War never changes, but Fallout has.

This will undoubtedly upset a great many people. (Perhaps the same folks running our new layout through the ringer.) But it was inevitable.

It’s been a decade since the original Fallout was released, and so much has changed about gaming, and games, that a new Fallout made like the originals would be *a step backward for game design, deeply disappointing. And before you start saying “Van Buren” remember that that game, too, was *based on the mechanics and design of the original games, much of which betrayed it’s decade-old inception.

We asked Bethesda’s Pete Hines what he thought about the departures his company has made from the original formula, and if they’d sought the input of any of the original developers.

“At this point, I’ve worked on this game as long as anyone who’s made any Fallout game,” he replied. Admitting that, while it might be desirable to receive a “blessing” of sorts from the creators of the series (as opposed to simply buying the license and running with it), at the end of the day, as creators, they felt they needed to own their own creation, even if it is based entirely in someone else’s world. And make no mistake, Fallout 3 is quite firmly rooted in the world created in the first two games.

Set two hundred years after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, Fallout 3 puts you in the shoes of one of the descendants of a brave, careful few who hid themselves away from the nuclear terror in a communal fallout shelter called a vault. But unlike the vaults portrayed in Fallout 1 & 2, this one is on the East Coast of the United States, and has remained completely sealed for two centuries. No one has come in, no one has gone out. (“You’re born in the vault, you die in the vault.”) Until your father, a prominent vault citizen, mysteriously vanishes, and you have to leave the vault to find him.

Part of the intro movie for Bethesda’s Fallout 3 made it out onto the net several weeks ago. Their presentation at E3 today revealed the rest. And yes, the entire thing was narrated by Ron Perlman, and yes, he said “War never changes” (the tagline from the original) at least twice.

After we watched the movie, Bethesda Executive Producer, Todd Howard, played through about 45 minutes of the game, revealing a number of weapons, demonstrating the various control schemes and making a lot of things go BOOM.

For starters, fans of the original games need to know this: much of what you loved about Fallout is in there. The Pip-Boy has been faithfully updated, as has much of the character stat system, and the turn-based aiming mechanic. While the combat in Fallout 3 is not turn-based, you can enter the VATS system to target individual body parts of your opponent, and allocate action points, then watch as your character cinematically executes the attacks, often triggering explosions of gore.

The look (the vault is surprisingly familiar), feel (guns, ammunition and violence all have the same “grit” as before) and humor (Mr. Handy calls you a stupid git behind your back) of the Fallout world has survived, been updated and made new. Although the new game is in 3D, and features a first-person perspective, it’s still Fallout. It’s the same world. It is new, but the same. I can’t say this enough. Change, in this case is good.

Still, to the chagrin of some, it is, in fact, much like Oblivion meets Fallout. It is first person, NPCs do feel more like Bethesda NPCs than Black Isle NPCs (although the dialogue options are still hilarious and wonderful) and the world feels much more malleable. In Fallout, one always felt as if the world was what it was, and you would live or die without making much of a difference. War, after all, never changes. You could stomp out the bad guys if you wanted, but that would leave only a gaping hole, not rejuvenate the world.

I get the feeling from this demo that Bethesda’s Fallout will feature much more quest feedback, and perhaps offer the chance to change, if not war, then perhaps a few lives. And although this lessens the sense of alienation and isolation, that isolation may not have been entirely planned to begin with. After all, a lot of PC games from that era felt “isolated” merely because they were. The technology didn’t yet exist to create living, breathing worlds. Bethesda’s improved radiant A.I. and unparalleled world-building expertise have combined to create a much more immersive experience, and while not exactly the Fallout you remember, is still Fallout.

While it’s impossible to say whether or not the finished game will please all fans of the series (or even newcomers) based on a staged 45 minute demonstration, I went into the presentation expecting to be at least a little disappointed, but I was not. The degree to which the Bethesda team remained faithful to the word of Fallout is staggering, as is the level of detail and … there’s no other word for it … “love” put into the game.

This is another one I’ll definitely be picking up (in Fall 2008), and it will go right up on the shelf beside my original copies of the first two games. Right to the left of the space where Van Buren would have gone.

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