Some of the greatest CRPGs were built from the bones of table top games. One series, though, managed to blaze its own trail. Sure, Fallout has its roots on the table and borrows liberally from earlier games, but it’s become something of its own. This game series is nothing short of a phenomenon, a series that has managed to entrance players over the course of over twenty years.
A History of Fallout
Fallout is a game that is directly inspired by two sources. The first is Steve Jackson’s GURPS system, a roleplaying system that Interplay had licensed in 1994. The other is Wasteland, a 1988 post-apocalyptic game that had a strong following but never had a proper sequel.
While there were definite problems with the GURPS license, the post-apocalyptic setting remained. The developers at Black Isle would develop their own stat system and marry it with a combat style that was reminiscent of the then-popular X-Com series.
The game took three years to develop, was nearly cancelled several times, and came incredibly close to being revamped. The vision of the game’s creators managed to win through in the end, though, and the game that players came to love first shipped in 1997 to an enormous amount of critical and commercial success.
The World of Fallout
Fallout is perhaps better known for its setting than anything else. The way each game plays changes a bit between each iteration, but the setting never really changes. It’s a retro sci-fi world, one that evokes 1950s B-movies. It’s a world that’s incredibly deep, especially considering the fact that it was developed during an era when saving princesses was still a viable video game plot. Over the years, the world has expanded to become even more vibrant.
Fallout takes place in an alternate version of the future. In this world, nuclear power works far more like it did in 1950s serials than in real life, and was a major part of daily life. America managed to get into a major war that ended up with the annexation of Canada, and a major nuclear exchange happened between the United States and China before the games begin.
Fallout takes place generations after that fateful nuclear exchange. Society has begun to rebuild, albeit slowly. Vast portions of the American landscape are still radioactive, and clean water is hard to come by. There is no real government, but power is vied for by both new groups and remnants of the Old World. Meanwhile, most average people have gone about the process of rebuilding their lives.
This is a world of old-school sci-fi. Power armor, laser guns, and cars with nuclear engines are a part of the landscape. The 1950s seemingly lasted well into the 20th century in this world, so the aesthetic is exceedingly retro. In some ways, the technology far surpasses that of the real world. In others, though, it seems to have barely advanced.
Factions and Races
Factions are a major part of the game, as characters are able to align with (or fight against) almost any organization in the game. While each game has a few unique factions, there are a few that have made multiple appearances, including:
- Vault Dwellers: Descendants of pre-war Americans who avoided the nuclear catastrophe in fallout bunkers. Every Vault has its own unique society, many of which have to be discovered long after the Vaults were opened.
- Tribals: Human societies that formed on the surface. Some tribals are the descendants of Vault dwellers, while others simply did their best to survive in a harsh world.
- The New California Republic: The NCR is one of the first real governments to spring up after the war. By the time of the later games, it is in charge of much of the American west. The NCR is a democratic government that represents most of the best parts of the American Dream.
- The Enclave: The remnants of the US government. Largely fascist and obsessed with retaining power by any means necessary. A frequent foe in the games.
- The Brotherhood of Steel: A quasi-religious order obsessed with obtain pre-War technology. The Brotherhood started the series as a major antagonist, but has evolved into a quasi-heroic entity in Bethesda’s games.
In the years since the War, there have also been two major quasi-human races that have made their way onto the scene. The first, Ghouls, are irradiated humans who are long-lived and have a terrifying tendency to become feral. The others, Super Mutants, are orc-like creatures mutated by a man-made virus. Both are major parts of the series.
All of the main Fallout games use a stat system called SPECIAL. Very similar to the GURPS system, player stats are divided into Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. These stats constantly change and grow, adding bonuses and giving players access to Perks in some series games.
Skills are also a major factor in the game. While the skill names do differ a bit between iterations of the game, they all govern how well players can perform certain actions. In some cases, the skills give access to better perks or allow players special conversation options. Finding the right skill build helps players to make their own unique play experiences.
Players also have access to a number of Perks, which give players special abilities. Similar to Traits in the earlier games, Perks can have special effects like making it easier to heal in some situations, change conversation options, or even allow the players to mutate their bodies. This system has grown and changed through the games, but tends to be a major part of anything within the Fallout brand.
The Interplay and Black Isle Years
The first two Fallout games were developed by Black Isle Studios and published by Interplay. The games were hugely successful, but they were not enough to delay Interplay’s bankruptcy. While Interplay did eventually intend to make a third game in the series, it was not able to do so before selling off the intellectual property.
