For a few weeks now, sensitive riders of Washington's Metro system have been rattled by images of the city in ruins.

The Capitol dome has a big chunk taken out of it; the Washington Monument looks like it's about to fall over; the National Mall is blanketed by an unnatural, ominous blue-gray sky.

The posters are ads for "Fallout 3" (Bethesda Softworks, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99). Depending on your sensibilities, they're either tasteless or totally awesome.

"We do not need a daily reminder of what our worst fears look like," said one writer to The Washington Post's editorial page.

Me, I'd love to have one of the posters for my D.C. office.

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If Washington subway riders find Bethesda's ads disturbing, wait until they get a load of the game, which is set 200 years after the nation's capital has been devastated by nuclear war.

Most of the buildings been blown to smithereens, the subway tunnels are filled with giant rats and scorpions, and the streets have been taken over by feral ghouls and supermutants.

Pop culture has dealt with post-apocalypse life before, from novels such as Stephen King's "The Stand" and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" to movies including "I Am Legend" and "The Road Warrior."

And such bleak scenarios have been the settings for video games like "Gears of War" and "Resident Evil," and the two "Fallout" chapters published by Interplay in the 1990s.

That said, "Fallout 3" is much too grim and violent for the kids.

Bethesda has created a vivid depiction of what America might look like two centuries after the end of civilization, and even hardened gamers are likely to find it quite disturbing.

If you have the stomach for it, though, "Fallout 3" is one of the most absorbing and addictive video games in years.

The adventure begins in Vault 101, an underground shelter where humans have tried to preserve some kind of society since the bombs dropped in 2077.

After creating a customized character — choosing your gender, race and appearance and distributing points among traits such as strength, intelligence and charisma — you get to explore the vault until you turn 19.

Then your father suddenly disappears, and you have to leave to pursue him.

The first thing you see after emerging from the shelter is a breathtaking vista of destruction and decay, a barren landscape that's oddly beautiful.

Your Pip-Boy 3000 — an all-purpose digital assistant that monitors your health, manages your inventory and provides updated maps — starts receiving radio signals and guiding you to Megaton, a makeshift town built around an unexploded nuke.

Megaton is a relatively peaceful place, although there's plenty of opportunity for trouble if you want to play as a bad guy.

But there are dozens of other pockets of civilization scattered about the wasteland. Some will be welcoming, some will be hostile (often depending on your own behavior), most will need your help.

Beyond the main plot of finding your dad, there are hundreds of missions in "Fallout 3," and you have a remarkable amount of freedom to pursue the adventure in whatever direction you like.

Wherever you go, you're going to end up fighting, and "Fallout 3" has one of the cleverest combat systems I've ever seen.

Called VATS, for Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, it lets you freeze the action and zoom in on an enemy's different body parts. You can go for an easy torso shot or a less likely (but more effective) head shot.

You can only use VATS a few times during a shootout, so if you're surrounded by mercenaries, you'll eventually have to aim for yourself.

There are plenty of other things to do in the wasteland. You can pick locks, hack computers, build elaborate weapons, even collect bobbleheads.

You'll spend hours simply talking to your fellow survivors, and the dialogue is often so funny that it lightens the weighty subject matter.

Any game this ambitious and wide-ranging is bound to have a few flaws. I noticed a few graphical glitches in some of the underground locations, and some of the character animations are a bit stiff.

Still, none of these minor hiccups was enough to distract me from the game's all-encompassing alternate reality.

Bethesda's previous release, "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," was my runner-up for game of the year in 2006.

I doubt "Fallout 3" will have to settle for second place in 2008; I can't imagine a more satisfying adventure coming out this year.

Four stars out of four.