Review by Scout
August 2004

The Bomb was part of my cultural and mental landscape as a child of the 50s. My mother, good citizen that she was, taught civil defense preparedness classes in the evenings at the local grade school. For reasons I still don't understand, she insisted that I accompany her. For three years in a row I watched film after film depicting, in vivid detail, the effects of nuclear strikes. One of the most memorable was shot in the Nevada desert in a government-built town that was inhabited by crash-test dummies. I loved watching the slow-motion footage of houses exploding like balsa-wood models as the waves of white light, shock, fire and dust tore through them, the life-sized dolls being ripped to shreds. Less amusing and infinitely more disturbing were the films the US military shot in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the days and weeks following the bombings. Here I was treated to close-up views of the stages of radiation poisoning, the ghoulish skin eruptions as the flesh literally melted off the underlying muscle and bone of the bewildered victims. I became so alarmed that at age nine I built an improvised fallout shelter in the family basement, made from bales of straw and stocked with gallon jugs of water, cans of ravioli, and a flashlight.

It's difficult, I suppose, for later generations to grasp just how insidious this was, this idea of instantaneous destruction raining down from the skies. Every day was tumescent with the promise of sudden death. The jolt of fear as the low-flying combat jets from the nearby base roared overhead on their monthly flyover ... always that first bright instant of terror that the approaching sound might not be from a fighter jet piloted by America's best but instead a warhead from Russia with love.

The last part of my mother's class was always given over to what the world would be like after the Big One. After the nuclear winter had melted, if it ever would, after the radioactivity had diminished to survivable levels, if it ever would, after the few survivors (the percentage points were displayed on a graph depicting severity of attack, number of missiles that would make it through, etc.) had emerged from their shelters—what next?

No one knew.

At that point, the discussion usually flagged. Imagine the beauticians and insurance salesmen and kindergarten teachers and farmers and clerks and traffic cops circa 1960 trying to wrap their minds around the end of the world, of time, of life as they knew it. A few tried to describe how they might go forward, but they weren't convincing anyone, least of all themselves.

Flash forward to 1997. Fear of the Bomb is ancient history—now no one gives a crap. The possibility of nuclear war is a nonissue, a far and distant memory. Except there's this CRPG created by Black Isle and released by its parent company, Interplay. It's an unofficial sequel to the beloved Wasteland and it's called Fallout and it's about what might have happened if the unimaginable had occurred, if the world as we knew it really had ended.

From the very beginning it's obvious this is more than just another video game. With the Ink Spots' classic song "Maybe" lilting in the background, one of the very first images we see is of a prisoner kneeling before two men in massive armor. One of the captors pulls out a pistol and shoots the prisoner in the back of the head. Twice. Then he turns and stiffly waves at the camera as if to say, "hi mom." The dying man's leg jerks once, then grows still. As the camera pulls back, we see the edge of a TV screen. On the tube is a heroically posed shot of a futuristic soldier superimposed over a very odd-looking US flag. Next comes a series of ads in gloriously retro black and white. As the camera continues to pull back, a bombed-out living room appears at the edges of the screen, and then, where a wall should be, there is nothing but crumbling ruins and the shattered skyline of a dead city. On the wall behind the TV patches of rose-patterned wallpaper cling to exposed lath and plaster. A broken coffee cup lies on a stained and ripped carpet. In less than 90 seconds, the creators of Fallout have captured the mindset of a decade and revealed the untapped fears of a generation. Behind the fragile facade of civilization lurk death and destruction, those twins demons of chaos, bogeymen haunting the collective dream.

This is Fallout.

After a quick history lesson and plot lead-in (war is hell, war has happened, you and a few others have survived nuclear devastation inside secure vaults), the game's first cutscene plays. The unctuous Vault Overseer gives you your mission. Find a water chip in 150 days or don't bother coming back. Then it's out of the protective walls of Vault 13 and into the wasteland with you.

The next thing you see is a character generation screen. You have the choice of picking a premade character or making your own. Almost everyone chooses the latter, as it's just more fun that way. SPECIAL. As in Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. You'll need to choose your character statistics wisely. The wasteland is as lethal as it is unforgiving, and only the toughest will survive.

