While it has been quiet on the pen & paper role playing front (still have not managed to get a new group together to continue the SW game), luckily I've been able to get my fix from Fallout 4 and its DLC. I've just finished Far Harbor and it inspired me to do a short retrospective, and since I can't help myself, to look ahead where the series may be headed. All of this is my opinion of course, feel free to comment and disagree. :) Naturally, spoilers ahead!
First and still the best Fallout game. Sure, the graphics are dated by today's standards (and already were in 97 when it came out), which may turn off people new to the series, but I find the isometric view and sprite art have an enduring charm about them; that is partially nostalgia speaking, to be sure, but now, 20 years later, the retro graphics fit perfectly with the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the setting, however unintentionally.
Turn-based combat was a staple of crpgs at the time and is in full swing in this game and its sequel. It works fine, I think, and again it holds up to the test of time. It's there to serve a purpose, to have enjoyable combat within the limitations of the game engine. I'm however not a purist who believes the new games should mimic this ancient system just for the sake of it. It's not realistic to expect this from a triple A game these days. Many of the design choices which are now 'vintage Fallout' were often less deliberate decision than necessity. Combat being one of them; the lack of any pilotable vehicles another, quite unusual for a post-apocalyptic setting (the engine couldn't handle it). Again this is something that usually puts newcomers off. I have to admit it takes getting used to, and if I'm overall happy with the system, that's in part since I've replayed these first games so often. The inventory system was quite poor, but since you didn’t yet have to worry about picking up a billion items, it was still manageable.
So what makes the first installment the best one? It introduced of course the setting, a post-apocalyptic America which diverges from our history around the 1950s, where robots, nuclear fission and advanced weapons abound, but computers are big and clunky and wireless is something unheard of. It's a future as envisioned by the optimistic 50s, a Jetsons-light, bombed to smithereens and left to accumulate dust for a hundred years.
All the classic Fallout elements are here: the iconic enemies (Deathclaws, Ghouls, Super Mutants), the power armor, factions like the BoS, Followers and NCR, Vaults (before the rest of the series ruined them). Little of the story and dialogue was voiced, but this did mean you have more dialogue options to choose from, and you can actually play widely different characters based on Intelligence scores, something that has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent installments. You could also have multiple companions rather than being arbitrarily limited to one, though in truth the companions had little dialogue or personality (except maybe gung-ho Ian. Screw you Ian.)
Now Fallout 1 was the shortest game by far, but that works to its benefit. You don't get a plethora of side quests that are just filler; most of them work to enhance the main story. You have a creepy, believable antagonist in the Children of the Cathedral and the Master, and a final boss fight where you can talk the boss to death and it actually makes sense (I'm looking at you, Lanius).
Fallout 1 for me was also the only game to really nail the right level of humor in the series. Pop culture references and generally juvenile content got out of control in the next game, which brings me to…
The favorite of many, Fallout 2 always leaves me with mixed feelings. It introduced some great concepts, and it featured the dumbest stuff of any of the games.
Regarding the mechanics, I can be brief, since almost nothing changed from the first game. Fallout 2 was released just a year later, and does feel like a giant expansion pack at times.
So what’s my beef with Fallout 2? Let’s start with the good things: some of my favorite locations are introduced here (Vault City, The Den, NCR). The game introduced great new villains in the Enclave (who unfortunately stuck around too long). A greatly improved assortment of armor and weaponry provided more options for different playstyles. Companions have a bit more personality (notably Sulik, who gets his own talking head) and use, since you can order them around and outfit them properly.
So where did they go wrong? They made a game at least twice to thrice the size of the first, and boy does it feel padded at times. Sure the first game had some dungeon/shooting galleries as well (Necropolis, Mariposa come to mind) but they overstay their welcome in part 2. Raider caves, gecko sewers, the military base again, Vault 15 again; sometimes less is more. The lower levels of the tanker are filled with wanamingos for no other reason than to have something there. The result of the increased size of the game is that the quality varies dramatically in places. While the Hubologists are an obvious reference to Scientology, they have been given enough background and attention to actually work as a believable faction, and not just a one note joke. The same I cannot say for the Shi, pretty much all of Reno and some of the horrendous stuff in Broken Hills. Talking plants and chess playing scorpions? Keeping Deathclaws like chickens? No thanks. Finding a sex doll for a lecherous Ghoul in the old Ghouls home? Great stuff. Oh, you can act in a porno now. (Reno feels like it was designed by a horny 15-year old who just binge-watched 90s gangster movies). Fallout 2 is also guilty of coming up with Project Safehouse, which, while it didn’t feature prominently in part 2 itself, would ruins the Vaults in all following games.
Oh, and after the morally gray, cerebral Master we get bullet sponge Frank Horrigan as our adversary. I think it stops being a reference if you literally copy/paste.
So while Fallout 2 in places expanded on what made Fallout 1 great, it brought with it too much chaff for me to consider it the best entry in the series. If they had cut 50% of the game, spend the available time and money on polishing what remained and released it as an expansion for Fallout 1, it could have been so much more.
Fallout 3 + DLC
We had to wait 10 years for the next game, and you immediately feel (and see) that much had changed in the intervening years. As I said before, a major studio in 2008 would not have released a turn-based, isometric game. Fallout 3 was the first 3D Fallout game for PC and set us on the path to Fallout 4, a scenic, slightly regressive detour through New Vegas not withstanding.
Fallout 3 is easily the least favorably received by die hard fans, and while I don't agree with their assessments on all accounts, it's easy to see why it's often reviled. the TLDR version is: Bethesda tried to do something (partially) new, thereby getting rid of mechanics people liked and generally following a (depending on who you ask) simplified/dumbed down design philosophy. I say partially new, because at the same time it kept (too) many things from the first games, which didn't make a whole lot of sense in the new setting (East vs West Coast, the 'core region' of Fallout).
