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Fallout 2 (PC) artwork

Fallout 2 (PC) review

"World War III nearly destroyed all life on Earth. No one bothers to remember the specifics now; they’re trivialities, unimportant details. "

World War III nearly destroyed all life on Earth. No one bothers to remember the specifics now; they’re trivialities, unimportant details.

What is remembered is that lances of nuclear fire descended from the sky and boiled the oceans, scorched the earth, and transformed the world into a nuclear wasteland overnight. A blanket of radiation settled over the planet. A lucky few, a scant fragment of the population, found shelter in Vaults buried deep in the earth, and these emerged after many years to repopulate what was left of the world their hands had destroyed.

But the groups were small, isolated, and not all were able to maintain their level of technology upon returning to the surface. You live in a small tribal village descended from one such Vault in what was once California, and the land is dying. The only way to save your village to find a Garden of Eden Creation Kit, spoken of in the records handed down from your Vault-dwelling ancestors. And so you, the Chosen One, are cast into the world with a mission.

And within that single constraint, Fallout 2 gives you total freedom. The protagonist’s construction is left wholly in the hands of the player. Everything is malleable, from cosmetics like sex and age to your stat point distribution, skill proficiency in everything from science to lockpicking to gambling, and special traits and perks (akin to feats in D&D) that let you specialize your build. While Finesse might look like a bad choice at first, with a 30% regular damage penalty for a paltry 10% increase in critical hits, it adds up when you pick another trait that adds more points to the stat pool and lets you max out your luck, such as Gifted. Pick the right perks as you level up, and you have a late-game badass on your hands: while Gifted’s downside makes you build skills more slowly, once your combat skills are high enough that you can land eye shots with reasonable accuracy, you’re annihilating everything in your path, critting more often than not for obscene damage.

There are equally viable builds for melee, non-combat, and any other kind of character you could want to play, but firearms vary the most. You can build a sniper with a viciously high critical rate and destroy your enemies from miles away, or you can specialize in big guns instead and reduce foes to small scraps of flesh with a minigun. Despite its age, Fallout manages to pack a lot of blood into its small isometric sprites with some of the goriest animations around. Instant kill someone with a rifle, and his head explodes in a shower of blood droplets, making a satisfyingly wet splosh and taking a large chunk of his torso with it; laser weapons cut people clean in half, and plasma guns turn them into a pile of dust. Combat is turn-based, but it’s natural and intuitive because it functions on the same map as the towns and dungeons, and you can enter it at any time and target anything that moves – including townspeople. You can slaughter each and every living thing in the game, or you can go to the opposite extreme and kill nothing at all.

Fallout isn’t just about fighting, though; it’s about your interaction with the world. The bulk of the game consists of open-ended sidequests, but these are nothing like standard RPG fare. The major quests usually have several different outcomes and several ways to accomplish the same goal. If you choose the pacifist route and inflate your speech skill to epic proportions, you can BS your way through every required situation and most of the noteworthy optional ones by cleverly picking dialogue options. Every conversation has a plethora of dialogue paths (more if your intelligence is high), offering you different choices on how to proceed or altering NPCs’ opinion of you. Flatter them and maybe they’ll do you a favor; insult them too much and they’ll refuse to help you, maybe even attack you.

In Fallout, your actions have consequences. You make choices and take sides in conflicts. You alone determine the outcome of the gang war in New Reno; you side with one of the mafia families and topple the other three, or you play all of them against each other and then loot the corpses. In San Francisco, you’re given the choice of exterminating the practitioners of a crackpot religion for the government or joining them to get access to their technology. Even lending a guy who’s down on his luck a few bucks does more than increase your reputation a little; come back a few months later and he’ll repay you a hundredfold. You can take jobs as an assassin, killing important political figures at the behest of criminal organizations. Or you can massacre entire towns. You can choose whether to be good or evil – but your reputation stays with you, attracting similarly motivated people to you.

You simply can’t do anywhere near everything possible in a single game. Fallout has scenarios geared at every possible type of character, a niche for anything you could want to play. Even mentally challenged PCs capable of speaking only in grunts have the odd moment in the spotlight – for example, initiating a conversation with the town of Klamath’s resident retard results in a hilarious pseudointellectual discussion. Fallout does things like that a lot. While many of its quests are serious, the game oozes personality and humor modern games have long since abandoned, and it’s not afraid to make fun of itself or be politically incorrect. Ask Stuart Little, the midget boxing manager in New Reno, if he’s ever worked in a circus, and suffer his scathing vituperation as he calls the female PC a generic minimaxing Lara Croft wannabe with over-pixilated breasts and a ridiculous sashay in her walk.

Then there’s Chuck, a hapless drifter from San Francisco who lost his spleen in a bet. Retrieve it before a local scientist can eat it with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Blow up the outhouse in Modoc with dynamite, splattering huge globules of crap all over the town. Make a name for yourself as a porn star if you’ve invested enough points in your charisma stat. Get sick and tired of your party members’ sucky AI and sell them into slavery. That’ll teach them!

But every now and then, the humor hits too close to home. The game delights in throwing you off balance, jabbing you with mockeries that are almost more disturbing than they are funny. The corny, old-fashioned GECK commercial in the intro is juxtaposed with your village’s worship of the “ancient records,” ridiculous but in a way that’s sobering. Because underneath the flippancy, the desperation of humanity’s struggle just to survive is palpable.

Among the rotting crates and canisters of radioactive waste that line the San Francisco docks is the desiccated shell of a village, little more than a cluster of crude concrete huts, and the people who live here are hardly in any better condition. They’re squatters and drifters, people with nowhere else to go, trying to eke out a miserable existence in a world where they have no other options. But there’s a persistent thread of optimism about the scene. These people are happy.

“This is one of the best homes we’ve had in years!” “Ahhh, sea air.” “I’ll bet the kids love it here.”

You might laugh at first, but it isn’t really funny when you think about it. World War III didn’t just destroy the world; it destroyed the people in it. As Fallout tells you, the scars left by the war have not yet healed, and the earth has not forgotten.

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Featured community review by viridian_moon (January 20, 2006)

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