Welcome to our retrospective on the Fallout RPGs (sorry, Fallout Tactics!) released on PC (so long, Brotherhood of Steel). Here you'll find articles on each of the Fallout games, from the original through to Fallout: New Vegas.
Maaaaaaaybe. You ll think of me. When you are all alone…
To me, that opening music has always been more fitting for the Fallout series than its better known growl of War. War never changes. It speaks so much more to what the games are, and their underlying horror—of being just a regular person suddenly ripped from at least a relatively comfortable home and thrown out into a brutal wasteland of murderers, rapists, drug-addicts and radioactive mutant horrors both friendly and hostile. There may be companions to meet along the way, but fundamentally you re always the outsider—alone, a wanderer, trapped right on the razor s edge between the old world s mistakes and the new one s salvation.
That s something that always drew me to the series, that as bleak as it is—and it can get very bleak—there s always a chance. It s one of only a couple of games I can think of where you can defeat the evil mastermind by persuading him that his plan just isn t going to work, at which point he agrees to drop it. It s also possible to make the world a better place through careful choices and acts of compassion, such as helping to form the New California Republic and turn the technology hoarding Brotherhood of Steel into something more than just armour-plated douchebags. At the same time though, Fallout isn t afraid of saying that sometimes, shit just happens, with the most famous example being its ending. Having mastered the wasteland, retrieved the Water Chip that your safe and secure Vault needs to continue hiding from the world, and stopped an army of supermutants… your reward is to be disowned by your former life and cast back out into the sun. As the song pointedly goes, Maybe the one who is waiting for you. Will prove untrue. Then what will you do?
As with most RPGs though, it s the journey rather than the destination that dominates. Personally, I prefer the world of Fallout 2, with civilised locations like New Reno and more feel of the world having rebuilt itself rather than stagnating in a world of rust and dirt, but there s no arguing that the first one isn t memorable. 50s paranoia met 90s isometric graphics in a world not simply dented as beaten within an inch of its life. It s a place full of locations with names like Junktown and Boneyard and Necropolis —dusty, hard places for hard people who grew up around radioactive scorpions and whole districts that glow in the dark. It s also one built around freedom, with many ways around problems depending on choice and character build, with Fallout pioneering those now almost expected what happened next cards before the credits rolled.
Mechanically, Fallout spent most of its development intended to show off Steve Jackson s GURPS system, though feuding over the amount of violence it contained led to that being switched for Interplay s homebrew SPECIAL system, where SPECIAL stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck—the core stats that were combined with special perks and skills either chosen or earned. Amongst Fallout s most eye-opening tweaks was the ability to create a character barely able of conscious thought, limited to dialogue like wawa and annoying the living piss out of every NPC who has to talk to you.
The violence isn t all that extreme by modern standards, but it was edgy at the time.
As you d expect, the level of violence isn t all that extreme by modern standards, but it was edgy at the time—the two most memorable being a Bloody Mess perk that specifically gave enemies the goriest deaths possible (as well as altering the ending so that after their exile, the hero silently guns down the Overseer and leaves their bisected body desperately scrabbling at the door back to safety) and targeted shots. In practice, these weren t usually needed, but there was still nothing else quite like actively shooting an enemy in the balls.
Fallout was a revelation for the RPG market—not just a great game (and of course, spiritual successor to the much older Wasteland), but a post-apocalyptic playhouse. Originally it enforced a time-limit that got in the way of the action, but that was patched out (Fallout 2 pretended to have one too, but didn t), and otherwise the freedom of the game is best summed up by the fact that you could spend hundreds of hours on it… or if you know where you re going early on, you can conquer the whole thing in a handful of minutes. The freedom is then further helped by the depth of the world simulation—it s not Ultima VII, but it s pretty good, allowing for super-special-bastard techniques like pumping a character full of healthkits. When they wear off, they deal damage. Hit them with enough and it takes them out—the easy first step in an Agent 47 calibre killing.
Oddly, despite its prominence as an RPG classic, Fallout wasn t a particularly successful game—Bethesda s Fallout 3 was the first time the series really sold. All who played it though knew they d touched something special, with the fanbase quickly becoming one of gaming s most voracious. Going back to it now, well, a few issues make it a bit more challenging to play—the clunky combat, the terrible AI (even at the time, Interplay was warning prospective players Don t give Ian the Uzi. We mean it… ) and the other early learning steps of a new series based on a whole new way of making RPGs all take their toll. The world is also a good deal more simplistic than any of the games that followed, feeling more of an echo of them than a progenitor.
It remains a classic for good reason though, and the start of something great. With Fallout 2, the designers got to jump back in with both feet, and while its development was both rushed and torturous, most would agree the effort was worth it. It was a very different game in many ways, save of course one. Because war… war never changes.
By Richard Cobbett.