You are given a finite amount of points spread evenly through these statistics. It's up to you to redistribute them as you see fit. Want to be a tank? Give yourself lots of strength and endurance. Not so enamored of brute force but consider yourself a wise guy who lives by your wits? Then load up on Intelligence and Charisma. Like to play stealth characters? Perception and Agility might be for you.

Next you get to pick two optional traits and three tag skills, which allow you to further customize your character and even grant you a few more statistic points to distribute. The excellent and very funny manual gives you a good overview of what all this means. It would take a separate review to describe the Vault Dweller's Survival Guide in detail, and I doubt I could begin to do justice to the sly, tongue-in-cheek wit you will find on every single page. Read it carefully before making your choices. Or just read it for the cool retro fun of it. It's really that good. More developers should release manuals like Fallout's.

The interface, though gorgeously designed with burnt-out radio tubes and a scuffed, scratched and dented skin, is complicated and takes some getting used to. Once you get the hang of it, things smooth out quite a bit. A few tips: Pay special attention to the action icons and how they work in combat. This will save you a lot of reloading later in the game. Also keep an eye on the dialogue screen in the lower left corner of the interface. Valuable information can easily scroll past unnoticed.

You level up by gaining experience points via combat and solving quests, which then reward you with bonus skill points. You can distribute these points as you see fit, paying particular attention to tagged skills, which accumulate at an accelerated rate. Every third level you get to pick a perk, a bonus ability. Some perks are eminently practical, like Awareness, which allows you to see your enemy's hit points, or Action Boy, which gives you precious action points for every combat turn. Other perks are, shall we say, of less obvious value, like Mysterious Stranger, which introduces a mystery NPC who appears from time to time in combat to lend a gun hand, or Snakeater, making you immune to poison. What these perks really do is allow further customization of your character after you are deep into the game and know your strengths and weaknesses. It's sort of like getting do-overs without having to begin again. For instance, a stealth character with low strength who is having problems carrying enough inventory might want to choose Strong Back, a perk that allows you to carry 50 more pounds of inventory. Or a tank character might want to pick Speaker, which ups Speech and Barter by 20 points.

The game begins with a timed quest, the above-mentioned directive by the Overseer to hunt down and return with a new water chip for the water purification system. Without it Vault 13 is doomed. You have exactly 150 days to find the chip and return it to your home vault. While that sounds like an eternity, believe me, it's not. First of all, traveling in Fallout occurs in real time. So does healing and learning and just plain old walking around without a clue, of which there is a lot, especially at the beginning. The first time I played, I swallowed hard as I watched the hours and then days spin by while I cruised the wasteland. In a matter of minutes I had burned a week of game time just messing around in the desert killing rats so I could level up. I spent the greater part of another week shuttling back and forth between two towns gathering up supplies. Before I knew it, the Overseer was coming to me in visions and admonishing me to hurry.

The evil game clock only stops when you enter combat, which is a good thing because there is a lot of fighting in Fallout. It's a strictly turn-based system structured to allow for serious strategizing. Most ranged weapons, i.e., guns, allow you to aim at specific body parts instead of just blasting away. This is especially important when battling strong enemies early in the game. Why? Because it lets you target legs and eyes and arms. Instead of trying to annihilate that drooling, slithering monstrosity with an astronomical number of hit points, you have the option of crippling it instead. A shot or two or three will damage it enough to send it limping off, still alive but no longer a threat. Or you can blind it. Or take out a tentacle. Or shoot it in the groin if you are feeling especially evil. This makes combat much more interesting than methodically blasting away until hit points are used up and the enemy keels over as much from boredom as critical hits.

Also, in combat mode you spend action points like you would currency in a retail outlet. Want to access your inventory? That will cost you action points. Want to shoot using burst or targeted mode? That will cost you more points than if you just shoot straight. Think you need to cross the room and position yourself to better advantage? Points, baby. Every action in combat has its cost, and you have to think ahead and budget accordingly. I found that one effective strategy with the monsters was to shoot once with a targeted shot and then use the remaining action points to move away. Since the beasties couldn't strike unless they were immediately next to me, they were forced to spend precious action points chasing me down. This way I could pick them off one at a time and for the most part remain out of reach. Of course, this doesn't work with humanoid foes equipped with their own ranged weapons, as they can stand their ground and fire away.

