You don’t envy Bethesda.
I’ve said this before, but the nagging question is why they’d take up this particular poisoned chalice of post-apocalypse role-playing anyway. “A new game by the makers of Oblivion” is a much bigger story to the gaming mainstream than “Sequel to old PC game you haven’t played”. Hell, the “3” even risks alienating people who’ve never played (or heard of) the original, dismissing it out of hand – there’s eighteen year old PC Gamers who’d have been six when the thing comes out. Even putting aside that, the friends it buys you will brook no compromise. The Fallout fanbase epitomised by the cheery souls of No Mutants Allowed, having had a decade to stew over disappointment after disappointment, are openly fanatical. As much as they’d protest it, no-one can see them accepting anything Bethesda would produce.
A Fallout licence gives you… what? A post-apocalyptic world. Make your own up and save yourself the hassle of dealing with friends who hate you and strangers who look just at you strangely.
So why do it?
Well, three reasons come to mind.
Firstly, I could just be wrong and Fallout is a much bigger deal than I thought and that little Pip-Boy is a key to a world of infinite money. I don’t think so.
Secondly, Bethesda may be as dirty fanboys as the NMA guys. It may just be as simple as plain lust for Fallout, the plain desire to write a sequel to a game they think is brilliant. This sort of things strikes even the brightest creative minds – look over at Comics, where there’s a strata of some of the medium’s brightest minds whose most heartfelt desire is to have a shot at Superman. They’re insane, and if they had any sense they’d be doing their own thing… but that they don’t have that sense means that it’s done as an act of devotion. This is actually a good reason to give a damn about Fallout 3. People working on something that’s genuinely invested in, on average, leads to better work.
Thirdly… well, one of the major worries about Fallout 3 from even less fanatical fans is that they don’t believe Bethesda are capable of wrestling with the actions-and-consequences aspects that have traditionally been involved in a Fallout Game – they’re fine with multiple mechanisms (Assuming they get the experience system right), but the payoffs are limited. Just as key is their limitations as creators of fiction – while they’re good at verisimilitude and a sense of place, the fiction – dialogue, plot, whatever – of the Elder Scrolls have been merely acceptable at best throughout. This has lead some people to think that Bethesda, by definition, can’t do it. Thing is, by buying Fallout 3, they cover their weaknesses. They don’t need to create a world from whole-cloth – they have an inspiring world. They don’t need to work out how people act and talk – they have a game which shows the interactions between individuals and whatever. Buying Fallout actually acts as a crutch for Bethesda’s traditional faults.
Or maybe there’s something else. I’m still thinking. It’s already clear that Fallout is going to be one of those games that is talked to death by everyone. At the moment, we’re just looking at screenshots, listening to interviews and guessing.
For example, the closer-to-action first-and-third perspective has been slammed by purists (“Slammed by purists” is a phrase I’m going to have to excise from coverage of Fallout 3, just to save space. Presume until otherwise mentioned that any feature of Fallout 3 has been slammed by Purists, because it almost certainly has been)… but it’s going to lead to a far more tactile relationship with the world, the idea of it actually as a place. STALKER managed an interesting take on a post-apocalypse world this year, but in terms of the amount of space and the back and forth key to a more true-RPG structure, you’re going to get more of a world. Hell, by cutting down the cast size from Oblivion’s sprawl, it should be a more convincing world than the Fantasy – few people doing more interesting things have been promised, and is what’s needed for any kind of post-apocalypse game.
Then there’s the combat system, where we see Bethesda seemingly trying to compromise between the turn-based tactical pace and the demands of a first-person game. The game pauses, you call your special shots until you run out of the rechargable action-points, then set things going, with you playing until you earn enough timer. This is one we’re going to have to get hands on with to get a sense of. As Hellgate showed, what works in a third-person can feel completely artificial when first-person. It certainly has the potential to marry the worst of both real-time and turn-based worlds. Conversely, if you were of the more optimistic bent, you could note it recalls Space Hulk - which worked well, albeit in a more distant, tactical-wargame than the immersiveness which Fallout 3 promises.
It’s hard to call. But when they talk about looking at something as sublime as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for inspiration, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Ultimately, this pre-match discussion is a little pointless. We’re all going to play this. Fallout 3 looks set to be this year’s most controversial game. We’re going to play it, if only to have an opinion to shout on forums, at friends, at enemies.
You don’t envy Bethesda. But you certainly hope they pull it off.