It'll take something pretty special to follow The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Bethesda Softworks' must-own next-gen RPG ushered in the new generation of consoles spectacularly well, offering hundreds of hours of gameplay in a world impossible to imagine only a few years ago. Its success, though, must have put some pressure on the developer. With a legion of new fans and a hardcore army of long-time followers, only something of truly epic proportions could follow Oblivion. It's a good job Bethesda had Fallout 3 up its sleeve then.
For Fallout 3 to have the success of Oblivion it's going to have to be more than a game for hardcore fans. Vault 101 and Pip boy mean nothing to most people, and they didn't to me either. This didn't stop the game, demoed by Bethesda's Peter Hines, looking extremely promising and very different to the fantasy setting of Oblivion.
The game starts, strangely enough, at your birth, inside Vault 101 - an underground facility sealed off from the post-apocalyptic world. Your birth is actually a clever way for the game to handle character creation. It's all completely in-game (you can press A to cry) and you're asked to choose whether you wish to play as a boy or a girl and what your name is. As your father picks you up (played by Liam Neeson, the only confirmed voice talent in the game) you can't quite make out his face, but again, this is a trick employed to get you to create your character. His face will resemble your own, so as soon as you're done sculpting your appearance his face comes into view. There are complications with the birth, resulting in the death of your mother, leaving you in the care of your father.
Time skips forward one year. You're now a toddler, walking around in a play area. Again, this is all in-game, and a disguised tutorial. Your father calls you over, so you slowly stumble over to him, pressing A to shout out "Dadda". It's incredibly immersive, and serves to familiarise new players with the controls in a non-threatening situation. Dad soon leaves, giving you time to wander about freely in the room, before finding a book called 'You're Special'. Reading it with your father allows you to choose your 'Specials', your base character attributes.
You're then whisked forward in time once more, this time to your tenth birthday party. In the vault ten-year-olds gain responsibility and that means you're given a Pip boy 3000 - the gadget that acts as your in-game menu. Again, although completely in-game and under your control, the party acts as an intro to the game's conversation system. Peter chooses to lie when asked a question, but our character's conversation stats are low, meaning the NPC can see straight through him. As you progress through the game you'll increase your stats in key abilities, allowing you to tackle situations in different ways. At the age of 10 lying isn't something you're particularly good at.
This marked the end of our time in the vault, with Peter skipping on to life outside in the desolated Washington D.C.. Your father has left the vault, and you go after him, putting you face to face with the monsters that now roam the earth. You won't be alone though, with friendly dog Dogmeat being your faithful companion - if you treat him well. Dogmeat can be sent off to find items for you, but he isn't immune to the dangers of the wasteland. If you send him into an area and he gets into trouble, he could die - gone from the game forever. It certainly seems like a brave move on Bethesda's part, putting the dog's life in your hands, but we're yet to see how awkward it'll be to constantly keep him out of harm's way.
On to the dangers you'll face then. During our demo these came in the form of mutants and Ghouls. Super mutants are your biggest foe in the game, with super mutant strongholds being set up across the wasteland. You'll also face Ghouls (humans exposed to extreme amounts of radiation), with one particular variant being so full of radiation that it glows. How easily you spot these enemies depends on your perception stat, with high level characters seeing enemies on their radar much sooner than beginners.
You of course need to take these enemies down. All combat in the game is stat based, but you can choose to play using a real-time system if you wish. Menu-driven combat is activated through the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S.. From here you can see what chance you have of hitting a certain part of an enemy and how many action points you have. Each attack move costs action points, so you can only string together a certain amount of attacks. Over time these points will be regenerated, but you may need to switch to the action-point-free real-time mode if your targeted attacks aren't sufficient.
There's far more to weapons combat than just targeting an enemy and pressing fire. For one, weapons can take damage and jam during use, meaning you need to keep them in tip-top condition if you're entering a dangerous area. You can also acquire schematics for special weapon variations of each gun in the game - although these will take some finding. One area, set in what looked like trenches, saw numerous grenade traps. Peter was able to avoid them, but the pursuing super mutants weren't so lucky. Fallout 3 isn't a game for kids, so expect plenty of gore too, with limbs flying off in all directions.
Despite the lengthy demo, it still seems as if we've only seen a fraction of what the final game will have to offer. Bethesda is currently targeting an autumn 2008 release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, although it seems as though it won't ship until everyone is completely happy with it. There's no denying its potential to be a grittier, more action heavy RPG than Oblivion, but until we get some extensive hands-on time, it's hard to say if it'll be just as epic.