Let me tell you the story of a town called New Reno. Isolated and protected from the worst of the Great War by its mountains, it rose from the wasteland like a phoenix addicted to a deadly drug. Folks called it the capital of sin and whores, safe for tourists only while their pockets jangled with precious bottle caps. At least, that's how it was before you arrived.
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.
The New Reno of Fallout 2 is one of the most hideous, squalid hives you'll ever visit, but in the best possible way. Its corruption feels appropriate, and in true Fallout style, it's something you can exploit as easily as you can resist. You can join any of the four crime families, quickly work your way up through the ranks, and become a Made Man: at the expense of being shot at if you wander into other families' turf. And those are just some of your options. What matters is that if you can make it in New Reno, you can make it anywhere in the Wasteland, and all you have to lose is your soul. Fair trade, right?
Fallout 2 remains a divisive RPG, even among the series' notoriously rabid fans. It's much sillier than its predecessor, with references to everything from Monty Python to Star Trek largely dropped at random. Its handling of things like sex is either more mature or more mature, depending on your sense of humor. If you're a female character for instance, your first encounter with one potential party member—a kid named Myron—involves him trying to slip you a mickey. And then, most likely, you kicking his scabby balls up through his mouth.
The part most people remember though (if only because there can't be a single player who didn't try it) is the sleazy porn studio in bad old New Reno—the place where you can temporarily put aside your quest and (cough) make your star rise. You don't get to see any low-resolution hanky-panky, but you do get a special Reputation bonus, as well as a porn name that will haunt you for the rest of your quest. Dick Mountenjoy? Rodd Rokks? How about Ebineezer Screws or Arnold Swollenmember? All are actual choices that people in the street will start shouting at you—as are Lucy Loose, Pokeahotass, and Dominatrish for less-than-ladylike ladies.
It's actually a relatively small area, but that doesn't matter. Not only is there a lot to do and see, it's an incredibly reactive little piece of design. As a female character for instance, expect to take lots of sugar boobs and hey baby crap. Do a porn movie and most guys love you, but the hookers sniff and spit—as opposed to salivating over a male stud. Become a Made Man as either gender, though, and the guards who previously gave you trouble suddenly can't wait to suck up. Little, dynamic details like these do more for making a world feel real than a thousand carefully coded AI routines.
F2's real genius, though, is that there's no assumption that you have to win every fight or see every possibility. Sure, if you come to New Reno sporting stolen power armor, you'll be a force to be reckoned with. More likely, however, you'll arrive as just another schlub, easily put down if you go around starting fights with the wrong people. Not being the ultimate badass changes everything. What little power and influence you accumulate in New Reno is earned, and it's more meaningful because of it. And that's just the start.
You see, as a wanderer, you can never find home. You don't have to set foot in New Reno to finish Fallout 2, but if you do, you'll eventually have to leave. As with all the other towns you visit, however, your decisions have power. Who controls the streets? What happens to the drug trade? War may never change, but the world of Fallout 2 definitely does, and the one thing you can guarantee as the final credits roll is that however low New Reno sinks into depravity, nobody there will ever forget you—the hero or villain they only knew as Arnold Swollenmember.
By Richard Cobbett
'They've done it,' I thought, the moment I stumbled out of Vault 101 and the Capital wasteland came into focus. I traced the horizon with increasing excitement. Look at the blasted trees; and the little shattered towns; and the many, many shades of brown! The world reveal shot—when you emerge from a dark corridor to a carefully poised introductory vista—is familiar now, but in 2008 it set my spine shivering and filled my head with thoughts of freedom and adventure. The fact that I exercised that freedom to drink irradiated water from toilet cisterns the world over is neither here nor there—Fallout has always had a knack for being funny and grim at the same time.
The move to polygonal 3D and a generational leap in fidelity allowed Fallout 3 do more visual world-building and humour with sight-gags and signage. This and an all-knew writers' room shifted the style of Fallout's comedy from a quirky gangland farce to a quirky satire on the utopian idealism of the '50s and '60s, and a delightfully camp one at that. Robots stomp around powered by brains in jars and housekeeping robots are repurposed as death-bot bodyguards. Meanwhile, the comfy Jetsons family unit has been shattered and scattered across the wasteland. The family dogs have formed packs and started eating the adults. The kids live in their own settlement in Little Lamplight, and exiled teens rebel alone in Big Town.
It's a bit depressing—as total societal collapse ought to be—but Fallout 3 strikes a fine balance between lonely wandering and silliness. Did you find the superhero and the supervillain warring in Cantebury Commons? The AntAgonizer leads an army of giant ants against the Mechanist's robot guards, and you can choose to side with either. Megaton's resident researcher, Moira, provides another memorable quest thread that sends you all over the wasteland to conduct field experiments. Irradiate yourself and she studies your symptoms with infectious enthusiasm—"keep up the great research, super assistant!"
