Fallout 3 Preview

In the three years since its initial announcement, Fallout 3 has been scrutinized and criticized from all angles--before developer Bethesda Game Studios even released a single detail, screenshot, or trailer. Following up on a beloved cult classic open-ended RPG series whose reputation has grown to epic proportions, the game has quite a lot to live up to. I was recently able to visit Bethesda's Maryland offices, where the Elder Scrolls games are also made, to check out the game and get an idea of whether it is living up to its lofty expectations. Executive producer Todd Howard, who oversees all of the company's games, and lead designer Emil Pagliarulo, known for writing the Dark Brotherhood quest line in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, demonstrated early sections of Fallout 3 on Xbox 360 and spoke on various aspects of Bethesda's thinking behind the game.

War... War Never Changes
"In Vault 101, noone ever enters, and noone ever leaves. It is here you were born, and it is here you will die."

"As far as Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel, we ignore their existence in the same way that I ignore Aliens 3 and 4."
So speaks Ron Perlman, reprising his role as the series' intro narrator and prefacing one of the most fervently anticipated gaming experiences of the last decade. With the familiar line, "War... War never changes," Perlman once again recalls the events of the Great War that drove humanity into protected underground vaults and transformed the country into wasteland.

Fallout 3 takes place some 30 years after the events of Fallout 2. Though it follows the continuity of Fallout and Fallout 2, Fallout 3 does not pick up where its predecessor lays off. As many fans picked up based on the concept artwork, the game eschews the series' traditional California locales for an East Coast setting largely based around Washington, D.C.

"We do follow the continuity of Fallout 1 and 2," promised Howard, "though obviously they're set in the West Coast and we're set in the East Coast. When we do games, we don't like people to feel that they need to play the previous ones. We like to have lots of nods, and have the lore make sense. So it's not a continuation of that story, but it does say that stuff all happens. As far as the existence of Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel, we pretty much ignore their existence in the same way that I ignore Aliens 3 and 4."

It Takes a Vault to Raise a Child
Unlike in the original Fallout, which opens with the player being sent out of Vault 13, Fallout 3 spends a good deal of its initial gameplay within Vault 101--when the inevitable departure comes, the player will have a fuller sense of what is being left behind. The vault's insides are rendered gorgeously, with the series' trademark slick retro-future aesthetic managing to suggest a lived-in look. The overall lighting and ambiance is just right.

This vault section of the game spans several key periods in the player's life, starting--oddly enough--from birth, when the player chooses his or her character's physical traits. The appearance of your father, a crucial figure within the game's plot, is based heavily on your charater's own appearance, down to body type and ethnicity.

You'll also get a fill-in-the-blanks children's book serving as your initial character creation tool. Fallout 3 is again based on the series' S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat system, consisting of strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck.

"The first thing people usually ask us is, 'Why the fuck are you guys making Fallout?' Which is a pretty good question."
At age one, you'll learn to walk. At age 10, you are granted a BB gun and the classic Pip-Boy 3000 accessory, a wrist-mounted device that allows access to character stats, quest goals, items, and an in-game radio. At 16, you take the G.O.A.T., or Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test, which serves as the last main round of character creation and allows you to select your specialized abilities.

Throughout these brief pictures of different eras from your vault life, elements will tie together to illustrate the passage of time. For example, the preadolescent bullies attending your birthday party during the age 10 segment reappear later at age 16 as a 50s-esque greaser gang.

Age 19 is where the story proper begins. For reasons unknown, your father--voiced unfortunately rather unremarkably by Liam Neeson--leaves the vault alone, and you of course set out into the barren post-apocalyptic wasteland to find out where he has gone and why.

"Fallout Is Yours"
"The first thing people usually ask us is, 'Why the fuck are you guys making Fallout?'" laughed Howard. "Which is a pretty good question," he added. "The prime reason is, when the game first came out, it was the kind of game that we really loved. It's a world where your actions really, really mattered."

