One big steel door stood between me and freedom. Luckily, the demo has dumbed down the actual process of escape that will be present in the final game, so I could breathe the sullied air of a world that's been truly screwed in no time.
The view from home sweet vault stretched for miles and miles, over craggy hills and valleys. Take the Oblivion engine running on a very high-end PC and you have what Fallout 3 does on the Xbox 360. Naturally, some fog rolls in and detail is gradually stripped away, but the draw distance is still breathtaking. Up close, the cracked rocks and beaten, dry earth shone with a white yellow light from the edge of hell, deepening the feeling of isolation and despair. In other words: glorious. I wish we had been allowed to take a quick movie just to show off the algae-choked pools with their rippling grime and a sheen that brought fond memories of New Jersey.
I could have gone anywhere right from the start, but just seeing the map of this crumbling world left me searching for signposts. In one direction, there was Megaton, a fully fleshed-out and slapped-together town where we could kick off the main quest. Since we weren't allowed to talk about that, it was off to Springville, blasted by a nuclear summer. The weed-covered swing sets and burned out buildings brought strong memories of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., though according to the developer this was more of serendipity than inspiration. Within the elementary school, I was able to bite off our first real chunk of combat. On the face of things, the game plays like a traditional first/third-person shooter, complete with iron-cross view, duck and cover, and hasty reloading. Enemies are vicious, though healing was only a hot key away. The feel of the weaponry was solid and the ability to loot every corpse sweetened the deal.
Then there's the V.A.T.S. system. This allows you to pause the game during any combat and target specific parts of an enemy's anatomy, telling your chances of hitting and how much life is left in each limb. The game is also paused in this mode, letting you take a glance around to see what sort of situation you're in, and plot out the best way of making through it alive. You have a certain amount of points you can pump into the several of these targets; blinding, maiming, and crippling your foe before finishing him off back in first (or third) person. The points used in these special attacks fill up over time and fill faster when certain stats are improved.
There are a lot of stats, skills, abilities, et cetera. Not quite as many as the previous games in the Fallout series, but I found that a bit too cumbersome anyway. There's still more than a dozen basic stats to modify and develop your character any way you like, plus special abilities to bump them up even further, like the Lady Killer that's about winning a woman's heart by hacking out of her chest. All of these stats, maps, and other assorted data are managed by the Pipboy, standing as a cheerful 50s style cartoon character who, like the short clips in BioShock, extols in gruesome acts.
Fallout 3 works, and I'm not damning with faint praise here. You have a cult franchise with dedicated fans, the creation of a massive world in a style that's never been done before (since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was almost entirely based on real locations), FPS mixed with RPG, all the decriers of the little too procedural Oblivion, and the most competitive video game market the world has ever seen. Even from my limited experience with the game, I could feel the same tingle of discovery as when I loaded up the original Fallout for the first time - or going back further, when I stormed the first town in its predecessor, Wasteland. The feeling that I was on the verge of an epic adventure I'd never forget.