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A Post-Apocalyptic Retrospective Part 1: The Evolution of the ‘Fallout’ Franchise

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After years of fan speculation, ridiculous rumors and questionable leaks, Bethesda’s heavily anticipated sequel to their hit 2008 first-person RPG Fallout 3, finally hit store shelves on November 10th 2015. Leading up to its release, the game’s impressive trailers, spin-off mobile game Fallout Shelter, and secretive development, provoked absurdly high levels of hype in the community, and while it was unlikely to ever live up to the lofty expectations set for it, the game was a huge disappointment to dedicated fans. While Fallout 4 is by no means an awful game, its oversimplification of character customization, noticeable nosedive in narrative quality and extremely repetitious gameplay resulted in massive backlash and buyer’s remorse, regardless of commercial success and a relatively positive initial critical reception. As gamers gradually overcame the novelty of returning to a franchise that was once considered genre defining, the following months saw criticisms gradually pile up, causing even the game’s early defenders to concede that it took major steps backwards in many key areas. By the end of December, it was clear that the long-awaited sequel could hardly compare to other RPGs released during the year, failing to be as ambitious as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as innovative as Undertale or as mechanically complex as Pillars of Eternity. Aside from diehard fanatics, the general consensus is that Fallout 4 is serviceable at best or a disgrace to the franchise at worst. With future expansions already announced, how did Fallout 4 differ from the franchise? What made the games so special in the first place? And can any amount of downloadable content fix a flawed base game?

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The Fallout franchise has been a pillar of Western RPGs since the release of the first two games in the late 90s. Taking place in post-apocalyptic America, Fallout and Fallout 2 set themselves apart from the competition with their unique retro-futuristic setting, amazing writing and incredibly deep role-playing system. Originally developed by the Black Isle Studios division of Interplay Entertainment, the first official game in the franchise was a spiritual-successor to the similarly themed, 1988 RPG, Wasteland. Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System), a framework for tabletop RPGs, initially served as the basis for the game’s character creation, combat systems and environmental interactions, but was replaced by the game designer’s own RPG structure, the newly created SPECIAL system, after cooperation between Black Isle Studios and Steve Jackson Games fell through. SPECIAL stood for the games’ seven base stats, Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck, each determining the character’s strengths and weaknesses. Quests were designed to be open-ended and had several viable approaches, equally enabling violent shootouts, tactical stealth missions or diplomatic solutions to most problems. These SPECIAL stats also determined your “Skills,” such as Barter, Medicine, Small Guns and Repair, that could each be leveled up to 100 as you gain XP from quests and kills. Additionally, every level up grants a “Perk,” that can further alter gameplay, providing higher damage, unique dialogue options or strange abilities like Cannibalism. Similar to Diablo, movement and exploration took place in real time, allowing the player to experience the world at their leisure, while shifting to a turn-based system for combat. Action Points, determined by character level and Agility, governed how many actions or attacks could be performed in a single turn, making each encounter with the wasteland tribes and abominations, a methodical puzzle to solve. Inherently tied to these quests, the game’s story was leagues ahead of its competition, managing to balance the darkness of a world devastated by nuclear war with the absurdity of less realistic, sci-fi elements such as mutated super-humans and futuristic energy weapons. Important characters were given well animated, fully-voiced dialogue windows, and multiple dialogue options allowed further role-playing, immersion and player-interaction.

Perhaps more recognizable than the series’ multifaceted gameplay and narrative, Fallout’s iconic alternate-history, post-apocalyptic setting was both a nostalgic repurposing of American nationalism and an absurdist critique of the dangers of blind ideological devotion. Having lived through the mutually assured destruction hysteria and government sanctioned propaganda of the Cold War himself, writer and director Tim Cain crafted a world that was equal parts drama and parody, that was as engrossing as it was humorous. Following the collapse of Nazi Germany, the United States, China and the Soviet Union vie for power as the planet’s resources are rapidly depleted. Unlike our world, Fallout’s universe failed to invent the transistor, which allowed for the gradual miniaturization of electronics, resulting in a technological make-up of room-encompassing supercomputers, nuclear fusion generators and energy weaponry. Driven to the breaking point, a nuclear holocaust occurs one fateful day in 2077, wiping out the majority of life on the planet. Because of this, both game environments and user-interfaces, are forever stuck in the Atomic Age, giving the series’ its duck-and-cover inspired aesthetics. The survivors hide in caves, homemade shelters or enormous underground facilities created by the Vault-Tec Corporation and RobCo Industries, called Vaults. Over time, surface-dwellers devolve to violent tribalism reminiscent of the Mad Max films, nightmarishly mutated humans and animals emerge from radioactive ruins, and, as the games say, “War. War never changes.”

