War, they say, never changes. That may well be true, but the landscape of computer gaming certainly does. When the game was first released in 1997, we got our reviews from print magazines, provided the games in question were high profile enough. Fallout was a game that succeeded on its own merits, not through big advertising spend or bombastic marketing campaign.
The Fallout universe is a heady cocktail of post-apocalyptica and retro-futurism. A big war occurred in the era of “Duck and Cover”, forcing a lucky few to take shelter in massive underground bunkers, known as “Vaults”. Your story begins, nearly 100 years later, as a resident of Vault 13, as you are tasked with saving the Vault’s inhabitants from certain doom by locating a water chip. You venture out into the big, bad wasteland with little in the way of equipment or plan, and a ticking clock.
Fallout has no tutorial, which would be considered a big failing if it were released today. That’s not because the interface is so user-friendly that you won’t need one, it’s because you’re expected to read the manual. There’s a lot of clicking involved, especially compared to most games in 2013. At times it feels more like a point and click adventure game than an RPG romp, due to having to perform lots of combinations of right and left button clicks to perform simple actions, not to mention the tedious amount of pixel hunting to locate certain items in the world.
As a CRPG of the late 90s, it has its roots in pen-and-paper RPG mechanics. Specifically, it uses the “SPECIAL” attribute system, whereby you can put a number of points into base characteristics of strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck. There’s a comprehensive skill system that you can accumulate points for as you level up (and three of which can be “tagged”, accelerating the rate at which the skill increases. One of the things that was fascinating about this was that the skills are used for all sorts of things in the game. A high “repair” skill for example, might allow you to fix a broken well for someone, whilst the “science” skill might allow you to access a computer terminal, thus getting crucial information not available through any other means. The “speech” skill in particular can drastically alter the course of your game, allowing you to mitigate conflicts (or cause them) through the power of your words alone, and indeed, some skills could be considered comparitively useless in the context of the game as a whole.
Skills also serve as prerequisites for some of the “perks” you can unlock every couple of levels. A truly wonderful system, and one that has been borrowed by many games (including Call of Duty) ever since, perks provide bonuses to stats, or other benefits such as gaining a temporary ally in combat. There are a vast number to choose from, with more becoming available as you level up, and some gained through plot progression.
Perhaps the best thing about Fallout is the story it tells you. A superb opening (sadly mired by a sequence battling rats in a cave) leads to a world map where you can go anywhere. You don’t have to wait for areas to unlock, just click to a point on the map and you’ll make your way there. You know where the story wants to take you, but it’s far from pushy, and even if you do venture there right away, you quickly discover that you’re not much better off in any case). Well, that’s not strictly true; the odds are that if you just wander off into the depths of the wasteland, you’ll probably be set upon by a random encounter, pitting you against some mutated horror against which you stand little chance of survival, but this is one of the real joys of Fallout. In the collective hours I spent playing Fallout throughout my life, there was always something delightful to discover, from the extra-terrestrial Elvis fan, to the reenactment of a classic South Park moment.
Dialogue with characters feels a little clumsy compared to modern RPGs. As with Planescape, there’s very little voice acting, so be prepared for a lot of reading. Conversations will often end abruptly, and many of the wasteland’s residents have a short temper, meaning that you can find yourself in combat from one wrong dialogue choice. You can barter with almost everyone you talk to, and you can even type in specific key words to ask characters about. Best of all, your character’s intelligence score will drastically affect the conversation options you have available. Highly intelligent characters will have more insight into the people they’re conversing with, whilst characters with extremely low intelligence might be resigned to simple grunts, with much of what others’ say completely obfuscated.
During your travels, you’ll be joined by others looking to accompany you on your journey, although you never have any direct control over their actions, so you’ll often find that you’re protecting them rather than the other way around. The oddball gang that you’ll have by the end of the game provides much entertainment, although you’ll ultimately be limited by your character’s charisma score and “karma”. With Fallout’s karma system, you gain or lose “reputation” points based upon actions taken. Perform good deeds, and your reputation will increase, or take a more malicious approach to see your reputation plummet. Best of all, citizens of the wasteland will respond differently to you based on your reputation, with some loathing your goody-two-shoes approach, and others fearing you on sight. This is a game where you can (and at some point, probably should, at least before reloading) shoot up an entire town.
Combat is a turn-based, action-point driven affair. Moving, item and weapon usage all have an associated action point cost, but can be performed in any order. So on your turn, you can use a stimpack (for healing) move a couple of steps and fire a weapon. Or you can just pass your turn, having all of your unspent action points bestow a defensive bonus. Most revolutionary (at the time, at least) was the ability to use an additional action point to target a specific body part, with the effect of scoring a critical hit or perhaps disarming them or preventing their escape. There’s friendly fire (indeed, it can be tricky to determine who is friend or foe as they all have the same red outline.
There are other annoyances with the game that come with its age. The perspective is isometric, so you can only see things from one viewpoint. If your character goes behind a wall, part of the wall immediately surrounding your character is revealed, but no more, meaning you have to move your character along southern walls if you want to see what’s in a building. Then there’s the previously mentioned excessive amounts of clicking, which is especially irritating when you’re trying to target a moving object. You’ll also want to enable “always run” in the preferences screen early on, as waiting for your character to get from one point to another gets tiresome very quickly. The local map leaves a lot to be desired, and there are invisible walls aplenty, and an odd system whereby towns are divided into sections accessible only by walking onto a shaded area on the ground (as an aside, even 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas suffers from a terrible in-game map, using a similar style as this original game’s).
Perhaps the only pertinent issue of significance with the game though is the enforced time limit. You’re given a spectacularly interesting, open world to explore, but have a task to complete within a certain number of in-game days, or the game will end. It was (even at the time of its original release) an extremely poor design decision, made worse by the fact that once you complete the task at hand, you’re given another task to complete within a time limit (and doing so leads to the end of the game, although at least the second time limit is a little more generous). This is a game that you really want to explore fully, but can’t because of this daft system.
But you should explore it if you’ve not had the chance to do so. This is one of the finest moments in CRPG history, that deservedly got a huge fan following. If nothing else, play it to experience one of gaming’s best endings, let alone best experiences.
Performance & Quality
Gog have done a fine job of getting this to run on modern Macs. It can be played windowed or full screen (there are also three rendering styles that can be applied to post-process the image for different kinds of looks, with “retro” working rather nicely).
The only issues are that the game will pillarbox to 4:3, and that you’ll need to snap the mouse to the window unless you run it full screen (using ⌘-click to return the mouse control to the desktop).