In an alternate history than our own, following the end of World War II, the awesome power of nuclear energy was was not feared by society, but embraced. This less cautious development of atomic technology lead to a world with intelligent robots and laser weaponry but a society locked into the trappings of 1950s America even as they moved further than our reality into the 21st century. The push for control of the limited oil and uranium resources that made such life possible lead to a war that would devastate the world, mutually assured nuclear destruction turning even the most powerful nations into irradiated wastelands. It is in the remnants of this world that Fallout takes place, and surprisingly, despite taking place in a such a bleak setting and timeline, the world of Fallout is perhaps its most captivating aspect.
Beginning as a character of your own creation who sets out from an underground nuclear shelter known as the vault, you must go out and explore the California wasteland nearly a century after the bombs dropped in search of a way to fix your vault’s water problems. Most of California is uninhabited desert and mountains, but people have done their best to rebuild, establishing small settlements with what resources they could manage. There is civilization to be found, but the harshness of the world informs its design, towns often built from the husks of old cities or whatever junk can be cobbled together into something habitable. People are suspicious in a world where law very rarely extends outside a city’s walls, raiders looking to score easy gains and mutated creatures making travel across the wastes potentially deadly. Some humans have been twisted into horrific forms by the lingering radiation such as the hulking mutants and the zombie-like ghouls, but even they have their own attempts at eking a civilized life out of the poor hand life dealt them. Most everyone has to be skilled in combat to avoid being taken advantage of, but despite the situation the world finds itself in, your interaction with it is not entirely hostile and filled with paranoia. There are just as many good people as there are bad, people who wish to help and need your assistance to make the world a better place. There is an opening to do good here and try and ensure a better future for the people you meet, but just the same, if you wish, you can be the scourge of the wasteland, interested in your own gains and goals at the expense of anyone who crosses your path.
In Fallout, there is no character you cannot kill and every conversation can end with you drawing your weapon if you wish, even if they are meant to be important quest givers tied to the main plot or subquests. However, that goal of helping your vault is ultimately one you can fail if you do not address it in time, and a greater threat of a super mutant uprising looms over the wasteland that can also end your fun if you dawdle too long. Your ability to approach problems and people in a variety of ways is certainly one of the biggest appeals Fallout has going for it, but its not quite as robust as it might first seem. Dialogue options tend to come in three flavors, that being neutral information gathering, the functional reply often phrased nicely and diplomatically, and needless aggression that can often end in a character either refusing to speak to you again or outright attacking you. It is a bit of a puzzle that in a nuclear wasteland where so many people are openly hostile towards each other that if you aim the littlest bit of sass in their direction they’ll clam up as if they haven’t dealt with your like before, and this issue can lead to you funneling your responses away from risky but seemingly more interesting replies since they would lead nowhere of interest. It’s not quite as cut and dry as nice and mean replies, and there are moments where you can find yourself in a situation you can’t talk your way out of, but other times, your words may prove to be powerful enough to completely avoid major conflicts. Your social navigation is, however, mostly tied to the influence of your stats and hidden die rolls, and while a character built to be smart and charismatic is going to have the more meaningful and interesting options in completing quests with something besides combat, being on the other end of the spectrum can lead to people baffled by your stupidity and unsure how to act, letting you slip by all the same.
The stats in Fallout are heavy determiners of how your game experience is going to play, and at the start you are asked to put in place what advantages and disadvantages your character will have over the course of the game. Here you can determine whether your character is physically capable or clever, what types of weapons they will be proficient in, and what extra skills they have to help them along the way such as an understanding of science, proficiency in first aid, or deft hands when it comes to picking locks and pockets. Specialization can guide your approaches to certain obstacles, and while there are certainly side quests and items that your character might not be able to complete as intended if they don’t have the right stats for it, the main quest should remain possible to complete, especially since leveling up your character comes with extra points to allocate in skills and perks that can further augment your abilities in special ways. Being possible is quite different from being accessible though, as there are many situations where you come across what boils down to a skill check that can make or break your success… or just leave you repeating the skill check over and over until it finally goes through. Many locked doors, machines to be repaired, and even the combat can come down to these stat checks rather than an interesting action between the player and the game world, and even stranger are moments where the game expects foreknowledge that can only really be gained through outside sources or failure. Knowing what stats will be most pivotal in making your build at the start or that a radio that looks like a walkie talkie can be connected to the futuristic looking computer consoles does not come up naturally through play, and it can feel at times like death is the only real way to learn you aren’t meant to go somewhere at your current strength or with your current approach. Saving across multiple save files and saving often will benefit the player immensely in avoiding something like deaths from desert ambushes or a random crit in combat.
