You know, let's just break it down up top. Fallout 3 takes the base level action of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, changes the setting from knights-and-wizards fantasy to mutants-and-raiders post-apocalyptic Washington DC, sprinkles on a handful of systems and references that are designed to remind you of the previous Fallout games, and sends you on your way. It's successful at giving you meaningful moral choices that, in a lot of cases, reshape the game pretty dramatically. But at the same time, by trying to be a wide-open game that accounts for multiple play styles, you really notice it when you bump up against the technical and storytelling limitations of the game and its narrative structure.
The world of Fallout is the United States after a nuclear attack devastates the country and turns most of it into a flat, radioactive wasteland. To stay safe from the attack, many humans locked themselves in huge, underground vaults and lived there in relative safety. Others survive on the surface, and attempt to make lives for themselves in the rubble of what used to be the United States. Additionally, the game has a retro-futuristic tone to it that is one of its primary sources of humor.
The game opens with your character being born, and there's a prologue in place that both serves as the character creation tools and a brief introduction to the game's world and controls. It's here that you set your stats, tag a few character skills as primary, and design the look of your character. You also get to know your father over the course of this sequence, which ends with him mysteriously escaping the vault, a move that has the Overseer of the vault hunting you down. So you escape the vault to avoid the Overseer's wrath, as well as to start tracking down your father. Along the way, you'll see how life on the surface works, follow your father's trail, and get wrapped up in a pile of side quests.
Most of the quests in Fallout 3 can be completed in multiple ways, and the way you finish a quest can have substantial ramifications. Take, for example, the side quest called The Power of the Atom. This is one of the first side quests you might encounter in the town of Megaton. Megaton is so-named because there's a live nuclear bomb in the center of town. It leaks a bit of radiation and some local nutjobs worship it as some sort of great deity. The local law enforcement would be appreciative if you could quietly disarm the bomb. But a shadowy businessman in the local tavern offers you a hefty sum if you can rig the bomb to explode, instead. Since Megaton has other side quests and is also the place where you find your first lead on your father's whereabouts, blowing up the town can be a pretty dramatic act if you do it early on. It's a very cool moment.
Unfortunately, most of the other quests don't quite have that level of impact. But that doesn't mean they aren't clever or interesting. You'll get sent on a lot of different missions, either purely as side endeavors or in order to satisfy a person and convince them to give you the next piece of the main quest line. And there are still others that you might be able to circumvent if your statistics are properly aligned. The speech skill seems especially useful for this, as talking your way out of violent situations is usually much faster and easier than blasting your way through the entire game. But some quests won't require you to have specific skills. It's more a function of whether you're going to play like a jerk, and choose the most negative thing on the dialogue tree, or try to be a bit more even-handed. The game does a good job of making you feel like your dialogue choices are meaningful, even if they're just different tones of voice that ultimately lead to the same conclusion.
Avoiding combat was my method throughout my first playthrough of Fallout 3, and that's largely because I didn't find the combat to be very satisfying. Though the game takes place from a first-person perspective and you are often armed with a gun of some kind, this is not an action game, and it's certainly not a first-person shooter. If that's what you're after, you're going to find the combat flips between dull and frustrating. Since this still has the trappings of an RPG around the edges, things like your accuracy, damage, and chance to do critical hits are governed by statistics. Aiming for the head, however, is still your best bet.
If the real time combat is getting you down, you can drop into a time-freeze combat mode called VATS. This lets you take aim at specific body parts on enemies by clicking on them, then you confirm the command and watch the combat play out. You're limited by action points, which regenerate over time, so you can't just rely on this for all of the game's fighting. But it regenerates quickly enough to be used pretty regularly, and when you're in close, you'll often just get a 95 percent chance to hit an enemy's head with all of your shots, which can decimate most regular foes quickly. Once I got the hang of this, my combat tactics turned from FPS-style strafing to just running up into the faces of my enemies, triggering VATS, and blowing their heads off with a combat shotgun or a Chinese assault rifle (which is way better than the regular assault rifle). This turned combat into more of a chore than any sort of exciting gameplay element, but the alternative of facing your enemies head-on, in real time, wasn't any better. Though you'll gain levels and become stronger as you play, the combat seems to stay roughly the same throughout the game, almost as if the enemies are leveling up along with you. The only difference-makers I got were perks that made me more effective at taking headshots in VATS mode, and things like that.
