It must be quite nice working the Bethesda booth at GamesCom.

While other publishers erect giant neon-encrusted stands advertising their wares, trying to attract as much hype as humanly possible, all Bethesda has to do is plonk a life-sized statue of Vault Boy outside their rather modest booth in the expo’s business centre and watch as the queues for Fallout 4 start to form.

It’s a testament to the quality of the relationship Bethesda has established with its audience that Fallout 4 is arguably the most hotly anticipated game of 2015. First off, it’s not like Bethesda Softworks has been resting on its laurels over the last few years; between the release of Fallout 3 in 2008 and now, the developer has kicked out The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (and a boatload of DLC) and The Elder Scrolls: Online. It’s also published the likes of Dishonored, Wolfenstein: The New Order and its expansion and The Evil Within.

More recently, Zenimax – Bethesda’s parent company – has tightened its ship considerably, announcing a new virtual card trading game based on The Elder Scrolls universe, a new Dishonored and it’s killed the sequel to RAGE in favour of producing another DOOM which, we’re very happy to say, is looking pretty good. See for yourself:

So it’s not like the Bethesda faithful have been starved for choice and it’s not like they don’t have an awful lot of awesome games in the pipeline. And yet, the announcement of Fallout 4 was greeted with the sort of fervour that usually sends expectations so far into the stratosphere that whatever a publisher releases, it won’t be enough.

At GamesCom, amazingly, Fallout 4’s demo shows that the faithful have every reason to be excited. While Bethesda hasn’t changed the Fallout formula too much since the last game – and why would it? – it has substantially improved it to the point that the prospect of travelling through post-apocalyptic Boston looks absolutely thrilling.

First up, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. levelling system is back and, as was the case in the last game, players are encouraged to pour talent points into the skills they feel they’ll need the most. Skills also have more then one application. Strength, for example, makes a player’s melee attack more damaging, but it also allows them to carry more kit; useful if you’re carrying a full load and you need to run away from a gang of mutants.

Fallout-4-Pipboy-Menu
As always, your PIP Boy will track all stats and inventory items.

Second, each basic S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skill has a perk tree connected to it and players have access to 70 basic perks. Some examples presented in the demo were ‘Gun Nut’, which allows players to tinker more effectively with firearms and ‘Bloody Mess’, which increases their chances of turning an enemy’s head into mush with a headshot.

The demo also involved 20 minutes of in-game footage set in the town of Lexington. Right at the top we were told that the town had been overrun by Feral Ghouls and that a pack of Raiders had set up camp in a nearby factory.

The first few minutes of the action involved Sole Survivor carving through Ghouls with an assortment of weapons such as the Plasma Rifle, the Flame Thrower and a scoped Shotgun. The initial skirmishes showed that the Vault-tech Assisted Targeting System (or V.A.T.S.) is still present and correct, but it’s had a little augmentation.

Fallout-4-Sniper-Laser-Rifle
Weapons can also be customised if you have the right parts.

Every shot landed while using V.A.T.S. charges a critical hit bar, which, when filled, has rather damaging – and gruesome – results. As we watched, Sole Survivor used his weapons to explode heads, remove limbs and turn numerous enemies into jam.

Fallout-4-VATS
This raider doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to become jam.

Players can also command Sole Survivor’s companion – which in this case was a dog, but we’re betting it probably works with any ally you have. Their companion doesn’t just attack, it can scout out the area ahead (growling when danger is near) and can also fetch loot from fallen enemies.

It should be pointed out at this stage that while Lexington looks – as you’d expect – like a city left dilapidated by a nuclear attack, its presentation in the game is something close to awe-inspiring. Furthermore, the animation of the different characters on the screen makes Fallout 3 look positively antiquated; ghouls clamber through cracks in walls, enemies fall over railings in back-breakingly real-looking animations and the close-up movement of Sole Survivor’s FPS perspective is as smooth as butter.

Fallout-4-Boston-Skyline
Definitely awe-inspiring.

As the demo drew to a close, Sole Survivor picked up a mini-nuke launcher called Fat Man and proceeded to scrub the town free of Ghouls and Raiders. At this point a gun-metal ship flew into view, depositing soldiers from the Brotherhood Of Steel into the fray (yes, they’re back too).

Fallout-4-VBird-Crash
Fallout guy: 1, BOS: 0.

As Sole Survivor and his new allies proceeded to carve up their opponents a bellowing roar sounded through the city square. The camera panned to the left and we were treated to our first sight of an enemy called a behemoth. Imagine a cross between the mutants from Fallout 3 and Mr Hyde from The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen on steroids and you’ll have an idea of what it looks like.

Fallout-4-Behemoth-Enemy
Or you could just look at this picture.

That, unfortunately, was where the demo ended, and as the lights in the presentation hall came up, we were struck by a couple of realisations.

First, the action we’d just seen could easily hold its own against the likes of more scripted shooters like Call Of Duty: Black Ops III, but it’s likely that every player who enters Lexington (once Fallout 4 is out) will probably have a very different experience to the one presented in the demo. Fallout 4 remains as open-ended as its predecessor and players are able to approach it any way that suits them.

Fallout-4-Withered-Forest
This creepy forest is but one location in a huge open world.

Second, the 20 minutes of footage presented at GamesCom represents a minuscule morsel of Fallout 4. The game isn’t just deep mechanically, it’s a massive time sink and it’s easily capable of swallowing hours of your time.

In short, on the evidence of what was shown in the demo, it’s likely that the 11th of November this year – which is when the game is slated for release – belongs to Fallout 4.

Yes, it must be quite nice working at Bethesda’s booth at GamesCom 2015.

//Update

This article was updated to correct the protagonist’s name. It’s not Vault Boy, of course, it’s Sole Survivor. We also corrected a reference to dual wielding in the Gun Nut perk, which actually allows players to mod their weapons. Thanks to the Fallout 4 forums for calling us out on those mistakes.