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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Tiermaker Funtimes: The Fallout series

I'm a huge fan of the Fallout series, playing it since its early days on the PC, and I think it's still had some good entries even after the controversial buyout by Bethesda.  So, let's take a look at the whole series and see where I think each one lands.

Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game (1997)

Where it all began, and it was quite a game-changer in its time.  Not content to just be another mindless monster-basher as so many CRPGs were wont to be, Fallout was built as a game that incorporated actual role-playing - you'd build a character using the game's SPECIAL system (originally GURPS, but they decided to switch to their own system at the last minute), go out into the world and solve problems in any of several ways - diplomatically, stealthily, or through good old violence, it was all up to you.  It was even possible to finish the game without firing a single bullet or witnessing a single death, which is pretty rare even today.   But of course, the thing that sold most people was its storytelling - bringing in a strong atomic age comic book feel (even having mocked-up cover art to that effect on the loading screens), it was a world rife with bloodthirsty raiders, robots, mutants and radiation, having the player seek out a means to save their people and happening upon a plot that threatens all life left in the ashes.  Well-written dialog and surprisingly good VO for the time (starring well-known actors like Cree Summer, Richard Dean Anderson and Tony Jay) completed the package, making for a true stand-out game that holds up incredibly well today.  It wasn't perfect - some prominent quests never had their coding finished, making it impossible to get the good ending for the Followers (despite it being canon for later entries) and a couple of the bad ends as well. Even with that, though, Fallout gets a solid "A" for the first entry in the series.

Fallout 2: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game (1998)

Released just over a year after the first game, and not a lot has changed from a foundational level - it still uses the same engine, skills and stats and most of the same graphics - but the scope of everything has been massively expanded.  More enemy types, more locales and characters, plenty of new recruitable allies, and the dialog and quests have seemingly increased more than tenfold - every location has dozens of NPCs to interact with and storylines to undertake, all bringing plenty of humor and rewards for finishing them.  It also took the wry dark humor of the first and ran with it, adding in tons of pop culture references and an overarching plot seemingly inspired by the likes of the X-Files.  Some people may have found the constant references distracting, but I didn't mind, especially when the underlying writing and design is so dense; I'm still finding new things in it every time I replay it.  If I gave the first one an A, this one has to be an S.

Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001)

A spinoff title by the short-lived studio 14 Degrees East, Fallout Tactics was a tactical combat game in the vein of Jagged Alliance or one of the series' main inspirations, X-Com.  It doesn't directly continue the plot of the first two (in fact, it directly contradicts it on several points), but tries to tell a fun story of its own, having the Brotherhood of Steel reclaim the wastes from raiders while slowly uncovering a vaster plot that threatens the safety of everyone in it.  It has a few nice touches throughout - piloting vehicles during some missions, being able to recruit ghouls, mutants, dogs and even robots to your team, and a few cool monsters like the furry deathclaws  - but the change in format also means that it's a linear experience with few opportunities to role-play like its predecessors.  It's also rather buggy overall, with several prominent glitches going unfixed owing to Interplay's financial problems at the time, and the drop in writing quality is evident too, with a lot of the attempts at humor and "smart" dialog feeling very forced.  Fallout Tactics is a decent game overall, but I've never had the patience to sit all the way through it; maybe I'll give it another go one day, but I'd generally rather just play classic X-Com if I want a game in this format.   I'll give it a C.

Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004) 

The black sheep of the franchise by a wide margin; so much so that many fans refuse to even acknowledge its existence.  I don't think it's the worst game ever, but I can definitely see why it's so widely disliked; namely, that it doesn't feel like a Fallout game at all.  The engine is that of the Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance series, and fittingly, BoS is more of a low-end Diablo - defeating enemies, collecting dropped loot, and facing off with the occasional boss, with basically no genuine role-playing element or opportunity to explore the world.  The aesthetic is trashy, for lack of a better word, with a lot of foul-mouthed characters, ladies in skimpy leather outfits, and a soundtrack that completely disregards the retro aesthetic of earlier Fallouts in favor of metal groups like Slipknot and Skinlab.  Basically, it smacks of a desperate effort for the financially-struggling Interplay to generate quick revenue, and it was ultimately unsuccessful at that; at only 120,000 copies sold across both platforms, it's by far the worst selling Fallout and the worst-reviewed one until Fallout 76.  But even if you can ignore all the stupid bits and judge it on its own merits, BoS is just a drab, mediocre experience in general; whether you want a strong Fallout game or a good Diablo-like, you can do much better than this.  It's a D.

Fallout 3 (2008)

Fallout 3 was the first game in the series developed and released by Bethesda Softworks, who made the controversial decision to discard all the work Black Isle had done on their "Van Buren" prototype and build a new game from the ground up.  Still, they were intent to prove themselves to fans, going back to the bleak atmosphere of the original game, taking some fan criticisms into account and buying the rights to a song that was intended for the first game ("I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" by the Ink Spots), as well as addressing a few plot holes fans pointed out.  Fallout proved to be a good fit for the same engine as Elder Scrolls, though, effectively immersing the player in a hellish, barren landscape ravaged by heavy radiation, mutants and rabid ghouls, and telling a story with a nice personal touch that was largely absent from the first two.  I have a few nitpicks with the writing overall and the DLC for the game is largely pretty "meh" (true of every Bethesda game I've played, honestly), but the main plot is solid, and it effectively pays homage to the classic games while establishing its own feel too.  Overall, a solid first effort from Bethesda; I give it a B.

