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.