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Game Review: 'Fallout 3'

Bill Hutchens
"Fallout 3" Systems: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 Developer: Bethesda Softworks Web site: fallout.bethsoft.com Price: $49.95-$59.95 Rating: M (Mature for blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language and use of drugs). Stars: Five (out of five)

Bethesda Sofworks deftly handled the depiction of medieval-style worlds full of swords and sorcery in the "Elder Scrolls" games. Now they have delivered a phenomenally fun post-apocalyptic adventure in "Fallout 3."

You can call it a first-person shooter if you really need the label, but it's much more than that with a full complement of role-playing game features and an engaging epic story.

The game starts at your birth and follows your early life inside an experimental communal bomb shelter. But before long, you'll find yourself outside "the vault" and contending with a wide, wild and desolate world.

Once you're outside, things go "Beyond Thunderdome" pretty quickly as you deal with the harsh landscape and its mutant denizens. It's an expansive world, and although it's a nightmarish scene it beckons for you to discover its many secrets.

It doesn't take long to feel overwhelmed by the number of options available to you. You'll have to decide which skills and specialties your character will develop. Are you going to focus on big guns and medicine kits? Repair skills and melee combat? Lockpicking and charming your way out of trouble? Deciding on your character's specialties is almost as difficult as declaring a major in college when you're not really sure what you want to do with your life. It should suffice to say that you simply can't do everything with one character and one run through the game, a situation that gives "Fallout 3" some very high replay value.

The first thing you should do after escaping the vault is head to the small town of Megaton, a stalwart little enclave built inside a deep bomb crater. Explore a bit first if you want to, but you'll probably come up against some giant mutant bugs and radioactive dogs that might prove too much for you if you haven't properly outfitted yourself in town.

As in the "Elder Scrolls" games, you'll find interesting people in every settlement you come across, and they'll often have tasks you can perform for them. In Megaton, for instance, you might agree to make a food-and-medicine excursion to a burned-out supermarket in the remains of a nearby city. Or, if you've chosen to make your character more mechanically inclined, you might stick around town and try to fix some problems with a water purifier or defuse a giant bomb resting at the bottom of the crater.

If you go on the supplies run into the city, it won't take long for you to encounter some "Road Warrior"-type raiders who disapprove of your poking around. This is when your combat abilities will come in handy. Regardless of whether you're using pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles or baseball bats, Fallout 3 offers some of the most engaging (albeit gory) combat in gaming so far this year. This comes by way of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or VATS, a particularly vicious evolution of the old "bullet time" effects popularized in the "Matrix" movies.

The VATS system allows players to pause combat and target specific enemy body parts. If you have enough Action Points, you might be able to target an arm on one enemy, a leg on another and the head of still another. Once you have made your selections, you can "un-pause" the battle and watch your attacks play out in all their bloody splendor.

There's an overarching story in "Fallout 3," one that sends you on a quest to find your lost father and help restore some beauty and hope to a desolate world. You can blaze through this main story line in a few days, but I highly recommend participating in every piece of side story you can get your hands on. It'll give you a chance to see more of the gigantic and well-designed game world and learn more about its interesting in habitants.

The story branches out in more directions than I've ever seen in a video game, so you'll need to play through many times to see what happens when you make different choices at pivotal plot points. As in the "Elder Scrolls" games before it, you could spend hundreds of hours playing "Fallout 3" and still find something new in a far corner of a vast and mysterious world.

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