An early look at Bethesda's revival of the iconic Fallout series.
As I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire by The Ink Spots crackles from an antique transistor radio, the camera pans round to reveal a decaying school bus surrounded by the wasteland that is Washington DC, 200 years after a nuclear explosion.
Based on this cinematic opening, fans of the Fallout series will be relieved to hear that Bethesda is intent on capturing its retro-futuristic style, drawing from the same 1950s science fiction influences.
The beginning of the game is in stark contrast to its stylish intro; in a gaming first, you control your character during his or her birth. When the doctor declares "You look just like your father", you are taken to the character creation screen where you can decide how your character will look as an adult. Character creation is flexible and very easy to use, and it is possible to create realistic likenesses of yourself or anybody else. In a nice touch, your father looks a lot like whoever you create, but with more wrinkles.
When you have created your character, time jumps forward two years, and you are a toddler in your playroom. As you crawl around and interact with your toys, you are introduced to the basic control scheme and a book entitled You are Special, which allows you to assign attributes to your character. S.P.E.C.I.A.L is an acronym used throughout the Fallout series for the seven physical attributes - strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck.
These early childhood levels are essentially a tutorial, and one that is handled with great panache, cleverly avoiding the deluge of text menus that makes many RPGs daunting to begin with. Also, they work well as storytelling devices; you feel a stronger emotional attachment to your character and you gain a greater understanding of their relationship with their father, whose disappearance is the motivation for leaving Vault 101 for the wasteland.
The last of these introductory levels takes you to your tenth birthday party, where you are given your Pip-Boy 3000 - a computer worn on the wrist that gives access to your status, skills and weapons. The scene is also an introduction to the brilliant dialogue system that allows the player to dictate exactly how they interact with other characters.
In the example that was shown, the local bully demands a sweet roll and the player is given five options, ranging from handing it over, to answering back, to spitting on the roll and giving it to him. Choosing the latter angers him and he lashes out, only for an adult to walk over and break up the scuffle, opening another choice of responses.
Once you leave Vault 101, you are free to explore the vast wasteland and play the game however you like. There's a huge arsenal of weapons, including a massive mini-gun and a devastating nuclear bomb catapult. Enemies include: giant mutated insects; humans who have been exposed to radiation and can be spoken to, but may not be friendly; and feral ghouls - scavengers who prowl the city like zombies.
A man's best friend
Keeping you company is your pet dog, Dogmeat. You can send him out to search for food, ammunition and medical equipment, but look after him because if he dies, he's gone for good.
An interesting new feature is the Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS), which allows the player to pause the game during battle and target specific body parts on an enemy or enemies, creating a hybrid between the game's real time combat and the turn based system of earlier Fallout titles. When you have chosen which area you want to target - head, torso or specific limbs - the game cuts to a cinematic sequence showing the success of your attacks in gory detail. The system works well, and offers the tactical opportunity to take out particularly dangerous foes when involved in larger battles.
So far, it looks like Bethesda is capable of achieving the impossible in terms of satisfying the demands of Fallout fans. The developer has incorporated many of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's strengths, while keeping these grounded in the Fallout universe. The game's greatest achievement is capturing the dichotomy between the desolate, post-apocalyptic world and the kitsch 1950s iconography that made Fallout's visual style so memorable.
There may be a new developer on board but one thing hasn't changed: "War. War never changes."
Abandoned cities reclaimed by nature. A population decimated by a modern plague.
$69.95 - a small price, a year of gaming.