17th Aug 2007 | 11:02
As the narration hits its stride and a skull and ribcage half-buried in sand appear in Fallout 3's introduction, I suppress the little voice that's asking, no, begging me to stand up, stride around Bethesda's viewing area Poirot-style with my index finger raised in the air before pointing directly at the game's executive producer and loudly saying: "I put it to you, Todd Howard, that this very scene is taken directly - directly! - from the image you saw when you died in Fallout!"
At this point everyone would have applauded, and Howard would have come down from his control platform and given me a medal for being the biggest, bestest Fallout fan that there ever was. I would then have rolled over to let him tickle my tummy and we'd live forever in a little house on a prairie, where I'd often fetch sticks for him.
It's a strange fantasy (my girlfriend is a patient soul), but one that hit me again, and again and again as I was guided through the newly first person-ised wastes of Fallout 3. And I'm not just talking about the reappearance of Vault Boy's friendly face, or even the PIPBoy PDA gloriously strapped to your wrist. I'm talking about the little things. Within the Vault 101 itself even ventilation shafts, previously a smattering of pixels high that said 'rattle rattle rattle' when you fiddled them, give an almost uncanny sensation of déjà vu.
The same is true top-side as you enter the town of Megaton and a wary local sheriff warns you not to misbehave (as they always would back in the day before you did misbehave); or stand outside the Washington DC HQ of Galaxy News and see the globe that previously spun in intro scenes of previous Fallouts rendered as a glorious 3D statue. Much time has passed, but the whole damn thing just reeks of Fallout. Whoever thought there could be quite so many shades of brown?
The Fallout treatise states that come the year 2077, everyone lives in a very Jetsons-esque future - Mr Handy robots trundle around being helpful and saying "Good day to you sir!", and cars are powered by nuclear fusion. Unfortunately though, mankind still hasn't quite kicked the habit of murdering people, and things, quite spectacularly, fall apart.
A quick cut to 200 years into the future and the world is an arid, irradiated wasteland - peppered with death, decay, rusted-out cars harbouring rather explosive engines and cheery robots who have learned to call you a 'stupid git' as soon as your back is turned.
The game proper, as most things do, begins with a birth: your birth, deep within the loving steel confines of Vault 101. It's at this point that your masked father runs a DNA test on you, letting you choose your basic character details such as race and sex, after which your father will magically remove his mask to show that he shares the same genetic material.
He'll always have the voice of Liam Neeson though, that's a given.
Later, as the action skips to your first birthday, old Qui-Gon will presumably blow a party streamer in your face (I didn't actually see this bit) before presenting you with a book called 'You're SPECIAL!' in which you can choose your attributes. Then when you're 16, having presumably warned you of the dangers of unprotected sex, Rob Roy rushes you into a G.O.A.T. test for you to choose some specific skills.
200 years of isolation have bred a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, with an almost dictatorial leader who has an intense mistrust of the outside world. Indeed, the Orwellian overtones of both the Vault's number and the nearby presence of Washington DC suggests that Bethesda may well be about to get a mite more political than previous Elder Scrolls bouts with Emperor Curious Septic III, or whoever.
Nevertheless your early years are a little less profound - dealing with a gang of Rebel Without A Cause-style greasers called the Tunnel Snakes who habitually pick on a good lady friend of yours (or ignoring them should you wish), and generally getting along with life underground.
Until, that is, your father disappears when you're 19 - and your isolationist Overseer assumes you had something to do with his disappearance topside. You know what happens next.
"That is one big gun!" half-shouts the idiot German journalist who's been sitting next to me as he desperately tries to impress our hosts. I shake my head. He'll never get a medal for being special, not like me.
"That is NOT a gun," affirms Todd Howard from his control platform, as I cross my legs, purse my lips and sashay my lower back and shoulders in the fool's direction. It's actually a gigantic metal key, hanging from the rafters - as any fule kno. It's just waiting for you to hack into the computer system to see it plunge into that beautiful cog door and let in some fresh air to the accompanied screams of Vault dwellers: "He's opening the door! Someone call the Overseer!"
Then it's a brief clamber over long-dropped placards reading, 'Let us in you fuckers!', and a brief ascent into daylight. Now, if we were playing the original games at this point there'd be a half-hour battle with 25 angry rats - so even the most fervent of interweb FO3 naysayers will have to admit that an element of progress has been made...
So we're out in the wasteland - where the Bethesda buzzword is that post-Oblivion, 'destruction is the new trees'. Blasted rocks, a frazzled petrol station and simple burnt desert make up your initial impressions of an area roughly the same size as that of Cyrodiil - albeit with far less (yet far more interesting) inhabitants.
