Fallout 3 Hands-on Preview: Mixed Impressions from a Fallout Fanboy

"You so much as breathe, and I'm gonna fuckin' end ya."

The words may as well have been coming directly from Bethesda. It felt like the company was challenging me, daring me to write anything negative about their new sequel to Black Isle's classic RPG series. I was very skeptical of whether the company could match the tone and content of the original titles. As good as Bethesda is, the bar was set very high ten years ago.

But based on what I just played--and I had free reign to explore the world at whim--I came away feeling good about the game. Fallout 3 is not Fallout 2.5, and that can be a little disappointing at first, no matter how irrational of a feeling that is. But Fallout 3 is undoubtedly shaping up to be a solid game in its own right, and one that clearly takes many significant cues from the previous titles--from the opening scene, to the wonderfully realized PIPBoy menu. Oblivion: Fallout 3 this is not.

The first thing I wanted to hit with my hands-on time was a load of conversations. Dialogue is half of what made Fallout so engaging--the freedom to piss off and be pissed on by any number of disgruntled apocalyptic survivors spawned most of my favorite Fallout memories.

After wandering out of the Vault, through the traditional cave--no rats to be found--and out across the wasteland, I managed to locate the town of Megaton rather quickly. Greeting me outside was a tall 50s-style robot, waving its stiff arms toward the town in greeting. Upon entering the town, Sheriff Lucas Sims gave me a gruff hello, and I engaged him in verbal combat.

The most encouraging aspect of Fallout 3's dialogue is the number of options available. Oblivion's simple approach to dialogue trees would not suffice here, and as a result, I often had up to five or six options at any given time. With the Sheriff, I had enough choices to easily pick a fight with him, and did so immediately. Bad idea.

After reloading the game, I had a long chat with my murderer. The dialogue engine is indeed reminiscent of Oblivion, but after noticing this, I never gave it a second thought. Instead, I was focused on learning about the town, looking for quests, and more typical Fallout goals.

Overall I would say that the demo area dialogue clearly eclipsed Oblivion's writing, but did not quite match the effectiveness of Fallout. There was certainly an edge to it all, as evidenced by the wanton use of vulgar language and themes--see the opening quote from the Sheriff. A few mildly humorous moments were produced by said vulgarity. But none of the characters caught me off guard or engaged me in the same way that Fallout did, and the voice acting was sometimes rather wooden.

It was a short demo, and an early area, and the game is not finished, so I can not judge it based on this first taste. Suffice it to say, the tone of dialogue was close, but not right on. I was entertained, but not surprised.

Before leaving Megaton, I decided to simply walk up and shoot a random villager. Another bad idea, but this time I was ready to fight. The tactical combat--now dubbed the Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS--is all optional now. A pull of the right bumper engages the VATS system with the familiar servo noise of the original games. After allocating your Action Points to various body parts, each shot or swing plays out in slow motion, the violence captured from various angles. The game then switches back to real-time, and your Action Points slowly recover.

The system itself works well, and is certainly fun to use. But rather than a continuation of traditional Fallout combat, think of it more like tactical bullet-time. As there is no way to leave the tactical system toggled on, I usually found it more natural and expedient to simply play the game in real-time, rather than running away until my AP recovered and repeatedly pulling the bumper. I used it more as a way to slow down combat when I was in trouble, or to pick off enemies in the distance. It is less of a mode, and more of a situational tool.

Leaving Megaton, I walked down a cracked and crumbling D.C. street, admiring the desolate environment. In this case, Bethesda did blow me away. Though a lack of life or major landmarks is a classic sign of lazy video game design, Fallout 3's wasteland is appropriate in its barren nature. In fact, it's the first 3D post-apocalyptic game to really make me feel like I was in an area where a nuclear bomb had gone off. It was perfectly alien, and the massive viewing distance effectively gave one the sense that there would be no escape from this hellish world.

I decided to set out in one direction, exploring anything I came across. At one point I encountered a decaying school, the brilliantly textured marquee reading "Springfield Elementary." Upon entering the small school I began to scavenge for items, stopping here and there to pick up Stimpaks and Radaways. Just picking up items like Radaways felt good. Some crazed mutants soon appeared, and I was forced to kill them. On my way out I encountered a room of the school that held a giant cage, with several dead bodies hanging above it, like something out of Silent Hill. After seeing this, I quickly made my exit.

In short, this is not your father's Fallout. Some things are better, some things may not live up to expectations, and many things have stayed the same. I'll try to update this post later tonight with additional impressions of what I saw later on in my demo, including the excellent PIPBoy menu, the perk system, and other random bits of information.