Fallout 3's graphics by now fall in that unfortunate uncanny valley area, not good enough to convincingly portray the game world as realistically as it would like, and thus ending up looking worse than the more 'abstracted' graphics of the 2D era. Combat is real time, with VATS picking up the slack of the turn-based mechanics; though the gunplay is rather subpar. Inventory management took a turn for the abysmal. Hope you enjoy hours of sorting through lists to drop random junk because you've once again hit your encumbrance limit.
Fallout 3 and following games wouldn't feature a world map anymore, instead having one big open world, for the most part taken up by a big city (DC, Las Vegas, Boston). This put a greater emphasis on exploration, but also forced the designers to put something interesting on the map every few minutes. As a result the world feels packed to the gills with loot and untouched marvels for a world which by now has gone two centuries since the apocalypse. The advancing timeline is a weak point of Fallout 3. At which point does the post-apocalypse setting become unsustainable? Personally, I very much doubt there would still be food to be found in every supermarket and vending machine. Nitpicks, perhaps, but in an RPG this matters.
Another lore rant: I complained earlier about the implications of Project Safehouse: in Fallout 3 it really kicked in. Sorry, but I find it impossible to believe that in wartime the government would have spent hundreds of trillions of dollars to basically run a bunch of social experiments not fit for a junior science fair. Six hundred billion to study the effects of a white-noise machine? Perhaps information that would have a) been more relevant during the actual war rather than after it and b) easily tested with a few subjects for a fraction of the cost in some military site? If there's one thing in the Fallout universe that I'd like to see changed, it's this. Just make the Vaults normal fallout shelters again, I'll close my eyes to the retcon, I swear.
In a way, Fallout 3 stuck too close to the original game's template. You are again a Vault Dweller, forced to leave your home. Raiders, Ghouls and Super Mutants abound. The Brotherhood are there, and so are the Enclave. The game contributed little original material to the series. I liked the Children of Atom, who featured more prominently in Fallout 4 (and who would make a great main villain I believe). Liberty Prime was visually impressive and felt right at home, a nice The Iron Man/Giant homage. Running through DC was impressive, though it was broken up into too many isolated sections, separated by (annoying) loading screens and (horrible) Ghoul infested subways. Some inspiring moments on the Mall, Washington Monument and Science Museum could in the end not save the grey and dreary city from becoming too repetitive. Rivet City, while an interesting locale in theory, lacked scale to really sell me on the idea. This is my main complaint about the game: it all feels a bit samey. There's only so many ruined factories, supermarkets, disposal sites, etc. you can explore before you get the been-there-done-that feeling. The lack in enemy variety made itself felt acutely. The game also had its dumb moments (the fighting superheroes anyone?), but nothing stooped as low as Fallout 2.
Fallout 3 uncomfortably straddled its past as an RPG and its future as a FPS/action adventure. New Vegas would suffer from this problem even more, trying to reconnect with its roots but constrained by the Gamebryo engine. Fallout 4 resolutely chose the latter option and in the end became a better game for it.
Fallout 3 DLC
Squandered opportunity. You take part in a simulation of the reclamation of Alaska, an important event in the setting's divergent history. Unfortunately it's a 2 hour underwhelming slog, involving little more than shooting a steady trickle of Chinese troops. If it had the sense of scale and visceral gameplay of your triple A FPS game, your CoDs, MoHs or whatnot, it may have worked, but now when it's over, you'll just feel disappointed. I guess its main selling point is that you got a T51b out of it. Neat.
You get to go to Pittsburgh, which is a hellhole, but not as bad as it used to be (kidding). You are taken prisoner and all your gear is confiscated, an old, annoying trick of FPS games, but it works as for the first time in a long while you're actually somewhat vulnerable again (Fallout notoriously suffers from reversed difficulty curves). The setting feels properly post apocalyptic, some fun new weapons and enemies, but it's over in a few hours and you have no reason to go back. Could have been more.
Continues the main story, addressing some of the inanity of the original ending (why not send the impervious mutant into the reactor, huh?). I remember little of this DLC, which I guess is not a good sign. You blow up more Enclave, then some more, look for some MacGuffins, then make the Enclaves base, a giant crawler, which was cool I guess, 'splode. Little more than some action set pieces which Fallout 4 would go on to do better.
You take a boat to a faraway location, work for different factions, fight some unique local monsters and go on a psychedelic trip. Perhaps the best DLC for Fallout 3; Bethesda must have thought so too because the same synopsis can be used verbatim for Fallout 4's most recent DLC, Far Harbor. Anyhow. The desolate coastal town was atmospheric, the swamp provided some variety. However it also continued the annoying habit of substituting intelligent AI for enemies with more hit points. I don't mind if a mutant monstrosity survives a rocket barrage. But unarmored swamp folk shouldn't take ten shotgun blasts to the face to bring down. Bullet sponges do not equal challenge, they just pad the game's running time artificially.
Like Operation Anchorage, but on a UFO. Many didn't like the 'official' addition of the aliens to the setting, as they had before always been limited to hidden encounters. Personally I don't mind, the flying saucers and bug eyed aliens fit in with the 50s theme. Unfortunately this DLC did little with the fact that you're in space or an a strange, technologically advanced ship. You shoot your way through a few new enemy types with a few new weapons, have an uneventful spacewalk and you get to shoot a deathray at Earth. Hasn't she suffered enough?
As this is turning out to be a longer rant than I thought, I'll finish up the remainder at a later time!