fallout1Fallout sets the player character, named the Vault Dweller, on an adventure across the irradiated lands of Southern California in search of a functioning water chip that can keep their home, Vault 13, inhabitable. Across human settlements like Shady Sands, dangerous warring territories called the Boneyard and the homes to mutated beings like Necropolis, the Vault Dweller is introduced to the strange remnants of the old world, and is continually reminded of the absurdity of it all. Colorful characters like the survivalist Tycho, the crime boss Decker (voiced by the legendary Keith David), the mutant Harold, who slowly has a tree growing out of his head and everybody’s favorite companion, Dogmeat, litter the world and make every inch of it feel alive. For every tribe of cannibals you fend off, there is a robot controlled by a brain in a jar. The mix of realistic horrors and pulp sci-fi imaginations are the core of the series’ tone, and Fallout sets it perfectly. After the chip is secured from Vault 12, the Vault Dweller must defend his home from an even larger threat, the growing super mutant army, led by the horribly disfigured Master. Joining up with the Brotherhood of Steel, an organization that operates across the country that was formed from the remnants of the US Army to protect the wastelanders from dangerous technology, the Vault Dweller begins fighting the Master, his mutants and the cult that follows them. Embodying the game’s non-traditional approach to problem-solving, a player that has high enough Charisma and Speech skills can completely forgo the final battle with the Master by convincing him that his plans are illogical, or even join the master’s army. This kind of player choice would direct the games for years to come. Building on the ideas and mechanics of the first game, Fallout 2 was an even more expansive and open-ended experience. As a descendent of the Vault Dweller, the protagonist called “the Chosen One” is tasked with defending their village, Arroyo, from increasingly large dangers such as famine, drought and raiders. In the game’s final act, the player faces off against the remnants of the US government itself, the Enclave. It’s learned that the Vaults were actually created not to be safe havens from the war, but also as social experiments conducted by the government and that they are also behind the Forced Evolutionary Virus that created the super mutants. The ending is more linear than that of the first game, in that the Enclave must be destroyed, but the game has much more complex quests for the majority of the game (the quests from The Den are among my favorite in the series) and has a wide variety of ending slides that reflect other choices made throughout the game. Improvements to inventory management and AI helped Fallout 2 become the gold standard for the series, but after its release, Interplay went quiet.

Following the two mediocre spin-off games, Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, Black Isle Studios worked on several failed projects before eventually turning over Fallout to its current owner, Bethesda. Forgoing the isometric, turn-based RPG style of the first two games, Fallout 3 was designed as a first-person-shooter / action-RPG set in a fully-rendered 3D world. Taking place in the ruins of Washington D.C., the game follows “the Lone Wanderer’s” search for their father, James, after they flee the Vault that they called home since their birth. Traversing the Capital Wasteland, ruined cityscapes and dilapidated subway systems, the player eventually reunites with their father (during one of the most iconic moments of the generation) and cooperates with the Brotherhood of Steel to complete a water purification device that James, the player’s mother and their old colleagues failed to get operational. Unfortunately, the Eastern regiments of the Enclave have reformed under the illusive President Eden, and seek to use the device to contaminate the Wasteland’s water with a virus to eliminate all its “impure” inhabitants, clearing the land of wastelanders, ghouls and super mutants for the Enclave to rebuild as they see fit. While it never reached the narrative heights of earlier games in its main campaign, Fallout 3’s real strength lied in the developers’ ability to use the environments themselves to tell intriguing stories. Vault 108’s nightmarish experiments and the dark secret behind the innocent town of Andale are just as captivating as any marked quest in the game. The series was more accessible than ever, attracting a slew of new fans while mostly staying true to the franchises’ core themes of the futility and ethics of war, as well as adapting the SPECIAL RPG system to an FPS format. Though series purists often criticize the game for its drastic reimagining, and streamlining of role-playing mechanics, the spirit of Fallout is absolutely present here, evident in the character progression system, detailed environments, and overall tone of the game. Character builds can be just as varied and specialized as the original games, and although no quests are quite as complex as those of Fallout 2, ten extra years of the industry’s development resulted in a much less structurally archaic game. Even my largest problem with the title, its use of a binary “good and evil” karma system, can still be forgiven for the quality of side quests like “The Superhuman Gambit”, “The Replicated Man” and “Tenpenny Tower”.

