Spoilers follow! If you haven't played Fallout 3 yet, first of all what are you doing, and second you might want to give this a miss until you have. And even then, it's a bit icky. Check out part one of this series elsewhere on Eurogamer.
Crouching behind a cracked concrete slab, I wait. I'm in Old Olney, the formerly bustling Wasteland town now completely overrun by Deathclaws - gigantic, devastatingly powerful, grotesquely mutated chimeras. I've stumbled into this deathtrap on the way out of Oasis, and am now aiming my Silenced 10mm Pistol at a bottlecap mine I've planted on the patrol route of the Deathclaw who stands between me, moonlight, and freedom. It's all I have left: my shotguns, rifles and minigun are empty. My Tenpenny Combat Armor has so many bulletholes in it that it's about as useful as a latex girdle, and my latest dose of Buffout has worn off, leaving me with two points of health.
I am suffering from three different sets of withdrawal symptoms, making everything a threat. That wandering RoboBrain in the distance, for example: if it sees me, it will liquefy my heart with its long-range laser rifle. The Deathclaws. And then there is the chance I've planted the bottlecap mine too close to my hiding spot, leaving me as collateral damage. When I began this journey, I felt invincible - like Fallout 3 didn't care about the carnage I was inflicting upon its virtual post-apocalyptopolis. Now, the Capital Wasteland has the upper hand.
O Lord, I get down on my knees and start to pray. Wrapped in my mongrel wings, I nearly freeze in the howling wind and the driving rain.
How did it come to this?
My story begins with the Regulators. That ragtag bunch of vigilante dorks I warmly assisted in my saintly incarnation - out of pity, if nothing else - have caught wind of my recent transgressions, and are accosting me at the mouth of Northwest Seneca Station. There they are, three good-hearted, leather-jacketed no-hopers - some of the very few souls actually trying to make the Wasteland a better place - and here I am, my giant, platinum-blond handlebar moustache mercifully covered by a blood-spattered hockey mask. Their leader, a gentleman suffering from the severe ugliness endemic to so many Bethesda Softworks characters, asks me an interesting question before I set to work on disembowelling him and his cohorts: "Do you think you can do all this evil and get away with it?"
Well, actually, I was beginning to wonder. Had Megaton been levelled by the warhead, I could understand some initial confusion - after all, anyone could have set it off, and there were certainly a few Marmite-hearted contenders. Generally, though, it's hard to partake in the shenanigans I got up to there without someone - anyone - noticing. Apparently not: Silver, who lives just outside the now-empty shantytown, was more than happy to invite me inside after I assured her I didn't work for Moriarty (he's dead, I killed him). She was somewhat less chipper when I coated the walls with her viscera.
It was largely the same deal with Tenpenny Tower. As I arrived at the locked gate, the militant ghoul Roy Phillips was pleading with the intercom to let him and his disciples inside. When I finally put Phillips down after a dispiritingly intense firefight, Tenpenny's guards didn't see it as a sign of things to come, but rather an indication that I understood their policy of racial segregation. So in I went.
The tower guards were heavily armed, so I decided to ease myself into it. I took the elevator right up to the penthouse, where Alistair Tenpenny himself - the Howard Hughes-inspired masterfogey behind the conspiracy to blow up Megaton, and the owner of this ostentatious citadel - was taking potshots at molerats from the luxuriance of his balcony. I tried to get his attention - "Prostate time!" - but he told me he was busy. In my angelic Fallout 3 playthrough, I'd helped Tenpenny and Phillips come to a peaceful living arrangement within the tower, only to return and discover that Phillips had slaughtered every non-ghoul inside. I received negative karma when I killed Phillips this time, and was given a curious (and uncomfortable) injection of positive karmic energy when I beheaded Tenpenny and sent him windmilling over the balcony.
Fallout 3 has a strange morality. But it's no stranger than my own morality slide, which seems to be edging ever closer to compassion fatigue. Basically, I don't care anymore... most of the time. Good, neutral, evil, armed, unarmed, mutated, sexy (it happens), legless, smiling, Dogmeat: it's all the same, one step closer to a quieter, safer Wasteland. You may call that desensitisation, but I call it survival. Within the parameters I've set for myself - kill everything, no compromises - mimicking Halle Berry's Oscar speech every time I bury some well-meaning NPC just isn't feasible. Still, I do begin to worry at points: is this dissociation from the pain, mutilation, and death I'm inflicting upon Bethesda's virtual world indicative of an imminent descent into chloroform, swastika tattoos, and earlobe collections? Am I gradually warming to the idea of wearing Megan Fox's skin like a pashmina shawl?
