The day you're born, you find yourself awake, startled, staring down a man in a doctor's mask. He tells you he's your father, says whether you're a boy or a girl, and gives you a name. Just then, something goes wrong and your mother dies. Your father leaves your side to help, but it's too late. She's gone. A year later, you're with your father again, now more aware of your surroundings. You live inside the nuclear bomb shelter Vault 101. Steel walls encase your existence, but you're naturally curious, venturing out of your confinement to explore this cold, metal world. The sad truth is that you cannot go beyond these walls. You can never go outside. The outside world is a dangerous place, practically a myth to the society dwelling within the Vault.
Nine years pass, then another six, and another three. Over this time, you take tests, learn skills, grow into an adult -- but one day, out of nowhere, your father disappears. No one knows how. No one has ever left Vault 101, and the citizens are in a panic. They think you're to blame, that you had something to do with it. It's up to you now. You have to venture out into the forbidden, the world above the only one you've ever known -- and you find the remnants of a society gone mad, a nuclear wasteland in which an even more frightening war still rages. In this hell on earth you must locate your father, and somehow survive.
This chilling series of events makes up the first 40 or so minutes of Fallout 3, the long-awaited sequel to Interplay's much-beloved series of PC role-playing games currently in development at Bethesda Softworks. Though the game doesn't directly resemble those classics of the computer role-playing genre, an air of familiarity is bound to hit you with this one, as it shares a great deal in common with Bethesda's wildly successful The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Swap out the high fantasy setting and magical powers with a post-apocalyptic world and a whole lot of heavy weaponry, and you'll get the idea -- however, this isn't just an Oblivion redux. There are a lot of differing elements on display in Fallout 3, some staples of the series, some brand-new. While this sort of blending of a heralded franchise with a highly different gameplay engine could potentially spell disaster for longtime fans, if the demo we saw recently is any indication, Fallout 3 could very well avoid that pitfall and deliver a game both Fallout fans and newcomers to the series will enjoy.
The first thing shown in our demo was the aforementioned introductory sequence, in which your character is born. While all of this is obviously heavily story-driven, these scenes also help you build your character. On your day of birth, you choose the sex and name (and, if you're bored and looking for something to do, you can press a button to cry on command). When you're a year old and wandering around your home, you find a children's educational book that you can use to assign your initial statistical points in the categories of strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck (fans certainly know this as the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system). On your 10th birthday, you get the Pip Boy 3000, a wrist-bound PDA device you'll find yourself using a great deal. Finally, you'll take the General Occupational Aptitude Test, or GOAT, to determine what kind of character you'll be. It might just be the most involved gaming childhood ever created, and it seems like a pretty well-executed way to combine tutorial contrivances with early plot exposition.
The storyline itself takes place 30 years or so after the events in Fallout 2. The location has shifted from the West Coast locales of the earlier games to Washington, D.C. Outside you'll encounter a fully-realized portrait of the aftermath of nuclear war. One sequence we saw took place in downtown D.C., with a thoroughly wrecked Washington Monument (in which you can apparently take an elevator to the top) and Capitol building. The environmental detail looked spectacular everywhere, whether it was in a burnt-out old junkyard or a thrashed office building full of ghouls, but seeing those decayed monuments up close and personal was particularly breathtaking. Make no mistake, you'll be seeing plenty of those spectacular environments, as the world of Fallout 3 is huge. It's purported to be a smidgen smaller than Oblivion's game world, but considering the sprawling nature of that game's environment, and how much better this game is looking graphically compared to Oblivion, that's still pretty amazing.
One of the first gameplay sequences Bethesda showed us was in that junkyard, and it's something about which old Fallout fans might crack a smile. Over the course of the game, you'll be able to acquire companions to help you, and it just so happens that the one we got to see in action was a helpful canine named Dogmeat. Now, of course, this isn't the same Dogmeat from the previous games -- otherwise this would be the oldest dog in history. Rather, he's the canine compatriot of an NPC you find being attacked. The Dogmeat encounter is a random one, but Bethesda says every player will encounter it at some point. Once you save Dogmeat from his attacker, you can decide whether or not you want him to join you, and if you do, he can do everything from attacking enemies to sniffing out food and weapons in the surrounding area.
You'll also be able to gain a few different human companions over time. Obviously their roles are similar, though they'll likely be better suited for attacking enemies than Dogmeat would be. Incidentally, your companions are entirely mortal, meaning once they die, they're dead. From what we saw with Dogmeat, you'll be able to command him to stay put or even go back to the entrance to Vault 101 if you're about to go somewhere dangerous and don't want him to get hurt. If you're the sort that found the man/dog relationship in "I Am Legend" a bit emotionally draining, you'll probably want to take full advantage of those commands, lest you end up sobbing like a wrecked widow.
