BIG CHUNKY SPOILERS AHEAD! IF YOU READ THIS BEFORE FINISHING FALLOUT, IT WILL BE RUINED FOREVER!
Fallout was a masterpiece. It was a near-perfect blend of RPG and turn-based combat. You could take it apart until you've got each of the separate components - a turn-based shooter, an RPG and a humourous game - and none of them would rate above around so-so. But together the blend is something greater than the whole. Maybe it was the appeal of using bottlecaps as currency or the mix of 1950's culture with futuristic gatling lasers and force fields. But perhaps the main reason was the way it sucked you into the wasteland that was once California.
The difference between a boring wasteland that is there because the programmers couldn't think of anything to put there and an interesting wasteland that adds to and enhances the plot is the people. Without the people, you've got a Diablo 2 clone. But instead, you've got a portion of a ruined world, being alternatively pieced together and taken apart by a variety of memorable characters. Anyone that has played through the game can tell you what Loxley's most memorable attribute is, not to mention the Master's method of talking. These are people that are real. These are towns that are real. Or at least as close to real as you can get without actual existance.
There was the small community of Shady Sands, struggling with the radscorpion plagues and the constant menace of bandits. You actually care when young Tandi gets 'napped by the bandits, because she seemed real. Her enthusiasm for the outside world was matched only by her frustration with the boring life of her village. The way she tells you in no unclear terms that your attentions would be better directed towards the mutant cows when you hit on her (if you have a male character - her panicked stutter if you have a female character is just as amusing). Plus a supporting cast of the overworked but dedicated doctor, the pleasant elder of the community, Seth standing guard at the gates...
Then, onwards to Junktown. Killian, the smooth merchant/leader of the outpost, is another person that seems real ("Well that's a damn fine coincidence!"), his gratitude when you help fight off the assassin and when you go undercover to sting the unpleasant, rather corpulent leader of the seedy side of Junktown, known only as Gizmo. The Skulz gang with their harrasment of the local pub's landlord, plus the reluctant gangster, Rose, who would much prefer to be an artist. The appearance of the most favourite supporting character, the Mad Max reference known only as Dogmeat. The creepy doctor with the unbalanced midgit shipping diced human corpses to the Hub to sell as iguana-onna-stick.
Slightly to the south, you find the trading center of the wastes, aptly called the Hub. With the Big Three trading companies, with the memorable leader of Fargo Traders, Butch ("Time is money, chit-chat is not money. What do you want?") balanced by the condescenging Water Traders and the mildly insane Maltese Falcon traders. The loan shark that calls himself the Friendly Loan Company. The very gossipy firearm trader, Beth, and her wisecracking bodyguard ("Welcome to Beth's House of Pleasure" "I heard that!"). Harold the Friendly Ghoul, who was hours of fun to talk to ("How did you survive?" "Didn't. Got killed! (laughs) God, I love that one...") with his insane friend Slappy ("Deathclaw, deathclaw, da da da deathclaw..."). My personal favourite character, the EXTREMELY British leader of the Guild of Thieves, Loxley ("and what was the other thing... ah yes. WHAT THE BLOODY, BLOODY, BLOODY HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?").
Moving west, you enter the Boneyard, the twisted remains of Los Angeles with the Regulator-controlled Adytum, the resistance faction of the Blades, the Deathclaw-haunted ruined buildings, the Gun Runners with the fortress surrounded by a moat of chemical waste and the Followers of the Apocolypse, that are the only ones suspicious of the Children of the Cathedral. The Regulators turning the mayor of Adytum against the Blades by torturing his son and impaling him outside the gates, and blaming it on Razor, leader of the Blades. Her reaction when she learns of this conspiracy is surprisingly violent, and you are enlisted to get the support of the Gun Runners. And the war goes on. Further on, the Followers of the Apocolypse are dedicated to gathering knowledge so they can stop any more destruction being unleashed upon the world. Not as many memorable characters, but there are still plenty of real characters.
North of the Boneyard, you have the encampment of the Brotherhood of Steel, the super-high-tech bunker that holds the US Military turned pseudo-religious gathering. The naive door guard, who sounds confident when he is greeting you ("Welcome to the Brotherhood of Steel. May I ask your business here?") but gets a bit nervous when you ask about joining and tells you about the joining quest required (Retrieve artifact from the 'Ancient Order', better known as 'the Glow' and more accurately known as 'giant crater full to the brim of rads') and the strange mixture of enthusiasm, surprise and happiness when you accept it ("You'll do it? Great!"). This is then balanced by the cynicism of the other guard ("So they've sent you on the famous Glow quest..."). Once you gain entry, there's the tempermental] leader of the Paladins, General Rhombus. There's the old, amiable Elder, General Maxson ("Damn outsiders, always flapping their gums... kinda like me, I guess."). There's the bald head scientist, Vree, her (apparent) tranquility rivalled only by her (apparent) knowledge. There's the young Knight who you share a room with once you become an initiate and absolutely refuses to stop talking.
Finally, there's the various logs, records and transmissions you get plugged into your PipBoy. There's the voice record of Richard Grey, the first personality of the psychotic combined entity known only as the Master. There are the records of the history of the Brotherhood of Steel, documenting the movement from their original base to their current location, harried by mutants the entire way. There's the history of the the Brothers that were exploring the Ancient Order when they got ambushed by ancient security systems. There's left-over promotional material for the Vaults from pre-war, with which you can put a name and number to the Vaults underneath the Cathedral and the Necropolis.
Overall, there's the feeling that the world of Fallout is a living, breathing world - not one that is static and pivots on your every action, but one that carries on regardless and is affected only by drastic measures. The endgame summary was just perfect, and I felt compelled to immediately restart with a different character as my lack of haste led to the destruction of both the Followers of the Apocolypse AND the Hub. It doesn't feel like a simulated world - it feels like a real one, or as close as possible to a real one, that would carry on regardless even if you ended up as a pile of bones in the waste. Then again, my imagination could be running wild.
I can still see the forlorn figure of the Vault Dweller trudging into the endless wastes, cast away from the Vault where he was born and bred, slowly disappearing from view, with scraps of the Maybe song running through my head... (sniffle)