Fallout 3 Preview

Bethesda Softworks has a lot to prove with Fallout 3. Not to regular hardcore gamers like you and me, of course, nor the millions of fans who have enjoyed the company's previous work with the Elder Scrolls series. It goes without saying that Bethesda's record for quality is proven.

But the Maryland-based developer took on a whole new challenge when it wrested the hallowed Fallout license from Interplay's cold, deathly grip a few years ago. Now Bethesda's unenviable task is twofold: First, bring the traditionally PC-oriented Fallout series to modern consoles and make it appeal to a broader audience who may have never touched a Fallout game before. Second, and far more difficult, build a game that honors Fallout's decade-long legacy and at least try to appease its existing hardcore audience, whose love for the franchise runs a narrow spectrum from adoration to outright fanaticism.

Vice president of PR and marketing Pete Hines isn't fazed. He and the design brass at Bethesda have paid close attention to all of the feedback (some of it scathing) those diehard fans have submitted so far. Taking fan suggestions into account is one thing, but "we still have to make the best Fallout 3 we can make," Hines says. In other words, the design team has had its own vision for Fallout 3 since day one, and with the move to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, that vision has to consider a much larger audience, one composed of people for whom this Fallout will be their first.

I'm one of those people, and as a big fan of Oblivion, it looks like Fallout 3 has enough of the same hooks--the open world, the freedom of choice, the action-based role-playing--to really pique my interest. Except this time around, you get the added benefits of handheld nuclear bomb launchers and grisly exploding mutant heads.

Fallout 3 sticks close to the franchise's basic mythos: a nuclear holocaust sent survivors underground, froze the era's 1950s-style pop culture right in the middle of its wide-eyed optimism, and populated the landscape with bloodthirsty mutants. Generations later, you're one of the lucky few born among all the rubble and ash.

But while the general background is the same, none of the characters or locales from the original two games will make an appearance. Those games' storylines were set on the West Coast, while Fallout 3 has famously been moved to Washington, DC. Not only does that give the writers a chance to start over with a fresh storyline grounded in Fallout's familiar milieu, but it also lets them address questions that never came up in the original games. For instance, what's been going on in the nation's seat of power since the first bombs dropped? What happened to the governmental infrastructure? Is there even anyone left to govern? Hines says you'll explore the answers over the course of the game.

Before you get that far, you'll have to learn to walk. And before that, you'll have to crawl. Bethesda has talked before about the game's contextualized character creation process, which will depict a handful of milestones in your young life. This time around, Hines was ready to show off that process in the opening moments of the game, which literally starts with your birth. Seconds after you've been delivered by your father, an offscreen voice asks about the gender of the baby, and you'll choose it from a menu. Your father's answer (provided by Liam Neeson) will follow suit, and you'll get to pick all your physical attributes--facial features, hair and skin color--with the usual menus and sliders.

Flash forward to one year old, when the game will acquaint you with the walking controls by letting you toddle around your playpen. Here, you'll also notice your father's facial appearance has been derived from the same choices you made in the last scene. Approaching a whimsically illustrated baby book entitled "You're Special!," you'll flip from page to page, each showing one letter of Fallout's SPECIAL system (that is, strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck). This is how you assign your character's attributes. The last phase of this intro scene I got to see depicted your character's ninth birthday party, where you'll receive your very own wrist-mounted PIPBoy computer, which will act as your inventory screen and other menu functions once you get out into the wide, irradiated world. You'll also get to interact here with some of the good and bad kids who will presumably become your adult counterparts later on.

In adulthood, your father's unexplained disappearance is what will finally lead you outside the relative safety of your fortified vault. But where the story goes from there, Bethesda isn't saying yet. It may not be a lonely world out there--what with super mutants, the mercenaries of the Talon Company, and the cult-like Brotherhood of Steel all marauding across the landscape--and it sure isn't a friendly one, either. Luckily, at least one friend will accompany you on your travels. Man's best friend, in fact. Early in the game, you'll find a courageous dog named Dogmeat and his master under attack, and when the master meets his inevitable end, Dogmeat will quickly become your loyal companion. When and where this happens will be randomized, so it should fit seamlessly into the flow of the game.

Dogmeat is basically a combat assistant that you can direct in battle. You can make him attack enemies directly, as well as get him to perform support actions like running ahead of you and returning with a dropped weapon. Of course, Dogmeat won't have lines of dialogue, per se, but you can still hold branching conversations with him, punctuated by barks and whimpers, that will let you build a rapport. Be careful, though: Dogmeat is expendable. He won't die easily, but if he does, he ain't coming back. None of the game's quests or story elements depend on Dogmeat's presence; he's just there to make your life easier in battle. But sentimental players are advised to protect their pooch, all the same.

