Retro-ish Review: Fallout

I have a massive backlog of games. Among the titles in my backlog that are on the list of “games I should play but will probably never get to” are the first two games in the main Fallout series plus Fallout Tactics, which I picked up for free when GOG.com removed them from their catalog and they’ve been sitting in my library ever since. Now that Fallout 4 is out, I thought I’d finally give the first game in the series a go.

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past decade (or, like me, never got into the series). Fallout is an RPG set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humanity has survived nuclear war by sealing themselves in giant vaults. A resident of one of those vaults, you have been tasked with finding a water chip before your community runs out of its water reserves.

Upon creating your character and being given this general goal, you’re thrust into the world and given the freedom to go in any direction you want. I created a high intelligence character and decided to go directly to the vault the game pointed me towards, where I promptly ran into a bunch of scorpions (random events occasionally happen while traversing the world) and died. When I reloaded, I ended up in the small town of Shady Sands–where I couldn’t figure out how to put my weapon away so the NPCs would talk to me. There doesn’t seem to be a “holster” button, instead, you need to press the red button on the left to switch your active item from your weapon to the other slot that isn’t carrying a weapon. This is just one of the many weird decisions the devs made in this game with respect to inventory management, but more on that when I get to the stuff I didn’t like about the game.

Combat in Fallout is turn-based, something you don’t see a lot of in Western RPGs these days. At the beginning of your turn, you have a number of action points which you can spend on movement, attacking, reloading your weapon or using items. Companions you recruit act on their own. It’s pretty standard stuff, what is unique about Fallout is the way it allows you to target specific body parts on your enemies, with various effects. Shooting an enemy’s legs might knock them over or impede their movement, for instance. Most weapons have this ability, which you can toggle by right-clicking your weapon when it’s active. Finishing off an enemy with a critical targeted shot to the head is really satisfying.

Outside of combat, you wander around speaking to and bartering with people. In addition to the quests your Pip Boy records, there are many hidden quests that reward exploration and creative thinking with valuable experience. I mostly focused on the main quest initially (as you are on the clock) so I probably missed a bunch of hidden objectives. Near as I can tell, however, most of them don’t have a huge (if any) impact on the game unless you want the best weapons and armor. I actually found the way quests are structured to be much less stressful than other Western RPGs, which are fond of giving the player a laundry list of objectives that I inevitably put off until the endgame. Oddly for a game that gives you a clear time limit, I didn’t once feel like I was being pressured to complete a legion of sidequests for few rewards. The quests I did participate in were interesting, including one that occurs if you sleep at a certain inn and another that involves a big battle encompassing an entire town.

Many if not all of my gripes with Fallout have long since been alleviated in the RPGs of the present (I hope). For starters, you can’t manually change your Companions’ armor and weapons, you need to “steal” from them, make sure they have ammo for their weapons, and then tell them to use the best weapon in their inventory. They also have the annoying habit of running up to the enemy and attempting to punch them even when they’re low on health. Occasionally I would get “stuck” because one of them wouldn’t move out of a doorway. I definitely feel as if Fallout is meant to be a solo affair and that the companions were added in almost as an afterthought because managing them felt unnecessarily cumbersome.

Then there’s Dogmeat.

Oh, Dogmeat.

Dogmeat is a dog that joins you very early on if you are wearing a certain armor or you offer him an iguana on a stick. He can attack more times in a row that most (if not all) other characters and although he doesn’t do much damage, he has a pretty good chance of knocking enemies down.

However, unlike the other companions, you can’t issue any sort of commands to Dogmeat, which includes ordering him to stay put out of harm’s way. If he gets in the way of an enemy with a weapon with a “burst” setting (like a machine gun) you had better hope it misses or does very little damage. My issues with Dogmeat came to a head during the endgame, where you won’t be able to bluff your way through the final area if he’s following you, and you can’t trap him in a room like you can with other members of your party because he goes with you when you enter and exit an area. There is a mod you can download that will fix these issues, but I’m a purist. I did eventually end the game with my entire party miraculously intact, but I have a feeling I would have beaten it much sooner without them, especially since I didn’t need their help at all to clear the final areas. Another gripe I had was that some useful inventory tricks (such as how the “use” button works) weren’t explained in-game or (in the case of holstering) in the manual at all. Some alternate solutions to quests also seemed to require a bit of off-the-wall thinking. (For players looking for an easier time with the game, I used the Science and Repair skills a lot.)

Fallout is a difficult game to judge on its own merits, having grown up with Western RPGs that take at least a hundred hours to complete. The world felt small and the towns felt strangely empty. Even so, I enjoyed my time with it (although that ending was a load of bull) and already have Fallout 2 set up and ready to go.

 

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