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SummaryYou are very S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
The GoodThe second half of 1990's saw many great role-playing games, but three of them have the special status of franchise-starters and reformers in the genre: Diablo, Baldur's Gate, and Fallout. The first succeeded because of simplification; the second thanks to intense study of traditional material. Fallout, on the other hand, relies pretty much on one template only: Interplay's own groundbreaking Wasteland, of which it is a clear spiritual follower. It is therefore even more remarkable that this game managed to gain considerable popularity even in mainstream cycles despite being both non-traditional and hardcore at the same time. It adapted the revolutionary spirit of Wasteland to contemporary sensibilities, and the results are singularly impressive, to say the least.
Like its predecessor, Fallout opts for a flexible approach to role-playing. Character creation system leads you through a thicket of main attributes, skills, and perks, but these are not bound by classes, races, or any other comparable category. Darklands was certainly even more realistic in its depth and complexity while trying to avoid as many genre conventions as possible. But it is the genius of Fallout that makes it simple to play, yet hard to master; it never sacrifices pure fun and instant playability for its sophisticated system.
The most notable breakthrough of this system - and a further important step towards a more inclusive understanding of role-playing - is its greater openness to actions that do not necessarily pertain to combat. For years, role-playing games have been mostly about getting better at killing enemies. Social interaction was added to some games, but nowhere does it become such an integral part of the gameplay as in Fallout. According to this game, "role-playing" means that you make choices and form your behavior according to your own views, or at least according to what you have in mind at that particular moment. Fallout lets you decide everywhere, in any situation. You can kill every person you see in the game. Much more importantly: you can complete the entire game without killing a single creature. I don't think there was ever another RPG that let you do that.
Character development thus gains a whole new meaning: indeed, you are developing a real character rather than just somebody who can kill monsters faster. It's not only about getting the best weapon: it's also about surviving in a situation where you don't have that weapon - or, rather, where you decide you want to complete the game without ever using that weapon. It's about making your character what you want them to be. Feel like bullying people and solve problems with brute force? Fine, then create a physically strong idiot and hope no enemy is too tough for him. More inclined towards diplomacy? Make your character a cunning fellow who can talk his way out of every situation, but don't cry if he gets bitten by sewer rats. Be a doctor or a hacker, or don't be anything in particular - just be yourself, go with the flow.
In case you are inclined towards more traditional RPG activities, fear not: Fallout delivers plenty of that as well. There are quests and sub quests to tackle, dangerous dungeons to traverse, and all sorts of creatures to vanquish. There are diverse weapon specializations, items to collect, and many opportunities to fight and pillage to your heart's content. The game's turn-based combat system works exceptionally well in spite of a few shortcomings, and is very in-depth, including features such as differentiated body part damage; calculations of distance, attributes of combatants and weapon ratings allowing to express every action in percentages of success; action points that determine the amount of actions per turn, leading to vast tactical possibilities, and so on.
Of course, the system alone wouldn't be enough to provide hours upon hours of gourmet RPG fun - you also need a world to which this system could be properly applied. I think this is where Fallout truly triumphs over Darklands: it has realism in common, abstract categories (be violent, be kind, be sneaky, etc.), but it marries this realism to a perfectly satisfying game world, with unique locations, characters and situations rather than just copies of the same town and clones of the same pilgrims and wandering monks. In other words, it achieves perfect balance between player-created and scripted content, between free-form playing and attachment to existing material.
In fact, the world of Fallout is a real beauty, and I'm positive that was a big factor in its rise to popularity: you can be easily immersed into the game without even beginning to understand the extent of its system's complexity. Just start playing and feel the game's intense atmosphere. And Fallout does not use cheap means in order to impress: it achieves the effect by paying a lot of attention to visual detail, creating an instantly recognizable, memorable stylistic environment.
Wasteland stood out with its unusual (for video games of the time) preference for a post-apocalyptic setting when most RPGs were medieval fantasies. But technology wasn't powerful enough then to really bring out that difference in a tangible, sensual way. Fallout, on the other hand, is a piece of moody art almost as much as it is a great role-playing game. Behind mutants, obscene cultists, and Nuka-Cola hide serious speculations about the future, manifested in the game's artistic amalgamation of World War II themes, nostalgic American culture of the 1950's, and cold, bleak high-tech elements. Fallout sets its unique tone right away with one of the best introduction sequences I've seen in a video game.
The BadNo game is perfect. The original release of Fallout was quite buggy, with some broken quests and erratic NPC behavior problems. Later patches corrected many of the issues, but a completely smooth experience is not guaranteed. In particular, your companions display weird logical thinking more often than not, and their AI is questionable at best. They would regularly damage you in combat and do idiotic things such as using rocket launchers in cramped quarters etc. They are also not particularly talkative or significant for plot-related situations.
I don't quite see why they had to take away the player's control over those companions. It would be understandable in a game with fast-paced, real-time combat like Ultima VII, but turn-based battles call for micro-management, and Fallout only allows it for the protagonist. This leads to further lack of attachment to the rest of your party, compelling you to dismiss your crew and fight solo - which, under the conditions of slow, tactical combat, is not always particularly thrilling.