Howard was already working at Bethesda when the group that would become known as Black Isle released Fallout in 1997. "We had just made Daggerfall, so we were very into our elves and swords and all that, and then this game comes along and we all started playing," he said. A sequel was released the following year, but Black Isle never revisited the series.

"One day, somebody made some crack that we should do it," said Howard. "Over time, it became, 'No, really, we should do it. Let's do it.'"

Bethesda started to look into the matter, contacting some friends at Fallout owner and publisher Interplay. Eventually, Bethesda acquired the game rights in 2004; this year, Bethesda took control of the entire property. "Pete left this sticky note on my keyboard when the deal was done," recalled Howard, "and it said, 'Fallout is yours.'"

Turn the page for details on Fallout 3's combat system and more.

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I Thank the Lord Each Day for the Apocalypse
Stepping out from the cool colors and enclosed spaces of Vault 101 into the sprawling, ruined, desolate vistas of Fallout's post-apocalyptic wasteland is a striking experience, and one that justifies Bethesda's decision to set the early game in the vault itself. When the light first hits, there is an effective moment of brilliant, blinding, saturated light as your character's eyes adjust to the presence of the sun, but it soon fades away. The transition is only briefly hindered by a loading screen; Howard promised that, even though loading times were already noticeably lower than those of Oblivion, they will continue to improve over the next year of development.

"Violence is funny. Let's all just own up to it."
The irradiated landscapes are littered with ruined buildings, twisted metal, occasional recognizable Washington, D.C. landmarks, and of course the mutated enemy monstrosities. Many of these return from previous games--giant ants, brahmin, death squads, radscorpions, and more.

Among its many tasks, the Pip-Boy 3000 serves as a geiger counter, alerting you when radiation levels are particularly unsafe. The more radiation to which you are exposed, the more your stats drop, which can eventually lead to death. Drinking water gives immediate health benefits, but depending on its source it can also raise your radiation levels further, furthering the need to always keep a close eye on your character's status.

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out
"How do we solve guns and roleplaying now?" asked Howard. "That's probably the biggest question we've had about the game."

A tussle with some of the giant ants provided the answer: V.A.T.S., Fallout 3's method of taking a traditionally turn-based game into real time. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System allows players to pause the game at any time and zoom in for a closer look on an enemy, selecting an individual body part to target. As you take your shots, you consume action points, which regenerate over time, harkening back to the original games' action limiting mechanic.

"We don't want to encourage twitch play," Howard said. Simply spraying bullets without entering V.A.T.S. mode and setting up careful shots consume AP quickly and may even result in a slower regeneration rate, giving an incentive for players to be more economical.

Of course, there are other reasons to want to target specific body parts. Harming one of the giant ants' antennae caused it to go berserk and attack its companions. Later one, massive hulking Super Mutants were dispatched by literally blowing up their heads with careful headshots. Their eyeballs could be seen to roll away as the only remains. "This is rated E for Everyone," joked Howard. "Violence is funny. Let's all just own up to it. Violence, when done well, is fucking hilarious."

Sadly, groin targeting has not returned for Fallout 3. The designers decided to keep the targetable areas to body parts that would have tangible effects when targeted--shooting a leg will cause the enemy to stumble, shooting out an arm might cause it to drop its gun. "You will no longer be able to punch a rat in the groin," Howard said.

You can suffer from the effects of such marksmanship on the part of your enemies--if hit in the head, your vision might go blurry; if hit in the arm, your aim will suffer. You'll have to patch yourself up with medical items or seek more professional attention.

To really go to town with V.A.T.S., players will have access to a huge number of guns--some new, some old. By finding schematics and scavenging for parts, players can also create new weapons. The Rock-it launcher, for example, fires actual rocks or other bits of debris. Then, there is the Fat Man, a personal warhead launcher that actually creates a nuclear explosion just a matter of yards away. Taking a Vault-Tec lunchbox and filling it with bottle caps and explosives creates an improvised, but deadly, shrapnel bomb.

