The appeal of Fallout 1 & 2 stems from their combination of strategy and light heartedness. After a fight that turned sour multiple times and you got out by the skin of your teeth, you get to meet a character who makes you laugh out loud (looking at you Harold). Quests littered the landscape and you could complete nearly all of them through multiple paths; combat, speech or stealth. You skill sets gave you a percentage chance of each. You had choices, plenty of choices. There was HUGE replayability because of it.
Fallout 3, clearly and unfortunately, segregates these playstyles from the outset. Almost every quest requires combat in some fashion. Some quests even tell you not to fight but force you into combat at every turn. Delving into speech serves no purpose other than to get more quest information at the beginning or to start a fight. Want to help a town beset by flame belching ants? Kill 40 of them on your way to a scientist who says “kill 5 more but don’t kill their queen!” Where’s the option to program a robot to do the dirty work for you? Or convince the scientist to go do it himself?
Humor. Listen, you’re in a wasteland, everything is depressing. People NEED humor to offset the eternal pessimism throughout the game. Sure, I want my decisions to have impact but I also want to find stuff that makes me giggle. Do a quest to find dirty laundry. Meet a dumb criminal whom I can convince to turn himself in. There’s a delicate balance required here and the humor provided is done with a heavy hand. Sure the Adventurer’s Handbook chain is funny while you’re talking to the quest giver but while you’re doing the quest, there’s no punchline. Heck, you can even LIE your way through the entire thing and never do anything but listen to her schpeil on… The realism just isn’t properly tempered with the humor. It’s like they are two roommates who don’t get along.
Combat is interesting. The old turn based combat is gone and replaces with VATS and realtime combat. The former allows you to pause the game, select body parts and attack with action points. They regenerate over time, allowing you to use VATS again within 10-30s. Real time combat is just that. Think Call of Duty or Halo. Shoot until you kill them. The problem here is ammo. In other FPS games, you easily find ammo everywhere. Taking 200 bullets to take down 5 guys isn’t even a concern in those games. Taking more than 20 shots to kill something in Fallout is a gigantic waste of ammo. Training the skill doesn’t really do much for realtime combat, it’s all twitch based. Skills do help in VATS and by a very large amount. Taking 5 shots in VATS at close range can kill pretty much any enemy with ease. The chance of hit is clearly written. The only reason to use real time combat is when you’re out of action points to get into VATS and the enemy has a sliver of health left. Otherwise, just run and hide while your points regen, then finish the job. Very defeating. All that being said, VATS is incredibly rewarding. Slow-mo kill shots are great to watch. This part of the game is done exceptionally well and the fact that it’s so good only shows how poor real time combat is as an alternative.
I mentioned skills early and I need to address them here as well. You have a couple dozen skills to choose from; lock picking, small guns, science, etc… Each has a benefit, large or small. Repair lets you fix your gear for free (see a trader for them to do it for you for a cost), science lets you hack terminals (used nearly solely for quests), lockpicking lets you open doors, and so on. The skills are great. I love repair. It’s very well done. Sneaking is great too, pure chance of detection. Lock picking and Science however, they are horrible skills. There are 4 types of locks in the game, those that require 25, 50, 75 and 100 skill. If you have 33 Lock picking, it’s the exact same as 25. The physical difference between a 25 and 75 lock is negligible. They take the same amount of dexterity to open. Science works similar to Lockpicking, with terminals with skill levels needed to operate. The game is essentially Mastermind, where you need to guess a password from a list of 20. The easier ones have 5 letters, the harder ones near 10. You have 4 chances then you lock out but if you keep quitting at 3, you can restart the game. Essentially turns into a game of luck at that point, where with enough time you are guaranteed to open the door. Only an idiot would lock out a terminal. This skill seems unfinished.
Now don’t get me wrong, the game is a lot of fun. I will finish it and make sure all the side-quests are over with as well. There’s just missing that special something (pardon the pun) that the first games had. I’m not engulfed in a story. I can easily just finish a quest, save and quit. I don’t have that “just one more quest” feeling and that’s too bad. After 10 years, I feel really let down.