After having torn Skyrim to shreds, thus tarnishing Bethesda's reputation for generations to come (all with the best of loving intentions for RPGs and the industry in general), I was reminded of my experiences with the two most recent Fallout games: Fallout 3 by Bethesda, and Fallout: New Vegas by Obsidian. Given that they're both Fallout games that even share the same engine, they're about as similar as two games from two different companies can be. And yet, the experience of playing them is markedly different, with a lot of people loving one and hating the other.
I didn't like Fallout 3. Bethesda has a real knack for developing interesting worlds and then filling them with mediocre gameplay, and so I found Fallout 3 a bore and a chore. It just lacked a lot of the gameplay and role-playing elements that made the original two Fallouts (and RPGs in general) worth playing. New Vegas, on the other hand, was the solution to virtually every complaint I had with Fallout 3. Whereas Fallout 3 was basically just "Oblivion with guns," New Vegas was Fallout 3 with Fallout.
New Vegas gets an undeservedly bad rap from people who never played the first two Fallouts. A lot of people were introduced to the world of Fallout through Fallout 3, and they criticize New Vegas for deviating from the formula Bethesda used in FO3. When it should really be the other way around. Fallout 3 is the black sheep of the series, with New Vegas demonstrating a return to form and showing us how a real post-apocalyptic role-playing game should be.
(For related reading, check out my other New Vegas article, "New Vegas is a Better RPG Than Skyrim.")
(For related reading, check out my other New Vegas article, "New Vegas is a Better RPG Than Skyrim.")
The world map is far less cluttered
In FO3, I often felt like I was surrounded by barriers. The entire DC area was the worst, with the city broken into very small compartments via convenient wreckage blocking everywhere you could go. Having to take the linear, claustrophobic subway lines to get anywhere was kind of tedious and made me feel like I wasn't exploring a "world" as much as I was exploring various isolated zones. Not to mention, being plopped down in the middle of the map made me feel kind of lost, aimlessly wandering around hoping to stumble upon some kind of interesting content, and I was constantly overwhelmed by the sheer amount stuff (ie, junk) everywhere.
In NV, the map just feels more open and spacious, if only because there's not so much rubble blocking your way. You can see further to the horizon, and there's much less junk constantly springing up in front of you and begging for your attention, which makes locations actually stand out. It's much closer in style to the original Fallouts, where you sequentially go to various hub towns and locations on your way to completing the main quest line. It felt more logically arranged with the game content spread evenly across it, providing a nice rhythm for questing and exploration. Unlike FO3, I actually felt compelled to explore every inch of the Mojave.
No more level-scaling
I was pretty bummed out in FO3 when, level 2 and fresh out of the vault, I was able to kill an entire group of bandits who were using sniper rifles, shotguns, and flame throwers, using nothing but my 10mm pistol. In the original Fallouts, I would've been dead before I even had a chance to seriously damage one bandit. Then, an hour or two later, I killed a group of 3 or 4 super mutants. In the original Fallouts, super mutants were really strong and would've squashed me like a bug that early in the game. The effect is that I just never felt challenged in FO3, and so combat and leveling-up never felt satisfying or rewarding.
In NV, the combat is actually challenging, with a lot of enemies starting out a lot stronger than you. Cazadores, deathclaws, super mutants, glowing ghouls, and centaurs can all kill you easily, requiring that you avoid them until you're stronger. It makes everything a lot more satisfying, because whenever you complete a quest or kill an enemy, you know you're gaining experience towards getting stronger. It makes combat actually rewarding because it took some effort to level-up before you could handle these kinds of challenges, and it just feels great to come back to the starting area to kill all of those cazadores that were outright decimating you in the very beginning.
More quests and better quests
I felt like I spent 10 hours at a time in FO3 running around doing nothing, and the few actual quests I was able to pick up were relatively simple and straightforward. Even the main, central quest for Megaton, where I decided to save the city from total nuclear destruction, was just a simple matter of "Have 25 Explosives skill and press E on bomb." Looking at the number of quests in FO3, it's no wonder I was hardly able to pick up any, and it's also disheartening to notice that about 33% of FO3's side-quests are completely inconsequential "bring me X items" quests.
New Vegas, on the other hand, has a hell of a lot more quests that are logically distributed throughout the map. Not only are they easier to find, they also tend to have more role-playing options to them, with more quests overlapping and conflicting with each other. Much like Megaton in FO3, one of the very first quests in NV is to save a city or attack it. By choosing to save the city, you get the option to enlist the aid of the townsfolk with any number of your own skills like Barter, Speech, Explosives, Sneak, Medicine, and Science. Instead of just being a straightforward quest with a simple binary outcome, there are numerous different ways to solve it, depending on how you built your character, which makes you feel more involved in it.
Perks every 2 levels
In the original Fallouts, you got to pick a perk every 3 levels, and with a level cap of 21, you could only pick 7 perks in total. This made perks a really special reward bonus for leveling up and made you weigh the benefits between perks, knowing that you would have to pass on a lot of them. It forced you to role-play your character to specialize in certain fields. It offered a lot of replay value because you could build your next character in a completely different and unique way that would actually play differently. New Vegas gives you perks every 2 levels, which is closer in style to the originals and gives the perks a better feeling of depth and significance.
In FO3, you get a perk every single level. This belittles their value when you can pick 20 in total, but I also just found myself picking perks that I ordinarily didn't want, just because I HAD to pick something. Not to mention with the "SPECIAL Training" perk and all of the bobble heads, you can easily raise all of your stats to 10, on top of being able to get all of your skills very close to 100, which further defeats the whole "specialized role-playing" aspect of the game. In the end, I just felt over-powered, and while I could become a nigh-invincible killing machine in Fallouts 1 and 2, it required me to pick my skills, perks, and starting stats in an intelligent and efficient way, as opposed to just brainlessly maxing everything in FO3.
