Review by Red Lobstar

Reviewed: 01/20/09 | Updated: 03/24/10

Note to self: scorpions don't respond to diplomacy

Since its release Fallout has received incredible acclaim and has long been heralded as one of the greatest role playing experiences on the PC. Needless to say, with a reputation like that I had high expectations for this title. While Fallout does a lot of things right, there are a handful of problems that seriously detract from the overall enjoyment of the game and serve only to frustrate the player.

Be Your Own Man (or Woman)

Having played my fair share of RPGs in my gaming career, Fallout's take on the genre was truly a breath of fresh air. Before actually beginning the game the player will be required to design his or her own character (or choose from a few that have been pre-made). What this entails is choosing stats, which traits the avatar will begin with, and what skills he or she will be most proficient with. Care must be exercised at this time because, unlike most RPGs, your base attributes will not increase when levels are gained. For instance, the only way to raise your character’s defense throughout the game is to wear stronger clothing. Agility determines how many actions can be performed per round of combat, and if it set too low at the onset the journey will be all the more arduous. The only stat that does increase per level is maximum health, which Fallout treats as a measure of endurance.

When the character gains a level the player is allowed to distribute skill points to a variety of categories. While these do not buff up the character physically, they do improve him on an intellectual level. For example, allotting points to the science skill makes the character more proficient at using computers. The speech skill influences how persuasively you can converse with NPCs and the deals that can be made with them. Other skills, such as lock picking, stealing, and first-aid are self-explanatory.

All this serves to make one’s character more well-rounded. Fallout is more than just combat. It is living out the experience of a refugee struggling to survive nearly a century after nuclear warfare decimated the American landscape.

Life on the Frontier

The game is divided into a series of quests. Experience points are earned both from felling adversaries and successfully completing missions. How you chose to achieve these ends is entirely up to you. Many tasks have multiple outcomes depending on the choices made. Will you side with the good guys or turn on them and kill the townsfolk instead? The choice is yours, but remember the survivors will not forget what you have done to their friends. Due to the variety of choices, both in how a character is constructed and paths chosen during the game, Fallout deserves praise for its incredible replay value. A karma system is included, reminding the player if he is following the righteous path or blazing a new trail of destruction.

A feature that I have long wanted to see implemented in more RPGs is Fallout’s barter system. After the destruction of the government dollars hold no value, so likewise you will not receive traditional money at the end of battle like you do in many other RPGs. Instead, the player is allowed to scavenge the remains of fallen opponents. A pack of scorpions offers no money, but one’s character can cut off and collect their stingers. These can be traded to townsfolk in exchange for more valuable goods. For instance, in the first town there is a doctor who will accept the player’s stingers and will make a poison antidote out of them. Fallen humans can be pickpocketed for loot, ranging from weapons to drugs, all of which can be used for trade. Wastelanders have taken to using soda bottle caps as a fallback form of currency, so if one does not want to be bogged down carrying a backpack full of items they can be traded in for caps, which hold no weight.

Why bring up the weight issue? Because almost every item has a designated weight and one’s character has a predetermined limit on how many pounds of goods can be carried at once (based on the stats chosen at the game’s start). This is not your typical RPG where you can carry 99 of each item. The player will have to think carefully about which items are most important to his or her survival because there is simply not room enough to stockpile an entire arsenal. Of course an alternative approach is to give excess equipment to one’s companions to carry, who are not bound by a weight limit.

With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies?

Yes, like most role playing games the player is allowed to form a party, but this time it is of your own choosing. You play Fallout on your own terms, and if that means going solo then so be it. But for those who wish for friends there are three humans and one dog who can accompany the player‘s character (hereafter referred to as the wanderer). For the most part they cannot be modified and do not earn experience or gain levels. At best they can be told how close to follow the wanderer in combat and which weapon to use. They allow the player to keep all experience points earned, even for kills not made by the wanderer, and ask only that they be supplied with a steady source of ammunition.

But of what use are they anyway? This is where Fallout begins to suffer. The game uses an extremely rudimentary form of artificial intelligence. Case in point: Ian. He is the first traveler who may join your character, and shortly after you recruit him you very well may wish you had not. Ian is notorious for shooting the wanderer instead of the enemy. Oh, he does not do it on purpose. He is programmed to shoot the opponents, but more often than not, if the player’s character and the foe are close together Ian’s bullets will end up in the wanderer’s body anyway. Yes, you can be killed by your friends, and in this game there are no phoenix downs; once your character has expired it is game over. Rather than moving to where they could get a clear shot at the foe, the various companions will often stand their ground and mow down whatever is in front of them without remorse. Since it requires precious action points to walk during battle, moving out of their line of fire is easier said than done. I cannot count the number of times one of my “friends” has killed my beloved dog right in front of my eyes instead of hitting the bandit standing right beside the poor pooch.

Regrettably the party members cannot be controlled or in any way be guided during combat. One notable consequence of this being the time I faced off with a deathclaw (essentially the velociraptor of the Fallout world). I had just given a companion a fresh supply of 100 shotgun shells. After using them for a few turns, he decided to holster his weapon and approach the beast. For reasons unknown to me he resorted to punching it on the snout. Obviously he was massacred. Because he could not be issued tactics the battle had to be aborted and a previous save reloaded.

The player’s comrades find ways to torment him outside of battle as well. There are several instances in the game where a doorway or bridge is one tile in width. If an NPC is standing on that space he becomes an insurmountable roadblock and literally cannot be moved unless he chooses to leave on his own. This has lead me to get trapped inside a room on many an occasion, leaving me little recourse than to reload a previous save. An alternative option is to shoot the person dead on the spot, but often this will have further reaching consequences. As death is a permanent condition it may be one you will later regret having inflicted.

