Fallout: A Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Game: An Updated Retrospective Review

Yes, yes, I know, I've already covered Fallout in another review, but after certain constructive criticism, I realised that I could do the review again in much better style, more resembling my recent Operation Flashpoint review. I hope you'll excuse me this, because I am a persistent rewriter of my own material (even when it should be left alone, in the case of certain fictional materials of my own). If this is favourably received, I hope you won't mind me redoing my System Shock 2 review.

Without further ado, this is my extremely modified Fallout review.

"War, war never changes. The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain forged an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower. But war never changes. In the twenty-first century, war was still being 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 U.S. would annex Canada and the European Commonwealth would dissolve into quarrelling, bickering nation-states, bent on controlling the last remaining resources on Earth.

By 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 civilisation would struggle to arise. A few would reach the relative safety of the large underground vaults. Your family was part of that group who 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." - The Narrator, Fallout introduction.

Fallout: A Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Game - A Retrospective Review

Fallout: A Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Game is a 1997 PC-format isometric turn-based RPG, developed by the then-unnamed Black Isle Studios division of Interplay Entertainment, and produced by Interplay. Known for its gameplay, powerful plot, controversial violence and acclaimed storytelling elements, including a set of some of the best-regarded introduction and outro videos in a computer game, Fallout is a game which lives on in fans' memories and which has remained fresh after more than ten years.

The year is 2121, forty-four years after the Third World War, which involved an increasingly belligerent United States and China fighting for the world's increasingly limited fuel supplies. With the nuclear nations armed and ready to fight, prepared to annihilate the world to save face, the United States government establishes a series of underground nuclear shelters known as Vaults, with assistance from private companies including Vault-Tec, a company whose products litter the Vaults.

The family of the protagonist were one of the groups who entered the Vaults, specifically Vault Thirteen, located somewhere in the middle of southern California. Encased inside the Vault, the residents of the self-sustaining underground shelters live in ignorance of the annihilated world outside of the huge underground complex, and there they are set to remain until it is deemed safe to open the door.

Then, it goes all wrong. The processing chip for the Vault's water purification system has burned out, and some unlucky person is selected to venture outside the Vault and locate an operational chip in one of the other Vaults.

Thus your story begins. As the Vault Dweller, the unfortunate person selected to retrieve the processing chip, the lives of your family, your friends and everyone you know all rest securely on your shoulders. Given a few weapons and supplies, the huge Vault door opens for the first time in forty-four years. However, the wastelands are hostile, filled with mutated spawn, distrusting and often untrustworthy human communities and the scars of radioactive devastation. Travelling from community to community, the Vault Dweller must confront the dangers in his path using his strength and his wits in order to save his own people from assured death. But there are more dangerous things in the Vault Dweller's path than the acquisition of the water chip, dangers which threaten to consume and annihilate the remainder of humankind.

You begin the game standing outside the resecured Vault door, with a series of caves in front of you, unknown scenery outside and a vague directive which has only been explained to you in terms of "obtain this object using whatever means are necessary and whatever resources can be obtained". Therefore, I begin my review with a great strength of this game: freedom and non-linearity.

Even before your character steps outside that Vault door, left alone to his destiny, you have already been given a huge amount of freedom in creating your character the way you want it. Using the specifically-designed SPECIAL statistical system, which resembles the tabletop role-playing games that originally inspired the computer role-playing genre, Fallout gives you one of the best-designed character customisation systems yet seen in a computerised role-playing game. Superficially based on the GURPS general-purpose role-playing system that was originally intended for the game, the SPECIAL system allows a character a fixed number of points to be placed into the characteristics which give the SPECIAL system its acronym: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. With these characteristics, Fallout has already scored a point, by balancing these so-called Primary Statistics so that there is no one category that gets singled out as a "useless" statistic, as is often the case for role-playing games based on the D20 system, where Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma are often forgotten for pure close-combat characters.

Once the character's statistical build is determined, the player can further specialise by choosing three skills to "tag", making those skills more powerful to start with, along with promoting their growth, and also choose up to two Traits, which affect the character in both positive and negative ways, giving a bit more uniqueness to a player character and ensuring a different experience. This is where Fallout's well-crafted balance is slightly skewed, but not enough to ruin the experience in any sense.

There are three main archetypes of character: the combat-oriented character, the stealth-based character and the diplomatic character, each of which uses a set of skills which come from the skill list. It is possible to make a hybrid character, with the combat/diplomatic and combat/stealth characters moderately useful, but there are certain skills that will generally go unused by any powerful character, regardless of build. Skills like Big Guns and Throwing do not have enough uses to be worth specialising in, and are usually the sole preserve of players who wish to increase difficulty artificially, while skills like Science, Repair, Outdoorsman and First Aid can all be developed by alternate means, and are considered to be a waste of a skill that one could tag elsewhere. On the Trait side of things, the Gifted trait is considered to be broken by many players, as the skill points that it takes away are more than balanced by the seven extra Primary Statistic points which it gives in exchange, while traits like Bloody Mess are only there for the amusement factor that they have and are conventionally useless.

