It has to be noted that considering how much of the demo does not reflect on the game, as Pete Hines explained during the demo and Q&A, it is kind of hard to draw wide-ranging conclusions on the game based on a pretty unrepresentative demo. Thus, to clear up our impressions, we're discussing our opinions and thoughts on selected individual topics more expansively here.
The Brotherhood of Steel
Had they not been identified as the Brotherhood of Steel (multiple times), I would not for the life of me have guessed who they were. They are described as "noble knights of the wasteland" setting out to beat the supermutants while swearing and behaving like average US soldier clichés. The power armor, while resembling the power armor of the originals when standing still, loses such semblance when moving. Basically, the armor appears to consist of a body suit with plates of metal attached to it, thus giving it the outward appearance of plate armor, rather than the look of a one-piece integrally protective powered armor that the originals had. Only the helmet really looks a lot like the originals, and a lot of BoS members weren't wearing them.
Additionally, SuAside notes a few things: the laser rifles have a slightly steampunkish look (regardless of that weird tube at the bottom making it slightly resemble a flamethrower lighting feed). It's also kind of odd that you can acquire a PA in Fallout 1 just because the eyepiece has a solder line on it and thus it didn't pass muster, while here all the power armors look patched up and badly finished from the very beginning (though I feel this might be explained by them being at war). Disciplined demeanour is also way off the originals, as SuAside never pictured a BoS squad as running around helmetless while constantly flinging insults and macho taunts. Not to mention the fact that they just allow the PC to pick up a laser weapon from a dying soldier whereas most of their troops are equipped with significantly less effective assault rifles.
Bethesda is not providing the reason they're there, wanting players to find out for themselves ingame where a reason will be provided.
But considering that this organisation has different behaviour, goals and even looks, I'm more curious why they even identify them as the Brotherhood of Steel, since nothing links them to the original organisation.
What was already obvious from original screenshots is affirmed here. Supermutants do not look remotely like the originals.
While a backstory is assured, Pete Hines also notes conversations with supermutants aren't an option, and they are presented in the demo simply as evil, swarming enemies. Whether or not they'll have an in-depth backstory or background organisation like the Unity is unknown.
And what's up with the shiny super sledge so full of bloom?
Labelled anything from innovative to the worst idea of all time, I don't really see either one as being very valid. "Unoriginal" is the name I'd use. If I had to describe V.A.T.S. at gun point, I'd call it a system of RT combat with limited pausing through fatigue (Action Points) and super-attacks (aimed shot), which to most people will sound pretty much like what BioWare started doing in the mid-90s with the Infinity Engine.
Of course, I haven't played it yet, so this analysis is slightly presumptuous. However, having seen it play out, I can say the only new things it seems to add are the slow-motion cinematic viewing of the effects of your hit (which strikes me as something that will get annoying quick and does not actually affect the real gameplay in any way) and importing Fallout's aiming system into BioWare's RTwP. Neither really deserves the tag "innovative" nor does it really seem to necessitate giving it a new name "V.A.T.S." rather than just calling it RTwP. This misnomer appears to be a big source of all the confusion surrounding this fairly simple system.
But all that's not definitive, and depends on more info and impressions.
Taking it a notch up from Oblivion: better facial animations and looks, better havok physics, parallax occlusion mapping, real water refraction. This makes it sound like they spent half their time on improving graphics, but while the game looks quite a bit better than Oblivion, a lot of the changes aren't that huge. They don't exactly make big, obvious steps and, even with further upgrading, the game might well be behind other games (like Rage or Mass Effect) at release, though probably still on the forefront of cRPGs graphically.
SuAside tentatively adds antialiasing was a nightmare in Megaton, and that wires looked like 8bit stairs.
Apart from those pitfalls, on a graphical level the game is very advanced, considering it still has a good 1.5 years to go, and is sure to impress despite stiff competition. There are more points of criticism, but it's hard to be definitive when the demo was viewed through VGA output on a really big screen.
A large worry is the maturity of this game. Pleasant memories of promises of ignoring Fallout BoS and preferring Fallout 1 to Fallout 2 faded while watching the demo. Pete Hines assures us the high density of slapstick humor, is just for demo purposes. In which case I have to shudder at how bad this demo is for showing off the game, but on the other hand there are reasons to doubt Pete Hines' words.
