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Fallout (PC) artwork

Fallout (PC) review

"Iíve found Fallout to be enormously irritating. Itís a grotesquely unfriendly game. Its interface is convoluted and confusing. Wandering through the desert early on will almost certainly get you killed by foes youíre totally unequipped to defeat... yet wandering through the desert is the only way to progress. You can complete some fairly menial tasks in order to become strong enough to tackle them, but - well - theyíre fairly menial."

War... war never changes. But games do. And I think I might have done, as well.

Once, I might have bemoaned change. But trudging through the original Fallout, some thirteen years after its release, is an interesting experience. Here we have an inescapably dated roleplaying game, blocky and isometric, featuring basic turn-based combat and FMV cutscenes. Itís relatively unguided, frequently very difficult, and often frustrating. And it isnít alone, in any sense. Return to almost any Ď90s RPG youíd care to mention, and youíd be able to say the same sort of thing. Many of these games are classics. But, my goodness, Iíd never again call them timeless.

Iíve found Fallout to be enormously irritating. Itís a grotesquely unfriendly game. Its interface is convoluted and confusing. Wandering through the desert early on will almost certainly get you killed by foes youíre totally unequipped to defeat... yet wandering through the desert is the only way to progress. You can complete some fairly menial tasks in order to become strong enough to tackle them, but - well - theyíre fairly menial. Itís a slow game. The story takes ages to hit its stride. Unless you click on a specific item of interest, even your character ambles along in a sort of stilted, hexagonal shuffle.

Iíd be fascinated to see how people received it today, were it to be released as new, even with an updated engine. Thereís something that feels fundamentally ancient about Fallout, something that stretches beyond the capabilities of yesterdayís technology. Itís a roleplaying game from an era before roleplaying games merged with other genres, and certainly before they stopped aggressively masking their dice-rolling mechanics. RPGs have changed, and players have changed. I canít help but look at Fallout, and feel that it helps me to understand why.

Quite reasonably, Fallout gained an enormously dedicated following. Itís one thatís remained strong to this day, and features a whole bunch of people who viciously disliked Bethesdaís new Fallout direction. In its move to full-3D, a first-person perspective and a real-time action element, they said, the franchise had lost its charm. The atmosphere had been drained, the challenge reduced, the subtle dark comedy banished from this post-apocalyptic world.

I hate to be cynical, but I canít help but feel itís all a case of those good old pink spectacles. When nostalgia rears its compelling little head, itís all too easy to start talking nonsense.

What Iím getting at is that if you brush aside the design maturation, Fallout really didnít change as much as everyone suggested. Go back to the original, and youíre left with a game that feels old, sure, but instantly familiar to anyone who played Bethesdaís update recently.

The game is set, of course, in a nuclear-blasted future infused with 1950s culture. In Falloutís fiction, after the Second World War, a huge foot of conservatism crushed down on everything other than technology. Computing began to advance at an astonishing rate, but the arts stayed rooted in place. Rock and roll never really took off. Architectural design remained elegant but static.

Then came disaster: a nuclear war. The population flooded underground into huge radiation shelters - the Vaults - where it stayed for generations. Your place of birth, and the only place youíve ever seen, is Vault 13. But thereís a problem with its water purification system, and thereís only 150 days until thereíll be no drinking water left. And so you head out into the great unknown, topside, where no one youíve ever known has ever been before.

Itís a great setup - introduced a little too abruptly for comfort and with the sort of exposition you might expect from a Ď90s game, but immediately intriguing. The atmosphere often defies the ancient visuals, too: despite the muddy pixels and not-entirely-brilliant audio quality, Falloutís Vaults and the wasteland between them feel threatening, foreboding and lonely. Enormous mutated scorpions, or bears, or worse, all roam the dusty planes of this destroyed world, while small human settlements gather in fear of what might be lurking in the darkness. Elsewhere, less morally upright folks take advantage: bandits and raiders attack with selfish purpose. Thereís no denying that Fallout paints a vivid - if unpleasant - picture of this worrying world.

In fact, often, the art design works sublimely well with the low-tech engine. Its monotone style, all browns and greys and generally unsettling drabness, would almost lose some of its effectiveness if rendered in the highest tech of the 2010s. That Bethesda would go on to pull off the art style sublimely speaks wonders of their achievements.

One thing Fallout definitely retains over not just Fallout 3 but indeed all of its successors is an absolutely wonderful script. Itís written with conviction, but revels in its subtlety: in its wry jokes, its slightly offbeat style, and its refusal to drop into science-fiction or roleplaying clichť. Marvellously, for an expansive and almost fully-voiced RPG, the acting stays strong throughout. Bethesda could have done to have gone back and taken note of Falloutís dialogue, certainly.

Yet the prevailing feeling I came away with was that, in pretty much every other way that matters, Bethesda took Falloutís soul and presented it for a new generation of gamers. And I canít get behind the idea that this is a bad thing.

