S It's nearly dusk as you approach the abandoned supermarket, crouching behind a burned out hover-bus. You nearly make a mad dash to the entrance, dreaming of the food and medical supplies you might find inside. Then you notice the mutilated corpse chained up above the door. Raiders! Cautiously, you watch the parking lot...there they are. Heavily armed, too. You'll be able to loot the store if you want to, but there will be blood. In the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3, nothing comes easy.It's been about ten years since Fallout 2 came out, and many PC gamers still fondly remember the game's blend of pop-culture references, rich gameplay, off-color sense of humor and weird retro-futuristic aesthetic. How could a game meet such high expectations, especially coming off such a long wait? By being just about perfect. Fallout 3's gameplay is immersive and offers the player many options. The game is built on the same engine used for Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, but it's been immensely improved. The developers managed to take many of the classic elements from the original Fallout games and incorporate them into a modern 3D video game. You can play it as a straight action shooter, or activate the VATS system and play out combat using action points that let you plan out your moves, then watch them in slow-mo cinematic fashion. There's a lot going on with your character at any given time: health, ammo, weapon condition, weight and encumberance, radiation levels, whether or not any of your limbs are crippled, drug addiction, karma - it can be overwhelming at times. For the most part, you're usually focused on a few things at a time, so you get used to it fairly quickly. What does Fallout 3 offer for sci-fi fans? It gives you the feeling that you're a character in your own post-apocalyptic movie, making your own decisions and discovering the blasted, war-torn world one mutant at a time. That old Fallout charm is still there, including the black humor (one mission that causes you to become irradiated leaves you with a mutation that regrows crippled limbs) and high-tech retro style (all the wrecked cars are nuclear powered but look like '57 Chevies). In first-person mode, there is a genuine sense of tension mixed with wonder as you pick your way through the rubble. Especially early in the game, you are fairly fragile, with a crappy gun a handful of bullets. The game doesn't hold your hand as you explore, so you can blunder into enemies far too powerful for you if you aren't careful. This can be frustrating, but it really elevates the suspense and makes the world feel more realistic. The weirdness of the freaky mutant creatures contrasts sharply with the semi-familiar setting - Fallout 3 is set in and around Washington D.C., and the ever-present shattered shell of the U.S. Capitol dome in the distance is a constant reminder that this world was once like our own. It's also a world filled with interesting moral choices. You will meet many people, and you can befriend them, steal from them, or just kill them if you want to. Of course, there are consequences to any course of action, but you can decide if you want to be a bad-ass Snake Plissken, a Neo-esque uber-hacker, or a post-apocalyptic ninja sulking in the shadows. Early in the game, you'll find the town of Megaton, which has an undetonated atom bomb at its center. The mayor wants you to disarm it, but then you'll meet a man offering a bunch of money to blow it up, along with all the residents of Megaton. This may not seem like a moral dilemma (blow it up and see what happens!) until you've met and worked with those residents: Moira, the quirky general store owner/researcher; the reformed raider and his adopted daughter; the befuddled old man and his exasperated wife; the chain smoking whore; the drug-addled teenager. Speaking of whores, this is not a kids' game. There are curse words aplenty, including frequent f-bombs, not to mention various "working girls" who are actually available for the right price. Although in this game, "sleeping with someone" literally means closing your eyes and catching some snores in the same bed. There's a good deal of gore, too. Those cinematic action scenes feature sprays of realistic blood, severed limbs and even bursting heads. It can be pretty awesome, but definitely for mature audiences only. You can leave your mark on the world of Fallout 3 with the smoking barrel of your 10mm sub-machine gun, or you can carve out a slice of civilization in this desperate place. It's as if you're the director, author and lead actor all at once, and you do your own stunts. All in all, it's a very satisfying sci-fi gaming experience. Image by: Bethesda.