Fallout: A retro review

I am a console kid. I’ve always been a console kid. More than anything else in life, I have opinions on Sega vs Nintendo vs Sony vs (because now we HAVE to include them) Microsoft (Author’s note: Sega wins and I will explain why in a future article). So when I say I’m experiencing things for the first time, I need that to come with some weight. There are a lot of games I’d never even HEARD OF before building a machine specifically to game on. One of those was Fallout.

If, by some chance you and I have been living under the same rock and you know as little about Fallout as I do, it’s a post-apocalyptic RPG set in the aftermath of a massive nuclear war. Humanity has been saved by dwelling in large, secure vaults. You play as one of these (highly customizable stats-wise) “Vault Dwellers” (at least you do in the first game, I assume the rest of the games follow suit). The first game was released in 1997, and here we are, nearly 20 years later, and it still has a huge fan following with the fourth installment in the series released at time of writing to a massive positive response.

And less than an hour into what is probably going to be a LOOOOOOOONG series, I can see exactly why. The Fallout world is absolutely stunning. There’s a huge (by ’97 standards) map filled with wandering nomads, towns, other vaults and, most importantly, arid deserts. The game does a fantastic job of building an atmosphere of desolation, isolation and fear. Your mission (At least initially, I still have some more to go through) is to find a water filtration unit. The one from your vault is irreparable and you are told that, should you fail, people are going to die.

It’s super nice to have stakes that feel personal, but also super high. Literally everyone you know will die if you mess this up. No Pressure. Along the way you will make friends and enemies, acquire new quests, save the right or wrong people, basically this is a sandbox game. A sandbox game years before they actually had a word. And that’s incredible. Even now it’s very impressive that you can walk in any direction and sooner or later trouble will find you. Trouble, it should be noted, you can (sorta) choose to not get involved in. This must have been mind-blowing back in the day.

Fallout

Fallout

The game is not without its issues. This fantastic, spanning story is balanced, unfortunately, by one of the worst interfaces I have ever experienced. It’s clunky, unintuitive and cumbersome – although, I am willing to admit that this is probably my own bias. I come from the Lucas Arts school of interface design where no matter what you want to do, it’s a maximum of four clicks away. Interacting with objects in the Fallout world is a more manual process, requiring a click to change to the “look/interact” cursor. To say it took some getting used to was an understatement. It did mean I spent a lot of time walking into walls, other characters and, at least once, the face of a deadly rad scorpion.

The game’s graphics have also (inevitably) aged. The consistent style makes the whole game reasonably pretty to look at, but individual models and objects are so blurry that it can be impossible to tell what they are. Combine this with having to change cursors to identify what an item is and you’ve got less incentive to explore the world.

Because this is an RPG, the first thing I did when making a character is boost his charisma and intelligence while cutting his strength. I like playing slick fast talkers who lie themselves in and out of trouble. When it’s an option, I would much rather take the non-combat option because that’s just the way I roleplay. Unfortunately the first thing that happened was a rat ate my face. It seemed unwilling to discuss my position on the matter. The first problem the game forced me to solve was not really possible with the character I built, because I wanted to be non-violent in a game that TOLD ME HOW BAD WAR WAS IN THE INTRO. Turns out there are lots of situations where murder, both human and animal, is your only option. This shouldn’t be surprising really, they built a (fairly rugged but not all that intuitive) combat engine and dammit; you’re going to use it.

Of course, once I figured that out, I made the assumption that ammunition for my pistol would be scarce, and only used my knife against the rats. Not only did this take a long time due to my low strength, but it also turned out that nearly every vendor I met (and most other people in a town) were armed to the teeth. They were more than willing to share their bullets with me for a price, or if, you know, I made them angry. Found this out the hard way, and by “hard way” I mean I have been utterly utterly spoiled by autosaves. Few things in this world are as saddening and irritating to me as losing a character and having to start from scratch again. On the flip side, once I knew what was out there I was able to build a better character for the environment, even if it wasn’t exactly the one I wanted to play. And once I was out of the cave, I met more enemies who were receptive to maybe talking things out, even though that would have been nice to see as a combat option.

With all of that in mind, Fallout is a product of its time. A trailblazer in many ways, but limited by design conventions and available technology. The storyline of the game, where we find most of the meat, is quite stunning. The huge world and the setting is spectacular. Not having played the games previously, it’s instantly apparent why this franchise is as popular as it is. The gameplay issues do really hurt, but as technology improved so did the design. The biggest problem is that the scope of the original Fallout was difficult to pull off at the time.

But do you know what? Interplay did it. The size of the game shines through its issues. It’s a wonderful piece of gaming history and a fantastic insight into open world gaming at its very start. Well worth checking out if you’re new to the series even if it’s not a particularly strong entry.

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