The past 10 days have been very busy for me. I've broken into countless military bases, taken vast quantities of drugs, and have shot several hundred people in the head. I've stolen the Declaration of Independence. I've moonlighted as a contract killer. I've helped to run a warped presidential election. I've even gotten really sick after drinking from a toilet bowl. But enough about my holiday trip to Skegness - let's talk about one of the biggest releases of 2008.
Fallout 3 is a massive, massive game. This magnitude exists on a number of levels: for a start, there's the game world itself - a scarred post-nuclear Washington, packed with decrepit survivors, mutant beasties and marauding raiders. Then there's the enormous degree of change since the last game - a shift of developer and a move into full 3D graphics. There's the huge degree of anticipation, both from enthusiastic newcomers and from the more sceptical Fallout hardcore. It's probably due to a combination of all these factors, but for whatever reason Fallout 3 feels like the biggest game I've played all year - so much so that I've already run out of synonyms for the word 'big'. And despite a number of flaws, it's also one of the best games of the year too.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, here's a quick recap of the backstory to the Fallout universe: In the year 2077, World War III turns most of the Earth into a giant nuclear ashtray. A small percentage of the US population survive the conflict by fleeing into Vaults - giant underground shelters built by the VaultTec corporation. The first Fallout placed you in the skin of a jumpsuited resident of Vault 13; when your water purification chip breaks, you are chosen to set out in pursuit of a new one - braving the wasteland of post-apocalypse California. After a remarkably downbeat ending to your adventures, your Vault Dwellers set off to found a small village of their own. Fallout 2 cast you as a grandchild to the first protagonist, offering a much larger play area and a greater variety of distractions from your quest to find a GECK - a powerful piece of technology with the power to save your dying tribe.
Fallout 3, set some 36 years after its predecessor, shifts its focus to the East coast of America - to the claustrophobic confines of Vault 101. The game begins with your birth, generating your character's gender, name and appearance. After this you'll spend about 20 minutes speeding through your childhood and adolescence via a neat quest designed to introduce most of the game's key concepts and mechanics - including the much-discussed VATS combat system. At the end of this brief introduction your rebellious father disappears; his sudden departure enrages the vault authorities and causes a minor riot - leaving you with no choice but to follow him. You emerge from the underground, your vision blurring under a sun you have never seen before - and then you set out across the Washington wastelands.
What follows is really up to you - in the short term, at least. You'll be given a pointer about where to look for your Dad first, but the world is more or less your oyster. Since this is an RPG, your main priority should be to get some experience and to start levelling up. The area immediately surrounding Vault 101 isn't too lethal, but if you immediately head to the far corners of the map you'll swiftly find yourself in trouble. Bethesda has largely abandoned the mechanic used in Oblivion which scaled random enemies to match your capabilities - so if you go wandering off into a dangerous area, you're bound to come a cropper. As a result of this design choice, the wasteland immediately feels a threatening place - something further compounded by the devastated scenery that surrounds you in every direction, thanks to a rather spiffy draw distance.
As you might imagine, the thermonuclear apocalypse has had a detrimental effect upon public transport - so you'll be doing all your exploration on foot. In all likelihood, you'll be viewing proceedings from a first person perspective - a third-person option does exist, but most people are likely to get fed up with the slightly floaty way your hero moves. Either way, you'll soon find that the landscape itself is the star of the show. Bethesda have done an amazing job in creating a ruined environment: from burnt-out towns and twisted highways to the looming metropolis of downtown DC, the in-game scenery drips with a tragic, ruined atmosphere. This is probably just as well, since it takes a fairly long time to walk from point A to point B. On the plus side, once you've discovered a given location, you'll be able to instantly fast-travel back there at any point you wish. To be honest, I was initially fairly uncertain about whether or not I thought this was a good idea: It's certainly a convenient feature, but its not a particularly realistic one - and for a while I was concerned that it would dilute the dangerous atmosphere of the wasteland itself.