Preview: Fallout 3

Hands-on impressions of what is rapidly becoming the best action-RPG of 2008.

Fallout 3 is looking good. Very, very good. This first-person role-playing game, a resurrection of the post-apocalyptic PC series, combines the best elements of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and BioShock to create a compulsively playable adventure.

Though our official review is still a few weeks away, Fallout 3 is already poised to be one of the best games of 2008. The story is engrossing, the character options are practically limitless, and the art direction firmly plants you in the game's corroded world. If you love role-playing games, shooters, or open-world adventures, Fallout 3 should be on the top of your list.

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Four Hours in the Wastelands

I had four short hours to play with a near-final version of Fallout 3. I chose the PlayStation 3 version of the game (just to be different), and after selecting my starting skills and stats, I was off and running in seconds. Like its spiritual successor, Oblivion, Fallout 3 gave me all the character customization I could handle. With only a few hours of play time available, I decided to create a speedy, nimble character who focused on pistols and rifles, with some light lockpicking abilities.

As I gained experience points by completing quests and killing foes, I added further special skills ("Perks") that can have a huge impact on your play style and overall experience. The developers asked us not to name the Perks available in the final game, for fear of ruining the surprises, but I can confirm that there are well over 50 Perks to choose from and some are downright shocking.

But enough with the preliminaries. The real question is, how does Fallout 3 play? That's the best news of all: controller in hand, Fallout 3 feels smooth, responsive, and highly intuitive, even for a jaded shooter veteran like myself. I played primarily from the first-person camera view, switching to the third-person view only in certain outdoor scenes.

Though Fallout 3 is first and foremost an RPG, the gunplay-heavy combat quickly grabbed my attention. Using the standard first-person view, I blasted away at enemy mutants, cannibals, and squatters. The results were mixed - accuracy counts big when shooting — until I tried out the V.A.T.S. targeting system.

With one button press, I stopped time and repeatedly targeted an enemy raider's head for maximum damage. The V.A.T.S. targeting allows you to cripple enemy limbs with surgical precision, a benefit that becomes apparent once you start fighting the mutated insects and beasts that plague Fallout 3's nuke-blasted wastelands.

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In the Year 2277

As in Oblivion, you can choose to undertake or ignore any quest that grabs your attention - there's literally no wrong way to play Fallout 3. Though my overarching goal was to track down my missing father, I was quickly sidetracked into a series of enjoyable side missions that consumed all of my attention.

In a nearby town, I met a researcher who wanted to use my field experiences to help her write a post-apocalyptic survival guide. Elsewhere, I encountered a tiny group of survivors who sought my help in tracking down a mysterious band of killers called "The Family."

I also crept through the cannibal-infested ruins of an elementary school, an eerily abandoned supermarket, and an underground lair home to a band of drug-manufacturing ghouls (don't ask). The variety of missions and settings was a real draw — the replayability here should be exceptional.

If the later content in Fallout 3 is as polished and as inventive as what I played early in the game, we could be looking at 2008's answer to BioShock. Fallout 3 has the graphical chops, gameplay depth, and storyline sophistication to go the distance. In other words, if you've got an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or a gaming PC, this is one party you won't want to miss.

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