Speaking of the combat, even if you attempt to make a character who leans hard into diplomacy or stealth to find more interesting solutions to wasteland problems, there will be moments that inevitably end in battle. Fallout’s combat is turn-based, each character taking a turn spending however many action points they were allotted. Action freezes during your turn to allow you to think through your actions, with every step taken by a character costing a point and every attack depleting your small point pool a certain amount tied to its potential strength. There are a variety of weapons to use in combat, from your bare fists all the way up to laser miniguns, with explosives, melee weapons, and guns both big and small found in between. Naturally, you’d expect the long range weapons to benefit from their ability to hit enemies who aren’t up close, but while it does mean you can fight from afar, it comes with an accuracy penalty that can be just punishing enough it’s not necessarily worth risking. Enemies are just as aware of this, almost all of them angling to crowd you to up their chances of landing shots, so even a battle between machine guns or rocket launchers can boil down to a close range affair. Because close range battles are the most effective, movement becomes more about making escapes or getting in close, although you can get saucy and try to funnel them around corners or lead them around an area to burn their action points. While you will also be at greater risk to higher damage in a close quarters skirmish, battles are already generally tipped in your favor even against large groups provided you’re meant to engage it at your current power level.
The effectiveness of close range combat can also be tied to the special option to target your attacks to specific parts of your opponent’s body. For an extra action point you can target their limbs, eyes, head, or groin, provided they are not some mutated creature missing these parts or having their own special parts. While trying to disarm a foe can pay off on occasion, it feels a bit like you’ll hit the same issue you’ll face with ranged battle. Fighting from range can keep you somewhat safe, but the enemy will keep trying to close in and your effectiveness will be much less than allowing the fight come to you. Targeting an arm to make them drop their gun can be a huge boon when it works, but it’s not guaranteed, making going for the eyes or head for heavy damage with the additional potential of blindness or dazes making it an unneeded risk to go for much else. This combat system is further strained of its interesting elements as your stats and inventory enter the picture, where your character’s weight limit means they can’t carry too many items and your stats will heavily lean you towards whatever weapon types you’ve invested in. This means that, with a certain character build, you might leave miniguns and rocket launchers behind in favor of having a pistol that is really powerful in your hands because of your skill points. You of course get to influence which of these weapons you’re going to be better at, but this means combat is robbed of another source for tactical variety. Battles become mostly about ensuring you have the health to continue as you use whatever your best weapon is, ammo reserves being the only real reason to swap in something different. There is potential to lead with something unusual like a grenade or long range snipe, but another thing in the way of battle creativity is that it’s not really required in any way due to most enemy types and battles following the same gun fight formula.
Despite these issues in battle, it feels like the combat ultimately feels functional rather than explicitly bad. Perhaps the only major problem I’d identify is the inconsistency brought on by RPG stat effects and random rolls. No truer example of this exists than a situation I encountered more than once where a character does an attack that hits but fails to damage me while wearing the game’s best armor on one turn but then manages to do more than double my maximum health the next, again necessitating the saving often to avoid being set back a long way by random factors. There is, at least, a very good general curve of power gain and enemy strength as the game progresses, and while the random damage amounts will plague you every now and then, you gradually grow from punching rats in a jumpsuit to enlisting other wastelanders to be your allies and finding the high end weaponry and armors to make you a force to be reckoned with. You can face more powerful foes early if you like, but even one of the game’s most fearsome foes, the horned reptilian monstrosities known as Deathclaws, end up being more about stats and equipment than clever approaches. The world is filled with loot to scavenge and items to buy off merchants and traders, so there is some satisfaction still to building yourself up to the point you can go toe to toe with such a foe.
The quests and the locations you visit to complete them have to be the main draw because of the combat’s limited personal complexity, and while many quests aren’t quite complex themselves, they do send you off to unique locations with often more than one end available to you. Assistance versus exploitation is a common theme, and sometimes if you can’t find a better way or sabotaged yourself inadvertently, you might have to choose between a lesser of two evils, provided you feel guilt about those options at all. Outcomes of your decisions are often self-contained to who they immediately affect, but there is a general karma system that can color your interaction with other wasteland inhabitants, not that it can truly erode the attitude towards you many characters seem to have.
THE VERDICT: Fallout creates a well-realized post-apocalyptic setting for the player to engage with in many ways. Their choices on how they make their character and how they behave have an obvious impact on the completion of objectives and the interaction with the denizens and creatures of the wasteland. Despite this well-built world, Fallout can often restrict the player with an over-reliance on stat checks that are pass-fail tests that can boil down to repeating the actions until it works. The combat, while having its moments of tenseness and satisfaction, has its own restrictions in barely rewarding risk and only randomly punishing the most reliable and effective approaches. Fallout is a game of discovery, the player finding the means to improve their strength and finding new locations with unique problems to overcome through personalized approaches, but the game mechanics supporting it aren’t on the same level of quality.
And so, I give Fallout for the PC…
A GOOD rating. Perhaps more impressive at its time of release for managing to capture some of the open-endedness of tabletop RPGs, the many approaches to your character creation and objective completion do make for a game more intriguing than basic task completion, but the manner through which you do it isn’t quite as exciting because of its limitations. Combat in the wasteland just isn’t robust enough to support the interactions that can lead up to it, and doing something like a repair skill check over and over until it works sort of undermines the challenge the task should be.
Besides the propensity for combat and conversation to turn on a dime and require a healthy reserve of saves if you wish to see the breadth of the game’s content, Fallout is still enjoyable despite where it wasn’t designed for more engaging play. The game’s world and opportunities in it do manage to ensure an engaging experience on their own, they just lack the full support needed to make it a truly cohesive and consistent package.