I have been a huge fan of the open world style of RPG that Bethesda Software has been putting out for a while now. Morrowind was huge, almost scary big, on a scale with established MMOs, which made it unique in the world of single player games. You could run off in any direction and find an adventure. You could create another character and always find new experiences by just taking a different path. Unlike most RPGs, where you essentially cover all the content on you path to winning the game, Bethesda has created a niche for themselves as producing "choose your path" RPGs.
Because of this I was excited at the prospect of Fallout 3. This was supposed to be Elder Scrolls in a the Fallout world: a post nuclear war wasteland with mutant monsters and guns. Those that I know who played Fallout and Fallout 2 were all excited (I never played those).
When I loaded the game, the opening sequence got me very excited. You pan out of a 50s style radio playing "I don't want to set the world fire" to see the DC mall, now called the Capitol Wasteland. The ironic theme of clean cut very pure 50s "Leave It to Beaver" white culture contrasting with the very disturbing evil world you roam in where cannibalism is the norm and normalcy has taken some very sickening turns made the game even more intriguing to me.
But that didn't last very long. First, the game just didn't work on my system (and I have a pretty good system for games like this; made for MMOs). The wonderful music can be played all the time on a radio system, but when I did I crashed horribly. My game locked up, frame rate would drop to less then 1 FPS, would skip, save games would be corrupted, even NPCs would wander the world and die so I couldn't complete the quests. Bethesda has been silent on these problems, leaning on the user community to fix its own problems while we wait (still waiting as I write this almost two months after release). These user-made fixes include everything from deleting codec files to editing your registry. The game is pretty much unplayable. I have since learned that this is the norm for Bethesda: their games have major issues after release and they are slow to respond. As an example, they have already released an editor for the game (G.A.C.K) but the game still crashes in many strange ways. Why in the world would they not have every person on the project who could write code working on making their game playable?
Still, I have been playing it, saving often, and in the month or so I have had it I have already completed the game three times. I said "complete" deliberately. When you finish the finale of this game it is game over, with credits and back to the main menu; there is no way to finish the main quest and keep playing, which is silly in a world that is supposed to be huge so you can explore.
There is the rub. Fallout 3 is not huge. It's not even big. While there are many map locations (maybe about half as many as Oblivion, and many of those are not dungeons but just areas with a few monsters roaming around) it is completely plausible to see most of the content very quickly. You level up fast, which is very disappointing as there is a level 20 cap, so most players will see most of the content of the game at level 20, assuming they hold off finishing the main quest.
There are some pros. First, while there is less content, the content is much more developed. In Oblivion, when you randomly found a dungeon you would quickly find yourself running through one of a few maps with one of a few themes (e.g. caves with trolls, dungeon with bandits), with random treasure in chests. It made the game a little tedious. This is not the case in FO3. When you find a new POI you are going to be surprised.
Second, some of the quests are very well narrated and acted. All the quests that appear on your quest log include voice actors. There are tapes thrown around the world that include tidbits of history from the game world. I especially liked those that recorded what it was like immediately after the bombs fell. Many of the dialog options when talking to the NPCs in the universe also bring you into the horrific universe. This form of information is much better than the dozens of books that were in Oblivion, which I doubt anyone ever read.
Lastly, some of the dungeons are downright terrifying. There is a homage to Lovecraft (Bethesda has done a Call of Cthulhu game too) which should have been more scary but had me interested. The graphic representation of the world is awesome, and I felt a cold chill many times while exploring. The quests are equally disturbing (in a good way). This is no "find the crown to save the princess" game. You can rescue hookers, assassinate innocents, capture and sell slaves, give drugs to addicts, and even explode a nuke on the main town in the game (I highly recommend even the most heroically good player create an evil toon to do this).
There is one last huge problem which overshadows most of the games good points. The game is embarrassingly easy. There is a level 20 cap, you experience up very fast, and skills are maxed at 100. The last character I played was on the highest difficulty level and never once died (though I did have to get creative at lower levels to afford healing). Even at max settings, I was able to have a character with the best gear in the game, the best weapons in the game, all my important skills at max (which is very easy to achieve, as the limit is 100 and you have multiple ways to raise a skill), and all the main quests completed. This final character took me only about 10 hours of playtime.
If you are interested, I strongly suggest waiting for about six months for Bethesda to fix this game. They apparently have a bad record on quickly fixing problems. I played Oblivion only after it came out packaged with both expansions and never had a problem even at max settings. If you are expecting Morrowind (or even Oblivion) size, forget it. This game won't keep you interested for very long.
My recommendation: don't pay full price. Wait until this game hits the $20 rack, or borrow it from a friend who "won" the game the first weekend they owned it.
And never buy a Bethesda game when it comes out; wait a good six months so they can fix what should have been fixed prior to release.