Most of your enemy encounters take place in buildings, usually while you're trying to complete some mission objective. But there's also the wasteland of the game's overworld. You'll occasionally encounter mutant monsters, angry raiders, or wild dogs when you're running around topside, but it's called a wasteland for a reason. There's, like, nothing out there but scorched earth and rubble. So when you have to run from one torn-up settlement to a new one, you sort of just point yourself in the direction of the new place and hold forward until you get there. Maybe you'll want to stop and fight any random creatures that get in your way, but you usually run faster than they do, so unless it's a group of super mutants trying to gun you down, you can usually just keep running. Once you've been to a location, you can use your world map to warp around to the different locations you've visited, just like Oblivion.
It's probably this sort of cowardice and constant running that resulted in me finishing the game at level 15, even though the level cap is 20. Getting from the game's intro to the end credits took me just over 25 hours, and I feel like I spent just as much, if not more time taking on side quests than I did following the main quest line. Along the way you'll meet a solid cast of characters that breathe life into the wasteland via some quality dialogue and interactions that feel meaningful. Even if you're going to turn around and gun them down, or just act like a horrible bastard the entire time, your dealings with these guys is what makes the game worthwhile. One could probably spend 50 hours or more exploring every nook and cranny of the Fallout 3 world, but I came away satisfied after finishing the game as a "good" character and putting significant time into a pair of more opportunistic or "evil" avatars. Depending on how much of a completionist you are, your own playtime can vary dramatically.
Also--and I'll surely talk around the specifics of what actually happens at the end of the game--it must be said that the presentation on the game's ending is a bit unfortunate. You may have heard the talk from the developers about how the game has "hundreds" of endings. But the ending is comprised of brief static images and some bits of voiceover that detail what you did over the course of the adventure, and it sort of poorly stitches these moments together to form a stilted, jerky look at a few of the key things you did over the course of the game. Also, I feel like I outsmarted the game's final moments only to have it force me down a specific, undesirable path via one of the most angering lines of dialogue in recent memory. I'd really like to say more about this, because it still has me pretty riled up, but as it's effectively the end of the game, it would be uncouth to talk in specifics.
The game also has a lot of little issues, many of which are straight out of Oblivion, though there are some new ones, as well. NPC characters behave oddly, sometimes randomly switching between a too-slow walk and a hyper-speed run, usually because they need to be standing somewhere else to perform some kind of custom animation for you. It's as if the director shouted "places everyone! The player character is coming!" You'll still need to deal with encumbrance, and if you're holding more than the weight limit allows you'll move very slowly and be unable to fast travel. Maybe I just like to carry more than is necessary to always be prepared, but I felt like I was spending a ton of time managing my inventory over the course of the game. The game also has a third-person perspective that you can optionally use to play the game, but it's no good.
Also, the game autosaves every time you walk through a door or enter a new location. I ran into a spot where I had picked a lock, angering a nearby robot, who gave chase and alerted the entire town that I was a bad guy. I ran through a door, which saved the game in a state where I had very little health and had like eight people chasing after me, guns blazing. It led to a situation where the game would load up, I would attempt to run away, get killed, reload in the exact same state, die again, and so on for around 30 minutes. I finally managed to find a spot where I could duck and the game's questionable AI couldn't find me, and everything eventually got back to normal. But I didn't have a recent hard save at that point. If I had been caught with less health and placed in a spot where there was no way to escape, I probably would have been caught in a death loop with no escape and nothing to do but start over again. That... seems kind of bad. Take that as a warning and try to remember to manually save from time to time.
Across the three platforms, the PC version of Fallout 3 is the best, provided you have hardware that can handle it. The PC version has better lighting, a bit more graphical detail, and just looks better, overall. It's a Games For Windows Live game, too, so if you're dead set on playing the game with an Xbox 360 controller, you can do that on the PC, as well. Additionally, it has achievements, just like the 360 version, though they're kept separately--this means you could technically double up, play the game to completion on both the 360 and the PC, and have double the points as a result.
The 360 version is no slouch, though. It might not be quite as pretty as the PC version, but it still looks fine. The load times remain pretty reasonable. The PlayStation 3 version is below the 360 version, by comparison. The level of detail when you're in the wasteland or other areas where you can see for great distances isn't quite as good, the game seems to be a bit more aliased, and the frame rate isn't as smooth. Plus, the PS3 version of the game doesn't have any trophy support (yet), and the game actually freezes every time a status message, such as "so and so is online" or "DUDE HOW DID U GET FALLOUT 3 EARLY!!!!???" is on-screen. That's bad enough to make you want to log out of the PlayStation Network before booting up the PS3 version of the game.
It's unfortunate that Fallout 3 is saddled with so many little- and medium-sized issues, because they get in the way of what's an otherwise fantastic experience. The world is well-realized and full of options. It'll be a struggle in spots, but I'm willing to guess that most people will be able to overlook a lot of the game's problems and still have a very good time exploring the irradiated wasteland formerly known as Washington DC.