Fallout 3 Updated Impressions - Character Creation, Combat, and Canine Companions

We take an updated look at this highly anticipated role-playing sequel. And look: That sure is a nice pooch.

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More than 10 years ago, serious computer role-playing game fans fell in love with a postapocalyptic role-playing game called Fallout, a game that offered deep role playing, dark humor, and a memorable adventure that was worth replaying. More than 10 years later, an entirely different studio is now working on the next game in the series, trying to stay true to the original vision of the first Fallout game from 1997 while also including all the improvements and open-ended exploration of its last game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Yes, Bethesda Softworks is working on Fallout 3. Yes, your adventure will take place in the postapocalyptic wasteland (in this case, the ruins of Washington DC); yes, you'll still start your adventure as a dweller in a vault (a colony living in a radiation shelter left over from the nuclear war); and yes, we had an opportunity to take an updated look at the game.

Have minigun, will shred mutants.
Have minigun, will shred mutants.

Our updated tour of the game started with the very beginning--how you create your character by being born to your mother, Katherine, and your scientist father, James (voiced by actor Liam Neeson). Through a hazy first-person cinematic sequence from the perspective of the operating table, you can choose your character's gender and name, as well as preview your character's adult appearance by way of the vault's computer system...then become dimly aware that something has gone terribly wrong with your mother during the childbirth.

You then jump forward a year later to the age of a toddler, where you use a basic movement tutorial to crawl out of your playpen and access the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. book--a book that lets you choose your character's abilities by way of the classic attribute system from the Fallout games (strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck). You then jump ahead nine years to your 10th birthday, at which point you gain the ability to speak with other characters (such as the other children at your birthday party) and use the PipBoy 3000 portable wrist computer, which is given to you by the vault's "overseer," or head administrator. The PipBoy acts as a journal, status indicator, and quest log that will help you keep track of any tasks you need to perform. You'll even get to take on a few rudimentary quests at your party or just watch the many-armed robot of the future, Mr. Handy, mangle your birthday cake with one of its buzz saw-arm extensions. Later, you'll be whisked away to additional tutorial areas, such as a target range, where you can practice the game's real-time first-person shooter combat.

We then skipped ahead to a few different areas in the main game, including a random encounter that all players will face. In a sprawling junkyard scene, two desert raiders have assaulted and killed a nameless man, leaving his feisty canine companion to fend for himself. The dog is none other than Fallout's Dogmeat, the swift-moving, loyal, pugnacious pooch from the original 1997 game. After disposing of the raiders yourself, you can invite Dogmeat to join you, and from then on, although you can't have any meaningful conversations with him or have him carry a ton of inventory, you can give him plenty of orders, such as having him go out to search for food, medicine, or even fallen weapons (if there are none nearby, Dogmeat will disappear for an hour or so of in-game time before returning). You can also praise or scold him--this won't affect his morale or loyalty, though it will reflect whether your character is naughty or nice--but more on that later.

We then jumped ahead to a different sequence where we were explored a ruined tenement infested by feral ghouls. Those familiar with Fallout lore will remember that "ghoul" is just a term used to describe any human that has been exposed to such severe amounts of radiation as to become severely deformed physically, but feral ghouls have actually lost their minds and have become aggressive animals. Their deadlier brethren, "glowing feral ghouls," have an unhealthy fluorescent green glow that sets off your PipBoy's Geiger counter and eventually make your character extremely ill if you let them zap you with their radiation-based attacks. Feral ghouls are extremely swift and vicious, leaping at you with tremendous speed. We dealt with them primarily using real-time combat, using the old Fallout favorite 9mm submachine gun, which did a good job of inflicting lots of damage when fired in bursts. A few times, we watched as combat switched to the turn-based VATS mode, which lets you target various body parts on your enemies (as in the original Fallout games). In these cases, the final shots to our enemies were delivered in dramatic slow motion, sometimes even turning the ghouls' limbs and skulls into bloody pulp (though we're told that the infamous Bloody Mess perk, which causes everyone around you to die spectacularly, looks even more insane in practice).

Irradiated ghouls are just one of the threats you'll encounter in this sequel to the classic RPG Fallout.
Irradiated ghouls are just one of the threats you'll encounter in this sequel to the classic RPG Fallout.

Finally, we jumped ahead to a highly advanced area just outside the capitol building, where the once-splendid square had been transformed into a massive war zone, complete with a network of World War I-style trenches dug throughout the streets. In this sequence, we watched a powerful character wearing power armor (the signature armor of the Brotherhood of Steel--the technically advanced faction of "knights" that attempts to keep the threat of mutants at bay) and wielding several powerful firearms go after an army of wandering super mutants. We went after these powerful brutes with a minigun and then switched to the Fat Man grenade launcher to flush out a few entrenched super mutants who blasted us with rocket launchers. In several cases, we were rushed by our enemies in the trenches and had several harrowing experiences in real-time combat where our minigun's clip emptied out just as we were cleared to fire back and--coupled with the weapon's startup delay--put us back in the line of fire at that very moment.

The game is currently still in an alpha state of development--content is still being added and taken away. According to a Bethesda representative, the primary game is shaping up to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours of gameplay, though it will offer dozens of hours of other stuff to do for players who enjoy exploring side quests and other types of content. For instance, you'll find multiple outcomes available to different quests as you side with different factions, and you may also receive random quests as you pick up communiques on your PipBoy, such as distress calls or new missions to perform.

In any case, the developer is focusing on having a clean interface that isn't cluttered with an overwhelming amount of information--various menus, such as your inventory and your character's current health levels (you can sustain crippling injuries to various parts of your body that may affect your weapon skills or your ability to run), will be kept separate, rather than kept on one crowded screen. While the game will still handle dialogue with other characters with a multiple-choice dialogue screen of the kind you've seen in such games as Oblivion, Mass Effect, and Knights of the Old Republic, you'll receive most of your alerts, such as new quests, as brief text messages that fade away, similar to friends notifications on Xbox Live. The idea is to avoid having too many jarring messages that have to be individually clicked on and closed down to get back to the action.

Man's best friend? Maybe you'll think of me.
Man's best friend? Maybe you'll think of me.

In fact, the Xbox 360 version of the game (and the PC version of the game, which is being planned to include Games for Windows Live Functionality) will have achievement points that will require you to play through more than once. Like in the previous games, you'll have a karma statistic that goes up when you perform good deeds and goes down when you perform evil ones. Achievements will be given for completing the game with both a high karma and a low karma. Though we've only had a few chances to see the game, Fallout 3 looks very impressive and seems to be what the Bethesda team has set out to make--a role-playing game with the exploration and real-time combat of Oblivion but the role-playing elements of the classic Fallout from 1997. The game is scheduled for release on the PC, the Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3 later this year.

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