My first memory of Fallout was the guy cashiering the tech section of my local supermarket refusing to let me purchase Fallout 2 on the grounds that it was “for adults.” My moral fortitude lasted all of two weeks before I nabbed a copied disc from a buddy. The rest of my affection for the series — right down to my snobbish adherence to the Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas canon — is history.
Fantasy Flight Games’ take on Fallout is based largely on their Runebound system, though only as a foundation. Where Runebound was mostly known for its static maps, lethargic pacing, and a setting that was as bland as uncooked white rice — and I mean all those insults fondly — Fallout is a little riskier. And not just because it isn’t set in Terrinoth.
For one thing, it’s hard not to appreciate the way Fallout captures the What’s over that hill? appeal of its digital counterparts. Each of the game’s four scenarios sets up the map in a particular way, but the deathclaw’s share of tiles remain unrevealed at the outset. It only takes a couple plays before you’ll know what to expect — there will always be an Ashbury Road settlement and some easy enemies tucked away beneath the green tiles, with irradiated hillocks and deadlier fare consigned to the red zones — but the way the geography interlocks to create hotspots of danger or oases of civilization goes a long way to lending each play a distinct feel.
Even better, where Runebound’s countryside was often far too tranquil for an epic adventure, with threats easily avoidable if you weren’t in the mood for a tussle, there’s really no escaping danger in Fallout’s wasteland. There are loads of enemies, from piddly bandits and bloatflies to deadly super mutants and sentry bots. Worse, the bastards roam. Rather than sticking to their designated theme park regions, they’ll periodically activate and head your way. This can occasionally lead to silly conga line moments where a bunch of baddies gradually arrange into queues behind you, in particular when there’s only one player nearby. But it’s still superior to a band of hardened killers displaying all the derring-do of department store mannequins, and their easily-manipulated AI almost feels appropriate to the Fallout setting.
As for your character, Fallout is a straightforward affair, at least until quests are tossed into the mix. Every character offers their own bonuses, like the Vault Dweller’s signature under-armor, the Ghoul’s ability to heal when exposed to deadly doses of radiation, or the Wastelander’s, um, tire iron. Early on, your goals are familiar to anyone who’s faffed about in one of Bethesda’s roaming games. You want to level up, usually by squishing bloatflies and pestering raider camps, which results in additional SPECIAL stats and eventually perks that can be spent for significant one-time boosts. Gear isn’t easy to come by, usually requiring some combination of scavenging, selling junk, and finishing jobs, but once equipped with a weapon, some armor, and maybe a companion and some drugs for those testy moments, the wasteland is your mutated festering oyster.
It’s a simple life. You’ll move from place to place, explore new regions, shoot radscorpions between the eyes, and occasionally perform encounters and their attendant skill checks or battles in settlements or ruins. If it weren’t for the inclusion of Fallout’s quest system, the whole thing might even pass for a pleasant diversion.
But quests are included, and they’re where the whole thing comes to life. Not necessarily smoothly, as it lurches back and forth like a badly damaged synth, but it’s enough to give each match a sense of momentum.
Here’s how it works. Every scenario features some underlying conflict. In the Commonwealth, it’s the secret war between the synth-enslaving Institute and the you-can-guess-what-they-do Underground Railroad. In the Capital Wasteland, it’s two near-identical factions of macho dudes in power armor duking it out for supremacy. In Far Harbor, it’s fog machines versus anti-fog machines.
Hey, I never said all the scenarios were equally good.
Whatever the conflict, you and any companions will arrive in the corner with a vague objective. Maybe you need to find a crashed vertibird, or hunt down a bandit suspected of being a replicant, or maybe just talk to the locals. Every quest can be completed in at least two ways, and may benefit either of the factions fighting for control of the region. More than that, every quest spools outward from that single point, drawing a numbered card from a huge deck of possibilities, and it isn’t long before there’s a whole row of open quests, each of them waiting for an adventurer to bring them to a close. It’s very Fallout.
As you might expect, this system occasionally steps into a puddle of irradiated sludge. For one thing, none of these quests are tied to anybody in particular. When playing with friends, it’s entirely possible to undertake a quest, fall into a scripted ambush, and barely survive. Oh no! You shake your fist at the sky, spend some time camping to recuperate from your injuries, then head off to avenge yourself — only to realize halfway there that another player was closer to your destination, so they went ahead and avenged you instead. Oh.
Even more awkward, victory in Fallout is achieved by agenda cards, which themselves are handled with a mole rat’s grace. Many agenda cards make some sense, awarding points for leveling up, exploring the map, or amassing a fortune. The rest, though, only matter when one faction is farther along its track than its opponent. Just like that, your mission merges with that of your assigned faction, which is weirdly restrictive given the game’s usual willingness to let you forge your own path. Worse, rather than arriving at any sort of personal or even factional denouement, the game often concludes with an anticlimactic fizzle as somebody reveals their stock of hidden agendas. The faction war grinds to a halt, everybody goes home, and the fella with the right agendas is declared king of the wastes.
While its conclusion tends to be as satisfying as farting in power armor, most of the time Fallout’s quests are good enough that it’s tempting to push forward to see what will happen, even when it doesn’t always feed into your pool of agenda cards. Catching sight of a pre-war Vault and hunting down the means to pry it open, searching the ruins of the RobCo Factory for the right components for an invention, or testing the Forced Evolutionary Virus on the local populace are all stories I gladly pursued. It helps that the whole thing comes packaged with a sense of urgency, especially when playing against other people.
Nicely, while each scenario’s array of quests is obviously finite, there’s more than enough that you won’t see everything in a single jaunt. I’ve had Dogmeat by my side and earned the trust of the Brotherhood of Steel, but I’ve only visited a single Vault and have yet to lay hands on that tantalizing Alien Blaster. Despite playing it every night for the past week, I certainly can’t say I’ve seen it all.
And, of course, this game is so open to expansion that it could have been a starter box of LEGOs.
If I’m being honest, the nerd in me was mostly irritated that this game only drew from Fallout 3, 4, and their expansions. I’d rather see the complex factional politics of New Vegas, the wasteland Mormons of Honest Hearts, the smaller-scale heist of Dead Money, or the Chosen One’s antics from Fallout 2.
But the thing is, I’m excited to see them try it. There are problems with Fallout, yes. It often comes across as a bunch of nerds playing solitaire at the same table — right until the moment when somebody swipes a quest out from under you — while playing solo means you’re constantly ducking that conga line of baddies, and the quest system has the fine motor skills of a feral ghoul. But I can’t honestly say I’ve ever been jazzed about a Runebound expansion, whereas I’m downright eager to see where Fallout goes next.
For fans of Fallout, this does a good job. Not a perfect one, but good enough. It captures the sprawl, the openness, the hard-bitten cruelty, and even the weirdness of the series. Bring on more.