Fallout: New Vegas (2011)

New Vegas was quite a callback, reuniting several of the original developers of Fallout (now under the Obsidian label) with the franchise that made them big in the first place.  As with the leap from 1 to 2, the leap from 3 to New Vegas is pretty staggering in terms of scale.  Quests and dialog have been massively expanded, the world feels bigger than ever with its numerous factions (any of which you're free to join or antagonize), and a massively expanded variety of hostiles. The writing is incredibly good - not just the character dialog, but quests, lore and puzzles are thoughtfully and immaculately well done.  Even the DLC is some of the best I've ever seen, bringing some genuinely fun and twisted humor and inventive new mechanics along with some great storylines.  It's hampered somewhat by the dated engine it uses and still has a lot of bugs even after a number of patches and fan updates, but the passion and talent of its developers shines through, making this not just my favorite in the series, but one of the best RPGs ever created.  It's a rock-solid S.

Fallout 4 (2015) 

Bethesda took the reigns again for Fallout 4, and the game definitely makes a good first impression - the new engine looks great, and it opens with some nicely grim imagery as the player sees the bombs falling at the climax of the much-alluded-to Great War.  It also promises a lot, integrating features like town building, weapon and armor crafting, legendary equipment with added bonuses, and a reworked Perk system, as well as Skyrim's Radiant Quests (endless randomly-generated objectives that can lead the player to any of numerous random areas); however, these elements never come together to turn Fallout 4 into something greater than the sum of its parts.  Combat is more intense but also very repetitious because you're doing it almost constantly, town-building is ultimately just superfluous and not terribly well-thought-out ("hm, I can have a townsperson stand in a guard tower and get 2 Defense, regardless of how they're armed and armored, or I can built a turret out of dirt-common materials and get 6, letting them do something more useful instead").  The plot is easily among the series' worst as well, just feeling like a cheap retread of elements from 3 and New Vegas.  Any feeling of choice is hamstringed by the dumbed-down dialog system and flat, almost cartoonish, factions, and there are virtually no interesting story beats or moral dilemmas in any path you choose, making its story feel underdeveloped and unsatisfying. The whole thing just has "design by committee" written all over it, and said committee's goal was very clearly to make a fast profit, not to make a good game.  "Minecraft is the most popular game of all time, put a town-building element in our game, quick!  Call of Duty and Battlefield let you customize weapons and those are big sellers, let's do that too!  Mass Effect had that dialog wheel and bisexual romance scenes that everyone liked, let's add that in!  Diablo and Torchlight and a zillion popular mobile games have legendary monsters and loot that gives you superpowers and scales with difficulty and people like that, add that in too!" It's still fun to play around with for a bit, but the lackluster writing and lack of any real substance or cohesion behind its design would make it totally forgettable if it didn't follow in the footsteps of one of the best RPGs of all time.  It's a C.

Fallout Shelter (2015)

The first mobile spinoff of the series and, as of 2020, the only Fallout to appear on a Nintendo console, Fallout Shelter is some whaddat similar in concept to games like SimTower - building and managing a vault, assigning your dwellers to various jobs, and improving their stats via training so they can generate resources more efficiently.  One must also deal with various disasters occurring, such as fires, attacks by raiders and deathclaws and radroach infestations, and you'll periodically unlock rewards in the form of "lunchboxes" full of items and resources (which can also be purchased with... *shudder* microtransactions).  It's a decent choice if you have a few spare minutes and need something to do, and unlocking various characters from the games to dwell in your fault lends it a bit of appeal for series fans, but it's a pretty mindless experience overall and generally just makes me pine for more substantial Fallout spinoffs (like, say, a Fallout-themed Civilization or Simcity; now we're talking).  This one's a D.

Fallout 76 (2018) 

This one held some promise at first, seemingly taking a lot of 4's undercooked ideas and putting them somewhere they'd actually work - an open world, persistent competitive online game.  Unfortunately, everything that could possibly have gone wrong with Fallout 76 did.  Rampant player cheating owing to unencrypted network traffic and engine code pushing two decades in age, security breaches in Bethesda's website compromising player accounts, hugely overpriced microtransactions for cosmetic items, screwing over fans with shoddy real-life merchandise, and having the gall to charge a $100-a-year premium service on top of all that, basically sapped any hope I had for it in very short fashion.  Even Bethesda seemed to know it was bad, withholding a Steam release for well over a year to avoid having to pay out refunds and Humble Bundle already putting it on discount a week after launch.  Playing it over a free weekend did little to improve my perception of it; even with some much-derided design decisions worked out (like adding human NPCs, not just quest-dispensing robots), it's a ridiculously buggy, badly optimized and mindless experience that lacks any real sense of reward.  Just like Fallout 4 before it, it feels like everything you do exists in a vacuum, and its gameplay is too shallow and disjointed to be fun for more than a few hours.  It's one of the biggest disasters in modern gaming history, which firmly cements it as an F in my book.  Hopefully with Microsoft's purchase of Bethesda, the next attempt at an online Fallout will fare much better than this one (and the canceled Fallout Online).

(And yes, I would rather play crappy console-exclusive Brotherhood of Steel than 76.  Hey, at least it doesn't crash every 15 minutes!)