Sadly Fallout 3's sidequests and secrets are more memorable than the critical path. A stone cold Liam Neeson continues Bethesda's dubious record with celebrity voice actors—unfortunate given that he's the emotional core of the story. There are some exceptional moments, however, like your entrapment in the Tranquility Lane simulation—a Stepford Wives pastiche of affluent suburban living before the bombs fell. It's inventive, dark, humourous, and recaptures a talent for weirdness that Bethesda hadn't exercised since Morrowind.
It's violent, too, thanks to the real-time-with-pause combat system that lets you melt individual bodyparts with laser pistols. The "Bloody Mess" perk is recommended. The Gamebryo engine has many shortcomings—not least when it comes to NPC faces and posture—but it can chunk an enemy into slabs of physics-enabled mulch very nicely indeed. The VATS targeting system divides opinion, but the zooming Mad Max hero shots it generates for your wastelander are great. Such scenes were relegated to your imagination in the old turn-based RPGs, but now every shuddering headshot gets its own slow-mo rotating, zooming camera dance. If you're lucky, your Lone Wanderer will form an impromptu John Wayne silhouette against the green sky before you're popped back into real-time, where a lacklustre FPS-with-dice-rolls system awaits.
If that's not to your taste, Fallout 3's shortcomings can always be corrected with mods. Remove the green smog to enjoy a much cleaner, sunnier wasteland; or install major combat overhauls that ditch VATS in favour of a deadly survivalist shooter model inspired by STALKER. Fallout 3 features some pretty horrendous monsters—Centaurs still give me chills—but you can add even more terrors with Mart's Mutant Mod, and tweak their abilities and size to provide a challenge even when you're stomping around in full Brotherhood of Steel armour. Fallout 3 was great at release, but only got better in the following years, maturing to near-perfection like a fine pre-war vintage of Nuka Cola.
By Tom Senior
Compared to the oppressive grey of the Capital Wasteland, the Mojave is positively colourful. New Vegas shares an engine with Fallout 3, but it has a very different look and feel. The bleak urban devastation of post-apocalyptic Washington DC gives way to dust, deserts, and cowboys. New Vegas itself is one of the most vibrant cities in the series, relatively unscathed by the nuclear fire that blanketed the world.
New Vegas is my favourite of the two Bethesda-era Fallout games. It was developed by RPG veterans Obsidian, of Pillars of Eternity fame, and improves many of Fallout 3 s weak points. It has companions with personalities and meaningful reasons for following you. Quests are more open-ended, with multiple ways to complete them. Hardcore mode introduces survival elements. And the Mojave is full of factions whose influence you can earn, or lose, depending on the choices you make.
It s a much deeper role-playing experience overall. Thanks to talented writers and designers like Josh Sawyer and Chris Avellone, the dialogue is better and the characters are richer. But, as much as I love it, I think Fallout 3 does a better job of evoking the feeling of being in a post-apocalyptic world. In many places, the Mojave looks much like it does today: a desert. Nothing in its bright, sun-baked landscape quite matches the eeriness of bomb-blasted downtown Washington DC.
The main story in Fallout 3 is a bit of a mess, with one of the least satisfying endings in any game I ve ever played, but the central narrative of New Vegas is much stronger—and there are more interesting ways to resolve it. Taking sides has a big impact on how the story plays out, whether you fight for factions like the NCR and Caesar s Legion, or decide to stay neutral. And if you don t care about the main story, there are dozens of brilliant side quests hidden away in the wasteland.
Although the Capital Wasteland makes for a more atmospheric setting, New Vegas still has its share of interesting locations and landmarks. There s the New Vegas Strip itself; a huge, neon-lit monument to excess, whose casinos are filled with NPCs and quests. There s the backwater town of Goodsprings, which is straight out of a Spaghetti Western. And, of course, the mighty Hoover Dam, which is central to the story. Throw in a selection of brilliant cowboy-themed music and you ve got a setting with a tonne of personality that s littered with cool stuff to see and do.
New Vegas also boasts a suite of genuinely brilliant DLC, the best of which were designed by Avellone, who worked on Fallout 2 back in 1998. Lonesome Road takes you to a new area called The Divide, which has been ravaged by earthquakes. Dead Money is a Fallout-flavoured take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Finishing the main game and all the DLC can take a hundred hours or more, making the Ultimate Edition of the game, which is often on sale on Steam, great value for money. And that s without mentioning the thousands of mods out there.
The engine is New Vegas s only real weakness. The robotic animations, low fidelity environments, and hideous-looking character models are a result of the creaky tech they inherited from Bethesda but they did their best with it. You can make it look slightly better with mods, but it s still a hard game to look at with eyes that have been spoiled by games like The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto V. But New Vegas is still a brilliant RPG despite it. Here s hoping Bethesda give Obsidian the chance to make another sequel after they ve released Fallout 4.
By Andy Kelly