Itís funny. Falloutís is a story of resistance to change in the face of astounding technological breakthrough. I canít help but feel many of its more conservative fans are akin to those in Falloutís fiction who created this idealised place for themselves, then angrily rallied against any advancements that society might want to make. And in so many ways, Fallout 3 went on to become representative of its own universe: a place where the tech may have sped on forwards, but ultimately, the soul remained the same as ever.

Fallout was an important game, donít get me wrong. But aside from the dialogue - which really is better here than in its second full sequel - I canít think of anything Bethesda did which was noticeably worse. In fact, so many things were altered for the better, and for ease of use. Falloutís combat is the most irritating kind of turn-based, for example: the sort where tactics seem to play only a small role, and instead itís entirely a numbers game. Youíre given a number of action points, and different attacks or processes deplete them at a different rate. Which would work if the variety were wide enough, or if there were any way to really work the system. As it stands, itís a game of chance, not skill. And okay, fine, thatís what traditional roleplaying is all about. But only because of restrictions of the form. If the technologyís there to work around the issue, why not make use of that?

And the enemies, who in Fallout - if youíre not levelled up enough - stand as basically impossible obstacles blocking your path, forcing you to take another route to your goal, or artificially slowing you down on this massively important quest of yours. Why not have enemies level with the player, or at least per location, so that even the biggest challenges are surmountable if you put your mind to it?

Itís infuriating. And itís infuriating because the soul of Fallout, and the sparks of brilliance that introduced the series, are clear for all to see. This is a smart, atmospheric and often forward-thinking RPG, with some great open-ended quests, an imaginative universe, and spectacularly good writing. But it still feels old. Thatís fine: it is old. Just please, I beg of you, accept this as fact, and let it grow old gracefully. It was once an absolutely immaculate RPG, but games... games change all the time.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (December 17, 2011)

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JoeTheDestroyer posted December 17, 2011:

The only thing I can say is that I agree, not only with this review but on many older RPGs. I've often considered revisiting Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, even the first two Fallouts, but I instantly feel tired thinking about it. They're of the type that I could spend many hours playing and feel like I haven't made much progress at all.

Nice review, Lewis. I think it's fair, and you hit all the points properly without succumbing to blindness at the hands of nostalgia.

...and right as I bring up blindness due to nostalgia, I decide to submit my Berzerk review.
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zippdementia posted December 18, 2011:

It's true, the script was the one thing that makes Fallout 1 stand out beyond it's newer iterations. New Vegas captured the original feel better than Fallout 3, though, so I've still no reason to go back.

Great review. Really an excellent look at that little thing that's kept me from both throwing my disc of Fallout 1 away... and yet also from going back and playing it.

I'm really enjoying the hell out of FF6, on the other hand. Some games do hold up, it seems.
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bloomer posted December 18, 2011:

I haven't played many of the Fallout era RPGs. I guess what I'm wondering is - are these the same kind of concerns that make people baulk at playing 8 bit RPGs like Bard's Tale etc? Difficulty, lack of direction, grinding? I mean, does that sum it up, or is there something else about the Fallouts and Baldur's Gates specific to their generation?
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zippdementia posted December 18, 2011:

Everyone probably has their own answer to that question, Bloomer, but I'll take a stab at it with my own reasons. I think that Fallout and Baldur's Gate, etc. came out at a time when computer capabilities were finally getting good enough that companies could start experimenting a little bit, both with programming and with graphics. Thus, huge worlds like the apocalypse of Fallout and the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons (not to mention Elder Scrolls 2: Elvenfall or whatever, known for having a map the size of Great Britain) were able to be visualized. And the programs were getting good enough to start filling those worlds with scenarios and characters.

It led to some great stuff, but it was all experimentation nonetheless. Essentially, great innovation coming in a sort of haphazard way. A great example is Deus Ex. The concept at the time of its release was so fresh for the genre that it really sucked gamers in. But if you go back and look at it now, the ideas it introduced have long since been further and better developed. It's very clearly the "beta" version of much better games.

I think Fallout and Baldur's Gate fall into the same category of game. At the time, there was nothing like them to compare to. You didn't have the choice between Dragon's Age, Skyrim, and Dark Souls for your fantasy RPG needs. You had Baldur's Gate. No other game was doing that. Same with Fallout. What other post-apocalyptic game existed? For a long long time, none. There was nothing like it. Now that we have something to compare it with, it's inevitable that the cracks will start to show.
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honestgamer posted December 19, 2011:

I think bloomer's question, Zipp, had more to do with "What are those cracks?" Besides visual improvements, what have the newer Fallout games changed that will ensure that we're still playing them 10 years from now, versus the stuff in the original Fallout games that prevents most from caring to ever touch them again? Is it a matter of pacing, or is there a lot more to it?

