Release Date: Fall 2008
For those unfamiliar with the awesome Fallout world setting, imagine that the future we had pictured in the '50s had actually come true. Household robots and ray beams exist, and there is still that bizarre '50s sense of misogyny and racism that is somehow both hilarious and offensive at the same time. Unfortunately, one of the other big '50s predictions — the entire world would blow the crap out of each other in a nuclear war — also came true. Most of the world is a radiation-scorched wasteland, and the survivors try to eke out a meager living in between bouts of fighting off radiation-mutated animals and the group of jerks that's trying to control the world this week. Vaults are super-reinforced, self-sustained societies located inside bomb shelters, and they're relatively safe from the influence of the outside world. Unfortunately, that also means that if something goes wrong, the Vaults have to send someone into the wastelands to take care of it. Fallout 3 tells the story of a boy from Vault 101 who is the latest Vault-dweller to step into the world of Fallout.
As with all Fallout games, your character in Fallout 3 is fully customizable using the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) system, which signifies the stats that you can distribute for your character. Strength influences how hard you hit and how much you can carry, and it's a good choice for those looking to play beefy fellows. Perception is the opposite and influences your gun fighting and visual acuity. Endurance is stamina and defense, and what you'll need to stay alive in a fierce fight. Charisma is actually not a combat skill, but it influences how you can interact with the people in the world; a high Charisma stat makes it easy to smooth-talk people and find out information, while a low one makes it difficult for people to trust you. Intelligence will make it easier to use technology and open up conversation choices, and Agility influences how well you can move and dodge. Luck has a number of factors, and while it isn't as clear what it does, it's safe to assume that a little Luck can never hurt.
Besides your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, your character also up to 14 skills available to him, ranking from combat skills like guns and melee combat to those that are useful outside of battle, such as conversation skills. At character creation, your character chooses a few Tag skills that become his focus and gain more benefit than other skills, and each time he levels up, he gains skill points that can be distributed among these various skills. If you want to play a combat monster, you'll probably suffer by having a weak ability to talk your way out of situations, and vice versa. In addition to skills, you also have perks, which are special attributes that are earned every few level-ups and grant abilities above and beyond your regular skills. Heavy Lifter, for example, allows you to carry 100 pounds of extra equipment, and my personal favorite, Nerd Rage, grants you a stat bonus when your hit points fall below a certain point.
Beyond all the fun of stats, your character's appearance is also fully customizable. His actual looks are created at the character design screen, but his wardrobe is influenced by what you decide to equip on him. He begins with a Vault 101 Vault Suit, but can promptly replace that with a number of other equipment. By the time I was done the demo, I was wandering around in a comfortable '50s-style sweater-vest and slacks combo, with eyeglasses and a baseball cap. Certain equipment is better than others, and there will be specific things you can equip that will provide stat bonuses. The only question is if a bonus to defense is worth the fun of taking out an entire group of die-hard mercenaries dressed like Ward Cleaver.
The E3 demo starts shortly after the in-game tutorial ends. Your character is leaving the Vault to undergo a quest, the details of which are a closely guarded secret by Bethesda. He was born and raised in the Vault, and this is his first time into the outside world. The first thing you'll see when you leave the Vault is the remains of a small town that failed to survive the nuclear holocaust. It's really quite creepy to wander through the shattered remains, peering into abandoned houses and seeing skeletal outlines on the walls. You'll probably not linger for long, and in my own case, my aimless wanderings were interrupted by a trip into the local elementary school. The school survived the destruction mostly intact, and it looked like a safe place from the outside. The inside was a completely different matter. Corpses lined the walls, hanged from spikes like grotesque paintings; the furniture was mostly wrecked; and worst of all, a group of bandits had taken refuge inside. On the plus side, this was my first attempt to check out Fallout 3's brand-new V.A.T.S. combat system.
On its own, Fallout 3 controls like a fairly simple FPS. The right analog stick aims your gun, right trigger fires, and left trigger allows you to steady the gun for greater accuracy. V.A.T.S. (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System) should turn the game into something slightly more familiar to Fallout vets. Combat pauses once you activate V.A.T.S, and all of your enemies become highlighted. In this mode, you can choose to aim at specific body parts or even target the enemy's weapon; each target you select will drain points from your character's AP (Action Points) meter. After you confirm your selections, your character will instantly fire off a volley of shots targeting those specific parts. The more difficult the body part may be to hit, the lower your shot accuracy will be, so not all of the shots will hit their intended targets. For example, my first target inside the school was a Ruffian, who was running and screaming at me with a makeshift spear. A volley of V.A.T.S.-assisted shots promptly crippled his legs and one of his arms, turning him from a threat into a simple target. This use left my AP drained, but thankfully, it recovers pretty quickly. For the most part, I found that it was best to use FPS controls in areas where you have plenty of room to move and aim carefully, and V.A.T.S. in places where I needed to make my shots count or I was going to get a spear in the face.
