A comment before I begin:
Comparisons between this game and Fallout 1 & 2 are unavoidable, mainly because the game is called Fallout 3, and not something like "Wasteworld" or "Post-apoc Elder Scrolls". Indeed, the number 3 seems to be wanting to tell us that this is THE true sequel to the original games, not being called "Fallout: FPS" or "Fallout: LARPing" (a la Fallout: Tactis & Brotherhood of Steel). If the guys at Bethesd decided to recreate the world of Fallout, well I guess that then it would be correct to evaluate how well they did it.
The way I see it, the game has much more in common with Oblivion than with Fallout. I mean, placing individual elements and names related to the franchise is not enough to make the final result "Fallouty". The whole is more than the sum of the parts, after all. Okay, so Vaultboy is there, the supermutants, the Brotherhood of steel and the Enclave, some guns from the oldies and the Vaults. The real problem is that the mechanics of the game make the product feel like something else. Those few of you who might have played the original games, lets be honest, this game feels absolutely nothing like them. The way the elements are juggled fails at making the wasteland feel "dangerous", fails at making the location of towns believable, fails at making the Brotherhood of Steel even remotely similar to the one illustrated by Black Isle. I'll adress a few of these things later.
On with the review. About the gameplay mechanics. There are some things I feel are being missed by the reviews most people make. The game is easy. Easy. I play a game in normal difficulty and expect it to be normal, not a walk in the park. I was tempted to change the difficulty to the one labeled as "Very Easy" just to see how the hell could those raiders die faster, but before i got the chance I had abandoned the game. The elements which contribute to this are: oblivion AI, V.A.T.S. (also called cheat mode), and a disturbingly fast weapon-obtaining curve.
No matter how Bethesda might put it, the AI hasn´t improved significantly from Oblivion. Enemies don't work in team, they don´t take cover, they can´t use drugs and healing items, they just run at you shooting or flailing their melee weapons, screaming mediocre one-liners. Raiders don't feel like the razers of the wastes, just as weak guys holding guns that are gonna be yours soon.
This takes me to another point. The easy as hell combat; I don't think it's necessary by now to say that the combat has nothing to do with the original turn-based combat Fallout 1 and 2 had. NO. v.A.T.S. is NOT turn-based. It's an abusive system for one simple reason. You can take aimed shots, but your opponents can't. It's like turnbased only the enemies don't have turns. VATS the hell out of some guys, duck, wait for the APs to regenerate, and repeat process. It was fun for a while, and the animation of the exploding head is pretty cool, but the feature is not deep enough to have a whole game revolve around it. I was level 3, wandering around the wasteland after just recently coming out of the Vault, I had gotten the hunting rifle from some Raiders, and suddenly I come across 2 centaurs, about 3 supermutants and a super mutant with a minigun in a ruined chapel. I take them all out with my rifle and nothing more. Got the minigun in level 3.
This in turn takes me to yet another point. The weapons. This is the thing that kills the game the most. You just obtain the best guns in the game too quickly and too easily. The combat shotgun is obtained via disarming traps which require no skill, and is probably one of the most reliable guns in the game. Raiders, as I said, are a ridiculously easy way of arming yourself to the teeth. Bazookas, assault rifles, flamers, grenades, submachine guns and snipers, all wielded by clumsy bots with very low hp. Besides, being the game and FPS, centered around the combat, it counts with just too few weapons. Seriously, Fallout 2 had far more weapons, and different kinds of ammunition for the same gun, and it's a 10 YEAR OLD GAME.
These two things added up, take away all the feeling of "danger" the wasteland should have. By the time you're level 8, you'll have a whole armory in your backpack, ready to beat anything. There should be a point in the game when you are godly, but certainly not so soon. I killed a Brotherhood of Steel caravan when I was like level 5, I think, and those guys are supposed to be among the toughest in the wastes. Oh, the Brotherhood of Steel, from those guys who sent you to The Glow and were "kind" of surprised when you came back alive, to lame wasteland police. These were the ones who kept technology to themselves and had bases of barbed wire which no one could enter, and they definitely had nothing to do with fighting the supermutants, in fact they never gave a **** about it.
The skills and perks. Stats mean pretty much nothing, except for strenght, with which you'll be able to carry an even bigger armory. Tagging skills also is insignificant, and maxing out skills is just too easy and quick. Perks are now obtained each level, providing far too many bonuses. The point I'm trying to make is that it works very differently from how it worked originally. Also, collecting bobble heads provides an immersion breaking bonus to skills and stats.
If I insist on drawing comparisons between the game and its predecessors, it is because I feel that after the game was posponed, and changed hands, it does not live up to what Fallout 1 & 2 were at the moment and that the result is far from being satisfactory.
Other features need lots of polishing. Voice acting is still mediocre, dialogue has been butchered; does anyone really remember what dialogue used to be like? Speech provided alternate solutions to quests, not just a quest-skipping feature, or a few more bottlecaps as a bonus. The trading system is poorly reproduced, and items have no descriptions, which is absolutely unforgivable. Plus, if some locations are kind of cool, like that slaver town, others feel completely out of place (Tenpenny Tower). Main storyline is short and poor. Random encounters, obviously are gone. The locations feel cramped, not giving the world the feeling of a wasteland. Those golden moments and lovable NPCs are gone, like the 4th wall jokes Fallout 2 would incessantly toss. The feeling of exploring is somewhat awkward, as well as that happy vibe Oblivion also had. Having objectives like "Go to Megaton" just after leaving the Vault, not knowing what the hell that place is, or "Get the Fatman" provide an inmersion-less experience.
In the end, Fallout 3 feels much like and Oblivion mod; Oblivion with guns, or Fallout with flaming swords.