War, as the intro to Fallout 3 tells us, never changes. And for much of the last year, the information that we had on Fallout 3 itself hadn't changed, as Bethesda Softworks kept a low profile as it worked on what is easily one of the most anticipated games of the year. But now Bethesda is looking to break radio silence, and we jumped at the chance to see the latest progress on this epic single-player role-playing game set in a memorable post-apocalyptic world. So buckle up, and we'll describe what we saw at a demonstration of the game this week.
We learned last year that character creation was tied into your character's birth in Vault 101, but we finally got to see what Bethesda was talking about. You'll literally emerge from your mother's womb and open your eyes to see a doctor and your father (voiced by Liam Neeson) looking down on you. Don't worry: Bethesda doesn't get graphic in this sequence; all you see in blackness before your eyes focus, but you can very clearly hear the doctor and your father discuss your birth. And like with any new baby, one of the first things they say is, "It's a boy/girl!" That's because this is the very first selection that you make when creating a character, and which option you choose will determine the gender pronoun used throughout the game (One fun little bit of trivia is that if you press the A button during this sequence you'll trigger a baby cry).
Then good ol' dad decides to bring in the growth projector to predict what you'll look like when you're older. This is when you get to actually choose your character's look, picking from either preset selections or creating a custom look by mixing and matching different attributes. There are plenty of options to choose from, some quite colorful, like the "gunslinger" option for facial hair. When you're done, you'll finally get a look at dad as he comes into the light, and you'll discover that his character is procedurally generated to look similar to whatever you come up with. Then the camera fades out, and the next thing you know it's one year later.
Now you're a toddler, and good ol' dad is proudly watching you stumble around before he drops you in your steel-fenced play pen and heads out to work. (Alas, poor mom didn't survive your childbirth.) This is literally a baby steps kind of moment that introduces you to the basics of walking around the world, as well as interacting with objects, like opening the door to your play pen and climbing up on chairs. However, this is when you'll also pick up your "You're SPECIAL" book, which looks like a children's book complete with rhymes. However, it's much more than that. Like its predecessors, Fallout 3 relies on the SPECIAL role-playing system, which stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. Each page of the book lets you add or subtract points to each attribute; you only have a limited pool to distribute total. So this is where you get to really make some hard decisions about what kind of character you want to play? Do you want to be a bruiser who can carry tons of weapons and armor? Dump more points into strength, but at the price of other attributes. How about being an agile and quick assassin? Then you definitely want to boost your agility score.
It's during your toddler phase where dad also introduces you to a quote that will apparently play an important role in the game (We won't print it here for spoiler reasons, but if you're curious and don't mind a spoiler, it's taken from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Look for Chapter 21, Verse 6). And, keeping up with the fun, jamming the A button when you're a toddler makes you utter the word "Daddah."
Once this is done, you'll jump ahead in time again, to your 10th birthday party. This is a coming of age of sorts in Vault 101, as the administrator himself gives you your Pip-Boy 3000, a wrist computer that handles everything from inventory system to quest log to character management and more. You'll finally get a chance to talk to people instead of making gurgling noises, and this is your introduction to the conversation system. You'll also get a BB gun for your birthday, which is your first encounter with the combat system in the game, but we'll cover that a bit later.
That was our taste of the character development system, and we didn't get to see what happens when you get older and take the GOAT (Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test), basically an SAT for post-nuclear war survivors. But next up was something that all Fallout fans can get giddy about: Dogmeat.
Dogmeat is a companion character that appeared in the first two games, and yes, he's a dog. He's also back and better than ever in Fallout 3. We're assuming that this is a different Dogmeat altogether than the original, but since the game deals with a radioactive wasteland brimming with mutants, who knows? Dogmeat is a potential companion for your character, one that will fight by your side and help fetch whatever you need. You find Dogmeat during a random encounter in the wasteland, when he and his owner come under attack from a group of raiders. In this case, we watched as the battle took place in a junkyard. His owner is killed in the battle, and Dogmeat will come up to you afterwards and whimper and bark his way into your heart if you let him.
