My Final Thoughts on… Fallout: A Post Nuclear Roleplaying Game
Release Date: Sept. 30, 1997
War never changes.
The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower. But war never changes.
In the 21st century, war was still waged over the resources that could be acquired. Only this time, the spoils of war were also its weapons. Petroleum and uranium. For these resources, China would invade Alaska, the US would annex Canada, and the European Commonwealth would dissolve into quarreling, bickering nation-states, bent on controlling the last remaining resources on Earth.
In 2077, the storm of world war had come again. In two brief hours, most of the planet was reduced to cinders. And from the ashes of nuclear devastation, a new civilization would struggle to arise.
A few were able to reach the relative safety of the large underground Vaults. Your family was part of the group that entered Vault Thirteen. Imprisoned safely behind the large Vault door, under a mountain of stone, a generation has lived without knowledge of the outside world. Life in the Vault is about to change.
I felt compelled to quote the awesome introductory narration in its entirety, my favorite video game opening of all time. Fallout 2 had a profound effect on instilling my love of gaming, PC games, RPGs, and mature-rated content in the late 90s, and it would be several years before I found a cheap copy of the original game to play through. For this season of Rogue’s Adventures I really wanted to tackle some science fiction tactical role playing games in preparation for Wasteland 2, and the Fallout series fit perfectly – seeing as how they only exist because Interplay couldn’t get the rights back to make a Wasteland sequel in the 90s.
I chose to replay the original Fallout as it’s actually the one I’ve played the least out of the core series. Gameplay is very similar to the sequel with a few noticeable absences in better companion controls, a few UI tweaks, and a smaller scope. But Fallout is also one of the most revered games amongst PC gamers and for good reason; it offers a compelling, mature storyline, a unique and interesting post-apocalyptic world (when such a thing was so unheard of they put similar wording in the seldom used subtitle), a brilliant tactical combat system, and a wealth of roleplaying and decision making opportunities.
The opening plot line is so classic it almost doesn’t warrant repeating – you’re selected as the lucky sap that gets to go out into the outside world, beyond the comforts of the sequestered vault you’ve lived your life in, and retrieve a water chip so the vault can continue functioning. Due to graphical limitations the moment you step outside for the first time is mostly confined to text descriptions, but the writing is fantastic and nearly every person, creature, and object has a wealth of descriptive text that helps draw you into the world. The world itself is actually based heavily on 1950s American culture, which is odd in that the actual Great War that unleashes the world ending nukes doesn’t occur until 2077. The dystopian 1950s look is ever more realized in the BioShock games, and I actually felt that they ripped a lot of the themes and looks from the Fallout universe (albeit with much better graphics). Fallout 3 really ran away with the theme as well, but I feel that the first two games actually underplayed that aspect, with maybe just the occasional old piece of propaganda for the vaults or retro-designed robots giving nods to its alternate history. And of course there’s the classic Pipboy, the most brilliant example of thematic art providing useful and hilarious gameplay depictions.
Story telling and world building isn’t everything; thankfully Fallout carved its own path among a swath of fantasy based Dungeons and Dragons clones with its S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system to govern character creation, combat, and skill checks. Every skill was based on the seven attributes that make up the acronym (say it with me now…Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) providing a wealth of options when deciding the type of character to play. Do you desire to roleplay the fist swinging meat-head? The laser wielding technophile? The quiet and deadly ninja? The small town cowboy with a silver tongue? I often had just as much fun dreaming up all these potential characters as I did actually playing them, and it made me much more excited to play in a game where I had several branching paths (combat, speech, stealth, etc), and my decisions had real consequences and ultimately affected the ending of the game. We take these big decision-making games for granted in many modern western RPGs like Mass Effect, but in those days it was astonishingly cool, and RPGs that have a ton of replay value based on their choices and roleplaying aspects remain one of my favorite genres.
