It's hard to believe it's been over ten years since Fallout hit the shelves. Although the graphics now appear dated, the storyline still resonates with anyone brave enough to fire up this retro classic. The subtle dark comedy adds to the chilling social commentary on a post-apocalyptic world struggling to preserve the human race, something our species has only really begun to comprehend this year as we saw cheese break through ten dollars a kilo.
Back in the late 1990s, it was Black Isle Studios and Interplay who oversaw the development and production of the Fallout franchise, however despite the runaway success of both Fallout and Fallout 2, Interplay suffered severe financial problems and eventually sold the intellectual property rights to Bethesda Softworks. Bethesda has wasted no time in developing Fallout 3, themselves admitting that they want it to serve as a progression from their primary money spinner The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, so much so that they've retained the Gamebryo game engine and reworked it to include a number of enhancements to cater for the Fallout universe.
Initially, this preview event had been organised to bring a large number of Australian and New Zealand media representatives in on the game, and to show some footage that had previously been provided to games distributors a few months back. Imagine our surprise when we discovered there would be an additional half an hour or so of previously unseen gameplay included! As there was no filming or picture taking permitted behind closed doors, I'll do my best to describe what we were shown.
First up, the intro - we were played the same teaser trailer that Bethesda released earlier this year, consisting of The Ink Spots "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" played over an old valve radio whilst a Brotherhood of Steel fighter watches on. After this however, we hear Ron Pearlman's narrative consisting of the famous "War. War never changes" speech set to the backdrop of nuclear explosions destroying entire cities. There is no further information revealed as to who launched the first bomb, instead we are shown the result in graphic detail.
You begin the game in Vault 101, where you will spend the next nineteen years of your life. In perhaps the most realistic game beginning ever, the first thing you see is a blurred image of your father. Your father (ably voiced by Liam Neeson) then exclaims "is it a boy or girl?", at which point you are prompted to choose your sex and name, and set physical attributes for your avatar. Those who have played Oblivion will be right at home here, as there is a bewildering array of combinations available for facial features, including what Bethesda's boffins are confident is the widest range of hair combinations yet seen in a videogame. After you decide what you will look like, your father becomes visible - his attributes are matched with yours to show the family resemblance.
Unhappily, your mother dies at this point, and you are whisked forward one year. At this point you can actually control your character - we were shown the "Baby Steps" quest (your first ever) in which you escape the confines of your playpen and discover a children's book on the ground. Entitled "You're SPECIAL", this book allows you to set your basic skill points in the same S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system used in the previous Fallout games. You are provided with base skill points that are then allocated to each of the Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck characteristics, and a summary is provided on the final page. This is a brilliant way to set the scene for your progression within the game, and it really feels like you've gained an affinity with your character that would otherwise be absent if you'd just been dropped into the storyline as an adult.
Just an aside - your father at one point shows you a bible passage set in a picture frame that your mother claimed as her favourite. It's from revelations, and it's worth repeating here: "And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is a thirst of the fountain of the water of life freely." Prophetic indeed, and a glimpse at Bethesda's attempt to link casual first-time gamers with the lore of the Fallout series.
Once you've completed "Baby Steps", you are again pushed forward in time to your tenth birthday party - an event significant not only for the first shown interaction with other NPC's within the vault, but also the acquisition of your "Pip Boy 3000", which is provided to you by the vault overseer. You also meet the vault bully, who is discussing with other children the possibility of forming a gang called the Tunnel Snakes, and you need to make a decision as to whether you should allow him to take some confectionery provided to you by Old Lady Palmer as a birthday present.
It's at this point where your character really begins. Fallout 3 has reprised the notion of "karma" seen with the previous titles, but in a far more subtle way. The game engine keeps a running track of the decisions you make and the effects these decisions have on other characters within the world you inhabit. You can be meek and submit to a bully, or you can rise up and become the bully yourself, and this is entirely based on the dialogue and options you select.
A point about the statistics here - although you may be able to choose a certain dialogue option or end result, thus shaping your character, the outcome is also driven by your attributes and skill level. For example, conversing with someone may prompt three possible dialogue options. Next to these may appear a percentage chance to succeed, so perhaps you'd like to convince someone to give you an object - your level of persuasion might only grant you a 25% chance of success, so you may find it better to choose a different option with a higher percentage. This allows your progression to be shaped on the fly through chance as well as choice.