E3 08 Preview: Fallout 3
Fallout 3 was the first game to be shown at Microsoft's E3 press conference, and there's a good reason for it. The mythos behind the game and the threat of nuclear war is just as relevant now as it was 10, 20, and even 40 years ago, and those who have seen films like Threads or When the Wind Blows know that a post-apocalyptic Earth is going to be more than sweet car chases and "Kiptin Walker". But Fallout 3 still finds a stylistic balance between those two types of films, with an obviously dangerous and depressing outdoor setting, warring bands of neo-barbarians and tightly-knit groups who are trying to survive, and the remnants of civilized humanity that are still living on the surface.
Much has been written about the intro of Fallout 3 - you play as one of the lucky few whose family got into one of the "Vaults" before humankind wiped most of itself out in World War III. You emerge from Vault 101 alone with a simple goal in mind: find your father, who raised you but has disappeared. The world you walk out onto is even more horrible than you've been told it'd be; for fans of Bethesda's last game, Oblivion, the intro will stand in stark contrast this time around. Instead of leaving a filthy prison-catacomb-sewer filled with rats and goblins and stepping into a picturesque country filled with fantastic creatures and beautiful views, you'll be leaving the safety of your home and venturing out onto a landscape of a long-dead Washington D.C with the Capitol and the Washington Monument off in the distance. Whereas in Oblivion you may feel like you were leaving the dingy, dirty place and walking out into what would quickly become home, in Fallout 3 you'll be leaving home and venturing out into a vast, inhospitable wasteland. It's a feeling that likely will stick with you for a while, too.
For the gameplay demo we saw, Bethesda producer Todd Howard mostly focused on combat in first person mode. There is a third-person mode as well (and unlike with Oblivion, you'll be able to aim a ranged weapon correctly this time), and Howard maintains that a player can still focus on stealth and persuasion to get through most of the game. A lot of words have gone back and forth over whether you can complete the game without firing a shot (the end answer is that total pacifism is not intended to be a viable way to go through the game), but frankly, most gamers like blowing stuff up and after seeing enemies fall apart when getting hit with high-powered weaponry, I don't think people will be so concerned with winning through pacifism.
Bethesda makes at least a few fundamental changes when starting on a new game, and well, besides the fact that this is not Oblivion at all, many things about their fantasy hit have been removed or completely redone. For example, the strange system that adjusted the difficulty of every single opponent in Oblivion to your own level - something that RPG fanatics criticized heavily - is gone. Once again, there will be enemies that are simply too tough for you and you will have to back off or use a different path than fighting.
Also, the ability to play the game almost entirely as a shooter with just a few RPG elements is here. Sure, you could kind of go through Oblivion as an action game, but only with considerable increases in difficulty as you leveled up. At some point you had to start using all the abilities given to you, including magic and stealth, and you could get good at anything since any skill could be raised to 100 even if you didn't focus on it to start. Here, you'll have to make some tough choices and won't be able to raise everything to the cap - so with combat-based characters, Bethesda has made it so that some good aim and a narrow array of skills will still allow you to get through.
Finally there is V.A.T.S., a system for turning a fully action-based game into a turn-based, stat-based tactical game at the push of a button. Instead of playing in real-time and trying to take down mutants and bandits with quick reflexes and solid aim, you can switch to V.A.T.S. which pauses the game, then carefully pick a region of the enemy's body to fire your weapon at. The game calculates your chances to hit that region, or to hit the enemy at all, and essentially rolls the dice to see. Action Points, seen in the past Fallout games and familiar to tabletop RPG players, are used to determine how many attacks you get with this system before the enemy retaliates. It remains to be seen how well this system will work for someone who wants to solely rely on V.A.T.S., as it could quickly turn out to be either too easy or too difficult compared to playing in real-time, but at least the theory's there. My own experience with the system told me that there's probably some kind of overall advantage to switching between both regular shooter-style action and V.A.T.S., but I didn't really get enough time with the game to dive in too deep.