Guns can sustain damage, or be found in a damaged state, which negatively affects their accuracy, damage, and rate of fire. You can cannibalize parts from one weapon to help repair another--after all, it is better to have one properly functioning gun than two damaged ones. Howard demonstrated the noticeable difference between a Chinese assault rifle that had been poorly maintained, and one that had been recently repaired, with the latter firing much more quickly and with a much tighter spread.

Escaping Oblivion
Those who have played Oblivion cannot help but compare (and contrast) leaving the Vault to emerging from Oblivion's initial tutorial dungeon into the idyllic hills and fields of Cyrodiil. The extreme difference in setting, however, is only one crucial difference between the mentalities behind each game.

"You will no longer be able to punch a rat in the groin."
For one thing, Oblivion's third person mode has been greatly reworked in order to allow all of Fallout 3 to played in either first or third person mode without feeling crippled. Howard admitted that a third person mode was added to The Elder Scrolls somewhat as an afterthought, and the team was surprised to hear how many players wanted to use it extensively. Now, third person mode can operate with a Resident Evil 4-like over-the-shoulder perspective, a pulled back camera in line with the old games, or anywhere in between. Howard showed off some concept art detailing the evolution of the iconic blue vault suit, of which you will be seeing a lot in third person mode. The team apparently went through hundreds of iterations, with changes down to the stitching in the pants, and the end result is very evocative of the original Fallout.

The team members demonstrating Fallout 3 also made frequent references to more fundamental systems employed in Oblivion. While this served to highlight the game's technological lineage, it was just as frequently instrumental in pointing out significant differences in design philosophy from Oblivion.

Perhaps most significantly, given the nature of the love for the original game, Fallout 3 has a much different scale than Oblivion. Its world is smaller, and it has only a fraction of the number of NPCs--a few hundred rather than some 1500. Where Oblivion consists of dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay, most of which is comprised by what one might call "side quests" in another game, Fallout 3 has a much greater emphasis on its core narrative. Bethesda expects a balance of more like 20 hours for the main quest, and 20 hours for additional optional material. Of course, the world will still be quite large compared to most video games, and there will be some form of fast travel, but Bethesda refused to elaborate.

Unlike Oblivion, Fallout 3 will actually end. It will be clear when you are approaching the end of the game, which gives you an opportunity to go back and spend however much time you would like uncovering more content, but the game is not endless and its narrative reaches a discrete conclusion.

Turn the page to learn about Fallout 3's replayability and sense of scale.

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Play it Again
The main result of all this is that Fallout 3's content is packed much more densely. The slightly smaller world and drastically smaller number of NPCs means that individual characters and locations can be infused with more personality. Bethesda hopes to eliminate the issue of "cloned" NPCs--each character should be unique, not simply exist as a walking signpost. The company has even bumped up the number of voice actors it is hiring to somewhere between 30 and 40, to avoid having to use the same lines again and again.

Along with this comes the next big set of improvement's to the studio's proprietary Radiant AI. While the underlying artificial intelligence behind Oblivion's NPCs were impressive--to the point that Bethesda had to tune it down to prevent them from being too unpredictable--it did not always make for an end result of entertaining actions. Characters frequently had their own agendas, but many times such an agenda would simply be to take a walk.

"We were still trying to experiment with where to take it," said Pagliarulo. "Like, 'It would be really great if this guy took a nap at 2am for twenty seconds!' Who the hell is going to notice stuff like that?"

"In Oblivion, you are the everyman. You can do everything. In Fallout it's much different."
Essentially, one of the goals with this verison of Radiant was to try and make sure that NPCs are actually doing interesting things within the player's field of view, not just ensure that they are doing interesting things somewhere within the vast game world.

Beyond that, characters simply look far, far better. Character models are detailed and significantly more natural than Oblivion's, which frequently had vaguely unsettling graphical quirks as well as what appeared to be slightly mismatched head and torso sections.

