Once the lights dimmed in Bethesda's makeshift theater in their downstairs suite, an image of a light burning into life appeared as the creaking sounds of a 1940s song warbled into the air. The camera began to pull back showing a broken up, beaten down jukebox that, it soon was revealed, was nestled in the midst of a ruined trailer. The camera continued to roll back until an entire blasted landscape was revealed -- the nuked ruins of a once proud city. The craggy voice of Hollywood veteran Ron Perlman slowly intoned about the unchanging nature of war and the fate humanity had condemned itself to. And this was our introduction to the heavily stylized, incredibly detailed world of Fallout 3.
Once the introduction concluded, Todd Howard, our guide through Fallout 3, began his playable demo. We were located in Vault 101, a sealed-off city deep underground where humans escaped to avoid the fallout of a nuclear war. While most of the vaults were opened long ago, 101 remained isolated. Todd explains that Bethesda put a lot of work into its character creation system, though we can't see the 19 year old hero just yet -- we appear in a lab/clinic with a first person perspective. This is because, our guide said, Bethesda feels that when you're trying to become fully immersed into a realistic roleplaying game, where the idea is to feel like you've become another person, first person is the best way to achieve this. It's not mandatory, though, as there is a third person over-the-shoulder camera view as well. He switched to this mode to show it off, and it seemed just as functional. Todd then moved a bit around the lab, showing off the immense detail of the room. He said that one of their goals was to study up on the stuff they were making, because there should be a point to all the dials, levers, and whatsits that appear on the mechanical devices. It's all about achieving a greater feeling of realism.
Once this acclimation is done, we move through a door into the protagonist's father's office. Now an even more recognizable voice pipes up: Liam Neeson's. He's talking to another individual, but once this is done, pops turns his attention to his son. He wants you to go take a test called G.O.A.T., which will assess your skills and abilities to determine best how you can contribute to the Vault's community once you're older. Naturally, as the father talks, his son has the option of responding with various different dialogue branches. At this point Todd describes a pretty interesting feature that ties into the character creation system. The protagonist's father's appearance is based off of whatever you design the protagonist to look like, only older.
We walked around the Vault a bit and took in the sights. As we moved through the underground community, we again came across a few points where the hero had different choices for how he'd act in a situation. It emphasized the extent to which the player will have the ability to shape the sort of man (or woman!) the character becomes. There was also a nice bit of humor at certain points. When we encountered a robot named Mr. Handy, a muttered comment had most of the audience laughing out loud.
Skipping ahead a bit, our guided tour of Fallout 3 was eventually led outside of the Vault into the Wasteland above. Particularly interesting was the first moment stepping outside. The glare was intense and blinding as slowly things came into focus, the hero's sight gradually adjusting to the blazing sun. Once the vision cleared, the wasted grandeur of the outside world was quite a sight. The vista laid out before us, Todd stressed, was all real, all explorable. And as our hero descended from the hill he found himself on, he stepped around a puddle that displayed just how far Bethesda's come in making lifelike water.
As we explored the Wasteland, it wasn't too long before we came across some enemies: giant ants. This was the first opportunity we got to see how combat played out. There were two modes available. The first seemed pretty reminiscent of first-person shooters. The game's cursor was moved overtop the enemies and the hero fired his gun. In the second mode, Todd brought up a targeting HUD that displayed different sections of the enemy's body (like arms, legs, torso, head). Each section had a health gauge and an attack success percentage. Attacking through this method seemed much more like a typical RPG setup and should be more comfortable with those leery of FPS games. However, it definitely seemed like a lot of work was put into both styles of attack, and later battles in the demo showed that there was a lot more to both of them. For instance, our hero got into a pretty intense shooting firefight later on in the midst of DC's ruins, and this involved lots of rapid running and gunning. Meanwhile, a battle in some old abandoned metro tunnels showed us how the targetting system could be used to strategically queue up successive attacks against multiple enemies, and another battle against some giant ants demonstrated how hitting their antennae could cause them to become frenzied and attack their own allies.
