Given that the developer is responsible for the most successful Western-style RPG of recent years, Oblivion, it was a little surprising, during Fallout 3's demonstration, to get the sense of a team with something to prove. While there's much about FO3 that recalls Oblivion, there are also regular elements that arise as if to signify, "You know - we're good enough to deal with a legend as big as Fallout. Watch this." In itself, this is a tad touching. A team like Bethesda would probably be justified in going, "Damn the lot of you - our way is the best way." The result is something that - on these impressions - seems to be the next logical step on from Oblivion, while infusing as much of what made Fallout Fallout as they reasonably can.
While they showed a lot more afterward, the sensation's most apparent in the opening sequence. The game's central plot - though it allows you to ignore it completely and go and do your own thing - is your Liam Neeson-voiced dad disappearing, and you being sent out into the wastes to try and find him. While having that particular voice be your dad buys significant sympathy, you can easily see this failing to engender enough motivation if you start the game and are given a plain order to Go Get Pops. I don't know Pops! Why should I care?
So, Bethesda's stroke of inspiration is a return to the old RPG standard of moving through your childhood playing out key events and you making decisions which shape your future. Of course, with modern technology this has mutated from simple question-and-answer to a walkthrough of life in the radioactive shelter, the Vault, in which you observe life at birth, one, ten, sixteen and - the start of the game - nineteen years old. It's ten that made me start to see the message-to-gamer most.
It's at your birthday party, and you've just received your Pip Boy wrist terminal and promised your first work detail, but between the amusement of robots ruining birthday cakes, you get your initial conversations. The first one is standard enough (though it introduces the concept of lying), but the next one we're shown is with a bullying peer by the name of Butch, where you appear to have at least six cake-related options available; everything from a diplomatic, sharing-it-fifty-fifty option, to the openly perverse provocation of spitting in it and then giving it him. Bethesda's Pete Hines, demoing, stresses that these options will all play out differently down the line. The point is to show that we're a long way from the "Yes, I'll help you"/"Yes, I'll help you for three pounds fifty and a cheeseburger"/"I WILL KILL YOU AND TAKE YOUR STUFF" conversation options with which most modern RPGs satisfy themselves. Hines and co. have talked about the game being a much more dense conversational game than Oblivion, and this is them showing how they're walking the walk as well as talking the post-apocalyptic talk. About talk.
There's some other neat stuff in the opening, too: any game which starts you between your mother's legs, looking up at your dad, and being able to bawl by pressing a button deserves a round of applause. It's at this point you also decide what you're going to look like as an adult, and then the game - from your choices - generates what your Dad would have looked like. Also worthy of a quick appreciative nod is the age of one sequence, where as a Toddler you make your way around your room making the literal first baby steps in the game. You also select your future abilities in a fully illustrated kids' book called "You're Special!", arranging your assorted statistics. Is it too much to read this as a pointed eye-rolling at the perennial accusation of dumbing down? I suspect not.
Then later, after you've left the Vault, you end up getting your faithful hound, Dogmeat. As well as an ideal thing to satisfy fans of the originals, and keeping up the post-apocalyptic reference of Harlan Ellison's Boy And His Dog, the hound is an ideal companion in a game which promises to allow you a wide variety of moral stances. A dog doesn't care if you're good or bad - just that you're its master. He's a useful pet to have around: you can order him to go off and find something, like a firearm, and he'll go off searching until he finds one lying around. Clearly, telling him to do this near an enemy base may not be that smart. You're also able to order him not to attack or stay safely behind in areas where you don't want a mutt getting hurt. There are other NPCs who can join you, related to your personal karma, which changes depending on your actions. Basically, nice guys tend to get people who are similarly nice, and bastards flock together.
Combat including the VATS (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System) is also demonstrated - and here my expectations are somewhat confounded. I came not entirely convinced by the VATS system's utility - it struck me as the worst of both possible real-time and turn-based worlds - and leaving quietly impressed. Related to your dexterity, you gain an amount of pause-time, which you can spend on specifically calling shots - for example, aiming at arms to lose their weapons or just pummelling their body to knock them down. This then plays out in a cinematic video of the conflict, with agreeably macho angles. It looks actually stylish - in fact, this turn-based-game with 360-era graphics makes me even think that a fully turn-based game would have worked. Why can't we have a turn-based game which goes for a crazy graphic effect? It'll have the attraction of being distinctive, anyway.
This is especially pointed as the non-turn-based side fails to convince as much as you'd hope. While "Oblivion with guns" has been the rather sarcastic description from cynics, my personal take was... well, I'd kill for Oblivion with guns. Probably using a gun. It'd be everything we traditionally have to opt for an RPG to get at, but with a setting that's a little less derivative. Sold. The problem only struck me after watching a battle with mutants. You see, at the time of release, Oblivion was probably as good as a first-person sword combat game as we'd had. It wasn't mind-blowing, but no-one had done it better. Even now, only the PC version of Dark Messiah is a peer. Conversely, everyone in the world has done gun combat - and the second you take this angle, you're immediately competing on some level with Valve, Bungie, et al.
Which is unfair, but that's how it is. On a personal level, I found Mass Effect had a similar problem - the hope has to be that Fallout has a similar grace to Bioware's game. That is, the combat is just about good enough to serve the purpose the game demands of it, and leaves the rest of the game's charms to get its hooks into you. When there's elements like the nuclear rocket launcher - with very rare ammunition, obviously - which irradiates the area of the strike, you begin to see how placing this sort of combat in a larger setting could lead to something with a character and appeal of its own.
In other words, there's much to be excited about with Fallout 3. With BioShock putting 1950s retro-futurism back on the scene, Fallout's return serves as a timely reminder of who actually applied the approach to games in the first place. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. showed how an open world and claustrophobic setting could pay dividends, but for those of us who found it a little too light, a more true-RPG approach is welcome. And for those who Oblivion was a bit too Land-of-the-Fairies, the dense and atmospheric Fallout universe offers a very different experience. As with any game as big of this, we'll only really get a chance to see how it hangs together when we stride out into the waste to see what's out there. I'm looking forward to it.
Fallout 3 is due out on PS3, 360 and PC later this year. Check back soon for some Q&A action with Pete Hines.