Fallout 3

In 1997, Interplay published Fallout, a post-apocalyptic role-playing game noted for funny, challenging open-ended gameplay. A year earlier, Bethesda Softworks released The Elder Scrolls II, a fantasy RPG also praised for allowing players great freedom. Interplay is long gone, but in 2006, Bethesda released Oblivion, an Elder Scrolls entry with cutting-edge visuals. Great acclaim followed (for open-ended gameplay, natch) and Bethesda promptly purchased the Fallout franchise for an Oblivion-style makeover.

The result is a clever blend of role-playing and first-person action. Sadly missing is much of Fallout's pervasive humor; better omissions are Oblivion's silly adaptive difficulty (your enemies were always as powerful as you were) and too-generous character progression.

You'll begin Fallout 3 in Vault 101, a corporate bomb shelter sealed since the Big One. Ejected into a post-nuke wasteland after your father escapes the Vault, you might immediately follow in his footsteps or choose to explore an irradiated landscape littered with needy victims and ruthless raiders. Moral choices are reflected in how characters approach you down the road; embody virtue or vice, and story options will invisibly disappear while others unfold.

Scripted characters provide quests and storylines of impressive variety. You might recover a Stradivarius for an old woman (and subsequently be able to tune a radio to hear her music) or track down an android straight out of Blade Runner. Combat can be played in loose first-person style or using a targeting system that displays successful hits in gory slow motion. And whether you're delving into abandoned Vaults or invading the gorgeously crumbling Washington Monument, the loving sense of design adds grimy appeal to the apocalypse.

Beyond the game: Your paternal quest is the core story; once that's concluded, the game ends, full stop. But that represents perhaps a quarter of the content. Play for 30 hours, and you still might not find the downed UFO or explore the settlement dominated by warring would-be superheroes.

Worth playing for: The sense of possibility that pervades even when you know how the story "ends."

Frustration sets in when: The in-game map is often useless due to unclear detail. The problem is pronounced in downtown D.C., where you'll navigate countless dead ends, invisible barriers, and shattered metro tunnels while attempting to recover the Declaration Of Independence from robots dressed as the founding fathers.

Final judgment: A massive, enthralling achievement.

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