Riveting 'Fallout 3' among year's best

— -- With the release of post-apocalyptic video game Fallout 3, developer Bethesda Game Studios has big shoes to fill. For many PC enthusiasts, the original Fallout game started by studio Interplay is heralded as one of the best ever.

Consider the franchise in safe hands. Bethesda has created a dark, chilling world that mostly lives up to the high expectations.

Your character is a resident of Vault 101, a '50s-era underground utopia housing a handful of Washington D.C. residents who survived a nuclear war. The vault has built a reputation as a shelter where, as the game intro explains, "no one enters, and no one leaves."

Fallout 3 starts with your birth. You create a name, edit your physical characteristics, set your initial skills, and head out into the world. One day, you awaken to discover your father has escaped. You then choose to leave the vault and journey through the Capital wasteland in search for him.

Similar to Bethesda's medieval-inspired The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3 is an open world role-playing game (RPG). You can explore the ruins of D.C. in any way you choose. During your quest, you'll encounter makeshift towns. You'll speak with survivors, providing answers that shape your personality into a hero or villain. You'll also enhance your character's experience through fierce battles with mutated creatures.

Fallout 3 sports an unbelievable level of depth and detail. Landscapes are littered with rubble from decimated bridges and buildings. In the background, you'll see battered iterations of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building. While the campaign clocks in around 20 hours, expect to spend dozens more hours exploring every nook and cranny of the world.

Experience points you earn through quests and combat boost your character's level, allowing you to upgrade a myriad of skills. For example, you can boost Science abilities to improve computer hacking skills or Barter to bolster your negotiating prowess.

Fallout 3 evokes a high level of tension and desperation associated with fighting for survival. Your character may eat roaches or drink irradiated water for a quick boost. Crucial items such as ammo and health packs are scarce, forcing you to carefully choose how to use them. Traveling at night stokes fears of what powerful enemies may lurk and whether you have the necessary supplies to reach your destination.

Aiding you on your journey is the Pip Boy Model 3000, a sophisticated computer device worn on your wrist. Through this, you can check inventory, study health statuses, set GPS directions and a host of other tasks.

During combat, the Pip Boy comes in handy via the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, or V.A.T.S. Let's say a super mutant approaches. When you select V.A.T.S., action pauses and an interface appears breaking down enemies by body part along with corresponding percentages indicating the odds of a direct hit.

After selecting a handful of attacks, you'll exit and watch a slow-motion sequence of your strike. If you're lucky, you'll deal critical damage and kill your foe. V.A.T.S. adds a unique level of strategy, and creates some dramatic combat moments.

The frustrations occur when you don't use V.A.T.S. Shooting accurately is very difficult due to sensitive aiming controls and a tiny targeting reticle. Fallout 3 also exhibits a few odd technical glitches, mostly involving objects suddenly appearing on screen.

Both grievances are easy to overlook when you weigh Fallout 3's engrossing exploration and intriguing plot. It's a vast wilderness worth getting lost in.