“Fallout 3,” out now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, is a deliciously mutated role-playing game, fitting given the game's post-apocalyptic fiction.
The well-worn conventions of the RPG genre — quests, loot and leveling up — remain intact, yet “Fallout 3” feels utterly distinct and vital. Pulse-pounding combat mashed up with extensive character customization and engrossing exploration makes for an unforgettable gaming experience.
Add a healthy dose of twisted humor and one of the richest game worlds ever created and “Fallout 3” becomes a no-brainer for game of the year.
The first two “Fallout” PC games came out in 1997 and 1998. They attracted a devout cult following and established the framework for the current game's story.
Borrowing details freely from George Miller's “Mad Max” movies, “Fallout 3” is set in 2277. The Capital Wasteland is what's left of Washington D.C. after a global nuclear war 200 years prior. Fallout shelters, known as Vaults, protected the fortunate citizens during the war; the residents of Vault 101, however, never ventured back outside.
You, the player, are born in Vault 101. Your doctor father attends to the birth, during which you choose the gender and name of your character. The introductory level of “Fallout 3” introduces you to the control scheme, game mechanics and back story as your game persona grows through his teenage years.
As a toddler you read a book called “You're SPECIAL” which cleverly lays out the system used to customize your character. SPECIAL, an anagram for the different abilities you can assign points to as you gather experience throughout the game, stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck.
When Dad unexpectedly escapes the Vault and the administration suspects you as an accomplice, you have no choice but to join him in the Wasteland. Once topside, Dad's nowhere to be found. Your first of many quests is to locate your old man.
The Wasteland is a perilous place and monitoring your health and managing the items, weapons and ammo you collect are critical to staying alive. All Vault dwellers receive a wrist-mounted device called a Pip-Boy 3000 and its screen displays maps, inventory and health information.
One of the greatest accomplishments in “Fallout 3” is the gloriously detailed, unbelievably vast world of the Capital Wasteland. The scene of decimation and ruin that greets your character after exiting the Vault is breathtaking, and the game is full of knockout cinematic moments.
Crumbling overpasses, twisted husks of cars and blackened trees mark the dusty, brown landscape. As you venture forth across the rubble, it won't be long before you run into the first of many hostile inhabitants.
Raiders roam the wasteland, hell-bent on rape and pillage. Rad roaches, gigantic mole rats and feral dogs pose a constant threat.
Combat is another “Fallout 3” masterstroke. Any time an enemy is within sight you can engage the Pip-Boy's Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S., which pauses the action. Your foe is displayed as a collection of zones, each with a hit percentage. With a flick of the controller's stick you can target specific body areas. Attacks can be chained together, each using up action points, until the points are exhausted.
Once you've queued up attacks in V.A.T.S. the point of view switches to a cinematic scene, complete with over-the-top gore, of your planned attack.
Action points slowly regenerate. While you're waiting you can continue the fight in first-person view although it is decidedly less elegant and accurate.
While searching for Pops you'll run into a wild and woolly cast of characters: wanderers, super mutants, armored Paladin soldiers, whores and traders. Interaction is via text choices displayed on-screen. You have a choice of positive, neutral and negative responses – just be prepared to accept the consequences of your tone. People may be helpful or hostile, depending on how you conduct yourself.
“Fallout 3” might sound bleak, but a twisted sense of humor keeps the game from being overwhelmingly depressing.
Situations are often darkly twisted and comical. A shopkeeper in a fortified community called Megatown enlists you to assist her in researching a Wasteland survival guide. Your chores include getting gravely injured, field-testing a giant mole rat repellent and irradiating yourself to near-death levels — all so she can take notes from the safety of Megatown. At least she hooks you up with some goodies for your troubles.
Tuning your Pip-Boy 3000 to the Galaxy News Radio station is good for a few laughs. In between the announcer's tips on weapon maintenance and irradiated ghoul etiquette, are some truly strange songs from the '40s and '50s. “Butcher Pete” by Roy Brown is a catchy little ditty about dismemberment.
The developers say that “Fallout 3” packs more than 50 hours of gameplay. While it's a lengthy game by any standards, you'll be wishing this absorbing epic would never end.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints