Years ago, in the RPG boom of the early and mid 1980s, came a multitude of RPGs that still bring fond thoughts to memories of older gamers – The Ultimas, Might and Magics, the Bards Tales, the Wizardries. Nevertheless, if you wanted to get right down to it, they were all fundamentally similar – magic, swords, fantastic creatures, and mythical worlds.
It took an RPG that wasn’t part of a series to make the gaming community sit up and notice. The characters didn’t use swords and bows; they used machine guns and laser rifles. They didn’t level up, they were promoted. There were no character classes or archetypes – just varying categories of skills. Instead of fighting orcs, goblins, dragons, they fought gang members, mutated vermin, and robots. Instead of being turned to stone, the characters had to beware of radiation poisoning, toxic waste, and even sexually transmitted diseases. And death, as it came, was permanent.
That game, still a classic and highly regarded, is the venerable Wasteland.
Years later, there was no true sequel – for over a decade, it appeared that Wasteland would be one of those anomalies, a successful game not spawning a series. Remembering the true classics, Interplay decided to update the game, and released Fallout in 1997 – the ‘spiritual descendant’ of Wasteland. It wasn’t perfect, but it brought the entertainment of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and a cautionary tale to a new generation of gamers. In a year of lackluster PC RPGs, Fallout was regarded as a breath of fresh air to the stagnant genre. No stranger to a success, Interplay gathered many of the complaints centered on the original, expanded the game world, and released Fallout 2 – a worthy sequel.
The game begins 80 years after the events chronicled in Fallout. You play a descendant of the legendary Vault Dweller, the mysterious stranger who saved the world years before. The Vault Dweller, rejected by the people he saved, was forced to move to the edge of the wastes, and created a village, Arroyo. You begin in the village, being tested by the elders to see if you are the Chosen One. Arroyo is dying, and the Chosen One must venture into the world to retrieve the holy GECK – the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (Suburbia in a bottle, so to speak – although “Results may vary”).
The game begins with several movie sequences, showing the flavor of the Fallout 2 world, giving a glimpse of a sinister enemy, and explaining how the world nearly died in the war, and was later saved by the Vault Dweller. After that, the gamer may create his or her character.
There are several prominent factors in character creation. First, attributes must be set – such as Strength, Perception, Charisma, Luck, and so forth. They remain relatively stable throughout the game, so the gamer must choose the strengths of his character and weaknesses early on. Two Traits can be chosen (if the gamer desires), such as Bruiser (less speed, more damage), Finesse (less normal damage, higher critical hit percentage), and the ever popular Bloody Mess (when someone dies around your character, they…well, make a bloody mess). Lastly, skills must be chosen. There are approximately 20 to 25 different skills, and three may be tagged as specialties – they grow faster and represent a character’s strong points. They range from weapon skills, to survival skills (lockpicking, sneaking, outdoorsman, etc), to diplomatic skills (speech, barter). By using this three-tiered system, a gamer has complete control over how they want to set up their character – if they want a strong, slow, walking arsenal, they can. If they want a fast, speedy martial artist, they can. If they want a weak, brainy scientist, they can. Gender and age can also be modified, with no penalties for a specific age or gender. Gender does make a difference, as characters respond differently to males and females. For the gamer who just wants to sit down and play, though, three pre-made characters are available, and they can be used as templates for the gamer who likes the character’s general concept, but wants to tweak it just a bit.
One of the game’s main strengths is the variety of characters that can be created, and each of them requires a different play-style. A rifle-toting sniper requires a different set of strong-points than a martial-artist, and a character with weak combat skills will require a cautious, experimenting style. Replay is high simply due to this variety.
Character development throughout the game is strong as well. Levels are gained via the conventional experience point system, with a bit of a twist – experience can come from combat, successful quests, or simply using one’s natural skills (picking a lock, treating a wound). At a level gain, characters gain skill points to increase their current skills, get more hit points, and every few levels, can select a Perk.
Perks are available based on skills and statistics, and have a variety of functions. The Lifegiver perk increases HP gained at levels up, Action Boy (or Girl) gives an extra action point, Sniper makes nearly all ranged-weapon hits deadly, and so forth. Perks are well balanced, with something for every type of character, and the more powerful perks are reserved for especially skilled characters at high levels – they don’t imbalance the game.
Another statistic, Karma, changes throughout the game. It starts at zero, neutral. Do good deeds, it goes up, and “good” characters react better while “evil” characters begin to dislike you. Do evil deeds, it goes down. You also have reputations for each town you visit – you may be loved in one location, and despised at another. Certain Karmic tags can be won, as well – kill innocent children, and you’ll get the Child Killer tag – decimating your reputation. A variety are available.
You aren’t alone in your quest. A variety of NPCs are available to join you, ranging from Sulik the tribal (and his friend, Grampy-Bone – don’t ask), to Marcus the super-mutant, to cyber-dogs and sentient Deathclaws. NPCs are also handled much better than in the original Fallout – they respond better to your commands, you can easily trade equipment with them, and having the right NPC with you can be a life-saver at times. They all have personalities, they may complain about each other, and each handles a situation differently. They also have expertise in certain skills, as well, and can provide useful services.
Aside from the overarching quest to find the GECK for your village (and deal with the rather sinister – and familiar – evil foreshadowed at various points in the game), there are hundreds of other quests available, ranging from investigating murders to stopping mob wars in New Reno. Many are optional, but much of the fun comes from solving these quests, and multiple paths can be taken to solve them. Exploration is also key, as the game world is huge and widely varied.
It must be noted, however, that this is definitely not a game for younger or objectionable gamers. Violence is graphically depicted, with enemies being dismembered, exploding, and generally being killed in non-pleasant ways. Drugs are prevalent – what seems like half of the world is addicted to a drug known as Jet, and steroids, mental enhancers, and other chemicals can be used – at a price. Sex is much a part of the world, ranging from prostitutes being found in towns, to a porn studio (where you can actually star in a film. Well, my character couldn’t – she didn’t have the endurance, sadly). You can interact with the seedy side of the world, in manners ranging from selling drugs, performing contract kills, or even using sex as a means of getting what you want (sorry, folks, the screen just turns black. Stop drooling.) Objections may be raised, but what do you expect from a world that’s lived for years after a holocaust?
Combat is handled in a turn-based, hex system. Actions require a certain number of action points to be completed. You move your character, and the enemies and NPCs move on their own. If you select a combat-oriented character, you can kill with astonishing ease as the game progresses, and if you’re not, you’ll often be lucky just to hit an enemy, let alone seriously wound them. As in Fallout, blows can also be targeted, and certain locations are harder to hit, but cause other effects. Shoot someone in the leg, and they may not be able to move. Hit them in the eyes, they’ll be blinded. A solid kick to the head can be instantly fatal (as can a bullet), and for the sadistic gaming crowd, a groin injury is just as disabling as you would expect. Overall, combat remains versatile and entertaining, if a bit slow at times.
The story is spread a bit thin, but that mainly is caused by the fact that the main goals require a lot of work. To find the GECK, you’ll be wandering all over the area chronicled in Fallout 2 (the western United States). Much of the development of the game world and the story is up to the gamer – you can try to improve the condition of the world as you attempt to save your village, or you can commit despicable acts of violence and evil. They actually do have an impact – help people, and you can get items that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Kill villages and miss out on quests. The long-range impacts of your choices are even established when you beat the game, as large parts of the ending are shown depending on what quests you did and did not do. It’s refreshing to see the game impact the ending.
Sound is wonderful – guns sound appropriate, explosions resound, and a solid punch or kick will connect with a thump. The squishy sound heard when an entire clip is emptied into an unlucky victim must be heard to be believed, but it’s not pretty. Music is forgettable, unfortunately – it’s ambient music, nothing special, and most of it is the same as in the original Fallout – not a good decision. Voice acting is only featured for a few characters, but is nicely done – Sulik’s distinctive tribal mannerisms shine through, and a trooper’s menacing growl will keep you on your toes.
The interface is well-done and easy to use. Help is available for information on any item or character skill, ability, or statistic (thanks to Vault-Boy, the game’s mascot). Most of the time, any information or actions are only a click or two away. Unfortunately, you may be making the same clicks multiple times as you attempt to perform an action with a skill level that may be a bit low for the task at hand (trying to pick a lock grows weary after the 30th time), and a repeat function is sorely missed. Quests are logged according to location received, and automaps are nicely done.
Graphics are nothing special, but they suffice. Characters are small, while locations are large. While you may not be amazed by anything seen within the game, locations look appropriate – the inside of a Vault looks very clean and sterile, while many towns look dusty and dirty. Characters and NPCs have a respectable amount of frames of animation, and equipment on a character is represented on screen – wearing a suit of Advanced Power Armor looks significantly different than a simple leather jacket, and you’ll know when that Super-Mutant pulls out a flame-thrower to use. The few FMV scenes are well done, and a nice change of pace.
The game itself may put some demands on your computer. Anything lower than a Pentium 166 will likely run the game very slowly, if at all. Load times can be rather long. Fortunately, there are four different install sizes, ranging from a paltry one Meg to 640 Megs – the entire game, so you don’t need the CD. The more stored on the hard drive, the quicker the loads, obviously. The game also comes with a bound 164 page manual, detailing just about anything you need to know about the game – the presentation is perfect, with art, screen-shots, comprehensive information, game hints, and even recipes (the Carrion Kabobs sound rather good, actually, and no, it’s not carrion in the recipe – it’s lamb). Interplay is a master of good packaging.
Sure, Fallout 2’s not perfect. The initial version is very buggy, and it’s best to get the patch before you begin – it invalidates your save games. The non-linearity can be overwhelming. NPCs can be rather stupid, even if you’ve defined actions for them (Sulik just wouldn’t use his SMG at times, although he rather needed to). A few quests, even with the patch, are glitched, and I couldn’t seem to complete them, although I did the tasks required. The dark, dirty environment of the game may be too much for gamers, although language filters are available and violence can be toned down. Then there’s the fact that some gamers may not like an RPG environment so different from what they’re used to, or some just don’t like PC RPGs.
In the end, though, Interplay accomplished their goal of fixing many of Fallout’s problems. The game is very entertaining, and lasts a long time. It is rare for an RPG to allow so many paths to complete it. Regardless of what skills you select for your character, it is possible to win quite well if you use them correctly. It is that flexibility that is Fallout 2’s greatest strength, and the reason it is one of the better PC RPGs on the market. The play’s the thing, and the reason the rest of the game’s faults may largely be overlooked.