Bethesda’s take on Fallout is huge, beautiful, and feels more than a little familiar.

I only got to spend a half-hour playing through Fallout 3, which was barely enough time to check out the scenery, kill a wild dog or two, and spend some time familiarizing myself with the Pip Boy. The demo began with my character emerging from the protective Vault and setting out into the vast wasteland of a destroyed countryside. Huge chunks of crumbled highway, abandoned cars and bombed-out buildings dotted the landscape. It was the middle of the night, so I couldn’t see much, but I did run into a guard who was less than friendly, and some nasty flies that wanted to eat my face.

The Pip Boy is the hub for all of your in-game information, like your health, inventory, stats and quests. It’s also where you’ll level up your skills and Perks. Skills cover everything from how good you are with particular types of weapons to how much health you get from health items, to how well you can repair armor. Different Perks boost specific stats for your character; the Lady Killer Perk, for example, gives you added damage against female characters, while the Gun Nut Perk adds to your proficiency with pistols and rifles.

The problem with nuclear devastation is that leaves an awful lot of radiation lying around, and you’ll take Rad damage as you explore the world of Fallout 3.The more Rads you absorb, the more your stats decrease; max our your Rad meter and you’re dead. It’s not much of a factor early on in the game, but in later areas, you’ll definitely have to keep a close eye on your meter. Healing yourself then becomes a bit tricky, as the food and drink items you could consume to restore your health are almost always irradiated, forcing you to weigh the benefits of healing against the penalty of a higher Rad count.

Anyone familiar with Oblivion will immediately recognize that game’s fingerprints all over Fallout 3. It looks far better and runs much more smoothly, but the way you interact with the world follows the same general blueprint. Speaking to NPCs, accepting quests, looting bodies and just generally exploring all feels extremely familiar, but much more polished and refined. The voice acting is better, the characters are less blocky, and there’s no persuasion mini-game.

One area in which Fallout 3 differs greatly from Oblivion is in the combat. Whereas Oblivion’s was always a bit disappointing, Fallout 3’s is far more satisfying, especially when using the VAT system. You can simply attack an enemy in real time, or you can hit the right shoulder button (on the 360, anyway) to bring up the VAT system, which pauses the action and allows you to target specific body parts on your enemy. Each use of the VAT system requires a certain number of Action Points; your total Action Point allotment is dependent on your personal agility and Perks.

I only got to see a fraction of Fallout 3’s possibilities, but I greatly enjoyed what I did see. That said, this is definitely a very different kind of Fallout. If you’ve never played the original games, you won’t notice the difference and will undoubtedly enjoy the game. Die-hard fans of Fallout 1 and 2, however, may feel a bit out of place in this new world.

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