While the Fallout series has always been popular, it was really Fallout 3 that brought it to the forefront of the game industry’s attention. Bethesda’s wildly successful followup to the Black Isle studios games, done in the style of their Elder Scrolls series, brought the universe of Fallout to the attention of gamers everywhere. People who grew up playing consoles all their lives got to experience the universe for the first time, falling in love with the Science-themed post-apocalyptic world with no end to the hidden references to events and locations both real and fictional.
At the same time, though, there is a dedicated group of fans of the original Fallout games who insist that Fallout 3 is a shell of what the franchise used to be. A very pretty and fun shell, nonetheless, but a shell regardless. Fans of Bethesda’s entry will disagree, citing the many dungeons and explorable locations in the game, dozens of NPC’s, tons of sidequests, and many quests with multiple ways to play through. Arguments in regards to isometric vs. first person aside, both sides do have merit but the fans of the originals games are right about one thing: Fallout 3 is missing a lot of what made the original two so good.
Firstly, there is barely any humour involved in Fallout 3 compared to the original two games. There’s no tongue-in-cheek references to the Flash Gordon type of world of yore so much as earnest references to a better time. Violence is played straight in Fallout 3 and is always treated like a serious issue while in the original games it could be the punchline to a very long joke, much like Marvin in Pulp Fiction. Even the combat in the original games was humorous. One could be so extraordinarily lucky that enemies would roll a critical failure and wind up shooting their friend in the testicles. This isn’t a joke, that could actually happen. Or, conversely, you could fail so miserably that your weapon broke and stuck you in the hand, leaving your crippled. Perhaps you would go for a nutshot just because you could. Fallout 3 played it all straight. Combat is combat is combat and it had all the humour of Saving Private Ryan.
And both of these could come together in the game do make an even bigger joke. The first game famously has a second, alternate ending if the player equipped a useless, but visually interesting, perk at the beginning of the game. It served absolutely no purpose except to change the ending, something which Fallout 3 had no similar replication. In fact, Fallout 3 had to have DLC change the ending just because Bethesda had written themselves into a hole that was pockmarked with plotholes. Fallout 3 just was not a very funny game. Fallout 1 and 2, meanwhile, were so packed with jokes that even the instruction manual could double for a comedy novel.
The second thing that Fallout 3 is missing is consequence. A big complaint about Bethesda’s open world titles is that there’s very little feeling of consequence. Murdering someone’s wife would result in absolutely no reaction from them and the remaining five people in a town would forget that you had massacred the other 30 after a day had passed. Quests came and went and the world did not change or adapt to the player. Admittedly, this is common with many open world games and generally isn’t a big problem, but Fallout is special. Consequence was one of the main themes and driving forces of the original games.
Every action in a questline had a reaction that would carry through for the entire game. Early on, you had a quest to rescue the mayor’s daughter from a gang. You could either bribe the gang, slaughter them all, or leave the daughter there and wish them luck on their endeavours. Unlike Fallout 3 where you would get some XP for which ever choice made and someone would be dead for the rest of the game, the NPC’s in Fallout 1 and 2 would never forget what you did. If you kill the gang and some get away, they would ambush you in random encounters. If you leave the daughter there, the townspeople would turn on you and you would never be able to get back into the town. Likewise, killing a random caravan on the road for loot would get you great rewards, but if someone escaped to tell the trading hub city what happened, you would be attacked on site by the entire town for the rest of the game.
Fallout 3 attempted to replicate this with the Megaton bomb, but it was one of the two or three times in the entire game where the consequences are permanent and unforgotten. Fallout 1 and 2 were full of these and any quest could have permanent consequences. It’s no wonder why the Megaton choice was so heavily featured in previews for Fallout 3. It was early enough in the game to be shown spoiler free and that they were staying true to Fallout 1 and 2′s idea of permanent consequence but, alas, it was just a ruse.
To be fair to Fallout 3, it did do a lot of good for the series. For the first time ever, players could actually explore a Fallout world instead of a Fallout story. Fallout 3 introduced all kinds of crazy vaults and sidestories into the mythos and did a fantastic job of selling the desperate, lonely atmosphere of the series. It modernized the gameplay effectively and allowed for new possibilities never before imagined by Black Isle Studios.
And, thankfully, Fallout: New Vegas exists. A marriage of both worlds and, as a result, considered to be much better than Fallout 3.