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Fallout and Fallout 2

The recent hype and release of Fallout 4 reminded me that I had snagged both the original Fallout and Fallout 2 for free via a GoG.com promotion.  So what better time to check them out while I wait for the €60 price tag of Fallout 4 to cool off?

Obtained though Gog.com

I also wanted to arm myself with knowledge to counter the smug condescension of those that claim Fallout 3 was an atrocity to the series and that the originals were ‘better’.

Now, I’m one to immediately point out detractors’ tendencies to remember childhood games more fondly than reality, so I suspected that those rose tinted glasses were in effect.

However, after completing Fallout and Fallout 2 I found both to be very engaging, dark, funny, horrific and cleverly written – deserving the ‘classic’ label.

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Describing them as ‘better’ than Bethesda’s iterations is a nonsense comment though.  Having now played 1, 2, 3 and 4 – all in short period, I can say that Fallout 3 is so different to the classic Fallouts that you may as well be comparing Planscape Torment to Oblivion.  They’re both classed as RPG’s, but that is where the connection stops.

I will delve further into this in my Fallout 3 review, but for now I simply want to say that I enjoyed every Fallout game regardless of its incarnation.

Interface

Visually and mechanically Fallout and Fallout 2 are functionally identical.  No noticeable leaps in technology, graphics or gameplay occurred between the two games.

The UI isn’t naturally intuitive.  Considerable time, as well as trial and error was required to be able to competently use the interface.  I only realized how to use the V.A.T.S aiming system towards the end of the first game, as well as how to reload without having to visit the inventory.

The interface hasn’t aged well and causes many frustrations – frustrations for which I posses no nostalgia to forgive.

The menus/Pip-Boy uses small radio buttons that need precision clicking when selecting the respective option, requiring concentration to not overshoot with the cursor.  Changing options or visiting the Pip-boy (For quests, stats, logs etc…) was a chore until muscle memory developed, and even then the act of using the interface never felt smooth.

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It’s that red circle. There’s no way to reliably click it quickly

There is an overwhelming amount of information displayed via the UI, which is difficult to absorb and digest; partly because of the limited resolution, but also because of the deliberate retro aesthetic of the game.

This cramming of information is more of a symptom of older games design than Fallout itself and was probably more acceptable at the time, as games like Baldur’s gate had a similar issue.  For all the fondness people display for the classic Fallout series, I’m willing to bet it hasn’t stemmed from its interface.

I’m also willing to bet it hasn’t stemmed from its graphics either.  Both games take place in mostly dark, destroyed and depressing locations, so vibrancy was likely not intended, but even outside of this aesthetic the game is wearing the face that a only the most celestial of mothers could love.  It feels as if there is more information and detail then there are available pixels.  Everything looks…grainy, even after installing the HD pack.

You simply get use to the UI and graphics.  Eventually your brain compensates to a point where it’s no longer such a big issue, though I feel the initial frustrations are  worth noting as a possible  barrier to engagement.

Combat

Combat is turned based.  You have a set amount of action points to move, attack or use your inventory during your turn.  The mechanics of combat and movement are almost entirely controllable with the mouse, which isn’t always a positive experience.

You won’t have to memorize a bunch of quick keys, but you will need to remember what a right click and left click will perform based on the context.  For example, left clicking on the attack button will display the crosshair, but right clicking toggles the fire mode and the aiming system (VATS).

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Right click and a list of items will appear from which you can choose a function (talk, inspect, inventory etc…).  Left click an item to use, right click again to cancel.

Many mistakes will be made until the system is committed to muscle memory.  The fact that an unintended click can reset the cursor was the most frustrating element – it’s like playing Guitar Hero but having the whole song reset after missing a beat.

Character development

Most actions provide your character with experience and after hitting a certain threshold you will level up.  Around 20 skill points are awarded when leveling that can be invested into different skills such as gun proficiency, sneaking, lockpicking, medicine, repair etc…

Character development is really old-school too, with many of the available 17 skills being useful in most situations, allowing you to resolve problems in different ways.  Perks are also awarded every few levels which provide a permanent unique bonus to your character.

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There isn’t infinite flexibility however; fighting is unavoidable and you will not likely complete either game without becoming some way proficient in one or two of the combat skills.

Again, time was required for familiarization, but once I got to know the mechanics of my character and combat, the penny dropped and I suddenly felt I had more control over in game situations and a tangible sense of agency grew.

