The main quest in Fallout 3 can be ploughed through in about 30 hours or so, but the chances are that it'll take you much longer. Indeed, if you complete the game in this length of time then you're almost certainly playing it too quickly. Most people will take far longer - if only for the fact that it's so easy to get distracted by things. There are so many places to visit and things to do - and it seems that every time you head out to accomplish one thing, you find three others you'll want to do later. Once it grabs you, Fallout 3 is one of those games that gets into your head and lays eggs. You'll be at work, or on a bus somewhere, and you'll find yourself meticulously planning where you'll go and what you'll do when you next boot up the game. When you finally do rush home and play, you'll find that time whisks by - it's 2am, and you've still not explored that old military base you saw. So you keep on playing, and find yourself zombified at work the next day. Not that this will stop you from making further plans - or returning to the wastes that very same evening.
As you can probably gather, I like Fallout 3 a hell of a lot - and as a long-time fan of the Fallout series, I had my fair share of reservations about the way this game could have turned out. There are, however, a few problems that need to be mentioned. The biggest single problem is the scriptwriting, which varies in quality throughout the whole venture. Most of the time it's fine, but every once in a while you'll hit upon something that's wincingly overblown, or else simply not appropriate for a Mad Max-style wilderness. The worst offenders here are the Brotherhood of Steel - the guys in power armour who dominate the game's artwork. In previous Fallout adventures, the Brotherhood were a group of isolationist, technology-obsessed knights who looked after themselves and pretty much ignored everyone else; they helped you out when they had to, but only when it served their own interests. Here they've become shining protectors of the downtrodden. That's not such a terrible shift, but their righteous pseudo-Jedi dialogue is really quite cringeworthy. "Steel be with you!" cries the guard to the Pentagon, with apparent sincerity.
Bethesda's attitude to radiation is also a little unbalanced. The melancholic tone of Washington's ruins and the ramshackle depiction of the few human settlements are bang on the money as far as Fallout tone goes - so why ruin that by including a weapon that fires miniature nukes? Firing one of these babies will wipe out an entire room - but you'll be fine to loot the bodies two seconds later, since they only leave a tiny amount of radioactive fallout. On a similar level, the studio does a pretty good job of depicting ghouls - the poor mutant survivors of WWIII who now resemble zombies - as put-upon victims, rejected by society. Again, this was a trait of the previous games - so why deflate that by including "feral ghouls" who act like the zombies from 28 Days Later? Don't even get me started on the character who can mysteriously turn into a ghoul in the space of a few hours, if you're mean enough to nuke Megaton - the town built over an unexploded bomb.
These instances of Bethesda dropping the ball are certainly irritating, but the truth is that they will only really hurt hardcore Fallout fans. The use of the word "only" in that last sentence will probably put a few noses out of joint, but it's true: most people who play this won't care a bit - because they never played the original games in the first place. That will be of scant consolation to those of you unhappy with the direction Bethesda has taken, but perhaps you'll take comfort in the fact that the original classics are surely bound to receive new attention in the months following Fallout 3's release. Personally, I'm having a ball with this game. I've been playing it pretty much non-stop since our review copy arrived at the office, but I'm sure as hell not going to stop any time soon. There are elements here that are significantly altered from the first games - some pleasant, some not - but I ultimately find the game to be a good thing: it's a different experience, yet one with many familiar ingredients.
And for the rest of you... well, you have a treat on your hands. As I said up at the top, this is a massive game: in a month that's seen the release of five or six of the year's best titles, I reckon this is the absolute peach. It's packed with interesting places, with choices to make, with that nebulous sense of adventure you only find in the best RPGs. And after a long wait, it's finally here.