Doomsday done right.
Scenarios of a hot, muggy, and otherwise bothersome End Time have been around for as long as civilization has. Inconveniences like killer comets, the rapture, alien invasions, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster dropping a meatball are all as scary as they are impressive to watch, assuming you get to watch from the outside. However, the most simple and likely scenario is that we'll just blow ourselves up. If you're going to believe in any of these, it might as well be the one that buys you the most time.
Luckily for us, Fallout lore prophesizes the end of the civilization in a nuclear war between the US and China in the year 2077 -- a time when we'll all be wrinkly enough to welcome the interesting mutations only nuclear bombs can provide. Sweet!
Following the story of the first two Fallout entries, while gleefully glossing over both Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel completely, Fallout 3 occurs long after humanity has retreated to underground vaults, escaping the irradiated landscape for 200 years.
In all that time, there was one vault in particular, vault number 101, which after bolting its door, kept it shut. No one from the outside ever entered. And no one within the vault ever left. Including you, a child born to Vault 101's head scientist, voiced by Liam Neeson. Lead designer Emil Pagliarulo wanted you to feel what it was like growing up in Vault 101, and so you start the game as a newborn, while other "vaultaneers" run various DNA analysis tests on you. Here, Bethesda sneakily slips in their evolved Oblivion-esque character editor, where you define your sex, race, facial and bodily traits. You want to be a diesel, attractive person? Here's your first chance.
As you grow into an infant, your father gives you your first book outlining where you can spread points among seven different RPG-style attributes, including agility, intelligence and charisma. As a toddler you're taken through the basics of movement and at ten years old, you get your first firearm (aww!) as well as the robust Pip-Boy, which serves as the streamlined and intuitive menu system used throughout the game. Just like everyone else living in the vault, you take the Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test (G.O.A.T.) as a teenager, which determines your starting skills, such as hacking and engineering.
At about 20 years old, you discover that your father has either been taken from or escaped Vault 101. To solve the riddle of his mysterious disappearance, you must violate the most basic of vault rules set by the Overseer, open the bolted vault door and become the second person ever to exit Vault 101. Now the true game begins.
As you squint, your eyes adjusting to the first streams of true daylight you've ever beheld, the barren, irradiated world of a ruined Washington D.C. sprawls before you, leaving you free to explore the vast open environment. The gorgeous wasteland is populated with grotesquely mutated creatures of all kinds, from giant ants intelligently attacking in waves to cannon-wielding Behemoths who charge with abandon. The frequency of combat is tuned down far below a typical First Person Shooter's fragfest to let the game's pacing introduce a unique sense of desolation set right into the pit of your psyche as you roam through the rubble. Just like your room!
But unlike previous Bethesda games, the world's creatures do not scale to your current level; so if you wander far enough, a Super Mutant is likely to blast you into chum. Inversely, if you've accumulated the weapons and the skills, you'll be able to exercise that power on the weak. Because, as executive producer Todd Howard put it, "It's fun to be able to kick a little ass". Indeed it is, and with the genre-bridging, innovative V.A.T.S. battle system Bethesda has evolved, Fallout 3 will let you have a kickass time along the journey.
During any encounter you can toggle to this Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System with the push of a button, which will freeze time and let you switch between multiple enemies and their body parts, helping you plan out your attack. Any piece of anatomy, such as a mutant's arms, legs, torso, head, or weapon can be targeted, each displaying a hit percentage dependent upon the enemy's distance, position, and stats. If you target his leg and get a critical hit, it'll blow off in gory Fallout glory, and the mutant will fall to the ground, painfully crawling in pursuit if it's still alive. If you didn't blow his weapon out of his hand, you can pick it up and use it yourself. Or if you already have a weapon of the same type, you can bust out some engineering skills, break it down into parts, and use them to beef up the strength, precision, and firing rate of your own weapon. As weapons get worn with use, this is smart option if you're skilled at it.
The same combat engine (minus the stopping time) is available to enemies too, for they can also target your body parts to hinder your aim or movement. It is both eye and brain-catching, for while being treated to the graphically impressive Robocop-ian target scan, you'll have to decide which is the way to eliminate the biggest threats fast, because the V.A.T.S. runs out of action points. Once they're gone, you'll be fighting in real time and without assistance while your action points regenerate.
As you take damage, you'll have to take advantage of food and water wherever you can find them, be it a stale pond, toilet, or some dubious sailsbury steak with its own half-life. Most of these scarce supplies are polluted with radiation, so you have to balance your health against how radioactive you're becoming. Get too juiced on toxin and your stats will suffer; ignore the surgeon general's warning about motion trails and you will eventually die.
You'll also be struggling with moral dilemmas through voiced NPC dialogue choices. The number of NPCs in Fallout 3 is about 300 (as opposed to Oblivion's 1000), so Bethesda has put alot more alcohol and devtime into making their individual A.I. more realistic and natural. Instead of NPCs walking around doing very simple tasks talking basic gibberish, they will roam with more personalized agendas and socialize with other people about topics that interest them. Who needs those flesh-based friends anyway?
Talking to these NPCs will affect both the quests you will be given and your karma level. One rather more evil quest we saw at Bethesda's dev studio in Maryland was to detonate a warhead at the center of Megaton, a large town filled with people going about their daily lives. Triggering the bomb from a distant rooftop, the entire city was destroyed, all the townsfolk we just talked to died in the blast, and the mushroom cloud looming overhead all happened in real time - to the city we just left. Needless to say, there was some drool on the floor and a nerd probably passed out in the darkness.
As your choices change and quests are knocked out, news of your fame (or infamy) will spread to. NPC reactions to you will also change as your title shifts from "Noob Vault Dweller" to "HaXXor - Nuker of Cities".
With these lasting consequences, Fallout 3 is still designed to have a definite ending -- anywhere from nine to a dozen different ones are planned to net all your possible decision paths and personal insecurities. Although it is running off a shiny Oblivion engine with a few more notches on its armor, Fallout 3 is definitely its own game, so don't be confused by some of the screenshots. The camera defaults as first person view so you can be swallowed by all the little details of the blasted world, but it can be toggled with a flick of a switch to a Resident Evil 4 over-the-shoulder cam. Then you can zoom out even further to get to the franchise-beloved 3rd person perspective.
After the hour long gameplay presentation, we were all equally surprised how far in development Fallout 3 was, even with more than a year left to finish it. It has all the makings of being the first solid bridge between the rapidly growing RPG genre and the immensely pop FPS category, with play options, paths, and ironic wit galore. And when Fall of 2008 ticks around, if humanity still happens to be gripping onto the cliff of existence, you'll get to play for yourself and learn how important it is to duck and cover.