In keeping with Fallout's tradition of distinct NPC reactions to player actions, your character has a sliding karma scale--with general regions of good, evil, and neutral--that is applied worldwide when dealing with NPC reaction. Howard made special note of the "neutral" option, a crucial addition that came late in the design process. While quests generally have two major methods of completion, there now tends to be a third option that is less morally black and white.

Bethesda is looking for higher replayability here. "In Oblivion, you are the everyman. You can do everything," explained Pagliarulo. "In Fallout it's much different."

Completing a quest one way might completely shut off its alternate route, or even disallow access to an entire location. Players cannot simply "do everything;" they must make choices. Furthermore, characters cap at level 20, with special "perk" abilities chosen every other level--another holdover from the old Fallout games. You cannot max out all of your character's stats, you must commit to the abilities and perks you choose.

Many will be pleased to know that Fallout 3 does not use Oblivion's relative leveling system. As in most RPGs, if you come back to an area you found earlier in the game, its enemies will still be the same level they were when you were ten levels lower. "In Oblivion, we discounted the value of the player to kick holy ass for a while," admitted Howard.

Sitting on a Bomb
Not too far from the vault exit is the small town of Megaton, so named for the deactivated atomic bomb resting at its center. Megaton is governed by Lucas Simms, the community's sheriff and mayor, who greets you as you arrive in a well-delivered voice acting performance. You can answer him in a variety of ways, including rudely--and he will return the attitude in kind.

"That's fine, that's fine, just as long as we understand each other," responds Simms. "These are my people. This is my town. You so much as breathe wrong, I'm gonna fuckin' end you."

Howard noted that Bethesda developer Ashley Chang can frequently be seen wearing the uniform of the sheriff while perched in a tower, taking shots at the inhabitants of Megaton. A less ruthless player might find that killing the sheriff and donning his clothes, then acting the right way towards the citizens, might actually eventually result in being recognized as the new sheriff.

In a Megaton bar--whose radio is blaring a tune by Bob Crosby, Bing's less wildly successful brother--you come across the sinister Mr. Burke, who offers you a job. For a fee, Burke wants you to eliminate Megaton by detonating its atomic bomb with a charge he just happens to have handy. "You could assist us in wiping this accident off the map," he says. You can accept his offer, refuse, or press for more cash--the outcome of which is determined by an internal die roll against your character's charisma.

For the demo, Howard accepted the mission and planted the charge in Megaton's nuke, then set off to find Burke in his designated meeting spot, where the button would be pressed and the dirty deed would be done.

On the road to Burke's location, you encounter a platoon of Brotherhood of Steel knights, the heavily-armored troops seen in much of the Fallout imagery. They guide you through a high-level part of downtown Washington D.C. that would be otherwise deadly for a low-level player--in Fallout more than in Oblivion, there are many areas that are simply lethal if not of the appropriate level.

There are some moments in Fallout 3 when you accompany other characters, and there are also opportunities to hire the occasional companion who has particular skills you need, but Howard was quick to stress that the game is not party-based.

Upon reaching Burke, you have one final chance to wrestle with your conscience before going through with your nefarious mission. There was no such change of heart in the demo, and our host pushed the button. In a breathtaking in-game scene, far off in the horizon, Megaton was extinguished in a massive mushroom cloud.

Turn the page to learn why Fallout 3 will be more Fallout 1 than Fallout 2.

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No More Monty Python
For Fallout 3, Bethesda is going back to the series' origins. "Fallout 1 in particular is our model, our tone setting for the game," said Howard. "We went back and played the old stuff. I like to read old reviews of things, because I like to see what people said about it during the day. It kind of takes the ages away. What kind of effect did it have on people like you--who review games and write about games--at the time?"