You may get the urge to start a new game and redesign your character with this increased confidence and knowledge – even the manual recommends this approach – as if your first partial playthrough is just a really in-depth tutorial.  Restarting isn’t necessary, but some appreciate this approach.

Both games start out rough – you possess low stats and skills with a high chance to miss against enemies that are stronger and possess tougher armor.  The early game involves scraping by and running away from fights until you eventually develop into reckonable force.  There is a lot of satisfaction felt when reaching a point where you can confidently fight back – your power feels genuinely earned.

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Such flexible character design is a double edged sword though.  In both games you will encounter scenarios that may not be suitable for your customised character – sometimes to a game breaking degree.  More on that later.

The World

Nuclear war has more or less destroyed the world, reducing it to what survivors call the Wasteland.  The odd settlement and town has emerged from which people survive, trade and farm.  

The desert between these locations is populated by deadly mutated animals, raiders, bandits and slavers.  Mosts settlements enforce the barest of laws with some of the wilder towns controlled directly by slavers and gangsters.  Drugs, prostitution, slavery, gambling and general vices run unmoderated in these places.

Anarchy isn’t universal however, as some settlements attempt to live in peace and establish law, some with the hope of rebuilding of the world.

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The Vaults

Underground Vaults were constructed before the war to shelter and house survivors of nuclear armageddon.  These were kept safe from the lawlessness of the wasteland, and it is from one of these Vaults that the Story of Fallout begins.

In Fallout(1) you are tasked by the Vault Overseer to venture into the  wasteland and locate a waterchip – a water purifying device.  The waterchip of your vault been damaged and the inhabitants will run out of drinkable water in 150 days.

Travelling between one point of the map to the other will quickly reduce this 150 day time limit – which is a source of considerable stress – days counts down horrifyingly quickly on the travel screen.

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Almost every decision for the first half of the game is made anxiously.  If you travel to a destination and realise you are no closer to your goal then you potentially cripple your chances of saving your vault.

This isn’t the entire arch of the story and as soon as this objective is complete another overarching plot continues that encompasses the entire region.  However, completing this first goal is an enormous release.  The game completely opens up as you can take time to visit area’s and complete side quests.

Fallout (1) isn’t a massive world.  There are about a half-dozen main locations and smaller stops between.  Each town and village has it’s own main quest-line as well as a couple of side quests.  The atmosphere of the world is a strangely dark, dangerous and littered with comic black humor.  I found the wasteland a very unique place -one that gives both games a distinct personality.

There are many grim situations, such as the quest to rescue a kidnapped girl.  If you aren’t efficient at combat (which is likely so early into the game) then you will need to barter or charm for her freedom.  However, this approach means that you cannot free the other kidnapped women who are unrelated to the quest.  It’s unsettling to have to walk away while they beg for help.  You simply have no power or resources to free them.

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Another quest  involves a doctor selling human meat, while another quest can climax with not being able to leave a basement until everyone has been killed.

Though very much depressing, you eventually have some agency over these scenarios.  Depending on how you have developed your character’s stats and skills you can generally find a peaceful or violent way to resolve the situation.

Scenarios can become unexpectedly violent (in both games).  A gunfight may breakout with little warning.  A quest may be ‘resolved’ violently with innocent casualties should they happen to walk into the line of your fire (which made me feel appropriately guilty).

Some of the death animations are both horrifying and comically gruesome.  Critical hits can cause a victim’s mid-section to explode through their shoulders or a laser weapon can reduce a standing human to ash.

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Fallout’s story is the more concise of the two games, taking about 25 hours to complete.  It contains many interesting characters, some of which are hideously immoral, comically stupid, funny and/or hideous (the ghoul Harold has become a favorite of mine).  Others just want to survive and regrow but very few are boring.

Though I believe Fallout 2 to be the more gripping of the two games, I still recommend Fallout be played first as an introduction to the world and mechanics.  It’s a classic game in it’s own right.

The Peak of the Classic games.

Fallout 2 follows a similar story pattern to it’s predecessor.  Instead of a Vault Dweller you are a ‘Tribal’ – A member of a near technology free tribe.  You are tasked with finding a piece of Vault technology that will rejuvenate the tribe’s dwindling resources.  As with the first game, the over arching plot opens up after the first main objective is achieved.