Once you move past the character selection screen, the use of which will determine your play experience considerably, there is a huge amount of freedom in the game itself. As mentioned before, the game gives a vague directive and a suggested first place to go, but because this is not a linear game in all but the general objectives given to you, it is up to you whether you want to follow the general path the game gives you or break off completely as early as the beginning of the game. The freedom is limited slightly at the start of the game due to an arbitrary time limit given by the leader of the Vault, the Overseer, but once the water chip is reobtained, it is very easy to explore the game at your leisure.

Another way in which the game establishes the point of freedom to you is the way in which character-to-character engagements take place. Firstly, there is a very flexible and surprisingly naturalistic dialogue system, in which your Intelligence and Charisma take part - going back to my previous point about no one Primary Statistic going unused - and in which you can be diplomatic, humorous, belligerent or intelligent, all of these being at your disposal. If your Intelligence is too low, your character's dialogue options will be not only limited, but will become stupid and slurred, making it essential that diplomatic characters maintain at least a moderate level of intelligence, and offering another path for those who wish to try a new way of playing.

If the characters end up in combat, either by wish of the player, or by unsuccessful diplomacy, the combat grid also exercises some freedom. As an isometric game, the combat is conducted on a hexagonal grid, where every movement or action is dictated by Action Points, a statistic which is extrapolated from one's Agility. Unlike in most top-down RPGs, the characters must make a choice whether to act or to move, adding some strategy into the combat gameplay.

As mentioned above, there are three main archetypes of character, encompassing combat, stealth or diplomatic skills respectively. One of the ways that Fallout maintains freedom and flexibility is by making all three approaches appropriate for many of the things in the wastelands. There is no one path which is less successful than the others, which is laudable. This attitude even stretches to the final boss, where all three ways can be used to defeat him through one fashion or another, including diplomacy. That's right: You can talk the final boss into suicide, with the appropriate skills and the requisite information. That's something that doesn't exist in many other places in the world of video games.

As a role-playing game, all of this freedom is expected to exist on a large game world, full of possibilities, and Fallout doesn't fail to establish this, thus bringing me onto the next strength of Fallout: the grand scale. The sense of scale is established early on, when you first set eyes on the world map, which is covered with fog of war, symbolising that after almost fifty years encased inside a steel-and-concrete nuclear bunker, everybody inside the Vault is entirely ignorant of what has happened over the course of the years after the war. With only the mention of Vault 15, another Vault located in Southern California, the rest of the exploration is left to the player, and as mentioned, apart from the arbitrary time limit placed on you to obtain the water chip, it is the player's prerogative to decide where exactly they will go.

The communities that you find in the game are of sufficient size and contain sufficiently large variety of characters to keep the player satisfied throughout the game, and there are sufficient side-quests for a player to accomplish, or not, depending on the character's demeanour. Each town will have its own set of side-quests, and all in all, there is anything up to one hundred hours of gameplay, which is more than sufficient for a role-playing game, this being a genre which plays off the "grand scale" angle.

The side-quests are of different varieties as well, from the patently good, to the manifestly evil, with most of them residing somewhere in the middle. Thus, I'm brought onto my next strength of Fallout, a system which strongly establishes the fact that the wasteland is a cynical place: the moral system.

Your character's reputation is determined by a statistic known as Karma, which increases as you do things which are morally good, and decreases as you do evil. Therefore, unlike most role-playing games (and most games in general), which force you to be a hero, Fallout gives you the choice of being a hero, a villain or most likely for most characters, some sort of anti-hero. Fallout also acknowledges the fact that morals are subjective, by making many quests which a lot of today's society would consider to be immoral being able to gain Karma points, which as mentioned above, shows just how cynical the wastelands have become. Such quests include assassinations and thievery; but there are some crimes that even a cynical place will not accept. In Fallout, the example they have is the murder of children, which lands you straight with the Childkiller trait, which strongly affects how the people see your character, for those who kill the only hope for the ultimate survival of the human race are not only evil, but are defying the biological directive of all species in eliminating their hope for survival.

This brings us back to the plot. I mentioned that after the acquisition of the water chip, there was a completely new set of dangers for the survival of the Vault, and without revealing too much, I will say that it involves a monstrous mutant who, upon stumbling across a supply of a government-tested mutagen, gets the idea to mutate the entirety of humankind, thus trying to ensure our survival. I mentioned at the start of the review that Fallout is known for its powerful plot, and it is a powerful one, but it is also inspired by B-movie plots of the 1950s. I'm sure you've heard of the formula: mad scientist creates a monster, then gets the idea to create more of them, unknowing of the flaws in the first one. It's been a staple of science-fiction since Frankenstein, which itself was probably the first science-fiction work, and itself possessed a plot similar to this one.

Therefore, I think you can guess that Fallout's plot is hardly unique. However, the general plot is less important than the way it is told in this case, and this brings me to the last of the big strengths of Fallout that I will discuss: the narrative.