The people with whom you're able to align yourself depends largely on your character's karma. Karma is tracked through every action you perform in the game. If you frequently help NPCs in trouble and do good deeds, you'll be a good guy. If you're a cold-blooded killer who murders ruthlessly and talks mean to people, you'll be a bad guy. If you try to avoid conflict and rarely take sides, you'll be neutral. Decisions you make in the game are key to determining your karma, and also affect how the game itself will play out. One of the examples Bethesda showed at E3 last year was a city called Megaton, a village of religious fanatics who built their town and faith around an unexploded nuke. You have the choice to either help a psychotic real estate developer destroy the town to make way for a new, "better" living environment, or warn the town of the plot and save them. Different quest trees open up depending on which way you choose to go.
Your ending will also be greatly affected by how you choose to carry yourself. Bethesda was careful not to spoil anything for us, but they emphasized that the game will contain literally hundreds of different possible endings, based entirely on how you play the game. Every key moment from your quest will factor into it, creating a unique, yet definitive conclusion. It sounds incredibly ambitious and perhaps a little insane, but Bethesda says they've pulled it off. Here's to hoping.
The last two levels shown to us in our demo displayed a number of combat sequences against different types of foes. The first was the office building inhabited by ghouls we mentioned before. These ghouls are emaciated, rotted humans that are the result of heavy radiation poisoning. A few select ghouls still have some semblance of humanity buried within their frail bodies, and these creatures will be NPCs with which you can interact. The rest are purely animalistic, more zombie than anything else. They come in two varieties: standard ghouls and glowing ghouls. The glowers are walking radiation, and when you encounter them a strange thing happens: A quick flash through their eyes shows what life was like at the final moments before their environment was destroyed. We didn't get a clear explanation of what exactly causes this, but clearly there's something going on there.
Combat itself is an interesting animal. Obviously the game is running on the Oblivion engine, but since this is a world of guns and blunt objects as opposed to a world of swords and magic, you'd be right to wonder how it would all come together. The result seems to be a hybrid of the role-playing genre's odds-based combat functionality, and straight-up shooter action. When wandering around an environment, you can simply choose to shoot at any enemy that comes your way in real time or you can opt to use the VATS targeting system.
Short for the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, VATS allows you effectively pause combat and target individual places on an enemy's body. Percentages display to show your likelihood of hitting each spot. Once you've inputted your command, your attack commences outside of your control, and if the dice roll in your favor, you'll kill whatever's coming at you. It sounds slightly bizarre, almost like an automatic death every time, but that's not the case, thankfully, since you have to maintain action points to use the VATS system. Action points are shown in a meter on your HUD, and using VATS attacks depletes it. It replenishes over time, so you just have to keep an eye on it.
Combat looked pretty intense from what we saw. The scene in the building with the ghouls featured plenty of gory, brutal battles, though even more were on display in the sequence set in downtown D.C. Here, we encountered super-mutants: gigantic, hulking creatures with massive armor and heavy weaponry. These dudes don't mess around. They shoot guns, fire rockets, and come at you with giant hammers, all while you're ducking in and out of trenches, trying to make your way to the Capitol building. These sequences also gave us a look at some of the different weapons you'll get to use, from submachine guns to mini-guns to rocket launchers and, our favorite, the Fat Man. This weapon essentially launches a miniature nuke at whatever you're aiming to obliterate, and its destructive power is hysterically entertaining. If watching mutants blow apart or seeing burnt out cars explode with spectacular effect ever gets old, then we'd like to grow old right along with it.
Another thing this stage displayed is how the world of post-apocalyptic D.C. will operate. On a couple of occasions, we got to see battles erupting between NPC factions of humans and mutants. As mentioned before, you can get involved in these battles, or choose to stay out of them entirely. Incidentally, you won't be able to join any specific faction within the game. Bethesda was quick to point out that Fallout 3 won't use the same sort of membership system that Oblivion did, so there's nothing like the Thieves' Guild to the top of which you can rise. You can make allegiances based on your karma, but beyond that, you're just a man on a mission.
All told, we came away from our demo session with high hopes for Fallout 3. If we had to name a concern, it's simply that the unique combat system might not completely pan out. It could strike a great balance between RPG conventions and traditional action, or it could end up being a case of, "You got your shooter in my RPG, dammit!" We think it looks like a cool system, but we'll reserve judgment until we get real hands-on time with the game, something we're hoping we get to do sooner rather than later. We can't yet say with any certainty whether or not Fallout 3 will truly end up being the modern Fallout game for which fans have been desperately pining, but we can say that what we saw gave us a great deal of confidence and optimism. We'll endeavor to bring you more on Fallout 3 in the coming months.
This preview was based on a developer-hosted demo featuring an alpha build of the Xbox 360 version of the game.