Fallout 2 contains far more towns, villages and locations, as well as more characters, scenarios, and companions.  The apparent lack of technology shift between the two games likely allowed for more time to make the world as fleshed out and as interesting as possible.

I was also immediately familiar with the interface and mechanics (I started Fallout 2 as soon as I finished Fallout) and could immerse myself into the world without any significant learning barrier.

Fallout 2 is certainly more challenging than Fallout – even obtaining a pistol took a considerable amount of time and progress.  Every situation up to that point (and some beyond) had to be resolved by either running away, smooth talk or stealth.  Combat wasn’t trivial even after becoming armed, I still had to choose my battles.

Stealing was something that I learned very quickly.  Money is difficult to obtain at the beginning and the only way I could afford healing items was to pickpocket wherever possible.  This poverty/weak stretch lasts a long time and though I pushed through to again become a force – this initial period makes you respect the world and feel genuinely in danger.

Fallout 2 is considerably darker than its predecessor.  The immorality of the world is pushed further as slaver’s publically capture and sell the defenseless.  Gangsters openly intimidate, murder and run prostitution rings.

Drug addicts are found in many towns begging, stoned or outright demented.

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I can honestly say Fallout 2 was one of the rare games that, for most of the first half, made me feel genuinely helpless, paranoid, and outright disgusted by some of the characters.  The horror is not the explicit blood or gore, but the horror of what humans can inflict when law is removed and the slightest edge in power is established.

All these darker elements are implemented into gameplay too.  A frenzied drug addict randomly attacked, overpowered and killed me because I passed by at the wrong moment.

I accidentally clicked on a secured door which caused a guard to gun me down without question.

Travelling between towns can be interrupted by raiders and bandits that will almost certainly kill you if you stay and fight (and sometimes even if you run away).

Many potential side missions revolve around murdering for various gangsters.  However, affiliating with one gang may cause other gangs to shoot on sight.

For me, the most depressing moment came when I was trying to rescue a quest relevant character, Vic.  I had created a female character, which I believe made the situation occur.

The slave master wouldn’t release Vic, even after I had completed their previous request for which they agreed to release him.  The slaver demanded $1000, unless I paid with sex.  He demanded this because he was still holding all the cards and I had no power over the situation.

I refused the offer and decided to look for an alternative, such as finding the money or levelling up.

Curiosity took over.  I saved my game and decided to agree to the sex option, just to see if something would stop the process or if the game would allow this as a possible solution.

The screen faded to black, an unspecified time passed and I appeared in a bedroom with the slave master walking out.

I felt disgusted.  This may have been a cop out on my part, but I reloaded so the decision wouldn’t count. I had to figure out a different way.  I regret reloading now,  as continuing would have really hammered home the decision.  I made a point to no longer save scum before such decisions, so any regrets have to stick with me.

I still had the problem though, I was not strong enough to fight nor rich enough to pay.  I reached a point where I genuinely thought I had no choice but to use the sex option, something that I wouldn’t be surprised happens in a lawless society controlled by immoral humans.

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However, I managed to find a sub plot that allowed for an injection of money and with some further stealing was able to pay for Vic’s release.

About 40 hours later, when I had leveled considerably and acquired powerful equipment, I stormed the Slavers compound and killed them all.  I had become as ruthless as the world.  The slavemaster saw me as a friendly and suspected nothing, so without a word I targeted his face and blew him away.  The rest of the slavers attacked but my followers were too powerful and killed them easily.  The remaining slaves were freed, and fled in terror.  Freeing them was just a consequence, I had only returned for revenge.  The whole episode left me on a downer – but was impressively effective.

The main antagonists, ‘The Enclave’ are introduced about 25 hours into the game.  I will leave the details unspoilt, but the game up to that point was more akin to being a citizen of the world, almost like a documentary.  A interesting and scary one at that.

Just like the horror and dark tone, the humor has also been considerably amplified.  Some of the jokes are so unexpected, 4th wall breaking and bizarre that it’s amazing that the two tones work in the same game.

You will be killed for fun – literally, as part of a joke.  For example, you can be randomly interrupted in your encounters by a herd of insane exploding cows and killed with no hope of escape.

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A hooded figure guarding a bridge may question you in what I believe is word for word a re-enactment of a scene in The Holy Grail.  Answer wrong and you die horribly.

