New Vegas: How to Build on Fallout 3
When Bethesda announced that developer Obsidian Entertainment was doing a spinoff Fallout game, the reaction on the internet was really quite mixed. Fans of Fallout 3 recalled Obsidian's work on Knights of the Old Republic 2 (a game that got rushed out the door with a confusing and broken ending), and were unsure if this team could do justice to Bethesda's 2008 Game of the year. But fans of the classic Fallout games - and I'm talking about the serious ones that can rattle off a list of at least half a dozen developers of Fallout 1 & 2 - were actually quite happy with the Obsidian announcement, mostly because quite a few key players in creation of those classics were brought back and given major roles on New Vegas.
So now, the roles are reversed in the community; Bethesda fans are unsure of Obsidian, while the old-school Fallout fans, who generally disliked the third game, are happy with the decision. It's hard to take sides on this matter, but I think that if we look at how LucasArts basically crippled Obsidian's development of KOTOR2 by giving them only a year to complete it, we can forgive them a bit. To me, it's a pretty major feat to get even close to completing an epic RPG in only 12 months, and the fact that they got it good enough to get generally B-ish scores from most review sites shows that Obsidian got really close to their lofty goal.
Some of the hardcore fans of the original games said that Bethesda may find some success in turning Fallout into a first person game, but that it'd be a hollow shell of its former self. It's true that the developers made a vastly different game than the originals, leaving behind the old turn-based, isometric view and changing up the storytelling to match their style of game. My contention is that the team left behind some of that depth on purpose with the intent to add it back in in entirely different ways: visceral combat, immersive 3D environments, and more storytelling through voice acting and level design rather than text-only dialogue options. In that respect, the game was a huge success.
It seems clear, then, that a merger of the two styles can at least partially be done. Increase the production values overall to cover some of Fallout 3's shortfalls and flaws, work on the dialogue, find ways to bring back some of those classic RPG elements, and then sensibly apply those new mechanics whenever appropriate.
Fallout: New Vegas is slated for a Fall 2010 release, about six months from the time of this writing (and after a little less than two years' worth of development time). We've seen some reveals of information in recent magazines, and it's clear that Obsidian is not drastically changing the formula that Bethesda laid out. It's still a first/third-person shooter in real-time, and it reuses at least some assets from Bethesda's game. We've seen comments on what Obsidian is doing to improve the dialogue system while still working inside the boundaries of having to have voice acting for every word. (And let's face it: anything less than full voice acting would be seen by modern gamers and reviewers, at best, as quaint and old-fashioned - and at worst, dated and cheap.) This means we won't see massive, sprawling dialogue trees for every character in the game to cover contingencies like your character having too low an intelligence to speak in complete sentences. In the first two Fallout titles about a decade ago, doing this was just a matter of adding some extra writing since nothing was voice acted, but that's just not feasible with today's demands of super-high production values.
Nor are we likely to see any major changes to the combat. The first/third-person action will return for sure, and it's not really feasible to try and vastly overhaul a successful feature like VATS. Simply put, everyone involved in making this game still wants to sell millions of copies, and this is the exact kind of game right now that can do that. As Mass Effect 2 has shown, you can have an action-RPG that's very heavy on dialogue and story and still sell millions, and that seems to be Obsidian's aim. If the lion's share of their work is on the storytelling, dialogue, world-building, and atmosphere, then they're in good shape.
The system requirements aren't likely to go up, either, so any improved visuals are going to have to come via engine optimizations or just better art. Fallout 3 ran pretty well on the 360 and PS3 (even if there are still a lot of lingering issues on the PC), and New Vegas will also need to run just as well on all 3 systems.
So let's talk about what is much more likely to be worked on, shall we? Where we can see some improvements would be in the conversations, characters, animations, and maybe overall battles.
Conversations can be improved with more natural choices for your character's lines, and the ones that the Vault Dweller had in Fallout 3 didn't always make sense. The craziness of the characters was also a big deal, but if Obsidian can stay away from generic stereotypes, they will have a more well-rounded cast. So we need fewer characters like Dukov or Megaton's Lucas Simms, and more characters like Mister Burke or President Eden.
It's a pretty widely-held opinion that the animations in Fallout 3 aren't really as good as they should be - for moving around, non-verbal communication, and for fighting. It's not just for the enemies, but for the main character as well; in fact, some modders have tried their hand at fixing the problem, with only limited success - it turns out that the moddability of the GameBryo engine doesn't extend to the animation system very well. Still, the problem remains - everything from running to jumping and firing weapons in FO3 does feel a bit wooden, just like they did with Oblivion back in 2006, and while that might have been acceptable four years ago, it's not anymore. Obsidian would do well to put the effort in to re-animate pretty much everything if they can, including the enemies from FO3 that will be reappearing in New Vegas (like the Super Mutants).
Bethesda's use of Hollywood actors started in Morrowind with Lynda Carter and then onto Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean in Oblivion. Similarly, a lot of attention was dumped onto the use of Malcolm McDowell and Liam Neeson as voice actors in Fallout 3, and while I thought that McDowell stole the show, Obsidian and Bethesda shouldn't feel obligated to do this with every game. There are plenty of extremely talented voice actors out there that do amazing jobs, and I think that in a lot of ways, bringing in big Hollywood voices just pads feature lists without necessarily adding anything major to the game. In some cases it might even pull gamers out of the immersion. If they're going to tap Hollywood again, I think they need to do it very carefully.
The PC versions of both Oblivion and Fallout 3 were superior to the console ones simply by virtue of modding. Sure, there are a lot of bad mods out there, but there were some superb ones like "Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul" or the "More Where That Came From" expansion for Galaxy News Radio in FO3. Even if an updated G.E.C.K. editor isn't released, the community will likely still make mods, just with a bit of a slower start, but it'd be nice to possibly see a more in-depth editor that works on some of the original's issues.
The unfortunate part of having a highly detailed world is that more of the console or PC's resources are spent on displaying that than on the characters. This usually means that huge battles with dozens of characters fighting at once isn't really feasible in many games, even if we know that the PC version of Fallout 3 makes it technically possible through mods. Low-spec PCs and the consoles would struggle if this was build directly into the game, though. For this reason, I don't expect to see any change in the scope of fights, but with some interesting new perks and weapons, the whole focus of New Vegas' combat could become drastically different. It's up to Obsidian whether they want to mess with Fallout 3's success in this regard, and whether they think they can improve it.
Knowing what we know about how Bethesda and Obsidian make games, this is a damn good team-up and I can't think of another developer I'd rather have Bethesda bring in to make a new Fallout spinoff. Once we understand where Obsidian's coming from and what breeds success in the budding Fallout franchise, it's easy to see that New Vegas has just about everything it needs to succeed. I, for one, will be looking forward to it when it hits stores this fall.