I've started up Fallout 3 again with a new game, abandoning my first after I actually stumbled upon Vault 112 before I was supposed to. I never bothered to trek to GNR or any of downtown Washington, since I took the Blood Ties quest in Megaton my first playthrough, and that took me out into the wastes instead.
I felt a little cheated skipping over such a big part of the story, I was just exploring and tripped on it, which I think made it a bit more rewarding experience. I was just looking for ammo and stimpacks in an abandoned gas station, and it was a complete surprise to find a fully functional vault in the basement. It felt like I had done all of the work, there wasn't a quest arrow pointing me right to it, even though I did miss out on the storyline missions that led up that far.
But having now played the part I skipped, I don't think I missed out on that much. The city feels artificial and claustrophobic compared to the wasteland. The convenient rubble piles that block the city streets pop up way too often, dividing the city up into pockets of gameplay, with the Metro interlinking it all. I understand why the blocks are there, to keep the "fun per square inch" up and avoid players getting easily lost and bored in featureless ruins, and it does keep the game well paced. But it breaks the immersion every time I run into them, kind of like the wire fences in Stalker. I don't know that there's anything that could be done to fix that, it's part of the locked door syndrome that every game seems to have to some degree.
But the way the city areas are implemented in Fallout 3, it makes it hard to navigate without the ever-present quest arrows showing you the way. It removes some of the incentive to explore when there's something telling you exactly where you need to go, there aren't many incentives to wander off the set path if you're on a quest. This could be fixed - there aren't enough visible landmarks, which is kind of funny to say about Washington, D.C. But there's no way to just look around and know where you are or where your destination is. The Washington Monument could be a direct analog to the Citadel in Half-Life 2, a constant reminder of where the player is and where they need to go. A minor thing, but I think it could have helped a lot with immersion, being able to place yourself without opening the Pip-Boy 3000 and puzzling through the map.
On more of a theme/style note, Fallout 3 aims for a cartoonish, pulp comic, retro future feel when it's at its best - over the top bloody slowmo deaths in VATS that somehow never get old, cars exploding in mini-mushroom clouds, giant fire breathing ants - where it falls down is when it tries to be serious or make the player really care about the characters. I can't think of a single person in the game I can identify with. Not the inhabitants of Vault 101 and the barely believable Tunnel Snakes, not my in-game father with his phoned in lines, even the captives of the mutants are hard to relate to - I freed one only to have her run directly into another mutant camp and have her head blown off.
I think there are a variety of reasons I'm apathetic about the characters in Fallout 3. The mediocre to downright terrible voice acting - the combat taunts are unintentionally hilarious at first, then just grinding on the ears. Then there are the dialog options I'm given, which are really shallow. There's either "I love you and I'd love to help!" or "Fuck you!" without a whole lot of middle ground options or alternatives.
It's been a while since I've played the original Fallout, but I remember the characters being a lot more engaging, with deeper motivations, and more choice as to how quests turned out. It could jut be fuzzy memory, but I felt like I had more power and responsibility in the original Fallout. There was an entire vault at stake, that their lives depended on me, and I was told that from the start, with a deadline every time I opened my PipBoy, a handwritten note tracking the days of water left in Vault 13.
There's no such driving force in Fallout 3. My father is gone, I have to go find him because someone I've seen twice before with no authority says so, because I'm going to be killed by a character I saw for ten seconds earlier in the game. There's a negative goal: survive, but no overarching goal besides following my father. I'm following in someone else's footsteps, just like the title of one of the quests: but it's hard to feel like you're very important when your father has been to all of these places before. You're almost a supporting character. Even when you find your father and escort him back, he can't die, he can only faint. He could have basically done this himself.
The story of Fallout 3 doesn't put the player in a position to feel powerful, with the father's accomplishments looming over you. Maybe I'm reading too much into that, but I think it's part of it. There's nothing wrong with not making the player all powerful, and it gets boring being the only force changing the landscape in a open world RPG, but you're given very little power in the current game. You do errands for any Joe Blow that asks, the key characters are unkillable (unlike you), and almost all of the quests amount to glorified package delivery.
I don't want anyone to get the impression that I don't like the game - I've put more than 20 hours into two separate (partial) playthroughs, and I've enjoyed the exploration part, but none of the quests have been that rewarding. I've had to make my own fun, but the game allows for that. It's a sandbox to play in, and it's a big sandbox - I haven't even seen a quarter of the locations. I'll probably come back to Fallout 3, once I've seen the ending and the rest of the main quest myself.
I'm also considering starting a small mod, adding in a new dungeon. I need a portfolio piece, and Fallout 3 has a powerful, easy to use toolkit, so hopefully I'll have something to show soon.