Perhaps it's just bad timing. Perhaps it's unfortunate juxtaposition. Fallout 3 made its E3 debut in a demonstration at Microsoft's Xbox 360 briefing in close proximity to Gears of War 2 and Resident Evil 5. All of a sudden, in that context, this very special follow-up to some of the most revered properties in role-playing gaming - venerable Interplay classic Fallout, and developer Bethesda's recent smash hit Oblivion - didn't look so special any more.
The barren, broken landscape, the deformed mutant enemies, the muted brown colour scheme, the developers enthusiastically detailing the myriad options for amusing dismemberment, gore, explosions and carnage. It all became a bit of a blur. Then EA showed Dead Space and Left 4 Dead and Rage, and Sony showed Resistance 2, and Take-Two showed Borderlands, and on and on for the rest of the week until - despite the quality of several of these games - the blur became a huge, ugly, indistinguishable smear across the whole of E3. A smear that Fallout 3, of all games, really shouldn't be getting lost in.
So, yes - it was bad luck. After all, you can hardly expect a Fallout game to be about anything other than a post-apocalyptic world beset with mutants, and it isn't Bethesda's fault that the current commercial and political landscape has given the games industry an unhealthier-than-usual obsession with that subject matter. You can, however, expect Bethesda to approach it with polish, sophistication and a unique sense of humour - and this is exactly where we found our half-hour hands-on demo lacking.
Fallout 3, as detailed by Kieron, concerns our young hero's search for his father in the wasteland that was once Washington DC, before a nuclear holocaust 200 years ago. At the start of the demo, we emerge from the hermetically-sealed 1950s utopia of the Vault, via a vast and elaborately clunking airlock door, into Washington's sepia-toned ruins. No doubt, it's a dramatic, heart-in-mouth moment, very well handled.
As is Fallout tradition, the game's RPG interface is tidied away into a PIP-Boy 3000 personal terminal, which your character wears on his wrist. It's actually very stylishly and economically done, giving easy and logical access to all the stats and options you could need, and graced with wryly funny drawings of Vault-Boy - the ironic, grinning, cow-licked mascot of the Fallout universe - on every screen.
Wandering forth, we're struck by the extreme openness of the landscape, characterised, as was Oblivion, by rolling inclines and carefully arranged vistas of dramatic architecture. It's several worlds away from the lush, pastoral fantasy of the Elder Scrolls, though. It's one thing to look down on destruction from an isometric viewpoint and coo over the details - it's another to look out across it, all the way to the horizon. (It's also another thing to navigate jagged, messy piles of rubble in 3D, and more than this pre-release version of the game can cope with, as our avatar descends, juddering, up to his waist in the ground.)
Visually, Fallout 3 is unremittingly bleak. So it should be, although you have to wonder if there will be enough variation in this vast wasteland to sustain interest. But let's give Bethesda's artists the benefit of the doubt on that count, because unfortunately the game has much more tangible shortcomings to take them to task on: the flat, sterile lighting, the excessive contrast, the feeble effects (excepting the mini-nuke explosions of wrecked cars' power units) and, worst by far, the hilariously, embarrassingly wooden animation.
This was a weakness of Oblivion's, too, but it's even more jarring in Fallout 3. The game presents itself in the first-person perspective, but you can pull the camera out to quite a distant third-person viewpoint and move it in full 3D. This means you can examine your character's Gerry Anderson jerking and flailing from any angle; we'd recommend you don't. Unfortunately, you can't help but observe the erratic path-finding, motionless trances and limp movements of the few enemies you encounter this early in the game. You simply can't invoke the visual style of an action game and get away with this stuff.
Enemies won't be moving at all much of the time you're fighting them, though, and that is quite deliberate, a result of the game's Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS. Much like the Pause Play in BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, this marks a sort of return by stealth of turn-based tactics into real-time RPG combat, and in both cases, we approve.
VATS allows you to stop time and spend action points on stringing together attacks. If you have a gun, you can target enemies' limbs and heads specifically - perhaps shooting a gun arm, or going for a headshot - as well as switching between targets. Once your points are spent, you cue a satisfying semi cut-scene that plays out your choices in dynamic camera cuts. Melee weapons only allow you to select whole enemies, but they're still more likely to trigger big finishing moves if you use VATS.
It's a clever system with well-implemented controls, even if its adolescent focus on creative brutality doesn't quite sit right with the game's overall tone. The problem with VATS, however, is the fact you will be compelled to use it all the time, because the real-time combat is so terrible. As Kieron noted, what worked okay in Oblivion's melee combat is not necessarily going to wash when you have a gun in your hand, and the lack of precision, sense of connection or tactile feedback is startling. (It's worth noting here that we tested the Xbox 360 version of the game, and some of these criticisms might not apply if you play on PC with a mouse.)
Fallout 3 is not an action game, though, however much it may want to be (or, perhaps more accurately, however much it's being sold as one). We're reminded of this when we level up a little way into the demo. Although our basic SPECIAL attributes are already set - Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck - levelling up gives us a chance to award skill points across a large range of more specific talents.
These are: Barter, Big Guns, Energy Weapons, Explosives, Lockpick, Medicine, Melee Weapons, Repair, Science, Small Guns, Sneak, Speech and Unarmed. In some ways this list is the most telling glimpse we can get into the depth and breadth of Fallout 3 within such a short demo. Conversation and bartering are two aspects of the game that we regretfully don't get anywhere near experiencing at E3, but given Bethesda's record and Fallout's history, we'd expect them to have some serious depth and reward, and we're looking forward to examining them more closely.
As well as skill points, you also get to pick a Perk when you level up. This is a themed set of extra skill points or character-specialisation modifiers with a jokey title, such as Little Leaguer (extra damage with the baseball bat) or Daddy's Boy (extra skill points in Repair and Science). It's the only strong flash of character and style we get from the game in our brief hands-on, although it does sound one bum note: Lady Killer gives you extra damage against female enemies, and "unique dialogue options" when talking to female NPCs. Sorry, Bethesda, that's not satirical, it's just crass and misogynistic.
The game's showing in the Microsoft press conference was something of a bum note as well, with its gleeful ultra-violence and portable nukes failing to evoke the more down-to-earth flavour of grit Fallout is known for. We accept that was probably a hard sell for a broad audience, though. We accept that the game's setting, however dreary within the context of gaming in general, is refreshing within the world of RPGs. Above all, we accept that it's impossible to properly judge a game as vast as this in such a short time span, and that it undoubtedly has many hidden riches.
But beyond that, there are simple questions of quality that it's impossible to avoid: characterless art, cold visuals, wonky animation, weak real-time combat, off-kilter writing. As it stands, Fallout 3 just doesn't feel right, and it will leave many players shivering for warmth in its nuclear winter.
Fallout 3 is due out on PC, PS3 and 360 this October.