Fruit Brute and I got a few tightly-scheduled moments with Fallout 3 last week, and the experience managed to be all I'd hoped and familiar at the same time. What's familiar is the lore and world of Fallout, which Bethesda has managed to reproduce and elaborate upon in a way that only a company that focuses on complete world building can do. Fallout purists may still resent Bethesda's position, but as a die-hard Fallout fan myself, I was more than satisfied.
What's also familiar is the control scheme and general gameplay environment - if you've played Oblivion, you'll find a lot of familiar elements here. That's no surprise, of course, as we've known this would be both a Fallout game and a Bethesda game, but the menu system, camera, and basic control layout are all more or less the same.
What's new kicks butt: The V.A.T.S. targeting system works very well even in a 3D game that feels, at times, like a shooter - but isn't. Pausing battle to zoom in on your enemy, see which of his body parts are exposed and the chance you've got to hit each of them - this is a very functional mechanic. It feels almost like a "bullet time" mode, only it won't suddenly switch back to real time.
The familiar menu system is incorporated into the Pip Boy, Fallout's version of a post-nuclear ipod, and the addition of radio channels helps flesh out the world and lead you on toward your goal - as you roam the world you'll pick up new stations, such as the Galaxy News channel we picked up as we neared the town of Megaton, which helped fill in some of the story.
We managed to play the first bit of the game after the character exits the vault - I ran around Megaton interacting with characters and picking up quests as fast as I could, since we were on the clock, and took out many mutants, ghouls and humans on our brief sojourn.
Also like Oblivion, a huge percentage of the world is optional, so the work put into creating a sprawling, ruined world filled with death and decay should pay off most to players interested in exploring a post apocalyptic landscape. Just in my few moments with the game I realized that there was more than I could possibly absorb in one sitting, so like many of you I'm still desperately awaiting Fallout 3's release later this year.