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Fallout 3

A falling out.

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.

You can't see this poor thing's other head. We tried to shoot it off, but sadly VATS doesn't discriminate.

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.)

"Super Mutant Behemoth". Shoot it in the face. Or the Fire Hydrant, if you like.

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.