Not really. I did dream about it, though - the killing, not Megan Fox as a pashmina shawl. I partook in some astral Fallout-esque activities and awoke, genuinely reeling in horror and remorse. And the next day, I was relieved to discover that I agreed when my wife suggested that it would be more humane to capture and release the wolf spider on our wheelie bin than stomp it into glutinous nothingness. It would seem the world outside and beyond my 22-inch monitor still holds more emotional weight than the Capital Wasteland. At least, that was my hope as I strolled out of Tenpenny's apartment and continued my rampage. His bodyguard fired a few rounds and then decided his salary wasn't worth dying for a dead man, but I managed to fatally clip the poor guy in the back before he reached the elevator, thereby scoring my first Tenpenny Security Uniform.
I proceeded downstairs, and immediately tossed a Frag Grenade in the general direction of Gustavo, Tenpenny's security chief. It didn't kill him, but his shins were eager to relinquish their relationship with his thighs when I pulled out my Chinese Assault Rifle. I waited until the dead of night, when most of the ground-level residents would be snoozing. As with Megaton, this made my job infinitely easier. The Sledgehammer, yet again, proved itself to be the most effective instrument in the careful process of edging a seven-hour nap into the "eternal" timeframe, and while a few did awake mid-bludgeoning, I didn't find it too difficult to pretend the gurgles and screams actually emanated from a particularly nasty case of sleep apnea. ("Did you hear Betty last night? Snored so loud she lost her head! HA!")
The Tower's mid-level was the most challenging section by far, and even then, it was all because of one man: Herbert Dashwood. The retired hunter not only woke up just as I had finished carving his boozy mistress, Susan Lancaster, into at least five pieces, but also revealed the combat shotgun he'd been storing under his pillow. His surprising tenacity in combat very nearly got the better of me, but I managed to escape with a bit of frenzied swinging. My brief sojourn in Tenpenny town ended, rather fittingly, I think, with the shrieking bigot Lydia Montenegro tearing down the lobby stairwell, and me in hot pursuit. She winced at a few of my on-target shotgun blasts, but kept on searching for the big, handsome, hairy saviour she'd never find. Getting bored with the chase, I stopped, extracted Tenpenny's sniper rifle from between wads of chewing gum in my backpack, and popped a hole in her head. A perversely satisfying silence settled throughout the building. And I immediately booked a phone session with my therapist.
It's at this point that I decided to fast-travel back to Northwest Seneca, which isn't too far from Arefu. And upon arrival, I met the Regulators. Having pondered their question for approximately 1000 words, I briskly kill them and, given my knowledge of their cheapass operation from the first game, I assume I'll probably never see them again. I head north, towards Paradise Falls, the shopping mall-turned-enclave for the Wasteland's most despicable faction: the slavers.
I now feel a strong affinity with the slavers, raiders, and other freebooting factions whose general gameplay purpose is to beat the bumfluff out of new players until they learn the ropes. In fact, when I was roaring through Megaton, I was called a raider more than once, which was sensible enough: I'm behaving exactly like one. I suppose I shouldn't be astonished, then, to discover that the slavers don't know quite what to make of me.
Paradise Falls is introduced to the player in much the same way many Fallout 3 settlements are: in a mandatory quest-giver conversation. In this instance, the guard wants me to bring him a few slaves before he'll let me inside. Naturally, I fill his torso with lead. His friend attempts a rebuttal to my argument, and I detonate his head before he has a chance to pull the trigger. These are the first kills that make me truly happy - not only are they unequivocally evil targets, but I'm finally crossing paths with my righteous Fallout 3 character. He, too, killed all the slavers in Paradise Falls. Of course, he was doing it to liberate slaves and remove this particular blight on the Capital Wasteland, while I'm doing it because I'm a death machine. He was on a mission to deliver sugar and spice, whereas I seem to be wandering aimlessly, looking for my next groin-shot. And so, I'm bringing evil to the evils.
