I just finished Fallout 3’s main storyline yesterday, so I wanted to compare Bethesda’s two great games. I heartily recommend both, incidentally.
Better graphics: Skyrim. No surprise — the latter is a new title — but even for its time, Fallout isn’t that visually impressive. Visually APPROPRIATE, yes, but not visually impressive. Moments at Skyrim made me stop and just stare at the scenery. I never felt that in Fallout 3.
Better sound: Fallout 3. The relatively sparsely populated landscape in Fallout means less repetition in voice actors. I also think Fallout has the better Hollywood names — compare Liam Neeson, Malcolm McDowell and Ron Perlman to Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and Michael Hogan. There’s not much of a contest there. (Wes Johnson was AWESOME as Sheogorath, but he is completely negated by the horribly annoying Cicero, who I kill every time just to shut his freaking facehole up. The sound effects are appropriate, but not overly memorable.
Better music: Push. Both games have soundtracks, but they are very much background noise most of the time. The radio stations would put Fallout over Skyrim, but Skyrim’s soundtrack just feels more epic. I can’t choose.
Better story: Fallout 3. If you’ve finished either of the first two games, you know that Fallout tends to end games well. There’s a coherent story throughout the entire game, it’s well told, and there’s just the right amount of exposition. Skyrim does none of those well.
Better world: Skyrim. I think it shows that both games have different design philosophy. Exploring Fallout 3 was occasionally irritating. Completely apropos, but irritating. Interiors are especially bad in Fallout 3; Skyrim outshines in almost every conceivable way.
Better leveling system: Skyrim. It makes sense — the more you stuff, the better you get at it. Fallout gives you XP for killing, discovering, and finishing quests. The level cap is much lower in Fallout 3 — 30 as opposed to Skyrim’s theoretically infinite one — but each new level in Skyrim still feels meaningful.
Better combat: Skyrim. As much as I enjoyed punching somebody so hard their head exploded in Fallout 3, Skyrim has the more fun and challenging combat mechanics. Fallout 3 is a third person shooter with tactical elements; the Rock-It Launcher (it will fire literally anything you put in it, from toasters to packs of cigarettes) is a fun little gimmick but not a serious weapon. Fallout does have nuclear weapons, but you can kill stuff with dragons in Skyrim.
More replay value: Skyrim. Because combat has a sense of sameness in Fallout 3, you’re really replaying to see how the story turns out different. That’s got value, but I will play Skyrim just to play Skyrim.
Most fun: Skyrim by a nose. There is stuff to do in Skyrim. A lot of stuff. The incidental dialogue is funnier (They’ve got curved swords. Curved. Swords.), and the companions more memorable. However, Fallout 3 has a giant robot that spouts anti-Communist propaganda while it kills stuff. The factions in Fallout are more well developed, too. Apart from The Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood (to a lesser extent), I didn’t care too much about the factions in Skyrim.
Difficulty: Fallout 3. Both games have inverted learning curves — they are harder earlier on. However, Fallout 3 feels more balanced. Past a certain part in Skyrim, the challenge is gone and you’re an unstoppable killing machine. That’s a lot of fun, and your play style will obviously make a big difference in the challenge, but Fallout is more reasonable. Cheap deaths are also far less common in Fallout 3 (no instadeaths, in other words). Fallout is slightly more difficult in the early game, but once you’re around level 7 or so, you’re through the tough spot until near the end of the game.
DLCs: N/A. I haven’t played the Fallout DLCs yet. I’ll do a mini-post for that later.
Overall value: Skyrim. If the two games cost the same, I’d take Skyrim every time in terms of bang for your buck. These days, Fallout 3 is slightly cheaper, but it’s still a slightly better deal in terms of the sheer quantity of playing hours.