‘Fallout 3’ Could Change My Mind About Open-World Games

Open-world games scare the crap out of me. I have no problem admitting that.

I passed on “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” and never finished a “Grand Theft Auto” game until the most recent one. Maybe that’s why I enjoy games like “Mega Man 9” so much; too much choice scares me away.

It’s with this attitude I spent four hours with Bethesda Softworks’ latest, “Fallout 3,” last week at a morning preview event in San Francisco. We were told to avoid the main quest; that’s a secret. The mandate made me panic — the next four hours would be nothing but choice.

The moment you leave the vault in “Fallout 3,” the world is yours. There is nothing stopping you from traversing the landscape. There’s a good chance some high-level critters will rip you to shreds for wandering too far away, but maybe not. You might find a path that lets you explore the world’s end. That’s what “Fallout 3” promises, and it’s precisely what started stressing me out about five minutes into my play session.

Maybe I should ask someone for help, I thought. This would probably be the moment where I turned off “Fallout 3” if I wasn’t being forced to play it for work.

I actually started sweating. I hadn’t sat down to see “Fallout 3” before and Bethesda started me outside the vault, where players would normally receive gameplay training. I didn’t get that. I had no idea where to go and just started aimlessly walking around. For a good 15 minutes, I didn’t find anything useful. Was I playing the game wrong? How come everyone else had been able to find the seemingly obvious nearby town? As enemies took pot shots at me from a distance — I ran away — my palms became clammy.

Maybe I should ask someone for help, I thought. This would probably be the moment where I turned off “Fallout 3” if I wasn’t being forced to play it for work. These are the moments where open-world games turn me off. “Fallout 3” was making me feel stupid.

But then I found Megaton. It was a huge relief. I stopped worrying if someone from Bethesda was looking over my shoulder, wondering how someone so clearly lost was paid to report about video games for a living. With that heart-pounder out of the way, my real “Fallout 3” experience started.

I had gone into my “Fallout 3” demo intending to play it the same way I did “Fable II.” Because I’m almost always a good guy when I play games at home, I wanted to play “Fallout 3” as a jerk. But because Bethesda blocked us from the main quest, I found being a bad guy in the early going meant I couldn’t find many missions. Reluctantly, I decided to help the citizens of Megaton. In the back of my mind, though, I wanted to turn on their nuclear bomb and blow the city to smithereens.

In the back of my mind, though, I wanted to turn on their nuclear bomb and blow the city to smithereens.

Many missions in “Fallout 3” ensure you’ll be doing a fair bit of open-world wandering. The compass in the corner of the screen not only points out the direction of your primary objective, but sights to see along the way. If you follow the compass’ hints, you’ll be sidetracked pretty easily, discovering supermarkets, baseball fields, movie theaters and more. You gain experience for discovering landmarks, so there’s a good incentive to explore as much of the “Fallout 3” landscape as possible.

I was frustrated to encounter enemies who clearly outmatched my abilities early on. When I asked Bethesda about these concerns after playing, they said most players wouldn’t have the same experience while following the main quest. These anomalies happen by roaming. I imagine I’ll be someone who follows the main quest for a few hours before moving off the beaten path.

But did four hours of “Fallout 3” convert me? No. I’m still not a big fan of make-your-own-story. I like rails, apparently. But for me, “Fallout 3″’s setting is the most appealing version of an open-world adventure yet. Maybe my problem is that I’ve never given the genre a chance. Maybe, before the end of 2008, I’ll have finished “Fallout 3.”

Maybe.

Oh, and at the end of the demo, I blew up the town. It felt good.

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