From the first moment you lay eyes on Fallout 3, you can't help but start drawing similarities to Oblivion. Yet despite the fact that the same 75 person team worked on both games, it quickly becomes apparent that this is more than just the "Oblivion with guns" some fans have been worried about.
Graphically, the engine has come a long way since even the relatively recent Oblivion, with post-apocalyptic environments that show incredible wear and tear. The ever-present rubble is especially impressive and players can always create more through a system called "parallax occlusion mapping" which lets practically every surface be potentially filled with bullet holes or warped by explosions. "Destruction is the new trees," Howard quipped during the demo, referencing Oblivion's use of SpeedTree.
The game's early story focuses on the survivors of Vault 101, none of whom have left the safety of their underground hideaway underneath Washington D.C. for generations. The tutorial quickly takes you through a vignette of your younger years, cleverly placing common game tropes on top of childhood milestones. A DNA scan soon after your born lets you choose a look for your avatar, for instance, and a tenth birthday party gift teaches you about the PIP-Boy system that acts as your in-game menu. The whole process is intended to give the player a feel for life in Vault 101, where it's assumed you'll live out your days without ever setting foot outside.
All changes one day when your father mysteriously disappears from the vault. Pretty soon you find yourself hacking open the computer-controlled vault gate and walking into the bright haze of sunlight for the first time in an effort to find out what's happened to him. From this point on what you do is wide open -- you can focus on the search for your father or perform a wide array of side quests that come up along the way.
Howard said the story outside the vault will focus on themes of sacrifice and survival. What you choose to sacrifice and how you choose to survive has a big effect on how the game turns out. At one point in the demo, a mysterious man offers you money to detonate an unexploded nuclear bomb in the center of a ramshackle town where you believe your father may be hiding. Turning the town into a crater cuts off one branch of the storyline but opens up a new world of possibilities as your relationships with the mysterious man grows.
While gun play is a big part of Fallout 3, fans shouldn't worry about brushing up their twitch-gaming skills. While the game offers the option of shooting things out in real time, more thoughtful gamers can use the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) to pause the action and plan out their moves. Like a pen and paper RPG, VATS uses the statistics of your character and weapon to determine how accurate and damaging each attack will be. Shots can be targeted at specific body parts for specific effects -- a leg shot will slow down an approaching mutant while an arm shot will lower their accuracy. Especially effective hits earn a gory, slow-motion replay -- one particularly gruesome head explosion in the demo left a mutant eyeball rolling down a subway tunnel. "It's like crash mode in Burnout with body parts" Howard said.
The demo showed off a few highly imaginative weapons, from the Suck-o-Tron, which lets you chuck useless items at enemies, to the Fatman personal miniature nuclear bomb catapult. Players have to be cautious with their resources, though -- weapons will wear out with too much use and ammunition can be in short supply in the post-apocalyptic landscape. "It'll be rare you're just blowing away without worrying," Howard said.
The pre-production-complete demo looked extremely polished and on track for the game's planned Fall '08 release. But will it live up to the high, nostalgia-inflated expectations of loyal fans? Howard seems to think so. "At the end of the day ... I think [the fans] just want you to treat [the franchise] with respect," he said. "They don't want you to cheese it up, and they want you to take it seriously because they take it seriously. And we do."
Also see: More Fallout 3 details than you can shake a nuke at