It's first-person. There, that's what you came here to find out. But I implore you, stick around for a bit longer. I've interesting things to tell you. (Not least, that it can be played in third-person, even pulling the camera back and up).
Like so very many people, Bethesda - the team behind the Elder Scrolls series, most recently Oblivion - fell in love with Fallout in 1997. A turn-based RPG, it is often heralded as Interplay's finest moment, crafting an elaborate post-nuclear world, and a story of intricate depth. It was so fantastically iconic. And not in that awful way people so lazily use that word now, but truly creating gaming icons. Vault-Boy, with his thumb pointing up and his ridiculously cheery grin, a bitter lie in a devastated world. The PIPBoy 2000 and its all-in-one justification for maps, objectives and character info. The SPECIAL System (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck).
But most of all, there was a sense of professionalism missing from so many games. The opening sequences for both Fallout 1 and 2, the beautiful '40s music, the astonishingly crafted retro-future, the shocking and revelatory endings, and the sense of extraordinary freedom. That's an awful lot to live up to.
Bethesda has a lot to do. From what we've seen so far - and believe us, we're sighing with relief - they look to be on the right path. And sure, the die-hards are still recovering from the first line of the preview. But the rest of us are going to realise that it's not really a very sensible idea to make a turn-based isometric game in 2007. It's the spirit that counts, and that's what they seem to be getting right. And this could be to do with the approach they're taking to developing the third game in a series with no one involved with previous two.
Bethesda has chosen to ignore the existence of Fallout: Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel. "I ignore Tactics and Brotherhood like I ignore Alien 3 and 4," says executive producer Todd Howard. And so will we, so it's safe to say that it's been ten years since the last Fallout proper.
"We went back and played both games. And we also read reviews from the time. I find that really takes the age out of things," says Howard. Reviews, he explains, don't carry the weight of time. They talk about the essence of the game, and being of a single moment, are unaware of the technological shortfalls to come. Since 2004 when they acquired the licence they were so desperately keen to develop (Todd came back to his desk to find a note on his keyboard reading, "Fallout is yours". There was dancing), they've been working on the game, developed using a reworking of the Oblivion engine. They saw no other choice.
In 2077, The Great War occurred between the United States and China. It became nuclear war, and any humans that survived were driven underground into vaults. Fallout 1 and 2 followed the adventures of an inhabitant of Vault 13, and his descendant. Fallout 3 shifts the action to the other side of the country. The decision was made to focus on the styles of Fallout 1, rather than 2. Believing it took the winking-at-the-camera aspects too far, with Python references and prostituting your in-game wife as perhaps breaking the illusion a little.
So here are the facts: It's not set on the West coast, but in Washington DC, where Bethesda is based. ("Write what you know," states lead designer Emil Pagliarulo, "and we know DC.") It's not a direct continuation of the plot of the first two, but set in the same world, 30 years after the events of Fallout 2. The PIPBoy is back, refined, and picks up radio stations. The combat is, as we'll explain in a bit, somewhat turn-based. It's incredibly violent. And Liam Neeson is your dad.
Begin at the beginning. That's the ethos here. Rather than a tutorial, or even a character creation screen, Fallout 3 begins with you as a one-year-old, taking your first steps, defining your SPECIAL abilities from the very start. (This is via a book called You Are Special). Then you skip a few years later, age 10, and receive your PIPBoy. There's stuff to do, quests to get involved with inside the vault. You experience your childhood. And throughout, as well as picking the various stats that define you at appropriate ages, you build on your relationship with your father - an element key to the narrative. By the time you're 19 (an hour or two in, we're told), he suddenly goes missing.
This is a big deal because in Vault 101, no one has ever left. It's been a self-sustaining community since the original nuclear fallout. Your father's unexplained disappearance is your motivation to leave, and the central theme of the story. So now an adult, outside you go.
