Black Isle Studios' planned version of Fallout 3, codenamed "Van Buren," was canceled in 2003, followed shortly by the studio's dissolution. It remains a great "what-if" of gaming. The financial decline of parent studio Interplay was likely terminal by this point—the subgenre of complex, isometric RPGs reached the nadir of their popularity in the early 2000s, going dormant until their revival with Pillars of Eternity and Divinity. While there was no saving Black Isle itself, the project they were working on has captured Fallout fans' imaginations over the years.
A tech demo (opens in new tab) and 700-page design document (opens in new tab) leaked in 2007 and served as a competing vision to license-owner Bethesda's official Fallout 3. Van Buren looks like a weird, cool, expansive, and reactive roleplaying game. It doesn't hurt that much of the setting and lore formed the basis of the much-beloved New Vegas.
Enter game developer Adam Lacko (opens in new tab) and his Project Van Buren (opens in new tab). Since 2017, Lacko has been building off the aforementioned tech demo and design document to create a complete version of Van Buren in the Unity engine, to be released for free. Lacko has been writing much of the project's code himself, as well as consulting (opens in new tab) with former members of Black Isle. In Lacko's own words, "Project Van Buren aims to recapture and preserve this visual presentation to the pettiest detail, staying true with the intended course of its original makers."
Slowly getting beyond what BIS managed to implement in their tech demo - realtime-with-pause combat... with actual pause this time around.Next stop - thresholds and fatigue implementation.#Fallout #VanBuren @jesawyer pic.twitter.com/upgBIVejdDNovember 8, 2021
Lacko's commitment to accuracy and preservation serves as an interesting contrast with other projects such as the Revelation Blues (opens in new tab) mod to recreate Van Buren in New Vegas, which seem to assert more license for interpretation and deviation. It's almost like a museum-quality replica or a transmission from an alternate dimension where this game was successfully made.
As of November 2021, Lacko has successfully implemented (opens in new tab) all of his planned major technical features, including an optional realtime-with-pause combat mode. This is strictly a "when it's done" sort of project, but hopefully one day soon we'll all get to experience this road not traveled in gaming history.
The isometric RPG genre is, of course, in a multi-year revival. Games like Pillars, Divinity, and most relevantly, Wastelands 2 and 3 delivered a modern sense of combat balance, user friendliness, and encounter design. It will be interesting to see how well Project Van Buren and its period-accurate systems hold up against these more recent interpretations of the genre. Whatever the case, this is an impressive project for one dedicated fan and some volunteer helpers to take on, and will be worth a look whenever a playable version is made available.