The hulking armor-clad humanoids were accompanied by a blubbering beast called a Centaur, which slowly slimed its way toward me. After using the slow-motion VATS system to blow off its slimey head, I was momentarily victorious--until I noticed a Super Mutant holding a minigun in the background, lumbering out of a ruined church.
The thing about the VATS system--the slow motion approximation of Fallout's tactical limb targeting system--is that, while it at first seems to function more like a bullet time system, it fundamentally works on the same level of Fallout's original system. There's that same decision between a sure shot or a low-percentage attempt, and that same glorious anticipation before a 99%, skull-exploding, point-blank blast to the eye.
Case in point, the minigun-wielding giant I faced. With only a handgun to take him down, I switched over to grenades for saving throw. Using the VATS, I targeted him with three throws and let them go. I watched the lifespan of each grenade, heard the pin pop and saw the pineapple land right at the feet of the giant mutant, resting there for a moment before dutifully shredding the monster's legs.
Later on, heading way out into the wasteland, I encountered a slaver town called Paradise Falls. I got a little angry with the town guard after being denied entry. He said I didn't seem enough like a slaver. I called him an asshole, and then called him out to fight. He said that sounded more like a slaver, and gave me a quest to enslave a few notable people from other towns to earn my entrance.
But I wasn't interested in getting bogged down in quests. I wanted to see as much of the landscape as possible--to get a feel for the world of Fallout 3, and how much was really there.
I headed north, past endless crops of bombed-out buildings. At night, the mood of Fallout 3 turns dark. In the daytime you feel alone in a giant desert--but when the sun goes down, you're alone on another planet. The atmosphere is spot on, with an appropriately sparse placement of enemies and notable features. STALKER-esque, for sure.
Not that the mutant kept his flamer for long. I had a chance to mess around with the hunting rifle, the minigun, and the flamer--all were incredibly entertaining in their own way. The flamer especially was a treat, one of the more punchy flamethrowers I've used in a game.
Heading far into civilization, I ran into a National Guard Depot, a giant "Enlist Today" sign above it. Outside, numerous robots guarded the doors, all very reminiscent of Fallout 1 and 2 machines. The "Robobrain" was like an irate version of the Lost in Space robot, all tube-like arms and powered by a human brain encased in liquid. Shooting the brain was the quickest way to kill it.
I didn't get to explore much further. I did note a few aspects of the interface I had missed before. Tick marks on the minimap indicate the direction of close-by areas that are ripe for exploration; red marks do the same for nearby enemies.
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I didn't mess around in Pipboy as much, but I did learn to apply Stimpak health items to specific body parts. Stimpaks applied to the body mostly replenish your hitpoints, only boosting the health of each limb a minor amount. As your vision will become hazy with a head wound, spending a Stimpak to heal your face can become necessary.
My impression of Fallout 3 is now one of rabid anticipation. Though the game's main storyline is still being mostly kept from our eyes, the experience of simply exploring the world and finding side-quests was captivating enough to push my post-apocalyptic buttons. Screw skepticism.
Check back later for an interview with the folks from Bethesda, in which we go over DLC plans, their design philosophy, and whether they're tired of comparisons to Oblivion.