Since the game is still deep in development, there were still a few bugs on display, but the idea with Dogmeat is that you can converse with him (he'll answer in barks, whimpers, and other appropriate canine noises), and he'll be knowledgeable about the surrounding area. For instance, you can send him to go scavenge for food, weapons, and more, and he'll disappear and return with what you ask him to retrieve provided that it's actually in your general area. We'll see how useful that actually is in the game, as apparently he can disappear for long periods if you're not careful. To us, Dogmeat's value seems to be in combat, where he can harass and distract foes for you, as well as take some down. You'll need to be careful, though, as he can get killed, and it sounds like he's gone if that happens. If you don't want Dogmeat around, you can tell him to go to Vault 101 where he'll stay until you need him, but he's also smart enough to stay behind if you tell him, too. That will be useful in situations where you know he might be a detriment in combat.
Our third stop on this Fallout 3 tour was to see the combat system in action. Fallout 3 is a shooter in the sense that you do need to point weapons at enemies and blast them away. It's not a pure shooter that relies strictly on reflex and hand-eye coordination, though, as role-playing statistics play a significant role. For instance, if you don't have a high "big guns" skill and you try and use a chain gun, you'll notice that its aim drifts quite a bit when firing it. Or if you have a weapon that is in a low state of condition, it may jam or you may have trouble reloading it quickly.
The demonstration showed off the combat system in an underground setting full of feral ghouls as well as glowing ones, which are basically glowing ghouls that are a lot tougher than the regular kind. There's a tendency out there to call Fallout 3 "Oblivion with Guns," but you do get a variety of lovely firearms to use, like submachine guns and laser rifles (old Fallout staples). There are even grenades to help clear out rooms.
For the most part, the combat is real-time, in that you do have to aim and fire your weapon at the enemy. However, your character does have a pool of action points that you can use to activate VATS mode, or Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System. This pauses the action, allowing you to target different enemies and even different locations on enemies. VATS provides you with targeting information, so you'll know the percentage odds of performing a head shot on one foe, or trying to aim for the leg or torso of another. While the game is paused, you can queue up a chain of actions, provided you enough action points for them. When you're ready, the game kicks back into real-time, but you get to play spectator as the game switches to an external, cinematic camera and resolves your combat actions, and you get to see if your shots hit or missed. Once that's done, you kick back into real-time combat again, and the action points meter refills. The speed at which it refills depends on what you're doing. If you're just standing around, it will fill faster than if you're busy shooting and moving still.
Throughout this battle the demonstrator switched between weapons using the Pip-Boy 3000. Your inventory is limited by how much weight you can carry, and that number is determined by how many points you invested into your character's strength, as well as any modifiers. For instance, the traditional Fallout perk pack mule is in Fallout 3, and that lets you carry heavier loads. You're going to want to keep a large variety of weapons in your inventory because you don't know when you'll run low of certain types of ammunition and what kind of ammo you'll recover in your adventures. So if you find some 10mm rounds but don't have a weapon that can fire them, then you're in trouble.
The final bit of the demonstration showed off one of the game's larger, outdoor levels, in this case, the National Mall in Washington D.C. In Fallout 3, the Mall is the dividing line between the Brotherhood of Steel and the supermutants, two of the key factions in the game. As such, the Mall is riddled with trenches and the scars of battle. This was a chance to see some of the heavier weapons and armor in action, as the main character was clad in power armor similar to the type seen in the first trailer for Fallout 3 and armed with a powerful chain gun. The supermutants carried everything from sledgehammers to rocket launchers. The requisite amount of carnage then ensued as the demonstrator battled from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Capital Building. However, keep in mind this is a role-playing game, so there are different ways to attack this problem. You might try and sneak and stealth your way through without firing a shot, for example.
That was our update on Fallout 3, and from what we saw the game is coming together quite nicely. The visuals look quite sharp, and the building blocks of the game appear solid. What we didn't get to see was all the disparate pieces coming together to serve a narrative, but Bethesda is holding back on that for now. The company has been content to quietly work in the background, but as Fallout 3's Fall release date nears, it will undoubtedly begin to reveal more and more. Nothing that we saw made us change our minds about Fallout: This is going to be a heck of a role-playing game, and the combination of Fallout's ironic sense of humor and cool setting with Bethesda's experience and expertise looks like a match made in heaven.
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