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Take a trip out of Fallout 3's Vault 101 and into a post-apocalyptic Washington DC where Raiders and giant Fire Ants stalk the lands...
When we got our first look at Fallout 3 this time last year, it had everything we were looking for: a post-apocalyptic game world that encouraged adventure as much as Oblivion's, and a storyline that was faithful to the original series. We were also encouraged by a couple of nifty features that we hadn't expected, such as the innovative Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System (or VATS). This left us chomping at the bit for some hands on action and although it's taken a year, it's been well worth the wait.
To give you a brief rundown of the story, you play a character that was born and bred in one of the series' infamous vaults. These vaults housed survivors of the 2077 nuclear apocalypse and many of their inhabitants were used as human guinea pigs for experiments by the US government (e.g. the aptly named Vault 69, which supposedly housed 999 women and one man), but Fallout 3's Vault 101 was designed to stay closed permanently after the bombs dropped.
After being bought up in the vault during the 23rd century, your character then decides to venture out into the ruins of Washington DC to follow his father who has escaped. It's here that our hands on began, as we were momentarily blinded by natural light following our escape from Vault 101 only to be presented with a barren wasteland. The plant life was brown and perished, ruined buildings formed a jagged skyline, and a mangled freeway overpass took up our immediate surroundings - the apocalypse may have been 200 years ago, but humankind obviously hadn't done much to rebuild civilisation in the interim.
Very much in the vein of Oblivion, once Fallout 3 gets the basic character setup and tutorial parts of the game out of the way, you're thrown in at the deep end of the game's wide open surroundings with no specific tasks or objectives. Instead, you have to wander around and use your ingenuity to unravel the story, which elicits a real sense of adventure in the gameplay. It's a trademark of Bethesda's that other developers have had difficulty replicating, and we're glad to say that the style has not been downplayed in Fallout 3. If anything it's been amplified slightly, as the map on our Pip-boy (a handy device on your wrist that holds info on your inventory and skills etc.) displayed no missions or landmarks - not even a measly point of interest! We were on our own.
Missions will of course present themselves eventually if you head for areas that seem to show signs of life. Our meandering across the environment eventually led us to the city of Grayditch (after being attacked by various Molerats and super-sized wasps), where a boy ran up to us and demanded that we help him find his dad. We couldn't turn the little blighter down, but soon wished we'd avoided his side mission after it became apparent that it meant fending off hordes of fire ants. Of course, these weren't the fire ants that you and I are aware of - on the contrary in fact; they were dog-sized beasts that literally breathe fire.
Luckily we had VATS on our side, which allowed us to freeze time with the right bumper button (on the Xbox 360) and analyse what shot would be the most beneficial for that exact moment. The system breaks down your enemy down into body parts (e.g. legs, arms, torso, and head), while data accompanies each section to determine how likely it is that you'll hit that body part with the bullet and how much damage it will do. This forms a layer of strategy above the all-guns-blazing FPS element of the game - perhaps you'll decide to cripple a fire ant by taking out its legs, or maybe even send it into a frenzy against its comrades by shooting its antennas. Employing the VATS does use up Action Points though (which can be built up with further kills), so the standard FPS combat does form a significant portion of the gameplay as well.
Further adventures into the game world revealed other enemy NPCs such as zombie-like mutants and Raiders that looked like characters from Mad Max. We didn't have the perks and skills to take on these Raiders, so we tended to avoid them, but we did observe one Raider being attacked by an Enclave Eyebot (which looks like a low flying Sputnik). The Raider was victorious, but very low on health, so we advantageously took them out and looted the bountiful goodies on their corpse. This served as reassurance that Fallout 3's game world is reactive, not only towards your character, but between different NPC factions in the game as well. In other words, Fallout 3 looks set to offer those kinds of freeform GTA moments where an NPC gets out of their car and shoots at the driver that just crashed into them, and all this happens with you as the onlooker.
As we've become used to with Bethesda games, the character progression options will be plentiful and deep in Fallout 3, eventually allowing you to take on those Raiders and some of the larger mutants that roam the world. Your abilities are divided between three sub-categories called Skills, Perks, and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. We counted 13 individual Skills that every character will have to some extent, but at varying levels depending on how XP is appointed. Examples include Lockpick, Medicine, Sneak, Big Guns, Science, Explosives, and Repair.
Perks, on the other hand, are one-off abilities. A wide range of 58 different Perks were available on the build we played, ranging from Computer Whiz to Thief, and Gun Nut to Animal Friend. One Perk called Lady Killer even offered +10% against female attackers, but also opens up further dialogue options with women (thereby neatly sidestepping accusations of misogyny). Finally, Special abilities seem to have the more personal touch and require the most XP for an upgrade. We counted seven of them on the preview build including Endurance, Luck, and Charisma (the latter of which improves your bartering and speech skills).
Do All Roads Lead To The End Of Fallout 3?
There's been much ado about Fallout 3's multiple endings, but it remains unclear whether it will turn out to be about nothing. Bethesda's Vice-President of PR and Marketing, Pete Hines, originally told us a year ago that there would be "between nine and twelve different endings", although an exact number hadn't been nailed down at that time. Some reports have even suggested that there may be as many as 200 variant endings, which seems a little on the high side.
Multiple endings are certainly a staple feature of the original game, so it's good to see that Bethesda is taking the issue seriously, but we wanted to get to the bottom of the matter. So, in a Q&A with Pete Hines (which will be up on TVG later this week), we asked him how these multiple endings would play out:
"It's doing it the same way that the original Fallout games did it and giving you an ending that is customised to the way that you played the game, and, at certain points in the game, taking into account whatever you did and incorporating that into your ending. So that what you're getting is tailored for your experience as opposed to the generic, 'Here's how it ends!', with no real accounting of how you played the game with the kind of things you did at various points."
Hines went on to tell us about how much variation this would offer: "The number of variations is over 500, but that's of all the different permutations you can have of each different variable and what you did at each point . . . It takes into account any number of things you've done from early in the game to right up when the game ends - it takes into account all of that stuff."
We tried to press him on how many specific endings this would lead to, rather than different permutations based on events throughout the game. He told us this:
"We're really not talking about the main quest at all until the game comes out, so I don't want to say anything that reveals how that works."
So there you have it. We still don't know how many different endings there are, although we do know that players will be able to make lots of decisions that impact on the game world and characters in Fallout 3. However, given that there are so many variables in the game's story-arcs, there's every chance that Bethesda will provide some variations on the main quest's ending as well.
You'll be glad to hear that Bethesda is demonstrating the same visual prowess in Fallout 3's game world that they did in Oblivion's. Cast your mind back to those expansive fantasy vistas of forests rolling across hillsides, a castle sitting on the horizon, and lakes glistening in the sunlight. Now replace the forests with barren hillsides, the castle with the ruins of a city, and the lakes with shallow pools of radioactive water. Keep in mind, though, that Bethesda has not lost any of the vast expanses and epic scope of their game world in this apocalyptic Fallout universe. It may be a lot bleaker in appearance, but it's still as visually appealing to the gamer as Oblivion was, if not more. What's more, Bethesda has incorporated the visual style of a paranoid 1950s/60s America - that was present in the original games - in everything from vehicles to advertising banners. It's just a shame that there are loading screens between some portions of the game world.
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