Though the events of Fallout 2 are officially recognized by Fallout 3, the atmosphere and sense of humor are coming much more from the original Fallout. Howard expressed a dissatisfaction with much of the overt humor in Fallout 2, such as its references to Monty Python and other popular culture. Fallout 1's "serious comic irony," as he put it, is the goal. On the other side of the coin, some of the heavier themes from Fallout 2, such as prostitution, are also unlikely to make it into the game. "It's a fine line between feeling really adult, and feeling really clumsy," he said.

"Fallout 1 in particular is our model, our tone setting for the game."
The beloved Vault Boy character--"Not Pip-Boy!" noted Howard, pointing out the distinction between the series' ubiquitous cartoon figure and its high-tech PDA-like device--of course appears all over Fallout 3, in advertisements and technical documents. "He really represents that wink at the camera," Howard said. "You're seeing this very harsh thing, this violence--the whole world's horrible, then you have him going, 'Hey!' You get a good chuckle factor out of that."

Bethesda has still not decided on how children will be treated. There will be children in the game, but whether they can be targeted and killed in the same way as other characters--as in the original games--is up in the air. Howard pointed out that those mechanics had to be removed for the European versions of the games, adding more complications--and, of course, games are under a lot of scrutiny these days.

There is also the simple issue that today's modern graphics hardware is capable of rendering violence in a much more realistic and potentially disturbing way than has been possible in the past. "It's obviously a hot topic," he said. "It's even hotter when you're on a next-gen platform and you can zoom in and see their eyeballs blowing up. So, we're sensitive to that and we'll see how it ends up."

Focus on Fallout 1 over Fallout 2 aside, Bethesda is still painting Fallout 3 as the third true entry in the series. It is likely that, with the cult status of the original game, the multiplatform nature of the new game, and the cachet Bethesda now enjoys, most people who play Fallout 3 will never have played a Fallout game before, but Fallout 3 is not a working title and the game will not have a subtitle. Newcomers will have no problem jumping in, but Bethesda does not see its involvement as rebooting the franchise; rather, it is expanding it and taking it forward.

Odds and Ends
Bethesda has not yet decided on whether it will be creating downloadable content for Fallout. Tacked-on material seems less fitting to Fallout 3 than to Oblivion, due to the former game's greater emphasis on a self-contained narrative, but it is also difficult to ignore how successful downloadable content has been through Xbox Live.

"Vault Boy really represents that wink at the camera."
Similarly, the extent of mod support has yet to be determined. The company would like to ship a construction kit with the game, but specific plans have not been made.

Frustrations with Oblivion's interface, such as its unnecessarily large text, have been heard and will be taken into account for Fallout 3.

Whether DirectX 10 will be supported has not yet been decided, but under no circumstances will the game require Windows Vista.

Hacking computers and electronics is a part of Fallout 3, and is represented by a simple code-breaking mini-game similar to the classic Mastermind.

Special effort has been put into the Pip-Boy 3000, which includes an in-game radio with about twenty authentic 1940s music tracks. Among the artists represented are The Ink Spots, the vocal group whose song "Maybe" was used in the introduction to the original Fallout. In a nod to the game's original team, which had wanted to use the Ink Spot track "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" but was unable to obtain the license, that song is used in Fallout 3's intro.

In between tracks, a DJ speaks on what's happening in the world of the wasteland. Occasionally, you'll be able to hear about events that lead to an optional quest, or learn more about characters or events of which you are already aware. It is even possible to meet the DJ in person, after which he will discuss your exploits on the air as well.

All in all, Fallout 3 is looking remarkably far along for a game with well over a year of development remaining. Visually, the game is a marked cut above Oblivion, and the focus on depth over sheer scale is a welcome attitude for Bethesda, fitting for a universe so well-remembered for its richness and depth. Expectations are high--perhaps unfairly high, as many those looking forward to Fallout 3 have never played its predecessors, and so are holding the upcoming title up against a decade-long legacy rather than against personal experience--but by all accounts Fallout 3 is heading in the right direction.

Bethesda Game Studios plans to ship Fallout 3 simultaneously for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 in fall 2008.