While the battles were fun and engaging, what brought me back session after session were the stories, the atmospheric settings, the feel. There was a kind of immediacy to Fallout. The game world was bombed-out southern California. No medieval castles or wizards or dragons of yore. No holo decks or interstellar time travel. Fallout is firmly rooted in the radioactive soil of a dystopian US. Characters curse and spit, babble and make love. Toilets are backed up, mattresses are crawling with vermin. Even that most benign of villages, Shady Sands, has an air of desperation to it. Nice guys usually don't even finish in Fallout, much less last, so be prepared to put your church manners on ice for the duration.

But not your curiosity.

For there are mysteries to be solved in Fallout. The settlements and ruined cities are rife with political intrigue and personal rivalries. Think carefully, choose your replies wisely, and you can find yourself privy to startling confessions and valuable information. (Don't worry if you lose track of where you are; there's a big yellow-and-black review button at the lower left of the screen that allows you to roll back the chatter.) Information is everywhere. The history of the apocalypse lies hidden in lockers and vaults, in the burnt-out brains of ghouls, the seemingly casual comments you overhear on the street. No dry-as-dust extrapolative downloads here, folks. The developers of Fallout weave their end-of-the-world narrative into the setting and characters and action with the skill of master storytellers.

While this game rewards the thorough and the clever, it understands the efficacy of the brute gesture too. Sometimes you want to be smart and strategic, and other times you just want to blast the crap out of mutant radioactive scorpions. The choice is yours. You can actually finish the game playing as a borderline idiot, with an intelligence of 1 or 2 and strength of 10. Or not. Or maybe. In fact, most situations can be solved in one of three possible manners: by brute force, force of personality or stealth. The amount of detail this requires is simply staggering, all the more so considering how easy it is to play through to the end in about 12 to 15 hours. The less than thorough player can miss much of the fun and walk away wondering what all the fuss was about. But the player who questions every character, peeks into every corner, opens every door, follows every side quest will be richly rewarded. While it's almost reflexive to start shooting at the first sight of an enemy, many of the more menacing NPCs can be reasoned with if your intelligence and speech are high enough.

Of course, all the speech points in the world won't help you with monsters like the radscorpions, the deathclaws, the mutant rats or the oversized praying mantises. It's kill or be killed in these situations, and with that in mind the makers of Fallout have made available a wide assortment of armor and weapons with which to dispatch the varmints.

First, there is the armor. As you progress in the game, leveling up and solving quests, the armor available to you gets better and better. You start out with nothing more than a blue Vault 13 jumpsuit, then soon find yourself a leather jacket. Later, you get some very butch-looking metal armor, then some nifty camo green combat armor, and so on up to the creme de le creme, the Brotherhood of Steel's hardened power armor. Much of your early success depends on locating and acquiring decent armor. Hunt down a set, and you won't be sorry.

Small guns include pistols, machine guns and rifles, and the ever-elusive LE BB gun (in a tip o' the hat to Fallout's spiritual predecessor, Wasteland). Big guns include large machine guns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers, though only the strongest characters will be able to carry enough ammo to make them useful. Then there are my favorites, the energy weapons. These include pistols and rifles that use power cells, small energy batteries, to fire lethal pulses of energy so hot they can bubble the flesh from a foe in an eye blink. If you leave the gore setting on high, you will be treated to some nauseatingly cool special effects.

Want to fight with bare fists and not bother carrying a small arsenal around with you? Unarmed can be just as valid a way to go if you've piled up your skill points there. Or melee weapons make a nice compromise. These are hand-to-hand, close-up and personal weapons like knives, spears and sledgehammers. Later in the game you'll run upon some powered, clawed gloves and sawing machetes that will easily make chopped bad boy salad out of your attacker. Or bad girl. It's equal opportunity nefariousness in Fallout, so leave your preconceptions at the door.

There is one more weapon, in a way the most problematic, and that is the party member. You find these NPCs scattered about the map, and, while a few are valuable fighters, several are, shall we say, less than impressive. They are AI-controlled in combat, which means you can't directly manipulate them. You can give them weapons and armor, but they seem to use them at their own discretion. When you do choose to outfit them, you have to use the steal or trade functions, as there is no dedicated interface for party member item exchanges. Even worse, if you want to retrieve something, you have to steal it. Trade won't work as the character wants to be compensated for whatever it is you wish to take back. This makes for awkward inventory management, and since half the reason to keep most part members around is to use them as pack mules, the system gets old fast. Party members also have an irritating habit of blocking doorways at the most inopportune moments and will think nothing of shooting you in the back if you get between them and their target. Many are so challenged in the common sense department they will rush a vastly superior force with little more than a penknife, making multiple reloads a necessity if you are feeling particularly sociable.