The factions in FO3 were really straightforward, and even kind of betrayed some of the established lore of the series. Whereas the Brotherhood of Steel were isolationist, xenophobic, elitist jerks in the originals, they became noble self-sacrificing paladins for the good of all humanity in FO3. Fallout 3 turned the factions into a simple matter of black and white with obvious good guys and bad guys, and you have to work with the good guys to finish the main quest, with the only real moral decision coming at the very end.
New Vegas, on the other hand, offers more factions with no clear good guys or bad guys. It's a more realistic shade of gray with different groups vying for power and pushing different goals and ideals. Picking a faction was a matter of deciding whose beliefs you agreed with most, what consequences you felt were worth the cost of the greater good, and what was ultimately best for the wasteland. There's actually tension between factions in the Mojave, offering concrete, tangible consequences for your actions and allowing for some good, interesting replay value.
Hardcore mode adds some much-desired challenge
I've already complained about FO3 lacking in challenge and thus feeling shallow and unrewarding. The "Hardcore" mode in New Vegas is not the solution in and of itself, because it really is kind of tacked-on, but it does add some more depth to the experience. With stimpaks healing over time, you have to be far more careful of what enemies you engage in combat, because you can't save yourself by pausing and magically healing yourself back up to full health in an instant. Same for curing radiation and broken limbs. Your followers can die permanently, and so you have to fight a little more intelligently. It also adds a lot more role-playing and survival elements like ammunition having weight, which forces you to carry only a limited amount, and having to eat, sleep, and drink to stay alive.
Less dreary, more up-beat
Everything in Fallout 3 is just so bleak, grim, and serious, all the time. There are some attempts at humor here and there, but it's a very minor emphasis. The capital wasteland is just a very oppressing atmosphere that felt kind of like the game was crying out "Woe is me!" as it constantly called attention to its super-depressing visual design and miserable atmosphere. I guess this would be a good thing under certain circumstances, and it's ultimately more of a preference issue, but it wore on my soul after a while. I just got tired of it.
The tone of NV, on the other hand, is far more in line with the originals, especially FO2. It has its serious side (Ron Perlman's narration, the central conflict of the factions, the whole apocalypse setting) frequently juxtaposed with deadpan humor, bizarre situations, and upbeat atmospheres, which I feel makes it a richer, more interesting world. The Mojave is also just filled with a lot more color and life, as evidenced by the Vegas strip, so it felt more invigorating for me to explore. Especially with the Wild Wasteland trait, which adds even more weird content and cultural references, like the kind of stuff you encountered in FO2.
A better beginning
The original Fallouts had you complete your character sheet and then they put you right into the action with a main questline, which had a real, tangible objective to pursue. Fallout 3 had the prolonged "Vault intro" which forced you to play literally from birth until you'd fully grown up. It was heavy-handed with tutorials, and the scripted sequences really limited what you could do. Then once you got out into the Wasteland your objective was "Find Dad," which wasn't compelling because I felt no personal attachment to Liam and had no real desire to find him, which made a lot of the game simply obligatory.
New Vegas has a similar character creation introduction, but it's straightforward and to the point; once you finish setting up your Tags, SPECIAL stats, and traits, you're sent out to find the man who shot you and left you for dead. Instead of being on some forlorn quest to find dear old daddy, NV is all about revenge, and its starting quests get you involved in the world a lot faster, and in a much better way. I really didn't care about finding Benny, specifically, but I was curious and wanted to know more, which, coupled with how they portrayed this world right from the get-go, was enough incentive for me to continue on.
A better ending
Fallout 3's ending is pretty simple and only really changes depending on your final decision, and whether you had good or bad karma. New Vegas, on the other hand, follows the style of the originals by showing the consequences for nearly every single one of your actions. Every town, faction, and important NPC you interact with gets its own part of the ending slideshow narration, each with several different possible outcomes. It's just a nice touch that helps add some weight and significance to your gameplay decisions, by showing that you actually had an impact on this world.
The bottom line
I don't know how it's even possible to argue in favor of FO3, just based on its own merits. I think literally everyone who prefers FO3 to NV willingly admits it was their first Fallout game, and that they prefer it for that specific reason. "Fallout 3 was just such a fantastic and original experience for me, and New Vegas just couldn't live up to that spectacle of FO3." That's an entirely subjective argument, and yet they objectively score NV worse. Does that seem fair?
I have a bit of an axe to grind, here, because I'm scared for the future. With Bethesda owning the rights to Fallout, if they decide to make a Fallout 4, I'm concerned they'll look at the critical reception and sales of FO3 versus NV, and continue the series in the direction that FO3 veered off into. If that's the case, then perhaps I just won't buy another Fallout game, but it's kind of an injustice to see a beloved series turned into shallow mediocrity, all because a majority of newcomers don't "get it" and are perfectly content to remain in ignorance of how much better it could be.
New Vegas is a better RPG, and it's a better Fallout game. Its quest structure, faction system, role-playing elements, narrative, characters, balancing, and ecosystem are all just far more intelligent and sophisticated for an RPG. Fallout 3 is mediocre for an RPG and a weak Fallout game. If you disagree with that, then I'd have to question the other games you've played to have come to that conclusion, because anyone who really knows RPGs can tell you that FO3 wasn't that great.
If you like FO3 better, then that's your opinion and that's fine. But at least realize that New Vegas is more in-keeping with the series, and that the reasons a lot of people say it's "worse than FO3" are actually the very reasons other people prefer NV.