WARNING: The following article contains some spoilers.
When I saw Fallout 3 at last year's E3 I thought it looked cool but not being one of the cult of Fallout, I viewed it with the same sort of interest that I do most games I know nothing about: Curious, but not what I would call overly excited. All this changed however, this past Tuesday when I headed downtown to check out the new build of the game that Bethesda was showing off.
From a training system tied to a child's development to the fifties-meets-Steampunk look of weapons, Fallout 3 may not have a solid date yet, but after seeing this build, I can honestly say I am well and truly smitten.
After skipping through the opening cinema which we had seen previously, we got straight to the beginning of the game which I have to say was one of the cleverest set of training levels I have ever seen. You start the game as an infant just being born. Once you have been birthed, you meet your father who had the pleasure of delivering you. A series of dialog choices allow you to choose the sex of your character and his/her name. Then a "Growth Projection" machine is brought over to show what your character will look like when they "grow up." Here you can customise the look of your character by using the many features or simply choose a pre-made character. In an interesting mechanic, the choices you make in creating to your character will be used to create the features of your father, who's face (at this point) is covered with a surgical mask. While in this infant mode, pressing the A button will elicit crying from your character.
Soon you have grown up and you're are now a year old. Your mother is nowhere to be found, but your scientist father is at the ready to care for you. (Pressing the A button will give you baby's first word, Dada) After a series of simple tasks like playing with your toys and opening your playpen, you can explore the room a bit. Now it's time to start picking your character's base attributes. This mechanic is accomplished by the ingenious use of a baby book you find lying on the floor. Each page has a different attribute along with an explanatory rhyme. Here you can add or take away attribute points to suit the way you want your character to advance.
Look at that. Our little boy is growing up so fast! It is now your tenth birthday and it is celebrated by your father and friends with a party in one of the rooms of Vault 101 where you currently reside. The momentous occasion is marked by the receipt of your Pip-Boy 3000, a wrist accessory that will remain with you for the rest of the game. The Pip-Boy 3000 has many of uses for interacting with your character as well as emitting light for use in those darker areas of which there are many. Apparently there is another training level where you turn sixteen and are presented with a BB Gun which will help you train up in your shooting. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see that one but instead, fast forwarded to check out some of the real meat of the game.
The next level we were privy to was a Junkyard scene where you meet the dog who will soon become your companion. Once acquired, your best bud can help you find food, chems and weapons. He can also come in handy in a pinch by helping you attack enemies. But, be careful to keep him healthy because he can die if not properly taken care of. If things get too dangerous, you can always have him wait nearby or send him back to Vault 101 where his safety will be assured.
Now we get to the really fun part, the combat and enemies. As any of you who are familiar with Fallout will know, your enemies are mostly radiated mutants or "ghouls" as they are called in the game. There are various strata of ghouls ranging from simple ones who still have some of their functions and can actually be spoken to, to glowing ghouls who are so infected that they practically leak radiation. The ghouls can use this radiation power to harm you while simultaneously healing themselves and other ghouls around them. But ghouls aren't your only worry, the Brotherhood of Steel is roaming around causing trouble as well and you will often come upon two factions locked in battles of their own.
Taking down these enemies is a snap (well, maybe a few snaps) when you make use of the myriad weapons at your disposal. Weapons can be purchased, stolen or taken off of conquered enemies and it would behoove you to get as many as you can. I really loved the design of the weapons themselves, they really exuded a sort of "SteamPunk" style melded with an almost fifties style. Everything looked as if it was cobbled together from what could be found around the devastated environment. (The Fat Man Rocket launcher was a particular favourite of mine) And of course, as you all know by now from seeing the screenshots, the environment is a fictionalized Washington DC that has been ravaged by nuclear war.
The combat moves beyond the simple point and shoot with the use of Action Points. Your character has a set number of these points that can be used for various actions that target certain parts of an enemy's body. Once an enemy is targeted and the proper buttons pressed, the various body parts of said enemy will light up showing you the percentage chance you have of hitting that body part. Then you are free to deploy those Action Points and watch your enemy's limbs and head fly off in all directions. This mechanic is made even more interesting by pulling you out of your regular first person mode into a third person camera mode that will allow you to see more of the delicious mutant killing action. Once the Action Points have been spent, they will regenerate over time, but using your weapons and running around like a madman will slow that regeneration down.
Of course, Fallout 3 isn't all killing and nuclear mutations. You also have the added pleasure of being able to upgrade you character using experience based skill points to bump up your various skills. There are also Perks that can be used to add to your base abilities and allow you to beef up parts of your character that might have been neglected when you first created it. You max out at level twenty though, so be sure to spend those points wisely.
Everything I saw about this game was impressive, but what really got my attention was its overall art style. The optimistic fifties design juxtaposed against the destroyed landscape is a great choice and is seen everywhere from the HUD to the atomic design of Vault 101. Seeing it sprinkled around the world gave me the same feeling I got the first time I saw the art-deco wonders of BioShock. It's nostalgic yet at the same time seems so fresh and new because we rarely see that style of design in modern games, especially FPSs. It also gave the design team a chance to inject the game with a subtle humor that is evident throughout, even seeping its way into the dialog choices and sound.
The team is still on target for a release in the fall of this year but we still weren't able to wrangle a solid date out of them. One thing we did hear however, was a promise of a hands on at E3 so you can bet I will be signing up for that one.