After a brief exploration of the school, I ventured back to the comparatively brighter wasteland, and after a short trip, I encountered the game's first town. It was a small town, as these things go, but it absolutely packed to the brim with sub-plots, sadly few of which I got to explore. The most interesting of these was the Children of the Atom, a cult-slash-church that worshipped an unexploded nuclear bomb located in the center of the town. I had a few options for what I could do with these fellows, including tinkering with the bomb itself. My explosive skill wasn't high enough, though, so I didn't get to see if it was possible to set it off or simply disarm it. Beyond the many sub-plots, there were simply a ton of areas to explore in the town. I was able to venture in any house I could see, and I discovered a lot of areas that I'd want to explore if I had greater stats, such as a mysterious locked house that required a Lockpick skill substantially higher than even a 10th-level character could hope to achieve.
It's worth noting that locked doors don't simply open if you've got a high enough Lockpick skill. Instead, you have to play a minigame involving a screwdriver and a bobby pin, where your character inserts the bobby pin into the door, and you have to slowly move it to find the "sweet spot" before turning the door with your screwdriver. If you mess up, you'll break the bobby pin, and those are in limited enough supply that you don't want to waste 10 of them on a simple door. You also have the option of using brute force to open the door, but if that fails, the door is forever closed to you unless you can find a key. Thankfully, the few locked doors I did encounter, with the exception of the aforementioned mystery house, fell quite easily to my unimpressive lockpicking skills, and I was able to obtain the sweet treasures within.
Fallout vets will be glad to hear that Items are back and in as substantial numbers as they were in the previous games. During my forays into the various houses, I was able to find everything from pre-war snack cakes to random books scattered throughout the areas; so far, they seemed to serve little purpose other than to take up inventory space. There was also a fair amount of actually useful stuff, such as new weapons, ammunition and even the password to a computer belonging to the town information monger, which provided useful quest information.
All this scavenging comes at a price. When exploring, you'll find certain items or doors marked in red, and if you take those items or pick those locks, your Karma will drop, and you'll end up ticking off a lot of people. One unfortunate foray into the Children of the Atom's stronghold left me faced with an entire group of angry people who were out for my blood. To make matters worse, every item I took or door I opened dropped my Karma, and once the Children of the Atom got angry at me, fighting back also dropped my Karma further. It's entirely possible to play Fallout 3 as some sort of homicidal maniac, but don't expect to do so without anyone calling you on it.
For those of us of the less violent persuasion, Fallout 3 includes plenty of people to talk to. Conversations take place in a fairly simple menu-driven system, where you pick your choice and the character responds. The twist is that not all of your choices are available at all times, and certain conversation choices are only available to certain characters. Your skills will also influence the success rate of conversations; a character with high Charisma and Speech skills may be able to charm information out of a normally uptight individual, and those with a high intelligence may notice something that less clever characters don't. If you're discussing explosives, having a high Explosive skill will make it more likely that folks will believe you. Even certain perks influence your choices. The Lady Killer perk, for example, gives you a bonus for talking to female characters and also provides a couple of conversation choices that wouldn't normally be available. If you're the kind of gamer who just wants to get back to the shooting, you can ignore most of these conversation trees and focus on the smashing, but it might come back to haunt you later.
The graphics in Fallout 3 are quite nice indeed. The environments are simply fantastic, and Bethesda has done a great job of translating Fallout's post-apocalyptic world into a fully explorable 3-D environment. The opening segments, where I was wandering through the destroyed town, were rather amazing, and if I hadn't been on such a strict time limit, I would have spent quite a while just poking around the rubble. The interior of the school was quite creepy indeed, with everything from the teacher's offices to the bathrooms modeled in a realistic way. The character models are quite detailed, both in and out of combat. Particularly noticeable is how Bethesda managed to translate Fallout's ludicrous gibs to 3-D. When you take off someone's limb or head, there is a shower of gore and violence that toes the line between satisfying and disturbing. All in all, Bethesda did a phenomenal job of translating the 2-D Fallout world into 3D, and all but the most rigidly inflexible of Fallout fans should find it to be a satisfactory adaptation.
Fallout 3 is quite possibly the best game at E3 this year, and that's from only having played roughly 30 minutes of the game. It simply goes above and beyond the call of duty much in the same way that the original Fallout titles did on the PC. It's easy to pick up and play, incredibly immersive, and from the character customization and gameplay options that I saw, Fallout 3 will feature replay value that puts even Elder Scrolls: Oblivion to shame. Even those who are not very good at the precise aiming usually required for an FPS will have little trouble picking up Fallout 3 due to the simple and easy V.A.T.S. targeting system. Fallout is back, and Bethesda has done its fans proud. The only hard part will be waiting until this autumn.
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