From one of the most underrated roleplaying series comes one of the largest, most ambitious tactical combat games you could ever wish for.
Freelance game reviewers should never calculate the hourly wage garnered from work. After delving into Fallout Tactics I’m more loathe than ever to do the math. Backed by the lineage of a brilliant RPG series, this tactical combat off-shoot delivers an intriguing narrative, huge mission maps, tons of destructive toys, and an extremely challenging AI opponent.
It’s a treat to be welcomed back to the post-apocalyptic Fallout universe. If you’re familiar with the two Fallout RPGs, Tactics actually takes place in the time period between these two games. If you’re not, just think Road Warrior, and add even more guns and mutants.
As an initiate in the Brotherhood of Steel, your clan is dedicated to restoring the world to its former technological brilliance by any means necessary. You will lead a squad of up to six soldiers through a series of 20 massive missions (if there’s one thing you take away from this review, I want it to be that this is one big game). Playing as one of several pre-generated characters or creating your own custom persona, you modify a list of attributes too deep to go into here, but consisting mostly of standard RPG stats.
If this character dies, it’s game over. The rest of the squad can be used as cannon fodder if you wish, but that type of thinking won’t get you very far very fast. Each squad member gains experience as you play, allowing you to increase their abilities in certain areas and choose various "perks" (special attributes).
As you delve deeper into the plot and develop your squad, you may want to reload the mission when your beloved sniper (or medic, or heavy gunner, or hand-to-hand combat specialist) dies from a sucking chest wound. I know I did, which translates into every mission taking anywhere from three to five hours to complete.
I also tried to complete every sub-quest and explore every building -- which can consist of multiple floors -- on each map. This time investment in the game world accelerates the level-up process for your characters, and exploration facilitates the discovery of better armor and weapons.
As with the Fallout RPGs, weapons range from spears, rocks, and broken bottles to WWI & II small arms and machine guns, to modern energy weapons and explosives. In short, people use whatever they can get their hands on in the post-nuclear chaos. Of course, the really meaty stuff doesn’t materialize until you’re beyond halfway though.
Eventually you’ll come across a tank (you can’t take it through buildings, but you can roll over people), and it’s the highlight of the game. Other usable vehicles include a Hummer, scout car, and armored personnel carrier. Not only do each of these provide you with armor protection, but they also serve as a depository for all the loot you find.
The combat lives up to its "tactical" label -- there are RPG elements, but you’ll need to be a crack tactician to win. One shot can kill, and you need to utilize all your team members’ specialties to win. For instance, in one mission you must escort a supply vehicle through several blocks of enemy-infested urban real estate (closely resembling the setting -- music and all -- of the sniper-hunt scene in Full Metal Jacket). Enemy ambushes are waiting on nearly every rooftop along the route, as well as behind several roadblocks. You must divide your squad into efficient teams and scout ahead, opening blocked paths and foiling ambushes.
Each squad member can crawl, crouch, walk, run, stand, or lay prone. And, if developed accordingly, "sneak" quite well eventually. When this skill is applied, a soldier can often creep to within a few feet of an unsuspecting enemy and deliver a twin-barrel blast from a 12-gauge shotgun with appropriately devastating and gory effect. (Fallout Tactics is a game for mature audiences, with high levels of gore and adult language. I mean, this is the apocalypse; it’s gonna be rough out there. The rough stuff can be muted through filters, however.)
Sadly, for all their versatility, your troops can’t negotiate simple obstacles such as fences they should clearly be able to climb or jump over but instead must find a way around. Your troops also can’t dive or roll to the sides to evade attacks. They can get horribly wounded, and even crippled, in battle -- necessitating the application of costly medical treatment to recover (or you can leave them to rot and replace them with a raw recruit when you get back to base).
If managing all of this in the heat of real-time combat -- the game’s default setting -- sounds daunting, it can be. However, you do have the option to choose from two modes of turn-based play if you prefer that style, and want to slow the pace down: Individual Turn-Based Mode is most like the original Fallout. All characters move one at a time, based on their Sequence statistics. In Squad Turn-Based Mode, all of a particular player’s troops move simultaneously. Still, I preferred the more realistic nature of the default real-time mode. Switching to either of the turn-based modes eliminated many of the surprise encounters that made me jump out of my seat more than once in the heat of a real-time conflict.
Multiplayer’s a mixed bag. There’s no built-in matchmaking service for Internet games. Instead, Tactics relies on GameSpy Arcade. Finding a good game can be a painful experience -- I endured frequent hangs and even system crashes trying to join games over a DSL connection, and lag is more of a problem than you’d expect from this kind of gameplay. Two game modes are offered: Skirmish (deathmatch) and Assault (infiltrating the enemy base and throwing a victory switch).
It must be stated that the manual and tutorials are an absolute travesty for a game of this complexity. The manual offers pitifully little information about the weapons and items in the game and the tutorials are incredibly basic.
These headaches are compounded by briefings that do little more than list mission objectives -- there’s hardly any helpful info as to what weapons or items you should bring along. You’ll just have to rely on trial and error (and a few mission re-starts).
Some promised features are also AWOL, such as a campaign/mission editor and the ability to play multiplayer games as some of the enemy characters (most notably the Super Mutants and Deathclaws) from the single-player game. And a myriad of minor bugs can hamper gameplay, such as stairs and ladders being inexplicably impossible to climb at times. I experienced a few agonizing crashes to the desktop, and the game performed unacceptably sluggishly without selecting the full 1.6GB installation option.
Purely from a design standpoint, it’s a bit tedious to have to scavenge everything you can in the field to sell back at the base, just to buy the ammo and equipment needed for the next mission. It seems to me the Brotherhood should pony up some money or weapons for you based on your performance.
These are minor quibbles against the backdrop of a great overall experience. It’s likely too hardcore for less-experienced players, and the adult theme is definitely not suitable for young players. However, if you’re into strategy games and don’t fall into these two categories, you should run, not walk, to the nearest store and buy it today.