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Continuing their commitment to quality DLC, that began with The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, Bethesda released five major expansions for Fallout 3, each having their own twist on the standard gameplay. Operation Anchorage gave fans their first playable experience set before the Great War in the form of a military simulation of the US Army’s defense of Canada from a Chinese Invasion. The Pitt stripped the Lone Wanderer of all their gear as they pose as a slave to infiltrate the remains of Pittsburg and duke it out in its Arena. The largest DLC, Broken Steel ambitiously allowed the player to continue the main game after the final quest was over, continuing their fight against the Enclave and reap the rewards of their actions during the main game, in addition to raising the max level cap to 30. My personal favorite of the bunch, Point Lookout, took place in the mutated, swamp-like Maryland State Park and had an almost horror-like tone to it. Letting players freely explore an open area roughly 20% as large as the Capital Wasteland, Point Lookout had a wide array of quests, primarily concerning a pre-war intelligence agent’s conflict with local tribesmen. Finally, Mothership Zeta abducted the player from the very Earth and forced them to cooperate with humans from various time periods to take control of an alien space ship (those mistakenly thinking that this was where the series jumped the shark would do well to note that aliens have always been easter eggs in Fallout games, and that there was a damn TARDIS in the first game.) All said and done, Fallout 3 had one of the strongest sets of DLC this side of Borderlands. Covering a wide range of tones and environment, a tendency toward heavy handed writing didn’t stop Fallout 3 from reigniting fans passion for the franchise.

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During Bethesda’s work on Skyrim and Fallout 4, Obsidian Entertainment was brought in to develop a sequel with the assets and engine of Fallout 3 to hold fans over until their next numbered installment. Unexpectedly, Obsidian created an experience that was truer to the original games than even Bethesda’s own attempt, returning a strong narrative and expansive player interaction to the franchise. Although its release was a buggy mess, its slew of updates have made it infinitely more playable, so that shouldn’t stop players from experiencing the excellent game at its core. With an absurdly inter-connected main storyline, amazing writing, and excellent integration of character progression and combat systems, Fallout: New Vegas is one of the greatest RPGs of the past generation. Proudly using the “amnesiac protagonist” trope to introduce its world and characters, the game begins with the player being kidnapped and shot in the head during a seemingly ordinary delivery to the remnants of Las Vegas, now called The Strip. After being dug up by a friendly security robot and saved by local Doc Mitchell, “The Courier” is left to follow a trail of clues to take revenge on the man who buried them, and find out what was so important about the strange Platinum Chip they were carrying. Over the course of the game, players find themselves at the center of a political war over The Strip, the Hoover Dam and the surrounding Mojave Wasteland, between the New California Republic, a democratic state trying to restore order to the nation one frontier at a time (that originally formed with the help of the first game’s protagonist), Caesar’s Legion, a rapidly growing, autocratic war tribe originating in Arizona, and the mysterious man at the head of The Strip itself, Mr. House. Filled with intrigue, deception and discovery, Fallout: New Vegas easily boasts the best writing in the series, perfectly walking the line between post-apocalyptic gloom and absolute madness. Fully embracing its Old-Western inspiration, the player is given an unimaginable amount of freedom in their approach to the game’s narrative and dialogue, allowing the plot of New Vegas to tell whatever story they deem fit to act out, whether that be about an altruistic courier who wants to restore democracy to the Mojave, a vengeful cowboy who wants to control The Strip himself, or even a bloodthirsty warrior who wants to enslave the remainder of the world.

