Many of the great games in 1998 I am featuring here I didn't experience until later. Why? Mostly because I spent all my game time in 1998 playing Fallout 2. In a year of great games, this is without a doubt the best.
Fallout 2 took the SPECIAL system, the underlying RPG rules set that powered Fallout, and changed it... not at all. Mechanically this is Fallout.
They changed the interface to make it easier to access what your character could do but the core rules remained the same.
Then they crafted an adventure 4-5 times larger than Fallout.
While many games talk about their moral choice mechanics today, no game did this better than fallout. You have Karma, which is more or less your overall morals on a good-evil axis, you have Reputation, which is what each specific town thinks of you and then you have specific Reputations that kick in based on certain actions.
For example, if you find a town with a graveyard, and there are at least two in the game, you can grab a shovel, dig up all the graves and pocket the trinkets buried with the deceased. But you are then a gravedigger, which will get around, and which will color how some NPCs react to you.
More dramatically, if you get into a firefight in town and accidentally mow a few kids down with your automatic fire and you are a Childkiller. This completely changes the course of your entire game, as there are whole categories of NPCs (ones who tend to be uh, moral) who won't even talk to you.
From a story perspective, Fallout 2 is not only at the top of my list, but one should more accurately talk about Fallout's stories.
There's the main plot, which has your character, proving he's "the Chosen One" in a primitive dungeon of trials, tracking down the location of "the holy 13", the vault your ancestor came from, finding the GECK (Garden of Eden Creation Kit) and then rescuing your entire village from the clutches of the villainous Enclave.
This main story, even if you sprinted through it, alone, is much larger than the story of the original Fallout game but if you do a "speed run" to save your village, you're only seeing about 20% of the game.
There's Vault City, a beacon of light and civilization in the Wasteland... that's also racist and classist and practices slavery.
You can help it, deciding the place does more good than evil, or you can try to tear it down and hand it into the waiting arms of the New California Republic. You can wholeheartedly embrace First Citizen Lynette and her arrogant, racist ways, or you can undermine her by dealing with other members of the ruling council.
There are at least 4 major adventures centered around Vault City alone, and numerous smaller tales there. I'd wager that your total play time just doing everything you can do in Vault City equals the entire original Fallout game.
You can fight a dangerous raider gang in what might be your toughest battle yet. You can donate sperm to help combat Vault City's genetic stagnation (more XP if your Int is higher!) you can help one of your followers repair his relationship with his estranged daughter, or you can learn about cybernetic combat implants and turn your character into a nearly indestructible Wolverine-wannabe, at the cost of your Charisma stat.
From there you head to New Reno and again you have a hub for probably a dozen adventures, some large, some small, and some plain silly.
Want to join a crime family and become a made man? Check. Want to step into the ring and become the heavyweight champion of New Reno? Check. Want to step in front of the camera and become a, uh, porn star? Um, check.
Just on the made man front, there are four very different crime families in New Reno to choose from and each has something to offer your adventurer. The Wright family, a big clan that takes in homeless kids and specializes in booze over meth, is your choice if you want to be a mobster and stay moral.
Then there's the Bishop family, who will embroil you in New California's machinations to take over Vault City. Since they're mobsters, their way of playing politics isn't karma-friendly. Make a few pesky politicians have "accidents" and you're a made man.
Though, if you sleep with the boss' wife... or daughter... and father illegitimate children with him, he might make you a made man and then kill you. Or maybe he never finds out, and your illegitimate child becomes the next head of the Bishop Family.
Then there's San Francisco, where your character can destroy a weird little cult building a spaceship, help the Brotherhood of Steel and be rewarded with access to their local bunker, which makes a lovely base of operations for your 20-30 level adventuring btw and you can even join in the battle of good vs. evil between two martial arts teachers, becoming the student of one and the enemy of the other in a hand to hand fight to the finish.
And then, when the game is over, Ron Perlman comes in and tells you how your actions affected each of the towns you passed through in the far future. This is how you know the fate of your illegitimate child with Boss Bishop's daughter (and/or wife).
These endings just add to the replayability of the game. Sure, you helped those plucky ghouls of Gecko in the short term, but is there anyway to stop them from getting shredded down the line, conquered and enslaved for their nuclear power plant you helped them fix? It seems not.
Such is the way in the world of after the apocalypse, but playing the game again, making different choices, and hearing Ron Perlman give you a glimpse of how it all worked out is just one of many things that makes Fallout 2 the best game in 1998.
Which, given that you already know how I feel about 1998, I suppose would make Fallout 2 the best game of all time.
Problem solved I guess!
Or maybe not- tune in next time with a game I am some out there would argue belongs on the pedestal with Fallout 2, if not above it: Baldur's Gate.