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Fallout 3, Starring Washington, D.C.

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Washington is a bit moody lately, a little under the weather, a bit achy. But even in these troubled times of ours, it could still be so much worse. There could be monsters roaming the streets, okay? And, our economy could've really collapsed already, I mean to the point where we're stuck using bottle caps for currency.

Leave it to a video game to put things in perspective. Our own hometown, or at least a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic version of it, is one of the stars of Fallout 3, a new title that analysts expect to be one of the year's bestsellers. For gamers, it's one of the most anticipated video games of the year. And cooler still, it's a locally grown accomplishment, the latest opus from game studio Bethesda Softworks.

Fallout 3 takes place in an alternate version of the Washington we trudge through today; many of the features are different, but the underlying bone structure is the same. This Washington is the world-of-tomorrow that people living in the '50s might have envisioned, with nuclear-powered cars and robot butlers. More accurately, these are the ashes of that world: The game's storyline takes place hundreds of years in the future, after a war with China has left the world a mostly barren wasteland with few survivors. There are no Starbucks shops buried in the rubble, but the Metro stations look pretty much the same, even if they're occupied by mutants and quick-moving ghouls.

Industry analysts predict this title, the sequel to some computer games that were popular a decade ago, will be among the top 10 or five bestselling games of the year. While the reviews aren't out yet, I've played a dozen or so hours wandering the streets of this world and would bet you a hundred bottle caps that the reviewers will show their approval soon. The new title hits retail shelves this week.

Speaking of alternate worlds, video games as an entertainment medium still seem to exist in a parallel plane of their own. If you buy and play the things, the chances are good that you already know the name Bethesda Softworks; if you don't, you might not be aware that one of the world's most highly regarded game developers is in Rockville. Though most of the video game industry is on the West Coast, every few years, this outfit cranks out a title that is both critically acclaimed and fast-selling. When the studio's previous hit, Oblivion, was released in 2006, it was the most favorably reviewed title to ever appear for the Xbox 360.

Fallout 3 costs $50 or $60 (the PC version is cheaper than the Xbox or PlayStation versions), though Bethesda Softworks and the Fallout game franchise have enough of a following that the company is offering some pricier collector's editions. The deluxe package comes with a lunchbox, a bobblehead figure and a digital clock that's modeled after a wrist-mounted computer device used in the game. The $130 "survival package" is available exclusively at Amazon.

Here's a typical fan: John Terrill, a 25-year-old who lives in Reston, says he's been waiting for this game for, oh, about 10 years. He used to stay up all night playing the original games, when he was in high school, and he's been following the development of Fallout 3 online with keen interest at fan sites with names like No Mutants Allowed.

"The whole retro '50s thing, playing off the fears of our parents, that's just fascinating to me," he said.

Terrill recently paid a visit to Metro Center specifically to check out a marketing blitz Bethesda Softworks has going on there, in which the game studio has blanketed the Metro station with ominous images and ads promoting the new release. Terrill is planning to take a couple of days off work this week -- he says he needs to burn the vacation time or lose it, but I get the feeling he mainly wants to invest a solid chunk of time into playing Fallout 3.

Some Washington area game fans have been wondering whether they'll be able to find their office or the buildings in their neighborhood in the game. Chances are, they might not. Bethesda Softworks executive producer Todd Howard says the studio didn't seek to create a street-to-street level of verisimilitude. Instead, it tweaked the city's map in a way that made sense for a video game's pacing. He thinks people who know the area will periodically experience a more general "Hey, I know this view!" feeling.

The game is, partly, a mystery. Players take on the persona of a guy or gal who has spent an entire life growing up in the safety of an underground vault located roughly in the McLean area, though the area isn't named as such in the game. Vault 101 houses a small community, and nobody -- ever -- enters or leaves the place. But one day, the protagonist's father takes off without explanation. The game's overall mission is to track him down and find out what happened.

There's not really one definitive ending to the game. This is a complex, choose-your-own adventure experience where your actions determine the outcome of the storyline. Are you a good guy or a bad guy? The story arc bends accordingly, where appropriate.

For people who want to stick to the main storyline and just find out how the story ends, there's about 20 hours of gameplay. But there are also plenty of side trips for anyone who wants to stop and smell the rubble. Bethesda Softworks says there are about 100 hours of entertainment stashed on this game disc.

The game is bleak, engaging and very funny in a very dark way. For fans of apocalyptic-flavored pop culture, the stories contained herein are every bit as compelling as books like "The Road" or the zombie tale "World War Z" and movies like "Mad Max."

This is very much an "M-rated" title, by the way, so don't nobody pick this up as a stocking stuffer for the little ones. There's blood, some drug use, strong language, potential cannibalism, robot mistreatment . . . the list is longer than my space here.

This is also, I should say, not a game for people unwilling to spend some time actively thinking as they sit on the couch with a controller in hand. Gamers love Bethesda Softworks' titles for their complexity, but I can picture some people picking this up and becoming intimidated by a game that requires more attention and decision-making than the average release.

For the rest of us, Fallout 3 is a hell of a ride. Every once in a while, a video game comes along that makes you think this still-young entertainment medium is, indeed, going to amount to something more profound than space marines, street gang simulations and World War II re-creations -- and, dang, here's one of them.

In the meantime, I'm hoarding bottle caps.

For excerpts from an interview with Fallout 3's executive producer Todd Howard about using Washington, D.C., for the game, visithttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/posttech/

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