Fallout 3 has a lot to live up to. Many regard the first two games in the series as RPG classics - free-roaming worlds of postmodern danger and moral consequences. Fortunately, Fallout 3 is one of the most persistently absorbing role-playing worlds ever created.

Sheltered existence

My own experience begins, just as yours will, in a makeshift birthing chamber in a sealed Vault deep beneath the nuke-blasted ruins of Washington, DC. I chose a white male (but there are options galore) and tweaked him into a fair approximation of myself using facial dimension sliders and a small library of hair styles. I then leapfrogged through childhood and adolescence, shaping my vital statistics and core skills until I hit the age of 19; that's when my Father disappeared into the wastelands and I headed out on his trail.

It's easy to obsess about the decisions you make during your formative years. Do you fancy yourself a beefy brawler or a stealthy marksman? Do you put a little extra into your strength, so you can carry more gear, or boost your intelligence, so you earn more skill points to spend on thirteen core abilities? You can even choose from dozens of special "perks" as you gain levels, like Swift Learner or Gun Nut. However, not long after I set foot on the irradiated soil of the surface it became clear that these are the least of the choices I would face the sprawling and desolate wonderland. Within 10 minutes of stepping outside, I'm inspecting the nuclear warhead that rests in the centre of the town of Megaton, trying to decide if my character is the kind of guy who would defuse or detonate this dangerous relic.

NEXT PAGE: choose your own adventure

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Fallout 3 has a lot to live up to. Many regard the first two games in the series as RPG classics - free-roaming worlds of postmodern danger and moral consequences. Fortunately, Fallout 3 is one of the most persistently absorbing role-playing worlds ever created.

Choose your own adventure

From the sheer acreage of the world and the astounding level of detail inherent in the environment, you get the impression that Fallout 3 is all about exploration. You can set out to catalogue every inch of this ashen world's crumbling highways and pockmarked monuments, and the variety of horrors and wonders you'll uncover along the way provide plenty of thrills.

Whether you're enduring radiation sickness in a flooded city rail station, hacking a defence computer to help clean a derelict museum of green-skinned Super Mutants, or disarming mines while a crazed elderly sniper goes wild in a forgotten and distant suburb, you could write one hell of a personal history without ever talking to another person.

You would, however, miss out on what transforms Fallout 3 from a great game into a bona fide classic. Sure, the people you'll run into seem to have adjusted just a little too well to a world where every glass of water comes with a heaping helping of radiation, and you'll get pretty tired of hearing the same voice come out of dozens of supposedly different people.

But the quests these jokers dole out demand that you make some pretty major decisions, and accept the far-reaching consequences that accompanies each and every action. Will you earn good karma points by fighting for android rights and foiling corrupt government goons, or get yourself addicted to drugs and kill indiscriminately? Between the list of branching quests and the deep well of character development options, Fallout 3's replayability is incalculable.

Target rich environment

Of course, you'd never experience that long-term satisfaction if the moment-to-moment gameplay weren't so outstanding. I learned in my early showdowns that though it's possible to play Fallout 3 as a straight first-person shooter, it's much more fun to put the Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System (VATS) to good use whenever possible.

Depending on your agility, you're given a recharging supply of Action Points to spend on attacks. Tap a button to pause combat, queue up precision shots on selected body parts, and tap another to watch the carnage play out in gruesome slow-motion displays of exaggerated bloodshed. Cripple a charging lizard's leg to slow him down, or go for the head shot. Take out a giant ant's antennae, and it'll attack its buddies in a confused frenzy.

I was worried that this periodic pausing would kill the pace of combat, and that the graphic displays of decapitation, dismemberment, and death would grow tiresome even with the added explosive gore of frag grenades and the Bloody Mess perk.

Instead, I found that the variety of monsters and locales made almost every situation feel unique in some way, and the large library of salvaged and custom-made weaponry gave me all the tactical flexibility I could ever want. Whether you've got a taste for lasers, rockets, mines, shells, bullets, or fisticuffs, Fallout 3's combat is always challenging and entertaining.

NEXT PAGE: crowd control

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Fallout 3 has a lot to live up to. Many regard the first two games in the series as RPG classics - free-roaming worlds of postmodern danger and moral consequences. Fortunately, Fallout 3 is one of the most persistently absorbing role-playing worlds ever created.

Crowd control

I can't claim to know how exactly the monsters scale as you level, but I definitely met with more varied resistance than I ever did in Oblivion, a game that Fallout 3 obviously shares many similarities with. Some areas are almost impenetrable until you develop to a certain level of fitness, while others yield to thoughtful analysis of your strategic options.

Some monsters slowly but surely become easier to take down as your skills improve, just as even more formidable opponents come out of the woodwork. As a result, I found I grew steadily more attached to my ever-improving character, and sought out more and more perilous situations with which to test his mettle. Radscorpions, raiders, and mutants eventually seem like child's play compared to glowing ghouls, power-armoured Enclave stooges and laser-shooting robots.

In all the many hours that I played Fallout 3, the only time I ever stopped enjoying myself was when I had to contend with NPC partners who couldn't walk twenty feet without getting confused about how to follow me. If that's the biggest complaint I can find to lodge against this dark, deep, and detailed voyage to the other side of Armageddon, one thing is crystal clear: you need to play this game. It truly lives up to the hype and sets the bar high for every RPG that will come after it. It's an instant classic and one that will occupy your time for a long time to come.

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Fallout 3: Specs

  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Windows PC
  • Sony PlayStation 3
  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Windows PC
  • Sony PlayStation 3

OUR VERDICT

The first two Fallout titles are classics in their own right but Fallout 3 might just be the best one yet. Heck, it might just be the best console RPG of all time. It's deep, complex and tremendously addictive. From the amazing character development system to the engaging and satisfying combat, Fallout 3 has everything you could want in an RPG experience. Play this game. Seriously. Do it.

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