Before you've blinked open eyes smeared with blood in the opening ticks of Fallout 3's character building prologue, before you've toddled around with toy blocks or taken pop-shots at cat-sized roaches or ventured out into the game's gorgeous, desiccated wasteland to grapple with its heaps of broken images -- before any of that, you'll view a simple automated slideshow spooled through a clicking opto-mechanical device. As low brass growls over sinister strings, illuminated stills of posters from within the game world flick by: An issue of Grognak the Barbarian ('In the lair of the virgin eater!'), a flier for 'Freddy Fear's House of Scares: 'For all Your Halloween Needs!', an advertisement for Sugar Bombs, the cereal with 'Explosive Great Taste!' and a newspaper dated June 3, 2072 with headline 'U.S. to Annex Canada!'. Blithe on bleak, a glimpse of the world within, a beckoning finger dipped in agitprop and blood.

Eventually The Ink Spots' I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire warbles from a Radiation King radio as the camera pulls back past flickering vacuum tubes, a dashboard hula girl, grab bars, a lunch box, a toy truck, a teddy bear, cracked carriage windows, until you're finally out in the great charcoal ruin of a denuded city. It's an apt enough metaphor for the game's opening moments, formative vignettes that trigger like a shotgun version of Plato's cave and see you born in blood, friended, tested, abandoned, and finally hurled from your underground "sanctuary" into a sterile post-nuclear wilderness.

That moment -- when you step out of a centuries old vault whose digital numeric '101' alludes to the binary insularity of your life thus far -- parallels one in developer Bethesda's last game, Oblivion, the part early going where you emerge from the Imperial City's sewer canals into a sprawling world and the seatbelt suddenly snaps off. It's a birth metaphor, of course, only instead of birch trees and witch grass and glinting ivory colonnades, you're thrust into a wind tossed lunar-scape littered with carbonized trees and wobbling highway stanchions, the rust-mottled lattices of once-buildings bracketed by piles of rock that bulge like geological tumours.

There's something indescribably beautiful about all that. Catch the sun flaring as it sets against some junk town with walls and walkways quilted together from sheets of rusting metal and it's hard not to view it somewhat romantically. This really isn't how the end of the world would look (it'd almost certainly be blander and uglier), which turns out to be almost a blessing from a game that might otherwise encourage hardcore Prozac-popping just to muscle through its swathes of grunge-gray and bleached-brown.

But jot this down: This isn't Oblivion, whatever elemental traits the game's inherited as Bethesda's third reworking of the Gamebryo technology. Oh it's got the same view-locked dialogue menus, the talking heads, the camera angles and jerky realtime melee, the foraging through crates and barrels re-imagined as supernumerary toolkits and file cabinets and metal boxes. It's even got the same visual quirks, like collision problems with walls and ground objects when playing in third-person mode, phantom-phasing as people enter or leave cordoned off in their own 'load' zones, and bodies that uncouple from the world when positioned over piles of debris and sloping turf.

On the other hand, the game's edgy, menacing soundtrack might a well be antipodal to Oblivion's stately marches and airy leitmotifs. Gone are Oblivion's cascading libraries of wordy books, replaced by scores of scorched and completely illegible tomes, which if you think about it, almost counts as a joke. Your arm-strapped inventory management tool (aka 'Pip-Boy 3000') manages to squeeze all your stats and carry metrics into its stylishly monochrome VAX-style screen without sacrificing ease of access or clarity. Oblivion's use-it-or-lose it stats are history, replaced by Fallout's classic skills and perks (minus the cons) distributed manually as you accrue experience points instead of based on the number of times you pull the trigger on a laser rifle or plasma gun. And the game world is finally staffed with static creatures -- no sycophantic spawn pockets that level up with you and tag along wherever you go like murderous groupies.

But here's the difference that matters most: Oblivion was a fantasy world with a fantasy world's problems. Build a magic staff. Gather precious alchemical herbs. Restore the lineage of noble kings. Nobly wander around clapping random demon portals shut and saving the world from giant lava-lathered demigods. The words you're looking for is Wagnerian. And it was.

By contrast, Fallout 3's 'capital wasteland' which extends around the remains of cherished structures like the Washington Monument and Arlington Library and Jefferson Memorial hits much closer to home. The DC metro rider who thought Bethesda's marketing poster of the Washington Monument in tatters surrounded by ravaged American flags was in poor taste may have been overreacting, but the reaction encapsulates precisely what makes Fallout 3 unique: Where Oblivion whisked you off to another world, Fallout 3 brings its not-so-other world home to you.

It's a world that comes disturbingly alive in the breathless spaces out amongst the nothingness that conceals feral dogs and giant mutant scorpions and deranged Robby the Robot sendups. You hear it in the crackling radio broadcasts picked up by the Pip-Boy 3000 and the jingoist jeremiads of a faintly Kennedy-like entity who intercuts his broadcasts with 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'. It's part of the chilling, bewildering surreality of listening to Billie Holiday's Easy Living or The Ink Spots' Maybe as you wander between parks and abandoned science labs like Snowman in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake with nothing but decaying water towers and tilting power poles as reference points. Are the voices on the radio real or imaginary? Intelligently looped by live bodies or simply tenacious recordings? The answers are there, if you want them.

Cobbling together a living meted out in Nuka-Cola bottle caps (America's post-apocalyptic currency and the drink of choice for vault dwellers) is risky business as you navigate derelict minefields and scavenge frequently not-empty houses and schools and factories for fire-hose nozzles and surgical tubing, tweezers and cigarettes, leaf blowers and little tubes of wonder glue. The capital wasteland's a constellation of bygone wonders, and whether you're building bottle cap mines out of soda-pop tops or slipping rail spikes into the business end of rifles you've improvised from scratch, everything is eventually worth something to someone. The game has cash holes if you want to waste money fawning over your junk flat, but it's better spent keeping weapons in tip-top shape and your invisible bandoliers replete with spare ammo.