In the 20+ years since the Fallout franchise was introduced to the world, all of the games have been met with praise—which means that ranking them isn’t easy. It’s especially difficult to pit the games against each other when you consider that the post-nuclear franchise underwent a genre change.
Still, here we are. The Pecking Order god is not satisfied with our Grand Theft Auto, Pokemon, Final Fantasy and Halo rankings. It wants more. So we’ll feed the beast another feature, this one ranking the Fallout games, from best to ‘worst.’ Here’s some things you should keep in mind before we get started:
1) We’ll only be covering the main entries in the Fallout franchise; no spin-offs or DLC. Sorry, Tactics!
2) Remember, this is my personal opinion. You might disagree! You’re welcome to comment with your own rankings, if not debate my personal order—although naturally I’ll do my best to justify my choices.
Let’s do this.
This post originally appeared on 2014, but has been updated with a new order.
Okay, yes: Fallout 2 altered how I viewed America and its politics, and it gave me a safe space to explore my sexual identity. But objectively, I see it as the pinnacle of what Fallout has to offer: a zany, post-apocalyptic game with an incredible amount of choice, a smart critique of American ideals—all packaged in a more cerebral genre than the modern titles. (It’s a turn-based RPG.)
This is a game where you can lose countless hours to exploration...or you can beeline to the final boss within 30 minutes of starting the game. It’s a game where you can become a porn star or a made-man, just for funsies. Oh, and the conversations! What a joy, to speak to everyone you come across and learn a little more about this world. My favorite moment: talking to the AI responsible for ending the world in the great war. Fallout 2 has the sort of freedom and versatility that most modern games that brag about “choice,” and “consequences” can’t touch.
When I initially ran this post over a year ago, Fallout 1 was dead last on the list. I actually replayed this game in 2015, and my opinion has changed!
Lets be absolutely clear here: the game has not aged gracefully. The UI is terrible. There’s no tactical side to the combat—it’s mostly praying to the RNG gods, even when you have the best gear available. And the graphics are so bad, it’s very easy to miss important stuff you need to interact with.
AND YET. What the first Fallout nails is the atmosphere. The post-apocalypse is stark. There are no frills here; the stuff about the 1950s, and the vault experiments, don’t make an appearance. It’s just a desolate, savage wasteland—and you can feel it the second you leave the vault. And the horrors hiding in that post-apocalypse, well...people have only heard rumors. Fallout 1 built the sort of mystery and intrigue that would only be possible in 1997, back when Deathclaws and Super Mutants were brand new to everyone. These enemies aren’t just fodder. They’re truly terrifying, and Fallout 1 makes you understand why.
Also, this was the game with The Master—one of the greatest villains in video game history. I will never forget the way Fallout 1 allows you to convince the big bad that he’s wrong. Superb.
For a hardcore Fallout fan like myself, the fact 3 exists at all feels like a miracle—before Bethesda took charge, I assumed my beloved franchise was all but dead. I still remember how quickly I reserved the collector’s edition of Fallout 3. I still remember the excitement I felt waiting in line outside of a Gamestop, waiting for the midnight release. All I could think of was, ‘is this really happening? Is there really a new Fallout game?’
While I lament the genre change—there is no shortage of shooters out in the world, and XCOM proved that you can modernize a franchise without turning it into an FPS—Fallout 3 felt, well, right. Experiencing vault life first-hand in the introduction is one of the best openings in a game, ever. The Capital Wasteland is a great setting, especially for a game all about America. And the experience of actually walking through Fallout 3 in its full, open-world glory, is a joy. Many of my favorite characters in the franchise, like Moira Brown, are from Fallout 3. Fallout 3’s Tranquility Lane is the best level in the entire series. And the quests? Remember The Replicated Man? So good!
Many consider New Vegas to be superior to Fallout 3, namely because of the writing. And sure, it’s good. At the same time, New Vegas’ entire schtick with the casinos and gambling has been done already! Fallout 2 had New Reno, remember?
While I enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas, the actual town of New Vegas—to be more exact, the Strip—was a bitter disappointment. You spend a good third of the game waiting to get into this fabled gambling utopia, only for the gates to finally open and reveal four deserted casinos squatting amongst post-apocalyptic debris. No texture, no threat, no soul. Not so in New Reno.
Gaining control of the Vegas strip is cool in theory, but it feels inconsequential to the degree of control that you have over Reno in Fallout 2. Yeah, I appreciate that New Vegas is a more refined RPG experience than Fallout 3, and I love how much your character build/skills matter in this world. I’m definitely not saying it’s a bad game or anything. But, big picture, New Vegas didn’t manage to wow me to the same degree Fallout 3 did, nor did it explore particularly new territory.
Here’s where things get particularly tricky for me. Fallout 4 was my most-played game of 2015. I’ve spent hundreds of hours within the Commonwealth, and still feel like I’ve only seen a small percentage of what Fallout 4 has to offer. No matter where I go or what I’m doing, there’s always something interesting out in the distance, waiting to be discovered. I love companions like Nick Valentine and Curie. I love how Diamond City feels like a real place. Building settlements is also way more addicting than it has any right to be. And let’s not forget, this is is the first Fallout game with combat that isn’t garbage.
Fallout 4 is an excellent experience, as far as exploration and adventure are concerned. But compared to the other Fallout games, well....there’s something missing. Unlike the other games, role-playing and world-building isn’t as important in Fallout 4. Instead, Fallout 4 seems more concerned with keeping you busy shooting stuff and finding loot—which is fun, yes, but not really what Fallout games have traditionally been ‘about.’ I wrote at-length about this disappointment here:
While the main game can miss the mark at times, the DLC understands exactly what makes Fallout so good. Far Harbor, the biggest DLC Bethesda has ever created, is a perfect depiction of a post-apocalyptic New England, grouchiness and all. I loved learning more about the synths, even if it made me question everything I thought I knew about Fallout 4. It’s clear that Bethesda designed Far Harbor with choices beyond murder, and it pays off. Some of the most memorable moments in Fallout 4 happen in this DLC, as you try your best to juggle all the different factions.
Bethesda continued to hone this delicious moral ambiguity with Nuka World, a DLC that, much to Preston Garvey’s horror, lets you become a raider. Nuka World isn’t as philosophically complex as Far Harbor, but it doesn’t have to be. With Nuka World, Bethesda said goodbye to Fallout 4 with a bang, letting you run wild in a chaotic carnival house of attractions. Nuka World is everything fans love from the zanier side of Fallout. It’s a perfect send-off.
Even with these additions, you’ll note that Fallout 4 is still last on this list. The thing you have to remember about Fallout is, even when they’re disappointing, Fallout games are still pretty damn good.