No doubt the joke-density is lower in the game, but it's still inescapable. A British pythonesque Mr Handy, constant swearing on levels the original games never knew, a complete obsession with violence and shiny effects. Trying to compensate this by pointing to the things they did get right, such as the slightly amusing ticket bot encounter (which works better in the demo than it does on paper), the "nice hat, Calamity Jane" line or the "local cult" and "scenic overlook" signs, makes for a bit of an uneven match, as the amount of immature humour beats out the good humour easily.
The gore provides much the same problem. There is a lot of it, but it's also pretty indistinct. Rather than being markedly different, like the "blow a chunk of body off" of the originals, it just looks like they took the normal level of ragdoll and bloodspatter effects and raised it to 11. This means it looks like unnecessary splatter bonus Carmageddon violence, which I have a hard time to identify as anything but juvenile.
It's not that the franchise doesn't have its humour or violence, it's just that these weren't pivotal selling or drawing points in anything other than how unique they were. From this demo, it seems these two points are treated differently than in the original and actually two of the biggest selling points Fallout 3 has, a worrying prospect we can only hope turns out false.
Pete Hines in GC, Leipzig
This is like a roller coaster ride through most of the demo. I got a nagging feeling halfway through it that once you leave the Vault, Bethesda didn't really know what they wanted any more. The Vault itself shows a lot of consistency of vision, being heavily dedicated to accurately transferring the original look of the vaults and not really adding much that feels inconsistent, except the Mr Handy bot and (arguably) the riot police/vault guards. SuAside states that he feels the vault is noticeably darker and has a few un-Fallouty steampunk elements, like the opening of the door. SuAside also identified this halfway style in the PipBoy 3000's housing, which seems like it's halfway between modern and old tech, making it perhaps more at home in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. than in Fallout 3.
But once you're out of the vault, the inspiration seems to drop off as direct points of reference to a consistent and original vision are missing.
That might sound worse than it is, but a comparison to Bioshock jumps to mind. Bioshock was original, visionary, consistent and executed well.
Fallout 3 has that within the Vault, but it goes up and down once you're outside. It shows flashes of brilliance in transporting Fallout's world into 3D at some spots, like some of the skyscraper ruins and bits of Megaton. In Springvale it looks to want to try and accomplish something but fell short. Architecture follows the same rollercoaster mechanics, sometimes spot on, sometimes very nondescript.
For an awkwardly huge chunk, from the metros to the supermutants to the BoS, the game looks like a very vanilla, generic post-apocalyptic game with some 50s signs slapped on it in an easter egg format, as if they were an afterthought. That makes for some head-splitting inconsistencies, especially when you run through a lot of area fast, as in the demo.
The music falls right into this halfway-there category. Including actual 50s songs is a fun idea and will probably work fine, but the main soundtrack itself, while being very soft, was easily identified as "not like the originals." It reminded me most of Inon Zur's Fallout Tactics soundtrack, halfway between Fallout's ambient music and Zur's own tendency towards the bombastic.
Something that did little to assure me was the demo's tendency to try and wow the viewer. This can be written of as just for demo purposes to impress the press, but that kind of makes me scratch my head and go "who in their right mind would really be impressed by this." The nuclear explosions are extraordinarily well animated and rather beautiful, but I really would like to know who can watch a total of 6-10 of these explosions in a 45 minute span and not go "that's too much, that's just silly." This fanfare of flashy graphics in silly events doesn't really reflect well on the game.
Are those just kinks in the cable or an indication of lack of vision? Only time will tell.
"Oblivion with Guns" has been the name of the game since it was announced (well, "Morrowind with Guns," originally), and has been repeated by console site previewers right up to Gamespot's somewhat ironic "[m]any are looking forward to Fallout 3 being 'Oblivion with Mutants.'" (ref)
It's on the same engine, by the same makers, using a number of mechanics similar to the Oblivion game. But Fallout 3 is even less similar to Oblivion than Oblivion was to Morrowind. Todd Howard has stated a will to reinvent each new game, and that's the case here. (ref)
So rather than Oblivion with Guns, what we have here is a conglomerate of influences from a whole bunch of games. Oblivion in a lot of mechanics and perhaps in some deeper gameplay mechanics I have yet to see. Fallout in superficial style and look, occasionally. Some BioWare mechanics on combat. Add a sprinkling of Deus Ex for elements of combat, dialogue and choices. This is a big mess that can only be shortened to "Oblivion with Guns" unfairly.