Fallout's great customisation allows the player to create their own narrative, but whatever path you choose, the narrative will usually be filled with the mistrust of the aggressors in the game, the gratitude of those who you help and a few bundles of black comedy, which comes when diplomacy fails. Combat brings its own form of black comedy to the proceedings with the over-the-top death animations, especially when you score a critical hit which kills an enemy, which range from head explosions to people set on fire, to the effects of plasma, which leave the enemies melted as a pool of entrails.

The narrative begins in fantastic style as the camera zooms out from a television screen showing the faux-50s future, out to a devastated nuclear wasteland, all to the tune of "Maybe" by The Ink Spots, creating a form of soundtrack dissonance. This introduction video is one of the most striking ones that I've ever seen, perfectly setting up the world as you will perceive it throughout the game. From this, throughout the game, where your character's interactions generate the ending, you have your chance to create your own story, which all comes to the finale, where you see the future that your actions created, all topped off with a not-so-happy but brilliantly crafted ending sequence.

One of the endearing parts of Fallout is that it has great balance between seriousness and ridiculousness. Always ready to poke fun at itself, and always ready to acknowledge the pop culture references which inspired it, the designers obviously knew that too much seriousness would make it unmemorable, and decided to create a great comedic piece which also has its moments of abject suffering, totalitarianism and insecurity.

We've heard the case for this game, but of course, there must be a case against. The most evident flaw that the game has is that the graphics look terribly dated for a new arrival to the world of role-playing games. Despite having a style which still succeeds at its intended task, to generate the vision of a gritty, wasted world which has suffered annihilation and has just started to revive itself, the graphics are not technically impressive (especially considering that the first ever 3D game on home computers was created circa 1984, and the first ever polygonal 3D game was created circa 1987). This doesn't affect playability in most cases, but I have found that because of the low-resolution graphics, certain items can be difficult to pick out on similarly coloured ground tiles, and because of the fixed isometric viewpoint, certain items can block out smaller items behind them, which essentially means that to drop an item behind a bookcase, for example, at certain angles is to lose it altogether.

As I mentioned above, the skill set isn't fully balanced. The Throwing skill is an example of a skill which is almost useless compared to other combat skills, and the Gifted trait is overpowered, allowing characters access to far more Perks than otherwise, with the skill points hardly being a fair trade-off. This also applies to the Perk list, with many of the perks almost useless, and the rest built on a tier system as to their usefulness.

Because of the very old coding that went into this game (there's even a DOS version!), it can be difficult to install this on a modern computer, especially those running Windows XP or Vista. There are workarounds, taking advantage of the same old system of coding that creates the restrictions in the first place, but these are to be found on the Fallout fan-site, No Mutants Allowed (cue dramatic lightning). However, you're not very limited in the computer systems that can play this game. The minimum specifications suggest a Pentium 75, a processor so outclassed by this stage that you can emulate one several times within a modern PC. (By the way, if anybody's looking for the instructions, just tell me within this thread - I'll find them easily.)

These flaws are generally very minor, and if you're a fan of role-playing games, especially of the Western variety, Fallout should be an essential purchase, which comes out very cheap these days - a pack of the Fallout Collection, which also includes Fallout's direct sequel, Fallout 2, which improves on Fallout in several ways, generally to do with gameplay, and the strategy game spinoff, Fallout Tactics, coming to no more than €10, which is a more-than-fair price for some of the best role-playing action out there.

Great review, but I think you should highlight how hard it is to get into said game today if you have never played this style of RPG. I really wanted to get into it, but the vague feeling of being lost and knowing what to do coupled with the feeling of always doing something wrong can really be a drag in gameplay.

Maybe that's just modern gaming making things "easier", but going against the grain of the ranty, old-timey PC user base, some things can be easier, others are just better innovation in making a game... well a game, instead of something that needs to be studied and played through multiple times to even begin to know what's useless in terms of skills and abilities.

Following guides in story based games is no fun and the fact you can make a completely crippled character without first reading about certain skills and perks just makes it very disheartening to anyone looking to dive into the game.

I'm going to give it one more solid try, but the age is def showing on this classic series.

Maybe that's just modern gaming making things "easier", but going against the grain of the ranty, old-timey PC user base, some things can be easier, others are just better innovation in making a game... well a game, instead of something that needs to be studied and played through multiple times to even begin to know what's useless in terms of skills and abilities.

Following guides in story based games is no fun and the fact you can make a completely crippled character without first reading about certain skills and perks just makes it very disheartening to anyone looking to dive into the game.

I understand what you're saying there, and I suppose, thinking about it now, that it is a very legitimate concern, but it's not something that would have occurred to me, largely because it was never much of a concern for me.

I'm one of those ranty, old-timey PC users that you talk about, in spirit, if not necessarily in age, so my threshold for interfaces and such is higher than most players. Fallout 2 is better at making a lot of the "useless" skills in Fallout more accessible and useful, but that's another game for another review.

Man, what a good game. I just beat the game and I have to say that this game blow my mind. Mainly cause I beat the last boss without fighting him. There should be more games that reward you for checking every nache n crayon..e. I can't wait to play Fallout 2.

Good review.


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