Howard's demonstration showed the use of a rocket launcher, shotgun, laser rifle, a couple of grenade types, and the mini-nuke-firing Fatboy missile. All of these weapons looked and sounded authentic - just because it's been well over a decade since Bethesda made their last shooter (and for its time, it was excellent), it doesn't mean they forgot how. This combat-oriented demo showed off both V.A.T.S. and fully action-based killing, as well as the amusing Bloody Mess talent that caused downed enemies to literally fall apart in a pile of body parts and blood.
And for those who are wondering with all of this FPS stuff whether this can even be considered RPG at all anymore, I'd have to say that over their history, Bethesda has always broadened the gameplay scope with their games. Here, they've broadened both the RPG and FPS sides pretty well. Your ability to use a wide range of uniquely amusing skills as well as deal with the friendly NPCs at a more detailed level adds new depth to the RPG side, while being able to play the game like a fully-featured shooter will satisfy the action fans. This just adds a new dimension to the genre (one that I would dare say I haven't seen realized so well since the first Deus Ex) of RPG and FPS fusion that's so tough for developers to capture and make enjoyable.
Due to some scheduling issues, my own half-hour experience with the game was broken up into two fifteen-minute sections. My first experience with the game was action oriented. After leaving the Vault I went left and found Springvale Elementary, or at least the ruins of it, and some bandits inside which I was able to dispatch quickly with some headshots from my 10mm pistol - it had helped when this build of the game, presumably to allow you to see the skill and level system, quickly bumped me up to level 2 and allowed me to dump a bunch of points into the Small Guns skill. I fiddled with V.A.T.S. and moved on to fight more monsters, like mutated rats and crabs, but wasn't abe to get to anything more ambitious.
My next playthrough was more RPG-like, as I visited the little shanty-town of Megaton to meet its mayor/sheriff and a few of its denizens. I picked up quests to figure out how to disarm a bomb that had been sitting in town for a while, and was told to check out the saloon to see about starting on the game's main storyline. I decided to head off the beaten path here and just explore Megaton a bit, and found that it's a very interesting little place where people are barely holding on in this nuked-out world. The water's irradiated, the people are generally standoffish and you'll have to use your persuasive abilities - assuming you have them - pretty often to open up new experiences or improve the ones you'd get if you were just a pure gunslinger.
My demo ended shortly after I tried to take on the whole town in a gunfight. I got a small piece of the sheriff and a couple of other NPCs before they took me down - and here, everyone came at me when I started shooting. This little pocket of humanity is trying to survive just like everyone else, so they banded together to take me out after seeing my sudden psychopathic tendencies.
Even though Fallout 3 has more action than the turn-based originals or even modern entries in the genre, the RPG elements are still a crucial factor in how encounters in it play out. Those with persuasive skills and perks can gain an edge in some cases by receiving better gear, can avoid difficult fights entirely, and will see a significantly different game than a fully combat-oriented character would. It won't be as entirely different as the vastly unique playstyles that could be employed in the turn-based originals, but it's not that far off, either.
The world itself is vividly depicted with a kind of atmosphere, fueled by the AM radio-style 50s music and marching tunes, that is startling in its bleakness yet somehow comforting as well. The world's not nearly as full of people as it was before it went up in flames, so your movements throughout the openness of this demolished capital city are mostly only hindered by those relative few things left that have survived. Many times it is quiet and serene with just the wind blowing and your Geiger counter ticking slowly, and you're allowed to poke through and scavenge what you can in the ruins without a soul around and find out more about what happened in the months leading up to the apocalypse. Of course, as you get involved with the groups who are trying to reorganize some semblance of civilization, things get substantially more intense as they fight each other and you get pulled into these conflicts.
Having said all this, Bethesda is still being tight-lipped about many elements of the game, and in the realm of over-hype and dozens of screenshots and trailers being released for so many recent titles, I find it rather nice that at least one developer out there still wants to keep most of their game a secret until it's out. It's not always a popular approach, but it is an original one. Fallout 3 still doesn't have an exact release date either on PC or Xbox 360, but it hasn't changed from the "Fall 2008" timeframe that it's been set on for more than a year now.