We know we've played something great, perhaps even something special, when we find ourselves thinking about it when we're not playing it. When we find ourselves wishing we were playing it while we're sat on the underground, or browsing the internet, or listening to our editor prattle on about Geometry Wars 2. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it reminds us of the power video games hold over us, how entrancing the spell they cast really can be. It happened again recently, and the game was Fallout 3.
It seems ridiculous to have to form some kind of informed opinion based on a two hour toe-dip into Bethesda's stunning post-apocalyptic world, given the gargantuan nature of this sci-fi RPG, but that's what we're paid to do, so here goes. Haters be quiet - Fallout 3 is shaping up to one of the best games of 2008, and, fingers crossed, could be one of the best RPGs ever.
Amoral, subversive and pulp. It sounds like we're describing a particularly bad kind of orange juice, but it's actually the three words our new previews editor Neon Kelly came up with when we asked him to sum up the Fallout series, a series that a lot of PC gamers still care a great deal about.
You can't, of course, please everyone, and Bethesda knows this. It also knows that, actually, if it can make a game as good as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it'll have done it's job. From our time with the game, Fallout 3 might even be better than Oblivion.
You may be wondering why we're comparing Fallout 3 to Oblivion in the first place. It's because the game could almost be Oblivion 2, or, as some journalists are calling it, Oblivion with guns. What's certain is that it feels very similar. The trademark vistas, the dialogue system, the camera angle when you talk to NPCs, the instant teleportation to already discovered locations, it's all there.
'Simply saying Fallout 3 is Oblivion with guns doesn't do Bethesda's hard work justice.'
Simply saying Fallout 3 is Oblivion with guns doesn't do Bethesda's hard work justice. Fallout 3 looks better than Oblivion, even though it's not finished. Fact. The draw distance is mind-blowing - when we leave Vault 101 for the first time, the giant doorway creaking open, our character's eyes adjusting to the first natural light he's ever been exposed to, the nuke-ravaged Washington DC that lies before us almost knocks us out. Dusty settlements, what looks like a small town, hills, whistling wind, it's all there. We believe. We believe that this actually is what a US city would look like if a nuclear war landed on top of it. We can see the Washington Monument (less important for us Brits) in the distance, somehow still standing. "You can travel there and go all the way up to the top," Pete Hines, Bethesda's communications chief tells us. We believe him.
Usually when we're granted precious hands-on time with games, we're given a very linear, carefully crafted snap shot of what it's got to offer. Not so here. Bar a couple of restrictions centred around the main 'find your father' plot (which Bethesda won't be talking about until the game is released), Pete tells us we have the freedom to go anywhere, do anything, just the way open world games should be played. We take him up on his offer.
It's the little things that have us so excited. Straight away we head left, off the beaten path that leads to the town of Megaton, the first main quest hub players will experience after the 40 minutes or so they've spent in Vault 101. We spot a sign that says 'Scenic Overlook'. We stand still, using the thumb stick to pan the camera, taking in the desperate, charred landscape. The sign is the first piece of evidence, if it was needed, that Bethesda is well aware of the series' trademark humour.
We level up - a specially constructed ding designed to give us a taste of how the RPG-ness of Fallout 3 works. The Pip-Boy appears on screen - a wrist-mounted computer that monitors your health, allows you to assign skill points, lets you view the world map and track quests, to name but a few of its functions. We have 13 options, all staple RPG categories - barter, repair, lockpick, sneak etc - in which to sink our attribute points. Some will be familiar to Fallout fans. Big guns, for example, improves your effectiveness with oversized weapons like the Fat Man (really), flamethrowers, missile launchers and the like. We're guessing you can work out for yourself what the Small Guns skill improves. But it looks like Bethesda has ditched a couple of Fallout skills - outdoorsman, the random encounter controller that wouldn't have worked anyway, and gambling, which was rarely used.
The character customisation doesn't end there. Whenever you level up you're given a point to spend on perks, special abilities that help you fine tune your character even further. Daddy's Boy, for example, grants +5 to your science and medical skills. Intense Training allows you to put a single point into any of your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes. Lady Killer gives you +10% damage against female opponents. There are loads more, some we know, but can't talk about (sorry, you know how these things work).
We go travelling. We know that we're supposed to go to Megaton, our only lead on our father, and we know the way we're supposed to go, via arrows on a slider on the bottom left hand side of the screen, but we decide not to. Not yet, anyway. We discover what looks like the deserted Springvale settlement. We pass an Enclave Eyebot - a floating mechanical eye that spews propaganda from President Eden (voiced by A Clockwork Orange star Malcolm McDowell), a creepy, almost cult-like figure who runs the Enclave, an organisation that fancies itself the new US government.
We come across a merchant, called Crow, and get a taste for Fallout 3's dialogue system, which proves to be almost identical to Oblivion's. We run about, a lot, trying to find something, anything to kill. We struggle - our first concern. Yes, this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Yes, it's not going to be as busy as present day Washington DC, but the last thing we want to feel is bored.