Staff Musings: Diablo III proves old-school Fallout can do well today

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On the week of Diablo III’s release last month, I was one of the millions of gamers click, click, and clicking away through the first act of the game, bashing down many a skeleton and undead foe.

As the hours passed and I spent more time in the game’s environments, glancing occasionally at the classic HUD at the bottom and an info box at the bottom-left corner, it hit me: “Wow, Fallout 3 could have been like this and it would have been awesome.”

And then I felt bummed out, knowing that wasn’t the case.

Before the Fallout franchise landed in the hands of Bethesda, the developer of the first two games in the series, Black Isle, already had the third installment in the works. Codenamed Project Van Buren, it was isometric, used 3D visuals, and allowed players to stick to the traditional turn-based combat or switch to a new, real-time system. It sounded immensely promising, but then it was unfortunately canceled due to layoffs on Black Isle’s staff carried out by Interplay.

The rest, as you’re sure to know by now, is history. Bethesda picked up the Fallout license from Interplay following the closure of Black Isle and set out to create its own vision of Fallout – one done in the style the company was most comfortable with: a first-person action RPG.

Now in 2012, as I troll the depths of Hell in Diablo III, I’m now more than ever certain that that a new isometric Fallout game would work (and sell) in today’s market.

For me, the widespread critical acclaim for Diablo III – a game that still plays much like Diablo II –  tells me that making an isometric PC exclusive title isn’t going to lead to lackluster sales. In its first week, Diablo III received rave reviews and sold a record-breaking 6.3 million units.

An isometric game making bank in 2012? Inconceivable!

I’ll start by saying that I’m not about to pull a No Mutants Allowed and go on a diatribe against Bethesda for its handling of the Fallout series. Although I still prefer Fallout 1 and 2, that’s not to say that Fallout 3 was a terrible game like many rabid Fallout fans claim – it was pretty decent.

In my eyes, Fallout 3’s writing wasn’t as great and the game’s overall atmosphere and soundtrack didn’t really gel with me as much as the first two games, but it carried the torch pretty well. I can say that New Vegas (which I admit I haven’t finished) improved upon it – specifically in the writing department, thanks to the addition of former Black Isle staff such as Chris Avellone, who contributed to the development of Fallout 2.

In an attempt to appeal to old-school fans of the series, Bethesda touted the ability to zoom the camera out far enough away to simulate an isometric experience and the V.A.T.S. system, which was described by some outlets as an evolution of the series’ turn-based combat. To the hardcore Fallout fan, however, these seemed like weak attempts at catering to fans of the original two games. Zooming the camera out all the way made the game impossible to play, and V.A.T.S. was merely a glorified cinematic version of Fallout 1 2’s aimed shot mechanic.

According to Bethesda’s Vice President Pete Hines, the decision to make Fallout 3 a first/third-person action RPG was an obvious choice.

We’re not going to suddenly do a top-down isometric Baldur’s Gate-style game, because that’s not what we do well.

Regardless of their methods, I believe that now’s the time for Bethesda to make a “risky” move in the form of an isometric Fallout game. Imagine a new Fallout with the graphical style of Diablo III – wouldn’t that be awesome? And when it comes to combat, there could be an option to make it real-time or turn-based, like Van Buren, to satiate both camps.

As far as the need for the game to be in the isometric perspective, Fallout designer Leonard Boyarsky’s shared his views on it back in 2004, saying:

I think the most important aspect of the traditional isometric view is the overview you get for combat and the ‘lay of the land.’

I don’t know how I would have felt about making FO3 anything but isometric and turn based. We did have an extremely high budget idea for another approach, but even in that scenario combat was isometric and turn based. Of course, it’s easy for me to say I wouldn’t have done a paused real time FO3 now, but I don’t know what I would have said if the offer was made.

And while some may feel that turn-based combat is too archaic for today’s standards, the $1.8 million raised for Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns and $2.9 million raised for inXile Entertainment/Obsidian Entertainment’s Wasteland 2 via Kickstarter shows that line of thinking is dead wrong.

Clearly, there is still a large group of people willing to shell out money for a game with old-school, turn-based combat.

At this point some might argue that there’s no point in wishing for a new isometric-style Fallout now that Wasteland 2 will be the spiritual successor to the first two Fallouts, but I disagree. Fallout and Wasteland may both take place in a post-apocalyptic setting, but for me personally, Fallout has a fascinating story and universe that I yearn to see applied again in an isometric, turn-based style. Wasteland 2 can capture much of what made Fallouts 1 & 2 great, but it will never have Vault Boy, Nuka Cola, the 1950s duck-and-cover vibe, or all of the other interesting story-related elements that made Fallout what it is.

I guess it’ll only be fair to see if Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns turn out well as games and as financial successes. If by some trick of fate they don’t, then I can eat my words when 2013 rolls around.

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Author: Patrick Kulikowski View all posts by
Patrick Kulikowski is a Rutgers University graduate with aspirations of joining the game industry. I have a strong love of games and their music. When not serving as Associate Editor for Pixelitis,net and a writer for Game Music Online, you'll see him working on a game music drum cover project entitled "VGdrum" and managing his Breath of Fire Facebook and Twitter fan pages.

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