In games, as in movies, answers tend to hide behind doors. And they don't get much bigger than the door to Vault 101 at the start of Fallout 3, having kept its nuclear bunker safe from the irradiated remains of good ol' USA for a few hundred years. Early on in Bethesda's game, you'll get to open this door. And what lies beyond? A loading screen.
As Oli's preview mentioned, Fallout 3 is not the most technically impressive game you'll see this year - the load screens that interrupt proceedings when you move between locations can kick in at jarring moments, the story's post-apocalyptic wilderness is often flat and low-res, and in third-person view, your character moves with an unlikely bounce in his step, which, at times, suggests he's trying to keep his spirits up while navigating this ruined wasteland by indulging in a spot of power-walking.
Things get significantly better at night, however, as the starry sky adds a monochrome sense of menace to the location, and even during the day, there are still plenty of nice touches to the design, such as a broken-backed flyover rising into the distant sky, or the discovery of a picket-fence-and-clapboard community, presumably once picture postcard idyllic, and long since shredded by a nuclear blast. Fallout 3 doesn't look terrible by any means, it simply seems disconcertingly inconsistent: the game offers up vast draw distances but has little to fill them with, and presents brilliantly menacing mutated enemies that often clip through the ground when you've killed them.
We've been shown a lot of Fallout 3 recently, but it's tended to focus on the combat, with its uneasy alliance of the super-powered VATS [Vault-tech Assisted Targeting System] allowing you to freeze time and cue-up shots on body parts, multiple enemies, and even grenades that are winging their way through the air towards you, and the slightly awkward real-time FPS mode, which we found we only really wanted to use when we'd been caught entirely unawares, or were backing up rather speedily from an advancing dog. One system's fun and makes you feel powerful, the other's annoying and makes you feel like you're trying to catch a fly with chopsticks in the middle of a coughing fit - it's hard to see how Bethesda are going to square this circle.
This is all rather concerning, but so much of Fallout's success is tied to other things, such as the manner in which the game draws you into its characters' lives, and the quality of side quests for which Bethesda is famous. So, on our recent trip out of the vault, we headed not for combat on the shattered highway leading to DC, but towards the patchwork, rusting, and gantry-heavy community of Megaton - a shanty-town built around an unexploded nuclear warhead - to lay down our guns and spend an hour chatting, before taking off on a quest or two.
Bad news first: when it comes to dialogue, Fallout 3 remains something of a stubborn throwback, unwilling to step away from traditional one-on-one interrogation mechanics and explore the new possibilities of a post-Mass Effect world. With no hint of radial selection or keyword attitude choices which seemed likely to become the RPG's version on Halo's rechargeable shield - a genre standard by virtue of near-unanimous theft - instead, a quick introductory conversation with the mayor of Megaton reveals that Fallout 3 is sticking with a system largely unchanged from the days of Monkey Island.
In other words, there's a selection of detailed conversation starters giving way to a deep tangle of dialogue trees. While these trees are impressively large, and the dialogue itself is fairly snappy and pretty good at providing a sense of individual character when the voice acting stumbles, the system remains oddly basic given the pleasant surprises Mass Effect was constantly delivering in the way your quick choices actually played out. There's nothing broken about Fallout 3's system, it's just no longer the best one available.
And the wider presentation method doesn't help: the mayor may be an engaging character, ragged yet proud, and quickly revealed as a canny pragmatist, but the disconcerting head-on view taken directly from Oblivion, along with the limited animation, means these things have to be conveyed mainly by the written word. Equally, what we've seen of the game's Karma system suggests that Bethesda's determination not to wrong-foot or confuse its players has lead to a moral compass that's black and white and a little heavy-handed.
Dialogue is not the only sign that Fallout 3 is slightly old-fashioned. A trip to the local saloon in search of side quests reveals that the game's world can be slow to react to your presence, or often even acknowledge it. The saloon door is locked, meaning we have to tease it open with picks (instigating a simple but entertaining mini-game). This is all a little strange, as, once inside, we find that the place is actually open for business after all, and the saloon owner, who boasts a lovely silver mullet and a voice like Terry Wogan, doesn't seem to mind - or notice - that we've just forced our way in. More worrying is that, moments later, when we accidentally fire a round into the wall when trying to talk to the barman, nobody in the room so much as flinches.
But if the game retains much of Oblivion's aging traditions and limitations, the good news is that it also seems to have kept its richness in terms of content. Accepting a simple item delivery side quest from a Megaton local quickly proves to be an opportunity to peer into a hearteningly deep - and entirely optional - well of unique content. What starts as a mission to take a message to a townsperson's family who are now living in a distant settlement, soon became an intriguing multi-part narrative in its own right, leading us far across the wilderness to a terrified and terrorised outpost perched on the edge of a shattered highway spar, and then on to a series of unsettling derelict mountain dwellings for a confrontation with a very strange and malevolent group of trouble-makers.
Not only does this mini-narrative manage to offer a variety of interesting characters alongside a gently unfolding mystery, it also provides a range of different gameplay experiences, from exploration through to tracking, and, eventually, a perilous midnight shoot-out - all the while adding a tangible sense of depth to the game's setting. Other RPGs may be slicker in terms of presentation, but few companies have Bethesda's skill for spinning out such surprising and involving incidental stories, and this attention to character and pacing speaks well for the mysterious central narrative of the game.
But a single side quest or a half hour of chatting and shooting is no indicator of overall quality with a game like Fallout 3 that needs days, rather than hours, to get a true sense of. Our ninety minutes of exploration certainly raised a few concerns, with gunplay that we were often happier to run away from than engage with, and characters who would repeat the same handful of lines and were quick to forget the fact that we'd been shooting at them two minutes previously, but it also suggested a rich and engaging wealth of storytelling waiting to be explored. Whether the quality of the content allows it to rise above the sometimes glitchy delivery remains to be seen.
It's this clash of unpolished presentation and strong storytelling that may ultimately define what you make of Fallout 3. From what we've seen, however, it's tempting to suggest that Bethesda has unwittingly taken the game's theme of retro-futurism too much to heart. Confusing as it seems, Fallout 3 may represent the future of yesterday's RPGs, going back to when they were cruel, stubborn, and yet filled with memorable stories, rather than an evolution of the flashy, friendly, and often anaemic titles of today.
That's a possibility rich with both delights and frustrations and suggests, if nothing else, Bethesda's game will be a welcome oddity. With a release approaching, then, and very little revealed about the central plot or how any of these gameplay pieces will fit together, it's still hard to judge how much time you'll ultimately want to spend in such radioactive and unpredictable settings.
Fallout 3 is due out later this year on PS3, 360 and PC.