Interplay’s games were characterized by the highly immersive role playing environments. The games gave players a great deal of choice compared to most games at the time, and players spent years finding new combinations of skills and conversations that could lead to new events. Considered deep games even in today’s market, these games would inspire many future CRPGs.
The original game in the series, Fallout introduced players to a post-apocalyptic world that was still recovering from a massive nuclear war. The player character, generally called the Vault Dweller, is sent on a relatively simple mission at the beginning of the game – to collect a part to repair his or her Vault. As is typical for most games, though, things become infinitely more complex than they character might realize.
Fallout is perhaps the most important game in the series from a story standpoint. Almost everything that happens in the first game will be referenced in the sequels. While certain mechanics, like the (relatively generous) time constraints surrounding repairing the Vault, won’t make a return, most of what made the game fun to play will be iterated upon as the series continues.
Fallout is also the only game in the series to have a direct sequel, with the main character’s descendant taking up the main character role in Fallout 2.
Fallout 2 takes the series eighty years into the future, pushing forward the narrative to find out how society starts to rebuild from the apocalypse. Where once the game was mostly concerned with tribal survival, Fallout 2 brings in new governments, new enemies, and a chance for the world to put itself back together. While the enemies of Fallout do make a return, there’s a real sense that the world is growing because of the adventures of the Vault Dweller in the first game.
Playing as the Chosen One, the player of Fallout 2 gets a great chance to interact with a new world. While his or her mission is to collect a GECK for his or her town, the game widens its scope by pitting the player directly against the Enclave. Vaults are still a part of the game, of course, but now there’s real cities to explore and new societies. Fallout 2 is considered a high point of the series by ‘purists’, and a great deal of its mythology was used later by Obsidian to build Fallout New Vegas.
Obsidian and Bethesda
Bethesda bought the Fallout license from Interplay when the originators of the game were threatened with bankruptcy. Moving from purchasing the rights to actually publishing a game was a lengthy, litigious process, though. Rights to the games and the universe weren’t totally clear, and the two games spent a great deal of time tied up in a lawsuit surrounding the publication of a theoretical Fallout MMO.
Bethesda’s games were divisive among early Fallout fans. Because the games made several major changes to factions like the Brotherhood of Steel and moved towards a first-person shooter set of mechanics, there are still some who consider the games to be Fallout in name only. Even with this said, the games have been incredibly successful.
Fallout 3 was Bethesda’s first game with the license and it represented a huge shift in both design philosophy and story. The game ditched the isometric third person perspective for a first person view, putting more emphasis on gun play than in previous games. The title also moved the setting away from the American Southwest to the area around Washington, D.C. in order to allow the new story to breathe.
The game represents a throwback to the original title, starting the player out in a Vault. After a series of narrative twists, the player finds himself or herself in the Capital Wastelands attempting to find his or her father. The character will deal with several rival factions, including both the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel in his or her quest to bring peace (or disaster) to the Wasteland.
This is also the first Fallout game to be extended through downloadable content. Several of the pieces of DLC were adventures that branched off from the main campaign, while the final piece extended the main story. All in all, the game was incredibly well received by all but the most hardcore of Fallout fans. Interest in the series dramatically picked up after this game’s release, with many players returning to the old games so they could visit the roots of the game.
Fallout New Vegas
Fallout New Vegas was built on the Fallout 3 engine, but was developed by Obsidian. While the game is certainly in line with the design scheme of Bethesda’s game, it’s clear that it was highly influenced by the older games. Obsidian’s team, which had several members who had worked on previous Fallout games, created a game that brought the old world into a modern setting.
Fallout New Vegas casts the player in the role of the Courier, a character who is shot in the head and left for dead at the beginning of the game. The Courier soon finds himself or herself caught up in a war between the NCR, the marauding Caesar’s Legion, and the engimatic ruler of New Vegas itself. The game introduced a hardcore survival aspect and generally improved upon its predecessor in several ways.
The Courier’s story doesn’t come to an end during the game itself. Instead, the story continues through several rounds of well-received downloadable content. With little connection to the world established in the previous title, there’s almost no connection between this game and Bethesda’s other games.
Fallout 4 was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2015, with many wondering how Fallout might evolve for a new console generation. The game’s final release was met with a fair bit of criticism, though much of that faded once the game’s DLC was released.
