It seems like most “role playing games” are just name and graphic changes over the same plot and setting. For role players tired of cookie-cutter Japanese RPG’s, Fallout offers a post-apocalyptic setting and unusual amounts of freedom.
The opening cut scene gives an ambiguous history of the past 150 years: an old ad for huge communal bomb shelters, called vaults, implies nuclear war, and another commercial shows American soldiers “keeping the peace” by executing a man in “annexed Canada.” Veteran gamers will notice many similarities with an old computer RPG called Wasteland.
Fallout’s setting is chilling and grows more and more effective as the player proceeds through the Road Warrior-like world.
As a member of Vault 13, the player is tasked with finding a “water chip” to process the vault’s water supply. If this chip isn’t obtained in time, the vault will run out of water and its inhabitants will die. Should the gamer fail this task, or even complete it, the game is not over; the player can continue to wander the devastated landscape, doing as he or she pleases.
It quickly becomes apparent that this is no average computer RPG. While the overarching story is present, it can be freely ignored, and other paths can be taken at the player’s whim. Fallout’s freedom allows for a good number of ethical questions and sides to take. Is soliciting a prostitute eroding civilization in this new world? Would helping a town’s mayor remove a crime boss be wiser for a certain character than helping the crime boss remove the town’s mayor?
In some cases, the answers are pretty clear for players going for purely good or evil characters; others require real thought and discussion with local citizens.
The player doesn’t even need to take sides; wiping out entire settlements is quite possible at higher levels.
In keeping with role playing game tradition, the player gains levels by getting experience points. All experience doesn’t have to come from combat; picking locks or using other skills will earn experience as well. Once the player gains a level, Skill Points can be distributed among his or her various skills.
Fallout has a day/night cycle that’s used well; bars only open at night, and stores shut down during the evenings, making them targets for an unscrupulous player’s break-in attempts.
And where many role playing games hold the player’s hand constantly, Fallout essentially leaves gamers on their own. It’s a crueler world than ever, and nobody’s looking out for anyone; wander too far and you’ll find yourself, and your party members, blown to pieces by enormous machine gun wielding foes.
The NPC’s that can join the player are a handful of survivors, skilled in various forms of combat and each with his or her own personality. While helpful in a fight, party members must be looked after; engage in combat too loosely and friends will get killed. It can be upsetting to see a close companion die, and there’s no taking a nap at the local inn to revive fallen party members; once they’re dead, they don’t come back.
Combat is turn-based and breaks out wherever the player draws a gun or angers an NPC. Fighting in the actual location is very fun, especially compared to console RPG’s that pull the fight into some uncluttered battlefield. Ambushes can be set up, firefights can break out in narrow hallways, and shooting with an ally in the way can result in friendly fire; combat is exciting and never feels the same twice.
And with a selection of weapons that ranges from simple knives to plasma rifles, fighting can grow to World War Four proportions.
Except for the overview map, the game takes place entirely from a top-down isometric angle. The 2D graphics are drawn exceptionally well, and give an eerily feasible look at what a post-nuclear world might look like. Unfortunately, the player’s appearance depends on the armor worn; beyond that, dress and features aren’t changeable.
Kills range from simple falling and bleeding to much more gruesome deaths from heavy weapon fire, which squeamish players can turn off in the game’s options.
Aural effects are good, adding to the game’s gloomy feel. There is no music (save for some creepy, understated orchestral sounds that could come from a Psycho sequel), only the howling of the wind and the many sounds of weapon fire, both of which are done well. Wandering through the desert will sound appropriately lonely, and the report of a rifle echoes chillingly.
One of the biggest letdowns of Fallout is the fairly small world, a problem corrected in the sequel. And it seems like after working for an NPC, they just become part of the background.
Fallout offers more freedom and atmosphere than nearly any RPG available. While less linear titles are thankfully being released, none can match Fallout’s dark atmosphere and political commentary.