This freedom also extends to the gameplay itself, in both character interactions and combat scenarios. Obsidian took a much more well thought out approach to factions in this game, doing away with Bethesda’s black and white karma system in favor of a reputation system that treats every faction as a separate entity, a style similar to the first two games. Factions are not just deeply opinionated about each other, but the player themselves as well. The protagonist’s actions will decrease or increase their favor in most towns, settlements and tribes, and many times, one faction’s expectations will be at odds with another. This incentivizes the player to cooperate with hostile groups, circumnavigate their locations entirely, or even disguise themselves as one of their members. Skill checks are used consistently to encourage commitment to various play styles, requiring knowledge of explosives to persuade locals to offer you dynamite or demolish obstructing boulders. and an understanding of science is needed to demonstrate your knowledge to scientists and hack terminals. Both in gameplay and narrative terms, skill checks and speech challenges are highly immersive techniques that get players attached to their current build. The world itself is also built to do so, with multiple locations providing quests that naturally flow into each other. The events of “Come Fly With Me” inherently lead to Novac, and taking part in “Return to Sender” requires treks to every corner of the map to numerous NCR outposts. In a similar vein, locations along the primary path to Vegas are inherently connected to the Courier’s search for vengeance, hearing of their kidnapper’s travels from Primm’s Deputy Sheriff and coming across clues like their would-be-assailant’s lighter in Boulder City. Narratively and structurally, most paths in the game point to the center of contention itself, The Strip. After an effective build up to retrieving the Platinum Chip, the games story picks up rapidly and pressures the player to make decisive alliances before being sent back out to the Mojave to acquire support for the coming war. New items, firearms, weapon mods and chems allowed for even further customization and a greatly expanded crafting system makes repairing and amassing equipment essential to managing limited inventory space. Making these systems even more complex, the “Hardcore Mode” in New Vegas added survival elements like the need to eat, sleep and drink regularly in addition to making healing items less effective and allowing companions to die permanently in battle. These small changes make a huge difference in how one approaches the game, and combined with the other amazing elements Fallout: New Vegas contributed to the series, make it the definitive, modern Fallout experience.

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Further developing the already massive scope of the base game, Obsidian’s set of DLC was just as mechanically diverse as Bethesda’s DLC with the added bonus of being narratively interesting. While the majority of Fallout 3’s expansions did their best to ignore the Capital Wasteland (Broken Steel being the obvious exception), all four of Fallout: New Vegas’ add-ons treat the events of the Mojave Wasteland as crucial to the history of rebuilding the world. This theme of rebuilding, and the concept of rebirth, are prevalent throughout the main game, seen through a different lens from each major faction, and are equally present in the Courier’s adventures beyond the main setting. Dead Money had a fallen knight of the Brotherhood of Steel that was alluded to many times in the base game, kidnap the player, put an explosive slave collar around their neck, and force them to break into an old-world, technological gold mine, the Sierra Madre Casino. Stripped of their equipment and susceptible to a miasma of toxic gas and interfering radio signals that can quickly activate the collar, this DLC is one of the most challenging forays in the entire franchise, but tells a worthwhile tale that sets up further DLC and adds to the lore of the base game. The second DLC, Honest Hearts, had the Courier join a caravan that is trapped in Zion Canyon after being attacked by a local tribe loyal to Caesar’s Legion. They soon come face to face with Caesar’s first general, Joshua Graham, whom Caesar had set ablaze and thrown into the Grand Canyon upon his defeat in the first Battle of Hoover Damn. Having reformed from his violent past, Graham can be assisted or stopped in his support of a peaceful Zion tribe called the White Horses. Considered by many to be the greatest expansion in the franchise, Old World Blues dials up the pulp, sci-fi elements higher than ever before to glorious results. Set in the legendary Big Empty research facility, science experiments gone wrong and evil robots have sent the area into utter chaos, as the once brilliant minds who oversaw the facility have steadily gone mad. With a slew of new gameplay mechanics for every type of character, some of the most hysterical dialogue and characters in the franchise and a surprisingly poignant message, no RPG fan should miss Old World Blues. Foreshadowed and built up throughout the game, Lonesome Road tells one of the most gripping, personal tales I’ve seen in gaming. On top of offering some of the most hazardous and interesting environments across the wastes, this expansion analyzes the themes at the core of the Fallout series by focusing on the conflict between the Courier and the shadowy figure who has stalked him since his journey began, Ulysses. Questioning the use of nuclear energy, what it means to truly build or rebuild a society and the effectiveness of war itself, the story makes for some of the best verbal sparring in RPG history, and presents a satisfying conclusion to the New Vegas story arc.

            Check back next week for part 2, where we finally get into Fallout 4!

If you want to know more about the classic Fallout games, Luke Winkie did a great article for the No Mutants Allowed fansite on Kotaku: http://kotaku.com/the-relentless-champions-of-classic-fallout-1715984448

If you want another perspective of Fallout 3, check out Michael Clarkson’s excellent write-up on Critical Distance (it was one of the first articles that got me into writing): http://www.critical-distance.com/2009/07/17/fallout-3/

For a great example of exactly how diverse Fallout: New Vegas is, here’s the full playlist of Many a True Nerd’s pacifist run: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwH1xJhcXG0deo3l6BBHDoy_mDXY4Rw_V

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