There's something about post-apocalyptic stories that is both disturbing and strangely, sadistically appealing at the same time.

They are little imaginary windows to an existence where modern civilisation fails, and the earth reverts to the Lord of the Flies on a global scale.

It seems almost incomprehensible that the world could change so dramatically from the comfortable existence we enjoy, but occasionally Mother Nature issues us with a reality check by wiping out a small part of the world with apparent ease, so it's worth remembering that nothing is forever.

Of course man can be almost as destructive as nature. Over many millennia we've developed from simple primates unable to stand upright, to discovering fire, language, developing agriculture, domesticating animals, forming civilisations, understanding philosophy, creating the renaissance, medicine, magnificent feats of construction and engineering, as well as the rudimentary stages of space travel and even harnessing the power of the very stuff that makes up the universe.

Yes, Man now dominates this world and the future is looking rosy. That is, provided we don't destroy ourselves with our newly acquired and hard-won mastery of such things as the atom.

But in this apocalyptic alternate universe, that is exactly what we do. In a frenzy of human aggression we scorch the skies and burn the landscape, poison the seas and rivers and lakes, and devastate our great cities in a nuclear exchange that almost puts an end to all humanity and everything else on Earth.

Thank goodness for the Vaults.

Welcome to the Fallout universe. It's one of the darkest gaming environments imaginable. It's the shattered aftermath of a nuclear war fought over resources - in particular, oil (a topic that's close to home right now, isn't it?).

Similar to the previous Fallout games, you play as a descendant of a Vault-dweller - Vaults being the mighty underground structures where humanity retreated to when they decided to end the world.

As constant as gravity, in life there are three things you can rely on. Death, petrol prices not declining proportionally with the reduction of oil prices, and that anything involving Liam Neeson is sure to be good. The game's opening sequences, which double up with character creation, cover the story of who you are and introduces you, along with your father, voiced by Liam himself. It's a clever beginning, as you're immediately involved in the story and find yourself making decisions that will have consequences throughout the game.

As you flash through phases of your life, you also acquire your Pip-Boy 3000. This is a much improved interface through which you can check your status within the game. It can even be used as a flashlight. It's a well rendered and easy-to-use device that positively oozes with attention to detail, and is certainly worthy of the Pip-Boy legacy.

At the age of nineteen you discover that your father - for reasons unknown and without warning - has escaped the Vault and departed into the Wasteland, his colleague murdered by the Vault guards. You've become guilty through association and are in need of a quick exit from the Vault, so the scene is set, and with only a scrap of a clue as to his whereabouts you set out to find him.

Escaping the Vault you step out into sunlight for the first time. You find yourself blinded by the light, and slowly, as your vision adjusts, a remarkable landscape is unveiled. Up until this point the game environment has been grey, dark, institutional, so the contrast with the Wasteland is stark.

The remnants of civilisation lie strewn around, and as far as the eye can see broken buildings and highway overpasses dominate the skyline. The desolation is used to great effect as you're suddenly very alone, and I couldn't help thinking "now what?"

Fallout and Fallout 2 were both turn-based, single-player, role-playing games. Turn-based RPG's might be nostalgic but they're a short step away from sitting around a table in a dark room rolling a 17-sided dice. Hardly the stuff to make the grade for one of this year's major gaming releases. When I found out Fallout 3 was in development I almost leapt for joy. It had been a long time coming, and I knew it was going to bear little resemblance to its predecessors.

Now I'll level with you. I'm generally not a fan of first-person shooters. In fact I only purchased BioShock to stretch the graphical legs of my new PC last year. However, I adored the Fallout series. Particularly Fallout 2, in which I whiled away many hours taunting the prostitutes, gambling, getting loaded on drugs and deciding whether to take two steps to the left or reload my weapon before I was inevitably insta-gibbed by the mutant with the minigun. Not exactly family entertainment I suppose, but it was a bleak and harsh world and that was a big part of the attraction.

With that in mind I was a little concerned about how the concept of Fallout was going to transfer from what was essentially a strategy game, to a first-person shooter. Bethesda however has done something very clever with the combat system. V.A.T.S (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System) allows you to (at any time) pause combat and target specific body areas on your enemy. Want them to drop their weapon? Disable their arm. Being chased? A few bullets in the leg will slow 'em down... hopefully. Once you've selected your actions, the results are played out in slow-motion and from many angles. And yes, lashings of gory cinematic death scenes are your reward for some well placed shots.

In order to perform these shots, you use action points. They don't last long and take time to regenerate. When you've run out, you're back to aiming and shooting in true first-person shooter style. There's also times you'll be better off pulling the trigger yourself rather than using V.A.T.S. Overall it should keep the tacticians happy as well as the action fans.

You also can approach different combat situations with different strategies. You can, for example, whip out your minigun and charge straight in, or go for a more measured approach and sneak around picking enemies off with your silenced handgun. Stealth can have its benefits, but kick over an empty milk bottle in a warehouse full of rifle-toting punks and you'll be sure to have unfriendly company quickly.

The game world itself is large, a sprawling, seamless outdoor environment along with many buildings, settlements, caves and subway areas to explore and plunder. Interacting with any of the many non-player characters in the various towns is likely to lead you to quests which will reward you with resources, or point you further towards your ultimate goal of finding your errant father. Having said that, there is absolutely nothing stopping your from ignoring the actual objective of the game and just making a living as a mercenary, scavenger, or simply exploring to kill a few hours. Make sure you have your sidearm handy, as the Wasteland is filled with people who would rather take what you have than share what they've got.

As you travel the Wasteland also keep in mind the consequences of your actions. Not only might your "Karma" (an indicator of how well or badly you've behaved) be affected, but putting holes in every NPC you come across may cut off your options as the game progresses.

On your travels, you can tune into any of the radio stations broadcasting locally, à la Grand Theft Auto. A fun little feature that also appeared in Rockstar's latest is that your exploits will occasionally be reported on the airwaves as you progress through the game. Just don't expect to hear the latest tunes pumping out of your speakers between the clever commentary - music is something of a signature in the Fallout series. Louis Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" was a completely unlikely piece of music that graced the introduction sequence for Fallout 2. The music in Fallout 3 consists of the same '50s, out-of-place, cheery tunes against a backdrop of a world occupied with slavers, violence and drugs. Not everyone's cup of tea, but it's all about the atmosphere.

The graphical world created by Bethesda is nothing short of stunning. The Oblivion game engine has been tweaked to apply a mind-bending level of detail, and this is truly where the PC version shines. From gore effects to wide vistas, every single texture feels as if it has been hand-crafted, and the result is an environment that draws you in and makes you a part of the story. If you've been waiting for an excuse to upgrade an ageing rig, you've just found it.

Fallout 3 is a game that lives up to its demanding legacy, and that is saying a lot. Fallout fans should definitely give it a go, and the uninitiated are in for a treat. For me it'll be the game of the year.

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