Turn the page for more on tactical battles and the overall scope of Fallout 3. _PAGE_BREAK_ Speaking of battles, Hines opted to show a number of general enemy encounters in lieu of any specific quests or NPC interactions. One of these followed the initial meeting with Dogmeat, which in my demo happened in a junkyard. Afterward there was a quick, destructive demonstration of the Fat Man, a portable nuclear bomb launcher that looked about as fun to use as it sounds. Point it slightly skyward, pull the trigger, and watch the satisfying mushroom cloud spring up. You'll irradiate any patch of ground you hit with this thing, though, so watch where you walk after an intense battle.

Abandoned vaults and bombed-out buildings are to Fallout 3 what the generic caves and decrepit Elven ruins were to Oblivion, which is to say you'll want to do a lot of exploring to find some choice gear to equip. Just be careful to watch out for the people--or more accurately, the ghouls--who have gotten there first. Ghouls in Fallout are human beings who were exposed to too much radiation, and there were several glowing ones (the most dangerous kind) running around in the ruined building Hines showed me. Functionally, the ghouls seem to act merely like quick radioactive zombies, though an interesting touch to each glowing one you encounter is a very brief (think blink-and-you'll-miss-it) flashback scene showing what that ghoul's life was like before it mutated into a hellish husk.

The real combat started when Hines loaded up the last save game of my demo, set on the Washington Mall between the Capitol and a very dilapidated Washington Monument. The area had been fortified with trenches and barriers by the Brotherhood of Steel, and there was a pitched battle going on between some of the Talon Co.'s mercs and a group of super mutants, the beefy yellow-skinned guys you've seen in numerous screenshots. These aren't mindless run-at-you-screaming mutants like the ghouls; they're pissed off, coordinated, and they know how to use guns. Hines took this chance to point out that Fallout 3's different enemy factions hate each other as much as they hate you, and it's often effective to hang back and let the riffraff take care of each other before you move in to mop up.

Before jumping into combat himself, Hines went to third-person and showed me the character he'd built for this save game--at which point I realized the gear lust that drove character development in Oblivion (and countless RPGs before it) will be alive and well in Fallout 3. The dude was decked out head to toe in Brotherhood of Steel gear, from beefy armor and boots to a sinister-looking gas mask and a gigantic honkin' Gatling gun. You'll have to take the bulk of your new equipment into account, though. Not only is your inventory limited in size, but the bigger items like that gun will actually slow down your movement speed, putting you at a slight disadvantage in combat.

Good thing you've got the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.), which you may have read will let you pause the action and target not just specific enemies but even their discrete body parts (like in the early Fallout games). You're free to play all the way through Fallout 3 without ever engaging the V.A.T.S.--in which case you'll be playing it more like a traditional first-person shooter--but you'll be handicapping yourself by doing so.

As it turns out, you don't gain a bonus to damage or anything else (except maybe thinking you're cool) by shooting from the hip with steady aim and fast reflexes. In fact, your damage and chance to hit are governed by your character's and gear's stats even when you're shooting in real time, so when you're fighting multiple enemies at once, you really ought to be pausing with the V.A.T.S. and setting up your shots. If anything, the real-time combat sounds like a good way to keep from needlessly interrupting your movement when you only have one or two weak enemies to deal with at a time.

Hines showed how the V.A.T.S. can be used to get tactical with everything from a simple rifle to the Fat Man, when he paused to target one of a trio of super mutants attacking from behind a concrete blockade. Even with the Fat Man's lobbing action, it wasn't possible to arc a projectile over the wall for a direct hit on the enemy's body. But when you're dealing with personal nuclear explosives, close enough is usually good enough. Cue one big mushroom cloud and three flying super mutants.

Since the demo I saw focused almost entirely on generic combat, I didn't get a good feel for what Fallout 3's character interactions will be like (though you can predict they'll be menu-based). However, one of Oblivion's few major warts stuck in my mind: the incessant recycling of NPCs' voices. If you didn't play it, a very small number of actors (and in some cases, identical lines of dialogue) were spread across hundreds of characters, some on opposite ends of the entire game world. It got more than a little repetitive. With regard to Fallout 3, Hines answered voiceover criticism by talking numbers. While the new game will purportedly feature an "order of magnitude" more voice actors than Oblivion, the game itself will have relatively fewer NPCs, with only around 200 characters.

In fact, Bethesda is on record in saying that Fallout 3 will be a noticeably smaller game than Oblivion overall, but I hope that smaller scope will allow the developers to fill the world with a greater density of content, like quests, extra gear, and optional storylines. Hines estimated to me around 25 hours of time to complete the main storyline, with another 40 to 50 hours of optional gameplay available. Those numbers are still in flux as development progresses, as is the number of variations on the game's ending (which Hines half-jokingly now puts at around 500).

One thing Bethesda is sure about is that Fallout 3 will be out on all three platforms in 2008. Hines cites the rocky nature of making games early on the 360 and PS3--consoles which at the time were themselves still in development--as the primary culprit for Oblivion's lengthy production cycle. Now the team at Bethesda has plenty of experience on all the available hardware, so you can rest assured you'll be traversing the radioactive wastes by the end of this year.