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The GoodYears after it's release Fallout is a name that still commands respect among rpg gamers and gaming enthusiasts alike and with good reason. After Diablo broke everyone's pre-conceptions by providing a FUN rpg-like experience based around a tile-based isometric gameworld, Interplay took the hint and developed a game that capitalized on the new graphic trend but enhanced the roleplaying side of things instead of being a medieval-themed whack-a-mole.
Thinking back a little it was quite a gamble for Interplay, but to their credit they did stack the deck to their advantage: Fallout was the first title to come out of their newly-formed rpg division, and as such paid homage to one of the company's greatest hits: the classic Wasteland (in fact the game is pretty much an unofficial remake). Interplay was NOT going to let this one fail on them and from the moment it came out it became evident the care and quality in design poured on it.
As with most legendary games everything has already been said about them, so I can be brief and just summarize why it rocks so. For starters this was the first rpg in a while that really took to heart the "role" in roleplaying, and as such allowed you to pretty much do whatever you wanted. This philosophy first became evident when you started your game through the character generation page and you realized that there were no classes... that's right, no predefined molds to get stuck into. Instead S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (as the character system got named) allowed you to shuffle a predefined level of attributes that molded the basic high and lows of your character and then you distributed your assorted points in the real heart of the beast: the skill system.
Summing up every possible action under a specific skill (small arms for gunfire, science for hacking and stuff like that, etc.) the developers crafted a solid gameplay system under which mostly every possible action was available. Yes, skill systems are not new, but Fallout's system managed to hit the spot on just about everything, by leaving out ambiguous, yet always present rpg skills like "leadership" or "octopramancy" (??) and simply focusing on correctly modeling a small list of solid, down-to-earth ones, that became the foundation for the solid gameplay. Gameplay which develops like a good-ol'-fashioned adventure game which relied on these skills to provide different paths and solutions to the problems at hand as well as provide different ways for you to interact with the gameworld. It's easy to see where the whole thing takes you: want to charm your way to the bad guy's lair by seducing the guard? You'd better have the right dialogue skills, which allow you to select more options when talking, and be the right person for the job (yes, Fallout is amongst the first games that I knew of that made actual distinctions in gameplay for male and female characters). Want to hack the security system so as to toast him with no effort? That's what those science points are for. Your character has no brains and needs to resort to violence? Go for it! As your character develops you construct him/her into whatever character suits your playing style and the addition of starting traits and the chance to select unique perks when leveling up allows you to add different, rule-bending capabilities to your character that keep things interesting as you can always add a nice twist to your character by say... adding bonus moves to your action pool, or making you a night-creature that gains bonuses when the sun goes down but penalizes you during daytime...
The system is flexible enough to provide lots of different responses to most quests, but that wouldn't be much of an achievement if you didn't have a proper gameworld that allowed you to try those different paths. This is the other key to Fallout's success: a wonderfully crafted gameworld filled with scripted events, complex locations and diverse set-pieces that is just as flexible as the skill system itself. Flexibility that even extends to moral grounds and which allows you step away from being the standard "paladin of justice" character and be a bit more naughty.... you know doing everyday things like raping & pillaging, betraying friends for money, blackmailing, extorting and generally being the bad boy/girl of your dreams. All actions that have consequences in your immediate gameworld (party members that may desert you, underworld doors that might open to you, etc.) as well as the larger plotline that looms around you (in fact, a kickass addition to the endgame is that you get a rundown of how you affected each location with your actions. How cool is that?).
