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Fallout: A Retrospective

Martin looks back with a tear in his eye

"Up yours and have a bullet breakfast, asshole!" barks a kidnapper with irate gusto. Fallout's inhabitants rarely converse in ways considered reasonable, but that's probably because they're living in a world where nuclear war has devastated the entire planet and the remaining guns are of such impossibly high calibre a few shots can reduce a torso to mush. While Fallout 1 and 2 are two of the few games in the world where it's possible to be diplomatic without a weapon, the NPC's you'll encounter along the way are all too ready to reach for their arsenal.

After their releases in 1997 and 1998, Fallout 1 and 2 became two of the most revered games of the nineties. Despite the adulation, both games were commercial failures, and saw misguided attempts at sequels in 2001's disappointing Fallout Tactics and 2004's alright-but-not-Fallout Brotherhood of Steel. For years it seemed unlikely that a true third game in the series would ever see the light of day, and the retiring of Black Isle (the original developer) as a development studio in 2003 seemed like the final nail in the coffin. That was, of course, until Bethesda picked up the license in 2004. With Fallout 3, the series is finally starting to achieve sales recognition: the game shifted more in its first week than the lifetime sales of all other Fallout games combined.

Back in Fallout 2, potential sidekick Cassidy makes remarks about how he could use a limit break, providing an unwelcome contrast between the struggles of surviving Fallout's ruined landscape with the pompous flair of then-contemporary Final Fantasy VII's gratuitous win-button attacks. It's an unashamedly bleak adventure every step of the way, down to the gritty browns, washed-out yellows and damp green palettes of the massive isometric areas you'll routinely scavenge your way through.

And scavenge you certainly shall. In a manner befitting the dystopian environment, most of your inventory will be found by searching through the nooks and crannies of the aptly-titled Wasteland. Shops do exist, and are run by a variety of ethically dubious traders, but the best gear is always found elsewhere; usually by pickpocketing it from unsuspecting victims or, failing that, just lifting it off their corpse. Whilst this heavy reliance on scavenging is a key part of all three Fallout games, it's a facet most evident in Fallout 2's initial hours, which plunge you through the aptly-titled Temple of Trials and demand exhaustive looting and evasive gameplay before you're suitably equipped to turn your enemies into a mushy, red paste.

The ruined tapestry granted the world of Fallout an immense richness. Few games manage to carry the same kind of atmosphere, from the recognisably visceral hostility of the superb combat system to the affable Vault Boy himself, the perky, stylised mascot of the series. Twelve years after the original, the game's fantastic tongue-in-cheek use of 1950s style art still feels pioneering. It's as unique in the videogaming world as it is captivating and, whilst post-apocalyptic environments have become all the rage lately, remains just as fascinating in 2009 as it was in 1997.

Reinstalling the original pair, then, is a nostalgic delight. You can pick up both of them for little more than the cost of a single DLC expansion for Fallout 3 - about 6 GBP for the disc-based Fallout Collection (which includes Fallout Tactics) from an online retailer or a roughly 3.60 GBP (5.99 GBP) apiece on GoG.com if you're after digital copies. Whatever you do, however, you'll want to hop on over to No Mutants Allowed and get your mitts on the latest unofficial patches for both games. Various censorship and publishing issues have caused the two games - Fallout 2 especially - to be extremely buggy and problematic without the aid of unofficial patches crafted, lovingly, by an incredibly dedicated fan community that still thrives to this day. It's not hard to see why.

The core of the game lay in the SPECIAL - Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck - character creation system. There was also a plethora of trainable skills, learnable perks and inherent traits to choose alongside the core attributes lovingly summarised by the acronym. The extensive character customisation options allow you to traverse the Wastelands in numerous ways: the original intention of Fallout was to mimic a table-top RPG adventure in videogame form. You could just as easily create a quick-talking, confrontation-avoiding trickster as a gun-toting, dim-witted meathead, or a hacking boffin with a serious penchant for lasers. When coupled with the multi-directional quests, plenitude of NPCs, and expansive world map, the freedom of the character creation resulted in a game that was, and still is, capable of providing a slightly different experience to everyone who played it.

