya know). Going into┬áV.A.T.S. mode pauses the battle and allows one to pinpoint an enemy’s limbs–or, more likely, its head. The player has a pool of action points to expend by queueing up multiple attacks, which are subsequently executed in a slow-motion, grisly ballet of death once the game is restarted.

Honestly, with this guy, it doesn't matter what you try to target.

Fallout 3 literally starts from the moment of birth, as part of its unusual character creation system. I traditionally use a female avatar, as I feel that if I’m going to spend 50 hours staring at someone’s ass, it might as well be a nice one. However, on this occasion I took a different path and made a digital me. For me, a big part of the appeal of a post-apocalyptic scenario is personal: how would I fare in such a world? So there’s now a digital David running around a nuke-ravaged landscape, a David with much more charisma and a better selection of guns than his real-world counterpart.

It's creepy watching him die.The storyline begins in one of the underground Vaults that were intended to protect humanity during a final, nuclear war with the Chinese. But pretty soon the main character escapes into the wild. I was very impressed with my first glimpse of the new world: the distant ruins of D.C. bathed by the morning sun.

Pretty soon I arrived in Megaton, a Bartertown-inspired village built from scraps of old planes and centered around an unexploded nuclear bomb. And right away I got my first sense of the open-ended nature of the gameplay, when a well-dressed stranger offered me a bunch of money (bottle caps are Fallout‘s currency) to rig a detonator to the warhead. I’m told that you can indeed set off the bomb and nuke an entire community of non-player characters and their associated missions into a huge, smoking hole. The player is frequently asked to make moral choices which often have consequences affecting later storylines. There’s even a sliding good/evil scale that changes in response to one’s actions, and influences how the player is viewed by others.

I chose not to set off the bomb, having taken an instant liking to the scruffy suburb. I would, however, come to regret that choice.

Soon I met Moira, keeper of the local supply store. She’s a daffy greasemonkey who seems to be inspired by Kaylee from the TV series Firefly. One of the major side quests is built around her efforts to write a survival guide, with the player as a human guinea pig. Challenges include getting radiation sickness, receiving a crippling injury or activating an entire building full of killer robots and being forced to fight one’s way out.

All of that, including Moira’s skewed commentary on her ridiculous tasks, would’ve been okay if it hadn’t been for the voice acting. I call it a doi-voice. Try making the sound “doi.” Now imagine that everything you say sounds like you saying “doi.” That’s Moira.

The face I desperately want to punch.As I mentioned, I found myself wistfully remembering the days when I had an unexploded atomic bomb with Moira’s name on it. Just for fun, I once saved my game and spent the next half hour or so trying to kill Moira in as many different ways as I had available. The flamethrower was the most satisfying.

Fortunately, most of Fallout 3 is set far away from Moira. There are miles of wasteland to explore. I’ve really enjoyed wandering around and looking forward to seeing what’s over the next rise.

I had read reviews of the game suggesting that it was really depressing, but I don’t find that true at all. To me, a post-apocalyptic story is less about the breakdown of society than about the people struggling to reform it. And indeed, there are all manner of candles in the darkness, including a Brotherhood dedicated to preserving past knowledge to an entire city built in the rusting hulk of an aircraft carrier.

Washington as seen from the flight deck of Rivet City.So far, I’ve paid very little attention to the main quest and have been doing a lot of the side missions. I was intrigued by the spooky, ghoul-infested Dunwich Building in the southwest corner of the map. Ultimately it was kinda disappointing, as the quasi-Lovecraftian references that peppered that particular story paid off without once encountering an eldritch horror.

Hmm, this appears almost...squamous. Rugose, if you will.One particular moment of pride came last night when I finally took out the Super Mutant Behemoth that was hiding out near the rail tunnel. Sucker killed me a bunch of times, partially because the game’s “draw distance” kept it invisible until it was nearly on top of me. But mostly because it was fucking huge and had a mace with a fire hydant at its end. I finally got my hand on the “Fat Man,” a shoulder-mounted weapon that launches Mini Nukes. It took two atomic blasts to take that sucker down, but down he went.

I'm told that Super Mutant Behemoths are good eating, but am reluctant to try.I’m taking off this week to burn off some vacation time, and I expect to spend a significant portion of it exploring this strange, new world, seeking new civilizations and new weapons with which to melt Moira’s head.

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