Fallout 4 has one of the more straightforward stories in the series. The main character is cast as a veteran of the Great War and for the first time, the game actually begins before the bombs dropped. The player is one of the few survivors to make it to a vault and spends the intervening years in cold storage. He or she awakes briefly to view his or her spouse killed and his or her son kidnapped by raiders.
Fallout 4 builds on Fallout 3 in many ways, trending more towards the shooter aspects than towards most roleplaying tropes. It alters the leveling process in a few subtle ways, making the game’s progression very different. Like Fallout 3, the game also expands its world with a significant amount of downloadable content.
Given the success of the main line of Fallout games, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there have been a few attempts to port other game types into the setting. While the spinoffs haven’t been nearly as well-received as any of the main line games, they have helped to build out the mythology of the game. These early games helped to build up lore, experiment with game mechanics, and even gave a bit of a sneak peek into the future of the franchise.
Fallout Tactics was the first Fallout game to eschew role playing mechanics in favor of a tactical combat approach. The game mostly removed towns and NPCs, replacing them with Brotherhood bunkers and a few basic trading partners. In this version of the universe, the Brotherhood of Steel was composed of two factions, one of which was far kinder to tribals than those found in the previous games. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to explore this in depth as the game pushed combat above all else.
Combat in Tactics is fairly complicated, with three different types of combat speed in the game. It’s a far cry from the simple system found in the first two games, but it helped to differentiate the game from what came before. In many ways, the story and setting are just window dressing on a game that’s entirely about tactical combat. This game is often ignored by fans when talking about the series, with little from this game popping in future installments. With that said, the changing nature of the Brotherhood of Steel would be picked up by later games.
Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel
Brotherhood of Steel was the first Fallout title developed for consoles and is one of the more divisive entries in the series. It followed Tactics in radically changing the perspective of the Brotherhood of Steel, put players in control of one of a few pre-generated characters, and generally moved the location of the game out of its traditional area. While players were generally happy to have more Fallout, they weren’t necessarily thrilled with the direction of the series.
Compared to most of the games in the series, Brotherhood of Steel is very straightforward. It features a number of linear levels and a very simple plot. Players generally deal with more combat than in the main series, with a plot that once again centers around Super Mutants. Largely a forgettable game, it does seem to be cited as providing some of the design impetus for Fallout 3.
Released during the initial announcement of Fallout 4, Fallout Shelter is the first Fallout spinoff to be created specifically for mobile devices. Rather than casting the player in the role of a survivor, the player takes on the role of a Vault supervisor and must build up his or her own Vault while recruiting a core group of survivors.
Fallout Shelter uses the same animation style seen in most of Fallout’s internal cartoon scenes, with its characters rendered in the same style as the Vault Boy model. Players deal with a number of standards Fallout enemies like Deathclaws and generally tend to the day to day functioning of a Vault. Completing specific tasks will reward the player with Vault Tech lunchboxes, which contain various types of loot that make completing the game easier. As one might expect from a mobile game, it’s also possible for the player to buy these boxes for real world cash.
Shelter has been fairly well received and is now available on current-generation video game consoles. It receives consistent updates, though there has been no word of a sequel.
What does the future hold for Fallout? As of 2017, the clear answer is virtual reality. A VR version of Fallout 4 is in production and may well end up becoming one of the first killer applications for early generation VR headsets. The game is a straight port of the 2015 game, but uses the first person POV to allow players to experience the Commonwealth in all its glory. It’s unknown how well the game will translate to VR, but early reports seem quite favorable.
It’s also a near-certainty that Bethesda will eventually publish a Fallout 5. There’s no telling where it will take place, but there’s a very good chance that it will have another story that makes use of the Brotherhood of Steel and the rebuilding of society on the East Coast. There are certainly enough plot hooks in the third and fourth games to build entire games on, and it’s unlikely that all of them were just put in for fun. Fallout 5 will make its way to PCs and consoles as some point, though there hasn’t even been a hint of development thus far.
Fallout is one of those series that has managed to burn brightly, die out, and come back again. It is one of the prototypical CRPGs, a fantastic setting for exploration, and at the vanguard of the new wave of console RPGs. This is one series that has earned its place in the hall of legends. If there’s a complaint to have about the series, it’s this – there’s just not enough Fallout available to satisfy rabid fans of the series.