For a game that's over a year away, we saw an awful lot of very complete looking content. Including recorded speech, featuring one Liam Neeson as your father. Obviously with the boost of having an engine in place, the last three years have been put to good use. But this isn't the Oblivion With Guns that so many were fearing. One of our biggest worries was the dialogue. Oblivion, as much as we love it, isn't exactly the greatest example of NPC banter. Bonkers looping conversations with women talking in men's voices about a Grey Fox are just about dismissible in the Elder Scrolls world. In Fallout, the character interaction is too precious. And as such, the entire Oblivion character system was stripped out and redone. There were an incredible 1500 NPCs in Oblivion, but Fallout 3 has only a few hundred, each unique with a defined personality. One example given to us was the sheriff of the first city you encounter, Megaton. Should you choose to follow him to his house (you know, sneaky-like), when he gets home and sees his son you'll hear him have a father/son style chat with him. This isn't a cut-scene or a set-piece - it's two NPCs recognising each other and talking accordingly. (Oh and if you kill him and steal his clothes, some people might mistake you for him).
M for My goodness
"Violence, done well, is f***ing hilarious," says Todd Howard. And accordingly, Fallout 3 is going to be a very violent game. Not in a nasty Manhunt way, but in a fun, mutant-head-exploding-into-red-spray way. It's a celebration of gore, in a similar way, say, to early Peter Jackson movies. And it's achieved through the all-new VATS system.
The Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System is how Bethesda are going to confuse everyone, especially those who wanted to burn them on stakes for abandoning the turn-based nature of the others in the series. While the combat can be simply approached as first-person shooting, this is inaccurate, and not taking advantage of the elaborate skills you possess. VATS is the love-child of bullet-time and turn-based combat. During a fight you can freeze time, then depending upon how many Action Points (yes, they remain too) you have available, you can zoom in and target specific regions of your enemy/enemies. So you might select to fire your shotgun at his right leg, then have a reload, then target his head. Use up the AP you have, and then let it fly, with the camera following the bullet toward its target, stopping in time to witness the grisly impact. Which might be, depending upon the roll of your hit, the demolition of the leg and subsequent collapse to the ground, or perhaps his head blowing up, sending an eyeball to the ground, rolling until it stops at your feet. This latter event took place during our demonstration, causing the developers to hoot with delight. "Is that his EYE rolling? It is! It's HIS EYE!"
It's not all exploding crania of course. There are cities to explode too. We mentioned Megaton earlier. Upon arriving into this huge town, built from scrap metal on very many levels (imagine an Ewok village, made of scaffolding and girders), all the RPG instincts fly into your head. There are dozens of people to chat to, lots of them offering quests, some relevant to your pursuit of your father, others by-the-by. There are places to go, things to investigate. And a guy who tells you if you detonate the unexploded nuclear missile that stands as a centrepiece to the city, he'll give you lots of money. And you can. You can commit genocide within the opening hours of the planned forty. You lose all the quests on offer there, cutting yourself off from quite a few friends, obviously. You're bleak, man. But you can do it.
In a move that will please those who are finding the Black Isle/Obsidian model for Good/Evil moral ambiguity to feel a little false, Bethesda is feeling the same. When the developers began this was the structure, and it wasn't right. The solution they have discovered is to introduce a balanced position. The game is to offer as much juicy content and interest for those who choose to behave in a "neutral" manner, letting a moderate response be equally as viable as that for the do-gooders or evil maniacs. How you behave, your reputation, will affect how people treat you. But not in Oblivion's peculiarly universal way - more region-specific.
All's well that ends well
Also gone is Oblivion's somewhat frustrating levelling system. You're free to wander where you choose, but should you go into certain areas early on you'll get whooped. There's still some behind-the-scenes balancing going on that we don't pretend to understand, which makes two very interesting changes. Firstly, the first time you enter a zone, it will level itself appropriately. But, go back later and it will stay at the level it first generated. Bethesda have realised from Oblivion feedback that people missed a sense of improvement. So what better than to revisit the area you struggled through earlier, and just kick endless ass? The second change is the monster levelling. A 'species' of creature is fixed at a certain level, and will stay that way throughout. Get stronger, and it gets easier to defeat. It's simple, but it should let you feel the progression in a way many games prevent.