We also got a few in-depth looks at Fallout's status screen, which was very coolly integrated into the game itself in the form of a personalized armband computer system (the Pip-Boy 3000) the hero wears. Here the RPG nature of the game was even more on display -- we could see the hero's stats (which, we found out from Todd, are set by the player at the time of the hero's birth), his large list of skills (which increase as he levels up), items, and personal status. The hero was, like enemies, divided up into different body zones, each with their own hit gauge. Weapons had damage counters, too; a damaged weapon would perform more poorly in terms of damage per second. Later on, we saw how a weapon could be repaired by scalping parts from like-named weapons. The hero also had a rad counter which would increase as he became more exposed to radiation from the nuclear fallout. For example, one way to restore health is to drink water, but a lot of the water is still tainted by radiation poisoning. Drink too much, and it can have negative long-term consequences. The Pit-Boy could also be used to generate the game's background music by tuning into some of the remaining broadcasting radio stations, which will be filled with classic 1940s songs Bethesda has licensed, like a piece by Bing Crosby's less successful brother Bob.
Part of creating a realistic world is being able to interact with it, and a lot of that was demonstrated. Back in your father's lab, you could pick up a bobble head from his desk and drop it. The precise movements of the object are guided by the Havok physics engine. Out in the Wasteland, Todd showed us how he could shoot the road and create bullet holes. He also took aim at one of the nuclear-powered cars. A few hits were all it took to cause it to explode, leaving a ring of radiation in its wake. Moving in too close caused the rad counter to start creeping up. Though the first examples were just for show, and the latter seems like something downright dangerous, the ability to heavily interact with the environment can also be used to the player's advantage. Luring enemies into the radiation zone, or igniting such an explosion near them, would certainly make for strategic maneuvers.
The meat of the demo came once the hero arrived in the town of Megaton, so named because it was built in a crater created by a nuclear bomb that never detonated. The people of the town, we learned, had come to revere the bomb -- it was a sign that God was protecting them. We met the sheriff of Megaton, and again got a nice look at the player's ability to choose different courses of action. Want to be nice to the guy, become his friend? That's doable. You can also be rude, turn violent... it's all a matter of choice. It was interesting how the townspeople engaged in conversations with each other as we walked by them. There was just a natural sense of interaction and vocalization within the town. The highlight here, however, was definitely a mysterious individual named Mr. Burke who was sitting by himself at the bar. He had quite a proposition for our hero. Megaton, he said, was a blight, and he wanted to offer the hero a whole lot of money to place a device inside the bomb that would allow Burke to detonate it. In talking to Burke, we saw how the hero's talking skill count have an impact on the game. The hero could try to persuade Burke to offer up more money, or persuade him to drop his ambitions to destroy Megaton. Again, choice was paramount.
For the sake of seeing an interesting conclusion to the demo, Todd accepted Burke's offer. Down to the bomb we went, where a device was inserted into Megaton's nuke. Then Todd took us down into the metro tunnels beneath the wasteland. There were fights with armed mutants -- these guys were definitely several leagues above the ants we faced before, as they seemed smarter, utilized cover and range more effectively, and carried weapons of their own (melee as well as other types of guns). But the neatest part was when the hero wanted to activate a computer console to operate a robotic security guard. This was done by hacking into the computer, which involved bringing up a hex editor. The player could pick out select words intermingled amidst random characters. Selecting the right passcode would allow entry to the system. If the wrong word was picked, the hack told us how many characters in which positions were correct, so we could better deduce what the right password was. Todd told us that this system is randomized, so it's never going to be the same thing twice. Sorry, guys -- no cheating by heading over to GameFAQs.
After leaving the tunnels, we arrived in the heart of DC where we faced some more battles with the mutants. Here we were assisted by the the knightly Brotherhood of Steel, a militaristic order whose goals are to drive back the mutants and reclaim this territory for the humans. They were initially scornful of our hero's presence, telling him to keep back and out of the way so they could escort him to safety, but after a few serious battles, they were instead complimenting how handy he was with a portable nuke launcher. Yes, a portable nuke launcher -- that was certainly a nice thing to have around when it came time to take down a gigantic mutant behemoth that quite easily eviscerated a few of the Brothers.
Once this major fight was done, we worked our way up to the tower where Mr. Burke was waiting. All that was left was to turn a lever, and boom -- Megaton became a new explosive mushroom cloud on the horizon. It was awesome to see, and certainly ended the demo with a bang. Fallout 3, which is being developed simultaneously for the 360, the PS3, and the PC, is still a long way off. Bethesda's aiming for a fall 2008 release. But what was demoed for us today showed incredible promise and this is unquestionably a title that everyone should keep their eyes on.