The Bard's Tale was the precursor to more modern games like Etrian Odyssey, for example, but I can't go back and enjoy The Bard's Tale very much because it takes too long to form a connection to my band of warriors. It takes too long to feel like my harrowing adventures are shaping them into warriors that will take me to the end of the dungeon. Meanwhile, Etrian Odyssey games provide ample character customization, new enemies and traps and sights... lots of stuff. What traps does Fallout 3 avoid that its predecessors did not?
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zippdementia posted December 19, 2011:

Frankly, I'm not sure it DOES avoid any of those traps. I've gone back and had trouble replaying Fallout 3 already... but not as much as I do playing Fallout 1 or 2.

The biggest crack that stands out in my mind for Baldur's Gate and Fallout 1 and 2 is an unfair difficulty. And I'm not talking of tough enemies, but rather the fact that with leveling decisions you can easily work yourself into a corner you can't get out of.

Did any of you ever play those roleplaying books, Fighting Fantasy? In those books there was something called the "one true path." It was basically like a choose your own adventure, but if you made one error in your choices, you were screwed. The thing was, you weren't screwed immediately... the path you chose might take you all the way to the final pages of the !@#$!ed adventure before revealing that you'd missed some golden chalice or magical dildo and BAM you're dead.

Fallout and Baldur's Gate had a lot of that in their leveling systems. In games that highly advertised their degree of customization and free choice, you could easily create an uber stealth character in Fallout (or a dual class character in Baldur's Gate) only to realize that the last stage of the game contains so many enemies that there is no possible way to sneak around them (or to realize that dual class sucks). In such a way you could easily become stuck at a late point in the game with little opportunity for leveling and fixing this.

Worst example of this? Saga Frontier. Oh my fucking god Saga Frontier. Hate it like rats.

I actually think it's one of the reasons Final Fantasy was so successful. It was difficult to create a situation in Final Fantasy where you couldn't win. The only game I ever managed it was in FFVIII, the only FF I've played without beating... and even there I could have painstakingly traveled around the world drawing enough magic from random encounters to boost my stats to a reasonable level.

I have a similar complaint with Fallout 3 and Dragon Age... but more options in combat and the ability to severely lower difficulty settings mitigate the problem, some. Eschalon Book has this problem in spades, by the way.
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bloomer posted December 19, 2011:

So Zipp it sounds like you're saying - it's too easy to spend hours and hours on those games then find you're screwed due to a battle impassable to characters you developed the way you did. I suppose that's exacerbated by the games being so big. That is a different kind of problem from the 8-bit games.

I recall that happened to me in Diablo 1 with the mage character. Never had any problems with any of the physical fighting characters, though.

HG was saying Bard's Tale wouldn't appeal to him now due to lack of involvement (or taking too long) to get involved with his characters.

I would add that Bard's Tale 1 and 2 are just too hard and too unguided to modern eyes. It makes them really difficult to start - too many characters die, you go back to the drawing board, you waste your time fooling around in areas too dangerous for you.

I think Bard's Tale 3 really fixed things up in that respect. It has far better guiding of the plot, a kind of linear progression, and is way kinder to your level 1 characters so you can get into it.

Anyway I'm off for holidays now. I'll see you guys in the new year. Thanks for another year of running this site, HG.
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zigfried posted December 19, 2011:

whoa whoa whoa whoa WHOA WHOA WHOA

Hold on a minute!

"Did any of you ever play those roleplaying books, Fighting Fantasy? In those books there was something called the "one true path." "

Didn't you ever read the introduction to those books? At the beginning of every Fighting Fantasy, they specifically say there are many ways to reach the end. Just look at Deathtrap Dungeon!

...uh, then again, maybe not. I'm having trouble thinking of one where that note at the beginning wasn't just a cruel lie.

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overdrive posted December 19, 2011:

In the Samurai one that I have, there are TWO ways to get to the end, as you get to pick one direction or another to go at the beginning, with both ways potentially giving you enough necessary artifacts to get through the end. But that one was FAR more forgiving than most. Hell, you could even survive the end if you didn't get all the necessary artifacts...if you won fights with really tough foes. I think you had to use an artifact to get through the first battle, as the book would send you to a "lol u dead" section if you failed to do that, but you could fight the rest of the way through (and win, assuming you cheated like a mofo on rolls and stuff).
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zippdementia posted December 20, 2011:

One of the most frustrating ones I recall was "Creature of Havoc," a nifty little gamebook where you wake up with amnesia and don't even know WHAT you are. Instinct takes over in several sections and you roll a die to see which direction your character goes in. All very interesting... except that the very first section this happens, if you roll the wrong random number, you head down the WRONG path. And by wrong I don't mean you die right away; you can still make it to, like, the third to last page of the adventure before your "bad decision" catches up with you.
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zigfried posted December 20, 2011:

I read that one. I think it was less of an adventure, and more of a treatise on the influence our genetics and luck during childhood have on our eventual life outcomes.

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fleinn posted December 20, 2011:

Basically like every other rpg since Icewind Dale and Fallout, then :p

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