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E3 2008: <i>Fallout 3</i>

E3's most buzzed-about game.

Every year, E3 has one game on display that's almost universally tagged as the critical favorite, despite not having the big-name pedigree of a Halo or Grand Theft Auto. Last year, it was the underwater adventure BioShock, which -- thanks to a steady drumbeat of positive press coverage--went on to sell a few million copies and become a true sleeper hit.

This year, it's Fallout 3, a post-apocalyptic RPG set in the ruins of Washington DC. The original Fallout games were PC titles from the early '90s, so the franchise can't rely on the faded memories of aging fans to sell big holiday numbers when it's released this fall. Instead, developer Bethesda has modeled the game on its previous big hit, the popular 2006 sword-and-sorcery RPG Oblivion.

That game was a hit because it offered deep, immersive gameplay that overcame the genre limitations of elves and wizards by offering a landscape dozens of square miles in size, where players could largely wander everywhere and talk to anyone. Fallout 3 follows the same path, as our protagonist steps out of a '50s-era atomic bomb shelter after a couple of decades underground and discovers a ruined world filled with feuding groups of survivors.

Our hands-on time with the game was mostly spent exploring the outskirts of Washington, D.C, and finally making our way to a settlement built inside the ruins of an unexploded atomic bomb. There, we could talk to the denizens, make deals, and get jobs, while outside, we had to fight off violent scavengers, who shot at us on sight. The appeal is that there are multiple solutions to every problem, and you can choose to handle most situations by shooting your way through, sneaking by, or even talking to people and convincing them to help (rather than fight) you.

The game is filled with quirky references to mid-century Atomic Café bomb-shelter culture, with amusing ads for retro products and references to classic duck-and-cover education films of the '50s, and was clearly one of the most buzzed-about games of the show.

Look for Fallout 3 for Xbox 360 and PS3, sometime this holiday season.