Let me be upfront about this: I missed out on a lot of great (so I’ve been told) PC RPG’s from the 90’s and early 2000’s. I’m sure I would have loved games like Planescape: Torment in my pre-adolescent days, but unfortunately, they just didn’t enter my gaming sphere at the time. I wouldn’t even hear tell of most of them until my adulthood. So, yes, I’m one of those people for whom Fallout 3 was their gateway to the series.
I’ve attempted playthroughs of the inaugural Fallout on a couple previous occasions, but each time was thwarted by the aggressive unfriendliness of the game. Thrust into the world with nothing more than a cave full of rats to help acquaint yourself with the game’s mechanics, Fallout doesn’t have any issue with kicking you into the dirt. Heck, my first substantial delve ended when I was placed in an essentially unwinnable situation with a recent save being captured at an inconvenient depth in the past. This time around, I was finally successful in my gambit and reached Fallout’s conclusion.
MAYBE YOU’LL SAY MAYBE
On the surface, Fallout’s setting may appear to simply be your typical post-apocalyptic future, borrowing heavily from the Mad Max series, but a closer examination shows a number of wrinkles that give it a more tantalizing flavour. Everything in the game is sprinkled with a post-war aesthetic, owing to a divergent timeline that preserved 50’s style American exceptionalism and paranoia into the future year of 2077 when the bombs fell. True, the world still ended after an escalating war for resources — a tale as old as time — but everything has been coloured over by the art deco brush of the atomic age.
In all honesty, the theme doesn’t bleed over into the actual gameplay or artstyle that much; the old world has been wiped clean, after all. You’ll see a retro-futuristic robot here, some old world advertising there, a vacuum tube filled interface, but it’s all rather minimal. The game’s overall look leans closer to the aforementioned Mad Max influence; with everyone garbed in lots of leather and the odd tribal theme.
The game world itself is based on southern California, with the former city of Los Angeles (now known as the Boneyard) located near the bottom of the map. 84 years after the world ending war, your character emerges from the large, underground shelter known as Vault 13 in search of a replacement of their home’s life sustaining water chip. You’re given 150 days to locate it before the water processor kicks it and your people die. The game’s objectives are all based around a ticking clock such as this, giving you a finite amount of time to solve the world’s woes. The world changes in a few ways if you take too long, which helps add a welcome sense of urgency, even if you’re given ample time to complete your goals.
Where you go and what you do is left entirely up to you. You’re not given much to go on from the outset, putting a premium on information, which tends to be, at times, scarce, and at other times, way too abundant. On many occasions, I’d enter a conversation and one of the options would be “Tell me about so-and-so,” without so-and-so having ever been mentioned or encountered previously. This results in a lot of information that has no context. You can also get additional information by manually typing a keyword, but I rarely found this useful, as so many inputs result in a generic, “I know nothing about that.”
Regardless, it’s a very open-ended game. If you want to go straight for an objective, there’s no real barriers to stop you, aside from your character’s aptitude. The character building is probably one of the more satisfying aspects of the game, allowing you to specialize through the game’s 7 primary stats and 18 secondary skills. Additional abilities open up through the trait and perk systems, which either modify these stats or provide additional play options.
Embarrassingly (or perhaps an example of the game’s refusal to explain any of its facets), I didn’t discover how to use the active skills until after the game’s conclusion. This interestingly didn’t have any impact on my progress, however, as the only skill I needed to make use of applied to my lockpick set, which I did know how to use. I actually can’t think of a single situation that would have benefited from using the repair skill, and maybe only one or two that science would have been helpful in. That either speaks poorly of the necessity of these skills or merely reflects my chosen playstyle.
Even with the subjective usefulness of some of the secondary skills, the freedom that Fallout provides is within some rather tight restrictions. Getting through the main objectives without firing a bullet is theoretically possible, but many sidequests cannot be completed without resorting to violence. It’s somewhat disappointing that there aren’t more silver-tongue solutions to these activities, but I guess that’s the way of the wastes; one moment you’re living a safe life in your hole in the ground, the next you’re butchering your fellow man by the dozens.
Even if it was possible to talk your way through every quest in the game, the nuclear devastated future doesn’t always seem like one worth saving. True to what an actual apocalypse might resemble, the world is a desolate and mostly empty place where not a lot goes on. Settlements have maybe one semi-interesting person a piece, and the number of quests available in each one are pretty low. There also isn’t much to explore, as major locations can be marked simply by talking to the right people. Rewards for travelling off the beaten path are pretty underwhelming, and almost none of the sidequests tie into the main objectives in any significant way. Towards the latter half of the game, I just didn’t bother with the side activities. The overall lack of excitement permeates a lot of the game.
The gameplay itself is also rather unexciting. The turn-based combat system is surprisingly devoid of strategy and frequently devolves into standing in place, trying to dish out more damage than you receive. There’s no cover system aside from placing a hard object in the line of sight, and the AI has little in the way of self-preservation skills aside from running away or healing after taking too much damage. You can target individual body parts, but there seems to be little point in focusing on anything other than what will cause the most damage. Combat is so slow and clumsy that it inadvertently makes a good argument for a stealthier approach.
MAYBE YOU’LL SIT AND SIGH
That’s not to imply that Fallout is a bad game, it just doesn’t quite meet the lofty goals that it promises. There are certainly indications everywhere of what might have been, but the execution comes across as a little limp. The world isn’t what it could have been, the quests aren’t as exciting or as satisfying as the subject matter promises, and the combat is just kind of there. Subsequent playthroughs using some of the game’s less conventional abilities might yield a greater appreciation for Fallout’s many subtleties, but I personally feel that sort of intimacy might be better spent with a game that more deftly sticks the landing.
That may sound harsher than I’m intending it. There’s still a lot of value within Fallout, and for a game of its vintage, a lot of what it does is pretty ambitious. It just doesn’t always reach those ambitions. It’s probably worth the time of anyone willing to penetrate its unfriendly exterior, just don’t expect to find anything world rocking underneath.
This game was reviewed using the Steam version of the original game. Purchased by the reviewer.