There are also aliens, scientology parodies and moments where the NPCs will refer to you as a player, discuss the concept of being NPCs, and reference other computer game characters of the time.

This would be game breaking if it wasn’t so wonderfully bizarre.  The game manages to successfully balance a horrific world and dark tone with off the wall, near stupid, but genuinely funny humor.

Bugs

Fallout and Fallout 2 have worse bugs than Fallout 3.  Before you even start – I said WORSE bugs, not MORE bugs.

Fallout 3 had (and still has) a pile of bugs, but generally the autosave system prevents the loss of any considerable progress.

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In these classic Fallouts (Fallout 2 in particular) you can lose hours.  I lost almost 4 hours of progress due to a sequence of events occurring in an unexpected order.

I was tasked with delivering a suitcase to a mob boss called Bishop.  To get to Bishop I had to visit a Vegas type town called ‘New Reno’.

On entering Bishop’s club – but before meeting Bishop – I decided to speak to a random female NPC.  After listening to her woes the screen faded to black – I reappeared in her bedroom after an implied night of sex.

However, to get back to the club I had to traverse a room which contained Bishop.  The woman was Bishop’s wife.  

Bishop’s guards would gun me down every time I entered the room.  Not because I was caught with his wife, but because I had not yet received permission to enter.  Bishop’s room was the only way to exit the area.

There were 4 of them and one of me.  My combat skills were not high enough to kill them and I had been separated from my companions after transitioning to the room.

My sneak skill was insufficient for me to stealth past and I could not open dialogue.  From researching this problem, I learned my ‘Charisma’ skill was high enough to talk my way out, but the bug prevented the use of this option.

Most of my other save slots were used for moments AFTER sleeping with the wife because I thought I had made progress.

After two days of trying to unsuccessfully resolve this issue with bug fixes, reading forum posts and installing mods – I had to revert to an earlier save – two towns before New Reno and about 7 quest earlier.

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What was infuriating is that I hadn’t prompted or pushed the sex option with the Bishop’s wife.  The conversation was fairly standard, albeit slightly overly friendly, only to end as I was suddenly transported to the bedroom.  I was punished for being chatty.  Without my explicit input I got placed in a situation where I no means to escape.

This is my biggest criticism of Fallout 2 (and 1 to a lesser extent), there are just too many different ways that you can break progress and inescapably trap yourself.  If you aren’t always conscious of saving then there is tangible risk of losing all progress and having to completely start over.

A quest can develop into one of many possible scenarios, but the fact that you can skill up your character in such vastly different ways can land you in a problem for which you haven’t the right set of tools to solve.

The worst offense occurred at the very end, which I got through by pure luck.  So as not to spoil – I needed certain skills to progress one of the final objectives.  At this point you cannot return to the open world to grind experience, however I just so happened to tick over to the next level when the issue occurred.  I invested the remaining points into the essential skills and barely got through the final encounter.

Had I not levelled at that moment, not researched the skills I needed,  nor gained enough skill points (all of which are likely),  then completing the game would have been impossible.  

Again, this situation occurs a considerable time after a point of no return, so if you filled all your saves slots beyond this moment and find your character insufficiently developed, then your entire game is destroyed.

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It reveals more about the random deaths and events that occur through the game.  Though funny, these almost instant death encounters seem to serve as a workaround patch by the developers to bandage progression breaking bugs.  As if under the realization that there is no way to account for every possible scenario and character combination – you are conditioned to save often in fear of being randomly killed, in multiple slots, in the hope that the damage can be reversed

Conclusion

Both FO and FO2 succeed despite these flaws.  The negatives are that; the game is undisputably ugly, the interface isn’t intuitive and the bugs can bring you to tears if you fall into an inescapable scenario.

However the writing is impressively effective at portraying all sorts of funny, moral and utterly despicable people.  A rhythm is established in combat and once you start to overpower enemies you genuinely feel you have earned the victory.

The underlying atmosphere is both creepy and oddly realistic for the world it creates.  The humor is so bizarre that even if you aren’t finding it outright funny it’s sheer lunacy will keep you amused.

Both games are huge too, Fallout 2 in particular took about 50-60 hours to complete.

To conclude, FO and FO2 require patience, time and a willingness to engage (and forgive), but for me the payoff was worth it.  I recommend both games to any RPG fan, especially to those of older RPGs, and maybe even to the newer who want to experience a very unique, harsh and funny world.