Armor Bypassing

While there are undoubtedly a few flaws with combat regarding party members, these can be tolerated and do not bring down Fallout too much. However there is one aspect of battle which I feel renders the game a chore to play. Let me just preface this section by saying the problem was most apparent in the final 20% of the game when the strongest enemies were encountered. I believe the concept of bypassing occurs earlier as well, though it is not nearly as fatal due to the comparatively weaker opponents.

After a series of quests I had acquired the best defensive equipment that Fallout had to offer: a full body suit of metal armor. Logically this should protect the player from any attack since this armor covers every inch of his body. For the most part this is true. Giant mutants armed with gatling guns dealt a paltry 0 to 5 damage to my character per turn. Heck, even direct rocket blasts did not usually injure him for much more. The problem arose when these same enemies scored a critical hit. Fallout calls this bypassing, alerting you that your foe has somehow “bypassed” your armor to hurt you inside of it for added damage. When this happened my wanderer would suffer damage up to 250 points. That is a 4900% increase in damage! Bear in mind that my character only had a maximum health limit of 80 HP. How can one shot from a gatling gun bounce right off him, yet the very next shot completely blows him away? Armor in this game does not degrade with time, otherwise that may have been a sufficient explanation. More importantly, why even have the armor? My character would have died just as easily if he had run into battle stark naked and been struck with the same critical hit.

Now I am not suggesting critical hits should be eliminated. However they should be within reason. If a typical attack inflicts 7 damage, a critical hit issuing between 30 to 40 damage would be understandable. Given I only have 80 HP to begin with, this is still a destructive blow, but through a proper course of action can be remedied. But when an enemy deals over three times what I could possibly hope to withstand what can I do? Nothing. It reeks of cheap and throws strategy right out the window because there is no way to avoid taking these kind of hits. Even with the absolute best armor in the game there is always the possibility that a random enemy could get lucky and instantly kill you at any time, thus ending the game. Rather than strategy, victory often boils down to nothing more than luck as the game nears its completion.

A comparable grievance pertains to how well my character can damage enemies. An interesting aspect of combat in Fallout is that instead of just attacking a foe outright one can actually target specific body parts in the hope of crippling the opponent. This is an excellent idea that seems to hold strategic value, yet in practice it is very unpredictable. I spent the majority of the game increasing the wanderer’s proficiency with energy weapons and ultimately succeeded in acquiring the best gun in its class: the turbo plasma rifle. With my character’s attributes maxed I could usually shoot an enemy in the eyes with a 95% accuracy rate and fell them in one hit (equal to over 150 points of damage). On occasion I would shoot for their eyes yet they would only suffer a meager 15 damage. It is inexplicable how anyone could shrug off a point-blank plasma shot to the face, yet my opponents act like I only tossed a jellybean at them. Worse yet were the times the message was displayed that the foe was nearly blinded by the impact. Nearly? After spending 18 hours learning to use a weapon at 200% efficiency am I not entitled to have it work reliably? Fallout says no. I do not understand the formula this game uses to calculate damage, but to me it seems to be no more than a roll of the dice.

The saving grace to all this is that combat can be largely avoided if you know what you are doing. A character can be designed to excel in diplomacy, intellect, and stealth, thus allowing the player to discover solutions to key quests which involve more than recreating the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Fallout goes on record for being the only game I’m aware of where it is actually possible to peacefully negotiate with the final boss instead of pulverizing it. Naturally such tactics will require a lot of planning and an intimate knowledge of how to work the game’s mechanics in your favor, so first time players will likely miss the critical items and upgrades necessary for such an approach. Likewise, some quests may be near impossible to complete for pacifist characters, such as an early mission tasking you to clear a cave of man-sized mutated scorpions who refuse to listen to reason (they would rather sting you). Still, I had considerably more fun on my second playthrough in which I adopted a role akin to Solid Snake and infiltrated the military base in disguise as opposed to blasting through the defenses a la Contra.

Final Thoughts

What Fallout does is master the role playing experience. This portion of the game is spot on. The world is open-ended allowing the player to tackle quests in the order of his choosing. More importantly, many missions offer a multitude of ways in which they can be completed. This is one RPG in which you feel you are truly playing a role and not merely walking a puppet from one cutscene to the next as he automatically makes all the correct decisions predetermined by the game’s designers.

Fallout also boasts a time limit, after which the game will end whether the player is ready or not. This adds to the urgency of the central mission and helps to impart the importance of the character’s quest onto the player. In reality there is ample time to complete the quest, so do not worry about the timer as its primary purpose is story based. In fact the most fun Fallout has to offer comes from exploration. Because of the abundance of experience awarded as play progresses there is no need to ever seriously commit time to level building. This aides in the flow of the game and keeps it moving at a constant pace. Not that there is much of an opportunity to grind anyway. Random battles on the map are scarce and most combat is performed while completing certain quests.

I view this as a relief because the main detraction of Fallout is its unbalanced battle mechanics. Perhaps with time one can learn to cope with unsupportive companions and the seemingly haphazard system in which damage is calculated. For a game as highly praised as Fallout I was expecting a more polished combat system than that with which I was presented. While the game is certainly enjoyable, the constant fear near the end that foes can terminate the character in one hit, paired with the aggravation of continually being shot by one’s own comrades put a damper on the experience and often provided more stress than amusement. All grievances aside, I wholeheartedly recommend this game as the freedom it allows is incredible as is its immense replay value.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Fallout (US, 09/30/97)

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