Fallout also utilizes my favorite type of combat – tactical – by using an Action Point system and having everything you want to perform have an associated cost. Moving one grid space costs 1 AP, swinging a knife costs 4 AP, shooting a gun takes 5, reloading takes 2. AP is based on your Agility, helping to balance out the quick-footed knife wielding Vault Dwellers with those that prefer to stand their ground with a minigun. Combat can actually be initiated any time, turning any map into an instant battlefield of invisible grids, and Fallout offers nearly complete freedom in killing anyone you want – though there will be obvious consequences. In a world far removed from organized government and law and order, your reputation in each town can vary, but your Karma, an innate Good and Evil rating, stays with you based on your actions. It’s a system that’s worked so well they’ve kept it throughout the recent big budget 3D open-world versions, even as my beloved tactical combat system has become a niche gameplay mechanic at best.
A large element I always found lacking in the great-but-different modern Fallout 3 (and rectified somewhat in the most recent Fallout: New Vegas) was the amount of towns and various stages of civilization eeking out an existence among the wasteland. Though it’s a world of giant radioactive creatures, roving bands of raiders, and frontier justice, humanity continues to survive. My favorite elements in all the classic literature I read in High School involved people or groups of people facing horrible adversity and hardship and enduring because of the strength of the human spirit, and I loved experiencing that in the backdrop of essentially a science fiction Wild West setting.
Fallout 2 would take the first one’s subtle dark humor and completely run away with it, creating a very entertaining but many criticize less serious game; the series then devolved into a spinoff that stripped away the RPG elements and left only the tactical combat, creating a decently fun but very lacking game in Fallout: Tactics. After another entry with an even more horrible misstep that Shall Not Be Named, the series finally found a welcoming home in the arms of massive open-world RPG aficionados Bethesda. Many hardcore Fallout fans were anxious that a new 3D entry would change everything about Fallout, and be nothing more than Bethesda’s primary fantasy series Elder Scrolls with guns. While the gameplay did play out a lot like Bethesda’s trademark series, they successfully embraced the property and made fans excited for new Fallout material all over again. You can bet I was there on Day One on the midnight launch for Fallout 3 and was That Guy that proudly stated he’d been waiting for a Fallout sequel for ten years. Obsidian then took the reigns and did it one better by taking the same engine and inserting a ton of gameplay and roleplaying mechanics that were inspired or a direct nod to the original games in Fallout: New Vegas. As a fan of the Fallout games ever since I first played Fallout 2 in 1998 it’s awesome that one of my all time favorite gaming series continues to find success, and while I do dream of an eventual proper isometric, tactical sequel like the first two games I can still fully appreciate their modern 3D interpretations, and love that new generations of gamers are introduced to the awesome world that so enamored me in my youth and continues to enthrall me to this day.
While Fallout 2 will always remain my favorite of the series and one my all time favorite games, the original Fallout has a much more memorable storyline and many standout moments – the first time you fight the feared Deathclaw, your first encounter with a Super Mutant, discovering the true intentions of the Children of the Cathedral, meeting The Master, and my one of my favorite moments in all of gaming – returning home to Vault 13 after a triumphant victory that saved all of humanity (what’s left of it at least) only to be banished for fear of others leaving the vault. Cue amazingly simple but effective cutscene of the Vault Dweller walking off into the desert. While the aging graphics and tedious non-context sensitive UI elements can make the game a more jagged pill to swallow, I still believe it holds up remarkably well; thanks to the wonderful folks at No Mutants Allowed, its been patched with an awesome All-In-One fan patch to help make the game run smoothly and support higher resolutions, allowing the game to look surprisingly impressive even at 1920 x 1080. For any fan of tactical CRPGs it is required playing, for fans of the modern series I urge you to at least give it a try, and for gamers everywhere just know that Fallout remains one of the greatest and still far too underrated titles in our brief history, and respect and admire it for paving the way for future generations of RPG awesomeness.