No review of Fallout would be complete without mentioning that most memorable of NPCs, Dogmeat. Dogmeat is a very mean dog who, if you play your cards right, will take a liking to you and faithfully follow you for the rest of the game. While I rarely spent much emotional currency on my human NPCs, I was alarmingly attached to Dogmeat. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to finish game so that he survives the final two battles, though apparently it is doable if you are determined and persistent. I wasn't, and in the end I finally gave up and let him trot off to the big fire hydrant in the sky. Dogmeat's passing was a little thing in the scope of the game and not the only NPC I eventually lost, but it was wrenching to walk away from his bloodied little corpse. In fact, the game's forward motion ground to a halt until I had successfully taken revenge on his killers, eliminating the entire outfit in a murderous spree. I only mention this because it reflects what is so great about this game. It gets under your skin, it affects you, engages and involves you, in dozens of tiny little ways.

Once you return the water chip, the Overseer gives you a second quest, a two-part quest actually, which, when completed, triggers the game-ending cutscenes. Here the developers did something really effective: they customized the ending so that what you see depends on your decisions made during the game. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that actions in Fallout have very real consequences. There are several different possible endings, though in my two playthroughs I basically got variations on the same one. All of these different ways to progress made for tremendous replayability.

A few nitpicks. Though most of the menu can be accessed via quick keys, navigation is point-and-click only and can grow tedious, especially in the towns where you have to squeeze down narrow alleys and around corners. Also, the rigid isometric view hides a lot of items along foreground walls, and you have to shimmy along countless numbers of them if you want to find everything there is to be found. The developers seemed to take particular delight in hiding items, especially lootable lockers, against walls, thus forcing upon you a gigantic RPG version of the dreaded pixel hunt. Fallout did more to advance my carpal tunnel than the preceding six games combined.

The occasional close-ups of talking-head NPCs, while always wonderful, are too far and few between. Most of the characters are small and doll-like, and there isn't nearly enough variety in their avatars. During mass battles, I could not tell friend from foe. The game attempts to differentiate characters in combat by outlining them in red, though a later perk lets you choose to have friends limned in green. Until I was able to pick this perk, the similarity made for much needless confusion. This should have been better handled from the get-go, and, in fact, in Fallout 2 friends are automatically outlined in green.

Also, combat with multiple characters often seemed to drag on forever. I sometimes had to wait for what felt like whole minutes before my turn came up, and in the larger battles much of the action occurred at the edges of the screen, which did nothing for the immersion factor. The random cities were the epitome of cookie-cutter settings. Every block of buildings looked like every other block of buildings looked like every other block of buildings.

Still, in comparison, these flaws are small potatoes. In the end, Fallout is a nearly great game. I gave it a hearty thumb up and not a gold star only because I found its sequel to be even better.

At the beginning of Fallout, Interplay hawks itself as "By Gamers for Gamers." Let me add to that: Fallout is by adults for adults. Those on the hunt for the G-rated, cute or fantasy-laden might want to look elsewhere. For beneath Fallout's morbid, black-as-midnight humor runs a deadly serious intent. To play this game is to gaze, however briefly, into the void. And as the old saw goes, sometimes the void will gaze right back at you. Here, at least in this case, the cliché is proven true. That's not to say that Fallout doesn't entertain. It is vastly enjoyable. It consistently seduces with its vitality, its muscular flex, its postapocalyptic élan, its vivid, hyperreal environment. As I wandered the cities, vaults, villages and deserts, I could almost smell the unwashed bodies, feel the nervy, jerky desperation, see the sands spotted with the blood, sweat and tears of a wounded people pushed to the very borders of what they could bear and beyond. You get all that and aliens with a velvet Elvis fetish too. It just doesn't get much better than that. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Interplay
Publisher: Interplay
Release Date: 1997

Available for: DOS Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium 90 MHz
Windows 95 and DirectX 3.0a or higher or DOS 5.0 or higher and 1 MB VESA-compliant SVGA card
16 MB RAM when running under Win95 (32 MB RAM when running under DOS)
2X CD-ROM drive
Soundblaster or compatible

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.