This is a momentous moment, really. Obsidian Entertainment senior designer Chris Avellone is about to show, for the first time, Fallout: New Vegas running live. Let us not forget, Fallout 3, the game New Vegas spins off from, was one of the greatest - some say the greatest - games of this generation. And yet there is a palpable sense of scepticism from the audience. Perhaps even disappointment.
In this business, first impressions can be as damaging as they are potent. But they're often misleading. So it is with Fallout: New Vegas. Our first impression is that it looks just like Fallout 3, a game that'll be two years old this Christmas. Our first impression is that if Bethesda released New Vegas as a expansion, no-one would bat an eyelid.
Perhaps our first impressions have been unduly influenced. Obsidian is not Bethesda, and for some Fallout 3 fans the fact that the game is being built on an ageing game engine by a developer whose track record depresses as many as it impresses fills them with the fear.
How ironic. Fallout 3 fans cringe at the thought of New Vegas being farmed out to a developer that knows nothing of the cult series, so the theory goes. How many Fallout 1 and 2 fans who idolise old Black Isle Studios legends Tim Cain and Feargus Urquhart felt the same when they discovered that Bethesda was developing Fallout 3? And now the merry-go-round comes full circle as Avellone and other ex-Black Isle Studio developers find themselves returning to the world of Fallout. So, all you Bethesda-haters should be pleased, right?
It's not until Chris' presentation comes to an end that I realise just how misleading first impressions can be. Don't get me wrong: Fallout: New Vegas's visuals could be better than they are. But the game's strengths lie elsewhere. Wonky animations and ugly textures aren't the point; the point is that the quests and dialogue are so memorable and the game's post-apocalyptic Nevada setting is so atmospheric that all of New Vegas' imperfections melt away like the skin of a Ghoul.
Still, the issue of innovation hangs over New Vegas' head like a vulture waiting to pounce on a Brahmin corpse. New Vegas is not an expansion or an update. It's a proper sequel, set three years after the events of Fallout 3 and with a map just as big. We're not asking for Obsidian to rewrite the Fallout rulebook, but given that two years will have eventually passed between the two releases, it is only right that the developer improves on what's gone before.
Chris, it appears, agrees. In a lengthy gameplay demo he showcases scores of improvements and tweaks, and they begin with character creation. Fallout 3 began with your birth; New Vegas starts with your death. You're kidnapped by a group of thugs, shot twice in the head and then dumped in a shallow grave outside of a small town called Goodsprings. The only reason you survive is because your body is recovered by a mysterious robot called Victor, who takes you to Goodsprings' kindly healing hand, Doc Mitchell. The character creation process begins as you recuperate with the Doc in his house.
Via the same first-person NPC interaction we saw in Fallout 3, the Doc hands you a Reflectron and you adjust your appearance. All the options that were in Fallout 3 are present and correct, but because you haven't emerged from a Vault, you have a few new sliders to play with. The age slider, for example, lets you pump up your age to fifty or sixty, if you fancy looking like a weathered wasteland veteran. After settling on a name and an appearance, you walk over to a Vit-O-Matic Vigor-Tester - the Old West equivalent to a love tester machine - to spend points on statistics.
You then take a seat on the Doc's couch to "see if your dogs are still barking". He asks you to tell him how much various statements sound like something you'd say. Statements like "I 'aint given to relying on others for support", "I'm always fixin' to being the centre of attention", and "I charge in to deal with my problems head on". Then, a Rorschach test. At the end of the session, the Doc suggests tag skills. In this case, though, we ignore his advice completely and go for barter, explosives and guns. And that's it. Character creation's done, and the Doc shows us out. Compared to Fallout 3's lengthy character creation sequence, New Vegas' is over in a jiffy, as one of its retro-futuristic Fifties throwbacks might have said.