During the mid-1980s, Interplay left an indelible mark on the roleplaying genre with the classic Wasteland. Universally hailed as one of the best roleplaying games of its time, Wasteland wasn’t the typical sword-swinging epic about orcs or trolls; instead, it plummeted players into a bleak, post-apocalyptic world where mutants, blood-thirsty gangs, and radiation-scarred lunatics roamed the land.
Now, more than ten years after Wasteland’s release, Interplay revisits this desolate setting with an up-to-date successor -- Fallout -- and the result is one of the finest roleplaying games around. Starting with an impressive opening cinematic (which draws obvious inspiration from 1950s public safety films, World War Two-era propaganda films, and even the work of Stanley Kubrick), Fallout firmly establishes itself as the Wasteland for the 1990s.
During the introduction, we learn that the player character is one of the "lucky" few who have survived inside one of the massive vaults hastily constructed to withstand the devastating effects of a nuclear war. Yet, after seventy years of isolation, time is beginning to run out for the vault-dwellers; the chip that controls the Vault’s water purification system has given out and supplies are running desperately low. With only 150 days left before the remaining water runs out, the leader of the Vault -- the Overseer -- asks you to journey into the hostile wastelands to find a replacement chip. With only your wits, skills, and a few modest weapons for defense, you make your way into the desert.
But first, you’ll need to define a character that is suitable for this harsh environment. You can select from three default characters, or you can opt to create your own persona through a slick character generation system. While the default characters offer beginning players a well-rounded starting point, the recommended path, of course, is to create your own character. Built on an original roleplaying system developed specifically for Fallout, the laundry list of skills and abilities may appear a bit daunting at first, but the designers have gone out of their way to make it easy and fun to use. As you select each skill and assign points to different abilities, small "character cards" provide a clear -- and often humorous -- definition of each skill. Once you’ve created a character you are satisfied with, you can begin the task of locating that pesky water-chip by travelling to the nearest town.
In moving around the game world, Fallout uses a top-down isometric perspective and a simple point-and-click interface for actions and inventory management. Unlike the smooth-scrolling, centered view of Diablo, Fallout allows you a certain degree of freedom to scroll around the environment and look ahead for potential danger, but the movement of the character suffers a bit from the hex-based maps. When moving horizontally or vertically, your character will move in quick, zigzagging turns. The rest of the game, however, is a standout, as Fallout captures the mood of your post-nuke surroundings with eerie images of war-torn ruins, vast underground caverns, and ramshackle settlements filled with strange animated characters and detailed backgrounds.
Within the various towns and villages that populate the game’s world, Fallout plays like most roleplaying games. You accept quests, enlist the aid of non-player characters, purchase weapons, and barter and chat with the locals. Yet, while part of the joy of most roleplaying games comes from simply exploring and discovering new locations and interesting characters, Fallout’s time-sensitive plot conveys a sense of urgency. Instead of taking every quest possible, you’ll need to keep a brisk pace to stay ahead of the constant countdown.
Your experience (or lack thereof) can be a barrier to successfully completing at least one of these quests in Fallout. Most of the characters you’ll meet react to your abilities, and they’ll only reveal vital bits of information when you’re sufficiently experienced. Additionally, their attitudes will change dramatically if you suddenly go on a murderous rampage and then try to pretend nothing happened.
From your first tentative steps outside of the Vault until the final conflict, combat plays a heavy role in your character’s development. Unlike the frantic hack-and-slash action of Diablo, Fallout uses a turn-based combat system, which gives it a much more sophisticated flavor than most recent roleplaying games. When hostile entities are around, your character will automatically switch to combat mode, where you’ll plan your next move at your leisure.
As in X-COM, many weapons let you choose different attack modes, taking a quick snap-shot, firing a carefully aimed shot, or going for a rapid-fire burst. The aimed mode (single-shot only) lets you target critical parts of an opponent’s body; the chance of success is lower, but a critical hit will do more damage.
When you’re fighting alone in Fallout, the turn-based combat is a great asset, but if you hire non-player characters to join you in battle, be prepared for a little frustration. Depending on your perception and experience, an NPC can get the first turn in a battle; typically, they’ll use this turn to move in very close to the enemy, making it tough for you to target your desired victim without the risk of hitting your buddy. For most players, the best bet is to go it alone, or leave the bad guys alone until you’ve gained more experience and can take the initiative in battle.
You’ll need that experience just to finish the game; the main quests require a great deal of skill and firepower to complete. To make matters worse, there’s a constantly eroding time limit. In order to prepare yourself for these main quests, you’ll need to build a small fortune in caps (bottle caps are the method of currency in Fallout) and add to your experience by taking on jobs offered by the locals. Fortunately, the side quests are plentiful and varied: in one scenario, you’ll clear out a cave filled with giant scorpions; in another, you’ll free a damsel-in-distress. Still others can get you tangled in messy feuds between rival gang leaders.
There’s really very little to complain about in Fallout; it’s a skillful production through and through. Unfortunately, a few annoying bugs crop up now and again that detract from the experience. Save games made during combat can be corrupted, NPCs are duplicated as you travel from place to place, etc. At press time, Interplay had announced that a patch was in the works to address these flaws.
Another bothersome aspect comes from the steep system requirements. While the game lists a Pentium 90 with 16MB RAM for Windows 95 (still an acceptable gaming system, right?), the game is sluggish due to hefty load times. The only solution, it seems, is to opt for the full, 650MB install.
Even with these drawbacks, though, Fallout is a joy to behold and play. The tightly integrated mix of combat, storytelling, and puzzling keeps the pace brisk and lively, and it’ll keep you coming back for more.