It's here that, rummaging around in your Vault-issued and numeral-emblazoned boiler suit, you'll get the first taste of combat - against the giant ants, rad-scorpions and general irradiated critters of this new frontier.
SHOOT TO KILL
The simple way is to aim the hollower end of your weapon towards an oncoming foe and click your old friend the left-mouse button, but thankfully it isn't always that simple. Your V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) means that, should you have enough action points, time can be frozen and specific shots or swipes made - with each potential hit area outlined in a fetching green timbre with percentage likelihoods for your attack hitting home depending on your skills and attributes.
A leg-shot might result in your enemy limping, an arm-shot might result in a dropped weapon, an antenna-shot might result in an extremely confused giant ant and a head-shot might result in a slo-mo bullet camera-chase and a satisfying burst of meaty chunks and claret. What with action points regenerating over time, it's a nimble way of merging the old school with the new school. Ending up with middle school, I suppose; only with even more swearing and violence.
Any caveats so far? Well, I'm a huge Fallout fan. You don't really get much bigger. (Well, you do but I guess I'm the smiling face of an unhappy bunch - one far less susceptible to throwing furniture at the walls or squatting atop my swivel chair, holding my knees, hopping up and down and hooting balefully at the internet.) I was just slightly concerned by the emphasis on spectacle and high-intensity action on show at my sneak-peek's climax - namely picking up a Fatboy missile launcher and firing miniature nukes at a goliath super-mutant behemoth.
Now, I'm just as aroused at the thought of running through a wrecked Washington DC with the famed Brotherhood of Steel as the next man - but for me, Fallout should be more subtle, almost like a cinematic Western in its approach. Games developers often throw in as much eye candy as humanly possible into their early presentations because they assume games journalists are stupid and only respond to the loudest and most blatant stimuli. And I honestly hope that this is the case here and that, as it was in the earlier games, the absolutely stupid big guns only come out in the end-game.
The same stand-off between spectacle and subtlety is perhaps true of the BIG DECISION laid forth with Megaton - essentially choosing whether or not to vaporise it. Megaton itself is a lovingly constructed little area - a place which, having had my threat level assessed by robot law-enforcer Deputy Weld, opened itself up through the machinations of an ancient airplane engine and fuselage.
Here, happy cult members (helpfully indicated by a direction sign marked 'Local Cult') worship an unexploded bomb, while townspeople go about their business - all of whom seem to have similar voice-actors to Oblivion by the way, even if they are far more expressive in looks, sounds and motion this time. Oh, and I'm sure that Megaton Sheriff looks just like one of Cyrodiil's Redguard guard models.
WHICH TO CHOOSE
But let's not drown ourselves in little details - we're talking life or death here. Radio-detonate the bomb at the behest of a stranger and watch the pretty mushroom cloud, or dob in the bastard to the local constabulary. Or just kill him and blow it up anyway?
The choice, as they say, is yours! It's this kind of final decision-making, actions after which there is no going back, that are key to Fallout 3 - and indeed, its previous incarnations. The explosive format of the decision itself is a little extravagant for my tastes, but hey - at least it's there.
But what else haven't I told you yet? The neat hacking mini-game in which you spot words in a wall of computer code (far better than BioShock's effort, I reckon). The fact that drug addiction and jet abuse is still rife in the wastes. The delightful way in which a re-energised and rather officious underground-train bot will demand tickets from super-mutants ("tickets please!", "stupid robot!") before rating them as a 'threat level Omega' and blasting them into chunks. The return of the two-headed brahmin.
The way your PIPBoy can play holodiscs just as it could before, and pick up radio stations to boot - a DJ on one of which can give you missions, then talk about you between songs. The fact that one of the bits of Washington DC you visit is called Chevy Chase. Is that a real bit of the American capital or Bethesda making a joke? It's funny either way.
GET YOUR SHADES ON
With solo role-playing now condensed by the required mega-budgets into rare high-impact releases, next year is looking pretty hot. With BioWare offering Dragon Age and (in all likelihood) Mass Effect, and Bethesda doing the Vault Boy dance come autumn, the stage is set for us to pump a huge amount of hours into fantasy, space and apocalyptic future alike.
Will the rubric of Fallout 3 reach the depth that the fanboy inside me demands? It certainly has the potential to. It's a tried-and-tested stonker of a game concept, in the hands of some genuinely passionate people who have adopted the licence as if it were one of their own. The wasteland seems to want us back, and I for one can't wait for the first bomb to drop.