Of course, this raises the question of how challenging it is to not only reinvent your own design style from your last game, but to also take the franchise you're working on and pushing it into another genre than it was in originally, all the while combining elements from several games into one. Of course, this is an enormous challenge (and not necessarily a good idea) that I have no reason to believe Bethesda has the talent to pull off, and this demo did nothing to change that opinion.
The unbearable lightness of seeing
Brother None contemplates his guilt after having sold out for a T-Shirt
Fallout 3 looks like a well-produced, very pretty, very fun game that'll provide quite a few people with a lot of hours of enjoyment. However, I don't think it's anything more than a very pretty and fun game.
This game is missing a key ingredient: guts, daring, innovation. I'm not even referring to the kind of guts Tim Cain noted when he explained turn-based combat was doing something different in a time of real-time and pause-based combat (ref), though I guess they miss those kind of guts too. I'm talking about the very basic ingredients of an independent vision.
The only times this game really shines is when it is copying from the originals directly. The moments of inspiration outside of that are rare, limited to a few jokes and the Protectron's excellent design.
But what does that mean? Pretty much that we're looking at a pretty bland, uninspired game here, and that people expecting the next big break-through in RPGs or gaming in general to come from here should probably look the other way. And who knows how it'll hold up against competing RPG or RPG-like games in late 2008? Only time will tell. But suffice it to say that despite flashes of brilliances, I'm not overly impressed by this game, and hate to see a franchise tag that once stood for being so different now applied to something that is so humdrum and potentially dull.
Oh, and as a Fallout fan...if it weren't too early in a simple chronological sense (it still being more than a year until release), I'd write this game off as a potential successor and just file it under spin-off, patiently awaiting to see how badly it damages to setting. But I'll leave comments on this topic to my colleague, SuAside.
Impressions of the unimpressed
If I try to be perfectly objective about the subject, there is no doubt in my mind that this game will be a success on the mainstream market. It has everything it needs for such success: nice graphics (which I'm sure will improve in the coming year), a setting that easily sets it apart (one of Fallout's great strengths), acceptable gameplay though without real novelties (unlike Bethesda likes to claim), Bethesda's broad fanbase (of mostly Oblivion fanboys) and excellent contacts with the mainstream gaming press (aka the hype machine). But even when looking at it from a totally objective point of view, I cannot see how this 45 minute demonstration won Bethesda so many E3 awards. It looks like an average fun mainstream actionRPG game which really doesn't offer anything special with the exception of the Fallout setting. Which is fine on its own, but surely that isn't enough to deserve so many awards?
As what today is considered an "Internet Curmudgeon with a Heart of Radioactive Gold", a "fan whose ideas are retarded by 8 years" or even a "Glittering Gem of Hatred", I can't help but see my (and NMA's) expectations about the game being confirmed. It looks as if someone peripherally interested in the Fallout games took a few core elements that they liked and made a game out of it without really respecting the old game, deeply researching what made the old games tick or even trying to please the old but still very alive fanbase. It is as if they took some Fallout flavour and sprinkled it over what "they do best". I wouldn't go as far as saying it is Oblivion with Guns, but it certainly isn't what we'd like call a true Fallout sequel.
It is rather ironic that Bethesda didn't want to name the game differently. I think the old fanbase might have reacted considerably differently if Bethesda had chosen to name it something else, like "Fallout: The East Coast (part 1)", and had promoted it as a kind of freeroaming actionRPG game inside Bethesda's take on the Fallout universe. This might actually have worked, and I do believe it would have received far more support from the community. However, if you insist on making a sequel to a game series that is welknown for its opinionated fanbase, you'd better make sure you deeply research what made the series work in the first place, before simply removing core elements of both the gameplay and the setting.
Is there still hope of a Fallout 3 true to the series and original development mindset? I sincerely doubt it. However, regardless of the mess made by Bethesda by making this game aimed at the oblivious mainstream, maybe some good can come of this... Both the Oblivion and Fallout communities house very skilled modders and perhaps if those two meet on equal ground there might be hope for a few moments of Fallout bliss. Could these communities create a hors-serie freeroaming 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines'-like game in a universe true to the Fallout lore? Time will tell...
In short, it will likely be an interesting game for the average gamer who has little to no knowledge of the Fallout games, but for the run-of-the-mill Fallout fan I doubt the experience will be anywhere close to the originals or even worthwhile at all for some. What is certain, is that -while this game might be fun for a short while, as it looks now- it will not create the cult-like following that has set apart Fallout for so long.