Which is probably why Paradise Falls is my weirdest destination yet. Only a few kills in, and Ymir, a Super Sledge-wielding vintage slaver, calls out to me, "This is the last mistake you'll ever make, little bartender." What? Another sledger complains I'm being too virtuous, while Cutter, the Paradise Falls surgeon, continues admonishing me for stealing her Stimpaks even after I've kicked her head several feet - a measurement that takes on a whole new meaning when the floor is carpeted with corpses - away from her body. The slaves seem pretty chuffed when I open their cage for them, and continue sporting sunny dispositions as I pick them off, one by one. I don't think Bethesda prepared its characters for this level of madness.
The combat, however, is more engaging and responsive than ever. Fighting got a bit samey in my first playthrough; by level 20, I was more than capable of rending most enemies to ash with my plasma rifle. This time, though, due to the lack of precious quest experience, I'm constantly facing inescapable peril - not even fast-travel will save me, because those bastard Regulators are now appearing whenever I decide I need to get somewhere in a hurry. During my battle with Eulogy Jones, the whore-mongering de facto leader of the Falls, I'm ducking behind stone columns, barely evading his .45 ammo as it whizzes past my mutton chops. I'm using weapons I never bothered with before - grenades, for instance, and carefully-placed mines - and by the end of each proper fight, I'm usually completely depleted - of ammo, of health, and of mental energy. Curiously, it's Clover, one of Jones' half-naked slave girls, who poses the biggest threat to the continuance of this bloody journey: in avenging his death, the little strumpet manages to stick me with her Chinese Officer's Sword an uncomfortable amount of times, and survives an astounding six shots from my (admittedly rusty) sniper rifle, before finally collapsing. Curse you, Stockholm Syndrome!
Now that slavertown's census puts its population on par with Pompeii's, I trudge further north, my vision regularly interrupted by the blinding white flashes that accompany a crippled head. I'm hoping to reach Canterbury Commons and call it a day before trying my luck in DC - the most lethal district in the game - but I wind up at the bottom of the mountain track that leads straight up to Oasis, the mythical, near-inaccessible Wasteland locale where trees grow and Harold, my most beloved character in the Fallout series, makes his home. Harold, if you're unaware, is one of the victims of the Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV) that created the Super Mutants. But instead of turning him into an asexual, green-skinned goliath, he became distinctly ghoul-like and sprouted a little twig out of the side of his head, whom he dubbed "Bob". By Fallout 2, Bob had grown into a leafy shrub, and now, it's grown into a tree so large that Harold is unwillingly rooted to the ground. He's a lovable character. And I'm here to burn him.
Oasis' hippie contingent - who worship Harold as the saviour of the Wastes - are understandably eager to protect him from such a fate, but I'm able to butcher them all in under 60 seconds. I push through the wooden gate that leads to his grove, and attempt to speak to Harold.
He refuses to converse with me, wheezing, "Those people you killed were some of the most peaceful people in the Wasteland! How could you do that to them?" I try speaking with him again - we're beyond free hugs, or tree hugs, at this juncture - but he simply weeps that if he weren't fused to a tree, he'd show me a thing or two. It's the most tragic experience I've had in the game thus far, and the first reminder since leaving Tenpenny Tower that this experiment really is quite awful. Anyway, it eventuates that I can't torch Harold. If I raise my lockpicking skill to 100, I could venture into the cave beneath his roots and destroy his heart - this will indeed put his misery to rest, but given how slowly sociopaths level up in this game, that won't be for a while. So I leave Harold to his loneliness, indignation, and despair.
I exit Oasis, and hobble in an easterly direction. I'm low on health after the skirmish with the nature children, and as I have no Stimpaks, I pop a Buffout and keep moving. (Don't look at me like that, Betty Ford.) I can practically feel Canterbury Commons coming up ahead, so when I start seeing dilapidated buildings, I take a dose of Jet and sprint for them. Unfortunately, the derelict structures don't give way to inhabited ones, and I find myself at the center of the Deathclaw nest. As luck would have it, my escape plan works: the bottlecap mine detonates right as the Deathclaw steps on it, and he's killed instantly. I'm free. I bolt out of Old Olney, and don't stop running until the only creature in my vicinity is a pesky bloatfly. I'm sick, dying, and possibly losing my mind, but I'm going to make it Downtown, I know it. I will succeed. It's alright, Ma: I'm only bleeding.
Natural Born Killer concludes soon.