Combat, when you run into it, works by switching the game from real-time to a turn-based system. Characters are assigned an amount of Action Points (depending on your stats) per turn, with actions - moving, firing your weapon - using up a predetermined amount. Using a weapon is as simple as targeting a body part and hitting fire, regularly leading to gratuitously gory death animations. Once you've obtained a devastatingly powerful set of armour and weapons, and you will by the end of the game, you'll be effortlessly, and routinely, leaving holes in torsos, dismembering limbs and releasing giant showers of blood from the crazed junkies, maniacal despots and lumbering mutants that litter the Wastes.

Both games create a world that, despite their ironic tone, manage to finely craft a sensation of genuine plausibility; the nuclear fallout fizzling out any and all positive qualities of human nature. The game presents the Wasteland's scarred, contaminated and mutated citizens as being locked in a depressing, and desperate, struggle to survive in a world that they don't particularly want to inhabit in the first place. Fallout 2 takes an even bleaker tone with prostitution rings, slavery camps and entire towns strung out on Jet, a hugely addictive hallucinogenic-amphetamine that's immediate benefits are more than slightly outweighed by its eventual downsides.

Your motivation for exploring these down-and-out shanty towns, abandoned military complexes and underground sewer systems is always a quest for a personal holy grail: the special something that will provide continued, and enriched, survival. In Fallout 1 you're tasked with the retrieval of a water chip, responsible for pumping and purifying water around the sealed underground vault where the player character has lived their entire life. In the second game you play as a descendant of Fallout's original hero, exiled from the vault at the end of the first game for being contaminated by the outside world, and are searching for a nifty little gizmo known as the G.E.C.K. (Garden of Eden Creation Kit) which promises to create a lush utopia out of your barren, radioactive hometown of Arroyo.

The games eventually detour the player through quests that ponder on the worth of human survival, albeit in vastly different forms. Fallout 1 takes you to the domain of The Master, an abomination of human, mutant, and machine who plans to evolve humanity by 'dipping' everyone into vats of the Forced Evolutionary Virus to create a race of hulking super mutants. His argument, whilst twisted, is sound in its logic: the super mutants are more capable of surviving on the ruined planet than the remaining vestiges of humanity. Fallout 2 pits you against the Enclave, a bunch of snooty, self-loving conservatives descended from the government and military forces that existed before the nukes went off. They consider themselves pure, uncontaminated examples of the human race and their idea of restoring society is the eradication of everybody else.

The games work on an emotional level thanks to a sharp, pithy script. It's difficult not to adore Fallout's unashamedly preposterous setting, its grandiose love of wanton violence, beautifully tweaked skill system, expansive inventory options, crisp dialogue and free play style. It's a vast, hostile world you'll undoubtedly want to explore. Fallout 1, however, always kept a clock ticking, punishing you with an unfortunate Game Over screen if you dawdled. Thankfully, the artificial imposition of a time limit (which was, thankfully, extended by a patch) in the original has been disinherited by its successors.

Bethesda's excellent work on Fallout 3 has granted the series a public renaissance, despite the occasional protest from belligerent lovers of the original Black Isle games. As a former cult title, zealous fanatics of the original games were outspoken in their disdain of Bethesda's treatment of their beloved property. Their frustrations are partially felt: Fallout 3, despite its panoramic brilliance, lacks the curt lustre of Fallout 1 and 2's scripts. Yet, in perhaps a bizarre twist of fate, many of the original Black Isle team (now working out of Obsidian Entertainment) have been tasked with the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas. Whether they succeed in capturing the spirit of the original with the technical wizardry of Bethesda's Gamebryo engine remains to be seen.

It's safe to say that Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 are both iconic games, and examples of PC gaming at its finest. They're not only two of the most excellent Western RPG's of all time, but a cultural commodity of the late nineties that draws attention to the gulf between then and now. They're rough around the edges, sure, but Black Isle's exhaustive handling of detail ensures the games are essential for anyone who values quality atmosphere alongside a competent engine. At the heart of the series is a very human struggle for survival in a strangely understandable world. They're big, brash games that achieve something few games ever manage; to genuinely tug on the heartstrings of the player. Fallout is full of action, irony, philosophy and, dare I say it, soul.