Unless you’ve been living in an underground vault, you’ve probably heard of "Fallout 3."

The highly anticipated role-playing game from Bethesda Softworks follows in the footsteps of classic computer games from Interplay. Fans will notice the family resemblance in the M-rated game’s look, feel and mythos.

The game’s set about 200 years in the future in a Washington, D.C., that’s been gutted by nuclear blasts.

It starts with your birth, when you select your character’s gender and name and use a good customization system to determine his or her adult appearance. The game then highlights a few key years during your childhood in Vault 101, an underground haven from nuclear attack. During these scenes, you determine various attributes and abilities for your character and learn how to use the controls.

When you’re about 19, you awake to discover your father missing and everyone in authority angry at you. It’s time to leave the safety of the vault.

The rest of the game is spent exploring the ruins of Washington and the surrounding wastes. You’ll encounter scores of struggling settlers, ruthless raiders, fierce mutants, bedraggled ghouls and self-described saviors. Some will ask for help. Some will simply try to blow your head off. As a result, you’ll spend a lot of time on quests and a lot of time fighting — and trying to track down your dad.

Although many of the quests are pretty typical for a role-playing game, they usually have an interesting post-apocalyptic twist — like the early decision on whether to detonate an unexploded atomic bomb that’s sitting in the middle of a village. Quests can be multi-layered or so contradictory that completing one will shut down an entire line of others. Of course this enhances replay value.

Your decisions on which quests to fulfill also play into the game’s rich morality system. This gauges your actions, as well as your interactions with nonplayer characters, to determine how different characters will react to you. If you want to befriend embattled settlers or the Brotherhood of Steel, you’d better have a good rep. If you want some help from a shady character, he’ll shrug you off if you’re not bad to the bone.

During combat, you can wield anything from a baseball bat to a miniature atomic bomb. Although you can play like a typical shooter — running and gunning — it’s often best to take advantage of the targeting system. Once activated, it pauses the action and provides a readout showing the percentage chance of hitting a head, arm, leg, torso or weapon. You pick one and then slide back into real-time mode while your character fires. This saves ammo and lets less-nimble-fingered gamers cripple difficult foes or quickly finish them off.

Combat often yields gruesome results. Target the head and it’s very likely you’ll see an eyeball go flying. However, the most common result is decapitation, with the head sent rolling into the dust. And it only gets more intense if you activate the "Bloody Mess" perk. It’d be nice if there were a "Less Mess" setting for those who don’t need to see exploding heads to enjoy a game.

In addition to the extreme gore, the game earns its M rating for strong language, the hookers available in many places and the numerous performance-enhancing drugs — which can easily turn addictive if you aren’t careful.

The graphics do an excellent job of portraying the desolate landscapes, dilapidated settlements and ruined cityscapes you’d expect in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Edges are jagged and tones are muted as if most form and color had been blasted away. Surviving pre-war artifacts reveal the sort of America depicted in the naive and optimistic science fiction of the 1950s. These elements combine to form a rich and haunting spectacle.

However, the graphics and animations aren’t perfect. People often move a bit stiffly and their lips aren’t always in sync with the dialogue.

Artificial intelligence is a bit uneven, too. Battles are usually interesting because foes are very aggressive, but other nonplayer characters sometimes fail to show much reaction to dramatic events unfolding around them.

A few elements in "Fallout 3" might turn off some gamers. However, deep and enjoyable role-playing elements and intense battles are likely to lure quite a few out of their vaults.

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PCOn the Web:

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