And unlike their Elder Scrolls games, it ends. Currently in around nine different ways. This, they explained, has been an interesting challenge - endings aren't something they've had to do before, even making the decision to prevent you from carrying on after the story has finished. However, for those worried about leaving things undone, Todd adds, "Oh, you'll know when the ending's about to happen." He grins.
Of course, much else is firmly under wraps at this stage, with an autumn 2008 release planned. Goodness knows how they already had Neeson recording his lines this early on, but if the whole game is already as complete and detailed as the hour or so we saw, then there's going to be a thumb-twiddly year ahead. We suspect that it's maybe not. But what scraps did we pick up to share?
Well, here's our favourite. During the brief load screens (and yes, they're wondering about getting rid of them completely), in-game explanations appear. One we saw was for the "Corpses Eaten" stat. They refused to comment. So everyone must immediately speculate. Um: you can definitely be a zombie! That would be all kinds of awesome.
The companion system, as with so much of the game, will reflect Fallout 1's, with others only joining you briefly, and under their own steam. You will be able to pay people to help you out for a bit, but they won't be joining your party, or under your control.
What else, what else? Oh, killing children! Well, not necessarily. As BioShock worries the censors with the possibility of infanticide, Bethesda isn't sure where to go with it. This is a world featuring children. You have weapons. You are free. So can you kill the children? They honestly don't know, at this stage. And as lead producer Gavin Carter told us, "For BioShock it's a central part of the game. The big choice is whether you're going to kill these little kids or not. Is that something we need to worry about so much in Fallout? I'm not sure it is." (Read more of his thoughts in next week's interview).
And it would be unforgivable not to elaborate on the PIPBoy's inbuilt radio. Able to pick up stations as you travel around, important quest information can be picked up by listening in, as well as hearing the latest news (i.e. The trouble you've been causing, reported in-game!) You can even meet the DJ at one point. And alongside this is a music station playing the '40s jazz that's become associated with the series. At least twenty songs have been licensed for the game, and, wow, they sound beautiful. The title piece, this time around, is a lovely song by Bob Crosby, Bing's lesser known brother.
Occlude my parallax
As for the technical details, it looks stunning - the beautiful Oblivion engine made glorious nuclear winter. With regards to a Vista-only version, DirectX 10, etc, Howard gently puts it, "I'm not of the opinion of requiring Vista. I think that's bullshit." Without such restrictions, the engine has received the boost of something called Parallax Occlusion Mapping, which basically means you can shoot bullet holes in things, and it remembers them. Awesome-cool. It's not going to be quite as big an area as Oblivion, but still fairly huge. As for fast travel, they've decided they want it, just haven't figured out how to include it yet.
There's stuff we've missed out, like the weapons - in a post-apocalyptic world these aren't going to be in perfect working order. But finding other weapons of the same type lets you salvage parts and improve what you've got. So long as your skills let you. Oh, and that camera. You silly stalwarts can almost simulate the ridiculous angle from which the early Fallouts were shown, going into third-person, and zooming out until you're looking down on things (just like your sort tend to look down on most things).
But this is first-person for a reason. It's about being inside the world. It's about being a person in a large, elaborate story, searching for your moral compass, the man who raised you (and of course you can choose to be male or female, and various races - the game cleverly then changes your dad's appearance to match that race). It's personal in a way Oblivion is not. So far it's looking true to its origins, while appropriately forward-facing. It's clear these people love Fallout. In a year's time, we think we're going to be joining them.
Fallout 3 is speculatively due for next autumn. And blimey, it's looking like it might be rather extraordinary. Why so long to wait? Why?!