Yes the game does nudge you into the "good" direction, and ultimately the plot revolves around you being the saviour of the world, but there's ample room for you to do naughty things in the ambiguously moral, dog-eat-dog society of the wastes, where decent farmers might be ready to stab you in the back at any time, and criminal overlords might provide the only measure of trust you can find... provided you play their game... A feat made possible by the grim, yet darkly humorous tone that runs through the entire game and which coats the whole experience in a satirically enjoyable mood that includes references to practically every post-apocalyptic movie ever made, and that permeates every aspect of the game, even the damage description texts! ("Dog receives XX amount of critical damage and spectacularly flies into the air exploding into tiny chunks of meat as it goes. Dog would have loved to see that, but unfortunately it was already dead".... :)))
This takes me to another key feature and which involves the incredibly detailed production design that went into the game. From the exceptionally moody intro sequence that places you into the apocalyptic mood faster than you can say "Nuke" to the distinct art direction that based it's look around 50's cold-war nuclear scares (seen Terminator 3? Remember the nuke shelter John and co. go into at the end? That's what I'm talking about) Ie. Valve-radios, vintage cars, friendly yet somehow disturbing PSA's that were also used to describe the many features in the game (with the uber-cool Pip Boy!![or Vault-Boy or whatever you want to call him] which also appears in the excellent manual). The graphics, composed of pre-rendered sprites and tiles give the entire game a distinct look that is always strictly in tune with the dark-toned mood of the game, and the exceptional music composed by Mark Morgan constructs a soundscape like no other with eery cues and tribal sounds. As in every decent rpg the story is a primordial element, and while boiling down to the usual "go kill gonzo" still manages to remain interesting and thrilling through the entire game, with the constant threat of a mutant armada looming around you just as in the original Wasteland (although they were robots back then) and with the added responsibility of saving a secluded society of Vault-dwellers that appealed personally to me as it made the game even more like one of my favorite comic book series: "Danske" by Wood/Villagran, which also dealt with an unwilling character going out into the unknown wastes of a post-apocalyptic world in search of the key to save her vault-dwelling friends and relatives. Said comic however did NOT have what has to be the BEST. ENDING. EVER. Shocking, emotional, and completely coherent with the game and subject, Fallout's gritty ending is another reason why it's so fondly remembered.
Oh, and lest I forget, Fallout's grim post-apocalyptic world is no exception to that rule-of-thumb in rpgs that dictate that sometimes there are no peaceful resolutions to conflict: and so it has it's own comprehensive combat system that was so good (save for some odd quirks, see "the bad") that it got it's own game (Fallout: Tactics). Basically what you have here is a full-fledged turn-based tactical combat system which is ruled by the aforementioned skill system (to determine accuracy, damage, etc.) and incorporates into that a stellar combat interface that includes shitloads of weapons with different firing modes, ammunition types and even supports called shots that allow you to blind a target or cripple them with a well placed bullet (be careful though: the same goes for you and your friends... and there are no magic resurrection temples in this game). Range and lighting take a major part in your stats and weapon customization allows you to enhance your weapons for extra damage or added features taking the depth of the combat mode even further. It's hard to believe that at the same time this was happening on a PC near you console gamers were drooling for the ATB system in FF7.... sheeesh....
The BadGraphically the game can get a bit monotone after a while, as there is only so much desert junktowns you can stomach. Besides that, there are some.... uh..."interesting" design choices which would have worked out if it weren't for some ill fated AI problems and interface issues. What I'm talking about here basically is party management and interaction.
The decision was made to make party members independent NPCs that just followed your character around, and while you can instruct them to keep a certain amount of distance from you, you have no way of controlling what weapons or armor they use or what the hell they do in combat. Now, this could have worked, unfortunately the shitty AI causes your allies to drop shotguns and start throwing flares at your enemies, run face first into an enemy wielding a mini-gun, throw grenades at an enemy that's locked in hand-to-hand combat with you and other assorted fuckups that will make you wonder if they are worth the extra firepower and inventory space (specially once you figure that the only way to share items with them is to use the same bartering interface you use with the rest of the world (??)). Their path-finding is also horrendous and more often than not, your buddies can make you get stuck in a corner whenever you are indoors, as they follow you and clutter around you, leaving you no room to maneuver. Not to mention that they are decidedly shallow, cardboard cut-outs characters that have less appeal than most npcs you encounter in the game.
There are also some stupid fuckups with the skill system's dice rolls that make sense system-wise, but are completely out of touch with basic physics laws and could have been resolved with some common sense. For instance, can anyone explain me how is it that a critical failure with a burst weapon causes someone to hit characters that are BEHIND his line of sight?? Believe me, there are no safe areas whenever anyone pulls out a burst weapon...
Finally, I felt it was a huge mistake to add a time limit to what's essentially a game about exploring the rich gameworld that surrounds you. Yes, the limit is removed in the later versions in the sense that it no longer forces a "game over" on you. But it still affects the game in many sucky ways (ie. the location endings).